Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism
by Aidan Nichols O.P.
Chapter 10: Mary and the Saints
The Mysteries of Mary's Glorification
Though the Gospels are silent on the matter, there is a tradition in the Church that the mother of Christ was not deprived of an encounter with the risen Christ. In the iconography of the Byzantine Rite, one of the Easter myrrh-bearers is always Mary: as the Easter liturgy has it, "You met the Virgin and granted life." Romanos the Hymnographer witnesses to the same conviction in his Kontakion for Good Friday where he has the dying Christ say to his Mother:
Because the cross drew forth from Mary an obedience of faith that took the form of a total darkness, a complete self-abandonment of mind and will to the God whose ways are inscrutable, we might expect that the effulgence of the risen Christ would include her first of all — albeit not as a public, legal witness — in its radiance. Such perfect union with Christ in his self-emptying brings in its train a unique insertion into his redemptive victory at its central point.
Made mother of the Church at the cross, when the community of the disciples is entrusted to her care in the person of John, Mary assists the infant Church with her prayers after the ascension (Acts 1:14). In the providence of God, she carries out the functions ascribed to her in the Old Slavonic "promises" of her shrine at Jasna Gora (Czestochowa, Poland): "I am standing by you, I am remembering, I am watching."
Mary was thus present at the beginning of the Church, the start of the Church's pilgrimage through the history of individuals and peoples. It is the conviction of Tradition that her presence was not limited to that, but belongs with the Christian community's whole journey through space and time, notably as that journey is found in the history of souls — the microcosmic inner personal journey which accompanies and helps to compose the macrocosmic public and corporate journey of the Church.
Mary exercises this motherhood most powerfully upon her own assumption (15 August) when, at the end of her earthly life, she is raised in her total integrity (body and soul) into glory. The "woman" of Revelation 12 is the mother at once of the almighty messianic child and of his brethren. Pursued by the "dragon," she is nonetheless safe and sound, for the worst that the enemy (sin and death, the "powers of hell") can do has failed to take her in thrall. Even so she remains one with those of her children who are still vulnerable to his attacks, in the warfare that continues on earth. Here we have in nuce the dogma of Mary's assumption as proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
When the celebration of the assumption began to take shape, its main focus was Mary's falling asleep (dormition, from the Greek) in the Lord, her transit or passage to him on her "birthday," the day of her definitive entry into God's life. As soon as the Church emerges from her age of persecution, we find Fathers and other early Christian writers reluctant to ascribe the normal processes of death and corruption to Mary. If the earliest clear reference to her complete bodily redemption comes from Timothy of Jerusalem, writing around 400 (and other fifth-century Marian homilists in the Jerusalem Church show him not to be a sport), the great heresiologist Epiphanius of Salamis was writing even earlier in his Contra haereses that whether Mary actually died is unknown. He was aware of various hypotheses about the manner of Mary's "passage" to the Lord, and, committing himself to none of them, is thus an important testimony in the fourth-century Church to a positive tradition, claiming apostolic authenticity, on Mary's transitus from earth to heaven. (It is worth noting that all of these authors lived in Palestine, and were necessarily familiar with the tradition of the Jerusalem Church.)
Gradually the mind of the Church pondered these hypotheses and let through its sieve a secondary motif for the assumption celebration: the belief that Mary's body remained untouched by the decay of the tomb. Her flesh, which gave flesh to the Word incarnate, could surely never suffer physical corruption. As soon as Mary died or "fell asleep," she went straight to the Lord in her total personality. Mary, then, enjoys among human beings a unique privilege: not in that she has reached a goal which is not promised to others, but rather in the manner whereby God has brought her to that common goal. Our bodies will decay after death; the completion of our personal redemption is deferred because it is linked to the consummation of God's plan for the whole of his creation. But because of Mary's special place in God's redeeming plan, he brought her redemption to its completion straightaway. There was no sin to obstruct her union with him from the very start of her life. For her extraordinary task the mother of the Redeemer needed to be rescued from sin more than any of us, and so she was from the very outset. Similarly, at the end of her life there were to be no obstacles to prevent the perfect fulfillment of her redemption: not even the need of the material world for reordering, for harmonizing with the final end of humanity.
