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The Motherhood of Mary

The Motherhood of Mary

May 11, 2023


Mother’s Day is celebrated every year in the month of May. Fittingly, May is also the month of Mary. In view of the concurrence of the month of Mary and Mother’s day, I would like to offer some reflections on the motherhood of Mary. 

First, it is important to note that Mariology (theology about Mary) is always connected to Christology (theology about Jesus Christ). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says: “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ” (§487). 

In the case of Mary’s motherhood, it is precisely who her son is that rendered the virginal conception most fitting. It was important that Jesus really be fully human, connected in lineage back to our first parents and thus born of a woman. At the same time, given the fact that the person who is Jesus is God the Son from all eternity, it was fitting that his conception be miraculous: he was not conceived by the normal means but through a divine act. As Joseph Ratzinger wrote regarding Mary’s virginal motherhood:

Jesus’ conception and birth signify a new involvement in history that exceeds the uniqueness of belonging to every single human being. . . . What begins here has the quality of a new creation, owing to God’s own totally specific interventions. . . . Such a birth can only happen to the ‘barren’ woman. What was promised in Isaiah 54:1 has become for Luke a concrete reality in the mystery of Mary.

Daughter Zion, 47-48.

As the Catechism expresses it: “The Holy Spirit, ‘the Lord, the giver of Life,’ is sent to sanctify the womb of the Virgin Mary and divinely fecundate it, causing her to conceive the eternal Son of the Father in a humanity drawn from her own” (CCC §485). Mary is, then, both Virgin and Mother, which fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that the virgin should be with child.

This great miracle occurred through Mary’s perfect acceptance of God’s plan: “Mary said, ‘here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38). In this way, her obedience is a reversal of the disobedience of our first parents. In a way, then, she is the new Eve, through whom we are given access to the life lost by the disobedience of the first Eve.

Mary is truly the Mother of God (Theotokos), because she is truly the mother of Jesus, who is God. It is important to clarify that, by this title of Mother of God, we do not mean that Mary is, in any way, the origin of Jesus’ divinity. As already mentioned, from all eternity, the person who Jesus is, is God the Son, the Eternal Word. Mary herself is not divine, and as a human creature, she is not eternal, so she could not possibly be the generative source of Jesus’ status as God. Nevertheless, because she is Jesus’ mother, and Jesus is not only human but also divine, she is the mother of the one who is God: the mother of God. “In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos)” (CCC §495). In fact, this title for Mary was defended at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, in condemnation of the Nestorian heresy that denied the title ‘Mother of God.’

In addition to being the Mother of God, Mary is also—spiritually—the Mother of the Church.

Jesus is Mary’s only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save: ‘The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formulation she cooperates with a mother’s love.’

—CCC §501, quoting from Lumen Gentium §63.

As the Catechism puts it elsewhere: “through Mary, the Holy Spirit begins to bring men, the objects of God’s merciful love, into communion with Christ” (§725), and “Mary became the Woman, the new Eve (‘mother of the living’), the mother of the ‘whole Christ’ [i.e., the Church united with Christ, her head]” (§726). 

Mary is therefore intimately connected with the Church, of which she is an archetype. The Church is a mother after the pattern of Mary’s motherhood.

‘[The Church’s] structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members. And holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom.’ Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as ‘the bride without spot or wrinkle.’ This is why the ‘Marian’ dimension of the Church precedes the ‘Petrine.’

—CCC §773.

The last portion of that quote is extremely poignant. Although the office of the pope (the Petrine dimension of the Church) is important, it is only capable of being fruitful insofar as the Marian dimension (faithful receptivity to God’s divine action) is operative. Even the pope ought to imitate Mary so that he can fulfill his Petrine mission. Mary is higher than and prior to Peter.

In this way, Mary can be seen as our mother in the order of grace, whose example we ought to follow.

By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity. Thus she is a ‘preeminent and . . . wholly unique member of the Church’; indeed, she is the ‘exemplary realization’ (typus) of the Church.

—CCC §967

To paraphrase something I once read from Hans Urs von Balthasar: in Mary’s subjective holiness, the Church has obtained her objective holiness as something she can never lose. As Lumen Gentium insists: “In this singular way she [Mary] cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace” (§61). 

This is why the Church encourages devotion to Mary. We cannot learn from her example if we do not meditate on her holiness. Furthermore, by honoring Mary, we honor the Lord, who is the source of Mary’s own glorification. In a way, we are also ordered to do so. In her Magnificat, presented to us in Luke’s Gospel, Mary says: “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48b). Ratzinger sees in this both a prophecy and a command; we must call Mary blessed in order to fulfill this prophecy. “The Church neglects one of the duties enjoined upon her when she does not praise Mary. She deviates from the word of the Bible when her Marian devotion falls silent” (Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source, 62).

Therefore, during this month of Mary and motherhood, we can confidently give honor to Mary as the Mother of God and as the Mother of the Church. Through her intercession, may all mothers receive the grace of Christ and instill it in their children.