Christotokos: Mary's Universal Maternity

Chapter 11 of Mother of God by Fr. Cyril Bernard Papali O.C.D.

Read the other chapters here.

When Jesus therefore had seen His Mother and the disciple standing whom He loved, He saith to His Mother: Woman behold thy son. And after that He saith to the disciple: Behold thy Mother.” (John XIX, 26, 27.)

“BEHOLD THY MOTHER”! The last words addressed to man by the Incarnate Word in His mortal life. Three short words to comprise and conclude the endless preaching of three long laborious years. God has spoken from quite a number of mountain tops. On Sinai, amid fire and thunder, He spoke to Moses for full forty days and nights, and revealed the Old Law in all its awe-inspiring detail. On the Mount of Beatitudes He described the beauty of the New Law with the charm of His divine meekness. On Thabor He stood resplendent in His glory and discussed with Moses and Elias His approaching passion. On Olivet He was shortly to address His long parting advice to His followers before He would rise into heaven in His resurrected Body. But on none of these mountain tops did He present Himself in all His characteristics: as Law-giver, Teacher, Brother, Priest and Victim. Only on Calvary was He all these, and only there was He speaking literally ex Cathedra. It was the climax and conclusion of His redemptive mission. Who would not expect His words then to be dynamic, replete with sublime truths and deep mysteries? And indeed they were.

“Woman, behold thy son.” We have already discussed in a previous chapter the deep significance of the word Woman, apart from its respectful and endearing Hebrew meaning. We now turn to the contents of this extraordinary message. Christ was putting His finishing touch to the plan of Redemption and perfecting its parallelism to the Fall with a paradox. Look back for a moment at the parallel case. “And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all the living.”[1] Adam spoke much about his wife and meant less; Christ spoke very little about His Mother and meant infinitely more. Eve was declared the mother of all the living, whereas she became only the mother of all the dying, and even so she was not mother of all, because Adam was not her son. Mary was apparently named mother of one lingering disciple of the dying Christ, when in fact she had become not only the mother of all the living, but mother of Life itself. For this reason we have named this chapter Christotokos (Mother of Christ) which seems to mean less and does mean more. When Nestorius called Mary Christotokos he meant infinitely less than Theotokos, whereas when we now call her Christotokos we mean, if possible, even more than Theotokos. We mean that she is mother not only of the Individual Christ who is Man and God, but, what is more, mother of the Mystical Christ, that is Christ the Head and the Church His mystical body. This is the Christ who is still growing till the end of time until He attains to full stature when the number of the elect shall be completed. And, though it may sound strange, this motherhood of Mary need not be restricted to the human race, for even the angels are to be included in her great family of children, if all supernatural life is from Christ and therefore through Mary. St. Paul maintains that where the sin of Adam “abounded” the grace of Christ has “abounded” more.[2] We might add that while the sin of Adam is limited to the race of men, the grace of Christ has overflowed to the very angels. This would render Mary’s Maternity truly universal embracing all the living from God downwards.

But Mary’s universal maternity was not merely an afterthought of Christ. It lies deep-rooted in the whole plan of God from the beginning. It is a counterpart of that divine adoption by which we are privileged to call God “Abba, Father”, just as her divine Maternity is a counterpart of His Eternal Fatherhood. When God the Father communicated to her His divine parenthood it implied both the natural relation of motherhood to the true Son of God, and the supernatural relation of motherhood to the adopted sons of God. “Hence she received from God the Father Himself that fundamental fecundity to generate all the elect, even the very angels”, says St. Bernardine of Siena, “…because from the very beginning of their creation and glorification she had been preordained Mother of God.”[3] It has become a common principle with the saints that he who has not Mary for his mother cannot claim God for his Father. The great love of God the Father for us is manifested in this that “He did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.”[4] Mary’s Motherhood has passed through the same test, says St. Augustine: “Standing beside the Cross she exercised the greatest obedience to God and charity to men, delivering up her Son for them; by which act she merited to be named mother of all the faithful.”[5] “God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son,” says St. John.[6] And St. Bonaventure supplies the counterpart: “Mary so loved us as to give Her only begotten Son.”[7] St. Bernard puts her motherhood on a par with the Fatherhood of God when he exclaims: “O wonderful condescension of both the Parents of Jesus Christ towards us! O inestimable charity of God and the Virgin, who, in order to redeem the slave, delivered up their Son by that excess of charity with which God and the Virgin loved us miserable creatures!”[8] Therefore, all who are children of God the Father are by that reason alone children of Mary.

