By Fr. Creighton McElveen
The idea that the Christian life takes on a Marian shape may, for some, sound strange. Many writers, theologians, and cultural commentators have identified a trend in modern Christianity which they call the ‘feminisation’ of the Church. They have looked at the decline in Church attendance, disproportionally centred on the sharp decrease in male attendance evident in recent years, as an indicator that the Church is too feminised. However, it’s not really a question of masculinity or femininity; rather, it’s a question of the inherent shape of the Church. It’s true that at its most basic level the Church is Cruciform (it is Christ shaped). Insofar as that is true, the Christian life is, by extension, inherently Marian as well. By this I mean that the principal example or model of the Christian life is Our Blessed Mother. Moreover, we must affirm the inherent masculinity of Christ and the femininity of His Church. After all, the Church is referred to in feminine terms throughout Church History as Holy Mother Church. The question then becomes: what does the Marian character of the Church look like, what are its features, and why is its Marian character so important today?
There are two facets to Marian identity: one is macrocosmic (the Church) and the other is microcosmic (the individual Christian life). On one hand, we speak of the Marian shape of the Church as a whole, and on the other hand, we speak of the Marian character of the Christian life—both of which inform our understanding of salvation, ontology (being), teleology (purpose), and eschatology. As Our Lady recapitulates the title of Mother of the Living from Eve in the supernatural order, so the Church looks to Our Lady as the model disciple, the model mother, and the model Christian. The Church is receptive, faithful, and geared towards bringing individuals into new life, new birth, and an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Individually, the particularities of Our Lady’s life become the paradigm of discipleship, they show the individual Christian what a life ‘full of grace’ actually looks like.
The Marian form of the Christian life is laid out for us in Scripture. In the first chapter of the Gospel of St Luke we are given the Marian paradigm: Our Lady is visited by St Gabriel and is told that she will conceive, as a virgin, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Our Lady’s response is the greatest affirmation of faith ever recorded, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Our Lady gives her fiat- she says ‘yes’ to God. This is the first piece of the Marian paradigm. Our Lady is the typological fulfilment of all the miraculous birth narratives recorded in Scripture. She also identifies herself as “the handmaid of the Lord.” She is the servant of God, the vessel through which salvation enters into the world. The paradigm continues in her constant fidelity to her Son. She and St. John faithfully sit at the foot of the crucified Christ. She is present with the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost. She typifies, in her life of purity, chastity, obedience, and faithfulness, the life of the Church and the life of the Christian. Her mode of life becomes that of all Christians. Her life is completely devoted to Christ without question or hesitation. We might be so bold as to say ‘What Would Mary Do.’
Building from this Scriptural account we have three relational points which emphasise the Marian modes of receptivity, fidelity, and fruitful union. The first is the most foundational. Our being is itself both receptive and relational. The second builds upon the first. The sacraments of the Church are the means through which God acts (see initiative) to bring humanity into its fulfillment. Lastly, the third avenue looks to Our Lady’s ‘yes’ as the supreme example of cooperation and the fundamental attitude of Christian discipleship.
Contingency, Being, and the Givenness of God
Humanity did not bring itself into existence; rather, through the free, dynamic, and creative outpouring of Love, the Blessed Trinity brought forth humankind as the crown of creation made in God’s own image (Gen. 1:26-31). The Divine initiative is required for mankind to exist; therefore, mankind is contingent upon the Creator for life. Thus, man’s being is a result of God’s love. Humanity receives being, receives the imago dei, and receives the gifts of God for the purpose of relationship. There can be no separation between God’s infinite love for humanity and humanity’s call to be intimate with God. In terms of masculinity and femininity, God is the initiator (traditionally a masculine quality) and humanity is the recipient (traditionally a feminine quality). Henri de Lubac argues in two of his most notable works, Surnaturel and The Mystery of the Supernatural, for what has been called the “twofold gift thesis.” Essentially, de Lubac argues that mankind has been given two essential gifts: (1) the gift of his being (creation) and (2) the gift of “supernatural finality” or heavenly beatitude. He makes the point that in the gift of being, mankind is naturally desirous of God (though not in a salvific sense) and is propelled to seek out the Good. This impulse, through the gift of grace, leads mankind to his intended supernatural fulfilment. Thus, for de Lubac, creation itself displays the fundamental initiative of God in directing mankind to heavenly glory. Mankind, while expected to cooperate with grace, is constantly dependent upon God’s self-revelation. A key aspect to this relationship is God’s givenness and man’s receptivity. God gives and humanity receives. Thus, Our Lady’s fiat typifies this type of receptivity- her reception of God’s initiative is realised in her conception of the Word.
