Christian Unity and the Blessed Virgin Mary

In my previous post, I attempted to provide a means of facilitating Christian unity that does not rely directly on authority, though does, in part, point towards it; that means being a recognition of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and a corresponding acknowledgement of the need for a truly sacramental priesthood. The central principle relating the issue of the Eucharist to the Church is that there is only one Body of Christ, and therefore unity in the mystical Body which is His Church can only come about via a common affirmation of the reality of His Body in the Eucharist.

Today I would like to examine another means by which Christian unity may potentially be achieved (or at least made more viable), and that is through the Blessed Virgin Mary. Whilst this issue does not involve authority, and therefore in that respect should be less controversial, I do realise that Mariology can still be the source of heated debate amongst Christians, so I will try to tread carefully, and show that we can consider the role and person of the Blessed Virgin in a way that is amenable to many traditions, and also in a way that sheds light on the nature of the Church.  My basic contention here will be that in Mary we have, at the very least, a powerful ecclesiological symbol.

There is a deeply organic relationship between Jesus and His Church, and this relationship is shown pre-eminently in the relationship He has with Mary. Rowan Williams, in his short book exploring icons of the Blessed Virgin, explains the deep link between the two in terms of the Hodegetria icon (‘The One who Points the Way’):

…it is not only that we cannot understand Mary without seeing her as pointing to Christ: we cannot understand Christ without seeing his attention to Mary. Jesus does not appear to us as a solitary monarch, enthroned afar off, but as someone whose being and loving is always engaged, already directed towards humanity…

…what we see is, of course, a circular motion, Mary pointing to Christ who looks at her. Mary ‘returns’ to herself through Christ; she is who she is not only as pointing to Christ but as the object of her son’s love; and for her to look to Christ is for her to look at herself truthfully – as loved by him.

Ponder these things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin (2002), pp.6-7 & 8-9, Canterbury Press.

            As Williams describes, Mother and Child are bound up in an intimate relationship that is emblematic of Christ’s relationship with humanity in general – Mary here stands as a symbol of all humankind, which is gazed upon by Jesus in love, but also as the one who is constantly urging us to turn our gaze upon Him. In this way, she serves as a perfect symbol of the Church, which is brought into being and sustained by Christ’s love, but whose whole existence consists of this turning towards Him, its creator and lover.

So we see here that not only can Mary not be separated from Jesus, but that also one cannot separate Our Lord and His Church – the mystical Body of which Jesus is Head. Bodies and their heads share a common life, and to divide the two is to break that vital connection, so that each party – head and body – no longer has the same pulse quickening through it. This deeply organic connection can also be seen to be reflected in Mary, who quite literally shared in the vitality of Jesus, indeed who provided Him with human flesh and blood. This connection goes beyond the realms of the purely biological and, in the drama of Annunciation and Incarnation, enters into the world of faith and grace, as Pope Benedict XVI describes here:

At the moment when she pronounces her Yes, Mary is Israel in person; she is the Church in person and as a person. She is the personal concretization of the Church because her Fiat makes her the bodily mother of the Lord. But this biological fact is a theological reality, because it realizes the deepest spiritual content of the Covenant that God intended to make with Israel. Luke suggests this beautifully in harmonizing 1:45 (“blessed is she who believed”) and 11:27 (“blessed . . . are those who hear the word of God and keep it”). We can therefore say that the affirmation of Mary’s motherhood and the affirmation of her representation of the Church are related as factum and mysterium facti, as the fact and the sense that gives the fact its meaning. The two things are inseparable: The fact without its sense would be blind, the sense without the fact would be empty. Mariology cannot be developed from the naked fact, but only from the fact as it is understood in the hermeneutics of faith. In consequence, Mariology can never be purely Mariological. Rather, it stands within the totality of the basic Christ-Church structure and is the most concrete expression of its inner coherence.

Thoughts on the place of Marian doctrine and piety in faith and theology as a whole, in Communio, Spring 2003, p.155-156.

