The previous two weeks have been rather intense in “introspection,” in both our looking deep into our own hearts, as well as in our trying to “see within” the mystery of reality and the Gospel to its innermost heart. Hopefully this has allowed us to get more deeply in touch with the awesome Love of God which upholds us in our own inner heart and also cradles the whole universe gently and ceaselessly within itself.
We have seen how the Virgin Mary, in a unique way, reveals the face of this Love to us—just as the mother is the first to reveal love to her newborn child. In this, Mary plays a beautiful and indispensable role in our own lives, namely, that of revealing the face of God’s Tenderness through her own maternal tenderness. Since God is the origin of both masculinity and femininity, it was fitting that, in addition to becoming incarnate as a man in Christ, he also fashioned an individual woman who, in a special way, would reflect the “maternal” characteristics of his own divine Heart. We think, for example, of the beautiful words of Isaiah:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts; that you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory.” For thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:10-13)
In these verses, God reveals that he is the one who comforts us as a tender mother, nursing us through the abundant nourishment of love that he gives us through “Jerusalem.” But what, or who, is Jerusalem? Jerusalem here is a symbol, first of all, of the Church. As we have said, she is “Mother Church,” in whom we are reborn as children of God and through whose life of prayer, sacraments, communion, and love we are nourished and fostered as children growing up to eternal life. In this respect the Church is indeed a “womb” for us within this world. She is the space in which we are sheltered and nourished throughout the dangers and insecurities of this life, so that, like infants in a mother’s womb, we may be ready to go through the final passage: the birth into the endless joy and security of heaven, which is nothing but God’s everlasting embrace. This embrace is the embrace of father, mother, and spouse all in one—the fullness of the endless bliss of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But Jerusalem also refers, in a particular way, to the Virgin Mary. We saw this in our last reflection when we spoke about “corporate personality” and how Mary sums up in herself all the promises made to her people, realizing individually in her own life the vocation of Israel. In her the chosen people are completely open to welcome “the dawn from on high that shines upon us” through the tender compassion of God (Luke 1:78). Therefore, in her the Old Covenant is consummated in the New Covenant, and Israel passes over into the Church—at last united to God in the fullness of intimacy and in a bond of covenant love that can never be severed.
We have been inserted into this new and eternal covenant through our Baptism, and we partake of its consummation every time we approach the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We find ourselves, in other words, cradled within the bonds of intimacy that God has wrought through his own Love—uniting us to himself and to all of our brothers and sisters within the bosom of his one Church.
Just as we did not enter this world alone, nor grow in human maturity alone—but rather in and through a loving community—the same is true in the supernatural sphere. No one becomes a Christian alone. Rather, when our hearts are opened to receive the gift of faith, we always received this gift mediated through the community of all those who belong to God—through the Body of Christ—and find ourselves welcomed into the enfolding arms of this Body. All grace that flows forth from the Heart of Christ passes through the Church which Jesus himself established, and, in drawing us back to his welcoming Heart, also draws us into the intimacy of the Church’s own life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this as follows:
“Believing” is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports, and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (St. Cyprian). (par 181)
Pope Benedict XVI said in one of his last general audiences:
This faith [that I profess in Baptism] is not the result of my own solitary reflection, it is not the product of my thought; it is the fruit of a relationship, a dialogue, in which there is a listener, a receiver, and a respondent; it is communication with Jesus that draws me out of the “I” enclosed in myself to open me to the love of God, the Father. It is like a rebirth in which I am united not only to Jesus, but also to all those who have walked and are walking on the same path; and this new birth that begins with Baptism continues for the rest of my life. I cannot build my personal faith in a private dialogue with Jesus, because faith is given to me by God through a community of believers that is the Church and projects me into the multitude of believers, into a kind of communion that is not only sociological but rooted in the eternal love of God, who is in himself the communion of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is Trinitarian Love. Our faith is truly personal only if it is also communal: it can be my faith only if it dwells and moves within the “we” of the Church, only if it is our faith, the common faith of the one Church. (October 31, 2012)
Yes, the Church is truly both a “womb” for us and our true “home” within this world. Indeed it is she who carries us over the boundary of death into eternity, since she exists not only in this world, but in heaven. Actually, the fullness of her reality, while made present within this world, is seen in radiant fullness only in heaven, where she is one with God “as a Bride prepared for her Husband” (Revelation 21:2).
The Church is therefore not a mere institution, or even a “society” in the normal political or sociological sense, as Pope Benedict so beautifully said. Rather, she is a communion: the reality of all those who have been made to share in the intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And Mary stands not only as the first member of this family, but in a way as the one who shelters all others within the hearth of her own maternal love. This is because, through her total acceptance of God’s love and her utter surrender to him, she allows her heart to be expanded beyond limits to universal proportions. Now she is truly able, in her unique individual personality, to enfold all of humanity within her own loving heart. When we experience the beautiful sense of “home” within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, therefore, we are truly experiencing the embrace of Mary, the unique and universal Mother.
– Do I recognize that I have not become a Christian alone, but have received this gift mediated through the Church, and as an experience of being “inserted” into the community of all those who believe? What does this mean for me practically?
– In my experience of the Church’s motherhood, can I discern the embrace of Mary’s motherhood? Indeed, can I discern the tender “motherhood” of almighty God?