Break Free from a Frame

+J.M.J+

ECCLESIA, THE COSMIC MOTHER

Note: The following article is based on official Church teachings, as well as some orthodox Catholic theological speculation. The Church allows for some difference of opinion in things which she has not yet officially defined. One example is the question of whether or not God would have become Incarnate had Adam not sinned - Catholics may hold either opinion and remain in good standing with the Church.

To my knowledge, nothing in the following article contradicts the official teachings of the Catholic Church. The final decision on all matters belongs to Holy Mother Church, and as her child I lovingly submit to her wise judgment.


Revised 1/07

"But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother" -Galatians 4:26

"Who regenerated you? Who gave you a new life which neither your father nor your mother could give you with their own blood? The Spouse of Christ, Holy Church, was the mother of your soul; she kissed you on the forehead with heavenly affection; she pressed you to her heart as the child of the blood poured out by her Divine Spouse who loves you and delivered Himself to death for you" -Pius XII 1

The biblical portrayal of the Church as Bride and Mother is somewhat controversial today. Some Christian feminists think it is the personification of a "thing" as a woman (like a boat, car or hurricane), and argue that such a practice implies that women are things rather than persons.

Yet Ecclesia*, our Holy Mother the Church, is neither a "thing" nor a mere personification; She is an actual mystical person! Jesus Christ is her Head; the Holy Spirit of God is her Uncreated "Soul"; and the Blessed Virgin Mary manifests Ecclesia's personality and maternity in her own. So in some mysterious way, the Bride of Christ has a true personal existence. She is the New Eve, the Mother of eternal life, the fitting partner of Christ the New Adam.

The mystery of the Church relates to the mystery of the Incarnation. So in order to understand Ecclesia, we must study the Word-made-flesh and His relationship to creation.

The Incarnation in the Divine Plan

Many believe that the Incarnation was part of God's eternal plan for creation, not a mere remedy for the disobedience of Adam. Had our first parents never sinned, the Eternal Wisdom would still have become flesh-not to become a suffering Savior, but to bring creation to its perfect fulfillment by union with its Maker.

Why did God choose to assume human nature, rather than, say, angelic nature? Because our nature brings together both the spiritual and material realms of creation; we have both a spiritual soul and a material body. The angels, on the other hand, belong to the spiritual realm alone. By assuming a human nature, the Creator united a portion of both realms of creation to Himself. God the Son elevated both His human spirit and material body into the Godhead by the Hypostatic Union. Had Eternal Wisdom assumed angelic nature, then only spirit would be divinized, but God wills to imbue all creation - including the material world - with Divine Glory.

Humanity is a unity; a unity of spirit with matter and a unity within itself, for all men and women are brothers and sisters, created from "one blood" (Acts 17:26), descended from the same first parents. By Incarnation, God has entered this great family and become part of this mysterious unity. The Catechism states that "in his incarnate divine person (Jesus) has in some way united himself to every man" 2. This union becomes even more apparent in the Church, in whom "we, though many, are one body in Christ, and everyone members of one another" (Romans 12:8).

This mystery is hidden to many, but even more hidden is Jesus Christ's mysterious association with the material world. In our bodies, we humans are part of nature and the cosmos; by assuming a human body, God the Son also became, so to speak, "part of" nature and the cosmos in His Humanity. Thus the Incarnation establishes a hidden association between God and matter, which will become manifest only at the consummation of the ages, when "creation shall be delivered from its servitude to corruption and share in the liberty of the children of God" (Ro 8:21).

Ecclesia and the Material Realm

These facts point to a great mystery: the material world is in some way related to the Church, the Body of Christ. Not just our bodies, but that which we call "mother nature"3 is (so to speak) "drawn up" by grace into a mysterious relationship with Mother Church. We see this in the fact that the elements which give physical life in the natural order become vehicles of spiritual life in the Sacraments.

Water, which refreshes and vivifies plants, animals and humans, becomes a source of spiritual life in the Sacrament of Baptism. The Church Fathers often called the baptismal font the "womb" of Mother Church, from which she gives birth to her children. This fact becomes intriguing when we recall that the very earliest Christians did not have such baptistries. They baptized converts in natural water sources such as springs and rivers, a practice which, though rare among modern Catholics, would still be perfectly valid today. Any pure water suffices for Baptism. All the waters of the earth, which were blessed and vivified in the beginning by the Spirit of God (Genesis 1:2), now comprise the sacred womb of Ecclesia (whose "Soul" is the same creative Holy Spirit)4.

