The idea of Mary as Priest seems to have been around since the 4th century and is wonderfully illustrated in striking mages of Mary dressed in priest’s vestments – some dating from as early as the 6th century. Here is a brief taster…
The image to the left from 6th century Croatia, shows Mary visiting Elizabeth during their pregnancies. Both women are wearing what look to be chasubles with the pallium visibe beneath, denoting the highest priestly honour, worn only by the Pope or Bishop as a privilege. It has been said that Mary baptised and confirmed John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth. Jean-Jacques Olier, contemporary of St Vincent de Paul in the 17th Century, says of the Visitation to Elizabeth, “The Blessed Virgin, as Bishop in the Church, sanctified the son of the high priest Zachariah. She sanctified St. John and through the imposition of her power, using her right as Mother of God and spouse of the Father, she imprinted the Holy Spirit on St. John”.
The image on the right is from 12th century Germany. Our Lady is dressed in chasuble and stole as the Angel Gabriel speaks and the Holy Spirit descends.
There exists the belief that the Annunciation acted as Mary’s ordination. There is also a belief that through her ‘yes’, Mary made Christ present in the world, in her womb – as the priest makes Christ present in the words of consecration. In an address by Bishop Nazlian, at Lourdes in 1914 said “ A priest has the power to mystically produce the body of the Lord giving that body its sacramental form . . . . I allow myself to say that Mary is the first to say Mass, by agreeing to the Incarnation and so preparing the victim.”
A mirror image of Mary presenting Christ at his birth, foreshadowed in the Presentation in the Temple, is the death of Christ; Mary portrayed presenting her child Jesus to the world on the Cross as the ultimate sacrifice. And again, when his body is taken down from the Cross. Mary fulfils the role of the sacrificial priest; she offers up the sacrifice of her Son, her own flesh and blood to be the Bread of Life and she presents this to the world, as at Jesus’ birth, at Jesus’ death; Mary can say better than any priest, “This is my body, this is my blood.”
This image of Mary as High Priest, a famous mosaic from Ravenna in the 11th century. Mary is dressed in chasuble, wearing the pallium, her arms raised in gesture of the High Priest. It can be said of Mary at the Cross that she, through Christ and in union with God has offered the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world. “Mary was the minister of the Incarnation: that explains everything. She had as little the right to come down from Calvary as a priest would have to leave the altar while the sacrifice of Mass is going on. She had to preside over the completion, as she had presided over its beginning” (Faber)
Did Mary share in the Priesthood of her Son? De Salazar, a great Marian theologian of the 17th century says of Mary, “not only did Christ pour the fullness of his priestly annointing on Mary but He emptied it on her” and therefore of her role at Calvary; “ the Blessed Virgin fulfilled the office of the Priest in that showing her will in all things to conform to the will of her son, she offered and sacrificed him on the altar of the Cross as Christ did himself.”
The image on the right is perhaps the most striking – it shows Mary in vestments, at the altar, hand in hand with the child Christ, presumably about to distribute Holy Communion. Perhaps it is notable too that a figure in the background to the right of the picture holds a three tiered tiara…
In 1906, Pope Pius X approved a prayer which says “Mary, Virgin Priest, pray for us.” However, a Holy Office decree of 1916 forbade the use of any image that had Mary wearing vestments – some say for fear of the possibilty of an argument for women’s ordination, others that Mary as a priest was a metaphorical image taken too far.
The image of Mary as a priest, however it is received, is a powerful one. It challenges the view of Mary, meek and mild with the idea that in Mary’s submission to the will of God, to her vocation, she becomes the model of priesthood – a powerful woman, the High Priest after her Son. And who becomes so because she is a woman. If fundamental to the priesthood is the priest being the intermediary, bringing the people to God and God to the people, Mary must be the ultimate example of this through her motherhood, bearing God in her womb. This speaks of the extraordinary relationship between God and humanity in the Incarnation – the flesh and the blood crucified for the redemption of the world, was Mary’s flesh and blood, fully God’s son and fully Mary’s child. As his mother, she offered her son to the world as the Father offered his Son.
(Revd) Penny Warner
(See also this later post in the blog)