Another great foundation for Mary’s universal maternity is the reality of the mystical body of Christ. It is St. Paul again who tells us that Christ is our Head and we all the members of His mystical body. If that is so, argue the Saints, we should be born of the same Mother as our head, He bodily, we spiritually. It would be a monstrosity if a head were born without the body. “Plainly she is Mother of His members, which we are,” writes St. Augustine, “because by charity she co-operated in the birth of the faithful in the Church, who are the members of that Head.”[9] “Mary is not only the singular mother of Christ,” observes St. Bonaventure, “but the common mother of all the faithful.”[10] If Christ was born of her by the Holy Ghost, His mystical body must also be born of her by the Holy Ghost. When viewed in this light her presence in the Cenacle at the advent of the Paraclete becomes all the more significant. The occasion bears close resemblance to that of the Annunciation. For here too the Holy Ghost descended upon her, the power of the Most High overshadowed her and that which was born of her is called the Child of God. Mary by reason of the mystical bond of all the faithful with Christ is necessarily their mother also.

“This universal motherhood of Mary,” remarks Scheeben, “which is usually called the mystical motherhood, may not at all be considered a purely moral or so-called motherhood. In its nature it is as equally real, organic, living, and substantial a relation as that of the bodily motherhood. It rests on the maternal relation of Mary to Christ and the organic relation in which Christians stand to Christ as their Head. Ultimately this mystical motherhood is derived from the fact that Mary, as real bride of God, is seat and instrument of the divine life of grace. The cohesion of this secondary with the primary motherhood is so close that we may say: Mary received in the conception of Christ the real, divine Word as semen divinum, in such a way that in Christ and with Christ men also must be born from it as children, and that consequently all men are virtually brought forth in her bosom through the conception of Christ.”[11] To Saint Pope Pius X this conclusion is so very obvious. “Is not Mary the mother of Christ?” he asks, “then she is also our mother; that is why we who are united to Jesus Christ and, as says St. Paul (Eph. v, 30), ‘who are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones’, have come forth from the womb of Mary as a body united to its head.”[12] The Holy Father Pope Pius XII concludes his epoch-making Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ with a clear assertion of Mary’s universal maternity: “Her sinless soul was filled with the Divine Spirit of Jesus Christ more than all other created souls; and ‘in the name of the whole human race’ she gave her consent for a ‘spiritual marriage between the Son of God and human nature’. Within her virginal womb Christ Our Lord already bore the exalted title of the Head of the Church…As another Eve she offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father for all the children of Adam sinstained by his fall, and her mother’s rights and mother’s love were included in the holocaust. Thus she who corporally was mother of our Head, through the added title of pain and glory became spiritually the mother of all His members.”

