Barberini Exultet Roll
Monte Casini – 1087
An old and deep tradition in the Church teaches us to view the Church as mother. As we prepare to celebrate Mother’s Day, a worthy celebration that has unfortunately become overly commercialized, it may help to reflect on this tradition.
An early church father, Cyprian (bishop of Carthage from 249 till 258), wrote, He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother; . . . (De unitate ecclesiae - On The Unity of The Church) Many other church fathers agreed with this view, including St. Augustine.
John Calvin, one of the leading Reformers, explained this tradition in his Institutes as follows, For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother concieves us in her womb, gives us birth, norishes us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance, until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. (Book IV, Ch. 1, Sect. 4) Other Reformers agreed with this view of the church as mother, including Martin Luther, who wrote, The Christian church is your mother, who gives birth to you and bears you through the Word. (Luther Works, Vol. 51, p. 166.)
Some shy away from this tradition because there is no direct Scripture that simply states, “the church is your mother.” However, many traditions are based on indirect Scriptural support (such as the Trinity). Though its supporters cite many Scriptures to elucidate this tradition, they most often refer to Galatians 4:26 & 31,
26: But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
31: Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Tradition frequently considers and interprets Jerusalem as a reference to the Church.
Unfortunately, this tradition seems to have been largely lost in many Protestant traditions, as faith tends to be viewed more individualistically, especially after John Wesley’s emphasis on personal salvation (often described as a personal relationship). Certainly, salvation needs to be appropriated on an individual basis. However, an over-emphasis on this aspect of salvation tends to lose sight of the important role the Church plays in our salvation and in God’s plan for the ages.
The Roman Catholic Church has preserved this tradition of the Church as mother. Section 2040 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, Thus a true filial spirit toward the Church can develop among Christians. It is the normal flowering of the baptismal grace which has begotten us in the womb of the Church and made us members of the Body of Christ. In her motherly care, the Church grants us the mercy of God which prevails over all our sins and is especially at work in the sacrament of reconciliation. With a mother’s foresight, she also lavishes on us day after day in her liturgy the nourishment of the Word and Eucharist of the Lord. Perhaps the Protestant downplaying of this tradition is an overreaction to the Catholic emphasis of it.
So I think it may be healthy for my Protestant brothers and sisters to restore the tradition of Church as mother, and perhaps to look to or borrow from the Catholic tradition for assistance in this endeavor. At the same time, I think it may be healthy for my Catholic brothers and sisters to gain insight from the Evangelical emphasis on personal salvation.