The timeless words of the apostolic letter of Pope Saint John Paul II titled Mulieris Dignitatem, the Dignity and Vocation of Women, released on the Solemnity of the Assumption, August 15, in 1988, is well worth reflecting on during our times. Relying mainly upon the Sacred Scriptures, the Saint explores the meaning of the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman “in the image and likeness of God.” Seeing the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the central event of human history, the Mother of God is properly understood as she who was elevated to supernatural life by her union with God in Jesus. This letter looks at both the exalted humanity that conceived the Son of God, and the Divinity that revealed Itself to man and woman “made in the image and likeness of God” as a unity of persons, the Blessed Trinity.
Woman-Mother of God (Theotokos)
As Saint John Paul writes in Chapter 2 of The Dignity of Women, it is Saint Paul who links the Mother of Christ with the Genesis 3:15 account of “the woman” who crushed the head of the serpent, now known as the Immaculate Conception, by his words in Galatians 4:4: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman.”
“Thus there begins the central event, the key event in the history of salvation: the Lord’s Paschal Mystery (MD 2:3).”
What does this event mean for human beings? The Saint, always sensitive to the searching of people of other religions, makes clear that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the response of God Himself to man’s searching. “The sending of this Son, one in substance with the Father, as a man ‘born of woman,’ constitutes the culminating and definitive point of God’s self-revelation to humanity. This self-revelation is salvific in character …. A woman is to be found at the center of this salvific event (MD 2:3).”
“Do we not find in the Annunciation at Nazareth the beginning of that definitive answer by which God Himself attempts ‘to calm people’s hearts’? [See Nostra aetate, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 2].”
“Mary attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit. It even exceeds the expectations of all Israel, in particular the daughters of this Chosen People, who, on the basis of the promise, could hope that one of their number would become the mother of the Messiah. Who among them, however, could have imagined that the promised Messiah would be ‘the Son of the Most High’? On the basis of the Old Testament monotheistic faith such a thing was difficult to imagine. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit, Who ‘overshadowed her,’ was Mary able to accept what is ‘impossible for men, but not for God’ (MD 2:3).”
Writes Pope Saint JPII: “[Mary] represents the humanity that belongs to all human beings, both men and women. On the other hand, the event at Nazareth highlights a form of union with the living God which can only belong to the ‘woman,’ Mary: the union between mother and son. The Virgin of Nazareth truly becomes the Mother of God …. By responding with her fiat, Mary conceived a man who was the Son of God, of one substance with the Father. Therefore, she is truly the Mother of God, because motherhood concerns the whole person, not just the body, nor even just human nature.
“The particular union of the ‘Theotokos [Mother of God]’ – with God, which fulfills in the most eminent manner the supernatural predestination to union with the Father which is granted to every human being (filii in filio, sons in the Son) – is a pure grace and as such a gift of the Spirit. At the same time, however, through her response of faith Mary exercises her free will and thus fully shares with her personal and feminine ‘I’ in the event of the Incarnation.
“Therefore the fullness of grace that was granted to the Virgin of Nazareth, with a view to the fact that she would become ‘Theotokos (Mother of God)’ also signifies the fullness of the perfection of what is characteristic of woman, of what is feminine. Here we find ourselves, in a sense, at the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women (MD 2:5).”
Behold the Handmaid of the Lord
The Annunciation event is a dialogue between God and this woman who is “full of grace.” It is a dialogue between God the Father and His creature. Mary’s response to God’s self-revelation as the Father of the divine Son Jesus Who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” and Whose “kingdom will have no end (Luke 1:32-33)” takes expression as an act of humility, calling herself “the handmaid of the Lord (Luke 1:38).”
The word “handmaid” was familiar to ancient Israel as a female servant whose task was to carefully watch the hands of her master for indications of his will. Without the burden of speech, certain movements of the hands conveyed certain meanings to her. Placing herself at the feet of her Master, Mary assumed the role of a servant in her acquiescence to the divine plan of God. She would be a handmaid, a silent partner whose response would be immediate and fully cooperative. Unlike her predecessor Eve, who refused to serve her God, Mary’s entire demeanor is one of service.
The willingness to serve is seen also in the humanity of her divine Son, Who said of Himself, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Mk 10:45).” Christ is the fulfillment of the “suffering servant” prophecies of Isaiah as the Messiah Who would be the Redeemer. His kingship, as He said in the Gospel, “is not of this world (John 18:36).”
Mary’s willingness to serve, calling herself “the handmaid of the Lord,” places her in union with her Son’s messianic mission as Savior of the world. She assumes this role in complete freedom. It is this willingness to serve, and the kingly power of Christ that accompanies her, that sets her apart as “blessed among women (Luke 1:42)” and as the model for all men and women whose vocation is to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
“Thus, by considering the reality of “Woman – Mother of God,” we enter in a very appropriate way into this [Marian] meditation. This reality also determines the essential horizon of reflection on the dignity and the vocation of women. In anything we think, say or do concerning the dignity and the vocation of women, our thoughts, hearts and actions must not become detached from this horizon. The dignity of every human being and the vocation corresponding to that dignity find their definitive measure in union with God. Mary, the woman of the Bible is the most complete expression of this dignity and vocation. For no human being, male or female, created in the image and likeness of God, can in any way attain fulfillment apart from this image and likeness (Mulieris Dignitatem II, 5).”