But above all, as Second Eve and Co-redemptrix, Mary merited to become the Mother of all the elect. By her consent to the divine maternity she conceived them and by her agony on Calvary she brought them forth to life. “By her consent to the Incarnation of the Son,” says St. Bernardine of Siena, “the Virgin most efficaciously demanded and obtained the salvation of all; and by that same consent she so fully dedicated herself to the salvation of all, that from that moment she has borne them all in her womb as a true mother.”[13] And St. Antonine wrote: “As Christ, by suffering on the Cross, generated us in the word of truth to the spiritual life of grace, so the Blessed Virgin, sharing with Christ in the greatest sufferings, generated us and brought us forth.”[14] Jesus burned with the love of souls when He cried out from the Cross: “I thirst!”[15] How could that cry not resound in Mary’s heart, and how could it be better expressed than in the words of her great type Rachael: “Give me children, otherwise I shall die”?[16] It was a cry that resounded down the centuries and rang round Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Christ. So says St. Matthew in connection with the massacre of the Innocents: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the Prophet saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachael bewailing her children and would not be comforted, because they were not.”[17] It was a cry that did not cease until the death of Christ, when multitudes of Children were born to the new Rachael. The first child of Rachael, Joseph, born in her joy, was the type of Christ. The second child of Rachael, the type of all the faithful, was born at the moment of her death agony and, therefore, was named by her Benoni, “the son of my pain”. How true the figure! Mary brought forth her first born without pain. But when she came to bringing the rest of her children to life, O what agony did it not cost her! We are truly children of her pain. “I shall multiply thy sorrows and thy conceptions. In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,” said God to Eve.[18] This curse translated into a blessing has been verified in Mary to the letter. For the multitude of her children, and the depth of agony suffered in bringing them to life, the Second Eve immensely surpasses the first.

But even had none of these grounds and claims existed, the creative words of Christ from the Cross alone would have sufficed to make Mary mother of all the elect. “Behold thy mother”, the last and the sweetest words we have heard from the lips of the Saviour in His mortal life. They were addressed not only to John but to all beloved disciples. “In John we mystically recognise all the souls of the elect whose mother the Blessed Virgin has become by love,” says St. Bernardine of Siena.[19] By this Christ was fulfilling in a very touching manner the promise of the previous evening: “I will not leave you orphans.”[20] We know how the infant Church understood these words from the way the disciples timidly flocked round Mary in those dark days preceding the Pentecost. Christ was, therefore, speaking to all His loved ones. Now beginning to taste death He is speaking like a mortal to mortals, with all the tenderness and endearment of parting words. He is making His last will. He is giving His parting gift, which though it cannot be greater than the gift of Himself, is, nevertheless, the greatest of His gifts in a very true sense, for without it no other gift would have availed us poor sinners. It is the gift He held nearest to His heart and knew would go deepest into the hearts of His children, and, therefore, reserved for the psychological moment of His parting. “Having loved His own in the world He loved them unto the end.”[21] And the end of this endless love was this ravishing gift captivating the hearts of the giver and the receivers alike. For she is God’s double answer to the infinite justice of God and the equally infinite weakness of man. By her God has in a way disarmed Himself and fortified us. “Behold thou art angry and we have sinned, …and there is none that riseth up and taketh hold of thee,” complained Isaias.[22] And St. Bonaventure remarks that it was so until Mary appeared on the scene. Richard of St. Lawrence expressed the same idea boldly thus: “God complained before Mary was born that there was none to restrain Him; now that Mary has been found, she withholds Him and appeases Him.”[23]

But God has also disarmed the sinner by this marvellous invention. Mary has been called the bait of God to catch sinners. St. Alphonsus quoting Blosius says: “This mother of mercy is all kindness and all sweetness, not only with the just, but also with sinners and those who are in despair; so that when she beholds them turning towards her, and sees that they are with sincerity seeking her help, she at once welcomes them, aids them, and obtains their pardon from her Son. She neglects none, however unworthy he may be, and refuses to none her protection. She consoles all; and no sooner do they call upon her, than she hastens to their help. With her gentleness she often wins their devotion, and raises those sinners who are most averse to God, and who are the most deeply plunged in the lethargy of their vices that she may dispose them to receive divine grace, and at last render them worthy of eternal glory. God has created this His beloved daughter with a disposition so kind and compassionate, that no one can hesitate to have recourse to her intercession. The devout writer concludes with saying: It is not possible that any one can be lost, who with exactness and humility practises devotion to this divine mother.”[24] The appeal of a mother is irresistible even to the most hardened heart. And by providing such a mother, God has touched the most deepseated string of the human heart and spiritualised the earliest, tenderest and most enduring of human affections which the worst perversity of sin can hardly smother. Nothing better can be thought of to win human hearts. That master-missionary, St. Francis Xavier, learned this truth from his own experience. “I have found,” he wrote, “that the people resent the Gospel every time I forget to show the image of Christ’s Mother next to the Cross of the Saviour.” If the Incarnation is an attempt of God’s condescending love to adapt divine things to human ways, this gift of a mother is by far the most touching gesture of all.