The sacramental life of the Church further displays the initiative of God and the receptivity of human personhood. The sacraments are the divinely appointed means of grace, whereby God vivifies, actualises, and sanctifies the Church (both corporately and individually). The sacraments derive all of their power, authority, and efficacy from God. They are not magic, they are not the means whereby the Church appeases God, nor are they simple signs of God’s salvific activity. Rather, the sacraments actually convey what they promise. Therefore, the Christian life is characterised by the reception of the means of grace for the salvation of the world. The sacramental system is rooted, essentially, in the work of God for mankind. The Church receives and participates in the sacraments in the same way that Our Lady received the message of an angel: in fidelity. The Church is always receiving the gifts of God for the purpose of deification (being given by grace what is Christ’s by nature). Furthermore, if we look to the Eucharist, we see the nuptial character of the Church. The Mass is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the meal in which the Church is both betrothed to her spouse and the festival celebrating that new marital reality. The Church receives the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, in the Eucharist. This reception is the pinnacle of intimacy this side of heaven. In a very real sense, Our Lady is the first of many who are betrothed to Christ. She receives the gifts of her Son by anticipation and lives the life we are all called to live as the beloved.
The Marian ‘Yes’ as a Model for Discipleship
Creation and sacrament go hand in hand. The gift of being means that mankind is both reliant on God for his existence and is created in such a way as to desire God. This desire is perfected and fulfilled in Christ; thus, as we were created by God and for God, we are nourished in that relationship through the sacraments. The sacraments sanctify us, heal us, and prepare us to live as Christians in the world. The beauty of the sacramental system is that, from an objective standpoint, God is affirmed as the giver/initiator, and mankind is affirmed as the recipient. Yet, in the life of Our Lady we are shown the value of cooperation. Our Lady is given the opportunity to cooperate with the Incarnation, and she says an emphatic ‘yes.’ Therefore, the Christian life is, in one sense, the pursuit of this Marian receptivity. We are constantly presented with God’s gifts, both in our own being, and in God’s gift of sacramental grace; yet, we are also constantly warring against ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ God presents us with an opportunity to cooperate with His grace. We are constantly being asked to say ‘yes.’
Moreover, through cooperation and our willingness to be ‘handmaids’ of the Lord, we become fruitful. Our Lady’s fecundity, in bringing forth Christ, re-makes Eve’s disobedience and spiritual sterility. Thus, when the Christian says ‘yes’ to God and cooperates in the spiritual life, he or she becomes capable of bearing much fruit. Receptivity does not negate the responsibility to bring grace into the world through our actions and lives; rather, it’s the very thing that makes it possible. The soon-to-be disciples in Luke 5 are given the same opportunity as Our Lady-- they are invited by Our Lord to follow Him and become fishers of men. They hear Christ (the Word) and are invited to conceive the Word in their souls-- a conception which will, in time, show the full weight of fruitfulness. Every Christian which comes after the disciples is a spiritual descendent-- this is the definition of Apostolic fecundity. Lastly, we see in the inherent call to evangelism a call to carry (think pregnancy) the Word to every nation and people, a call to “be fruitful and multiply” in the supernatural life. If that sort of fruitfulness doesn’t speak of Our Lady, I don’t know what does.
It may be difficult to imagine the Church as Marian, especially in a world which sets masculinity and femininity aside or places an inordinate emphasis on ‘masculine Christianity’ or ‘feminist Christianity.’ Yet, that is exactly the picture we get in Scripture and Tradition. We are confronted with the fact that God calls us to be receptive, to bear fruit, and to let Him take the initiative. What about the idea of the Church as masculine, you may ask? What about the strength of the Church, the bravery of the martyrs, the power of the monastic tradition of prayer, the call to be disciplined, and the fight against heresy, sin, and the devil? My answer is still the same: these are all aspects of the Marian character of the Church. Our Lady was unwavering in her spiritual strength (see the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2, and her strength during the Passion and Crucifixion), brave in her commitment to God (in the face of ridicule, socio-cultural isolation, persecution, etc.), disciplined in her life of purity and chastity, and fervent in her defence of her Son. Our Lady’s life was centred on Christ: it was pure, chaste, holy, brave, strong, receptive, obedient, and faithful. Perhaps, in what sounds like a paradox, we could renew the Church if we actually lived out the Marian character of the Church. Maybe, just maybe, Our Lady’s life of heroic sanctity, receptivity, and fidelity speaks to humanity at a universal level. Maybe we should be the Bride and await the coming of the Groom. Maybe we should simply say, ‘yes.’
Fr. Creighton McElveen is Curate at St. Barnabas in Dunwoody, GA.