Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
With Advent upon us, this music minister has begun to contemplate the coming celebration of The Incarnation, a process that includes reflecting on Mary’s motherhood and, for me, womanhood itself.
What is a woman? seems to be the question of the moment. It’s a preschool-level question, to be sure. And like every other subject of grave importance, the nothing-can-be-known-for-sure crowd will admit to no objective truth even for that which is obvious to a four-year-old.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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And yet, there are certainly things about womanhood—well beyond a simple definition—that need to be explored.
I worked in industry for forty years and, from the mouths of various grinning executive secretaries, there came a running joke that went like this: “Would you like to talk to the boss, or would you like to speak with someone who knows what’s going on?”
The dictionary says of the word primacy: the state of being first or foremost. There is primacy in leading a company, and there is a centrality to office management. The interpersonal dynamics of sexuality aside, synergy between those two concepts can make for a smooth operation.
Primacy and centrality are interesting words that need to be explored. In a previous article, I explored the word utility and lamented that it was headed down a dark path. To be tasked with communicating in a living language is to be charged with constant vigilance.
Another such word is grooming. In another article, I lamented ways in which we are groomed toward numerous evil ends. However, to stop discussion at that point is to do injustice to the language, as that specific word usage only came to us in the late twentieth century; it has become one of the many words forever tainted by sin.
A common compound word that contains the word groom is bridegroom, from grome:
“male child, boy;” c. 1300, “a youth, young man,” also “male servant, attendant, minor officer in a royal or noble household ranking higher than a page; a knight’s squire.” (etymonline.com)
The bridegroom is not only the bride’s man but, in a sense, her servant, her guard—her soon-to-be knight in shining armor. To groom, in the original sense of the verb to tend or care for, is a very good thing.
It dovetails so nicely with our word for the sacrament of marriage: matrimony, which finds its root in the Latin word mater—mother. At the center of both the wedding and the marriage we find woman; specifically, woman as mother. It’s no accident.
Just as it’s no accident that a great portion of Western language—Germanic or Romantic—is deeply rooted in Christendom and, more specifically, in Roman and Greek Christendom. The mission of the Church can be slowly eroded by corrupting the language—but completely extracting Christendom from the language is nigh unto impossible.
And placing woman as mother at the center of both the wedding and the marriage is every bit as purposeful and built into the language as is calling our Church “Holy Mother Church.” As a body, we have something central, pivotal, crucial, essential, fundamental about us—and this quality of centrality has a deeply feminine, motherly nature about it. In the words of St. John Paul II (Mulieris Dignitatem):
…all human beings—both women and men—are called through the Church, to be the “Bride” of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. In this way “being the bride,” and thus the “feminine” element, becomes a symbol of all that is “human”…
Why is the Church so eager to honor Mary? Because she is eager to honor motherhood. Elizabeth exclaimed, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” The Church has simply joined in that exaltation.
A holy mother’s focus is rarely on herself; occasionally on her husband; always and everywhere on her children. There is a magnetism about Mary’s motherhood, like all motherhood, that draws us to the center of existence, that places our focus on the Christ child; on Mary’s spouse, the Holy Spirit; and, ultimately, on the Father who has primacy over all.
In the words of St. John Paul II:
It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man—even with all his sharing in parenthood—always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother.
Scripture gives us accounts of God’s love for us from a motherly perspective. Jesus lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Holding, as I do, the concept of the centrality of womanhood in the family dynamic as a core indicator of the relative veracity of a host of other things, I was very taken by an article by Monica Miller, wherein she argued powerfully that, in order to grant woman the Roe v. Wade purported “right to privacy,” womanhood needed to be stripped of its social connectivity. In her words,
In Roe v. Wade, the “right to privacy” is a sphere of privacy only around the woman. The woman in the court’s decision completely stands alone. The decision created and defends the isolated female, who must first be placed in this sphere of isolation in order to exercise the ultimate power to kill another—to indeed cast out of herself that person most close to herself—her unborn son or daughter.
…The court ruling was based on the premise that there are no inherent human relationships. The woman stands alone, apart from literally everyone else in the world. And within her private zone of isolation, any moral obligations she may have toward others are shattered.
If you would destroy a wheel, corrode its hub. Woman is the hub of the family and, therefore, the hub of humanity. Destroying that hub grinds civilization to a halt—and along with it, all that is humane.