            Mary is a type of the Church, seen most clearly in her fiat, where, in an unpredictable act of divine humility, God makes our salvation depend upon her decision – a decision of faith that is repeated in each believer. This typology is reaffirmed at the Cross, where Jesus, looking to Saint John, says ‘Behold, your mother!’ (John 19:25-27) – John here represents the pinnacle of discipleship, a symbol of the perfect follower of Christ, and he is told to look to Mary as his Mother. As the Mother of God, the one from whom the Son of God received flesh and blood, she is now Mother of all who believe.

Similarly, the Church, which like Mary keeps the treasures of the Faith within, pondering them and allowing them to grow (c.f.; Luke 2:19) is Mother to all the faithful, preserving and nurturing its wisdom for the nourishment of them all. Furthermore, as Mary became overshadowed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (c.f.; Luke 1:35), so is the Church, as Christ’s Body, the temple of the Holy Spirit (c.f.; 2 Corinthians 6:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 3:9-17).

We also see this fundamental bond between Jesus and Mary, Mary and the Church, when looking at the prophecy of Simeon that was read out at Candlemas a couple of days ago. After the nunc dimmitis, it is said that Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph before delivering to Mary the forecast that not only would Jesus be ‘a sign that is spoken against’ (alt. ‘a sign of contradiction’), but that ‘a sword will pierce through your own soul also’ (Luke 2:33-35). Here Simeon sees a dark consequence of Mary’s union with her Son – their bond will extend into the realms of His suffering.

Traditionally this prophecy of Simeon’s has been seen as the first of ‘seven sorrows’ that afflicted Mary, and all are because of the profound link established between her and Jesus – not just a biological link, but one of grace and faith. Here too she is emblematic of the Church, of which Saint Paul said ‘in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’ (Colossians 1:24), and of which Jesus Himself said to Paul, with reference to his persecution of Christians, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ (Acts 9:4). To afflict a member of the Church is to afflict Christ Himself.

The central point in all of this is that just as Mariology cannot be separated from Christology, neither can Christology be separated from ecclesiology, and to see Mary as a type of the Church is a useful way of examining Jesus’ relationship to His Body. Both Mary and Church are united to Jesus in a profound and mystical union, and with respect to the Church, this must have serious consequences for our doctrine of it. If the Church is truly the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, which has received and preserves His wisdom, and shares His very life to the point that He suffers when any one member of it suffers, then the idea of division within this Body becomes inconceivable.

That the Church by its very nature must be one has consequences for what we believe it to be. Firstly, as the Body of Christ in the world, it cannot be an invisible thing; it must be something that is there for the world to see – though it certainly has an invisible dimension, for Christ to form a living community to act and speak on His behalf in the world, that community must be visible to the world. Secondly, the Church must therefore be visibly one – the idea that this visible community would be allowed to fracture into various different groups would undermine the very reason for its existence, which is to be a sacrament of Christ, who is eternally one.

Mary, the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, is a powerful symbol of what this unity looks like, and a potent reminder of the inseparability of Jesus and His Church. Moreover, one has to work very hard to prevent affection for Mary – she is extremely easy to love, and very approachable! Therefore, I hope that by recognising Mary as Mother, many may come to reflect upon her relationship with Jesus and allow her to point the way towards Him and His Body, so that thereby she may prove an effective means of bringing the many churches into the fullness and unity of the Faith. It is what she would want, and it is what her Son wants too.


5 thoughts on “Christian Unity and the Blessed Virgin Mary

  1. “Moreover, one has to work very hard to prevent affection for Mary – she is extremely easy to love, and very approachable!”

    I like this entry, but here are two points or questions:

    1) What is Christian unity from the perspective of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself?
    2) How might we, the Church, be “extremely easy to love, and very approachable!”?

    Thank you. This is very good.

  2. Thank you for your comments – they are much appreciated 🙂 And thank you for the two excellent questions you have posed. I will have to have a good think about both of these, but here are my first impressions, so to speak:

    1. The problem with seeing Christian unity from Jesus’ perspective is that it is of course hard to see anything clearly from the Lord’s perspective! Nevertheless, I think His prayer for unity in John 17, and the provisions He made to effect a united, visible Church in human history suggest that Christian unity from the divine perspective must have a realised, actual dimension, as well as an invisible one.

