I sing of a maiden
That is makeles;
King of all kings
To her Son she ches.
He came all so still
To His Mother’s bowr,
As dew in April
That falleth on the flower.
Mother and maiden
Was never none but she;
Well may such a lady
Godes Mother be. (1)
Our blessed Lady is a matchless mystery, both as mother and maiden. Though in herself a creature and therefore finite, her divine motherhood is infinite in its dignity. (2) Not even the highest of angelic intellects can encompass the full truth of the Woman who gave birth to God. And as maiden, too, Mary is a mystery without peer. “Mother and maiden was never none but she.” Two realities that nowhere coincide in nature meet, by supernatural power, in her lowly and lovely person. Our Lady receives the office of divine motherhood, yet does not forfeit the state of holy maidenhood: she conceives as a virgin, gives birth as a virgin, and remains a virgin for ever, her whole life long. (3) The Catholic can only bow the knees of his mind before such a profusion of wonders: “Most glorious and beyond our understanding are all thy mysteries, O Theotokos: for with the seal of thy virginity unbroken, thou hast become in full reality a mother, giving birth to the true God.” (4)
This article will sing of the Maiden that is matchless. I shall try to come to her in faith, as her Son came to her in the flesh, with the quietness of reverence, “all so still,” and without the clamor of curiosity. My goal is to let the splendor of truth shine forth from the Mother of Fairest Love. Most of the article will, therefore, be a simple and peaceful meditation on our Lady’s divine motherhood…. However, in places, in the very cause of reverence, a more martial note will be struck. The saints prefer to sing in praise of God’s Mother, but sometimes they are obliged to argue in her defense.
Then Mary’s troubadours become her knights, for this is an apologetic that concerns nothing less than the honor of Heaven’s Queen. Those who admire the Church’s Doctors for the clarity of their understanding of Mary and the warmth of their love for her cannot fail to be stirred by the just anger with which they fight against her foes. Thus, when St Thomas Aquinas addresses the error of Helvidius, who “presumed to say that Joseph had carnal knowledge of the Mother of Christ after she had given birth,” he forsakes his habitual placidity and declaims with the chivalrous zeal of his crusader cousins that this error is “indubitably detestable.” (5)
The name “Mother of God” is the greatest of our Lady’s titles, and the office it denotes is the reason for all her other privileges. According to St John Damascene, Theotokos “sums up the whole mystery of the economy. If she who gave birth is Mother of God, then He who was born of her is definitely God and also definitely man. . . . This (name) signifies the one hypostasis and the two natures and the two births of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” (6) To call Mary “Mother of God” is to declare that Jesus is true God and true man in one person begotten eternally in His Divinity of God the Father and born in time in His humanity of the Virgin Mother. (7)
When we say that our Lady is Theotokos, we mean that she furnished the sacred humanity of our Lord with everything that every other mother gives to the fruit of her womb. In fact, she did even more, because, as Virgin Mother, she was His only physical link with the race of Adam. It is on His Mother’s side alone that the sons of men are kinsmen of the Son of God, flesh of His flesh. As St Leo says, Mary is the woman who supplies Him with His bodily substance (corporeae ministra substantiae). (8) The eternal Word did not bring His body down from Heaven, as some heretics thought, nor did He make it out of the dust of the earth, as He did in the case of Adam. No, “it was taken from the Virgin Mother and fashioned from her most pure blood. . . . (T)his is all that is required for the notion of mother. Thus the Blessed Virgin is truly the Mother of Christ.” (9)
The name “Mother of God” also affirms the true Divinity of Christ. The person whom our Lady conceived and bore is a Divine Person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, not, of course, according to His divine nature, but according to the human nature that He assumed. The word Theotokos is not found in Scripture, but the truth it signifies is nothing less than the apostolic proclamation. (10) The whole New Testament teaches us that Jesus Christ is “the true God” (cf 1 Jn 5:20). Now the sacred authors also tell us that the Blessed Virgin is the Mother of Jesus Christ (cf Mt 1:18). “Therefore, it follows of necessity from the words of Scripture that (the Blessed Virgin) is Mother of God.” (11) This is the truth implicit in St Elizabeth’s description of our Lady as “Mother of my Lord” (cf Lk 1:43), for St Elizabeth’s Lord is God.