The wheat and grapes which "our sister, mother earth" - as Saint Francis of Assisi called her3 - offers us for physical nourishment are formed by human labor into bread and wine. The Holy Spirit transforms these into Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and Mother Ecclesia nourishes her children on the true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of her Divine Spouse. "Which earth has given and human hands have made"5; the nourishing fruits of "mother nature" become the spiritual nourishment flowing from the breasts of Mother Church:

One is the only virgin mother, I love to call her the Church...
calling her children to her, she nurses them with holy milk, ie. with the Word"6

The Cosmic Mother

Rightly does Hermes, an ancient Christian writer, say of Mother Ecclesia "She was created first of all...and for her sake the whole world was made"7. Yet not just nature and the earth belong to her, but the whole cosmos. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons writes "Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace"8. But where is the Spirit of God? Only on earth? Hardly; God the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, sustaining the entire cosmos. How can we believe that Mother Church's queenly reign is confined to earth when her "Soul" fills all things?

In the Apocalypse (Revelation) 12:1, she is depicted as "a woman clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars". This is the "cosmic Church", adorned with stars, robed in sunlight. Like her Exemplar the Blessed Virgin, Ecclesia is the "Queen of the Universe". The entire cosmos belongs to her; it is the "dowry" bestown upon her by her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, Who by His Incarnation has associated Himself with creation and destined it for final glorification in and through the Church.

The post-Christian goddess-worship that we find in Europe and America seems to be in part a response to the loss of a sense of the feminine nature of the Church and of her cosmic significance. For any deeply Catholic or Orthodox mind, the Church is a person, typified in the Virgin Mary. The institutional aspects of the Church are subsidiary-or else they represent the "skeleton" that performs a necessary but ideally hidden function within the Body of that person. Her actual boundaries extend far beyond her formal membership, into the realm of nature itself. It is in her that the flowers bloom and the rivers flow. Through his telescope the atheist scientist gazes at her stars. One can in fact only exclude oneself from her by a conscious act of rejection.9
The Jerusalem Above

Ecclesia also transcends the material cosmos into the spiritual plane. The angelic choirs and the glorious cloud of saints comprise the Church Triumphant, the celestial Ecclesia at rest in the bosom of God. The Holy Virgin Mary is the maternal Heart of the Church, filled with the Spirit and overflowing with love for all her children. She is the human face of the New Eve, the firstfruits of redeemed humanity. Mary is a divinized woman and Ecclesia is divinized creation; though neither are God Incarnate like Christ, together they form the created echo of the Incarnation.

So Ecclesia includes both material and spiritual creation. Yet by virtue of her union with Christ and the Holy Spirit, Mother Church has an eternal, "divine" aspect as well.

The Church is the "Mystical Body" of Christ-a continuation of Jesus Christ in the world. St. Augustine of Hippo calls her the Christus totus, the "whole Christ": "So the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and to that flesh the Church is joined so that there comes into being the Whole Christ, Head and Body"10.

Saint Paul often speaks of "the Body of Christ, but in First Corinthians 12:12 he simply calls the Church "Christ": "For as the body is one, and has many members; and all those members, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ". Ecclesia shares so intimately in Jesus' life that she is an actual extension of Christ-the "corporate Christ", if you will.

As we have stated above many times, the Holy Spirit is the Soul of the Church - the Source of Ecclesia's being, life and unity. Pope St. Gregory the Great writes: "As the soul is one which quickens the various members of the Body, so the one Holy Spirit quickens and illuminates the whole Church"11. More recently, the Second Vatican Council even drew a comparison between the Spirit-Church union and the Hypostatic Union (the union of Jesus' Divine and human natures):

"(The Church is) one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it in the building up of the body"12
Saint Gregory Nazianzen goes as far as to say that "It was fitting that, as the Son had lived with us in a body, so the Spirit too should come to us in a bodily manner, and that after Christ had returned to His own place, the Spirit should decend to us"13. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit is "incarnate" in the Church in the exact same way the Eternal Word is Incarnate in His Sacred Humanity! There is a difference between these two "unions"; yet, as Vatican II points out, these two mysteries are roughly analogous. Some theologians, such as the late Cardinal Manning, have argued that as the mission of Christ in creation is to become incarnate, so the Holy Spirit has a parallel mission as the "Soul" of the Church.
"Where the Spirit is, there is the Soul of the Church, and where the Church is, there is the body of the Spirit, and all grace"14.
The Body of God

Some people say that creation is "the body of God". Though we cannot admit this of all creation, one aspect of it - the Sacred Humanity of Christ - is the true Body of God Incarnate. In a certain sense, the Church is also the "body of God" (so to speak), for she is the Mystical Body of Christ and the "bodily presence" of the Spirit of God in the world.

