Sr. Mc Bride Section

Mary, Mother of God Section 

Mary Archetype of the Church According to Hans Von Balthasar

Sr. Thomas Mary Mc Bride, O.P.

Our Lady of Grace Monastery


(page numbers refer to original manuscript)

..................................................  1


                         VON BALTHASAR
......................................  7

            A. THE CHURCH AS PERSON..................................  9

            B. THE CHURCH AS BODY...................................  12

            C. THE CHURCH AS STRUCTURE..............................  16

            D. THE CHURCH AS BRIDE..................................  20


                         CHURCH ACCORDING TO VON BALTHASAR
.................  28

            A. THE VIRGIN BECOMES MOTHER OF CHRIST..................  34




                           VON BALTHASAR
...................................  52

            A. THE APOSTOLIC ARCHETYPES.............................  55


               THE APOSTOLIC ARCHETYPES.............................  60



               VOCATION IN THE CHURCH...............................  67

CONCLUSION...................................................  71

BIBLIOGRAPHY.................................................  75



            The main content of this paper will be the role of Mary in the Church, focusing in particular on the Marian
fiat, as found in the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  According to von Balthasar, Mary made to God, [1] through the gift of grace, the perfect nuptial response of faith and thus the Marian fiat has become the archetype, principle and exemplar of the faith response of the entire Church. [2]

            Chapter One will discuss von Balthasar's conception of the Church as Marian, feminine, and bridal by considering his analysis of the Church as person, as body, as structure, and ultimately, as bride.  In von Balthasar's writings, the Church is first and fore­most, Christ; but when considered as Head and body, the Church is also a response to Christ, that is, a bridal self-surrender to Christ in faith by means of which the Church bears in her own flesh and spirit the fruit of Christ.  Although she is made up of many subjects, the Church is not a mere collectivity of persons: a sociological reality.  Her many members participate through infused grace in a single normative subject and its consciousness. [3]  Her inchoateness is fulfilled in the mystery of the Holy Spirit within her inmost ground, who alone can constitute her as subject and as bride. [4]  For von Balthasar there is no analogy for this reality that revelation calls the bride of Christ.  It is a mystery of faith. [5]   

            Chapter Two will trace von Balthasar's outline of the figure of the Virgin Mary whom he considers "the
Realsymbol" of the Church. [6]  Drawing on the Fathers and Tradition, von Balthasar presents the Virgin of Nazareth as the individual woman who personifies and is the very epitome of the Church in her essential bridal self-surrender to God.  The whole life of Mary is embodied in the perfect consent "that allows all", and by thus allowing God's Word to take complete possession of her body and spirit, she "becomes womb and bride and mother of the incarnating God". [7]     

            The Virgin becomes the Mother of Christ because through the Immaculate Conception, source of her spotless virginity, Mary was graced with perfect finite free­dom: the capability for full self-realization,
[8] enabling her to respond and receive the divine seed. 

            The Mother of Christ becomes the Bride of Christ on Calvary wherein her free, faith-filled consent to God's salvific will is brought to its highest achievement.  Stand­ing beside the Cross of Jesus, Mary receives in perfect faith and love the "infinite fruitfulness"
[9] flowing from the open wound in Christ's Heart.  The new Eve receives the outpoured life and overflowing grace of the new Adam, intimately cooperating through her unrestricted fiat in his mission of redemptive love. [10]

            The Bride of Christ becomes Mother of the Church from the seed of spiritual fruitfulness which the immaculate Bride received from her crucified Son: his Body given and his Blood poured out.  As Mother, Mary gives birth to the Church, again and again, throughout the ages. 

            In Chapter Three I will present a simple picture of von Balthasar's apostolic archetypes: Peter, John, and Paul, who form in the Church, together with Mary, a necessary and indissoluble group of persons surrounding the human life of Christ.
[11]  Within this archetypal view, von Balthasar considers the Marian fiat as the foundational form, undergirding and sustaining the apostolic archetypes, for Mary's experience came first and thus wholly conditions the apostolic experience. [12]  According to von Balthasar, Mary's bridal "yes" of bodily faith, which continues on in the Church as fruitful virginity, not only has implications for the Church, indeed the Marian fiat defines the Church.  The fiat and redemption are so interwoven, so inseparably one, that the creature cannot say "yes" to God without being redeemed, but neither can the creature be redeemed without somehow having spoken his or her "yes".  Mary's single fiat sufficed for the incarnate Lord to say "yes" to all mankind.  Her fiat therefore, like the fiat voluntas tua of the Lord, is vicarious; it is catholic: embracing the all of God's love for all of God's people; and it is archetypal. [13]  Grounded in Mary's archetypal fiat the bridal Church, like Mary, conceives, bears and gives birth to Christ.

            Finally, I hope to show that the Marian archetypal "yes" has a particular relation to the contemplative vocation in the Church - a vocation entirely focused on adoration, receptivity and surrender to the Word of God, as was Mary who kept and contemplated the word in her heart.

            What binds the three chapters together is the nuptial encounter between God and the creature.  Chapter One develops von Balthasar's understanding of the Church as bride.  Chapter Two focuses on Mary as the Realsymbol of the bridal Church.  Chapter Three depicts Mary's bridal fiat as the foundational form of the apostolic archetypes, indeed of every member, while the contemplative vocation in the heart of the Church bears particular witness to her Marian bridal reality.  God imparts his life in the subjectivity and personality of the real persons who form the Church [15] and awaits from each the Marian "fiat" which von Balthasar probes as the invisible "form" of the Church: her deepest essence. [16]

            CHAPTER ONE


            For von Balthasar, the Church is first and foremost a mystery of faith and this fact has always been present in her consciousness.

            However, as the Christian Church passed through the various ages of her history - the early patristic age, the era of Constantine, the time of Charlemagne, down to the Reformation - there emerged a growing need to reflect on the outward manifestation of this mystery of faith, that is, on the visible form of the Church in the world.  Previous to the time of the Reformation the inward mystery of the Church and her outward form were considered in mutual relationship and the content of the mystery was preserved in the world of prayer.

            The core of truth was safeguarded by prayers and meditations of contemplative love; the commentaries on the Song of Songs and on Paul and John, whose content was transmitted uninterruptedly from the patristic era to the scholastic, preserved the heart of the mystery.  Great art could produce the mystery in its imagery, on the basis of an as yet
undisputed aesthetic and religious correspondence between the inward and the outward, mystery and form. [18]

            But with the coming of the Reformation, followed by the Enlightenment, serious questions had to be asked in regard to this mystery of faith and its outward form, and answers had to be given according to judgements based on reason.  Therefore, the spotlight was turned from a contemplative gazing on the inner inscrutable content to an emphasis on the external visible structure.  Considerable reflection continues in our own time around this central issue. [19]  Von Balthasar in his writings affirms the Church as both of these realities and sees the mutual relationship of visible form and inner content epitomized in the bridal fiat of the Virgin Mary. 

            Von Balthasar, noting that the bridal image of the Church has become blurred and no longer holds much attention in the general consciousness of the Church, has developed a carefully reflective train of thought to show that the Church is indeed, as Scripture attests, bride.  He does this by first pointing out that the Church is a personal subject and not simply a collectivity of persons; secondly, that this single living being, who is Christ together with the Church, forms a single mystical Person: the mystical Body of Christ.  And thirdly, - here is the place for the analogy of the bride - the Church can be contemplated also for herself, as distinguished from Christ, yet united wholly with him in the one flesh.  Through the Church's sacramental and structural institution, Christ imparts to the real persons who form the Church his divine-human life.  The bride-Church receives, as in marriage, Christ's most intimate communion of life and love, responding, like Mary, with a bridal "yes" of total surrender to her Divine-human Bridegroom.

            According to von Balthasar there is only one Bride of Christ.  Each person who desires to participate in the mystery of God's personal love must be in the One Bride whose living unity is formed through the imparting of the unique life of the Spirit of God acting above, in and through the individuals integrated into her.  Each person in his or her own uniqueness is put in touch, by grace, with the uniqueness of God and is thus opened, through faith and love, to complete personal fulfillment in the Word.  In the illuminating radiance of the Word, the praying individual realizes what it means to be a member of the Only Bride, the Church.   

