Mary and the Church in Salvation April 30, 2021 13:46

We conclude our series on Matthias Scheeben's Mariology by guest contributor Andrew Kuiper. This is the fourth of four posts.

Mother Church

Scheeben concludes his study of Mary with her concrete role in Christ’s work of redemption. Wisely, Scheeben has waited to treat this admittedly thorny question only after comprehensively laying out the inner relationship between the virginal conception and birth of Christ, Mary’s motherhood of this divine Person in His human life, and the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, all of which together constitute Mary’s unique role in the divine economy. With these principles laid down, Scheeben does not hesitate to employ language as muscular as the Byzantine Akathist hymn.

It is not a mere rhetorical flourish, but a most profound truth to say that, as she stood beneath the cross, Christ poured forth all His redeeming blood into the heart of the mother from whom He had received it, so that through her, as through a channel, it might flow over all mankind. (240)

Scheeben uses Irenaeus’s image of humanity’s fallen state and Mary’s role in undoing it: “And so the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosened by Mary’s obedience. For what the virgin Eve bound up by her incredulity, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.22) By several such examples from the ancient fathers, Scheeben reminds his readers of the well-established parallel between Adam-Eve and Christ-Mary. 

Spiritually understood, Eve’s title “mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20) is a prophetic name for Mary and the Church. In the New Testament, Scheeben argues, we find the ecclesial truth that “no one may have God for a father who does not have the Church for his mother” (Cyprian, On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 6) both at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27, “Woman, behold your son!”) and throughout the life of the Christian (Gal.4:26, “The heavenly Jerusalem is free, and she is our mother”).

The intricate and inextricable relation between the Church as a whole and Mary personally is displayed above all in the visions of St. John the Evangelist (Rev. 12:17 “And the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”). Mary-ecclesia is a cosmic warrior engaged in apocalyptic warfare, armored with the sun, moon, and stars (Rev.12:1) and armed with a sword through her own heart (Luke 2:35). And as the Song asks: “Who is this that comes forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?” (Songs 6:10)

Scheeben treats Mary’s actions in the economy of salvation as subordinate to Christ’s even while participating in His. Thus, Mary’s sufferings and intercession are never treated as meritorious of our salvation in the strict sense (i.e. meritum de condigno), yet he does portray her as efficaciously obtaining intercessory grace in the manner of a fitting reward (i.e. meritum de congruo). It is fitting that she be the Mother of God, for she longed for the work of redemption and restoration, for the Savior, with a longing wherein she became a summation of the whole history of Israel’s longing. It was this, in particular, that drew God to her. And it was her same longing for redemption that led to her subordinate and distant, yet very real, activity in Christ’s singular act of salvation upon the Cross.

In a moment of original typological exegesis, Scheeben notes the parallel between Abraham’s offering of Isaac at Mt. Moriah and Mary’s presentation of Christ at the temple. Not only is this made plausible by Simeon’s prophecy concerning Mary’s sorrow and by the role that offering the male child had in the Law’s acknowledgment and rejection of child sacrifice; moreover, some Jewish traditions would identify Mt. Moriah with the temple mount itself. This typology holds as another example of how Mary undoes the knots and completes the intentions of the whole people of God. 

The neglect of an approach like Scheeben’s (at once aesthetic, dogmatic, and historical) can attenuate the nature of the Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his work, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, wrote with great concern that post-conciliar ecclesiology was being flattened out into mere questions of organization and pastoral practice as opposed the theological and symbolic mysterium that earlier eras had perceived.

Do we see her as the second Eve, created from (the wound in) the side of the new Adam to complement him; as the paradisal Virgin, who in her union with Christ and in her fruitfulness by him does not cease to be a virgin; and who, as Origen says (quoting Revelation 14:4), makes all those who belong to her spiritually virginal? Finally, do we see this Virgin as the archetype of the Mother who carries, bears and rears her children? The Church Fathers pondered thoroughly each and all of these traits and interwove them into a rich symbolism. 

The question is a grave one for us, because a Church stripped of this all-embracing sphere is in danger of being reduced to a purely sociological entity or, at best, is far more vulnerable to deconstruction by sociological criticism than a Church conceived in terms of the ancient mysterium vision.

Scheeben is both an unsung and indispensable link between the patristic and scholastic mysterium theologies and the 20th century figures of the ressourcement. Beyond this, his work is significant in itself, for our contemporary reflections on both the nature of the Church and the unique role of Mary, Bride of the Logos and Instrument of the Holy Spirit.

—Andrew Kuiper

Click the cover of the book to see it in our store: