Male-Female Symbolism in Liturgical Roles: Not Bizarre, Just Catholic

Editor’s Note: OnePeterFive has republished today and yesterday under the name of their author a pair of articles that first appeared in 2015 under the pseudonym Benedict Constable. With the progressive envelope-pushing discussion in the Church of whether women might be “deacons” or “priests” (in spite of repeated statements to the contrary by the Magisterium), it is crucial to put on the brakes and ask: Why are we going down this road to begin with? There is a prior question: Should women be performing any liturgical functions in the sanctuary? Yesterday, Dr. Kwasniewski took up the question of female lectors; today, we republish his response to objections. He has taken up the question of female altar servers at NLM (12). 

In the article posted here yesterday (Should Women Be Lectors at Mass?), I began my response with the following argument:

It ought to be said that in Sacred Scripture the Word of God is always compared to seed, and the preacher to the one who plants the seed in the soil. The one who hears the Word is the mother whose faith receives the seed—the womb in which the seed is implanted, begins to grow, and with patience bears fruit. For this reason, the congregation of the faithful is the image of the Virgin Mary, while the lector is the image of God the Father, implanting in their hearts the seed of the Word, Jesus Christ, even as He did through the instrumentality of the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation. Hence, for a woman to be proclaiming the Word is self-contradictory: it makes the female who receives the seed the male who issues the seed. If one denies this symbolic dissonance, one must go one step further and maintain that being male or being female is metaphysically incidental and irrelevant, and that there is no religious symbolism to being male or being female.

This argument attracted a number of objections (and sneers), such as the following pair from Facebook:

So… According to his logic, men should not be receiving the Word. We are not supposed to have the “seed” implanted in us!


So when I, a man, am in the congregation listening to the lector, I am like the mother in whom the seed is planted. Seems to me that by his logic I shouldn’t be listening.

Another reader, more temperate and thoughtful, put the difficulty this way:

Benedict talks about the religious symbolism of being male and female. Female = mother of the Church who ‘receives’ in her womb the seed (Word of God) from the giver (male/man/God) and nurtures it to grow and bear fruit. Simple enough to understand and no arguments there. He then says that having women being lectors is self-contradictory: the congregation represents the Virgin Mary, the Church is female, we should be receiving the Word. But what about the males in the congregation? Following his argument, wouldn’t all the males who are seated among the females in the pews be self-contradictory as well?

These are (or can be) good questions to ask. In his marvelous book Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary, Fr. John Saward dedicates his sixth chapter to the theme: “Christ in the Womb of the Heart.” Here he quotes many Fathers and mystics of the Church who compare the Word of God to a seed implanted in the womb, first of the Virgin Mary, and then of every Christian believer who imitates her faith, such as these lines from St. Augustine:

Mary is therefore blessed because she heard the Word of God and kept it. She kept the truth in her mind longer than the flesh in her womb. Christ-truth, Christ-flesh: Christ-truth in Mary’s mind, Christ-flesh in Mary’s womb. … The Mother carried him in her womb; let us carry him in our hearts. The Virgin was pregnant by Incarnation; let our breasts be pregnant with faith in Christ. The Virgin gave birth to the Saviour; let our souls give birth to salvation, let us give birth to praise. Let us not be barren. Let our souls be fruitful for God.[1]

Fr. Saward goes on to explain in his own words this classic teaching of the Faith:

Both the Church as a whole and the individual Christian share in Mary’s divine motherhood, her bearing of the divine Word…. In and through the Church, the believer is a ‘mother’ to Christ. The individual Christian is called to become what the Church as a whole is, Christ’s Bride and Mother, a truly “ecclesiastical soul.” … Mary is the model of all the souls which form and give birth to the eternal Word in their hearts. … The tradition of the mystical carrying of Christ highlights the favoured status of womanhood as an image of the creature’s proper attitude towards God. The soul is always analogically feminine — bridal towards the Bridegroom, motherly towards the Child. To quote the Holy Father [John Paul II] again, “‘being the bride,’ and thus the ‘feminine’ element, becomes a symbol of all that is human.” Pregnancy in particular is dense with spiritual lessons; being “with child” is the model of being “with Christ” in faith, hope, love, in humble service and deepest prayer.[2]

To respond, then, to the objectors: as many saints and theologians have maintained, all Christians are, before God, symbolically in the role of bride and mother. Creatures are fundamentally receptive; and the Church is a bride, of which all of us are members (cf. Ephesians 5). Now, naturally, this symbolism is not going to be pressed into the faces of men in such a way that they are made to feel uncomfortable. For men, we need the language of fighting like soldiers, being carpenters and guardians, etc. But still, our fundamental identity as a Christian is one who receives grace and is made fruitful by it. This is why the Blessed Virgin Mary is not just a model for women but for all Christians as such.

In the liturgy, it is clear that the sanctuary and ministers around the altar represent Christ, while the nave of the church and the faithful worshiping there represent the Church upon whom He acts and who, by listening in faith and acting on the Word received, give back spiritual fruit to Him. When the word is proclaimed by those who represent Christ, the men sitting in the congregation are no less receptive than the women. This role of listener does not require that we be women, since all rational beings can listen and cleave to Christ in faith and love. Ministry in the sanctuary, on the other hand, is specifically tied to Christ the High Priest, who, in His ontological reality as Incarnate Word, is a man and not a woman. (This is obviously pertinent to the question of why only men can be priests, when there is no such limitation on who can receive the other sacraments.)

In short, the argument is based on grasping that not all images are interchangeable: some comparisons do not function exactly the same way in both directions. Christ is a man, a priest, a bridegroom; this is no mere metaphor, but a fact of the natural and supernatural orders. The Christian is like a woman, a mother, a bride; this is a metaphor of a certain fundamental spiritual identity and vocation. The sacred liturgy must take into account both facts and metaphors, in a coherent synthesis—and this is precisely what Catholics have had in their theological and liturgical tradition until the confusion of the last few decades.

This article was originally published on August 13, 2015.

[1] St. Augustine, Sermo de Verbis Evang. Matt. 12; Sermo 180.

[2] John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb, 106, 108, 112, 116-17.

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