            Everyone who is chosen to share this love is chosen
in the Bride, as "part" of her or, better, as an embodiment of her, so that the Bride's unique mystery shines forth with ever more radiant truth at the very depths of the chosen soul to whom grace, faith and love have been given. [20]

            A.  THE CHURCH AS PERSON

            For most of us the Church has unconsciously become an institutional collectivity which we refer to as an "it".  Therefore, if the Church is to be again seen in her bridal reality, she must be rightfully understood as "person", as feminine, as a "she".  In von Balthasar's analysis of the Church as person he studies first the phenomenon of the collective subject, comparing this general subject with the Church and showing that the Church may be considered a collective subject only analogically.  He does this by considering it under three aspects: first, the collective subject as a natural grouping with its ability to posit distinct acts; secondly, the collective subject in  relation to its government and the carrying out of these acts; and thirdly, the collective subject as a personal center of consciousness. [21]

            Under the first aspect, von Balthasar notes that we do attribute to these natural groupings such as the family, the state, a race, a people, the ability to posit distinct acts, saying for example "The family has decided", or "The state has mandated", just as we say "The Church prays", or "The Church teaches", thereby giving the Church an analogical resemblance to a collective subject.

            Under the second aspect, however, von Balthasar explains that these acts of the collective subject are carried out or made public by a certain group of responsible individuals who function, in relation to the collective subject, in gradational forms from democracy to absolutism.  But the Church, while it might seem to function externally in governmental fashion - the hierarchy being commissioned with the responsibility of teaching, governing and guiding - has no democratic form or Constitution which would represent or formulate the will of the people, nor does the hierarchy have any monarchical powers.  Rather, those with the charism of authority, "holding office
jure divino", are also believers "in the same sense as all the rest" and exercise their office in complete dependence on the mind and heart of Christ. [22]

             Under the third aspect, Balthasar points out that a collective subject can have no personal center of consciousness since it is made up of many personal centers.  The Church, however, has only one center of consciousness: its personal center being the consciousness of Christ.  It is the person of Christ who acts in and through the Church: when the Church baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.  The acts of the Church flow completely from Christ, arise from Christ and are entirely dependent on Christ.  Christ pours into the Church his whole personal consciousness so that his knowing and willing may be the personal consciousness of each member functioning in absolute dependence upon him as on his or her Head.

            This Head is the glorified Christ, his Person transcendent over the whole Church, sovereign and unaccountable.  For him it is no sort of hubris but a simple statement of fact to make the equation:
L'Eglise, c'est moi. [23]

If then, the Church is Christ living on, how can she be bride?

            B.  THE CHURCH AS BODY

            Since the Church is Christ those who belong to the Church are, first and foremost, members of Christ, and as such, the body of Christ. [24]  Christ is the Head and those who are members of his Body form together with him the whole Christ.  The Church is a person, and ultimately bride, only through her receptivity of the abundant overflowing grace which flows into her from Christ her Head.  To be a member of the body of Christ, therefoee, is to be rooted in the very mind and heart of Christ.  And since the God-man Jesus Christ assumed our human nature in order that, through his humanity, he might impart to us his divine nature, the personality he shares with us is not only his human consciousness but the Trinitarian life that is his as the second Person of the blessed Trinity.  We participate in this divine life poured "down in abundance from the Head onto the body", through the grace of faith, hope, and charity, which disposes the members to live obscurely but truly the very life of God.[25]

            This sharing of the mystical body of Christ in the divine life is even more clearly expressed in the simile of the vine and the branches (Jn 15), where the branches are so totally dependent on the vine that, if deprived even slightly of the unseen but activating life of the the vine, the branches remain barren and simply wither away.[26]

            Von Balthasar uses as a final image to depict the Church as body of Christ, the image of the pierced side of the crucified Lord.  At that moment, when Jesus handed over his spirit to the Father, blood and water flowed out from his open side.  This was the same Spirit which Jesus bestowed upon his disciples at Easter, and the same blood and water which now constitutes the sacramental life of the Church.  Von Balthasar sees these three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood (1 Jn 5), which came forth from the open Heart of Christ as pure gift of his divine and human Trinitarian consciousness, now constitutive of his mystical body, the Church.

            There can be no doubt at all that, for John, water and blood represent all the sacraments, nor that the whole event, of which the presence of Mary and the beloved disciple beneath the Cross forms a part, signifies the extreme of love, at once divine and human, in its self-manifestation. . . . and has evidently to do with the inner essence of the Church.

The question here arises: was this pouring forth of Christ's Trinitarian consciousness - his attributes of spirit and body "being poured forth externally in the sacramental forms", - the sole source of the origin of the Church?  Or was human cooperation also necessary?  Was there present in the dying body of the crucified Christ, some     some element of preexisting sinful man . . . a kind of second agent cooperating in this founding and outpouring of the Church?

Von Balthasar sees this latter position to be the more congruent one, and a view which facilitates "
the transition from the image of the Church as body to that of the Church as bride".[28]  Mary, united with Christ in one flesh, stands under the Cross in the company of John and the believing holy women who participate in her bridal fiat.  The Church comes to be as bride in virtue of their 'feminine' assent to all that God wills - truly and literally immaculate only in her archetype, Mary.  This nuptial fiat remains, according to von Balthasar, the innermost mystery of the Church, a mystery of both abiding joy as well as abiding pain "since it originates perpetually in the actuality of the Cross".[29]

            On Calvary, in the mutual entrustment of Mary and John, the bridal Church is given over to the care of the hierarchical Church.[30]  As bride, the Church is led to her feminine fruit-bearing function and fortified in it by the structural, sacramental element of the Church. [31]



            The Church, whose origin is in Christ - for she exists nowhere else but within him - is engendered by him on the Cross, the very place of his incomprehensible generative power.  As the pure outpouring of the Lord she radiates his gift of redemption into a sinful world in order to raise up created persons to the sphere of Triune love.[32]  To accomplish this, therefore, the Church must have a form consonant with the world: it must be an institution with sacrament, hierarchy and dogma.[33]

            At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the contemplative, patristic, and medieval doctrine of the Church as bride began to fade.  As a result of the Reformation and the consequent breakdown of faith in Church authority, a Counter-Reformation theology grew up which considered the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church as the strict form of the Church, that is, her forms of worship, her disciplinary laws, and theology as the teaching of defined dogma.[34]  In this perspective the laity, who are governed by the hierarchy and who passively  receive the sacraments, would be considered the less important "matter" of the Church:

            the "sheep" ruled by the hierarchy and merely receptive of the sacraments belong only to the "material" element of the Church.

However, von Balthasar brings to our attention that the reverse is true.[36]  The Church is not simply an institutional structure "designed to shelter a multitude of believers in Christ as a formal element enclosing a material one".[37]  Rather the structures of the Church belong to the "material" element.  When considered in their service role of transforming the faithful into Christ, they take on a sine qua non importance because of their invisible content which is the redemptive love of Christ and their purpose which is to bring forth by means of their "objective, sacramental, and official mode of action. . . . the subjective form of Christ in each Christian".[38]

            The external organization of the Church is a gift of the risen Christ who imparts offices and charisms throughout the Body (1 Cor 12) in service to her inner mystery.  The Spirit of Christ, who is also the Spirit of the entire Church, bestows his gifts on everyone. 

            To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. . . . All are inspired by the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor 12:7,11).

Therefore, every member of the Church is in a direct relationship to Christ through the Spirit and each is called to make an act of obedience in faith:
Ecce Ancilla Domini, to surrender to the Lord in order to receive, embodied in a personal call and mission, the "form of Christ": the form of the servant obediently accepting the ignominy of the Cross (Phil 2:1-11).[39]  The Christian, who is called to be an apostle, must be steeped in this servant-form of Christ, that is, in Christ's perfect love and obedience to the Father, and in Christ, made a new creature.  In the apostle, love and the ministerial office are inseparably joined.  The ministry of the apostle is embedded in his personal following of Christ who calls him to public witness and service of this Christ-form for the entire Church.[40]

            Incorporation into the form of Christ is made available and nourished through the structures of the Church, principally the Eucharist, which "is accessible to the individual believer only in the framework of the hierar­chical structure."  Indeed,  participation in the body of Christ, the real body, the Mystical Body, and the Eucharistic Body, shows the true significance of the visible structure and its whole scope.  But however indispensable is her institutional and hierarchical structure as a sacral ministry of service, the Church is more.  As a "'someone',  a subject, a person", the Church allows this form-giving structure to "inform" her --Ecce Ancilla Domini--with the grace of Christ and the Trinity.[41]  The faithful, together with those called to the apostolic ministry, have their roots, meaning, and purpose in the Marian fiat of bridal surrender to God.[42]  The hierarchy does not, of itself, manifest the inner holiness of the Church but, as "the crystalization of the love of the Lord",[43] its function is, with the help of Church structures and the Marian surrender of her members, to transform the original bridal holiness of the Church, which was given and received on Calvary, into a visible holiness of life and love.