    However, a prevalent theme in Jesus’ teaching seems to have been the ‘now and not-yet’ concept, which, applied to the Church, would suggest that perhaps Jesus knew during His earthly ministry that although a visible, united Catholic Church would continue to exist in time and space, at some point some may become separated from the Church; but, that this unity would be restored in the ‘not-yet’ dimension of the future. I guess this is another way of saying that He sees the Church as it is and as it will be when all things are consummated, and the issue of unity will no longer be an issue – all Christians will be one.

    Also, I think some of Pope Francis’ comments on Christians being united in blood may help here. Although there is one Church, the Catholic Church, and other churches are only united to her imperfectly, Pope Francis reminded us that when Christians across the globe are being murdered for their faith, they are not asked if they are Catholic, Lutheran, etc – in the eyes of the persecutor, they are simply another Christian. This is a reminder of how much we do have in common, and I certainly think that this is something that should be taken into account when considering the divine perspective on Christian unity.

    2. As for how we, the Church, may become easier to love and more approachable, that is both simple and difficult to answer. Basically, we start practising what we preach! In as much as we imitate Jesus Christ and our Blessed Mother, we cannot fail to incline people’s affections towards the Church. Personal integrity is very important to modern people, who despite considering themselves to be kings and queens of an age of reason, are in actual fact much more disposed to the affections as a way of convincing them of any particular truth claim. So, whilst we cannot and must not neglect the teachings of the Faith, and must continue to pour energy into opening up the treasures of the Church’s wisdom to provide a compelling and rational alternative to secularism, we must allow Christ to transform our hearts also.

    Unfortunately, this is not so easy in practice. Since Luther, a subtle wedge has been driven between faith and reason, and also faith and works, that has now led to a great divide between the two. This has so effected Western culture that I think even Catholics are afraid of ‘works-righteousness’ and see their faith as something purely intellectual – an assent, but not one that requires the involvement of the whole person. How is this culture to be changed? I am not sure – but the only thing each one of us can do is start with ourselves. If I don’t allow my heart and mind to be transformed, how can I help anyone else to?

    Do you have any ideas in response to the two questions you’ve posed? I’d be very interested to hear them – they are extremely relevant to our contemporary situation, and it is always good to hear different angles on this.

  3. Great response. My answers per your two items above:

    1. Jesus desires that his people be obedient to that authority which He established on Peter and His Apostles, forgiving toward the human element of that authority when it fails, and trusting fully that what He said to Peter is true and that the Holy Spirit is here guiding His Church in all Truth. But many doubt and follow a spirit of disobedience instead.
    2. If your spouse was a constant source of hurt and pain, would your spouse be desirable to you or anyone who cares for you? In contrast, the Church makes herself extremely easy to love and approachable when she kisses the Wounds of Christ. What does this mean? This means that her members (within the Body of Christ] take a serious account of sin and then earnestly try to stop sinning (sins open wounds) and start repairing what their sins have destroyed (seeking and providing healing for His Wounds).

    Stated more succinctly:

    1) Obedience, forgiveness, trust and faith. [Justice toward God]
    2) Assessing harm done, setting goals, achieving those goals through a most virtuous life. [Justice toward ourselves and each other].

    • Thank you for replying again. I certainly agree with the above.

      Firstly, there can be no unity without submission to, or at the very least, recognition of, the authority Jesus instituted to speak on His behalf. This is what I think was at the root of the havoc caused by the Reformation. As soon as Luther et al set themselves up as their own authority, they were implicitly refusing to accept Christ Himself, and everything He wished us to know and believe. The conflation of the papal office with the person inhabiting that office is a big problem today in getting people to realise their need to recognise the voice of the Church.

      Secondly, yes I completely agree – we can never begin to recommend ourselves to the world unless we first truly take a look at the wounds within the Body of Christ (both wounds of division and other more recent problems within the Church), kiss those wounds and admit our dependence on them for our healing. As with everything, we have to recognise that healing in this way is a gift of God – we cannot heal ourselves by our own efforts, nor can we make ourselves virtuous either – we must always be looking to Christ.

      So in fact, both elements – healing of the wounds and harm done, and recognition of authority – come from turning ourselves away from our own interests to look upon Our Lord. If we all focussed truly and completely on Him, instead of ourselves, I think reunion just may be possible.

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