"(The Holy Spirit) Who is so singularly with Mary is the Lord Whose most beautiful spouse Mary is...Behold, a beautiful spouse, beautiful in justice, and in the judgment of her looks, beautiful in compassion and in mercy in the regard of her neighbors, and beautiful in faith in the sight of God" 1.
The image of Mary as Bride of God originates in patristic times. Saint Germanus of Constantinople called Mary Theonymphos, a Greek term meaning "God-wed" or "Wedded to God" 2. Saint Augustine of Hippo writes "Mary was the only one who merited to be called the Mother as Spouse of God" 3.

In the twelfth century, St Godfrey of Admont (died 1165) wrote that each person of the Godhead is Mary's beloved 4. Yet it was more common for Christian writers to assign Mary's "espousal" to one Divine Person or another.

Wife of the Father

The seventh century Church Father, Saint John of Damascus seems to be the first to write of Mary as spouse of God the Father. In his treatise on the Assumption, he states that, "It was fitting that the spouse whom the Father had taken to himself, should live in the divine Mansions"5. Some medieval writers, such as Rupert of Deutz and Ubertino of Casale continued to use this image, as did Saint Lawrence of Brindisi 6. Mary's "espousal" to the First Person of the Trinity became a popular area of discussion in the Ecole Francaise, a seventeenth-century French school of theology/mariology 7. Jean-Jacques Olier, a member of this school, seems to have written on this topic more than any other writer 8. Here are some samples of his (somewhat exaggerated) views on this subject:

God the Father, as a holy and faithful husband, wants to unite the most holy Virgin to himself and give her the perfect possession of his Person, his treasures, his glory and all his goods" 9.

For God the Father...wills that, in the mystery of the Incarnation, Mary should be his true and unique spouse, since he has destined her to be, with himself, the principle in the temporal generation of the Word, to do with him, in the Incarnation, what he does alone in eternity" 10.

(The Father) conceives for her all the affection of a spouse" 11

This concept seems to derive from the fact that Mary and God the Father share the same Son - the latter eternally and the former according to the flesh. It probably seemed fitting to these writers to speak of a "marriage" relationship between Jesus' Heavenly Father and earthly Mother. Yet we must not take this concept literally, for the following reasons:
  1. God the Father is not a Zeus-like deity who dallies with mortal women and sires offspring by them. He is pure Spirit, does not possess a body, and never engages in literal coitus with anyone.

  2. The Divine Paternity and Mary's maternity are very different. God is the Eternal Father of Jesus, Whom He generates spiritually in Eternity without the help of a mother. Mary is the human Mother of Jesus, Whom she bore physically in time without the help of a father. So the Father and Mary did not "become parents" of Jesus at the same time and in the same way (as happens with ordinary human couples).

  3. Christ's conception was miraculous and virginal - which means it was asexual. Had Jesus been conceived by intercourse between God and Mary (if that were possible, which it is not), His conception could hardly be considered virginal!

  4. Scripture indicates that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit - the Third Divine Person - not through some "union" with the First Person of the Trinity (Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). The Bible makes no mention of the Father's direct activity in this event, probably to offset any misunderstanding.
So while the image of Mary-as-Wife of the Father has some limited legitimacy, we must be careful not to take it literally. It points to a spiritual mystery, not a physical relationship

Bride of Christ

Since Scripture portrays the Church as the Bride of Christ, this Marian image is certainly related to and appropriated from that one. Building on the biblical image of Christ as the "New Adam", early Christians spoke of a "New Eve", a feminine cooperator with Jesus in the economy of the redemption. Second century writers Saints Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons perceived Mary as this second Eve, who undid the sin of the first one:

Christ became man by the Virgin that the disobedience which issued from the serpent might be destroyed in the same way it originated. Eve was still an undefiled virgin when she conceived the word of the serpent and brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin received faith and joy, at the announcement of the angel Gabriel...and she replied, "Be it done to me according to your word". So through the mediation of the Virgin he came into the world, through whom God would crush the serpent and those angels and men like him, who delivers from death those who turn from their evil ways and believe in him. 12

The seduction of a fallen angel drew Eve, a virgin espoused to a man, while the glad tidings of the holy angel drew Mary, a Virgin already espoused, to begin the plan which would dissolve the bonds of that first snare...For as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had disobeyed his word, so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should bear God, and obeyed his word. If the former disobeyed God, the latter obeyed, so that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. Thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience is balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. 13

Later Church Fathers, such as Saints Ambrose and Jerome, identified the New Eve with the Church:
The last Adam is Christ, the Rib (Side) of Christ is the life of the Church. She is Eve, the mother of all living 14

As from Adam and his wife the whole human race is sprung, so from Christ and the Church
the whole multitude of believers has been generated 15.

Some writers, such as Saint Augustine, identify both as the New Eve:
The parents who generated us to death are Adam and Eve: The parents who generated us to life are Christ and the Church 16.

There is a great mystery here: that just as death comes to us through a woman, so Life is born to us through a woman 17.

The association of Mary with the Church allowed for her to take on the "Bride of God" image from Ecclesia. Her identification as the "New Eve" strengthened this image, for since the first Adam and Eve were husband and wife, any talk of a "new" Adam and Eve would seem to imply a "nuptial" relationship between them, if only symbolic.

