An old Catholic saying states: de Maria numquam satis (Of Mary one can never say enough). Yet considering all the books written about her during the centuries, it almost seems as though everything one could say about the Godbearer has been said. She is the Virgin of virgins, the Mother of God and our Mother; the august Queen of the universe, the sorrowful Dolorosa and the mighty Help of Christians. She is the Gentle Woman, the Terror of demons and Destroyer of heresies; the Mystical Rose, the Seat of Wisdom, and so many other things. What more remains for us to say?
Yet some aspects of Mary's person have received less emphasis than others in the past. So this present article will focus on one such aspect: Mary as the Bride of God.
Mariologists have not entirely ignored this mystery, but it has received considerably less attention than her Motherhood, Virginity, Queenship, etc. It has also made almost no inroads into popular Marian devotion (except perhaps in the title "Spouse of the Holy Spirit"). Thus the image of Mary-as-Bride has had very little impact on the lives of average Catholic.
Could this perhaps have something to do with the romantic - even sexual - connotations in the bride/spouse image? Perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable applying such an image to the Ever-Virgin Mary, or are not sure how to reconcile the two.
The Virgin Bride
Now I believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, though I'm aware that it's not a very popular teaching nowadays. C.S. Lewis once wrote that many who deny the Virgin Birth of Jesus "see in this miracle a slur upon sexual intercourse, which is rapidly becoming the one thing venerated in a world without veneration" 1. That probably goes double for the belief that Mary remained a virgin forever after Christ's birth! Some people today seem to think that sex is so utterly important that one could not live a perfectly normal, joyful and fulfilled life without it.
Regarding consecrated virginity, Jesus once said "Not all can receive this saying, but only those to whom it has been given" (Matthew 19:11). People to whom God has given the gift of celibacy can understand how sex, though good, is neither the all of existence nor indispensible for happiness. Mary is one such person.
The Godbearer's perfect virginity is not a "slur" upon sex, despite how some may interpret it. Her physical virginity is a bodily reflection of her spiritual virginity, that is, her whole-hearted, loving consecration to God. As a whole human person is a body and a soul, so Mary's virginity permeates her whole person-soul and body. As the most perfect Virgin and the exemplar of Motherhood, she is "all things to all women" a model of both virginity and motherhood, the two great vocations of Woman.
I can hear some of you objecting, "What about women who are neither virgins nor mothers?" Ah, we have finally come to my area of expertise. You see, I am married but, as of this writing, I have no children. Hence I am neither a virgin nor a mother, and so feel fully qualified to respond to that inquiry. Personally, I can relate to Mary as Bride/Wife, for that is what I am (other women can perhaps relate to her as Daughter, Widow, or some other role she experienced on earth).
Virginal, Not Asexual
Our Lady's lifelong celibacy did not render her asexual. For sexuality is more than mere copulation; it embraces our whole selves as sexual beings - our maleness or femaleness, our love, our friendships, how we relate to others and to God as women and men. The late Bishop Francis Mugavero of Brooklyn said it best:
Sexuality is so much more than genital activity. It is an aspect of personality which lets us enter other persons' lives as friends and encourages them to enter our lives....It is a relational power which includes the qualities of sensitivity, understanding, warmth, openness to persons, compassion and mutual support 2.Don't these "qualities" describe Mary? Is she not sensitive, understanding, warm, open, etc.? These aspects of her personality all relate to her "sexuality" - her femininity! For many readers, that may be a new way to think of our Blessed Lady, but hopefully it can help us to better appreciate her humanness.
Miriam of Nazareth was not a cold statue in a niche; she was a fully human, warm-blooded, loving human being. She expressed her "sexuality" - that is, her womanliness - in her dealings with others and her relationship with God. Rather than expressing it physically through intercourse, she channeled it all into a deep and strong love for God. Like the rest of her being, Mary's "sexuality" was entirely consecrated to her Creator.
The image of Mary as "Bride of God" may perhaps contain a reflection of this truth. So let us explore the Scriptural roots and theological development of this image, to gain a better understanding of it and the lessons it may hold for us.
Return To TopDaughter Zion: God's Bride in the Old Testament
The Old Testament prophets often compared the Mosaic Covenant to a "marriage covenant" between God and Israel. They portrayed God as the Bridegroom/Husband in this covenant, and Israel as His beloved bride. Though this imagery often occurs in a negative light, in which the Israelites' dabbling in paganism is portrayed as "adultery" against God the Bridegroom, much tenderness and love also comes through in some passages.
In Jeremiah 2:2-3, God recalls Israel's original love for him during the Exodus:
I remember the devotion of your youth,In Hosea, the Lord compares Israel's impending captivity to that original desert experience, and portrays it as a new beginning for Him and His Bride:
your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
the first fruits of his harvest.