            The encounter that, at its maximum intensity, merits the name of marriage, is personal and takes place between God as person and man as person, though all that gives this encounter an ecclesiological stamp is its prerequisite only and is not the encounter itself.  Admittedly, the whole complex of those things instituted by God for salvation is the most sublime, the richest in mystery, the most inaccessible to the human mind, of all that is.  Nonetheless, it is there for the sake of the individual creature and fulfills its purpose only when he is reached and brought home to God. . . . What never falls away is the nuptial encounter between God and the creature, for whose sake the framework of the structures is now set up and will later be dismantled.  This encounter, therefore, must be the real core of the Church.  The structures and the graces they impart are what raise the created subjects up to what they should be in God's design: a humanity formed as a bride to the Son, become the Church.


            D.  THE CHURCH AS BRIDE

            Von Balthasar approaches the study of the Church as bride by examining Ephesians 5 wherein Paul conjoins the mystery of Christ's mystical Body, comprising Head and members, with the nuptial mystery of husband and wife: "The mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:32). 

            In this setting, "head" means ruling partner, the lord, in a marriage; "body" means completion and unification in the physical nuptial order.

            Paul enables us to see the image of Christ as Head and ourselves as members in a nuptial and personal sense by maintaining together two paradoxical statements: first, that the Church is a "someone", whom Christ loved and for whom he handed himself over, a "someone", therefore, who in her fallen state, estranged from God, "already existed"; and secondly, that the Church is also the very Body of Christ,

            in virtue of which the Church is what she is, namely, the glorious one without spot or wrinkle yet owing her origin wholly to this event of the Cross.

In order to hold these contradictory similes of bride and Body together, Paul utilizes the theological teaching of Genesis 2 which portrays the first woman as being made from the rib of Adam so that Eve is said to be both "his own flesh and blood", that is, his body, and, at the same time, a "person" for whose sake the man is to "leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife."  Since Adam had no father and mother to leave, Paul understands this teaching to refer to the future.  By applying his insight to the mystery of Christ and the Church, as well as to the relationship of the sexes, Paul helps us to see the Church as both bride of Christ and Body of Christ.[47] 

            The Fathers of the Church in commenting on the passage from Ephesians, together with Philippians 2, saw these texts as explaining one another: the Christ who left the Father and the heavenly Jerusalem, "
in order to cleave to his bride in her fallen state on earth", was the same Christ who "loved the Church and gave himself on the Cross for her"; and therefore, she stands before Christ as a personal subject, that is, as his bride.  At the same time, "the Church is seen as originating wholly from the dying Christ", that is, "a Church that is no more than the outpouring and prolongation of the twofold nature of Christ", now become Christ's Body.[48]  Indeed, von Balthasar suggests that the primary symbolism of Eve coming forth from Adam's rib ought to provide a basis for making the Church a bride, that is, a person contrasting with the Bridegroom, Christ; for the image of bride, in its content, goes farther than that of Mystical Body without contravening it. [49]

            In the Old Testament, Yahweh calls, draws Israel to himself as his bride and this image appears many times in the Prophets.

            For your Maker is your husband . . . and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.  For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God (Is 54:5-6).

            Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, thus says the Lord, I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown (Jer 2:2).

Consequently, in so far as Israel turns away from her Spouse, her falls are considered adulterous conduct.

            Further, all these texts that speak of judgement, denouncing Jerusalem's adultery, enormously strengthen the realism of the image, making it operate so forcefully that one can hardly speak any longer of a mere image.  In addition, these texts establish a singular continuity, little noticed in theology, between the disfigured bride of God in the Old Covenant and the bride of Christ in the new, expressly said to have been bathed and washed and therefore glorious and unspotted.

            But, although Israel is Yahweh's spouse, there is never any indication that she is also a "body" of God, nor is there any suggestion of "the Pauline parallel of the physical relation between man and wife."  Not even in the Song of Songs, which von Balthasar holds as included in the canon of Scripture because of its allegorical meaning, is there any allusion to the relations between Yahweh and Israel.  Von Balthasar contends

            that the sensuous portrayal of the two lovers was meant to become, in the history of Christian theology, the predestined
typos for the development of the New Testament nuptial relationship between Christ and the Church.[51]

            In the New Testament the "few synoptic texts that bridge the gap between the nuptial theology of the prophets and that of Paul" are so reserved that it is not clear if Jesus was revealing himself as "Bridegroom of the new redeemed community" or if Our Lord was applying the nuptial simile to himself according to "the traditional image of the messianic era", wherein the bride would be, as was Israel, the collective entity of God's chosen people.[52]

            In examining John's Gospel, however, von Balthasar selects a series of texts which, when taken together and within the overall Gospel message, point to a mysterious and greater bridal intimacy between Christ and the Church than between Yahweh and Israel.  In the Johannine scriptures, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the bridegroom and himself as the friend of the bridegroom, "who rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice" (3:29).  And since, in Jesus, "the Word was made flesh" (1:14), the union of the Bridegroom with his bride must have something to do with the flesh, that is, with the body.[53]  In 2:21, Jesus declares to the Jews that those who follow him will enter into the new "temple of his body", that is, into the inner life of Christ's body which would be raised up on the third day.  Jesus insists that without this mutual "body-Spirit"[54] in­dwelling - "Remain in me as I remain in you" (Jn 15:4) - there can be no fruitfulness.  In 2:21, Jesus' miracle of superabundant wine, given in the setting of a marriage feast, symbolizes and prefigures the blood of his pierced Heart poured out for the formation and the glorification of his bride Church.[55]  In the Eucharist, Jesus continually allows his life of redemptive love to flow into the Church by giving his flesh and blood for the life of the world (6:33); and the Church, in partaking of his Eucharistic Body, surrenders herself in a transforming union with his Trinitarian life like unto the nuptial union of husband and wife.[56]  In 7:31-38, Jesus invites all who are thirsty to drink from the fountain of his body, and that as a result, they will find flowing within themselves "rivers of living water."  In 19:27, Jesus consigns his mother to the disciple on Calvary (19:27), thereby creating a new family of disciples united in his one divinized body.  And Thomas, by putting his hand into Jesus' side, bears witness to the eternal reality of Jesus' transfigured body.  Finally, John writes to the Church as "the elect lady and her children" (2 Jn 1), and his last vision is the "eschatological vision of the spouse of the Lamb" (Rev 21), who speaks "her only word, uttered in unison with the Spirit: a cry of longing to the Bridegroom: 'Come!'" (Rev 22:17­).[57]

            Von Balthasar proposes that if we consider these texts together, we will see that, in the writings of John in particular, the relationship between Christ and the Church is far more intimate than that between Yahweh and Israel.  Indeed, through the communication of Christ's bodily nature, the Church has been created in a relationship transcending even the nuptial image given in the Letter to the Ephesians, although including it.[58]

            Yet, while all of this implies a mysterious and profound union like unto marriage, von Balthasar admits that John does not directly speak of the Church as the personal bride of Christ.  Rather it is the theology of the Fathers who have extended and amplified the bridal motif beyond what is actually in Scripture:

            the Church (even though come forth from Christ, or purified and exalted by him) is made a subject on her own, with a womanly beauty, whose form and adornment, feelings and sentiments, destinies, humiliations, and exaltations can be described.  A powerful contribution to endowing the Church with a personality and life of her own was made from the earliest times (of Justin and Irenaeus) by a parallel drawn between Mary and the Church, which, in the twelfth century, came to pervade the commentaries on the Song.

            Von Balthasar's vision, which is rooted in the Church Fathers, also sees the Church as the personal bride of Christ, of whom Mary is the prototype. 

            The Bridegroom gives and the bride receives; and only in this acceptance of faith can the miracle of the pouring forth of the Word, which is both sower and seed, be accomplished.  .  .  .  With revelation there is no such thing as an objective, uncommitted, scientific, "objectivity", but only a personal encounter of Word and faith, Christ and Church, in the mystery of the Canticle of Canticles.  When she understands, then is the Church holy; and, insofar as she is holy, she understands.

