Mary is our Abraham

Dante called Mary “Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son”. Dante’s description of Mary, “Daughter of thy Son”, challenges any assumption that the address to Mary by Jesus from the cross is simply an example of a son’s solicitude for his mother’s welfare.

…In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reason than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly. In Mark, when he is told that his mother and brothers are “outside asking for [him]”, Jesus responds, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.34-35).

Nor should we forget that in Luke 14.26 Jesus says that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” In our desire to make Jesus “normal”, a man who liked children, we are tempted to forget that Jesus never married or had children. That he welcomed the children to come to him as manifestations of the Kingdom may be for no other reason than that children do not have children.

I do not call attention to Jesus’s anti-family remarks to denigrate his address to Mary from the cross. Indeed, I think we can only appreciate his commending Mary to the beloved disciple, as well as his charge to the disciple to regard Mary as his mother, when we recognise that Mary is not just another mother. Rather, Mary is the firstborn of the new creation. Without Mary’s response “Here am I” to Gabriel, our salvation would not be. Raniero Cantalamessa quite rightly, therefore, entitled his book on Mary Mary: Mirror of the Church (Liturgical Press, 1992).

Cantalamessa, moreover, makes the fascinating observation that in the New Testament Jesus is often designated as or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham. Cantalamessa suggests that the reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple — Mary is our Abraham.

Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I,” because, just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age, inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness.

God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so that we might live.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it: “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22.1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross.

In the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are reminded that “by faith” did our foremothers and fathers live. Yet Mary, true daughter of Israel, was tested as no one in Israel had ever been tested.

Jesus’s “behold your son” asked Mary to witness the immolation of the Son, to enter the darkness that is the cross, yet to hold fast to the promises she had received from the Spirit that this is the one who will scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, fill the hungry with good things, and fulfil the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Her son, the Messiah, will do all this from the cross.

Jesus charges Mary to regard as her own, her true family, the “disciple whom he loved”. Drawing disciples into the Church, Mary shares her faith, making possible our faith. At this moment, at the foot of the cross, we are drawn into the mystery of salvation through the beginning of the Church. Mary, the new Eve, becomes for us the firstborn of a new reality, of a new family, that only God could create.

Augustine observed that the God who created us without us refuses to save us without us. Mary is the first great representative of that “us”. Accordingly Mary, the Jew, in a singular fashion becomes for us the forerunner of our faith, making it impossible for Christians to forget that without God’s promises to Israel our faith is in vain.

When Christians repress the role of Mary in our salvation, we are tempted to forget that God remains faithful to his promises to his people, the Jews. Our Saviour was born of Mary, making us, like the Jews, a bodily people who live by faith in the One who asks us to behold his crucified body.

Jesus, therefore, commands the disciple, his beloved disciple, not to regard Mary as Jesus’s mother, but rather to recognise that Mary is “your mother”. Mary’s peculiar role in our salvation does not mean that she is separate from the Church. Rather, Mary’s role in our salvation is singular because, beginning with the beloved disciple, she is made a member of the Church.

Mary is one of us, which means the distance between her and us is that constituted by both her and our distance between Trinity and us, that is, between creatures and Creator. In Augustine’s words, “Holy is Mary, blessed is Mary, but the Church is more important than the Virgin Mary. Why is this so? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy and excellent member, above all others, but, nevertheless, a member of the whole body. And if she is a member of the whole body, doubtlessly the body is more important than a member of the body.”

So may we never forget that we, the Church, comprise Mary’s home. A home, moreover, that promises not safety, but rather the ongoing challenge of being a people called from the nations to be God’s people. We are a people constituted by faith in the One who refused to triumph through the violence that the world believes to be the only means possible to achieve some limited good, to ensure that we will be remembered.

The refusal to use violence in the name of the good does not mean this people can forget those singled out in Mary’s song of triumph — that is, the poor and powerless. Rather, it means that such a people, Mary-like, must live by hope — a hope that patiently waits with Mary at the foot of her son’s cross.

If this is not the second person of the Trinity, the One alone who has the power to forgive our sins, then this Mary-shaped patience in a world constituted by injustice and violence would be the ultimate folly. That is why it is so important that we not forget that these words from the cross are the words of the Son of God.