Now, God has made Mary truly equal to her charge. In order to be made a worthy Mother of God she had to be raised to an almost infinite height of dignity and sanctity. But in order to be able to mother a universe of miserable beings, she needed to be furnished with an equally infinite degree of mercy and power. And, therefore, “the Mother of God has obtained half the kingdom of God,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “so that she is Queen of mercy, while her Son is King of justice.”[25] When God committed the people of Israel to the care of Solomon, He gave that king a “largeness of heart as the sand that is on the sea shore.”[26] What must then be the largeness of that heart which was fashioned by the Almighty to contain the whole universe of the elect along with God Himself? Mary is the personification of motherhood at its best. A mother’s love is the nearest representation of God’s infinite tenderness, so that He Himself has to appeal to this comparison whenever He wants to drive home to us His mercy. What shall we say of the tenderness and largeness of heart of that mother whose love embraces both God and creature, angels and men, saints and sinners? Her largeness of heart is not to be compared to the sands of the sea shore, but to the infinity of God and the immensity of the universe. In the revelations of St. Bridget we read these words of Our Lady revealing the tenderness of her heart: “I am the Queen of Heaven; I am the mother of mercy; I am the joy of the just and the gate for sinners to God. There is none so accursed as not to receive my mercy as long as he lives on earth; for on account of me he is at least less tempted by the devils than he would otherwise have been. There is none so abandoned by God, unless he be altogether damned, who if he invoke me will not return to God and receive mercy. I am called by all Mother of mercy, and truly His mercy has made me merciful. Therefore, he shall be miserable indeed, who, now that he can, will not approach me who am so merciful.”[27] And the Church of God proclaims daily the mercy of this mother in the tenderest of accents. “Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope she repeats many times a day and concludes that wonderful prayer with this outburst of love and confidence, “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!” “O Mary, who would not love thee?” exclaims Blosius, “thou art light in doubt, solace in grief, refuge in danger. Thou, after thy Son, the surest salvation of the faithful. Hail hope of the despairing, hail help of the destitute, who hast been so honoured by thy Son, that whatever thou wilt that moment is realised.”[28]

Mary’s power equals her mercy and exceeds all our wants. “The charity of the Mother of God is at once most powerful and most merciful,” says St. Bernard, “it abounds both in affection to compassionate, and efficacy to succour; it is equally rich in both.”[29] Jesus during His earthly life was willingly subject to her. And He has not changed. St. Bernardine of Siena could therefore boldly assert: “Everything is subject to the authority of the Virgin, even God.” These words need not startle us. God’s nature is such that, the more a creature conforms itself to His will, the more He subjects Himself to that creature. If such is His behaviour to all creatures in general, how much more so should it be towards Mary? When she made a heroic act of submission and said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word,” He on His part made a still greater act of submission and became her child. If in the greatest of His actions, His Incarnation, God obeyed Mary, we should not be surprised that He obeys her in everything else. So much so that the humble and silent Virgin was forced to confess: “He that is mighty hath done great things to me; and holy is His Name.” Long ago Judith, her great type, made a similar confession, and all the people adored the Lord and said to her: “The Lord hath blessed thee by His power, because by thee He hath brought our enemies to naught.”[30] Is not Mary that mighty woman by whom God has brought all His and our enemies to naught? It is with reason therefore that St. Peter Damian applies to Our Lady the words Christ spoke about Himself: “All power in heaven and earth is given thee; and nothing is impossible to thee who canst raise to salutary hope even the most desperate souls.”[31]

