Mary as Mediatrix: An Incarnational View


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Many Christians find the notion that Mary played a role in our salvation extremely blasphemous. They particularly find the ascription of the title Mediatrix to Mary, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, offensive.  In their eyes this ascription stands in direct opposition to Jesus’s role as the sole mediator between God and man. After all, Sacred Scripture is crystal clear on this matter:

“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NKJV).

While I completely embrace these words from St. Paul, I deny that they constitute a defeater for Catholic Marian dogma. I contend that the aversion to Mary’s role in our salvation, endemic in so many Christians, is a form of Neo-Docetism. I further maintain that shedding this Neo-Docetist attitude, and embracing an incarnational approach to theology, will help us to understand Mary’s soteriological importance.

The Neo-Docetist Attitude

To be sure, Jesus is the One Mediator between God and men. For it is only through the Word who, “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) that we can be united to God. Mediation is the very point of the incarnation. God, in His love, united Himself to His creation so that His creation might be united to Him: this is the ultimate act of reconciliation. It is, also, the cosmic destiny–or telos–of the universe. As St. Paul states:

“For he [the Father] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

But many Christians fail to see any of this.  They fail to see the fundamental importance of the incarnation; and fail to see the work of Christ as including the redemption and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  In consequence, the work of Christ is often narrowly construed. The matter of greatest importance, for many Christians, is that Jesus came to satiate the wrath of the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Mediation, on this view, only happens through the cross; everything hinges upon the death of Christ. As such, the incarnation plays little to no role in the process and is almost a peripheral issue. This implicit denial of the incarnation lies at the heart of the Neo-Docetist attitude. Unlike Classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the incarnation, Neo-Docetism minimizes the importance of the incarnation to the point where its relevance to soteriology is indiscernible.

As I have argued before, this attitude also leads to the rejection of a sacramental worldview; one in which God works in and through the corporeal world to bring about its renewal. Everything in the Christian faith, given the Neo-Docetist perspective, becomes over spiritualized. Baptism looses its efficacy and becomes just a symbol. The Eucharist is no longer the real presence of Christ, but a sentimental ritual that we perpetuate out of obedience. Works of love play no role in our salvation, which is wrought through faith alone (i.e., a mental assent or acknowledgment of Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Penal Substitution and Mary

Obviously, if one adopts a Neo-Docetist attitude, Mary can play no role in the mediation between God and man. For if (1) mediation is narrowly construed as Penal Substitutionary Atonement and (2) salvation is merely a sort of mental assent to this doctrine, then it is utter lunacy to ascribe to Mary the role of Mediatrix. Clearly, Mary didn’t take the sins of the world upon herself and die on the cross, thereby satiating the wrath of the Father towards mankind. It must be admitted, therefore, that if we adopt this limited conception of mediation, it makes sense to oppose Catholic Marian dogma. On this view, the very notion of Mary being a Mediatrix is nonsense.

Incarnational Theology and the Role of Mary

If, however, mediation is understood in a broader incarnational sense, the role of Mary becomes crystal clear. For it is through Mary that the Word became flesh; it was in her womb that the Creator and sustainer of the universe took on human nature.

God did not force Himself upon Mary against her will either. As Peter Kreeft is fond of saying, “God is not a rapist.” Mary didn’t have to accept the message from Gabriel; she didn’t have to submit herself to what the Lord was intending to do in her life.  Mary, like you and I, had a real choice to make when she heard the message: she could either choose to reject God, as Eve had done in the garden, or choose to fully submit to His will and trust in Him.  To all of creations great relief, Mary chose the latter saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Like us, Mary’s faith in the Lord was made possible by the grace of God; and it was through the grace and love of God that Mary was emboldened to open herself to receiving the Lord. Likewise, it was the power of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Virgin, that made it possible for the Word to take on flesh; and it was through the incarnation of the Word that God united Himself to man.

It is in this context, the context of the incarnation, that Mary is said to be Mediatrix. For it is through her openness to God that the Lord was able to make his abode among men. As Hans Urs von Balthasar so eloquently explains:

“[in Mary] we see readiness, a receptivity that is totally unreserved: body, soul, and spirit are utterly open, “openings” to God. Here the essential thing is that the body is involved; that the handmaid’s consent echoes right through her, down to the lowliest and most unconscious fibers of her being; her whole self, in its materiality, from its lowest level upward, makes itself a womb for the Wholly Other, for God’s self utterance (and hence his “substance”). Never before had this substance taken up its abode within the straitened dimensions of a mortal body.”

Through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord, human nature has been restored to its former dignity and purity, and it is once again possible for the creation to be fully united with its Creator.

In all of this, there is but One true Mediator, and that is God. For it is God who creates and sustains the world, and it is God who saves. Mary, on her own, has no power to mediate. This is why the Catechism says:

“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it. No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (CCC article 970).

Considered in this light, it is clear that Mary plays a substantial role in salvation history and that her role in no way threatens Christ’s position as the One mediator between God and man.

