St. Aelred & Mary, Mother of the Church

The Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, celebrated the day after Pentecost, is one of the newest feasts on the Church calendar, having been added by Pope Francis just last year in 2018. However, devotion to Mary as the Mother of the Church is nothing new. In fact, the key to understanding Catholic devotion to Mary is to get to know Mary by this special title.

The gospel reading for today’s memorial may at first seem strange. When we think of gospel passages dealing with Mary, we probably think of the early parts of Luke’s gospel, when we read about the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary (Lk 1:26-38), or Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth when she proclaims her Magnificat (Lk 1:39-56). Instead, the gospel reading the Church offers on the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, tells of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. 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. After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.” There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit. 

Now since it was preparation day, in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the sabbath, for the sabbath day of that week was a solemn one, the Jews asked Pilate that their legs be broken and they be taken down. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately Blood and water flowed out.

Jn 19:25-34

We may think that this passage was selected because of the account of Christ giving his mother to John, and by extension the rest of the Church. But there is more to it than that. If that were the only thing we were meant to take from this gospel on today’s feast, the reading would have ended there with verse 27. Instead it continues another seven verses, giving us the full account of Jesus’ death on the cross, and how the Roman soldier thrust a lance into his side before taking his body down.

This is significant. The blood and water that poured fourth from the side of Christ on the cross have traditionally been seen as symbolic of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life. Salvation is found by washing in the waters of Baptism and in the Blood poured out by the Lamb of God. It is from this spring of living water that the Church is born.

There is a parallel between the Church being born from the wounded side of Christ and the creation of Eve from the side of Adam in Genesis. Eve was created to be Adam’s bride — his helpmate. Christ is the New Adam and his bride is the Church. Just like Adam’s bride, Christ’s bride is created from his side as he slept on the cross. Christ’s Bride, the Church, is “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” (cf. Gen 2:23). And so the Church is not only the Bride of Christ — she is also the Body of Christ.

Christ’s body was born of the Virgin Mary. If we are part of his Body — which is what happens when we are baptized into the Church — then Mary is our mother, as well.

So it is only fitting that in his final moments, Christ the Son should point us toward his mother, the woman in whose womb his body was formed, and say, “Behold your mother.”

St. Aelred of Rievaulx

St. Aelred was a British abbot who lived during the 12th century. He was the steward of King David of Scotland before joining a Cistercian monestary. He is famous for writing many spiritual treatises, especially The Mirror of Charity and On Spiritual Friendship. In a sermon delivered on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Aelred says that everyone in the Church should honor Mary as their mother.

We owe her honor, for she is the mother of our Lord. He who fails to honor the mother clearly dishonors the son. Also, Scripture says: Honor your father and your mother.

What then, my brothers, shall we say? Is she not our mother? Yes, my brothers, she is indeed our mother, for through her we have been born, not for the world, but for God.

Once we lay in death, as you know and believe, in sin, in darkness, in misery. In death, because we had lost the Lord; in sin, because of our corruption; in darkness, for we were without the light of wisdom, and thus had perished utterly.

But then we were born, far better than through Eve, through Mary the blessed, because Christ was born of her. We have recovered new life in place of sin, immortality instead of mortality, light in place of darkness.

She is our mother — the mother of our life, the mother of our incarnation, the mother of our light… She then, as mother of Christ, is the mother of our wisdom and justice, of our holiness and redemption. She is more our mother than the mother of our flesh. Our birth from her is better, for from her is born our holiness, our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification, our redemption.

St. Aelred, Sermo 20, in Nativitate beate Mariae

St. Aelred rightly calls Mary the mother of those who have been reborn in Christ. To be reborn in Christ is really to be born again as Christ as we “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27) and become members of his Body so that we can say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Gal 2:20).

To be saved is to be one with Christ. Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. If we also wish to rise from the dead and ascend into heaven then we must be united with his Body, the Church. There is no other way. God has only one begotten Son. To be adopted children of the Father means to share in Christ’s Sonship. If we want to have God as our Father, and Christ as our Brother, that means we must have Mary as our Mother.

It is fitting therefore that on this day after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends as a mighty wind to breathe life into the Church, that same Church should celebrate the Mother who gave birth the Body of which we are blessed to be members.

O God, Father of mercies, whose Only Begotten Son, as he hung upon the Cross, chose the Blessed Virgin Mary, his Mother, to be our Mother also, grant, we pray, that with her loving help your Church may be more fruitful day by day and, exulting in the holiness of her children, may draw to her embrace all the families of the peoples. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Collect Prayer for the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church
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Why is Mary Blessed?

4th Sunday of Advent (C)

The Blessed Virgin Mary is the most beloved of all Catholic saints, regarded as higher than the angels, and Queen of heaven and earth. Why do we Catholics honor Mary so much? Are we guilty, as some Protestants claim, of giving her too much devotion and affection? Why do we consider her to be so blessed?

