Mary the Archprophet — Church Anew
My encounter with Mary came at a pivotal moment in my life. I was in Rome during the early summer of 2017. Surrounded by great cathedrals and landmarks that proclaimed the majesty and sacrifice of the saints long past, my soul was filled with doubt. I was anxious, tired, and filled with questions concerning God’s call on my life, God’s providence, and God’s action in the world. It was an early morning on this trip that I found a quiet seat tucked away in Santa Maria Maggiore — The Basilica of Saint Mary Major. That is where I met Mary.
The intricate mosaic that covers the apse of the basilica depicts Jesus crowning Mary before all of heaven. It is her eternal blessing proclaimed to the universe. She sits at Jesus’ right hand, peacefully receiving the reward of her earthly labor.
In my anxiety and doubt, I wanted that.
No, not a crown or reward. Just peace. I wanted the peace that Mary’s entire being proclaimed over the cathedral. I desired with all my being the nearness that Mary had to her Son. Jesus felt so far, but at that moment, Mary felt oddly near.
Of course, I knew that it is only because of the risen Christ’s active work in the world that communion with Mary could ever be possible. Theologically, I understood that Christ was the one, true mediator who calls us to Him in covenantal relationship (Hebrews 9:15). It was Jesus Christ who “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:5-11) so that we might “become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). While my Catholic siblings joined in elevating Mary as mediatrix ad Mediatorem or co-redemptrix, I couldn’t do the same.
So, who, then was Mary?
I believe that, through her rightful veneration as Thetokos, Mary is the archprophet—bringing forth and bearing witness to God’s light and truth into the world.
The prophet, Eric Barreto writes, “plants herself in the present, in all its blessedness and mire, and says God is present here.” Mary, as Robert Jenson argues, is the paradigm and possibility of this prophetic work.
Mary is among the first to be trusted with the sacred revelation: “the Messiah is coming!” In return, she embodies the prophetic work of God by literally forming and bearing God’s Word into the world through her womb. Her body forms the container that God incarnate inhabits. She bears the one to whom the prophets of Israel bore witness in world. The Word of God—the preexistent and preeminent logos—is formed by her, nourished by her, and prophetically borne out to the world through her.
This is not to diminish Mary’s prophetic speech. Indeed, Mary’s “Here am I” to Gabriel is the fulcrum upon which salvation swings open wide. It is Mary’s greeting that causes John to leap within the womb of Elizabeth. It is Mary’s “let it be” that permits the Holy Spirit to dwell within her like the Prophets of Israel. It is Mary’s song of praise that has shone brightly as a lighthouse in this turbulent world. It is Mary’s motherly voice that guides the Messiah through his youth into adulthood.
Today, much of the church has functionally regulated Mary to the margins. Apart from the four weeks of Advent, Mary’s active role in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is absent in our proclamation and witness. However, the New Testament speaks to the intentional and material connection between Mary and the church. As Luke shows in his writings, the same Spirit that came upon Mary in Luke’s gospel returns to baptize those gathered at Pentecost in fire—a place where Mary testifies to those gathered there (Acts 1:14; 2:1).
Here, the prophetic work of God’s people continues. As Luke writes, ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17). The remainder of Luke’s writing in Acts further testifies to the active work of the Spirit in binding, joining, and leading the church in her prophetic work. Indeed, the church is defined as a prophetic community that bears witness to Jesus, the Son of God.
Mary also functions as archprophet through her exemplification of God’s wombing activity in the world.
The Hebrew Bible is filled with mothering language for God. God labors in birth (Deut. 32:18; Job 38:29; Isaiah 42:14), functions as a midwife (Psalm 22:8-10), weans (Psalm 132:2), feeds (Hosea 11:3-4), nurses (Numbers 11:12; Isaiah 49:15; 1 Thes. 2:7), and comforts (Isaiah 66:13). God is also described as a mother eagle (Deut. 32: 11-12), a mother hen (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34), a lioness (Ezekiel 19:2), and a mother bear (Hosea 13:8).
In Exodus 34, the Pentateuchal writer record’s God’s first proclamation of God’s character: “The Lord, the Lord (Yahweh) a God merciful (rakhum) and gracious…” In its noun, verb, and adjective forms, Hebrew scholars note, rakhum is closely related semantically and linguistically to the Hebrew word for womb, rekhem. In other words, the first language God uses to describe Godself is mothering language—of the love (compassion) a mother has for her child.
Mary exemplifies this compassionate work of God. She is the Madonna Misericordia—the mother of mercy. Misericordia, as Gregory of Nyssa describes, is compassion through “loving self-identification” with the other. There is no closer self-identification with God than holding God incarnated within oneself—wombing the Womber, containing the Uncontainable, placing the Unplaceable.
In this sacred work, Mary becomes a model for participation in God’s reconciling activity.
Whereas Mary held God incarnate within herself, we hold the Holy Spirit within us—bearing witness to God’s grace in and toward the world. In doing so, we function as connections between God and the created word, humanity, and society through this sacred wombing. Through God’s election, Mary’s obedience brings about God’s redeeming grace to all the daughters of Eve. This is the work of spiritual motherhood that God calls us to. As Amy Peeler concludes, Mary “provides a template for all Christians whose primary identity resides in their relationship with Christ, whose Christian identity comes to expression in a rich variety of ways.”
To be sure, this is deeply vulnerable work. For all of Mary’s prophetic might and strength, God’s call on her life leaves her susceptible to the threat of her own community, Herod, and even the dangers of childbearing itself. Beverly Roberts Gaventa observes that God’s selection of Mary “reveals her vulnerability to the One who intervenes in human lives in unexpected ways.” At Pentecost, we see the same: the work of the Holy Spirit renders the first followers of Jesus vulnerable to the powers of the empire. Eric Barreto further comments that the prophet’s road is deeply vulnerable “because she is called to the most troubled corners of the world, places which existence we would rather deny or ignore.” As Gavanta concludes, “Vulnerability, then, is an unavoidable part of what it means to be a creature of God’s making.”
Through Mary, we may see clearly a motherly God who is merciful (rakhum) and gracious—a God who knows what it means to have a body broken and poured out to give life to another. This is the mothering and wombing work that God calls each of us to in this season of Advent and beyond.