Strictly speaking, it is only the body that the Son of God takes from our Lady. His rational soul, like that of every other man, is not taken from her or from anyone else, but is instead created immediately by God and infused into the body at the moment of conception, the complete human nature in the same instant being assumed. The Nestorians argued from this premise that Mary should not be called “Mother of God,” because she is only the mother of the flesh of Christ. St Cyril of Alexandria replied as follows: “Although mothers produce only the body, they are nonetheless said to bring into the world the whole living being composed of soul and body, not just one of its parts.” (12) St Thomas quotes St Cyril and develops his reasoning. (13) The gist of the argument is as follows. My mother is the woman who supplies the matter for my conception. True, it is God alone who creates the form, the rational soul, but that does not make my mother just the “mother of my matter”—though, if I were Bertie Wooster, I might affectionately dub her “my old flesh and blood.” She is the mother of the person I am, the one who has both body and soul. It is persons who are born, just as it is persons who give birth. Mothers are mothers of persons, not of natures or bits of natures. The same is true of our Lord and our Lady. Mary gives Jesus what every mother gives her child: He is conceived of her blood, made flesh of her flesh, and on that basis a person-to-person relation, a mother—son relationship, is established. But the person to whom our Lady relates as mother is a Divine Person, God the Son.
Therefore, she is rightly and properly called “Mother of God.” (14) Our blessed Lady is the Mother of the Divine Person of God the Son, not of His divine nature. “We must therefore say that the Blessed Virgin is called the Mother of God, not because she is the Mother of the divinity, but because she is the Mother, according to the humanity, of the Person who has divinity and humanity.” (15)
The Catholic believer can never take the title Theotokos for granted. If, as the Fathers insist, it contains within itself a complete confession of faith in Christ, then those who refuse or are reluctant to employ it cut themselves adrift from historical Christianity. It is a striking fact that, while the original leaders of the Protestant revolt continued to use the name “Mother of God,” their heirs and successors have shown it either open embarrassment or thinly suppressed contempt. Surveying the widespread departure from Christological orthodoxy among the Protestants of the nineteenth century, Matthias Scheeben made this telling observation:
No one need fear that the honor of God and Christ will be infringed by stressing Mary’s divine motherhood. But great danger threatens the honor of Christ, where His Mother is not gladly and loudly proclaimed Mother of God. As the Nestorians opposed this title because they did not acknowledge Christ as true God, so Protestantism has slowly lost the full knowledge of the divinity of Christ because it has refused to Mary the honor due to the Mother of God, supposedly for the sake of God and Christ. (16)
Newman in the same period held the same view: “The Church and Satan agreed together in this, that Son and Mother went together; and the experiences of three centuries has confirmed their testimony, for Catholics who have honored the Mother, still worship the Son, while Protestants, who now have ceased to confess the Son, began then by scoffing at the Mother.” (17)
The Gift of Motherhood
Motherhood is the privilege of the creature. Motherly love, like every other creaturely perfection, has its efficient and exemplary cause in God, in the whole Trinity, and as such may be appropriated to particular persons. However… there is no really existing relation of motherhood within the Godhead: none of the Divine Persons relates to any of the others as mother to child or child to mother. Motherhood belongs entirely on the side of the creature—indeed, it is the most beautiful expression of what it is to be a creature, for the fruitfulness of motherhood is the outcome of that receptivity of womanhood which is analogous to the dependence of every creature upon God. Motherhood, in the person of the Mother of God, is thus mankind’s sweetest gift to God. Only in His human nature does He know a mother’s love. The Byzantine liturgy expresses this great truth in one of its most exquisite hymns:
What shall we offer thee, O Christ, who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by thee offers thee thanks. The angels offer thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer thee a Virgin Mother. (18)
Mother in Faith
Our Lady is a mother to God not only with her body in all its parts but with her soul in all its faculties. Her connection with her Son by flesh and blood is a stupendous glory, but more glorious still is her communion with Him by the faith that perfects her intellect and by the hope and charity that perfect her will. Our Lord Himself points to this spiritual center of the divine motherhood when a woman praises the womb that bore Him and the paps that gave Him suck: “Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it” (cf Lk 11:28). Above and before all others, the Blessed Virgin hears the Word of God and keeps it: “Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (cf Lk 2:19). As St Augustine and St Leo say, she conceived the Word in her mind by faith before conceiving Him in her womb. (19) Indeed, “the motherly relation would have had no profit for Mary, had she not borne Christ more gladly in her heart than in her flesh.” (20) Blessed, then, is she who believed (cf Lk 1:45).