In the Beginning
The biblical “beginning” as recorded in the Genesis account of creation is, according to Saint Pope John Paul II and the Tradition of the Church, “the revealed truth concerning man as the image and likeness of God (Mulieris Dignitatem III, 6):”
“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:27).”
A later account in Genesis 2:1 8-25 describes the woman as taken “from the rib” of the man, who finds in her a “helper,” another “I” or person of equal value who will “help” him in his God-given task of subduing the earth. Men and women are the only rational creatures, and are thus capable of subduing the earth. Their companionship is the first marriage, capable of “being fruitful,” according to the divine command. There is no inequality implied: however, there is a mystery to the existence of the woman that is difficult to translate from the original language. Having been taken “from the rib” of the man, she is described as is – ‘issah: “She shall be called woman [‘issah] because she was taken out of man [is] (Genesis 2:23).”
“In the unity of the two, man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist side by side or together, but they are also called to exist mutually, one for the other (Mulieris Dignitatem III: 8).”
In creating man in His image as male and female, each called to the total gift of self in service of the other, God reveals something about His own inner life as a unity of persons in the Trinity. The self-revelation of God Who created man “in His image and likeness” is seen in the marriage of the man and the woman, a marriage that is a unity of the woman and the man in mutual self-giving. In the Annunciation we see as in a mirror the woman taken from the rib of man elevated to supernatural life in her union with Christ, particularly in her cooperation with His mission at the Cross where the Church is born from His wounded side. It is here that her consent to serve, calling herself the “handmaid,” is fulfilled in the accomplishment of Christ’s messianic mission.
“The Father is greater than I (John 14:28).”
These words of our Lord may seem puzzling at first. Is it simply a matter of Christ speaking from His humility, re-assuming His original and eternal act of obeisance as “the servant of the Lord?” Or is this also a glimpse into the essence of the Divinity as beyond all human comparisons? Saint Pope John Paul II explains that the language of the Bible is of necessity anthropomorphic, meaning that it attributes human characteristics to God. At the same time, since God created man “in His image and likeness,” God must resemble His creature in some way.
However, “… the language of the Bible is sufficiently precise to indicate the limits of the ‘likeness,’ the limits of the ‘analogy.’ For biblical Revelation says that, while man’s ‘likeness’ to God is true, the ‘non-likeness’ which separates the whole of creation from the Creator is still more essentially true. Although man is created in God’s likeness, God does not cease to be for him the one ‘who dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Timothy 6:16): He is the ‘Different One,’ by essence the ‘totally Other.’”
“From the womb, before the dawn,
I have begotten You (Psalm 110:3).”
“This characteristic of biblical language – its anthropomorphic way of speaking about God – points indirectly to the mystery of the eternal ‘generating’ which belong to the inner life of God. Nevertheless, in itself this generating has neither masculine nor feminine qualities. It is by nature totally divine. It is spiritual in the most perfect way, since ‘God is Spirit’ (John 4:24) and possesses no property typical of the body, neither feminine nor masculine. Thus even fatherhood in God is completely divine and free of the masculine bodily characteristics proper to human fatherhood. In this sense the Old Testament spoke of God as a Father and turned to Him as a Father. Jesus Christ – Who called God 'Abba Father’ (Mark 14:36), and Who as the only-begotten and consubstantial Son placed this truth at the very center of His Gospel, thus establishing the norm of Christian prayer – referred to fatherhood in this ultracorporeal, superhuman and completely divine sense. He spoke as the Son, joined to the Father by the eternal mystery of divine generation, and He did so while being at the same time the truly human Son of His Virgin Mother.”
Continuing with Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Apostolic Letter of Saint Pope John Paul II released in 1988, it must be said that the role of the feminine in the economy of salvation, as seen most fully in Mary the Mother of God, sheds light on the meaning and value of femininity. The teaching of the Church that openness to life is essential for human marriage to blossom in spiritual growth for both men and women grows more evident when considered in light of the path that our Lord took to redeem us. His choice to come as a child of a human woman as the first act of “the new and eternal covenant” in conformity to the laws of the nature of motherhood, the value of fatherhood as seen in St. Joseph, within the sacramental bonds of a marriage, not only reveals His profound respect for marriage as He created it to be, it also redeems human marriage with His presence and salvific action.
“I have brought a man into being
with the help of the Lord (Gen:4-1).”
“Motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman’s part. In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman discovers herself through a sincere gift of self. The gift of interior readiness to accept the child and bring it into the world is linked to the marriage union, which, as mentioned earlier, should constitute a special moment in the mutual self-giving both by the woman and the man….
[The exclamation quoted above from Genesis] “is repeated every time a new human being is brought into the world. It expresses the woman’s joy and awareness that she is sharing in the great mystery of eternal generation. The spouses share in the creative power of God! …
“The eternal mystery of generation, which is in God himself, the one and Triune God, is reflected in the woman’s motherhood and in the man’s fatherhood. …
“Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and understands with unique intuition what is happening inside her. In the light of the ‘beginning,’ the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb (Mulieris Dignitatem, VI:18).”
