Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"Blessed is the Fruit of your Womb" 

This past Sunday the Church celebrated the Feast of Our Lady's Assumption. The Gospel reading (Luke 1:39-56) gives us Elizabeth's response to the Virgin's approach:

"When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women,and blessed is the fruit of your womb!'"

The female womb has always been revered as something sacred, as the source and font of life. And in literary terms, the womb becomes even more potent as a multi-valent symbol. The Fathers, including St. Augustine, were fond of such elastic symbols, and could rhetorically string along a closely-connected series of significations, all working off the polyvalence of a particular symbolic motif, drawing from every corner of the biblical canon to weave together a seemingly seamless flow of spiritual imagery. The womb was one such symbol, and St. Augustine does not hesitate to explore the limitless depths of its symbolic potentialities.

As I've said, the womb functions most basically as a symbol of life. And yet in the case of the Blessed Virgin, we have something quite unique, something different, for the womb in this case holds He who is the source of all life. And here is a paradox which stuns the imagination:

"But how," one will say, "can it be, that the Word of God, by whom the world is governed, by whom all things both were, and are created, should contract Himself into the womb of a Virgin; should abandon the world, and leave the Angels, and be shut up in one woman's womb?"

Yet the paradox deepens: "He created His Own mother. He chose her in whom He should be conceived, He created her of whom He should be created" (Homily 69 on the New Testament).

The Virgin's womb, then, became a Bridal Chamber, "because in that virginal womb were joined the two, the Bridegroom and the bride, the Bridegroom and the Word, and the bride and the flesh" (Homily 1 on John's Gospel). But the symbolism stretches even further, for in the womb of Mary, the Word joins to Himself a Body - not only in the sense of flesh, but in the sense of the Church as well. "To that flesh the Church is joined, and so there is made the whole Christ, Head and body" (Ibid.) Here is St. Augustine again, commenting on the Wedding at Cana:

"For the Word was the Bridegroom, and human flesh the bride; and both one, the Son of God, the same also being Son of man. The womb of the Virgin Mary, in which He became head of the Church, was His bridal chamber: thence He came forth, as a bridegroom from his chamber, as the Scripture foretold, "And rejoiced as a giant to run his way." From His chamber He came forth as a bridegroom; and being invited, came to the marriage" (Tractates on John's Gospel, 7, 4).

Hence, the womb of Mary is not only 'center stage' for the mystery of the Incarnation, but for the mystery of the Church as well. And here enters the ecclesial signifiance of Mary, or rather, the Marian signification of the Church. Mary, for St. Augustine, represents the quintessence of the Church, inasmuch as she is the ideal disciple of Christ. "Because even before she gave him birth, she bore her teacher in her womb . . . Because she heard the word of God and kept it. She kept truth safe in her mind even better than she kept flesh safe in her womb" (Homily 72/A, 7). Because she allowed, quite literally, the Word to come to life within her, she becomes the first and foremost member of the Church. And it is to this Church that she points, effacing all reference to herself:

"Mary is holy, Mary is blessed, but the Church is something better than the Virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy member, a quite exceptional member, the supremely wonderful member, but still a member of the whole body."

Just as Mary, then, gave life to Christ, the Church gives the life of Christ to the newborn believer. Thus all of the signification given to Mary passes over easily to the Church herself. In this vein, Augustine brings together two divergent biblical passages which speak of the Christian being given new life: first, "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Peter 1:23); second, "No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). The two, for Augustine, speak of complementary functions in the bringing-to-life of the Christian. First: "Even now before ye are born," he says, "ye have been conceived of His seed, as being on the eve of being brought forth" (Harmony of the Gospels 2.5.17). This 'conception,' which seems to refer to the interior conversion of the catechumens, is the 'masculine' component of mystagogy, instigated as it is by the 'imperishable seed' of the Father. Secondly, these children are "brought forth in the font, the womb as it were of the Church" (Ibid.) Augustine is often given to using natal imagery for the baptismal font: "Their mother's womb," he says of the catechumens, "is the water of baptism" (Ibid., 6.4-6). This corresponds to the 'feminine' component of mystagogy, the ecclesial integration of the believer into Mother Church. (Note that the order here depends upon adult converts, and would be somewhat subverted for baptized infants.)

The process of conversion, both in the sense of interior transformation and in that of ecclesial integration, are mirrored in the procreative process of conception and birth. And in the latter, the symbol of the womb becomes paramount, and within this symbol are conjoined two of the greatest symbols of the patristic imagination: the Mother of God and the Church as Mother. And it is in this rich symbolic field that the phrase, "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb!" echoes resoundingly.

# posted by Jamie : 9:41 AM


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