With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ecce Mater

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Below is a piece that I wrote for this occasion a few years back. I'm reposting it mostly because I won't have time to write anything new and I don't want the feast to go unnoticed.

Mater Dolorosa, ora pro nobis

[Today] the Church celebrate[s] the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. It is under this title that Mary was designated patroness of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, so I was able to celebrate the feast consistently during my time at Notre Dame (the Holy Cross priests put on a very nice mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart). I came to identify more and more with this feast and decided that under this title I would have my own devotion to Mary. In short, this feast is particularly meaningful for my spirituality. The Mater Dolorosa has been the primary image I've had of Mary for some time now.

The image of the sorrowful Mary is drawn from passages such as Luke 2:35, wherein Simeon meets the mother and her child at the Temple, and prophesies that the boy would be a sign of opposition causing the rise and fall of many in Israel; and that even Mary's heart will be pierced by a sword. The one who was not to bring peace, but the sword (Matt 10:33-35) did not even spare his mother from its edge. The heart that treasured all of the things of Christ (Luke 2:51) would be split open. Simeon, guided by the Spirit (Luke 2:25) reveals to Mary her own share in Israel's Tribulation.

There is then, of course, John 19: which depicts Mary at the foot of the cross. Here the "beloved disciple" takes the place of Jesus Himself in the familial bond with his mother. Mary, unlike the Eleven (or Ten, if the "beloved" is identified as John), remains with her son as He hangs in agony from a tree, undergoing in Himself the climactic judgment of God upon Israel. The depths of this, I surely cannot fathom. Whereas Hagar exclaimed "Let me not see the child die!" as she turned from the starving Ishmael (Gen 21:16), Mary does not take her eyes off of her dying son, even when He gives up His spirit.

I believe it is here, at the Cross, that Mary shows her true colors. It is where she is at her "most Biblical," in my opinion. In a conversation with a Methodist friend a few weeks ago, I was reminded that the Gospels are not exactly brimming with explicit, dogmatic pronunciations about the Holy Mother of God. There are even passages that seem to cast Mary to the margins: for instance, Matt 12:48 depicts Jesus calling Mary's status as family into question. Who is my mother, he asks (fourth commandment, anyone?!). Yet in John's Gospel, it is at the foot of the cross that Christ confirms Mary as his true mother precisely when He presents her as the mother of His beloved disciple (John 19:25).

I recently read Jon Levenson's fantastic book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. In the last chapter, "The Revisioning of God in the Image of Abraham," Levenson describes beautifully how the Gospels pick up on the ancient Canaanite myths of gods sacrificing their sons and receving them back again; though filtered, as it were, through long-standing Jewish tradition and specifically the famous story of the "binding" of Isaac. John 3:16 recalls the Canaanite trope, but refashioned in the image of Abraham. For as with Abraham, the sacrifice of the beloved son is not a matter of military conquest or survival, but a matter of love:

Here, as in Rom 8:32, the underlying identification of Jesus as the son of God has brought about a refashioning of God in the image of the father who gives his son in sacrifice. The father's gift to God has been transformed into the gift of God the Father.[1]

This got me thinking: it seems that in many ways, the Gospel vision of Mary could be seen as fashioned in the image of Abraham as well. The parallels are by no means perfect, but they are intriguing. Both Abraham and Mary receive promises from God about the miraculous conception of their children in seemingly impossible circumstances. Mary is a virgin, Abraham is a geezer, and Sarah is aged and barren. Both promises speak of the future glory of their children: kings of people will come from Abraham by Sarah (Gen 17:6, 16) and the one born of Mary will be given the throne of David and rule over the house of Jacob with an unending kingdom (Luke 1:32-33). Abraham's reaction of utter disbelief ("Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old ? Andwill Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"- Gen 17:17) is mirrored by Mary's more moderate response: "How can this be, for I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34). In either case, the chosen figures are called to trust in the unimaginable power of God: "Is anything beyond YHWH?"(Gen 18:14); "Nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). And both characters come to embody the response of total trust that God will fulfill His promises: Abraham's "Here I am" (Gen 22:1) and Mary's "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord..." (Luke 1:38).

