Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mary and the Church

I remember reading many years ago an essay by H. U. von Balthasar (to the judgment of many, including your HP, the main Catholic theologian of the Twentieth Century), entitled "Who is the Church". I was at the beginning of my philosophical and theological studies, and I expected some dissertation on the people in the Church, and what makes them faithful members of it. I tell you my surprise when I found the essay asserting the identification of the "who the church is" in Peter and Mary, in order to discuss the relation between the two.

It is far from our mentality to think of individual persons as representative of a collectivity, but that is the way Christians have been thinking for centuries. In this key, Peter and Mary (as well as the other important persons surrounding Christ in the New testament, like John and Paul), are primary figures of the different components of the Church that sprung from him.

Well, Peter represents the express leading office, liturgical and doctrinal, in the Church; but it is such only in as far as he is at the service of Mary, who represents the spiritual fecundity of the Church. Peter, in his fallibility, is preserved unerring by adhering to Mary.

Without these premises I could not comment on the Magnificat, and how it refers traditional Old Testament warlike images of God assisting his people – as he who "shewed might in his arm", "scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart", "put down the mighty from their seat" and "exalted the humble" – to what happens in a woman's womb.

Not just that woman's womb, whom all generations shall call blessed, but the Church's womb.

It is the divine fecundity of any man and woman in the Church. But carnally it is women who carry any baby by whom the kingdom is to grow.

Here I need another erudite quote to explain what this meant in Christian civilization – what it meant, I say, because now days it is heavily under attack.

The great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye wrote a book entitled The secular scripture, in which he analyzed the late antiquity novels as expression of popular culture. Their typical plot was the adventures of two lovers, a hero and a heroin both of high birth, severed before they could marry, running in search of each other, falling in the hands of pirates or such like things, until they could finally reunite and be joined in marriage.

I mention it, because of an important observation by Frye. Both lovers were very attentive in preserving their virginity: he from the seduction of some femme fatal, she from the threat of rape by pirates or other nasty men. As always, though, the main emphasis fell on the woman's virginity: it is with her that the loss of it could have the gravest consequences! Frye remarked that by preserving her virginity the heroin differentiated herself from promiscuous little servants, shepherdesses, peasants women. A king's daughter, she had to bear a king's son.

It comes to my mind, on this regard, Elisabeth of Pride and Prejudice, when, in her dialogue with Darcy's aunt, lady Catherine, who wants to keep her from marrying him, retorts: "He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman's daughter."

In Christian marriage, however, with its monogamous requirement, every man and woman is a king (or a gentleman) and a king's (or a gentleman's) daughter. Because they all represent the Church's womb, from which they again give birth to a king.

John Adams understood this: that there are two ways of conceiving democracy, that there are no kings or that everybody is called to be king. He stood for the second, but there is a widespread tendency toward the first. As always, mostly represented in sexual mores.

Since the late Sixties, promiscuousness seems to have won the day. It has been portrayed as the result of a movement of emancipation, making everybody free in his pursuit, if not precisely of happiness, at least of pleasure. But Frye's remark makes me strongly suspicious that it was rather the opposite, turning all men and women into servants.

That's when we are no longer able to say, with Mary, "he that is mighty, hath done great things to me".


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