Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
she delivered her children.
Isaiah 66, 8
The child’s mother said,
“As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives,
I will not leave you.”
So he arose and followed her.
2 Kings 4, 3-4
When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved,
he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple:
Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own.
John 19, 26-27 (DRB)
All true disciples of Christ, those who faithfully keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus in their lives, take their Blessed Mother Mary to their own, or accept her as their own mother in the depths of their hearts, as she leads the way in the order of grace, taking them by the hand to their heavenly home. Mary must have assured John that she would never leave his side while his soul lived. She likely took him by the hand and led the way to his home never to separate herself from him during his apostolic ministry until her dormition. The Gospel of John bears testimony to the traditional belief of the infant Church that our Lord entrusted his mother to his faithful bride, which is the Church.
In the Roman catacomb of St. Agnes, there is an extant fresco depicting Mary between the apostles Peter and Paul with her arms outstretched towards them. The image of these two chief apostles situated together has always symbolized the Church from earliest time. Thus, it is evident that the early Christians invoked Mary as Mother of the Church by the third century. The early tradition of Mary being the spiritual mother of all her Son’s faithful disciples was just as vibrant in the nascent church as it has been until now in the same Catholic Church.
Jesus redefines Mary’s motherhood from the Cross. He does not renounce his own filial bond with her but adds a new dimension to her maternal role in the economy of salvation. This should explain why he has chosen not to place his mother in the care of the Disciple until this pivotal moment in salvation history. Mary’s motherhood must be redefined at the Cross because it draws its raison d’etre from her intimate association with her divine Son in his work of redemption (Lk. 2:34-35). By her suffering, in union with the suffering of her Son, our Blessed Mother helps give new life in grace to all fallen Eve’s offspring like a woman in labor.
It appears no names are mentioned, save the appellations “Woman” and “Disciple” to underscore how it is that Mary is a mother to John and him her son. The beloved Disciple represents all of Christ’s disciples who belong to his Church, and Mary is their spiritual mother in the order of grace. Not unlike Mother Zion, she must now “enlarge [her] tent” and “strengthen [her] stakes” because of the sudden influx of returnees from exile or slavery to sin (Isa. 54:2-3). Jesus has made his blessed mother Mary the mother of all people, who live their lives in the state of grace, by saying to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the Disciple, “Behold your mother.” Jesus means much more than that his beloved disciple should look after his mother in his home after he has gone to the Father. He certainly isn’t making a practical request in literary fashion, not that it has any significant bearing from a soteriological perspective.
We mustn’t overlook the symbolic importance of the expression “the disciple” used by the Evangelist when referring to himself. He intends to identify himself with all true followers of our Lord. Not unlike Jacob who represents Israel, the Disciple is a “corporate personality.” Mary is the spiritual mother of all Christ’s disciples. She has adopted us no less than the Father has by our partaking of the divine life in faith (Eph. 1:5; 2 Pet.1:3-4). In his divinity, our Lord is the Son of the Father, and in his sacred humanity, he is the Son of Mary his mother. We cannot be adopted sons and daughters of the Father while excluding our spiritual mother Mary who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, since all the faithful are true brothers and sisters of Christ (Lk. 1:35; Rom. 8:29).
Through Mary’s womb, the baptized are “a new creation in Christ; the old is gone, and the new is here” (2 Cor. 5:17). They are no longer the seed of fallen Adam, but of the promised “Woman” and advocate of Eve who, in her original innocence, helped forfeit the life of grace for her offspring (Gen. 3:13, 15). That this was how the early Church understood the Gospel narrative is evident in the teaching of St. Augustine: “Therefore, this woman alone, not only in spirit, but also in body, is both Mother and Virgin. She is Mother in the Spirit, but not of our Head, the Saviour himself, for it is she who is spiritually born from him, since all who believe in him, among whom she too is to be counted, are rightly called children of the Bridegroom. Rather, she is clearly the Mother of his members … because she cooperated by her charity, so that faithful Christian members might be born in the Church” (De sancta virginitate 6).
In different words, the Bishop of Hippo means what St. Irenaeus professes in the late 2nd century: “The Word will become flesh, and the Son of God the son of man—the Pure One opening purely that pure womb, which generates men unto God. (Against Heresies, 4, 33, 12). The designation of Mary being the New Eve or spiritual “mother of all the living”, and thereby the Mother of the Church, was part of a Marian tradition for centuries leading up to the time of Augustine. St. Epiphanius wrote in the 4th century in his defense of the Catholic and Apostolic faith: “True it is . . . the whole race of man upon earth was born of Eve; but it is from Mary that Life was truly born to the world so that by giving birth to the Living One, Mary might also become the Mother of all the living” (Against Eighty Heresies, 78, 9). The new birth of the Christian faithful receives its origin from the hypostatic order of Christ’s incarnation which could not have occurred without the Virgin Mary’s moral participation in the common activity of the Holy Trinity.