If such parallels point to a common trope, then it follows that Mary's experience at the cross can be read in terms of Abraham's call to offer his "beloved son" as a sacrifice. In Genesis, God has attempted a new means of spreading His primal blessing to the world of His creation: election. Abraham was chosen as the vehicle of God's blessing to all of the nations. In a very real sense, God has taken a risk: the blessing of all of creation depends upon the faithfulness of Abraham to his God. In this context, the story of the aqedah or binding of Isaac becomes the supreme test of Abraham's covenant-fidelity (Gen 22:1). God is commanding Abraham to bleed and burn the "only" son whom God has promised as the future of Abraham's line and glory. To both slaughter his child and believe that the promise will come true nonetheless requires the boundless faith in nothing less than this: that nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond the power of YHWH. Abraham thus proves his faith to God, proves that he is "in awe of God" (Gen 22:12), by raising his hand against his son and truly offering him as a sacrifice; and God is able to save the child's life, returning him to his father "resurrected," as it were. God then emphatically reaffirms that he has made the right choice with this man, and reestablishes him as the vessel of blessing and future glory (Gen 22:16-18).

What then of Mary's faithfulness to the promises given her? Much like in Abraham's case, the situation presented by God is practically unthinkable. God had assured Mary that her only, beloved son would reign on the throne of Israel and His Kingdom would never fall. Yet this same son hangs before her with flesh beatern and torn, dying the death of a criminal alongside criminals. It is almost a sick joke on God's part: the throne he promised turns out to be a cross and the crown that was to be Jesus' is laced with thorns. The INRI rests above his head in the ultimate irony. If Mary is then to watch her son die and still believe that God will make good on His promise, she can do nothing short of believing this: that nothing is impossible for God.

We might then see Mary's place at the crucifixion as a trial similar to that of the aqedah, in which she too is faced with the sacrifice of her only son and must not "withold"Him from God (Gen 22:12), but rather give Him up (as God Himself does). Granted, in contrast to the story of Abraham, Mary is not actually performing the sacrifice of her child. There was little Mary could have done about the crucifixion. And yet, the scene can still be described as a testing of Mary's faithfulness to God's promise and His plan for her. This, it seems, is what Simeon meant when he told her that her heart would be pierced: the passage speaks of the sword as an instrument of judgment or testing, something that reveals what is truly in the heart. In seeing her only son suffer and die, God is testing her heart as if dissecting it with a sword. Christ taught that He would not be ashamed of those who were not ashamed of Him when he came in His Glory (Luke 9:26); the Apostles were ashamed and abandoned him. Yet Mary was not ashamed. Christ taught that only those who do the will of God are His brothers and His mother; His so-called brothers hid themselves from His face like Adam and Eve hid from the face of God (Gen 3:8). Yet Mary remained face-to-face with Him and thereby enacted her trust that God was not mistaken about her son. Mary's presence signaled her trust that, against all appearances, the cross did not prove Jesus' kingship impossible. She thereby, like Abraham, enacted her faithfulness, fulfilling the pledge of trust she made when God's promise was proclaimed to her. In a very real sense, she does the will of God for her: and it is thus only at the cross that Mary proves herself to be the mother of Christ.

Yet Abraham was stopped short of killing his son. His faith only had to stretch so far. Mary's, on the other hand, was called to prove itself even in the face of her son's death! He not only suffered humiliation and defeat, but succumbed to death! How great her trust had to be! And miraculously, it is rewarded: just as Abraham received His son back and his vocation as the vehicle of blessing was reaffirmed, so too does Mary receive her son back to life anew. Resurrected, the promise of God is fulfilled when Christ ascends to the throne of God.

The sorrows of Mary's passion, I believe, are therefore of great import. I think it is in this sense that we are called to a Marian spirituality in the Church: a call that is at the same time the fulfillment of that covenant-faith, that reckless trust in God, that began with Abraham. Through Mary's faithfulness, the blessings of Christ extend to the whole world. We as members of the new covenant are called to enact the same radical fidelity to the promises God has given us. We are, in this sense, called to live our lives from the Cross. Even our theology is meant to be, in this sense, Marian in nature. Henri de Lubac describes all theology as Theologia a Cruce: theology from the cross: "For it is the Cross which disperses the cloud which until then is hiding the truth."[2] The space which we are called to occupy is that of Mary at the foot of the cross, in her sorrow. For that is simply to embody the kind of faithfulness that God the Father Himself lived out in sacrificing His Son for the love of the world. Here, Mary is transparent to God: she is the way to imitating Him. And if we can embody that nearly senseless trust in God, we will receive the Son back again, resurrected and fulfilling the promises that God has made to all Christians. As the "beloved disciple" can be seen as the ideal disciple of Christ, John is showing us precisely where we are to receive Mary as our mother.