The work that the Son does on the cross through the Spirit makes us the remembered, God’s memory, so that the world may know that there is an alternative to a world constituted by the fear of death. We confess that too often we forget we are God’s remembered. And that is why we pray “Hail, Mary, full of grace, pray for us.”

Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Last Seven Words by Stanley Hauerwas.
Ethiopian Crucifixion Icon (with Mary and John). Twelve-panel folding icon or chain manuscript, c. 1900. African Art Museum of the SMA Fathers at Tenafly, New Jersey.

an abstraction does not need a Mother

In her very person as a Jewish girl become the mother of the Messiah, Mary binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old. In her, instead, we can live the unity of sacred Scripture in its entirety.

To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social–political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.

From Rapporto Sulla Fede, a series of 1985 interviews given by Pope Benedict XVI to Vittorio Messori.

On Life and Motherhood

Life (that is the quality of being alive) is so easily seen in all aspects of creation, and this kind of seeing may be far more reliable than we know. Rocks and landscapes live lives of great loveliness, depth, and mystery. After all, the Spirit, the Giver of Life, broods over all that “is not” and encourages all that “comes to be.”

We say in the creed: “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” And this is expanded when we pray in the Trisagion: “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”

All of life both contains and is contained by bewildering contrasts: wildness and welcome, threat and nurture, symmetry and divergence, predictability and volatility. In all of this layered life, there is a dependable beauty. There is also a direction or purpose that can be sensed or glimpsed but not grasped or seen.

These contrasting and developing qualities of all living things make them impossible to posses, consume, or use. Life’s independent development as well as its irreducible complexity make it impossible to fully describe or to employ. We can respond to life, commune with it, enjoy it, but we cannot have it for our own or make it work for us. In fact, our own life depends on our communion with the life around us, and any effort to have or use the life around us is a destruction of this communion and a step toward our own death. Life cannot be demanded or taken but only received in gratitude and humility.

The difference between communion and consumption is life and death. Sadly, we teach consumption in every aspect of modern life. We teach only efficient production and consumption. Find ways to learn to commune. Find an altar before which to stand in quiet anticipation. Find a eucharist to receive. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word comes ultimately from the Greek word for “grace” (a gift offered freely with no expectation of return).

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and in motherhood we have this same generous communion—this giving and receiving of life. It is no mistake that the first and most living image of the Spirit is that of a mother bird who spreads herself over those within her nest. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 that is often translated “hover” actually means “brood,” as when a mother bird broods over her eggs to bring forth life.

Jesus takes up a long tradition of this image across Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:10-11, Ruth 2:12, and Psa. 17:8, 57:1, 91:4 for examples) when he says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)

Rather than seeking to seize, to use, and to hold onto life, may we all learn to receive the life so abundantly offered and to give up our own as an offering poured out. May we learn from our mothers how to live.

honoring your mother might be the last in the sequence relating to right worship

But to return to the matter of honoring your mother. I think it is significant that the Fifth Commandment falls between those that have to do with proper worship of God and those that have to do with right conduct toward other people. I have always wondered if the Commandments should be read as occurring in order of importance. If that is correct, honoring your mother is more important than not committing murder. That seems remarkable, though I am open to the idea.

Or they may be thought of as different kinds of law, not comparable in terms of their importance, and honoring your mother might be the last in the sequence relating to right worship rather than the first in the sequence relating to right conduct. I believe this is a very defensible view.

…It seems to me almost a retelling of Creation—First there is the Lord, then the Word, then the Day, then the Man and Women—and after that Cain and Able—Thou shalt not kill—and all the sins recorded in those prohibitions, just as crimes are recorded in the laws against them. So perhaps the tablets differ as addressing the eternal and the temporal.

What the reading yields is the idea of father and mother as the Universal Father and Mother, the Lord’s dear Adam and His beloved Eve; that is, essential humankind as it came from His hand. There’s a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that their holiness will be precieved. Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky or stinky or ignorant or overbearing. …At the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object. In the particular instance of your mother, I know if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a very great loveliness in her. When you love someone to that degree that you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself. That is why the Fifth Commandmemt belongs on the first tablet. I have persuaded myself of it.