Motherhood and the New Covenant: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it (Lk 11:27-28).”
Thanks to Mary, to her openness to the gift of God in her Son, the gift of life from on high, our Lord Jesus Christ could say to His Father: “A body you have prepared for me. Lo, I come to do Your will, O God (Heb 10:57).”
To the exclamation of the woman in the Gospel who declared, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!” Jesus responds with the words, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:27-28).” In this Gospel incident, “Jesus confirms the meaning of motherhood in reference to the body, but at the same time He indicates an even deeper meaning, which is connected with the order of the spirit: it is a sign of the Covenant with God Who ‘is spirit’ (John 4:24).”
“The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is similarly not only ‘of flesh and blood:’ it expresses a profound ‘listening to the word of the living God’ and a readiness to safeguard this Word, which is ‘the word of eternal life.’”
The Motherhood of Mary at the Cross: Our Lady of Sorrows
The month of September is known as the month of Our Lady of Sorrows, celebrated on September 15th. The Paschal Mystery, and Mary’s participation in it, refocuses our attention on the spiritual motherhood accomplished at the Cross. “When a woman is in labor she is sorrowful, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world (John 16:21) …. these words indicate the link that exists between the woman’s motherhood and the Paschal Mystery. For this mystery also includes the Mother’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross …. But the words of the Gospel about the woman who suffers when the time comes for her to give birth to her child, immediately afterwards express joy: it is ‘the joy that a child is born into the world.’ This joy too is referred to the Paschal Mystery, to the joy which is communicated to the Apostles on the day of Christ’s Resurrection: ‘So you have sorrow now’ (these words were said the day before the Passion); ‘but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you (John 16:22-23).’”
The Spiritual Motherhood of the Saints
It is the experience of the great Saint Paul whom Saint John Paul II uses to illuminate the mystery of spiritual motherhood. Addressing the Galatians, St. Paul writes, “My little children, with whom I am again in labor (Gal 4:19).”
“The Gospel reveals and enables us to understand precisely this mode of being of the human person. The Gospel helps every woman and every man to live it and thus attain fulfillment. There exists a total equality with respect to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, with respect to the ‘mighty works of God’ (Acts 2:11). Moreover, it is precisely in the face of the ‘mighty works of God’ that Saint Paul, as a man, feels the need to refer to what is essentially feminine in order to express the truth about his own apostolic service …. in order to illustrate the Church’s fundamental mission, he finds nothing better than the reference to motherhood (Mulieris Dignitatem VI:22).”
Pope Saint John Paul II quotes from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council: “For in the mystery of the Church, herself rightly called Virgin and Mother, the Blessed Virgin came first as an eminent and singular exemplar of both virginity and motherhood. … The Son Whom she brought forth is He Whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren (Rom 8:29), namely, among the faithful. In their birth and development she cooperates with a maternal love. … Moreover, by contemplating Mary’s mysterious sanctity, imitating her charity, and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will, the Church herself becomes a mother by accepting God’s word in faith. For by her preaching and by baptism she brings forth to a new and immortal life children who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God (Mulieris Dignitatem VI:22).”
Christ Is Bridegroom of the Church
The Roman Catholic Church is both Marian and Apostolic. Christ deliberately chose twelve men whom He distinguished from His other disciples, both men and women, by their consecration to the service of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. On the evening of the following Sunday, Easter Sunday, He breathed upon them, according to the Gospel of Saint John, thereby imparting to them the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained (John 20:23).” It was Christ Himself, the Redeemer of humanity, Who established the priesthood as definitely male.
The explanation for this, according to the established Tradition of the Church (please see the Declaration of Paul VI, Inter Insigniores) and the teaching of Saint John Paul II lies in the sovereign choice of Christ to retain the symbolism of the Bridegroom of the Church, Christ, Who alone is the Redeemer of the world and is male.
“As the Redeemer of the world, Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of our Redemption. It is the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride. The Eucharist makes present and realizes anew in a sacramental manner the redemptive act of Christ, Who ‘creates’ the Church, His body. Christ is united with this ‘body’ as the bridegroom with the bride. All this is contained in the Letter to the Ephesians. The perennial ‘unity of the two’ that exists between man and woman from the very ‘beginning’ is introduced into the ‘great mystery’ of Christ and of the Church. … Although the Church possesses a hierarchical structure, nevertheless this structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members. And holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom.’
“This concerns everyone in the Church, women as well as men. It obviously concerns those who share in the ministerial priesthood, which is characterized by service. In the context of the ‘great mystery’ of Christ and the Church, all are called to respond – as a bride – with the gift of their lives to the inexpressible gift of the love of Christ, Who alone, as the Redeemer of the world, is the Church’s Bridegroom. The ‘royal priesthood,’ which is universal, at the same time expresses the gift of the Bride (Mulieris Dignitatem VII 26 - 27).”