            CHAPTER TWO



            Mary pronounces her
fiat of faith and fidelity to the one God in three Persons: her bridal relation to the divine Reality is fundamentally a Trinitarian mystery.  At the Annunciation, Mary is overshadowed "by the Holy Spirit, who carries the Father's seed into her spiritual and bodily womb, the fruit of this marriage being the Incarnation of the Son."  In this perspective Mary can be called the bride of God.  Nevertheless, "as prototype of the Church [Mary] is rightly called the bride of the incarnate Word"[61]

            The origin of the Church in the seed of Christ: his Body and Blood freely delivered to death for the life of the world, is also a Trinitarian mystery since Christ cannot be separated from his Father and their one Spirit of mutual Love.  Again, the same Trinitarian mystery is involved when considering the bridal reality of the Church.  It is the Holy Spirit who brings the sacraments to life and places the Word of the Father within the faith-filled soul that it may generate and give birth to Christ.

            This again does not prevent the Church being the Son's bride, since this entire participation of the created world in the Trinitarian Divinity is the working and prolon­ga­tion of the incarnate Word.  Mary is given to us as prototype so that the Church may never forget the Trinitarian dimension of her nuptial mystery.

            The figure of the Virgin Mary is seen by von Balthasar as a "theological person" having from the beginning her unique and proper place in the economy of salvation.   He notes that in reflecting on the Marian mystery through the centuries, two difficulties were encountered and continue to occupy modern theology.  The first arose from the recognition that the reconcil­iation of the world to God which came through the Cross of Christ is fundamentally God's action alone.  Yet since God endowed his creatures with freedom, it was necessary, if the Word of God was to take flesh in the womb of a woman, to elicit her acceptance and obedient consent.  And since her consent had to be spiritually and bodily unlimited - as Virgin Mother of Christ - where could such grace come from, except from the Cross itself?  Yet the Cross is made possible only through Mary's consent.  But Mary's consent is made possible only through the Immaculate Conception, which is made possible only through the Cross of Christ.  It has taken centuries to appreciate and formulate theologically the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.[63]

            The second difficulty flows from the first:

            If "cooperation" is required from the woman who is to become Mother of the Word of God, what is the relationship between this cooperation and God's operation in his incarnate Word?  Who can find words and concepts to express both the intimacy (such as exists between Mother and Child) and the infinite distance (between God and the creature)?  How can a single word, for example,
mediatrix or coredemptrix, express this all-pervading analogy in such a way that all redeeming grace comes from God (and his incarnate Word) and yet man's consent, which is essential to Incarnation and all its consequences is not overridden?[64]

            Von Balthasar situates his study of Mary's cooperation, or fiat, within a fundamental modality of human nature, that is, within the polarity of man and woman. [65]  Therefore, he returns to the story of their creation [66]in Genesis 2, wherein he sees that Eve is fashioned from Adam (that is, he carried her within him, potentially); and secondly, that woman is essentially an answer that comes to the man "at last":

            This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Gen 2:23).

According to von Balthasar, the word of Adam which is primary only attains fulfillment when it finds an answering word, that is, in the acceptance and return of the word of the woman, who corresponds to him.  Although the response is latent within him - for there can be no word without an answering word - the man is unable to produce it of himself.  He can only receive it from the woman, as a freely given gift of grace, in their encounter face to face.  Here, in her answering gaze that "turns the man-who-sees into the man-who-is-seen", they are partners of equal rank and dignity. [68]

            Woman cannot be defined in simple categories. She is both dependent on man's word, and independent in equality of persons; she is dyadic, that is, she represents a double principle in her twofold orientation toward the man, as bride, and toward the child, as mother: she is "answer" which constitutes her as a person through dialogue, and she unites in herself the fruitfulness of both, making her a principle of generation, whereas man represents only a single principle (word, seed).  Von Balthasar sees woman as particularly designed to be the fruit­bearing principle in the order of creation.  She brings to man an answering fruitfulness in her receptivity of his fruitfulness.  Yet she is not simply the vessel of his fruitfulness: her womanly nature is equipped with her own explicit fruitfulness intended to receive man's fruitfulness (which, in itself, is helpless) and bring it to its perfection. In this way she is the 'glory' of the man (1 Cor 11:7).[69]

            Woman, therefore, is a process which cannot be summed up in a simple definition.  She is both the necessary "answer" if the word that calls to her is to attain its depth of meaning; and she is also the source: the "Mother of all living" (Gen 3:20).  So too, the Virgin Mary alternates from Virgin Bride to the Mother of the Church, from the answering Person to the Source of the race.  Mary, as the immaculate Woman, that is, the new Eve, has become

            a new source, according to which - in a way that is inconceivable to earthly minds - motherhood and the bridal state are intertwined and personal and social motherhood interpenetrate.

As Virgin, Mary brings Christ into the world; as Bride of Christ, she cooperates in the birth of the Church; as Mother of the Church, she forms the members into Christ.  Through her answering fiat the Word passes over into flesh, the Head into the body; the body into eternal life.  She is the place of superabundant fruitfulness.


            Mary's integral virginity [71] is the source of the fruitfulness [72] of her fiat.  Through her immaculate concep­tion, she is totally and exclusively turned toward the Word of God in the obedience of faith. [73]  Her graced finite freedom enabled her to entrust herself to the unlimited sphere of infinite freedom in which God could raise her answering word - "I am the handmaid of the Lord" - to the Motherhood of Christ:

            [Mary] commits herself to serve as handmaid, putting herself irrevocably at God's disposal in his plans for Israel, so that all that has been promised may be fulfilled.  Her free consent is summoned by the sovereign authority of absolute Freedom: "
You will conceive, bear, call him. . . ."  Right from the start, her free consent is an integral part of God's saving plan and decision.  Consequently to ask whether Mary could have said No is to fail to reach the level of this harmony between fulfilled finite freedom and infinite freedom. [74]

Thus, because of Mary's perfect finite freedom, the Father was able to plant the seed of his Word in the womb of her spiritual and bodily faith, [75] the divine seed that became flesh in the incarnation of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit:

            Mary stands above and beyond the purely mundane encounter of bridegroom and bride and opens it out into the infinity of the divine Eros insofar as God himself accepts her word of faith and fidelity, and as she is overshadowed not by the
Logos as such but by the Holy Spirit, who carries the Father's seed into her spiritual and bodily womb, the fruit of this marriage being the Incarnation of the Son, who, in his entire being, is Head and Body, Bridegroom and Bride. [76]

            In Mary's virginal Motherhood of Christ there comes into view a new beginning.  As a Mother who bore her Child in the flesh she stands in continuity with the generations who descended from Adam through Abraham, but as a virgin Mother, who conceived of the Holy Spirit, she signifies an interruption and a new beginning.  According to von Balthasar, Mary's virginal Motherhood creates

            an absolute relationship between man and woman that is free of all entanglement in sin: here the woman is both Mother and Bride with regard to the same man, in a real but suprasexual way.

Von Balthasar notes that the general consensus of the Fathers posited the first sin as sexual "not only because it upset the virginal integrity of man's body/soul innocence but because it introduced the vicious cycle of birth and death." [78]

            Mary's virginal Motherhood trancends the sexual relationship that came into existence after the Fall.  In her there is a return to the paradisal relationship [79] in which the sexual relationship did not feature.  Therefore, in christological and mariological terms, the fact of the Virgin Birth is raised "into something essential to salvation history" for, as was emphasized by Irenaeus,

            this new birth looks toward, not a mortal life, but a divine life, both for Christ and for Christians: the maternal womb of Mary and of the Church are seen as strictly identical.

              Mary therefore, as realsymbol of the Church, through the real physical Virgin Birth of Jesus, sacramentalizes the new birth of divine life that takes place from within the virgin womb of the Church; indeed, she is herself the place of new birth.

            If we are to grasp this, we need first to regain an appreciation of the sign value of the human body as such and of virginal integrity in particular and lift it into the perspective of that process whereby the Logos becomes incarnate: "
The Word became flesh". [81]         

Mary and the Church are fruitful because they are virginal. The exclusive character of their love, to which their virginity bears witness, is in each the condition for bearing the fruit of God.