But Mary has yet another and a peculiar power belonging to her motherhood. A mother’s grief over her child has an irresistible power to obtain favours. Elias saw the grief of the widow of Sarephta, and he raised her child to life. Eliseus was touched by the sorrow of the Sunamite, and could not but restore her dead son to life. The poor widow of Naim followed her son’s body weeping. She did not ask for a favour as the two former mothers did. And yet Jesus could not resist the appeal of a bereaved mother’s sorrow. He went up and asked her not to weep, then stopping the bier raised the young man to life and restored him to his mother. In all the above we find forecast one special aspect of Mary’s maternal power. He who could not resist the tears of the widow of Naim, must be powerless before His own sorrowful Mother weeping over her multitude of children dead and dying. And who can count the number of resurrections her omnipotent tears are bringing about? The cases of the Good Thief and the Centurion are quite remarkable, and those who probe deeper than the surface cannot help counting them among the first fruits of her maternal tears. “O Mary our beloved advocate,” cries St. Peter Damian, “since thou canst not behold the miserable without pity, and, at the same time, hast so great a power with God to save all those whom thou dost defend, deign to intercede in behalf of us miserable creatures, who place in thee all our hopes. If our prayers do not move thee, may thy merciful heart at least move thee; may thy power at least move thee, since God, for this end, has enriched thee with so much power, that the richer thou art in the power to aid us, so much more compassionate thou mayest be in thy desire to aid us.”[32]

When Christ said: “Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,”[33] He was not indulging in rhetoric, but enunciating a very fundamental principle of the spiritual life. For, one inevitable consequence of the Incarnation has been to naturalise, so to speak, the whole supernatural order. And that not merely in figure, but in reality. Thus we have a sacrament for our rebirth, another for our strengthening, a third for the cure of our spiritual maladies, and the greatest of all the sacraments for our nourishment. All this simply means that we have to become little children again and grow up spiritually. And if this spiritual childhood bears close resemblance to natural childhood, as it does, we must surely look for the correlative of the child here also without which the very idea of childhood is inconceivable. The mother is the one thing a child cannot do without, and apart from which we cannot so much as think of a child. And if every other accessory to our spiritual childhood has been individually defined and presented in tangible form by Christ, who can believe He would leave this fundamental need of our childhood vague and undefined? He supplied that need at the last moment, pointing out to us the particular person who is to be the mother of our souls. And in so doing He also made it clear that His natural life is the model for our supernatural life, just as His body is the food of our souls. He made this the last thing for Him to preach because He knew it is the first thing for us to practise. Like Him we too must first be born of the Blessed Virgin by the Holy Ghost. Like Him we must be fed with her heart-blood and brought up by her care. Like Him we must live in life-long dependence on her. Like Him we must find our first and last refuge in her maternal arms. In short, she must be the Alpha and Omega in our lives. Does it all seem too much? The whole conduct of Our Lord belies our doubts. “He began to act and to teach,” says the Scripture. His thirty years of action was described by the Evangelist in three words: “Erat subditus illis,” and His three years of teaching was condensed by Himself in another three words: “Ecce Mater Tua.” Do we need further comment?