Saint Ephraim the Syrian was probably the first early Christian to refer to Mary as the Bride of Christ 18. He was followed by the likes of Saint Peter Chrysologus, Rupert of Deutz, and Godfrey of Admont 19. Medieval artists symbolized this mystery by portraying the Christ Child placing His hand under Mary's chin (see the article on "The Chin Chuck" from the Catholic Page for Lovers for more on this topic).

The nineteenth century theologian Matthias Joseph Scheeben tried to build a Mariology around the "bridal motherhood" of Mary toward Christ. His concept of bridal motherhood never quite caught on 20.

All in all, the Marian title Bride of Christ enjoyed only slightly more popularity than Wife of the Father. Many writers preferred to reserve the former title for the Church. Apart from the obvious biblical basis of the Church-Bride image, perhaps they also saw it as quasi-incestuous to call Jesus' Mother His "Bride". Suffice it to say that Mary's Motherhood and "Brideship" are two distinct realities. She is His physical Mother because she bore and raised Him according to the flesh, and His mystical Bride because she is the Image and preeminent Member of the Church, who is the Bride of Christ.

As with the title Wife of the Father, Bride of Christ does not indicate a physical or sexual relationship with God.

Spouse of the Holy Spirit

This title has caught on more strongly than the first two. It is a well-established part of the common series of Marian titles Daughter of God the Father, Mother of God the Son, Spouse of God the Holy Spirit

The Christian poet Prudentius (348-c.405) first used this image in relation to the Annunciation: "The unwed Virgin espoused the Spirit" 21.The list of Christians who called Mary the Spouse of the Spirit is impressive: Saints Anselm of Canterbury, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, Lawrence of Brindisi, Louis Marie de Montfort and Maximilian Kolbe, to name a few. Various modern popes have used or alluded to it, including Leo XII, Pius XII and Paul VI.

In his encyclical Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI wrote that early Christians coined the title Spouse of the Holy Spirit because they saw in the relationship between Mary and the Spirit "an aspect redolent of marriage" 22. Exactly what is that "aspect"?

Some may point to the fact that Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Spirit as indicating a "marital" relationship. Yet we must not take this too far, for it could lead to the belief that the Holy Spirit is the "father" of Jesus in the Incarnation. Though Mary did conceive Jesus by the power of the Spirit, the latter did not play a parental role in the conception. A parent contributes his or her own substance to the child. Thus the First Divine Person is Christ's Eternal Father Who generates the Word from His own nature, and Mary is truly His earthly Mother who gave Him His Humanity. But the Spirit contributes nothing to Jesus at His conception, and so is in no sense His Father 23.

Saint Maximillian Kolbe presents us with a more profound solution to this mystery. He writes:

The union brought about by married love is the most intimate of all. In a much more precise, more interior, more essential manner, the Holy Spirit lives in the soul of the Immaculata, in the very depths of her being 24
He goes on to say that the relationship between the Spirit of God and the Theotokos is redolent of a marriage in the following ways: Interestingly, these two things actually reflect the "unitive and procreative" aspects of human conjugal love. Now the union between Mary and the Third Divine Person is spiritual, not at all sexual, for the Holy Spirit is pure Spirit like the Father, and so could not possibly have a physical relationship with Mary.

What was stated above regarding the titles Wife of the Father and Bride of Christ applies equally to Spouse of the Holy Spirit. None of these three titles indicate a physical or sexual relationship between God and Mary. Rather, all have a deeper, spiritual significance which transcends the flesh.

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  1. Bonaventure, quoted in Virgin Wholly Marvelous: Praises of Our Lady by the Popes, Councils, Saints and Doctors of the Church, Ed. David Supple (Still River, MA: Ravengate, 1981): 37.
  2. Michael O'Carroll, "Spouse of God", Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1982): 333.
  3. Augustine, Sermons 208; quoted by St. Alphonsus de Liguori in The Glories of Mary (New York: Redemptorist, 1931): 304.
  4. O'Carroll, opt. cit. 158
  5. Pius XII (1950) Munificentissimus Deus, 20.
  6. O'Carroll 333
  7. Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion (New York: Sheed, 1964): 31.
  8. O'Carroll 272.
  9. Graef 35.
  10. O'Carroll 272-3.
  11. Ibid 273.
  12. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch.100.
  13. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies III:22:4.
  14. Ambrose of Milan, on Luke 3:22 (PL XV:1584).
  15. Jerome, Commentary of Ephesians 5:31 (PL XXVI:535).
  16. Augustine of Hippo Sermons 22:10 (PL XXXVIII:154).
  17. Augustine, The Christian Combat, 22:24.
  18. O'Carroll 333.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid 333, see also Graef, 119.
  21. Ibid 333.
  22. Paul VI (1974) Marialis Cultus 26.
  23. Augustine, Enchiridion XL; Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, pt.III q.32 art.3.
  24. H.M. Manteau-Bonamy, The Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teachings of Saint Maximillian Kolbe (Libertyville, IL: Franciscan Marytown Pr, 1977).

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