            In the Middle Ages, the image of the Church came to be centered on Mary as the spotless bride of Christ, and in this way the inmost truth of the Church was brought out. [83]  Previously, up until the end of the Patristic period, the Church, rather than Mary, was considered the bride of Christ. [84]  The early Church Fathers regarded Mary's virginal Motherhood as "type" of the Church.  However, since she was Mother of the Head, it gradually became clear that Mary was also Mother of the members, and therefore, as typos of the Church, she had to take on this specifically ecclesial attribute and be known also as Bride of Christ. [85] 

            In the twelfth century commentaries on the Song of Songs, the beautiful Shulamite was now "
understood to refer to Mary not only in individual verses (which had been the case since Ambrose) but in its totality", particularly in Rupert of Deutz, whose intention was to gather the whole Church around her concrete center, that is, around Mary. [86]

            The Church as bride, difficult to grasp in herself as a person, appears as it were polarized in the person of Mary, and Mary herself as crystalizing around herself the whole community of the faithful. [87]

            As the Church reflects more on herself as seen in her prototype, "her biblical attributes, particularly those of the 'Bride of Christ' and the 'new Eve' who is the 'companion' of the New Adam, are applied to Mary." [88]  As the new Eve, Mary becomes the bridal "Help­mate" of Christ, [89] an attribute which again raises the man/woman problem in its fundamental form: attention is directed to the absolute relationship between the sexes.  Woman is seen as a unity, as mother and bride. [90]

            When Mary's dyadic mission is seen as both Mother of Christ and Bride of Christ, there arises "the question of the relation of the sexes prior to the Fall, a relation that has been recreated in a world that is fallen and needs redemption." [91]   Because of her immaculate conception, Mary existed "between a paradisal (supra­lapsarian) existence" [92] which was "not as yet implicated in the cycle of sexuality and death and the final state in heaven where those who have risen 'neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven'(Mt 22:30).[93]   In Christ and Mary the law of sexuality is transcended   and replaced by the original, "absolute", suprasexual relationship between the sexes, not without the difference proper to soteriological time.  This is all the more appropriate since the Paschal Mystery has in view the overcoming of death and hence of the inevitable link between sexual generation (and birth) and death.  This return, through the unique relationship between Christ and Mary, to man's original state in the Garden of Eden cannot be submitted to biological analysis, nor can we imagine what man's original state may have been, in concrete terms.  We simply have to posit such a state: if we follow man back to his origin, the vicious circle of sexuality and death is broken. [94]

            Beneath the Cross, Mary's immaculate purity enabled her to enter into the sufferings of Christ in obediential and compassionate love. [95]  During the passion and her interior participation in it, there came about her decisive transformation into the Church as Bride of Christ.  As Bride, she was given the spiritual fruit ­ fulness of the Church, which came forth from the side of the Crucified. 

            Christ as a
human being, needs the feminine complement just as much as the first man did; his 'associate' comes forth from his side as in the case of Adam.  The essential difference is that, as the Son of God, Christ is far above all necessity.  (That Mary should be Mother and Bride depends solely on the utterly pure and free counsel of the triune God.)  The Woman (the "Immaculata" of Ephesians 5:27) who comes forth from the Man as he slumbers on the Cross is not so much a gift to him in his need as the product of his own fullness. [96]

Her place, "wholly ancillary", is yet wholly universal:She took part, as an intermediary, in this creation [of the Church] by the universality and unrestrictedness of her Fiat, which the Son is able to use as an infinitely plastic medium to bring forth from it new believers, those born again.  Her presence with him at the Cross, her agreement to his abandonment of her to the Church in the midst of his dereliction on the Cross, her eternal role as the woman in labor (Rev 12), show how fully her self-surrender is universalized to become the common source, the productive womb, of all Christian grace. [97]


            Von Balthasar, in his understanding of Mary as Mother of the Church, [98] places a high value on Chapter twelve in the Book of Revelation. [99]  Von Balthasar claims that "it is impossible to avoid seeing a Marian side in the picture of the Woman of the Apocalypse." [100]  The scene portrays the Woman as giving birth "in the sky", that is, not "in heaven", but suspended, exposed and vulnerable, between heaven and earth. 

            The Woman is, first of all, the personification of faithful Israel giving birth to the messianic people (Is. 66:7), and to the Messiah who "
is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Ps 2:7-9) - Mary being in her person the summing up of all the faith of Israel.  As the perfect daughter of Zion she sums up and surpasses the faith of Abraham in the transition from the Old to the New Covenant. [101]   The Woman is, also, the Church who will give birth to Christ again and again in her sacramental life, and who is threatened in this apocalyptic vision by the "ancient serpent" who had seduced Eve in the terrestrial paradise.  Again, the Woman is Mary, identical with the innermost being  of the ecclesia immaculata, before whom stands the "serpent" or "great red dragon", intent on devouring her newborn Child, the Christ, as well as the rest of her offspring, "those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.

            The dramatic struggle between the Woman and the "dragon" highlights the "
eschatological tension between time and eternity."  The Woman is adorned with the sun and the stars of heaven, yet she "cries aloud in pain as she labors to give birth".  After giving birth to a son who is "caught up to God and to his throne", the Woman is borne up on Eagle's wings (Ex 19:4; Dt. 32: 11) and carried to the safety of the desert.  Yet, it will be a time of persecution, as is signified by the "year, two years, and a half-year" (Dan 7:25; 12:7). [102] 

            As the new Eve, Mary is the Woman who has regained paradise in her immaculate conception, and therefore the true Mother of all the living, surpassing the fruitfulness of the first Eve. [103]   In the birth pangs of the Cross, [104]  the Woman, Mary, gives birth to the brothers and sisters of the Messiah:  

            That to which Mary gives birth, out of the virginal purity of paradise yet in the pains of time and the "desert" (Rev 12:6), is fruit for eternal life.

The spiritual fruitfulness which she received from the Crucified is the "seed" [106]  which she holds in her womb of faith, [107] and from which, again and again, she gives birth to and fosters the growth of the members of her Son. [108] 

            [The Son] allows all the guilt of the world to be laden upon him as the 'servant of God'.  How, then, could it be otherwise than that the 'helpmate', the mother and bride, the archetype of the Church, pierced by the sword, should take her place under the cross?  Indeed what else could she, the definitive Eve, do but take upon herself in her feminine role the birthpangs of the first Eve to the end of the world and so become a supratemporal feminine principle, which the apocalyptic seer sees cry out in her pains: Mary-Church, who to the very end brings forth the children of God in pain? [109] 

            As Virgin Mother of the Apocalypse, Mary is oriented to eternity.  Assumed into heavenly glory and transfigured in the presence of God, as has been expressly defined in the middle of this twentieth century, Mary is made like her Son and shares in his saving work.  In heaven she continues to be involved in the earthly drama of the Church - in a warfare that has its counterpart in the heavenly battle between the angelic hosts of Michael (Israel's guardian angel: Dan 10:13; 10:1) and those of the Dragon.  Michael and his angels wage war against the dragon and his followers who lose their foothold in the life of eternity and are thrown down to the finiteness of earth.  All of heaven rejoices in the celestial victory but there is going to be trouble for the earth.  The Dragon is enraged against the Woman as a result of his defeat, his being cast out of heaven to the earth and the shortness of the remaining time. [110]   

            In the struggle against satan, Mary nourishes and protects the Church until the end of the world,
[111]  encompassing her children in her motherly love [112]  and covering them with her 'protective mantle'.  Just as Mary's link to her Son was a unique person-to-person relationship, so too, Mary's motherhood of the Church involves a unique person-to-person relationship between herself and each child. [113]   Each member receives his or her share of the divine Seed and with motherly care Mary nourishes and protects that secret Word planted in the soul. [114]   She is the maternal archetype who teaches each of her children to respond in faith with a personal Fiat to the mystery of the outpouring of divine love [115] and to bring to birth the Christ-life in oneself and in others. [116]    

