I've a few more thoughts on the iconic meaning of women in relationship to the Church, and in particular how Mary figures into this. And, by ‘the Church,’ I mean primarily the people of God, the collection of us who participate in the Divine Covenant. I do not use the term church in its common sense of just the clerical members in their hierarchical capacity.
We, the Church, are the recipients of God’s grace, His Life shared with us. Using procreation as an image, God’s Life is shared through His seed, which we call grace. Using the male-seed / female-reception analogy, the Church is best symbolized by the female gender. This, I believe, is common in Scripture. The prophets make use of such symbols by portraying Israel (the OT church) as either a faithful wife, or as a harlot – that is, a wife who prostitutes herself to other men (other gods). The Fathers of the Church saw Rahab the Harlot (Jos 2 & 6:22-25) as a type of the Church, in that her family was saved through her, the sign of her salvation being a scarlet cord, a type of the blood of Christ. It is worth noting that she was a Gentile who, according to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in Mt 1:5, married into the royal lineage of Israel – a Gentile enters into the Covenant, which later becomes the novelty of the Christian Church. Ruth was also a type of the Church, in that she, a Gentile, married into the royal lineage of the chosen people. She entered her betrothal in a wheat field during the harvest, an image of the Eucharist. Queen Bathsheba was also a type; like Ruth, she was a Gentile who married into the royal lineage as favorite wife of King David and mother of King Solomon. David, a type of Christ, saw her bathing and found her beautiful, as the waters of Baptism make us beautiful to the Lord. It is interesting that these three women are all mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus – the eschatological Spouse of the Church.
The supreme icon of a woman as the Church is, I believe, Mary. The first mention of her in the Bible involves an angel calling her by the title kercharitomene; ‘Full of Grace.’ (Lk 1:28) She is told she will bear the Savior of the world in her body, much as we bear Him in our own bodies and souls (1 Cor 6:19). It is the title given by the angel that I find so deeply meaningful. I know some prefer a translation of it as ‘highly favored daughter’ or something like that. But I know the literal meaning is full of grace, the root of the word being charis – grace. What does it mean to be full of grace?
St. Paul provides a well developed theology of grace in his epistles. The what of grace is that it is the Life of God in us. The how of grace is, ordinarily, through the sacraments. The effects of grace are what I want to look at, though. Grace, per Paul, is the remedy for the effects of original sin and original sin has produced three things in this world to be remedied:
(1) Sin –
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned. (Rom 5:12)
(2) Death –
If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:17)
(3) Concupiscence -
For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ out Lord! (Rom 7:22-25)
If Mary is, indeed, full of grace, then these three things have been resolved in her. Catholics believe as such. As for sin, Mary was unburdened by it: neither original sin nor actual sin. As for death, Mary “fell asleep,” to use the Eastern phrase; whether she actually died or not, she was assumed – alive and bodily – to heaven, the first of the resurrection after Christ. As for concupiscence, Mary was a virgin until death. These are the Marian doctrines of Catholicism and I can deduce them from the bible.
With these characteristics, Mary represents the result of grace, which is the Christian life. She is the type par excellence of the Church, the recipient of grace. This parallel leads to our particular veneration of her. Unlike most of us in the Church, she represents everything we should be. She has achieved the complete union with God, as typified in her carrying God within her (Theotokos). As one who is full of grace, instead of partially full of grace, like me, she enjoys the communal relationship with God that I am striving for. When I look at her image, I see what the Church should be: pure of heart, undefiled by self-love, eyes focused on the Lord, whom she loves, whom she carries. This is the image of the Church that I genuinely love. I am happy that this beloved image is also a real person, the Mother of my God.
Besides being the recipient of grace, the image of the Mother of God has another connotation: that of mother. A mother not only receives the seed, but nurtures it such that it transforms into a new creature. In the spiritual sense, that new creature is a mixture of mother and Father – myself and God, united. The mother that gives birth is the Church. In this case, the image can apply either to me as an individual - a spiritual child growing; or it can apply to the clerical, hierarchical Church who gives birth to new Christians through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. These are like mother’s milk, nourishing newborn babes like me. The image of Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus was a popular medieval image for this very reason. This image of Church as Mother is well typified by Mary, the mother of the Lord who was given to us on Calvary to be our mother as well, through our only representative there, St. John. It would seem that when Jesus said to St. John, “Behold thy mother,” and to Mary, “Behold thy son” (Jn 19:26-27), that John’s own natural mother was standing nearby (cf Mt 27:56); so there must be a spiritual significance for Jesus to declare Mary and John as mother and son. I normally assume that when God makes declarations of things, the things become what they are declared to be.
Anyway, all of this leads to one conclusion: Although many say the Catholic Church is male dominated and patriarchal, it would seem that it is actually quite feminine and matriarchal. I don’t blame people for being confused on this point; it has not been well taught and certainly not well lived.