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Mary: Mother of God and Our Mother

Mary: Mother of God and Our Mother
By: Father Peter John Cameron, O.P.

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
So much of the confusion, dissatisfaction and sadness we experience day to day comes from our own struggles with “real life.” We need someone to help us look at our lives, to show us who we are, to help us become ourselves and to live fully. In this Catholic Update, we turn with devotion to the “real life” of the mother of God so that, in seeing how Mary lived by faith, we might find the courage and grace to do the same, united with her.

Mary, the mother of God, is our mother, too. Just as Mary gave us Jesus through God’s grace,
so Jesus in turn gave Mary to the Church when he said to the beloved disciple, “Behold, your
mother” (Jn 19:27).

Mary’s motherhood and the Father’s love

Adam was the only man in history who did not have a mother. God saw what a mess it got him into and made sure that it never happened again. As a result of Adam’s sin, God would save humankind, and salvation would have a mother.

St. Paul expresses his supreme fascination with the fact that the Son of God had a mother: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). It did not have to be this way; Jesus could have just “appeared” on earth like the Old Testament priest-king Melchizedek, who was “without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Heb 7:3). But God the Father intentionally and purposefully gave his Son a mother in the Incarnation. Why?

In his catechesis on Mary (Theotokos: Mary, Mother of God), Pope John Paul II says that Mary “has been granted an utterly special likeness between her motherhood and the divine fatherhood.” The Father’s gift of the motherhood of Mary can, in a way, be linked to the Eucharist. The maternity of Mary becomes a unique means by which we are able to receive the Self of Jesus Christ more perfectly.

God gives a mother to his Son for us. Whatever makes God seem abstract, distant, aloof, elusive, unapproachable or intimidating is overcome in a mother. Although the theology of Mary’s maternity is rich and complex, its meaning becomes clear as we consider our own experiences. For example: When things go wrong, where would we turn without our mothers?

Dying soldiers on battlefields, it is said, automatically cry out for their mothers. Most likely they do not expect their mothers to “materialize” (the Latin word for mothermater—is the root of the word matter). But something profound in their experience of having a mother comes to help them in their hour of death. For good reason, we conclude the “Hail Mary” prayer with the petition: “Pray for us…at the hour of our death.”

God the Father provides that very consolation to the humanity of his dying Son. Being able to cry out to his mother may have made the torture of Christ’s death easier to bear. Mary’s presence at the cross gave Jesus even greater courage to embrace his crucifixion. And our Lord was further consoled by the fact that he could give us his mother to be our mother. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:26-27).

If Christ had not given us his mother to be our mother, wouldn’t we have pined for such a relationship? In recounting her life, St. Teresa of Avila writes: “I remember that when my mother died I was 12 years old or a little less. When I began to understand what I had lost, I went, afflicted, before an image of our Lady and besought her with many tears to be my mother. It seems to me that although I did this in simplicity it helped me. For I have found favor with this sovereign Virgin in everything I have asked of her, and in the end she has drawn me to herself” (Collected Works). 

Even if we have had excellent mothers well into our adult lives, we persist in looking for that ultimate maternal mirror in which we can discover ourselves to our deepest depths. Mary, the mother of God, is the face we seek.

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Mother of total life

The natural impulse to look beyond ourselves when confronted by our limitations is at the root of the mystery of the motherhood of Mary. From the first moments on earth, a baby searches the face of his or her mother.

We cannot understand ourselves and be ourselves if we have only ourselves for reference. To be truly ourselves, we need someone else. This conviction is a recurrent theme in the earlier writings of Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:

[Alone] we cannot come to terms with ourselves. Our I becomes acceptable to us only if it has first become acceptable to another I. We can love ourselves only if we have first been loved by someone else.

     The life a mother gives to her child is not just physical life; she gives total life when she takes the child’s tears and turns them into smiles. It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived
as accepted that it becomes also acceptable.

     Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist…If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist”—must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. For it is the way of love to will the other’s existence and, at the same time, to bring that existence forth again. The key to the I lies with the you (Principles of Catholic Theology, pp. 79-80).
Mary, mother and model of the Church, is given to us to be our way of belonging. In the gift of Mary’s motherhood, the Christian welcomes the mother of God “into his own home.” Christ personally hands over his mother to each individual on Calvary in the person of the beloved disciple.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux understood uncannily how this truth applies to our relationship with the mother of God:

With regard to the Blessed Virgin,
I must confide to you one of my simple ways with her: I surprise myself at times by saying to her: “But good Blessed Virgin, I find
I am more blessed than you, for
I have you for a mother, and you
do not have a Blessed Virgin to love....It is true you are the mother of Jesus, but this Jesus you have given entirely to us...and he, on the cross, he gave you to us as mother. Thus we are richer than you since we possess Jesus and since you are ours also (General Correspondence).
A mother is so much more than a “birth-giver.” “Motherhood,” writes Pope John Paul II, “is a relationship of person to person: a mother is not only mother of the body or of the physical creature born of her womb, but of the person she begets....Mary is the Theotokos [God-bearer or mother of God] not only because she conceived and gave birth to the Son of God, but also because she accompanied him in his human growth.”

A poignant—and very sad—example of this understanding of motherhood appeared in a magazine article some years ago about a young man named Nick Beavers. Nick was born to a wealthy, socialite family.  From his high school days Nick led a prodigal lifestyle abusing alcohol and drugs to the point of addiction. He made several attempts at rehabilitation programs. In 1994, at the age of 30, Nick learned that his mother was terminally ill with cancer. From a rehab center in Minneapolis, Nick wrote a letter to his mother (which,  tragically, he never sent):

Dear Ma, It seems like years since I last wrote you. You’ve gotten very sick, I’ve relapsed and now I’m deep in recovery again—as I pray you are. And I do pray....Because of my many pathetic charades, you couldn’t have known how much I needed you. But I’m telling you now, without you I would not be alive. How hard it was for me to return your constant undying love....I will withstand my disease and whatever else befalls me, because you are my mother. But most of all, I love you and will one day love myself, because you are my mother. Love, Nick (New York Magazine, July 24, 1995).
No matter how lost we are, no matter how conflicted, no matter how troubled, we are hopeful in the knowledge that we have been given a mother who loves us with a constant, undying love. We can withstand whatever befalls us because Mary is our mother.

Why do mothers possess the ability to raise us up from the most abysmal darkness? Because there is nothing abstract about a mother’s love; in the love of a mother we are given a face that emboldens us to deal with whatever imperils us. At the most excruciating moment of his Passion, Christ commands us to behold his mother as our mother. In doing so, he reveals to us how crucial our own recourse to her is for our lives. In our relationship with the mother of God, the Christ we seek becomes concrete.

A mother’s mediation

Since we are not immaculately conceived and we exhibit the effects of original sin (not to mention our actual sins!), we are unworthy to receive the Son of God immediately from the hands of the Father. We are raised to the perfection proper to the children of God through the purity and maternal mediation of the mother of God. Mary mediates by elevating us who are impure and fallen creatures to the dignity of her immaculate being through loving us. Mary’s maternal mediation makes us worthy of the kind of union with Jesus that Mary experienced at the Annunciation. Mary imparts her unique excellence, her moral perfection, her holiness to us as her children.

The mother of God removes all our excuses for not going to God. If we feel unworthy, if we are wracked with guilt, if we are overwhelmed by our nothingness, if the circumstances of our lives seem to conspire against our happiness, Mary the mother of God presents us to God the Father as if we were her only Son.

This maternal mediation asks something of our humility and our freedom. Through our Marian devotion, says St. Louis de Montfort, “we offer and consecrate all that we are and all that we possess to the Blessed Virgin, in order that, through her mediation, our Lord may receive the glory and the gratitude which we owe him” (True Devotion). By means of this gesture we acknowledge a truth that resounds unequivocally in Marian theology throughout the ages: “After God, Mary is the origin, mother, and generous giver of all the gifts that are granted to us; for to her has the kingdom of mercy been handed over, and through her hands God gives and has decided to give whatever grace he bestows on us” (Bl. Dionysius the Carthusian, +1471).

To be totally human we need a mother to love us who is the mother of God. Jesus knew this when, from the cross, he gave his mother into the keeping of the beloved disciple and, in doing so, gave her to the Church for all time. In turn, whenever Mary loves us, she gives us Jesus.

Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., is the founding editor-in-chief of the monthly worship aid Magnificat. He is also the artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York City. His books include The Classics of Catholic Spirituality, Why Preach? Encountering Christ in God’s Word, and Jesus, Present Before Me: Meditations for Eucharistic Adoration. This article is adapted from the book Mysteries of the Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces (Servant Books/St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT: The Marriage Pastoral (by John Feister)

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James: This James is the brother of John the Evangelist. The two were called by Jesus as they worked with their father in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had already called another pair of brothers from a similar occupation: Peter and Andrew. “He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:19-20). 
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