            The archetypal function, by its very character has a maternal form and covers over with its "protective mantle" the offspring that will imitate it.  Von Balthasar sees the Marian archetypal function, however, as far more than a Platonic relationship of an idea in heaven and its earthly copy clearly distinguished from it.  Rather, in the relationship between Mary, the Church, and the individual member of the Church "
there is now a fluid translation from archetypal experience to imitative experience".  This can be so because Mary's faith, which is the basis of her experience of motherhood, is the same as Abraham's faith, as well as of all Christians.  By bearing and giving birth to her Son, the Head, she necessarily encloses all the members within herself and brings them forth from herself with the same experience of faith.  She does this in a relationship which is somehow physical, offering to them, in their flesh and spirit, a share in her human archetypal experience of the mysteries of Christ.  The unfolding and understanding of one's personal experience as Marian experience can only be realized through the Holy Spirit and in prayer: the mysteries of the Mystical Body begin with the overshadowing of the Virgin and they "are above all mysteries of the Holy Spirit, generated in the womb of the virginal Church." [117]  

            Just as the experience of God in the Old Testament reached its culmination in the New Covenant, so too, "
Mary's physico-personal experience of the Child who is her God and her Redeemer is unreservedly open to Christianity." [118]   Mary's whole experience of Christ is an experience for others - an expropriated experience for the benefit of all. [119]  Progressively, Mary must renounce everything personal for the sake of the Church - even her Son, to receive instead, under the Cross, the beloved disciple ('Behold there is your son!'). [120]   All that is hers is given over to the members of the Church "to be bestowed on these together with the grace of Christ, a grace which is both human and divine and which is, therefore, replete with Christ's human experiences of God." [121]

            The Marian experience of Christ, "in its depth and simplicity is quite beyond the power of words."  The Christian is incorporated into this "Marian measure" through grace and prayer.

            Who is to say how this final rightness of the Christian answer to the Word of God, . .  this final concordance reached in Mary between the descending grace which calls to her and the ascending grace which answers the call, how this final gift of the Son to his Mother is made to flow out and to circulate throughout the Church?  Who is to say how it comes through the Marian Church to each believer? . . . He feels the grace that sustains him and forms him and keeps him together, and it could be that in the midst of this he becomes aware of the fact that this is not only a bestowed grace, but an answering grace, an assent with a definite shape that stems from the ancient Zion . . . a grace described in sensory terms in the Song of Songs, raised to the level of the New Covenant by Paul's theology of marriage, a grace posited by John as perfect love . . . .  Where should a sinner find the confidence necessary to know himself as one incorporated into this perfection, which not only hovers above him as an unfulfillable law but holds him up maternally, which is not only bestowed on him by the grace of the divine Judge but is given him in actual reality as his very own, a perfection which he cannot ascribe to himself personally and to be admitted into which is, once again, a grace?  Where is a sinner to find the necessary confidence if not from the Immaculate Mother and Bride of the Lord, who is the gift that has been distributed throughout the whole Church?

The mysteries of the Virgin Mother are mysteries of the Mystical Body of Christ.  As Mother of the whole Christ, Head and members, all the grace and holiness that comes to the Christian from Christ passes through her hands, through her love.

            CHAPTER THREE


            The Annunciation encounter between Mary and the angel may seem to our human way of thinking a purely private meeting.  But when Mary utters her assent, "
whether she is aware of it or not, the community, the Catholica, is already present in her Yes." In this encounter of perfect prayer there is the coming together of two realities: God's unconditional gift of himself and Mary's complete readiness to receive God unconditionally.  Mary is the "realized Catholica"; in her soul are the dimensions of the Catholic Church; she has the qualities of the Body of Christ, enabling the Head to pour his fullness into her without encountering any resistance. [123]

            If this Yes had never been uttered on earth, in fulfillment of the faith of Israel, the step from the synagogue (which was always defective) to the ecclesia immaculata (Eph 5:27) would never have been taken.  The "Body" would have been fundamentally and eternally incommensurate with the "Head". [124]

            But because this perfect act of holiness is present in Mary, [125] Christ is able to present the Church to himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:27). [126]  Mary's Yes, her limitless readiness for all that God will desire and require, enables her to be "co-extensive" with God's unlimited unconditional gift of himself.  This co-extensiveness occurs not in what she does, but in what she allows to be done, [127] through her "active readiness."   Mary receives the Word "not like an empty abyss, in pure passivity, but with the active readiness with which a female womb receives the male seed." [128]  

            And the Holy Spirit descends from the first to the second, bearing God's seed, the seed of the Word, to implant it in the earthly womb.

This perfect faith-filled fiat of Mary is an agreement of her whole person "to the bottom-most fibers" of her humanity, a Yes without limits, a placing of her whole life at God's disposal, a complete readiness for all that God might require of her. [130]  Here in the original incarnation is the origin of the Church. [131]  Mary's archetypal fiat, her fundamental "preference of the absolute" must find an echo in every member of the Body of Christ. 

            It is not enough that Christ alone should act on the Church's behalf and justify it, uttering the perfect Yes; the Church herself must speak her sanctifying and equally perfect "Amen - may it be so to me" (2Cor 1:20 ff.).


            While von Balthasar sees Mary in her immaculate surrender to Christ as the primordial archetype and core of the Church, he also notes other significant theological persons surrounding the human life of Jesus, such as John the Baptist, Joseph, foster father of Jesus, Mary Magdalen, witness to the resurrection, Martha and Mary who were Jesus' friends, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea. [133]  These New Testament experiences live on in the Church as differing modes of access to the mystery of Christ.  In fact, theologians are beginning to point out the scientific and scholastic method of von Balthasar by clarifying the sense in which his ecclesiology is deliberately constructed on the basis of reflection on ecclesial persons. [134]  The Apostles in particular, as founders of the Church who were officially chosen and called by the Lord, were drawn into a living community with him:

            They constitute the original cell of God's community with man, which had been promised and is now being realized.  All those coming after them who wish to have community with God must become a part of the original cell (1 Jn 1:3).

            For von Balthasar these Biblical persons are paradigmatic for the Church and form what he terms "
the christological constellation" without whom the divine Son could not be the 'incarnate' God. [136]  Indeed they are integral to Christology and through them the man Jesus is able to meet and draw to himself all the members of the Church in the ensuing ages.

            Most significant theologically in this constellation besides his Mother, and from among the Twelve, are Peter, in his primacy of office, whom von Balthasar envisions on the one side of Mary, and John, as Mary's son and guardian, whom he sees on the other,
[137] and then Paul, the one "born out of due time" (1 Cor 15:8).  These apostolic archetypes of authority, love, and mystical revelation form in the Church, together with Mary, the Church's nucleus. [138]

            Peter represents "office" in the Church.  His eyewitness account is given over to the Church and integrated into it horizontally, at the level of history, that is, the apostolic succession stands on the horizontal continuity which began at Caesarea Philippi: "You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church" (Mat 16:18).  Peter has been an eyewitness of the sufferings of Christ as well as partaker in his glory that is to be revealed (1Pet 5:1), and therefore, his archetypal mission is to proclaim the kerygma and to be zealous in bringing about its realization in the life of the Church.  Peter carries in his person and bears witness to the objective holiness present in the 'horizontal institution' through the abiding gift of the Holy Spirit. [139]

            Paul, on the other hand, bears witness to the vertical intervention that comes directly from heaven, for his 'Gospel' comes through revelation from God without human mediation (Gal 1:1, 11f.).  Paul's archetypal experience provides for the "ever-new and unforseen vertical irruption of new charisms in the history of the Church. . . . the great charisms of mission which suddenly visit and fructify the Church." [140]  In Paul we see the identity "between official apostleship and personal sanctity" and the experience of one charged "to be the light of the Church by consuming oneself for all."  This has been given to Paul as "pure grace" and "there is no reason why the Holy Spirit could not repeat such missions and special archetypal experiences during the course of the Church's history."  A mark of the authenticity of these special missions and experiences given to the Church for the good of all will be their submission to the office of Peter.  Such missions, coming down from the 'Jerusalem above', will make present by their witness of word and life the new Jerusalem, the heavenly City of the living God. [141]

            To John, the Beloved Disciple, is given the archetypal experience of love.  His task is love; he has been "expropriated for love" and he simply confers upon the Church his archetypal gift of love. [142]  This is not simply a human love but a participation in "Jesus' unique divine-human love within the Church" just as Peter's office is a "participation in Christ's divine-human authority in the Church."  In the Gospel of John we see described the Lord's special love for John in his special mission as the Beloved Disciple and John's love for the Lord, and also, Peter's mission of primacy in office.  Yet the greater love is asked of Peter (Jn 21:15) and Peter is able to respond because he receives from John his prerogative of the greater love. [143]