In this sense, all the faithful disciples and brethren of our Lord proceed from the same sanctified womb he did as reborn offspring of Eve. Mary stands with all those who are born again at the baptismal font. Father Hugo Rahner (Our Lady and the Church: Zaccheus Press) tells us that the sacrament of Baptism is “forever a continuation of the birth of God made man, born of the Virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit.” He adds that “the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is ever born again in the sacrament of Baptism” (1 Cor. 12:13). The faithful are thus one mystical body in Christ who is the Head of this body. They have been born children of God and of the Virgin Mary by being conceived mystically in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit together with God incarnate who was conceived physically by supernatural means. The mystery of Mary in the economy of salvation intertwines with the mystery of the Church, and so, “the sacrament of Baptism has a Marian character.”
In the prayer for the Blessing of the Font at the Easter Vigil, the faithful acknowledge the Church’s power of rebirth through the Holy Spirit and her custodial endowment with grace. It is the Holy Spirit, through His hidden presence, that bestows sanctifying power to the water of baptism. A holy child is conceived in the womb of the baptismal font and reborn in the Spirit just as Christ is conceived in the womb of Mary and made the God-man by the power of the Holy Spirit. The divine womb of the baptismal font is as immaculate as the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. New heavenly offspring are conceived in holiness and reborn new creatures in the likeness of their Lord and brother Jesus. The Church is called Mother because, not unlike Mary, she nourishes her offspring with grace and gives them a new life, so that they all grow as one family in God in one spiritual childhood.
Mary is Mother of the Church which is comprised of all members of her divine Son’s mystical body, for she is the prototype of the Church. The Church receives her character from the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a corporate entity, the Church finds her fulfillment in the person of Mary. The Church is first realized in Mary when she declares: “Be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38). For mankind to be conceived in the womb of the Church, Christ must first be conceived in the womb of his mother. All catechumens must first receive Jesus in their hearts before they can be conceived in the womb of the baptismal water, but only if Mary physically conceives Jesus after she has first conceived him in her heart. In this sense, then, Mary is Mother of the Church through the Incarnation. By having conceived and given birth to Jesus, who is both Head and Body, our Blessed Lady has conceived and given birth to its members in a spiritual sense – her Son’s brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:29).
ἔλαβεν ὁ μαθητὴς αὐτὴν εἰς τὰ ἴδια.
Returning to the Gospel of John, in which we read ‘the Disciple took her to his own’, the Greek word for “took” is lambanō (λαμβάνω). This term connotes “take in the hand,” “take hold of, grasp.” It also encompasses the meaning to take away, take up, receive, or remove, without the use of force. Moreover, the term has mental or spiritual aspects when it is translated “make one’s own,” “apprehend,” or “comprehend” as Jerome has translated it in the Latin Vulgate. Roman Catholic Biblical scholar John McHugh builds upon the spiritual connotation of the word. He argues that the Disciple accepts Mary as his very own mother, and as part of the “spiritual legacy bequeathed to him by his Lord.” The use of the verb lambanō indicates something important that moves beyond the death scene being played out on Golgotha but is connected to it. Thus, the verb indicates something which has soteriological significance.
In other words, this spiritual or cognitive connotation implies that there is a tacit understanding that occurs between Jesus, Mary, and the Disciple which must do with something more significant than the fact Jesus is about to die as anyone else might by being crucified and consequently must leave his widowed mother behind who is in dire need of being looked after. What is significant isn’t merely the temporal death of Jesus and any temporal circumstances that might ensue because of it, but rather what shall entail eschatologically from it as one of many consummations and higher expressions of his death, having soteriological benefits for human souls with respect to our Lord’s mother in the hypostatic order of Christ’s incarnation.
The Mother and the beloved Disciple thus understand that this event marks a beginning – the start of something new that shall continue in this life and eternally in the Kingdom of Heaven. The original Greek text literally reads “to the own” (εἰς τὰ ἴδια), though modern Protestant and Catholic Bible English translations have “to his own home.” This Greek phrase means much more than the Disciple taking Mary to his home to look after her. Rather, it means the Disciple took her into his heart as a loving son of hers in their newly established spiritual filial bond. He received her in the deepest core of his being as her spiritual offspring. Certainly, Mary did not have to become an adopted mother for John to look after her as a caregiver. Jesus wasn’t speaking figuratively of her. She became the Disciple’s very own mother in the family of God in a spiritual and mystical way, as much as Mary was morally the spouse of the Holy Spirit, having been overshadowed by Him and begot Jesus together.