Behold, I will allure her,Though Bride Israel had strayed from Him, God promises to accept her back:
and will lead her into the wilderness
and will speak to her heart...
and she shall sing there as in the days of her youth
as in the days of her coming up out of the land of Egypt.
And on than day, says the Lord,
she shall call me "my husband"
and no more "my lord" (Baal)...
I will betroth you to me forever,
I will betroth you in righteousness,
in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion.
I will betroth you to me in faith,
and you shall know that I am the Lord.
- Hosea 2:14-16; 19-20
For the Lord has called you as a woman forsaken and mournful in spirit,In Ezekiel, God compares Bride Israel to a young woman, using some striking imagery to describe his love for her:
and as a wife cast off from her youth, says your God.
For a short time I forsook you, but with great mercy I will gather you
In a moment of anger I hid my face from you
but with everlasting love I will have mercy on you
says the Lord your Redeemer. - Isaiah 54:6-7
Then you grew up, became tall, and reached the age for fine ornaments; your breasts were formed and your hair had grown.Yet you were naked and bare.Then I passed by you and saw that you were ready for love; so I spread My cloak over you and covered your nakedness. I swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became mine, declares the Lord God. - Ezekiel 16:7-8
The phrase "spread my cloak over you" was a Hebrew euphemism for conjugal relations (see Ruth 3:9). This passage should give us an idea of the basic goodness of the marital act as God designed and intended it.
Israel-as-God's beloved soon became clearly personified in the figure of Daughter Zion. As Tikva Frymer-Kensey comments,
The name "Zion" is never used in angry passages: it always stands for the beloved...Jeremiah uses the name "Jerusalem" in anger, rebuking her for persistent rebellion,and for conduct deserving of punishment. But he uses the name "Zion" in love, sorrow, and hope rather than anger 3.Originally the name of a section of Jerusalem, "the Daughter of Zion" (Bat Zion) soon became the hypostatized "spirit" of the city and the nation: "Zion is not simply the stones of the houses, but a mystical person, the essence of the city, who can separate herself from the physical confines of the city walls" 4.Unlike Jerusalem the adulteress, Zion was the idealized wife of the Lord.
Rabbis would eventually interpret the Song of Songs, a Scriptural love song, as an allegory of God's love for Israel/Zion.They identified the "Shulamite", the woman in the Song of Songs, with Israel, and her lover with the Lord. This allegorical interpretation made it easier to accept the book into the canon of Scripture.
Return To TopThe Church, the Bride of Christ
In the New Testament, the Church, the assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, takes over the bridal symbolism applied to Daughter Zion by the Prophets. The Church is the "Bride of Christ", who enjoys a marital union with her Divine Bridegroom:
For we are members of his body: "For this reason shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh". This is a great mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and the Church. - Ephesians 5:30-32According to I Corinthians 6:16, "the two shall become one flesh" (cf. Genesis 2:24) refers to intercourse. So this passage from Ephesians expresses a symbolic "marital union" between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church His Bride, similar to Ezekiel 16:8 cited above.
The early Church Fathers identified the Shulamite of the Song of Songs with Mother Church, and with each member in particular. Since Mary is the pre-eminent member and quasi-personification of the Church, Christians would soon perceive her in the Shulamite as well.
Return To TopMary as Daughter Zion and Mother Church
As the Jewish maiden chosen to bear the promised Messiah, Mary embodies Bat Zion. Scholars believe that the words of Saint Gabriel the Archangel to Mary at the Annunciation reflect Zephaniah's words to Daughter Zion 5. She is thus the personification of God's faithful bride. One of Mary's titles among Ethiopian Christians is Saint Mary of Zion. This emphasizes both her Jewish ancestry and her identification with Daughter Zion.
Medieval Christians began to identify the Shulamite of the Song of Songs with Mary. (Godfrey of Admont was one significant example of this.) Many writers believed that Sgs 4:7 signified the Immaculate Conception: "Thou art all fair, my love, and there is no spot in thee". This verse became the origin of the Catholic prayer: Thou art all fair, O Mary, and the original stain is not found in thee.
The Legion of Mary uses Sgs 6:9 as the antiphon for the Catena Legionis: "Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array?" 6
The Woman of Apocalypse (Revelation) 12 is an image combining all three of these feminine persons: Daughter Zion (vvs 1-2), Mary the Mother of the Messiah (vs 5 - see Luke 2:7) and the persecuted Church (vvs 13-17). The obvious parallel between this passage and Genesis 3:15 identifies this glorious Woman as the New Eve. As we shall see, early Christians perceived both Mary and the Church as the New Eve.
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