The Word Embodied
This Is My Body
Nothing is impossible with God. (Lk 1:37)
Where is the proper place for God to abide? Where can we find the Most High? Perhaps these were the questions that David asked of himself and his adviser Nathan, because the king was disturbed to be living in a cedar palace while God’s ark was confined in a tent. Although Nathan assured David that God was with him no matter where he might go, it was only Nathan’s night-time revelation from God that could make the case: “Why should you build a house for me? I have been with you no matter where you have been. And I will build an even greater house for you.”
What are these readings getting at? What is the mystery—“kept secret for long ages,” Paul writes in Romans—that is now manifested through Jesus? What is the upshot of this talk of God’s temple and dwelling place—especially in the light of Advent and the promise of Christmas?
The pre-infancy narrative in Luke provides the central clue. It may even suggest a paradoxical answer to one of the more troublesome issues in our contemporary church.
Mary is told by the angel Gabriel, the messenger of God, that the Lord is with her. Much more intimate than God’s presence to David, the Lord is literally with her. She is the dwelling place. She is the new ark, beyond all our reasonable expectations. She is tent and temple. God is literally, physically in her, conceived as human, her very flesh, great with dignity, by the power of the Most High. And she is the temple. She is the greater house, the promise to David.
“Let it be done to me according to your word.”
It is Mary’s very acceptance of the “mystery hidden for ages,” her utter openness to the promise of God’s intimacy with us, that yields her pregnancy. She believed that God could take human flesh in her, become one with her very body. Herein, she was fertile to bear forth the Most High into the world.
This is the heart of the Incarnation mystery: that the ineffable and unnameable God could take human flesh, could become one with us, could be a human baby.
Her “yes,” her “fiat,” is, of course, momentous in the drama of the world, an axial point of history. The willingness of Mary to open her life utterly to God is a model of our humanity as well as of our church and sacraments.
And this is what brings us to a conundrum of our times.
How does Mary reveal the place of women in the “Mystical Body of Christ”? How do women fit into the church?
We have called Mary not only the mother of Jesus, but the “mother” of divine grace, most pure, inviolate and undefiled. We have termed her amiable, admirable, counselor, prudent, venerable, most powerful, merciful, and faithful. She is the mirror of justice, seat of wisdom, singular vessel of devotion, the tower of David. She is the house of gold, a gate of heaven, healer of the sick, a refuge of sinners, and comforter of the afflicted.
Does not a question suggest itself? If Mary—the mother of Jesus Christ, the very Word of God made flesh—is all of that, could she be a priest?
There are those who think that women should be ordained. There are those who think otherwise. But who among them appeals to the revelation of Christ, rather than enlightened self-interest, merely human traditions, or ideology? Who among them humbly considers the Word of God, willing to say, “Let it be done according to your word”?
Blessed Isaac of Stella, in the readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for Saturday of the second week of Advent, portrays the reality of Mary that we must all assume.
In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, His daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful. These words are used in a universal sense of the church, in a special sense of Mary, in a particular sense of the individual Christian. Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the church’s faith.*
This observation of Blessed Isaac is a challenge to those of us who might think that a woman does not appropriately image Christ or adequately symbolize the incarnate mystery.
The Blessed Virgin Mary was the first human person who could say of Jesus, “This is my body, this is my blood.” She was the first altar of the Incarnation’s mystery. Her body a fitting temple, she was the prime analogate for those who know and live the mysteries of transubstantiation.
Was she not, then, the first priest, the first minister of the sacrament of the real presence?
How might those who hold that women are symbolically inadequate for the priesthood think about this? What might some feminists, who seem only ashamed of Mary, the mother of God, find by entering the mystery of her being? What might we all learn of her utter openness to the presence of God? That we, too, are called to make the Word our flesh?
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University