From Gilead my Marilynne Robinson.

dreaming what is true

I remember once as a child dreaming that my mother came into my bedroom and sat down in a chair in the corner and folded her hands in her lap and stayed there, very calm and still. It made me feel wonderfully safe, wounderfully happy. When I woke up, there she was, sitting in that chair. She smiled at me and said, “I was just enjoying the quiet.” I have that same feeling in church, that I am dreaming what is true.

From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

you cannot visit the child without visiting the mother

From G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man:

Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanisation of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a new-born child. You can not suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a new-born child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a new-born child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

first thing Jesus did when the Resurrection life came surging into his body

What, however, was the first thing Jesus did when the Resurrection life came surging into his body? How did he mark the moment in which the history of the human race stopped, suddenly, and went in a different direction? The simplest and plainest thing imaginable: he reached up, pulled the kerchief from his face, folded it, and set it aside, as though it had been a napkin used at breakfast. Those wounded hands, from which every grace would flow into the church until the end of the world, were first employed in a simple household task: folding a kerchief. When Jesus folded that kerchief—his first action on rising from the dead—was the deed intentional? Perhaps so. He may have done it very deliberately, for the purpose of leaving a tenacious clue for those who might inquire what happened in the tomb. On the other hand, maybe not. The folding of the kerchief may have been completely unconscious. I do not find this hard to believe. The universal Christ, the eternal Word in whom all things subsist, was still the same Jesus to whom an act of elementary neatness came naturally.

…The risen Lord was the same particular person his friends had always known. He had just returned from the realm of hell, where he trampled down death by death. He was on the point of going forth as a giant to run his course. He was about to begin appearing to his disciples, providing them with many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Nonetheless, he was still the same person, the same man, whose instinctive habits remained identical. He paused a moment to do what a deep, subconscious impulse told him should be done, what his mother had always taught him to do. He politely folded the kerchief and set it aside, and only then did the Lion of Judah stride forth to bend the direction of history and transform the lives of his fellow human beings.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

child and mother and father

From G. K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man:

We can say that the family is the unit of the state; that it is the cell that makes up the formation. Round the family do indeed gather the sanctities that separate men from ants and bees. Decency is the curtain of that tent; liberty is the wall of that city; property is but the family farm; honour is but the family flag.

If we are not of those who begin by invoking a divine Trinity, we must none the less invoke a human Trinity; and see that triangle repeated everywhere in the pattern of the world. For the highest event in history, to which all history looks forward and leads up, is only something that is at once the reversal and the renewal of that triangle. …The old Trinity was of father and mother and child and is called the human family. The new is of child and mother and father and has the name of the Holy Family. It is in no way altered except in being entirely reversed; just as the world which is transformed was not in the least different, except in being turned.

an assurance of eternal life

This is only a book for grown ups, and Frank Schaeffer is wrong about the nature of revelation in the Old and New Testaments (not to mention many details about sex and politics in my opinion). Still, there is much of profound value in the brutally honest contents of this loving autobiographical effort.

Mom’s energy was something like the sun, wonderful—unless you got too close or were her typewriter (I’ll explain the typewriter’s misfortune). Back when Mom and Dad were still missionaries touring Europe and conducting Bible studies, my sisters (none of whom would have ever led a demonstration in downtown Atlanta if they could help it) loved our mother, but they were just plain exhausted trying to keep up with her, as were all her fellow workers, from the L’Abri staff to her editors, who in later years would stagger out of eighteen-hour meetings about some manuscript looking as if they’d been simultaneously drugged and thrown under a bus.

The word “strong” doesn’t come close to describing Edith Schaeffer as she was until her mideighties. When I was a child, my mother occupied a category in my mind right up there with the Alps, God, the sun, and the ocean as representing everything that is permanent, beyond frailty or weakness or even time. Mom was never sick. Mom was up before anyone else every day. I never once saw my mother asleep. She went to bed last and rose before dawn and made Dad look terribly mortal—he slept! Her very presence was an assurance of eternal life: Here was one person death would surely never dare tangle with!

From Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics–and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway by Frank Schaeffer (pp. 188-189).