John is somewhat more mystical and symbolic in his literary style than are the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. His narratives contain deeper meanings and lend more theological insight into the Divine mysteries than what appears at first glance in the written word of God, and so they should often be read in a spiritual sense (1 Cor. 2:4-5). What the Evangelist presents to his readers in the Crucifixion scene is a reciprocal re-enactment of what has transpired in the Garden of Eden. We have the two principal protagonists: Jesus (the new Adam) and his mother Mary (the new Eve).
In the background, the Disciple represents all people who have cast off the old self and put on the new. Jesus and his mother are in the act of finally crushing the head of the serpent by their obedience to the will of God and undoing what it has worked since the beginning (Gen. 3:13-15). Unlike Adam and Eve, neither of them succumbs to the temptation of the serpent. Jesus does not come down from the cross and save himself in opposition to the will of his heavenly Father (Mt. 27:40). Mary is valiantly standing at the foot of the Cross enduring terrible sorrow at the cost of her joy in being the mother of our Lord, which fulfills the portentous words of Simeon that point to her crucial trial of faith on which rests her motherhood of mankind (Lk. 2:35).
On Golgotha, Mary perseveres in that same faith she possessed at the Annunciation, a total surrender to God out of pure love and in humility which helped make the Incarnation happen. She joyfully became the mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the shadow of the Cross; she became our mother and merited her dual maternity by standing beneath the Cross, at this crucial point sorrowfully giving birth to us like a woman in labor (Rev. 12:2).
The imagery of the Gospel narrative dismisses any temporal and morally practical explanation of Jesus’ words to his mother and the Disciple. What Jesus has in mind when he addresses his mother and the Disciple is something of great soteriological and eschatological importance. John the Evangelist has the Mother figuratively stand at the foot of the Cross – the Tree of victory over the serpent – as the moral channel of her divine Son’s grace which Adam forfeited by listening to Eve, who thus morally contributed to the fall of ‘mankind’, the loss of the original state of holiness and justice; whereas Mary morally contributes to mankind’s spiritual regeneration and justification by her perfect obedience to the will of God and willingness to suffer in union with her Son for man’s transgressions against Him.
His Gospel message is that the Son (the new Adam) wills to dispense his saving grace first and foremost through the mediation of his mother and helpmate (Gen. 2:18). Our Lord does not wish to act alone in his work of redemption but rather desires that his mother is with him by her moral cooperation. And so, in this capacity, Mary has become the mother of all his disciples in the Spirit and, of course, redeemed humanity. It is she who has nourished the faithful with the blessings they have received through God’s grace by a mother’s dying to self in sorrow because of her love for her Son on the Cross, the only means of salvation. Mary is our spiritual mother because she helped restore fallen mankind to the life of grace with God through suffering, which Eve helped lose for her biological offspring in her selfish pursuit of personal gain and disobedience.
Hence, by using the epithet ‘Woman,’ Jesus is alluding to his mother Mary as being the new Eve – the “spiritual mother of all the living” as opposed to Eve who is the primordial mother of all who are conceived deprived of sanctifying or justifying grace and thus born spiritually dead. (Gen. 3:20). It is before the Fall that Adam refers to his wife as the ‘woman’ (Gen.2:23). So, what Jesus means by transferring this title to his mother is that she is to be a mother to the Disciple as Eve was intended to be before she fell from grace and in the preternatural state of innocence.
If Adam and Eve had not sinned against God, they would have passed on spiritual life to their descendants along with immortal physiological life. Since God has decreed that human life should emerge from the conjugal union between a man and a woman, but our primordial parents had forfeited the spiritual gifts He bestowed upon them, God has ordained from all eternity, in view of the Fall, that spiritual life should be restored through the intimate union between a man (the new Adam) and a woman (the new Eve).
On Golgotha stands the Tree of Life in the form of the Cross as opposed to the tree in the middle of the garden which bears the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:15-17). On the Cross hangs the fruit of Mary’s womb (Lk. 1:42) who radically opposes all things that are forbidden by God and offensive to Him (Gen. 3:16-20). Eve manages to entice her husband to partake of the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Mary, on the other hand, co-operates with her Son and offers mankind the fruit of her womb, in whom the Father is well pleased (Mt. 3:17). By partaking of this fruit and being nourished and fortified by its grace, mankind is free of the snares of worldly wisdom and vain pleasures of life that lead to the death of the soul and the loss of true happiness in life with God.
On God’s initiative, the tree of life is no longer guarded off-limits by the cherubim with the flaming sword (Gen. 3:24). From now on, the way to the tree of life is the Church, the custodian of all saving grace which has been merited for everyone by the Son of Mary, whose gates are open to all who desire to gain peace and reconciliation with God through the blood of the Cross (Isa. 35:8; 62:10-12; Acts 2:22; Col.1:20; Rev. 22:17). All baptized Christians have cause to leap for joy for the graces they have received from the Son through the Mother’s mediation.
