One doesn’t need to be an expert in social science to recognize that we are living in an ever increasingly hostile and unfriendly world. Xenophobic violence toward immigrants, white triumphalism, religious fundamentalism, and sociopolitical division seem to be the global norm. The advent promise of a peaceful world, where the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares, is clearly unfulfilled. In such a divisive and violent world, it strikes me that nothing could be more urgent than thoughtful reflection on the subject of friendship.
As Christians, I believe we’re called to humbly relearn what it means to be a true friend and to offer distinct, scripturally based reflections that are radically different than how our world perceives friendship. Indeed, in recent decades, we have seen an increasing number of Christian leaders who have revisited biblical stories to discover insights on Christian and spiritual friendship that might be valuable for the flourishing of the church and the world. In this season of Advent, I want us to consider the life of Saint Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, as the perfect human example of what it means to live a life of true friendship, not only with God but also with the whole creation that God loves.
Since the early history of the church, Mary has often been referred to as the mediatrix due to her important role as the subordinate mediator between God and humanity in the economy of salvation.1 Already in the fourth century, for example, Saint Ephrem the Syrian prays, “After the Mediator, you [Mary] are the Mediatrix of the whole world.”2 Another way to think of this is to recall that in God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation, the Son’s incarnation serves as the befriending act of God, and likewise, we might think of Mary as the mediatrix of friendship between God and the whole creation.3
Our Scripture testifies that the divine friendship between the creator God and the whole cosmos happens not only because of God’s zeal to love and to befriend us but also through our willingness to respond to this divine invitation of friendship from God, as demonstrated by Mary. In other words, friendship requires mutuality of love. And here’s the good news: the whole cosmos says yes to God’s invitation of friendship when Mary says yes to God.
If C. S. Lewis is right in saying that “[God] cannot ravish. He can only woo,” Mary is the one who was completely captivated by God’s eternal wooing, a divine wooing that longs to bring humanity and the whole creation into divine friendship.4 Mary, by the will and the grace of God, participates in God’s mission to befriend the world by becoming the subordinate mediatrix in God’s economy of friendship. This is why, theologically speaking, Mary is the perfect human model of friendship—through Mary’s yes, we all become friends of God.
Radical Unity and Space-Making
In being the mother of our Savior, Mary’s womb becomes the mediatrix of divine friendship between God and the world. As the Mother of God—the Theotokos—she opens up her womb to physically conceive the Son of God. Joas Adiprasetya and Nindyo Sasongko assert that “Christian friendship always opens toward those who are outside, inviting others to be companions,” and in Mary’s case, the Son of God is precisely the other, the outsider to whom she opens herself.5 Mary’s womb, then, is the most vivid and literal image for how the creation can offer a response to God, who has already made space for humanity and the world in the first place.
Yet unlike what we might commonly think of as space-making, in which some otherness still remains between the subject and the object, in Mary’s radical act of space-making, she vulnerably lets herself be one with God the other by conceiving Christ in her womb. This is the act of hospitality par excellencebecause in this union she becomes indissolubly one with God the other. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in writing about Mary’s radical union with God, further links Mary and the Eucharist:
We do not know if Mary received communion at a celebration of the Eucharist; but she knows better than any saint or sinner what it means to accept the Son completely into oneself; she stands as it were behind every communion as the ecclesia immaculata which makes up to completion and perfection what we have done incompletely and imperfectly.6
Like the Eucharist, Mary shows us the cruciform aspect of friendship—in becoming one with God, she ultimately lays down her life completely for God the other. Nevertheless, God the other, to whom Mary lays down her life, is also the one who lays himself down for his friends.7
Here, we have a beautiful reciprocity or mutuality of sacrificial love between friends. Thus, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, in reading the story of Moses and the burning bush, interprets the burning bush as the prefiguration of the Blessed Mary. In her womb, the divine and nature interpenetrate each other without being consumed.8 What a great image for Christian friendship: a radical union of souls that interpenetrate each other without domination!
It is important to remember that Mary’s title as the mediatrix is not exclusively grounded on her bodily union with the Son of God; it is also grounded on her unity of mission with the Son. Mary’s words in the Magnificat demonstrate a full awareness that her blessedness in being united with God is not the end in and of itself. She knows that her womb is the beginning of a much bigger and more inclusive divine plan, a plan meant to benefit the whole creation and not only Mary. Adrienne von Speyr, a Catholic mystic, puts it this way: “She was so much the Mother of the One that through him she could only become the Mother of All.”9 That is, Mary gave her whole life to accompany, nourish, and nurture our God for the sake of the whole world that God loves. In the Magnificat, we can see the unity of mission between her and her Son. In reflecting how the Magnificat shows forth the unity of mission between Mary and the Son of God, Speyr writes,
And now that the Son is within her, her prayer is more than ever inseparable from the prayer of her Son. She is the meditation of her Son. Her prayer belongs to the Son and cannot be separated from his. Their prayer flows together, just as they are physically one at this moment. And although, humanly speaking, it is perhaps the Mother who forms the words and directs the thoughts since the Son cannot yet bring to his lips a human prayer, the content of the prayer is nevertheless determined and filled by the Son. He gives life to her thoughts and words. Thus, she is perfect contemplation because the Son has been wholly taken up into her and he forms her meditation completely according to his law and will.10
Mary’s Magnificat shows us that her openness is not only an act of friendship toward God as the other but ultimately an act of friendship toward the whole creation as the others, especially those who are poor and marginalized. Hence, in the mystery of God’s self-giving grace, Mary becomes the mediatrix of friendship who joins together with God as well as all the others into one body of Christ. Mary shows us the possibility that all of creation can participate in this divine friendship.