The assumption means a new intimacy of Mary with Jesus in the kingdom; on this is founded its salvational significance. The Byzantine liturgy sings:
This latter note is picked up by the liturgies that employ as the Old Testament lection for the feast of the Assumption a passage from the Song of Songs (2:10-13):
For this "Summer Easter," the Roman Rite makes use of part of an ancient Israelite wedding song, "The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold." Mary stands in glory at Christ's right hand, just as once she stood in humiliation by his cross. Since she remained close to her divine Son, she is taken into his destiny. The assumption draws the final implications from this closeness of Mary to Jesus, which is not a sentimental one but a real moral union working itself out at all levels and leading to a victory over the dehumanizing and disintegrating alien forces at work in the human world, namely, sin and death (as we know it). Mary suffered so intimately with her Son that she equally ultimately reigns with him: this is the logic of Christian salvation. Her standing by the crucified is the necessary and sufficient condition of her standing at the risen One's right hand.
Mary's assumption is not, however, a personal privilege irrespective of any wider function. In the work of salvation there are no privileges without responsibilities, no noblesse conferred that does not oblige, no sharing in the divine life that does not produce the most characteristic sign of that life: self-communication, self-bestowal. Mary's glorification is in one sense the end of her life, but in another sense its beginning. It is her entry upon her duties in the regime of transfiguration by which the world becomes the Church, sinful humanity the company of the redeemed, and the evil and mediocre are turned into saints. At the assumption, Mary initiates the activity prophesied by her dying Son when he gave her to the infant Church (represented in the last apostle) with the words, "This is your mother" (John 19:27). The assumption is a mystery of hope.
Because of the assumption, we can call on Mary as not only mother of God but also mother of the Church, and call for her to exercise her motherhood with efficacy in our regard, asking that, through her, we may glimpse and be drawn toward the glory in which she is bathed, the radiance of the uncreated love shining out in the face of the risen Son. Mary is called on, accordingly, as advocate, auxiliatrix, adjutrix, mediatrix, not to diminish the unique mediation of Christ but to show its power. For Christ's mediation flowers by stimulating participation in itself. The cultus of the Virgin is enormously varied in Catholicism. Its simplest form is a cry for assistance, as in the very early (possibly third-century) prayer Sub tuum praesiduum:
But it can also take complex forms, as in the Rosary, the "psalter of Mary," where prayers of acclamation and praise (the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be) are fused with meditation on the principal events of the lives of Jesus and Mary, the whole being presented via the medieval symbol of the rose — a garland of devotion for the rose without thorn. Where mysticism is concerned, Mary's Rosary is the people's charter. It puts the gospel in a nutshell, and tells of how all can become contemplatives. The least sophisticated and most sophisticated can pray it in different ways, and by it all can become truly simple-looking to God with the prayer of simple regard, as Mary now sees him in her bliss.
Many natural symbols have been pressed into the service of Marian devotion: the moon, in its constancy and hegemony over tides, as in the Norman fisherfolk's prayer, "Veuillez toujours, belle lune"; or the morning star (Phosphorus Hesperus) in the Ave maris stella — "Bright virgin, steadfast in eternity, Star of this storm-tossed sea," prayed Petrarch. The blue of the sky is Mary's color, the color of light, space, eternity. The pine cone and pomegranate are more earthy symbols of her spiritual fertility and abundance of grace. In Giovanni Bellini's Pietà, the Virgin laments over the dead body of her Son, but the icon of sorrow holds the promise of resurrection. Behind her, the winter landscape blossoms with the first flowers of spring.