Let’s look at the word equity: freedom from bias or favoritism. There can be no equity between primacy and centrality because they are, so to speak, two different species. There can, however, be equality, for that is one of the fruits of fully appreciated and fully developed complementarity—the progeny of deep integration.
The thesaurus produces synonyms for primacy that are wholly antithetical to what it is that I mean by the term. For example, in the Church we refer to an archbishop as a primate. A bishop is an apostle, and he is therefore, according to St. Paul, the servant of all—a servant whose task it is to lead others to Christ.
When the president of our country is out and about with the secret service and a situation of danger to his person arises, his defenders have situational primacy—they are going to do what they need to do regardless of what their ultimate boss, the president, tells them.
The primacy of human fatherhood, unlike the primacy of God the Father, is not existential. Though the persons of the Trinity are coequal, if there was no God the Father, there would be no God the Son, and without Father and Son, there would be no Holy Spirit.
No, the primacy—the headship—of Christian fatherhood is much more like the primacy of an apostle; it is one of service and spiritual leadership. And like the primacy of a secret service agent, it is situational—that is to say, proper within marriage—not applicable to the sexes at large, and it exists primarily to honor and protect the centrality of womanhood and motherhood and to lead all to salvation.
Because the primacy of human fatherhood has been perceived by some as primarily utilitarian and therefore somewhat existential—that is, as necessary for supplying food, dwelling, and protection—it is seen by modernity as no longer valid because many women have proven themselves capable of providing those things just as well or better than their male counterparts, enabling an equity between herself and her husband. But much is lost in that analogy.
For our purposes, in this discussion primacy is not superiority, supremacy, or dominance; it is the taking of appropriate leadership as one’s state in life demands—in the case of the Christian father and husband, spiritual leadership. I venture that, at the heart of the general decline in religiosity in modern life, we have many men embracing a sort of playboy mentality. When men are fickle and childish, primacy loses its place of honor, and all that is honorable dies with it.
The destruction of primacy and centrality is the destruction of the family. Sadly, children will only imitate their mother if her centrality is honored by their father; to do so is the very crux of his leadership role. A father may abandon the role of spiritual leadership if his primacy is not honored—if he is not called to battle evil. Without this dynamic, this honored primacy and centrality, the children will have no interest in following either father or mother.
There is synergy between the powers of a public official and that of his guards; because he is the boss, he is not always the boss. There is a similar synergy between a husband and his wife; primacy is necessitated and hallowed by centrality; the family is always in danger; he is the servant, the defender, the guide and guard; she is the treasure trove, the bosom, the core—the motherload.
Our loss of understanding concerning this complementarity has devastated the family. There can be no equity between that which has primacy and that which has centrality, but there can be equality. In a previous article, I wrote:
The mother of all the living, Eve, committed a great sin of pride when she threw caution to the wind and decided to “be like God.” Eve did not want to replace God; she wanted to be equal to Him—to have her own way. She offered the forbidden fruit to her husband, who quickly followed suit.
Original sin, referred to by the Church as “the sin of Adam,” was sin of a different sort for Adam than it was for his wife. Eve’s sin was truly a sin of pride, but her husband’s sin seems to have been a sin of smallness. Was he afraid to lead? Afraid to think for himself? I think that, more than anything, he feared estrangement from his wife—he went along to get along. To be sure, pride is ultimately self-centered and reckless, but at least it is bold. In this instance, Eve led, boldly and effectively, and Adam followed. His was a pathetically greater sin, a sin against his state in life.
If a marriage is going to fall apart, the primacy/centrality dynamic, or the lack thereof, will surely play its part. A man may abuse primacy for selfish ends, making of himself a petty tyrant. A woman may work harder at being the center of outside attention than at being the core of family interaction.
The Eternal Bridegroom and His Holy Mother are our respective models. Priests stand sacramentally in the place of Christ. Their primacy, their service to His bride, should lead them to the same place that it led Christ: to the cross. The centrality of Holy Mother Church should lead all to the same place that it led Our Savior’s Holy Mother: to the foot of that cross when all others had scattered.
Life is hard. The primacy/centrality dynamic is a complementarity that’s hard to live up to yet even harder to live without.