It is of course the heart of Christian faith that God’s presence in Israel is gathered up and concentrated in Immanuel, God with us, in this one Israelite’s presence in Israel: he is in person the Temple’s shekinah, and the Word spoken by all the prophets, and the Torah. And if that is so, then the space delineated by Israel to accomodate the presence of God is finally reduced and expanded to Mary’s womb, the container of Immanuel. We must note the singularity of Mary’s dogmatic title: she is not one in a series of God’s mothers, she simply is the Mother.
To what did Mary, after all, assent, when she said to Gabriel, “Fiat mihi,” “Let it happen to me”? Of course it was her womb that with these words she offered, to be God’s space in the world. The whole history of Israel had been God’s labor to take Israel as his space in the world. And it was indeed a labor, for Israel by her own account was a resistant people: again and again the Lord’s angel announced his advent, begged indeed for space, and again and again Israel’s answer was “Let it be, but not yet.” Gabriel’s mission to Mary was, so to speak, one last try, and this time the response did not temporize.
As the created space for God, Mary is Israel concentrated. Ancient hymns directly apostrophize her as “the Ark of the Covenant,” by an analogy so obvious that it is more than an analogy. When God’s creating Word came in its own singular identity into the world, Mary brought him forth as though she were all the prophets put together—indeed, “as though” is not a strong enough way to put it. And if Christianity does not quite reverence the Book as Judaism reverences the Torah-scroll, it is perhaps because its role has been preempted by Mary’s act as Torah’s embodiment.
When we ask Mary to pray for us, why would we do this specifically in her capacity as Mother of God? There are two connected answers.
First. Mary is Israel in one person, as Temple and archprophet and guardian of Torah. To ask her to pray for me is to invoke all God’s history with Israel at once, all his place-taking in this people, and all the faithfulness of God to this people, as grounds for his faithfulness to me. It is to have Moses say, “Why should the heathen profane your name, because you leave your people in the lurch? Because you leave Robert Jenson in the lurch?” It is to send Aaron to the Tent of Meeting on my behalf. It is to quote all Scripture’s promises about prayer at once, as summed up by Jesus, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name will be done.”
“Fiat mihi,” Mary said, giving her womb as space for God in this world. After all the Lord’s struggle with his beloved Israel, he finally found a place in Israel that unbelief would not destroy like the Temple, or silence like the prophets, or simply lose, like the Book of the Law before Josiah. This place is a person. To ask Mary to pray for us is to meet him there.
Second. From the beginning of creation, heaven is God’s space in his creation. As the created space for God, there must be a mysterious sense in which Mary is heaven, the container not only of the uncontainable Son, but of all his sisters and brothers, of what Augustine called the totus Christus, the whole Christ, Christ with his body. But Mary is a person, not a sheer container. That she contains the whole company of heaven must mean that she personally is their presence. To ask Mary to pray for us is to ask “the whole company of heaven” to pray for us, not this saint or that but all of them together. It is to ask the church triumphant to pray for us.
Robert W. Jenson