Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church
Today the church celebrates one of the most beautiful honors ascribed to Mary— “Mother of the Church.” This title goes back at least to St. Ambrose in the fourth century and it has been cited many times by various popes and councils over the years. In 2018, Pope Francis made it a universal feast of the Church’s liturgical calendar, to be celebrated the Monday after Pentecost.
The Scripture readings for this feast day explain the meaning of this title for Mary. There are, in fact, alternate first readings, one from Genesis that recalls Eve and names her “the mother of all the living.” The other choice is from the Acts of the Apostles and recalls the Pentecost event we just celebrated but focuses on the fact that among the disciples present for this great event was “Mary, the mother of Jesus.” Finally, the gospel selection is from John’s account of the last action of Jesus on the cross where he entrusts his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple and, in turn, declares to this disciple “whom Jesus loved” that Mary was now his mother.
All these readings are richly symbolic and affirm powerful things about Mary within Catholic tradition. Commentators have long suggested that Mary is like a “new Eve” because she has brought Jesus into the world. Her giving birth to Christ has earned her another astounding title, that of “theotokos,” a Greek word literally meaning, “God bearer” or “Mother of God.” This title was affirmed of Mary at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD and is the most fundamental and profound title given to her. This is a reflection of the Church’s faith in the incarnation—the basic conviction of Christian faith that in Jesus, the divine became truly human—giving humanity and all the created world incredible new life and dignity.
In this way, Mary, through whom the divine entered our world, is truly a “new Eve”—the “mother of all the living.” And as that ultimate mother she is present at key life-giving moments marked by our faith: the total act of love for us expressed in Jesus’ laying down his life for us on the cross, and the dynamic burst of new life brought by the Spirit at Pentecost that would create a world-wide community of faith
This feast not only honors Mary for her unique and beautiful role as “Mother of all the living” and Mother of the Church”—it also celebrates our dignity as daughters and sons of God. All these festivals from Christmas to Good Friday to Easter to Ascension to Pentecost remind us of God’s tender and astounding mercy toward us.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.