Our Lady of Sorrows represents for me a Mariology that is truly Scriptural and, well, truly true.

May she pray for us all, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ...

Pax Christi,

[1] Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993); p.225

[2] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sr. Elizabeth Englund, OCD (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988); p.179


  • At 9/15/2010 11:34 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    This is a profound meditation, and I'm sorry I missed it the first time.

    I think what I most appreciate about it is the way that qua meditation - that is to say, at the level where the final expression is being generated out of your own thinking/reflecting (i.e., the space between you and the actual text) - one can practically see the analogia entis at work. Here's what I mean.

    The content of your reflection involves a perfect "metaxological icon" (let's say) of identity in diversity.

    There is the original, and originating, source: an intra-Trinitarian event happening in the overdeterminate plenitude of divine being, the intelligibility of which first appears, or takes the form as, the event of the Sacrifice of Isaac.

    After this iconically historical communication, the event remains in and with history.

    But the intra-Trinitarian life pours even more of this event into history, and this magis now takes the form as the historical event of Mary at the cross.
    Although all of this is written in terms of descent (and rightfully I think)at the very same time, creation is ascending. So descent and ascent are united in this communication.

    The ascent itself as a divine happening, together with the ever increasing 'flow' of this original intra-Trinitarian event, are now 'poured' out taking the ecclesial form that you described. As ecclesial, it finds a liturgical communication which then re-narrates itself throughout all the lives that participate in this liturgy.

    In this way, we can see how the original intra-Trinitarian event, as overdetermined, communicates itself in diverse modes. All the while, these diverse modes become more united precisely in their iconic act of communication.

    In many ways, as I read your reflection, I began to better see what I think Desmond has in mind when he speaks of an agapaic origin that, as agapaic, is somehow in itself communal. I also began to better see what Aquinas meant when he “defines” divine person as a ‘substantive relation.’ Your reflection does well to illuminate how relation can be itself substantive.

    The original intra-Trinitarian event that communicates itself in these various ways is one event - even in its act of communication it is one - but all the while it is a oneness that is infinitely diverse and therefore overdetermined. Thus, it can be 'determined' in an "infinite" multitude of ways.

    This diversity is seen not only in terms of the different, concrete historical events (Ab/Is., Mary/Jesus, Church/people), but in the diversity of ‘ontological genres’ (a strange term, I know but I’ll explain what I mean). The first two historical events are narrative in nature, and are mediated through the ontological genre of drama. The final communication is ecclesial in nature, and is mediated through the ontological genre of liturgy, which itself includes drama somehow (exactly how is not clear to me yet; perhaps as species, perhaps as an accident, perhaps as analogical relation like medicine to health or some such thing).

    In any case, the literary icon that your reflection has painted is one that, at least to my mind, is colored brilliantly with the hues of analogia and metaxology. Not only in the content itself, but qua reflection.

  • At 9/15/2010 11:37 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    As a secondary comment, though, one question that occurred to me while reading your reflectioninvolved the difference between the consequences of the Isaac story and the Jesus story – that Isaac never actually dies, but Jesus does.

    Now, we could say that as a ‘magis’ of the original intra-Trinitarian event, the actual death signifies this magis and binds those (who take it to heart) to God with greater trust and faith (as you point out so insightfully).

    But I find this difference quite intriguing. After all, God could have very easily allowed Abraham to go through with it, and still resurrected Isaac. It even seems that Abraham’s faith and trust would have benefited even more from that – there would be utterly no room for him later to second guess himself. As it stands, Abraham could very well have some time later reflected and thought, hmmmm…..I wonder if that was just in my head? ….

    I really don’t have a response worth the effort just now, but it really does intrigue me and would love to get your thoughts.


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