God does not impose motherhood on Mary. He wants her to give Him His flesh not only from the substance of her body but through the surrender of her faith. “The Fathers rightly see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely co-operating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience.” (21) With “her whole human and feminine person,” (22) our Lady welcomes the Son of God into human nature; she offers Him, consciously and freely, the shelter of her womb and the comfort of her breast. As we saw above, the Virgin’s fiat is spousal, like the deliberately uttered “I will” of a bride to her groom. If the Incarnation is a wedding of human nature to the Divine Word, then it is in the person of our Lady that human nature consents to be wedded. All of mankind, therefore, has an interest in these nuptials. St Bernard pictures the Fathers in Limbo, indeed the whole of the Old Adam’s race, waiting breathless for the New Eve to plight her troth to God:
Weeping Adam begs this of you, O loving Virgin…. Abraham and David, too, the holy fathers, your forefathers, those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, earnestly beg this of you…. The whole world, on bended knee before you, is waiting… for on your word depend consolation for the afflicted, redemption for captives, deliverance for the condemned, in short, salvation for all of Adam’s sons…. O Virgin, give your answer quickly. (23)
Life and death, entry to Heaven and escape from Hell, everlasting bliss or unceasing torment: everything is poised on the word of a humble creature. Far from detracting from the prerogatives of the Creator, this cooperation exhibits His power. He does not compete with His creatures, as if the divine activity displaced the human. The truth is that God is at work in all the actions of His creatures in such a way that those actions are truly their own. We are distinct from Him, yet utterly dependent upon Him, in what we are and in what we do. (24) Even in the natural order, the secondary cause produces its effects in dependence upon the Primary Cause; God causes us to cause.
And in the supernatural order our correspondence with grace is itself an outcome of grace: we can only be “co-workers with God” (cf 1 Cor 3:9) because “God is at work in (us), both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (RSV Phil 2:13). Our Lady’s freely given Yes is therefore the wonderful flowering of her plenitude of grace. “(W)here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor 3:17). Mary is so full of the Spirit’s grace that her will is free of any enslaving tendency to oppose the plan of the Father and resist the coming of the Son. (25)
Our Lady’s cooperation with the person and work of the Redeemer began but did not end with her consent to His Incarnation. She renewed her acts of loving faith during the nine months of His residence within her body, at the blissful birth in Bethlehem and on the fearful Flight into Egypt, indeed throughout the whole of His earthly life. But her faith’s finest hour was at the foot of the Cross. There, in the words of Lumen gentium, she “united herself with a mother’s heart to His Sacrifice and lovingly consented to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth.” (26) Pope Pius XII says that the sinless Mother offered her Divine Son to the eternal Father “together with the holocaust of her motherly rights and motherly love, like a New Eve, for all the children of Adam contaminated through his unhappy fall. Thus she, who was the Mother of our Head according to the flesh, became by a new title of sorrow and glory the spiritual Mother of all His members.” (27)
By the decree of the Crucified Son (cf Jn 19:26f), and by her own acts of obedience to Him, the Mother of God is a mother to all men “in the order of grace.” (28) On Calvary, in the night of faith, she cooperates with her Son as He merits the grace of our adoption as God’s children (the objective redemption), and in Heaven, in the daylight of vision, she cooperates in the distribution of that grace among us (the subjective redemption). In virtue of the first cooperation, certain of the Popes of the last century have called our Lady “Co-redemptrix,” and in virtue of the second, she is commonly hailed as “Mediatrix of All Graces.” In both respects, our Lady’s salvific influence upon us is “wholly singular,” (29) the unique act of a unique person, the incomparably glorious Mother of God. But it is also utterly subordinate to the work of her Son, a service performed by the supremely humble Handmaid of the Lord. (30) It “flows from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, is founded upon His mediation, absolutely depends upon it, and draws all its efficacy from it.” (31) In dependence upon the will of the Father, the merits of the Son, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, our Lady participates in the objective and subjective redemption. Just as all the just are sons in the Son, so the Mother of God is a Mediatrix in the Mediator, the Co-Redemptrix, not equal to but working with the one and only divine Redeemer of the human race:
No creature can ever be ranked with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. But just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by sacred ministers and by His faithful people, and as the one goodness of God is in reality poured out diversely among His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise among creatures to a manifold co-operation, which is but a sharing in this unique source. (32)
Contemplation of the icons of the Christmas mystery—for example, of the “Mystic Nativity” of Botticelli—helps to ensure our adherence to the true Catholic doctrine of our Lady as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix. The Christ Child stretches out His arms to His Mother. He looks up in love to her, and she looks down in love to Him. No created person, neither angel nor man, is dearer to His Heart than Mary is, none more intimately united to His person and work. In her flesh and by her faith, with all the intelligence of her mind and all the love in her heart, she has brought the Redeemer into the world, mediated the Mediator to men. But the Virgin is also kneeling in adoration, for this Child of hers is also her God, and what light streams from her is but a reflection of His brightness. Her hands are joined, for through her intercession, as through an aqueduct, (33) the waters of His grace are destined to flow out upon the parched souls of men.
