Mark Woodruff reflects on the saving role of Mary through time and eternity, and for the Church in the world today
I wonder if it strikes you as odd that St Paul first speaks of a Son born of a mother, only to show that we become sons adopted by a Father. Yet in three short verses in Galatians 4 (4-6), we have the whole purpose of God in creating us. He who made us at the outset completed the creation by being born into it. He who ordered the course of it restored its lost equilibrium by taking flesh from it, in return for His Spirit. And he who gives all life made clear that the truth of the nature of The-One-Who-Is is laid open to the eyes of the world in His death, the reclamation of humanity is fulfilled, and the new, eternal life is opened never to be barred again. ‘It is accomplished,’ he gasps as he breathes out his Spirit; and the heavy veil that had always concealed the Holy of Holies in the Temple was ‘rent in twain’ as graves broke open, for the resurrection was imminent.
But what do we see once the veil of the Temple is torn? First, our eyes see the sacrificed Lamb enthroned on the Tree, outside the gate, we are told; what remains standing in life is the woman, from whom a Son has been taken, and to whom a new son has been entrusted (John 19.25-27). It can be no surprise, then, that in the Litany of Loreto in the West and the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God in the East the Blessed Virgin Mary is described as the Gate, out through which the Word was born as our Saviour, and in through which, adopted as divine sons like him, we enter into his Kingdom as the blessed of the Father. The Gate is not only the one at the boundary of an earthly Jerusalem, but of the new Jerusalem as well.
Nor can it be a surprise that Mary is hailed as the Holy of Holies (or House of Gold) in person, in which the Lord came to dwell in the flesh, the Mother who receives the weight of God’s glory in this world, out of whom He radiates in light, and the Lady in whose presence we are sanctified by the Spirit of God who overshadows her. Did not the child in Elizabeth’s womb leap when she encountered the Mother of the Saviour? Did not the servants at the Wedding Feast at her intercession bring water to the Lord for its consecration as wine? Did not the woman bless the Mother who brought forth the Word of God and kept it in her body, mind and heart? Did not the Mother come to be with her newly given son St John and the other apostles on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit who had overshadowed her at the incarnation now came to overshadow them too, at the nuptial manifestation of the Bride of Christ, the Church?
Yet in the moments surrounding our redemption, we see her all but alone, standing before the cross, which also stands before her. On the summit above the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in France is a great cross, and the Carthusian monks who live there say, Stat Crux stat, dum volvitur orbis: ‘The Cross stands still, while it is the world that turns.’ When we visualise this, we cannot fail to see the Mother of God who stands in an axis with it, the two inextricable. There she receives those who have been adopted by the Divine Father and become entitled to the same inheritance as the Divine Son. There she silently insists that we ‘Do whatever He tells you’, and ‘hear the Word of God and keep it’. There she recalls to her Son that we ‘have no more wine’ and need the His grace and its constant replenishment.
In the offices of the Eastern Orthodox Church, an acclamation strikes Western ears as very bold – ‘Most Holy Mother of God, save us’. But how can this be, since Our Lord is our only mediator? In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the apostle is speaking of the priestly mediation of our redemption, Christ’s office as the High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies to pour out His blood for our purification from sin and the abolition of all that stands between us and entry to the Kingdom of heaven. But there is another mediation, that of his prayer and intercession into which we are all drawn. In this mediation of intercession, Mary the Mother of God stands in the first rank. This is because she is the first and last to stand at the foot of the cross, pouring out her prayer and love. She is the one left standing after the Son of Man’s death, revealed as the Holy of Holies, through into which we may all now make entry into the Kingdom, there to sit with the Lord as those whom the Father has adopted as co-equal inheritors. Mary is in this way inseparable from the work of Christ’s work of salvation on the Cross; and she it is who does not leave us who are redeemed outside the Gate but brings us in by the power of her intercession, for his grace and blessing to be ours. Hence, ‘Most Holy Mother of God, save us’.