This reminds me of Aelred of Rievaulx’s writings on spiritual friendship in which he perceives friendship as a channel to a more inclusive and universal expression of love until God is “All in all.”11 That is, in the Magnificat, the unity of mission between Mary and God, which also radically includes others, shows a deep and profound friendship that is prophetic and inclusive. It is prophetic because it speaks truth to power, offering words of admonition to the proud, the powerful, the mighty, and the rich. Her prayer longs for God’s justice toward the marginalized. And yet it is inclusive because the Magnificat ultimately reimagines the future according to God’s promise to Abraham; it identifies Mary as a blessing for all the families of the earth.12 Her prayer ultimately indicates a longing for the restoration of friendship between these two radically opposing groups, the oppressors and the oppressed.
Faithful and Transformative
There’s still another reason Mary is called the mediatrix, and that’s because of her role as the intercessor for the church. Already in the second century, we have some evidence for how Christian fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, prayed to Mary for their needs, troubles, and especially for their souls’ salvation. Later, in the Middle Ages, mistaken emphases of Mary’s role placed her in a position of divine power, and this resulted in the Reformation’s total rejection of any Marian piety.13
Yet it is not only the Christian tradition that affirms that Mary and other saints are still praying for us. Our Scripture also affirms the sanctorum communio, or the communion of saints, which we proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed. As a Protestant, I must admit to finding the idea of praying to saints somewhat problematic, but if Christians believe that death cannot separate us from Christ, isn’t it then fitting for us to request intercessions from the saints for us? And who else could be a better intercessor for us than the Mother of God herself? For if Christ is our brother, then Mary is also our mother, a mother who unceasingly intercedes for us just as she interceded unceasingly for the Son.
In Aelred’s writings concerning the friendship between God and creation, he argues that God places “the vestige of unity” in each creation to prompt creation’s ultimate longing to be united with God and to participate in the divine life.14 If Aelred is correct, then I think we might include Mary’s intercessory prayer as one of the instances of this “vestige of unity,” as her unceasing desire and prayer transforms us to be more and more in the likeness of her Son.15 Here, Mary shows us that Christian friendship should be founded on faithfulness in desiring the best for one another and, as Aelred asserts, our love of God. For it is precisely in becoming one with God that friends become the best versions of themselves.16
Reimagining Friendship for the Sake of the World
I wonder what the world would be like if we could faithfully imitate Mary, our Blessed Mother, and follow her life of friendship, what our world world would be like if our nations and our politics could imitate Mary’s womb in its radical space-making and unity and its willingness to no longer regard the others as others? What would our world be like if people were willing to go beyond a politically correct inclusivity and instead, like Mary, begin to sacrifice for the sake of true inclusivity and justice for all people as well as all creation? What would our world be like if our socioeconomic structures could imitate Mary’s desire that is always desiring the best for others and for the sake of their flourishing? Surely, the world would be a much better place if only we, just like Mary, could say yes to God’s invitation of friendship. So let us join our Orthodox friends who fervently call out to her, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!”
- It is important to note, especially for Protestants, that Saint Mary’s role as the subordinate mediatrix in the economy of salvation does not in any way negate the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ as the one mediator because her role originates from the superabundant grace of God and is dependent on that grace. See Lumen Gentium 8.3.62.
- Saint Ephrem the Syrian quoted in Mark I. Miravalle, Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship, 1993), 104.
- See Brian Edgar, “The Ministry of Friendship,” Pacifica 29, no. 2 (2016): 135.
- Lewis, The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast: Special Illustrated Edition (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009), 47.
- Joas Adiprasetya and Nindyo Sasongko, “A Compassionate Space-Making: Toward a Trinitarian Theology of Friendship,” Ecumenical Review 71, no. 1 (2019): 24.
- Balthasar, Mary for Today, trans. Robert Nowell (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1988), 41.
- See John 15:13.
- See Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, trans. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1999), 155.
- Speyr, Handmaid of the Lord, trans. E. A. Nelson (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1985), 165.
- Speyr, Handmaid of the Lord, 52.
- Aelred, De spirituali amicitia 3.134.
- See Luke 1:51–55.
- Donal Flanagan, The Theology of Mary, Theology Today Series 30 (Dublin, Ireland: Mercier, 1976), 70–72.
- Aelred, De spirituali amicitia 1.51–53.
- Flanagan, The Theology of Mary, 76–77.
- Aelred, De spirituali amicitia 1.1 and 3.5.