All receive something from her fullness (says St Bonaventure): the captive receives redemption, the sick their healing, the sorrowful consolation, the sinner forgiveness, the righteous grace, the angels happiness, the whole Trinity glory, the person of the Son the substance of human flesh. (34)
Matchless in Grace
As Mother of God, our Lady is without equal, surpassing by far all other created persons, whether angels or men. (35) After the human nature of the Son, no created entity is closer to the Trinity. According to St Thomas, Gabriel’s words at the Annunciation, “The Lord is with thee,” express his recognition that the Jewish maiden is closer than he or any other angel is to the Three-Personed God:
She surpasses the angels in her familiarity with God. The angel indicated this when he said, “The Lord is with thee,” as if to say, “I therefore show thee reverence, because thou art more familiar with God than I am, for the Lord is with thee. The Lord, the Father, is with thee, because thou and He have the same Son, something no angel or any other creature has. ‘And therefore the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Lk 1:35). The Lord, the Son, is with thee, in thy womb. ‘Rejoice and praise O thou habitation of Zion, for great is He that is in the midst of thee, the Holy One of Israel’ (Is 12:6).” The Lord is therefore with the Blessed Virgin in a different way than He is with the angel, for He is with her as Son, but with the angel as Lord. “The Lord, the Holy Spirit, is with thee, as in a temple.” Hence she is called “the temple of the Lord,” “the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit,” because she conceived by the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee” (Lk 1:35). In this way, therefore, the Blessed Virgin is more familiar with God than the angel is, for the Lord Father, the Lord Son, the Lord Holy Spirit are with her, in other words, the whole Trinity. That is why we sing of her: “Noble resting-place of the whole Trinity.” (36)
Our Lady is without compare in her objective dignity, and so it is fitting that she should be unrivalled in her subjective sanctity. To prepare her for the task of being Mother to the Son, both physically and spiritually, God the Father bestows upon her an incomparable plenitude of sanctifying grace, the infused virtues and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. St Thomas argues as follows. The nearer something is to any kind of source, the more it shares in the effects of that source. The part of the lawn nearest to the sprinkler will be greener than the more remote parts. Now Christ is the source of grace, as author in His Divinity and as instrument in His humanity, and the Blessed Virgin is closer to Him than any other creature is, because it was from her that He received His human nature. “It was therefore necessary for her to receive from Christ a plenitude of grace greater than that of anyone else.” (37) Even from her conception, she was full of grace. By the anticipated merits of her Son, she was preserved from all stain of Original Sin in the first moment of her conception. Now Original Sin is the privation of sanctifying grace. If, therefore, our Lady was preserved from that privation, if she lacked the lack of grace, she was—putting it positively—endowed in the first moment of her existence with the overflowing fullness of the redeeming grace of her Son. She never lacked grace nor did she ever lose it. By a special privilege she was free from all personal sin, mortal and venial, even from the inclination to sin.
All men are sinners, says St Augustine, “except the Holy Virgin Mary, whom, for the sake of the honor of the Lord, I want to exclude altogether from any talk of sin.” (38)
When, then, we contemplate all the actions that make up our Lady’s motherhood, “Welcome in womb and breast,/ Birth, milk, and all the rest,” (39) we should remember that these humble human realities are endowed, through Mary’s supernatural perfections, with a spiritual beauty surpassing that of any other mother in human history. “And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). St Luke’s words, by their very simplicity and sobriety, convey something of the supernatural refinement of maternal affection in our Lady’s heart.
She shows her Son and God that precious virtue which the Middle Ages (including St Thomas) named as “courtesy” (curialitas), the delicacy of a loving intelligence, the opposite of that crass lack of perception in the man without charity. (40)
These gestures, which other mothers do instinctively and which express their natural love in its most natural aspects, are done by Mary under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For these gestures express a love that is not only motherly but virginal, a divine love for her God who is giving Himself to her in the weakness, the littleness of the Little One, handed over totally to His Mother. Under the movement of the Gifts of Fear, Piety, and Counsel, Mary carries out these actions in a divine way. It is with a chaste and loving fear, in perfect abandonment to the Father’s will, that she clasps her Child to her heart, to warm the tiny and tender limbs of the only Son of the Father….
No mother has clasped her baby to her heart with more tenderness than Mary; no mother has had more delicacy and respect for the frailty of her baby. (41)