She is indeed the Mother of Mercy, to whom we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. We ask her to end our exile and show us the fruit of her womb, Jesus. She is the Gate that opens to bring us in; she is the Holy of Holies for ever displaying her Son in the glory that is the same in the manger as on the cross, the same in heaven as in his Kingdom coming on earth through and into us.
In this way, then, we see Mary as the Mother of the Church, being the first to house one of its adopted heirs of heaven. Yet she is not above the Church, but part of it, in the community of the redeemed, knowing her need of God and the first to name her son as her Saviour. This is why it is contrary to her work to be part of Christ’s saving us in his Church, for us to be living in two, three, or a hundred houses. The word ‘ecumenical’ refers to a single household, the household of faith that began in the house that become Mary’s on that first Good Friday. To the Byzantine Greeks it meant the whole Christian Roman Empire. To us nowadays it means the various churches’ efforts for over a hundred years to stand against human tendencies and instead re-compose the single household of faith that Christ its foundation entrusted to the care, intercession, custody and motherhood of Mary. We cannot expect to be heard when we ask the Most Holy Mother of God to save us, or to end our exile, or to show us Jesus, when we insist on living in separate households.
For this reason, it is essential that we understand that the unity of Christians in one Church, as one flock with one Shepherd, is as necessary to our salvation today as it was from that moment on the Cross. Yet, to us, after all these years and so many hopes and dawns that have brightened and then faded, with so many seemingly irreconcilable differences, it seems beyond feasibility. That is not how to look at what keeps Christians apart, however, especially in such different understandings of the priestly and episcopal ministry, such varied understandings of theology, questions of life and death from the womb to the grave, and even a common Christian anthropology of the human person and psyche. For one thing, despite these matters preventing our organic and visible communion as things stand, the Churches have already achieved solidarity and friendship as never before, especially in pursuit of goodness, truth, peace and justice in the world. We too must persistently forswear any instinct for rivalry, bitterness or scorn. It sometimes strikes me that Christians reserve their sharpest attacks for their closest kin, those in other traditions from which they are estranged, while to the world that is indifferent to them they are all smiles and constructive engagement. As the Lord said, ‘It shall not be so among you’. The world has enough enemies, and what it lacks is enough friends. I am glad that some of my closest-thinking friends and fellow workers in the vineyard are in other Churches, not just my own. Such affinities of friendship and alliance are mutual investments that need to be tended for the yield we are yet to see.
So, for a second thing, we understand one another’s mind better than before, and we do not give up on our conversation. The great Orthodox bishop and teacher, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who recently died, began life as an Anglican; but he did not see his Anglicanism negated by becoming Orthodox. Rather, it was fulfilled, he said. What would it be like for us to see the Church as we belong to it at the moment, fulfilled in the manifestation of the Universal Catholic Church that is to yet to come – one in which you as members of the Church of England believing the orthodox Catholic faith saw it achieve its true fulfilment? What it would it be like for me as a Latin Catholic priest, also serving in an Eastern Catholic Church, to see my own Church fulfilled in every bearing of its catholicity too, at its moment of unity and fullness of communion with and for all? For us it seems an impossible task; but with God all things are possible, since it will take His miracle to turn our leaking water into his vessel of new wine. In the meantime, it is for us to remove every obstacle to the miracle, so we are ready for when it comes.
On the night before He died, Christ, overheard by St John, spoke of how urgent this was. He said, ‘Father, may they all be one, as You and I are one, so that the world may believe it WAS You who sent Me.’ May the Mother of Mercy take us from the Cross through the Gate into the one household of the one Holy of Holies, not many, and, credibly for the world, thus ‘show us Jesus’. Most Holy Mother of God, save us.
Fr Mark Woodruff is a priest of the Diocese of Westminster. Having studied at College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, he served in Anglican ministry before being received into the Catholic Church where he was ordained in 1995.
Fr Mark is the English Liturgy Chaplain and Co-Ordinator at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London, which serves as the Chairman of the Society of St John Chrysostom which promotes greater appreciation of the spiritual, theological and liturgical traditions of Eastern Christendom, works and prays for the unity of the Churches of East and West, and encourages support for the Eastern Churches.