            Here we see the communion of saints mediating and merging into one another in the world of the Spirit, yet each retaining his distinct uniqueness. [144]  Peter is in need of "the Johannine love" in order that he may respond to Jesus with the love that is expected of his office, and from John he receives this love.  Thus, Johannine love lives on in Peter, and John retains his own archetypal mission of love in the Church.  It is John who mediates between the objective holiness of the Church in Peter and the subjective holiness of the Church in Mary.  Only in Mary do we see the Church subjectively immaculate and objectively infallible, the glorious bride truly worthy of her Redeemer.  Under the Cross, Mary is given to John as his Mother, and through him to the Church.  By taking Mary into his home he unites her with the apostolic "office" of Peter and binds the "institution" to Mary as Mother. [145]   It is John who contemplates and communicates to the Church that to follow Jesus, one must humbly follow Peter as Shepherd (cf. Jn 2:15ff.) and have a tender devotion to Mary as Mother (cf. 19:26f.). [146]

            It is the Beloved Disciple to whom Jesus on the Cross entrusted his Mother and who henceforward lived with her as a son.  He understood Mary's role in the work of salvation at the foot of the Cross and in retrospect also at Cana.  To him was given the guardianship of everything Mary meant to Jesus; he was not a private person but a privileged witness of the decisive event of God's love that none of the others among the Twelve had seen: "He who saw it has borne witness - his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth - that you also may believe" (19:35). . . .  John "remains" but in the background. . . . And since he, the vanishing one, is expressly commanded by Jesus to "stay", his place as a Realsymbol cannot be left vacant and without succession.  This place is filled primarily by the saints who have, as it were, an unofficial ecclesial mission and whose authenticity can be recognized by the fact that they always represent the link between the Marian and the Petrine in the Church, supporting both even when this seems to lead nowhere.  The truly Johannine Church is not a "third", spiritual Church, supplanting the Petrine and the Pauline, but the one that stands under the Cross in place of Peter and on his behalf receives the Marian Church. [147]


            Within this archetypal view von Balthasar considers the Marian fiat as the foundational form of the apostolic archetypes, as indeed of all the members of the Church.  Mary's self-surrendering Yes preceded and made possible the Incarnation of Christ the Head and thus the formation of the spiritual communio of his mystical Body: the abiding in his love (cf. Jn 15). [148]   Although Mary, in her gentle loving trust, suf­fered from the sinfulness of people about her, and in particular, experienced the violent sinfulness of the Crucifixion, she did not abandon her own center of love but remained open to all that God asked of her.  Her attitude of pure love thus becomes "foundational for . . . the Church that is pure communio, the Church of the 'priestly people' who suffer with Jesus Christ." [149]

            Both the Marian (feminine) principle of self-surrender and the Petrine (masculine) principle of office [150] are coextensive with the Church but in different ways.  Mary's fiat is lived out in an ongoing consent to every moment and circumstance of her life. In unresisting pure faith she continually says Yes to God's activity, to all that God requires of her, even as it "stretches beyond understanding and must consent to what is not within the domain of the humanly possible, foreseeable, bearable or fitting."  This form of Marian faith - the consenting to God's activity - is offered, qualitatively, to the Church "as the model of all being and acting."  On the other hand, the apostolic charism of office is not given to everyone, although it is in service to all.  Peter is appointed together with the Twelve, in a single act on the part of Jesus, and "the catholicity of Peter's pastoral care, though all embracing in its object, is not communicable in its specific uniqueness."  While few are called to carry the Petrine office, every Catholic is called to pronounce Mary's faith-filled fiat: "the mold in which the Church is formed."  Therefore, "the Petrine universality is subject to the formative influence of the Marian, but not vice versa." [151]  

            The apostolic archetypes of authority, of love, and of direct mystical revelation, form the nucleus of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.  Their service is their witness to God's revelation in Christ and their total surrender to that experience.  The Church, living on in its members, participates in these initial archetypes, perpetuating in each new age, the one Church founded by Jesus Christ.  Those called to this participation and following must be formed in Mary's contemplative faith -
"femina circumdabit virum". [152]  They, like Mary, must learn to contemplate and surrender to God's activity, even as they must, by virtue of their office, judge, teach, and administer. [153]  

            Mary, as Queen of Apostles, encompasses in her immaculate heart each one who receives the apostolic commission and communicates to them her spirit of complete devotion to Christ.
[154]   They in turn, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, enable the Church to become what she already is in her heavenly archetype: the spotless Bride of the Lamb.


            The Fathers of the Church taught that the primordial marriage union was the hypostatic union which took place in the "bridal chamber" of Mary's womb.  When the Son of God came down from the Father and the heavenly Jerusalem to seek his bride, he took flesh from the generation of Adam in order to seek and transform "Adamic humanity [which] was the subject out of which he willed to form his pure Church".  Consequently, the ultimate subject of God's gift of himself is not selected individuals taken up out of an otherwise lost humanity but the whole of mankind.  On the Cross Christ made satisfaction for all.  Thus, the marriage of Christ with his Church points to a more fundamental marriage with all people of the world.  Yet human­creatures gain participation in a personal Divinity only through Christ, and the Church which he has redeemed. [155] 

            One can only say, then, that the Church represents mankind, stands to it in a necessary, dynamic relationship, even if this cannot be clearly elucidated. [156] 

Von Balthasar endeavors, in his theology, to throw light on this universal bridal mystery of the Church, "distinct from Christ as bride from bridegroom, and from the Spirit as creature from Creator", [157]  yet wholly united to him in Mary's fiat of surrendering love.  Because the Marian fiat, in its unlimited availability to God's plan, is by grace, "the bridal womb, matrix, and mater, through which the Son of God becomes man," it is therefore "by this fiat that he also forms the truly universal Church." [158] 

            According to von Balthasar, the bride is essentially woman, that is, receptive.  The eternal mission of Jesus Christ as Bridegroom is to breathe his Spirit of divine love into the bride's receptive womb of faith, making pregnant with the seed of his Word, his mystical spouse. [159]   The Church, as redeemed bride, has the ability to receive this supernatural seed in her womb of faith, wherein she has the power to nurture the seed, in order that it might bring forth much fruit, "a hundred-, sixty-, and thirty­fold" (Mt 15:8-9).  The Church, as bride and mother, shapes her members into the image and form of Christ so that in them Christ is reborn.  That the Church can bring forth Christ, presupposes therefore, not only an "objective holiness" in her sacramental function, "but also the subjective personal holiness of faith, love and hope realized in act". [160]   Mary, through her immaculate conception, was able to make this act of holiness: this perfect archetypal response. [161]  Her womanly and receptive faith was enabled to fully correspond to the masculine seed of Christ in her fiat of surrender to God's Word and the Spirit of God who overshadowed her. 

            The Church, therefore, coming forth from Christ finds her personal center in Mary as well as the full realization of her meaning as Church.  Her Marian faith response, in its feminine openness to the Divine-human Bridegroom, is elevated in the Church to the status of principle and is coextensive with the masculine principle of office and Sacrament in bearing the fruit of Christ for the world.  Knowing that all people are envisaged in God's plan, the Church can humbly know herself as the chosen representative of mankind before God "
in faith, prayer and sacrifice, in hope for all, and still more in love for all."  As bride, in imitation of her Marian archetype, she turns to her Bridegroom so that she may serve as handmaid and give him back new offspring shaped in the "form of Christ", as well as to receive from her Head, "in the depths of their intimacy", the entire Trinitarian life. [162] Her whole disposition can only be a feminine dependence on God embodied in Mary's fiat.



            Von Balthasar, in his theology, insists that the first duty of the Bride-Church to her Bridegroom is the glorification of divine love.  This divine love was poured into Mary's pure womb as the first-fruit of redemptive grace, and she fully responded with her fiat of faith and adoration [163]   It is this Marian receptivity and response to the Word of God which is the sole purpose of the contemplative vocation in the Church. 

            The highest priority belongs, without exception, to our readiness to serve the divine love, a readiness that has no other end than itself, and that appears senseless to a world caught up in so many urgent and reasonable occupations.

