Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church
Monday after Pentecost—Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
One Mother, two motherhoods
Mary mothered Jesus, Jesus then gave life to the Church with water and blood from His side, and the Church then mothers us into existence through baptism. Devotion to Mary goes hand in hand with devotion to the Church because both are mothers. Mother Mary gives the world Christ. Mother Church gives the world Christians.
The metaphorical parallels between Mother Mary and Mother Church are spiritually rich and deeply biblical. Mary was understood by many early theologians as both the mother of the Head of the Church, Jesus, and also the symbol of the Church par excellence. Mother Mary is a virgin who conceived the physical body of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation. In a parallel way, Mother Church is the Mystical Body of Christ who gives every Christian rebirth through the power of the Holy Spirit received at Pentecost. Both Mary and the Church conceived through the same Spirit, without the aid of human seed. Mother Mary makes Christ’s body physically present in Palestine in the first century. Mother Church, in turn, makes Christ’s body mystically present through baptism and sacramentally present in the Eucharist, in every time and place. It was common for a baptismal font in early Christianity to be described as a sacred womb in which Mother Church gave her children life.
The theological cross-pollination between Mother Mary and Mother Church has produced a field ripe for spiritual and theological cultivation. Christ is from Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Galilee. But He is most deeply from the Father. He is one Son but lives two sonships. Similarly, all Christians are born from one Mother expressed in two motherhoods: Mary’s and the Church’s. Mary and the Church, understood most profoundly, form one mother. Both are the mother of Christ, but each mutually assists the other to bring Christ physically, sacramentally, and mystically into the world in all His fullness. Neither Mary nor the Church can exercise their motherhoods alone.
Today’s feast, formally integrated into the Church’s calendar by the authority of Pope Francis in 2018, specifically commemorates Mary’s motherhood of the Church rather than her motherhood of God, a feast celebrated on January 1. Mary likely showed as much tender concern for Christ’s mystical body as it slowly matured in its native Palestine as she did for His physical body in Nazareth. Pope Pius XII perceptively noted Mary’s dual maternity in his encyclical on the Church: “It was she who was there to tend the mystical body of Christ, born of the Savior’s pierced heart, with the same motherly care that she spent on the child Jesus in the crib.” It is possible the Apostles held their first Council in about 49 A.D. in Jerusalem precisely because Mary still dwelled in the holy city. She was likely the young religion’s greatest living witness and pillar of unity. We can imagine her presiding over early Christian gatherings with reserved solemnity, nursing primitive Christianity just as she had Christ.
Ancient pagans spoke of imperial Rome as a Domina, a divine female master. Rome was praised as a conquering mother who brought vanquished peoples close to her own heart, incorporating them as citizens into her vast, multicultural, polyglot realm. Other empires executed prisoners of war, exiled peoples, imposed a foreign culture, or displaced populations. Not Rome. Rome absorbed them all. The early fathers understood Mother Church as the successor to this Domina. In baptism this Mother does not release her children from her body but absorbs them, making them fully her own unto death. Since the early Middle Ages, feast days and devotions to the Virgin Mary have proliferated in Catholicism. Now Pope Francis has given the Church a feast to compliment that of January 1. The two motherhoods of Mary reflect one profound truth, that Christ approaches us in time and in space, in history and in sacrament, in mysterious and beautiful ways. In the words of Saint Augustine: “What (God) has bestowed on Mary in the flesh, He has bestowed on the Church in the spirit; Mary gave birth to the One, and the Church gives birth to the many, who through the One become one.” This is all cause for deep reflection.
Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, you are the fairest daughter of Israel, chosen and prepared by God as the sacred vessel to replace Mother Synagogue with Mother Church. Eve approaches you like mother to daughter, old Eve to New Eve—two mothers of souls both on earth and in heaven.