There are two things that reliably make me cry: Mary and babies.

I am not particularly prone to weeping. And I say that as a grown man who has no illusions about his manly fortitude (I have a history of fainting spells, after all).

Every time I write a sermon for a Marian feast day I find myself quietly weeping in my office as I stare at the computer screen or biblical text. I’m tearing up a little bit right now just thinking about it, and it’s hard to say why. They’re not tears of sorrow, nor are they exactly tears of joy. They’re just the physical response to a spiritual movement that cannot be contained.

I do not have a particularly deep Marian piety. I say the Rosary only on occasion. I say the Angelus most days and a Hail Mary every evening at my son’s bedtime, but Mary doesn’t really take a prominent, active role in my daily life.

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If I could put my finger on it, though, it’s probably this: when I first met Mary by accident some ten years ago, it was like meeting Jesus again for the first time. What before had seemed a distant, rational, propositional reality of Christian life took on new character in the incarnational emphasis of Marian piety. And so I think it was from Mary and her sorrows and joys that I learned that Christianity involves an affective as well as an intellectual life. Looking at her now somehow brings it all together and makes the tears flow: joy, sorrow, every feeling in the book — it’s all part of the redeeming work of God that far exceeds words.

I suppose it’s no coincidence that babies also make me cry. Rather, not babies in general, but the experience of birth. When both of my children were born, my immediate reaction to the sight of them was tears. There my wife is, having manfully brought forth life from her body, and her husband is standing there weeping like a little girl.

Like with crying over Mary, I have twice been bowled over by this reaction. Of course, there is something understandable about it. I’m relieved that my wife has finally made it through safely; I’m grateful that the child has made it through safely; I’m excited that the nine months of waiting have finally come to fruition; I’m elated to meet and get to know this wonderful new person made in the image of God.

But there’s more to it, I think. What’s overwhelming isn’t the variety of emotions — well, it isn’t just that — but the sheer wonder of seeing nature do its work, the sheer wonder of nature’s own grace. Mary conceived the Savior “to the wonder of nature” (natura mirante) according to the Alma redemptoris mater, though I consider nature’s wonder there typical: are not all conceptions and all births wonderful? Mary’s own nature was, as William of St. Thierry puts it, “astonished” (stupens) at the miracle of the Incarnation (Speculum fidei, PL 180:381C). Surely, again, Mary’s reaction here is exemplary. We might rightly say that the Incarnation stacks grace upon grace. Its virginal origin only shows that even the most extraordinary things can become more extraordinary, more full, more effulgent when given the chance of humanity’s fiat.

Here and there (or less directly here) one finds references to Mary as priest.[1] Surely there is something worthy about this intuition. We don’t have Jesus, historically speaking, without Mary’s “priestly” mediation in birthing him from her own body. The description gets a little dicey when one begins using “priest” as an unqualified category including the priesthood of the Old Covenant and the priesthood of the New Covenant. It is not controversial to say that Mary was neither of these: she was certainly not a Levitical priest of the Jewish temple; nor was she a sacramental priest as that office developed in the early Church.

Nor will it do to say that Mary simply participated in the “priesthood of all believers.” That is too general. The problem with the “priesthood of all believers” is that it tends to make no one, rather than everyone, a priest, thus obscuring the very real priestly vocation of the whole people of God. All Christians do not literally give birth to the incarnate Son of God. If they “incarnate,” in some spiritual sense, the body of Christ, this incarnation is nonsensical without its prototype in Mary.

A female priest.

A female priest.

It is often supposed that the traditional opposition to female priests rests on some kind of devaluation of the female sex, some lack that prevents their ordainability. If that is so, the tradition may in this case ask of us more than we can or should give. I wonder if the tradition of male priesthood contains other depths: namely, an assumption that it is rather the male sex that is lacking in priestly capacity. Women are already natural priests; they do not all necessarily exercise that priesthood, but it is imprinted on their nature. Men lack this natural priesthood and therefore more fittingly exercise the supernatural priesthood of the incarnate Word.

I recognize the inadequacy of these remarks to address the complex sacramental, social, and political concerns around ordination and sex. I also recognize that I write in the company of female clergy whose witness I admire.

Regardless of what conclusions the Church can and should draw about her hierarchy, it seems to me that we do all lay people — especially lay women — a disservice when we insist that it is only the verbal, propositional, sacramental priesthood that matters. Mary was no priest in this sense, but she was in other ways, more important ways, the prototypical Christian priest, the prototypical human priest, whose vocation is to receive creation and offer it back up to God in praise and thanksgiving.

Not all of us, women and men, can give birth with our bodies. But the natural priesthood of women suggests the depth of creation’s own longing for the wonder of grace. Our role as Christians in the world is not to superimpose grace onto nature but to uncover nature’s grace: to point at these small places of life and death, to weep (maybe) and say with Christ: “Behold, I make all things new.”

The image at the top is a public domain reproduction of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The other photograph was supplied by the author.

Notes

1. The idea seems to be especially popular among Catholic proponents of the ordination of women, as some of the links suggest. Others, however, have happened upon the theme. For example, I recall J. Kameron Carter arguing in a theology lecture at Duke Divinity School in 2009 that Mary should be considered a priest because she presented Christ to the world (I do not know what Carter thinks about the sacramental priesthood in general).

About The Author

Fr. Sam Keyes serves as chaplain at Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland, and is a doctoral candidate at Boston College.

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5 Comments on "The maternal priesthood"

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I could not quite follow what constitutes ‘priest’ in your usage here. J Carter seems to presuppose a priest is one who presents Christ to the world, but if that is true, then the entire Body of Christ – shares in the royal priesthood. And the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer does not mean that we don’t need priests because we all already are priests, but that we all are called to be priests to one another – to present Christ to one another. This notion that women are naturally priests but men are not simply because we… Read more »
Yes. Although we haven’t done a poll, I think it’s quite an overstatement to claim that the majority of Covenant contributors find Sam’s claims ‘compelling’ or ‘liberating’, though I suspect several would agree with it and several others would find it interesting/tolerable/useful/etc. Many others, of course, probably hate it. So no one needs to adopt the position of an embattled theological minority here. What is useful is to allow someone the theological space to continue articulating and exploring a position which is hardly alien to the worldwide and age-old ecclesia. More on that below. Many odd things in your response,… Read more »
What should not be missed here is Sam’s tears. I’m not sure one should engage in the arguments that lay below the surface until one has sought to understand what brings Sam to the point of tears. And this brings back what for me is coming to be a new theme: paganism. We look at the fact that a woman brings forth a child, is it natural to ask scientific questions first? No! Unless you are completely heartless, your first response is awe and wonder. This for me, the non-academic with respect to paganism, believes is the value in “returning”… Read more »