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The Assumption of Mary

On August 15 each year, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is one of only a few days of the year considered to be a holy day of obligation — meaning we are to treat it like a Sunday and celebrate by worshiping at Mass if at all possible. If you pray the Rosary, you may know the Assumption as the fourth Glorious mystery. But how much do you know about the Assumption, really?

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What the Feast of the Mother Teaches About the Son

The first of January is not just New Years Day for Catholics. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. It happens to fall on New Years not because the Catholic Church wanted to ring in the new year with Marian devotion, but because January 1 is the eighth day after Christmas. The Octave of Christmas, which began with the celebration of Jesus’ birth, ends with a celebration devoted to the woman who birthed Him. It seems fitting.

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Honoring Mary; Celebrating Christ

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

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On the octave of Christmas, eight days after the birth of Christ, the day when Mary and Joseph, following the Judaic law, would have presented their newborn Son to be circumcised, the Church celebrates a great feast of Mary, the Mother of God.
Do Catholics make too much of Mary? I heard a Presbyterian minister on the radio once complain of this. (I used to like to listen to broadcasts of his sermons because of his Scottish accent). He said the problem with Catholicism is that we have a “very small Jesus” and a “very big Mary.” Is this true?
The mistake he made, of course, is in thinking our love to be a quantifiable thing; something that we have to take away from one pile in order to put in another. Of course any parent of multiple children can tell you this is false. You don’t love one child any less because you also love another. Likewise we don’t love Christ less because we also love Mary, Joseph, or any of the saints. In fact, we love these people — as we love one another — primarily because Christ loved them first. This is what it means to love God and love your neighbor. To love God means loving what God loves. In fact, the love we give to Mary and the saints pales in comparison to the love Christ pours out upon them. If you ever fear that you are loving Mary too much, just remember that you will never love her as much as Jesus does. 
All that being said, it is easy to see how those on the outside may get the impression that Catholics “go overboard” in their devotion to Mary. We do love our Mother and are not afraid to show it! But the key thing to understand is that our devotion to Mary is all because of Christ. We don’t honor Mary for her own light, but because she reflects perfectly the light of her Son. Mary’s consistent role in our faith is to point at her Son and say, as she did at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).
The feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a perfect example of this. From the very earliest days of the Church, Greek-speaking Christians in the East had the habit of referring to Mary as the Theotokos, which means “Mother of God,” or literally, “God-bearer.”
Some thought this title attributed too much to Mary. How could Mary, a mortal woman, born in time, be the mother of the eternal God? How can a creature be mother of her Creator? This is impossible, they would argue. We can call Mary the Mother of Jesus or the Mother of Christ, but not the Mother of God. But devotion to Mary the Theotokos was strong and people were not willing to reject this ancient and revered title of our Lady.
Debate ensued, but the point of the debate was not about Mary, but about her Son. It all revolved around the question, “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is like no one else. His birth changed the world forever. He was born in a humble manger, yet that birth was heralded by angels. He was raised by a carpenter, yet foreign sages worshiped Him as a king. He is a man who could suffer and die. Yet He is also divine and will live and reign forever. Jesus Christ is like no one else and is at the very heart of our religion. How are we to understand this Jesus?
Some thought He was a man much blessed by God. Others thought He was God who took on the appearance of a man for our sake. Still others thought He must be half-man and half-God. All these theories about Jesus are flawed. All of them fall short of the full truth.
The truth about Jesus, as taught by the Church, is that He “is inseparably true God and true man. He is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and Lord, became a man and our brother” (CCC 469). The theological term for this is hypostatic union, from the Greek word hypostasis, meaning “person.” We believe and profess that Jesus possess both a full human nature and a full divine nature, united perfectly in one Divine Person.
What does this have to do with Mary? Simply put, Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore Mary is the mother of God. When we call Mary the Theotokos, the Mother of God, we profess our belief in the divinity of Christ. We affirm that the Person Mary bore in her womb is a Divine Person.
To suggest that Mary is not the mother of God implies that Jesus is something less than God. In order to defend and uphold the Catholic faith in Christ’s divinity, the Church declared at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, “If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the Theotokos (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema.”
For the past week we have been in the “octave of Christmas.” An octave is a celebration so great that it cannot fit into a single day, and so the Church celebrates that “day” for eight full days, as if it were one great feast. So the celebration of Christmas and the feast of Mary, Mother of God, are intimately linked. We began the octave of Christmas with the celebration of Jesus being born of Mary. We conclude it by honoring Mary and proclaiming that her Son is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Let us never be afraid to honor the mother of our God, as Jesus honors her. And let us pray always for a heart to love Christ as Mary loved her Son.
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