In heaven, Mary reveals the Church's most profound ambitions, both in the afterlife, when the bride hopes to be reunited, like the new Jerusalem, with Christ the bridegroom, and on earth, where as the messianic community she hopes to hold sway in plenitude of spiritual power. But this power is made perfect in weakness: as Bonaventure remarks of Francis's devotion to Mary (in this as in other respects the type of the Church):
The concern of the exalted Mary for the people of God is manifested in a number of visions and appearances vouchsafed in the course of Church history. The visions usually designate a new saint by a personal token of his or her communion with the "eschatological icon of the Church," while the appearances sanctify that portion of the earth where it took place with a lasting salvific effect — a kind of "geography of salvation," expressed in the many Marian shrines of Catholicism. These range from the well-known Lourdes, where the Virgin appeared by a cave in the Pyrenean mountains in 1858 to inaugurate a river of healings of the sick, who constitute Lourdes's central figures, to Guadalupe, where a Mexican peasant in 1531 saw the stones of the hillside and the desert cacti bathed in radiance, and heard music sweeter than birdsong as the Virgin approached him, star-crowned and wearing the sash of local women in pregnancy, and impressed her image on his cloak. This century other people and places have made their claim — Akita (Japan), Cua (Venezuela), Kibeho (Rwanda), Zeitoun (a suburb of Cairo), Damascus, and, perhaps best known, Medjugorje in Herzegovina.
Such visions and appearances, however their truth-claims be assessed, add nothing to Catholicism's doctrinal content and the faithful are entirely free in their regard. Indeed, they concern hope more than faith. Their fruit lies in the lives of those who return to prayer, charity, and the practice of community. In themselves they are doubly relative — relative to the capacity of the visionaries to receive them, and relative as well to their abilityto express what they receive, for their words are not guaranteed as are those of Scripture. Still, as the leading Catholic student of these phenomena, Rene Laurentin, has pointed out, the cultivation of doubt per se is not a virtue, and especially when the human record offers its own verification according to the axiom laid down in the Fourth Gospel, "The man who does what is true comes to the light" (John 3:21).
An Archetypal Litany
If humanity is an empty receptacle awaiting the presence of God, then the feminine element (the anima) concretely symbolized in woman is the heart of humankind, our most Godward side. Here, in woman, the vessel of humanity opens to receive life. Mary's role, and by inference that of all Christian women, is that of the "maternal feminine": the personification of love, the giver and protector of life, brooding over God's creation in the contemplative space of the heart, and bringing to birth in silence and patience. Just as Jesus' own archetypal significance is seen most clearly in the spiritual fatherhood exercised by the ministerial priest in the Church — a memorial and sacramental sign of Christ the high priest, communicating the mystery of the Son by the ministry of the word and sacraments so Mary's archetypal significance is seen in the spiritual motherhood carried out by women in the Church, and notably by the women doctors like Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila. These are "charismatics," who communicate the mystery of the Holy Spirit as memorials of Mary and signs of the Church in her contemplatively fruitful heart. (In this sense, the nonordination of women to the priesthood is a way of expressing the indispensable and irreducible specificity of femininity.)
However, if Mary's archetypal significance begins in this "maternal feminine," it does not end there. For Mary is not only virgin and mother, she is also companion and mediatrix. The litany of Loreto — the most extended Marian prayer of the Latin Church — tries to do justice to each of these in a series of invocations. The first two are easy. The mother, warm, tender, caring, selflessly devoted, her whole being centered on the child is "Holy mother of God," "Mother of Christ," "Mother of divine grace," "Mother of the Creator," "Mother of the Savior," "Loveable mother," "Admirable mother," "Health of the sick," "Refuge of sinners," "Consoler of the afflicted." This mother is also a virgin: "Mother most pure," "Mother most chaste," "Inviolate mother," "Mother still virgin"; and her virginity, not only in its bridal readiness of self-giving but also in its strong independence, is both imaged in terms drawn from the Old Testament "Tower of David," "Tower of ivory," "House of gold," "Ark of the covenant" — and invoked directly — "Virgin to be revered," "Virgin to be acclaimed," "Virgin most powerful," "Virgin most merciful," "Virgin most faithful."