            Like her Marian archetype, the contemplative desires to give a similar answer of obedience and adoration, a service of pure glorifying thanksgiving to absolute love.  Like Mary, the contemplative identifies herself with the "innermost center of the Church where she is simply the bride in the presence of the Bridegroom."  It is the life which Jesus praised, the life of Mary at his feet:

            Mary of Bethany can never be dispensed with.
  Personam Ecclesiae gerit: she represents in her special role, the Church herself.  She actualizes in the world of human consciousness the inmost mystery of the nuptials between Christ and the Church, God and the world, grace and nature, a relation that is the mystery both of Mary's fecundity as mother and of that of the Church. [165]

            John, the Disciple of love who imbibed the wisdom of Jesus' Heart, tells us that "God is love" (1 Jn 4:16) and what God expects of his creatures, above all else, is a return of love.  "Let us not love in word, nor in tongue but in deed (ergon) and in truth" (1 Jn 3:18).  According to von Balthasar, if this text enjoining active love is understood primarily or exclusively in terms of apostolic service to one's neighbor, then the revelation of absolute love is being interpreted "in purely functional terms, as a means or incentive towards some human goal".  Prayer is the work that is in perfect harmony with love, a work by which one opens one's inner being to the staggering truth that God's gift of himself is one of absolute personal love.  It is a work in which the person loved desires to offer back to God a selfless answer of praise and thanksgiving, "in order to show that he has understood the divine message." [166]

            Von Balthasar remarks that even outside the Christian tradition the contemplative life is placed before the active life because it sets the person free.  So, too, the Christian contemplative is free to be purely and simply an answer to God's Word of self-giving love "in the belief that this love, from which all fruitfulness stems, is powerful enough to draw all needful fruit for man and the world from the disin­terested bridal surrender to it." [167]

            [The contemplative life] is a mystery that, in its absolute finality in itself, and in its "unconcernedness", is itself the focal point, just as, in the Song of Songs, the love between bride and bridegroom is fulfilled in itself, is sufficient in its inner fecundity, without procreation, without any further action.  That the contemplative life in the Church is also a life of penitence and mortification, a crucified life as well as a marriage festivity, is simply the final consequence as the Church has always understood it and still today is given to understand it through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. [168]

            Von Balthasar draws on Therese of Lis­ieux, Patroness of the Missions, for his study of the "contemplation that is more active than action."  By fidelity to her particular mission of grace, Therese has spread abroad the fragrance of contemplative love "as the ultimate source of fruitfulness, the most powerful active force in the Church and the most helpful for sinners."  To live this active receptivity of pure love "is the greatest task that can be set to a Christian and makes the highest demands."

            Therese's contemplation has all the marks of authenticity; it involves complete surrender and openness to the Word of the Lord, reaching beyond all active prayer into a state of being held, of simply receiving and, finally, of necessity, passing on to suffering and to passion.  It is not the essence of her contemplation that is different but the insight into its effects, the thoroughly ecclesiastical and soteriological vision, which has perhaps never before in the history of spirituality manifested itself so radically and with such purity.

            The Church, in its essence, is the burning love of the Heart of Christ pouring itself out on Calvary, in bridal communion with the faith-filled fiat of the immaculate Virgin-Mother.  In this vital force of pure self-giving, the world is lifted up and restored to its original bridal union with God.  Contemplatives, set apart by the Church to give themselves to God alone, are particularly called and drawn to stand with Mary at the divine fountain and participate with her in the reciprocity of redemptive love at its very source.  The contemplative withdraws; she is silent; she advances into the desert of divine love so that this mystery of love streaming from the Heart of Christ continues to flow through the entire Body for the salvation of all people.  The contemplative, like Mary, is called to be transformed into the very love of the Heart of Christ.

            We fall down and adore you.  In the end, only you remain, O Heart at the Center.  We are not.  Whatever is good in us is you. . . . And if love needs two lovers, a lover and a beloved, still the love is only one, and that one is you.


fiat given to the angel by the "handmaid of the Lord" is the fundamental act of Mary's entire life.  It is also the fundamental act of the Church in each of her members.  Following the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the author of this paper has tried to present Mary's nuptial fiat as the origin, archetype, and innermost mystery of the bridal Church.

            Chapter One opened the discussion by considering von Balthasar's analysis of the Church as a personal subject freely given to Christ in a bridal response of faith, hope, and love.  The Church forms, together with him, in a mystical union of flesh and Spirit, a single Person: the mystical Body of Christ.  By means of her sacramental structure, Christ's most intimate divine life is communicated to the real persons who form the Church in a bond of love like unto marriage, but which can only be grasped in faith.  Thus, the Church is rightly understood as the personal Bride of Christ.      

            The discussion in Chapter Two highlights the virginity of Mary's
fiat: both Mary and the Church are fruitful precisely because of their virginal love.  Being totally and exclusively turned toward the Word of God in the answering obedience of faith, Mary allows the divine initiative to make a new beginning in the Virgin Birth of her Son.  In this sacramental sign, the Church is put in touch with the new birth of divine life of which she, like Mary, is Mother.  Mary and the Church are each transformed into the Bride of Christ through an interior participation in the Passion, receiving the spiritual fruitfulness flowing from the pierced Heart of the Crucified.  In this active receptivity  Mary, and then the Church, become the productive womb of all Christian grace.  Indeed, the very meaning of the Mary-Church, in their identical and eternal role as the Woman in labor (Rev 12), is to bring forth and mother the life of Christ in all ages.  Through the nuptial fiat, literally immaculate only in her Marian archetype, Mary shares with the communion of saints her own archetypal experience as Mother of Christ, Bride of Christ, and Mother of the Church.

            Chapter Three further explains the Marian
fiat in its universal or catholic dimension embracing all mankind.  Through the gift of her immaculate conception Mary corresponds fully to Christ, her exalted Head, by her complete readiness in faith for whatever God wills.  The Marian fiat in its unlimited availability is the means by which the Son of God becomes man, and is the same means by which he truly forms the universal Church.  Mary's perfect womanly "Amen" - remaining open to all that God may ask - must reecho in all those called to the apostolic life, as well as those called to the lay state - indeed, in every human heart.  The contemplative, in her essentially feminine posture of receptivity, symbolizes this reality by her concentrated attention to the breath of divine Love which Jesus Christ, as Bridegroom, breathes into her receptive womb of faith, making pregnant with the seed of his Word, his mystical spouse, the Church.

            Therefore, this paper has attempted to re-focus attention on the fact that the Church, in her human dimension, is radically feminine.  Although composed of men and women alike, the Church is the bride of Christ, and her supreme exemplar is the Virgin Mary in her archetypal surrender to God.  All are called to be molded in the Marian
fiat: in an essential interiority and receptivity ceaselessly saying "yes" to Christ the Savior and with constant vigilance receiving the gift of divine love with all humility and thanksgiving.

            The specific and irreplaceable role of women in the Church has been fully brought to light in the extraordinary role played by the Virgin Mary.  Indeed, in the Virgin Birth the male agent has no part, rather it is the Woman, in her hidden role as Virgin, Bride, and Mother, who shines forth as the indispensable human figure in the salvation of the world.  Through the exalted role played by the Virgin Mary, the value and splendor of the womanly sphere is brought into prominence.  The mystery of woman is, above all, an interior one.  It shares in the interiority of the mystery of the divine Spirit.

            This author would like to suggest that it is the primary mission of the religious woman in the Church to call all the members to this interiority.  This is her unspeakable privilege, glory and service, a truly sublime but hidden role.  It is essential, therefore, that religious women understand and accept that their extraordinary and primary activity be known only to God, just as the mysterious depths of one's spiritual life is "hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:5).  By fidelity to her own interiority she reveals man to himself and directs those called to the apostolic life to look inward to their true selves - the secret dwelling place of the abiding Spirit and to recognize and minister to this bridal inwardness in all God's people.

            Does not the feminine world, as virgin, bride, and mother, most aptly symbolize the Church's continual surrender to the divine initiative of Christ who desires to flood his Bride with immaculate grace, recreating her in radiant beauty?  Do not women mirror for the Church her noble vocation of bringing to birth the true Life of humanity?  Every Christian woman, as she presses on to closer union with God, the Source of her being, and in dependence on Mary, her archetype, is a communicator of the divine love, but especially the hidden contemplative, who gives herself exclusively to the Heart of her Divine-human Bridegroom, only that abiding in him, she may love the more.

Bibliography and Footnotes

This Version: 7th October 2002

Copyright ©; Sr. Thomas Mary McBride, O.P. 2002


Sr. Mc Bride Section

Mary, Mother of God Section