So the most fundamental principle of that spiritual childhood that makes us Christlike and renders us fit for heaven is this: that we be born of her in the spiritual order and be formed by her after the pattern of Christ. Only those hands that tended and brought up a God-Man can fashion us to His likeness. If all perfection consists in becoming “conformable to the image of Christ”, as St. Paul puts it, the whole secret of attaining it consists in resigning ourselves to the hands of His divine Mother. No one has expressed this so boldly and so graphically as St. Augustine when he said: “Mary is the living mould of God, that is to say, it is in her alone that the God-Man was naturally formed without losing a feature, so to speak, of His Godhead: and it is in her alone that man can be properly and in a life-like way formed into God, so far as human nature is capable of this by the grace of Jesus Christ.”[34] Christ has left us His golden mould. All we have to do is to throw ourselves into it with loving confidence and self-surrender and let her shape us into gods. The principal spiritual exercise of this way of simplicity consists in centering all our thoughts and affections constantly on the Blessed Mother, in trying to conform our thoughts, words and actions to hers, and in begging her incessantly to convert, guide and sanctify us and offer all that is in us to God according to her own intentions and in union with her merits. That is to say, we ask her who encompassed God and made Him human to encompass us and make us divine. In this way we ascend to God by the ladder by which He descended to us. We return thanks to God by the channel by which all His graces flow to us. This is how St. Louis Marie de Montfort, the great prophet of the Marian age and apostle of the spiritual childhood, unfolds his secret of sanctity: “All our perfection consists in being conformed, united, and consecrated to Jesus Christ; and therefore the most perfect of all devotions is, without any doubt, that which the most perfectly conforms, unites, and consecrates us to Jesus Christ. Now, Mary being the most conformed of all creatures to Jesus Christ, it follows that of all devotions, that which most consecrates and conforms the soul to Our Lord is devotion to His holy Mother, and that the more a soul is consecrated to Mary, the more is it consecrated to Jesus….

“This devotion consists, then, in giving ourselves entirely and altogether to our Lady, in order to belong entirely and altogether to Jesus by her. We must give her (1) our body, with all its senses and its members; (2) our soul, with all its powers; (3) the exterior goods of fortune, whether present or to come; (4) our interior and spiritual goods, which are our merits and our virtues, and our good works, past, present, and future.”

This, then, is the whole secret of true devotion to Mary. But devotion is not the word, it is life in Mary, by Mary and with Mary. It is not merely to live in her company, but to have her as the atmosphere in which we live, the very breath we live by. It is to realise that she is truly “our life, our sweetness and our hope”. Centuries ago that immortal master of spirituality, Thomas à Kempis, condensed it all into a few inspiring words: “With Mary live joyfully, with Mary bear all you trials, with Mary labour, with Mary pray, with Mary take your recreation, with Mary take you repose. With Mary seek Jesus, in your arms bear Jesus, and with Jesus and Mary fix your dwelling at Nazareth. With Mary go to Jerusalem, remain near the Cross of Jesus, bury yourself with Jesus. With Jesus and Mary rise again, with Jesus and Mary mount to Heaven, with Jesus and Mary live and die.”[35]


[1] Gen. iii, 20.

[2] Rom. v, 20.

[3] Quoted in Exposit in S. Evan., Hongkong, tom. viii, pp. 467. 468.

[4] Rom. viii, 32.

[5] De Virgine, cap. vi.

[6] Epist. iii, 16.

[7] Quoted in Glories of Mary, Pt. I. ch. I. sect. iii.

[8] Sermo 51.

[9] De Sancta Virginitate, cap. vi, n. 6.

[10] Specul. B. Virg.

[11] Mariology, Vol. I, ch. xi.

[12] Encyclical, Ad diem illum, Febr. 22, 1904.

[13] Tract. De B.V., Serm. 6.

[14] Summa, p. iv, c. xiii, 10.

[15] John xix, 28.

[16] Gen. xxx, 1.

[17] Matt. ii, 17, 18.

[18] Gen. iii, 16.

[19] Serm. 53, de Pass. Christi.

[20] John xiv, 18.

[21] John xiii, 1.

[22] LXIV, 5, 7.

[23] De Laud. Virg.

[24] Glories of Mary, Pt. I, Chap. iii, Sect. 2.

[25] Exposit. in Epist. Canon.

[26] III Kings, iv, 29.

[27] Rev. Lib. I, cap. 6.

[28] Cimeliarch. Embol. I, ad mar

[29] Serm. de Assumpt.

[30] Judith xiii, 22.

[31] Sermo I, de nat. B.M.V.

[32] Quoted in Glories of Mary, P. I, Ch. vi, Sect. 1.

[33] Matt. xviii, 3.

[34] De Sancta Virginit., cap. 5-6.

[35] Sermon to Novices.