Mary as companion, a reference to her companionate relation to both Jesus and the Church, is hinted at in "Mother of good counsel," "Virgin most prudent," and (clearly enough) "Help of Christians," as in the co-ruling imagery of "Queen of angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, all saints." Mary's role as a mediator is suggested, finally, by the invocations which refer to her as a means of guidance or communication: "Mirror of justice," "Seat of wisdom," "Spiritual vessel," "Vessel of honor," "Vessel of outstanding devotion," "Gate of heaven." Thus in Mary the multiple forms of feminine consciousness and experience are summed up, and make her the "mystical Rose," a role model for all the daughters of Eve.
Our Lady, however important for Catholic piety, is not to be separated from the throng of other saints which surrounds her. The final mystery of the Rosary is often presented as "the coronation of our Lady in heaven and the glory of all the saints." The fellowship of the saints, as persons redeemed, called, and hallowed by God, is indeed the comprehensive aim of the self-disclosure of the three-personed God, especially as the communio sanctorum finds its archetypal root in the communio Trinitatis, the Trinitarian source which posits its own creaturely image by creation, grace, and glorification.
Communio sanctorum: we have already seen, in dealing with the rites of the Church, how that phrase may have a neuter sense, and refer to the communion of holy gifts which is the sacramental life, with the Eucharist at its center. Now we must turn to its almost equally ancient personalist meaning. On that reading, this clause of the Creed will simply amplify the preceding article on the holy catholic Church. The visible Church of which those now alive on earth are members has further invisible dimensions comprising the holy dead of all ages, what Augustine called ecclesia ab Abel, "the Church since Abel [the first just human being]."
But if these words of a fifth-century Church Father living in what is now Romania are to be our cue, we must distinguish between devotion to the holy souls in purgatory (the suffering or sleeping Church: see above, chap. 6) and veneration of the saints strictly so called: the inhabitants of the Church triumphant, the glorified Church.
Veneration of the saints has been and remains one of the issues dividing the Catholic and Orthodox Churches from those of the Reformation. For the latter, such veneration is unacceptable, since it appears to detract from the honor due to Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity. Reformed Christians may admire many saintly people of the past, yet they refuse to give them public cultus and, especially, to ask liturgically for their intercession. Were we to seek an idea which both sums up the Catholic view of the saints and also meets the Protestant objection, we could find it in the concept, already mentioned several times in these pages, of submediation. Christologically, we are familiar with the idea of mediation: God acts by the mediation of his Son, just as humanity responds to him by the mediation of Jesus Christ, thus enabling God's gift of salvation and humanity's reception of it to coincide perfectly, and therefore effectively. But the question then arises, can the mediatory work of the Son made man — a work which, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, goes on throughout time and eternity — itself be mediated? Can God by grace enable other human beings to share in Christ's mediatorial activity so as to become its channels to others? The Catholic view is that such submediation is not only conceptually possible; it is also a familiar feature of Christian experience. Examples would be when people pray for each other "through Christ our Lord," that is, in the power of his high priestly prayer before the Father; or when they take the gospel to others, as agents or instruments of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. That Christ makes other human beings, the saints, into submediators of salvation is a more powerful testimony to what we can call his salvific creativity than would be his simply saving us without any further submediation of his atoning work. Few better ways to understand the cultus of the saints in Catholicism can be imagined than the graphic depiction of its rationale in the medieval Western rood screen.
Since Protestants do accept in practice the reality of such submediation by living Christians, and only deny it to the dead, they are saying in effect that the efficacy of Christ's generation of this submediatorial activity is extinguished by biological death. But this goes against the entire thrust of the New Testament's doctrine of the resurrection, which holds that the continuum of life in Christ, established on the basis of the transfigured biology of Jesus' risen body, is now more fundamental to reality than is the biological continuum by which physical organisms come into being and pass away again, so forming the humus from which other organisms can grow.