Jesus has ransomed us from death through the blood of the Cross, having reconciled the world to God his heavenly Father (Col. 1:20; 2 Cor. 5:18-19). Yet, with his mother having had a vital share in his victory over the serpent on Golgotha, the Divine validation of her motherhood of all humanity is completed at the foot of the Cross where her soul is pierced because of sinful humanity. The graces Christ has merited for mankind, therefore, are divinely ordained to be dispensed first and foremost through his most Blessed Mother Mary – Our Lady of Sorrows, whose interior suffering made finite temporal satisfaction to God for the sins of the world in union with her divine Son’s infinite temporal and thereby eternal satisfaction.
It is our Blessed Mother who “acts as mediatrix between the loftiness of God and the lowliness of the flesh” as mankind’s maternal advocate in vindication of fallen Eve (cf. St. Andrew of Crete, (Homily 1, on Mary’s Nativity); she who is the free promised woman “full of grace” and whose “soul magnifies the glory of the Lord” (Lk. 1:28, 46). In the words of Martin Luther, who took the Church to his own: “She is my love, the noble Maid, forget her can I never, Whatever honor men have paid, My heart she has forever!” (Sie ist mir lieb). John the Evangelist expresses this same heartfelt devotion and love in honor of Mary, the handmaid of the Lord and prototype of the Church, which the infant Church possessed and paid to her, the spiritual mother of all Christ’s disciples.
The mystery of Mary as the prototype of the Church and Mediatrix of Grace is like all divine mysteries: shrouded in many obscurities. But it is only in darkness that the sanctifying light of faith may take effect and enlighten the minds and hearts of the faithful over time. For centuries, the Church has been gradually putting the Marian mosaic work together tile by tile. God’s great masterpiece is a mosaic work which can be seen in its fullness only by observing one tile at a time, for “who can know the mind of God or be His counselor?” (Rom. 11:34). The Church can understand only what God chooses to reveal to her through the Holy Spirit in the course of time (Jn. 16:12-13). There can be no faith – “the evidence for things unseen and hoped for” – if there is gnosis (Heb. 11:1). Thus, “for now [she] sees in a mirror dimly, and then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
The Church must have asked herself countless times with profound reverence like Elizabeth had asked her kinswoman while pondering on the divine mystery of Mary in the economy of salvation: “Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43). What the Church asks of the Lord, she does receive and what she seeks to understand, she does find through the sanctifying light of faith by the working of the Holy Spirit who is with her “forever” (Mt. 7:7; Jn. 14:16). The Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the “unblemished and spotless” bride of Christ in the purity of the womb of her faith and conception of God’s word (Eph. 2:7). She reflects the Virgin Mary’s pure and unblemished womb and her conception of the Divine Word made man because of the purity of her faith and charity as the chaste bride of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:35).
Let’s conclude with the words of St. Ambrose: “The Lord appeared in our flesh and in Himself fulfilled the spotless marriage of Godhead and humanity, and since then the eternal virginity of the life of heaven has found its place among men. Christ’s mother is a virgin, and likewise is His bride, the Church” (De Virginibus), and the words of his pupil, St. Augustine: “He has made His Church like to His mother, He has given her to us as a mother, He has kept her for Himself as a virgin. The holy Catholic Church, like Mary, is a virgin ever spotless and a mother ever fruitful” (Sermo 195, 2).
Shall not Zion say:
This man and that man is born in her,
and the Highest himself hath founded her?
Psalm 87, 5
Early Sacred Tradition
“It would be wrong to proclaim the Incarnation of the Son of God from the holy Virgin,
without admitting also His Incarnation in the Church. Every one of us must therefore
recognize His coming in the flesh, by the pure Virgin, but at the same time recognize
His coming in the spirit in each one of us.”
St. Methodius of Philippi
De sanguisusa 8, 2
(ante A.D. 311)
“Being perfect at the side of the Father and incarnate among us,
not in appearance but in truth, he [the Son] reshaped man to perfection
in himself from Mary the Mother of God through the Holy Spirit.”
St. Epiphanius of Salamis
The Man Well-Anchored 75
“The Church is a virgin. Perhaps you will say: If she is a virgin, how can she beget children?
Or, if she does not bear children, how can we claim to be born from her womb? My answer is:
She is both virgin and mother; she is like Mary who gave birth to the Lord. Was not Mary a virgin
when she gave birth, and did she not ever remain a virgin? But the Church also gives birth and yet
remains a virgin… she gives birth to Christ Himself, for all who receive baptism are His members.
Does not the Apostle say: ‘You are the body of Christ, member for member’? If then she gives birth
to Christ’s members, she is in every way like Mary.”
St. Augustine, Tract 1, 8
(ante A.D. 430)