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Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part One)


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/  Apophaticism is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is the first of a two part series designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /   

Apophatic theology, within the Christian tradition, is grounded in the Incarnation–the mystery of the eternally begotten Word made flesh and born of the Virgin Mary.  It is this paradigmatic paradox that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.  In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.

This antinomy is most clearly expressed in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel which proclaims that, “No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18); and affirmed also by St. Paul who states that Christ is, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15).  Thus, the Incarnation is at once God’s ultimate and most intimate revelation of Himself to His creation and a fixed reminder of the mysterious and ineffable nature of the God who remains unseen and invisible.

As we shall see Christian apophaticism is not synonymous to agnosticism; it is not an attempt to eradicate positive statements about God or deny our personal experience of God (as some believe).  Aristotle Papanikolaou explains that, “there is always a gap between our language about God and what God is.  In an apophatic approach, theology, attempts to stretch language in order to express the central antinomy revealed in the Incarnation–God’s transcendence and immanence.”  Apophaticism is, therefore, an acknowledgment of the complete transcendence and utter incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature and the humble admission that human beings lack the noetic capacities and linguistic tools needed to grasp or properly communicate the infinite, eternal, Godhead.  Furthermore, it is the acknowledgment that God loves His creation and condescends to make Himself known in spite of our limited capacities.

This fact–the radical ontological distinction between the creature and the Creator, the unknowability of God’s essence, and God’s desire to make Himself known–is vividly portrayed in the account of Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament.  Scripture tells us that:

On the third day in the morning, there were thunderings and lightnings and a dark cloud on Mount Sinai; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, and all the people in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire.  Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the people were exceedingly amazed . . . and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  Then God spoke to Moses, “Go down and solemnly charge the people, lest they break through to gaze at God, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).*

In this passage we see that God, in his unfailing love and desire for communion–and in order to initiate a covenant with Israel–manifested His presence in a physically provocative way; thus condescending to our human nature.  Yet what God is, His essence, is symbolized by the impenetrable cloud of darkness, thick smoke, and fire; for God is invisible and His nature a mystery.  His presence, if directly beheld by man, is so overwhelming that God warns Moses not to let the people ascend the mountain lest they gaze directly upon Him and die.

The inadequacy of creaturely language–with regard to its ability to describe God–becomes even more obvious as we read Moses’ own account of his experience on the mountain in the presence of God in chapter thirty-three:

But He [God] said, “You cannot see My face; for no man can see My face and live.”  Moreover, the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me you shall stand on the rock.  So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).*

For surely the Divine Nature is not a body–possessing hands and a face–but is incorporeal.  Our language is simply unable to explain that which transcends all creaturely categories; thus, Moses, writing metaphorically, speaks of God having a ‘face’ and ‘hands’ and a ‘back.’  As the Lord Himself declares in this passage, “no man can see My face and live”–which is to say that no man can peer into the very essence of God; this knowledge is too great for us.  Yet, mysteriously, God allows Moses to experience Him indirectly; allowing him to see His “back.”  This, itself, is unhelpful for those who seek to understand what God is because there is know way for us to understand what it means to gaze upon the Lord’s back.  Here, again, human language fails us; Moses’ own experience was virtually indescribable (even to himself).

The stark contrast that we find in these passages and, throughout the Bible, between the creature and the Creator, are exactly what led the earliest Christian theologians to promote apophaticism.  For the Greek philosophers (namely those in the stream of Platonic and Aristotelian thought) believed that being or existence could be grasped by the human intellect and explained using purely human categories.  Christians, however, embracing the ontology of Scripture, recognized that Existence Himself, the great “I AM,” stood outside of all creaturely thought.  As Fr. John D. Zizioulas explains:

The message of apophatic theology was precisely that the closed Greek ontology had to be broken and transcended, since we are unable to use concepts of the human mind or of creation, for signifying God–the truth.  The absolute otherness of God’s being which is found at the heart of biblical theology is affirmed in such a manner that the biblical approach to God contrasts acutely with that of the Greeks.  Apophaticism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing that what we know about being–about creation, that is–must not be ontologically identified with God.

Plato’s famous analogy of the cave makes the difference between Greek and Christian thought explicit.  For in Plato’s account truth can be grasped when we stop looking at the mere shadow of being on the wall–i.e., the imperfect copies of eternal forms–climb out of the cave, and fix our gaze directly on the sun–the good;  the immaterial and immutable realm of the forms; the, “cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything”  In Plato’s ontology, gazing directly at the good is possible through purely human intellectual effort.  In contrast, Christian theology teaches that the Good transcends all human distinctions and categories; the Good is completely other and, hence, unknowable by means of purely human effort.  For the Good says, “no man can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20).*

Such considerations are what spurred Pseudo-Dionysius, that great champion of apophatic theology to proclaim:

Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process.  Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being.  Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.  It is and it is as no other being is.  Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.

*All Scripture quotations are taken from the Orthodox Study Bible which utilizes the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).  Therefore, the chapter and verse numbering might not correspond to those found in translations, e.g., ESV, NIV, KJV, etc., which utilize the oldest available Hebrew and Aramaic texts.

Previously posted on Truth is a Man (in a slightly different format)