Less controversial is the power of the saints to express something of the divine beauty, goodness, and truth. God's goodness is diffusivum sui: of its nature it tends to spread itself around. The light of the one Lord Jesus Christ streams out in the endless variety of the lives of the saints, drawing us to them. In each we see some facet of the God-man. But most notably, in the saving events chronicled in the New Testament, the Spirit of God, the giver of all holiness, has come to communicate himself in a new way in the midst of human life. Disciples of Jesus who have opened themselves without holding back to this communication of the Spirit of the Father in the Son are those we call the saints. In the preface of the feast of All Saints, the Church invokes Christ as "the only Holy One in so great an assembly of holy ones." This paradox indicates that the saints show us what pneumatic Christlife is like.
The saints are not simply those canonized by the Church, persons placed on a list of servants of God whose lives were either the object of acclamation by the Christian people in some place, or (more recently) have met the test of a rigorous official examination (both in the local Church and at Rome, where investigation is made of the candidate's writings, reputation for holiness, and the evidence of miracles occurring in answer to his or her intercession). The Byzantine icon of the resurrection shows the victorious Christ raising up Adam and Eve as representatives of all humanity.
Those whom the Church recognizes canonically as saints are those in whom the Christian people have seen some outstanding manifestation of the single life in Christ which all are graced to share. It is because all are called to be saints that the Church is able to recognize in some an outstanding generosity of response to a universal vocation.
In the reciprocity of the uniqueness of the person and the singularity of his or her self-gift to the Church, the Christian rhythm of individual and community becomes a real parable of the inner-divine Trinitarian life, but more specifically, the foundation of the theological personality and mission of the saints must lie in the mission of the Son as principal protagonist of the drama of salvation which the triune God is staging in the world. The center of the vitae sanctorum is always Jesus Christ in his universally representative mission, yet each life expresses adequacy of response to the personal and thus unique call to discipleship.
The saints bring before the eye of the Catholic Christian, tacitly but no less potently for that, numerous wider aspects of the faith. These include the solidarity of living and dead Christians, the unity of the body of Christ over space and time, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church as the One in whom is wrought all communion and intercession, and the salvifically mediating power of the humanity of Christ. In the medieval Western text called the Golden Legend, a widely diffused work written on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, six reasons are given in commendation of the cult of the saints. First, that veneration gives honor to God, since whoever honors the saints necessarily honors as well the One who has sanctified them. Second, we venerate them in order to provide "aid in our infirmity." so that we may deserve their assistance. Third, in celebrating their glory, our hope is augmented. As Augustine remarked of the martyrs:
Fourth, we honor them so as to learn from their example. Fifth, just as the saints rejoice in heaven over our repentance, so it is right that we "make feast of them on earth." Sixth, in worshipping them with the worship of devotion, we honor the whole communion of the Church "for charity makes all to be common." All personal salvational situations before God are reciprocally co-determined, or as the French poet and social commentator Charles Péguy put it:
The cult of the saints brings before us likewise the ecclesial dimension of eschatology, whether individual or general, as is well brought out in Bede's homily for All Saints Day.
The cult of relics in the Catholic Church is mainly but not exclusively concerned with the relics of the saints. (There are also Christological relics, mainly connected with the instruments of the passion. Supremely, these are staurological [from the Greek stauros, a "cross"], namely the fragments of the true cross traditionally held to have been discovered by the archaeological efforts of the empress Helena in 324.) A relic is defined as a sacred object which has been in real contact with Christ or the saints and so recalls their memory. It must possess an objective relation with the body of Jesus in his human life or a relationship of a more of less intimate kind with the saints and blesseds of the Church. The Church recognizes the duty to remove false relics from veneration, though in many cases historicity cannot be ascertained one way or the other — in which case a relic recognized as such by pious custom will generally receive the benefit of the doubt.
Relics are not necessarily vestiges of the bodily remains of a saint. They may also be examples of their clothing, of the objects they used in their daily life, or more biographically significant items like the instruments of their penance or of their martyrdoms. Lastly, there are the so-called representative relics: pious objects that have been placed in contact with their remains. Thus even a mediate relation with a saint or a beatus can make an object a relic.
