Seeing as today is Mothers’ Day on this side of the Atlantic, I thought I would write a little about the archetype of motherhood in the Christian tradition. Mary was the mother of Jesus and therefore she was the mother of God. She has had a prominent place in Christian devotion across the whole of the church since its earliest years. The medieval Celtic Christians also had a deep fondness for her and spoke of her in terms which we might call the divine feminine today, though that wouldn’t have been the language they used at the time.
The prayer below is a perfect example of such medieval devotion to Mary in the Celtic tradition. This poem appears in my upcoming book Psalter of the Birds which you can learn more about HERE. I will let you read the poem for yourself first, and then I will share some of my own thoughts on how it might be relevant to us today.
Gentle Mary, noble maiden, give us help You are the shrine of our Lord's body You are the jewel box of mysteries Queen of queens, pure holy maiden Pray for us that our many transgressions May be forgiven for your sake O merciful one, O forgiving one With the grace of the Holy Spirit Pray with us to our king the fair judge King of the good and fragrant clan The fair branch of Jesse's tree In the beautiful hazel wood Pray for us until we obtain Forgiveness of our many sins Mary, splendid royal crown The one who saved our race You are a glorious noble torch You are the orchard of Kings The brilliant one, the resplendent one Who lived in pure chastity O fair golden illumined ark O holy daughter from Heaven O mother of righteousness You surpass everyone else Pray with us to your firstborn To save us on the day of doom O noble rare star, O blossoming tree O powerful and precious lamp O sun that warms everyone O ladder of the great path By which every saint ascends May you be our safeguard Towards the glorious Kingdom The noble guest was in your womb For three times three months Fair fragrant seat chosen by the King Glorious royal porch through which he was incarnated The splendid and chosen sun Jesus, Son of the living God For the sake of the fair babe That was conceived in your womb For the sake of the holy child That is High King in every place For the sake of his cross That is higher than any cross For the sake of his burial When he was buried in a stone tomb For the sake of his resurrection When he arose before everyone For the sake of the holy household From every place until doom O Mother Mary be our safeguard In the Kingdom of the Good Lord That we may meet with dear Jesus That is our prayer Hail Mary full of grace
There is so much beautiful imagery in there that is worth exploring, but I want to focus more closely on one line in particular. I imagine it is the line which is the most difficult for those not accustomed to speaking of Mary in this way. It refers to Mary as “the one who saved our race.” Surely, of course, it was Jesus who saved our race. It was Jesus who suffered and died and who rose again from the grave. The early Celtic Christians would never have denied that, but they saw that Mary had a pivotal role to play in the process nonetheless.
Pelagius described Mary as manifesting completely everything which resided in Jesus. It was, of course, through Mary that Jesus was made manifest, so this isn’t a difficult connection to make. In the quote below, Pelagius is referring to Mary in regards to a life of chastity specifically. While we may not place the same importance on virginity today as they did back then, the insight is applicable to our discussion here as well. For Pelagius, the reverence of Mary was an important reminder that holiness is not reserved for men alone but can be found, in its completeness, in women also. He said,
“Jesus showed an example of virginity for men in himself and for women in his mother, so that it might be demonstrated that the blessed and perfect fullness of divinity was worthy to reside in either sex, since whatever resided in the Son was also completely manifested in the Mother.”
In the same way that Jesus was the New Adam, Mary was understood as the New Eve. The gospel story was a reversal of the Genesis story. In the garden there was a tree which gave life and a tree which gave death. The cross is symbolic of the tree of death being transformed into the tree of life. Eve was created out of the flesh of Adam in the garden, but the New Adam was created out of the flesh of the New Eve, once again reversing the narrative.
The fall of humanity (however you might choose to understand that idea) was something which Adam and Eve both participated in and the redemption of humanity (however you might choose to understand that idea) was also a joint effort between Jesus and Mary. The path to healing and holiness is modeled in both Mary and Jesus and we can’t properly speak of one without speaking of the other.
As the poem says, Mary is the ladder by which every saint ascends. Not only does the spiritual path mirror Christ’s death and resurrection but it also mirrors Mary’s pregnancy which ushered in the incarnation. Many of the women saints in the Celtic tradition understood themselves in this light. You can read more about the Celtic views of the spiritual path of motherhood HERE and the principle of death and resurrection HERE.
There is an old Celtic idea, which is shared with the Eastern church, that the human being is the microcosm of the universe. You can read more about that HERE. Christ took on the entirety of creation when he assumed human form and in turn he resurrected the entire cosmos when he resurrected his own humanity. Mary, then, took the entirety of the cosmos into her womb with Christ, and in a sense gave birth to the whole world.
From a mystical point of view, we might say that we are still in Mary’s womb, awaiting our own resurrection. Mother Mary is the cosmic womb, in which our souls are waiting for the day of our resurrection, or as Jesus said – the day of our second birth. Since in Christ all are saved, and it was in Mary that Christ took on our nature, Mary is an active participant in the work of redemption.
We must pick up our cross and follow Christ if we wish to seek the depths of the contemplative life, but we must also open our spiritual wombs to the presence of God so that we may be midwives to the birth of the sacred in the world. This Mothers’ Day remember the great mother of us all. The mother in whose womb we are waiting to be reborn.
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