Mary and Mother Church

The Church is often charged with the supposed sin of patriarchalism; and since there is such a widespread sense of unease, and even guilt, about this, we should turn to the Fathers of the Church to try to see where the fault lies. Was there something defective about their teaching and leadership which gave weight to this charge of patriarchalism?

Even if they were too compliant in accepting the subservience of women in the social customs of their times, nevertheless they did open up a true vision of the unity between man and woman within God’s plan for creating humanity male and female. They focussed the Church’s attention on the relationship between Mary and her Son Jesus Christ, in which all the former divisions between men and women were to be overcome. And this fundamental, or archetypal, relationship was defined at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 when Mary was given the title ‘Theotokos’, which we normally translate into English as ‘Mother of God’.

This title sounded preposterous to the enemies of the true Faith and still does. How could the uncreated God have a created human mother?! Yet in a wonderful way, calling Mary ‘Mother of God’ when properly understood expressed what God really intended by the incarnation of his Son; and this point cannot be made too often because the implications are so far-reaching for the rest of the human race.

What it means first of all is that the Son born to Mary was the same Person as the eternal Son of God the Father, himself ‘God from God’; and because he was born of a human mother we are assured that he was both true God and true man in one single Person. The consequences of this fact of faith are truly amazing, and we need to hang on to them for our own salvation and that of the world around us.

It follows that the conception and birth of the Lord Jesus Christ happened within the unity of the three divine Persons. The wonder of Mary’s purity is that she was able to remain where the Holy Spirit, who dwelt by nature in her son, came to dwell also in her womb to bring about the divine–human conception of her Son. He was truly conceived of Mary and the Holy Spirit, by her free co-operation.

This grace of Mary, indwelt by the Spirit, already looks forward to the consummation in the Cross and Resurrection. Mary personifies the Church; and each one of us is baptized into this mystery. We share in the union between Jesus and his Mother, which is fulfilled in the Cross.

Let us then shun like the plague the secular ideology which requires that we all be ‘equal’, with all the mutual comparisons, envy and competetiveness which follows. Let us rather thank God that he has created each one of us unique, so that we can grow in love and unity within the mutual service of the body of Christ. Mutually strengthened, we rejoice with Mary in our daily following the humble Christ.

This word of faith, supposing we follow it up, helps us to understand the nature of the Church, and also, we may hope, to banish the bogey of patriarchalism. The basic task of the communities and parishes of the Church is to teach us how to live by the Holy Spirit of our baptism; so that we may grow in the obedience of faith to an utterly dependable God and Father even though his ways will be beyond our understanding. What we can understand sufficiently are the words of Christ given to direct our following in his way. The Church in her frequent celebrations of the Eucharist gives us, individually and corporately, a full participation in the paschal mystery of Christ; and from our feeding on Christ we learn to extend that nourishment throughout all the events of life by praying in his Name, and doing all things in his Name.

The Church is then our Mother; and every woman consecrated to God represents the presence of Mary our Mother, whose one concern is that along with her we should follow her Son in his return to the Father. Should we then accuse the Church of ‘patriarchalism’ if she continues to consecrate only men to stand in the place of Christ to represent his priestly headship? Our concern is rather that we might all grow up into Christ to become one holy and royal priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices to the glory of God our Father.

Father Gregory C.S.W.G.