The veneration of the relics of the saints is ultimately founded on two broad principles drawn from biblical revelation. First, the divine plan is to save us not atomistically (individually) but as persons in relation with others in Christ's mystical body, by incorporation into a redeemed community embracing this existence and the age to come into whose distinct temporality the saints have been drawn forward. The communion of the Trinitarian persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, which is the source of our creation and sanctification, can (we have seen) only find full reflection in a communio sanctorum, a communion of holy human beings. Second, our salvation, thus mediated through the solidarity of redeemed humanity in Christ, does not take place without reference to the body. For Scripture we are essentially embodied souls. The redemptive work of the Son necessarily entailed, therefore, the incarnation of the Logos, his embodiment within the bodily continuum of our interpersonal life, just as the final goal of his mission is the resurrection of the body to life everlasting.
These principles are more to the point than the allusions of the Bible which Catholics have regarded as pointing onwards to the specific practice of the cult of relics. Those would include, in the Old Testament, the ceremonial transfer of the body of the patriarch Jacob from Egypt to Hebron, where Abraham had established his family burial ground, and the belief of the editor of 2 Kings that a revivification took place of someone whose body was laid on the grave of the prophet Elisha. In the New Testament reference is customarily made to the incident of the woman with a hemorrhage in the Synoptic Gospels, for she was healed through touching the hem of Jesus' cloak. Then there is the claim of the author of Acts that God worked wondrous healings through "handkerchiefs and scarves" that had been in touch with Paul's skin. As Paul was still alive this is hardly an example of the relic cult tout court, yet it shows how objects that had touched Paul's person were honored and preserved by the faithful.
As so often, Thomas Aquinas best sums up the developed teaching of the Church.
So while we should hold dear every memorial of the saints as aliquid ad sanctos pertinens, "something belonging to them," we should regard as holy and holy-making the bodies of the saints, which are more than the former, being aliquid sanctorum, something of the saints themselves.
The communion of saints is rooted in the places where people have lived and seen the glory of God shining out in the common light of every day. There is a geography of the holy places, where the saints have dwelt: Avila and Athos, Iona and Assisi, Rome and Lisieux. Those who have been constantly with God become rather freer of time and space than others. Holy places remain full of a timeless presence, from which the rest of the Church benefits by pilgrimage and devotion.
This may be then a good point at which to mention the Catholic practice of making pilgrimages, not indeed only to the shrines of the saints, but also to those of our Lady, and — above all — the holy places of Palestine, sanctified by the Lord's own footsteps. Pilgrimage has a symbolic value: it is a lived metaphor of the whole of life as consecrated, a journey towards God's kingdom — as sources as diverse as Piers Plowman and the pilgrimage paintings of Hieronymus Bosch attest. It also has a practical religious value, providing a share in the graces of renunciation and discipline which those professional ascetics who are faithful to their calling typically receive. Finally, it provides an opportunity to review one's life, by way of a temporary release from ordinary norms and constrictions. The abandonment of known structures for a situation where such structures are absent, and the consequent release of spontaneous fellow feeling, are part of the enduring appeal of the experience of pilgrimage in settled societies.
17. Bonaventure, The Major Life of Saint Francis 9.3.
18. R Laurentin, The Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary Today (Dublin, 1990) 25.
19. Nicetas of Remesiana, Explanatio Symboli, cited in C. P. Caspari, Kirchenhistorischen Anecdota (Christiania, 1883) 355-56.
20. E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven and London, 1992) 158.
21. G. Mackay Brown, "Good Friday and Easter."
22. K. Rahner, "The Church of the Saints," in Theological Investigations (London, 1987) 3:99-100.
23. Augustine, Sermon 344.4.
24. C. Péguy, Le mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc, ed. A. Béguin (Paris, 1956) 44.
25. Bede the Venerable, Homily 70, for the Solemnity of All Saints 1.
26. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3.25.6.