Though the Trinity is certainly not incarnate in Mother Church (as Christ is in His Sacred Humanity), God does indwell her, giving her life, sanctifying her and operating through her. Thus she is the vehicle and instrument of God in creation.

As for creation, it may be more correct to compare it to a "garment" rather than a body. As the clothes we wear are separate from ourselves and express something about us, so creation is essentially distinct from the One Who indwells it, yet it expresses His Glory.

Conclusion

In the Divine Mind, in God's Archetypal Idea of creation, the Holy Trinity eternally sees Ecclesia as intimately united to Christ and "ensouled" by the Holy Spirit. She so partakes in the divine life that she is, with Jesus Her Divine Spouse, the end of creation, which God made with her in mind and for her sake. The Church of the Living God is no mere human institution; she is Ecclesia Mater, "spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners"15. Our minds cannot comprehend the length, width, height and depth of our loving, all-embracing, cosmic Mother.

*Ecclesia (pronounces eh-klay'see-uh), the Latin word for "Church", is sometimes used as a proper name when one wishes to emphasize the fact that Holy Mother Church is a mystical Person, not a mere society or organization, as the word "Church" might imply to some.


RELATED LINKS:

WORKS CITED

1Pius XII, "Address to Members of Catholic Action of Italy". (9-10-40), from Papal Teachings: The Church, Selected and Arranged by the Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, trans. Mother E. O'Gorman (Boston: DSP, 1962), 510.
2Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 618.
3Sacred Scripture calls the earth the mother of all: "Great labour is created for all men, and a heavy yoke is upon the children of Adam, from the day of their coming out of their mother's womb, until the day of their burial into the mother of all." (Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 40:1). St. Basil the Great also uses maternal imagery for the earth: "The fertility of the earth is its perfect finishing; growth of all kinds of plants, the upspringing of tall trees, both productive and sterile, flowers' sweet scents and fair colours, and all that which, a little later, at the voice of God came forth from the earth to beautify her, their universal Mother." (Hexameron II:1) Medieval Catholics commonly personified both nature and the earth as mothers. Many medieval writers personified "Natura" (nature) as a woman, and Saint Francis of Assisi spoke of "mother earth" as his "sister" in his Canticle of Brother Sun (even as he called the sun "brother", the moon "sister", etc). Even today we sometimes speak of "Mother Nature"; a general personification of the weather, the natural environment and seasonal cycle. This article personifies nature and the earth in this same Christian sense; they are not "goddesses" - they aren't even persons! Any "neo-pagan" worship of creatures is foreign to the Catholic faith.
4Genesis 1:2 has maternal connotations; the Hebrew verb describing the activity of the Spirit is rachaph: "To brood, hover, flutter or shake". In Deuteronomy 32:11 the same verb describes the activity of a mother bird over her nest: "As an eagle enticing her young to fly, and hovering (rachaph) over them, (God) spread his wings and hath taken (Jacob)". Early Syrian Christians, whose language is similar to Hebrew, recognized this image, which is why early Syrian Fathers such as Aphaarates and Macarius spoke of the Holy Spirit as "our Mother" (a practice evidently common among early Semetic Christians). St. Basil the Great also knew of the mother-bird image implicit in Genesis 1:2; thus he writes:

"How did the Spirit of God move upon the waters?...(The Spirit) cherished the nature of the waters as one sees a bird cover the eggs with her body and impart to them vital force from her own warmth. Such is, as nearly as possible the meaning of these words-the Spirit was borne: let us understand, that is, prepared the nature of the water to produce living beings". (St. Basil the Great, Hexameron II:6, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, second series, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 8:63.)
Such maternal imagery for the Holy Ghost from patristic sources may relate to the fact that the Spirit is the "Soul" of Mother Church. Properly interpreted, it may help to expand our understanding of the maternity of Ecclesia. Hopefully, more theological study and speculation will focus on this mystery.

5Offertory Prayer. Translation of the Order of Mass, (c) 1973 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).
6Clement of Alexandria, Paedogogus I:6. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Translations of the Writings of the Father down to A.D. 325, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 2:220.
7Shepherd of Hermes 1:II:4. The Ante Nicene Fathers, 2:12.
8Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies III:24:1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:458.
9Stratford Caldecott, "Second Spring: Christian Ecology", Catholic World Report, Aug/Sept 1996: 32.
10Augustine, Expostition on the Psalms XI.
11Manning, The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost, 62.
12Vatican II, Lumen Gentium I:2.
13Gregory Nazianzen, Oration XLI (On Pentecost).
14Cardinal Manning, quoted in The Little Treasury of Leaflets, vol. II (Dublin: Gill, 1914) 388.
15C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 12.

AMDG et BVMH

Page last updated 5 May 2008, Feast of Saint Hilary.


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