A Font in a Veil: The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Dispensation of Eucharistic Graces

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By Jason Schwartz, University of Dallas

The past two centuries of theology and magisterial teaching have firmly established the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as Mediatrix of all graces. Although the title has not been dogmatically defined, it remains a certain theological opinion based on dogma and other magisterial teaching.[1] Given the indirect Scriptural supports and the confusion regarding Mary’s relation to the one Mediator, Christ, it is unsurprising that much attention has been given to the title itself. However, its implications are far from fully explored. Not only would an understanding of Mary’s role in the dispensation of specific kinds of grace inform the Catholic understanding of those graces, but such an investigation could also clarify the precise meaning of the title in ambiguities hitherto unnoticed. One field of theology that is generally distant from Mariology—and so is a prime candidate for testing such a universal Mariological claim—is sacramental theology. If Mary’s mediation is indeed universal, then it ought to be applicable even to the most direct vehicles of grace, the Sacraments, and even to the summit of the Sacraments, the Eucharist. Not to leave the modern theologian unaided, the fourth-century Doctor of the Church and hymnodist, Saint Ephrem the Syrian, provides multiple extended meditations upon the relation of Mary to the Eucharist. In light of his poems on the subject, one may recognize a close link between the Eucharist and Mary’s motherhood: the Blessed Virgin’s proximate mediation of Eucharistic graces reflects her remote mediation through her motherhood of Christ.

The question of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role in the dispensation of Eucharistic graces seems at first glance to be superfluous. Since the Eucharist is itself the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, it seems that no one, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, can mediate the sacramental graces of the Eucharist. Christ, the source of all graces who is “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:17), is received immediately by the believer.[2] Accordingly, any other mediator would seem only to interrupt the direct Communion of Christ and the Christian achieved uniquely by this sacrament; in any case, the immediate reception of the sacrament does not seem to leave any opportunity for the action of another mediator. Thus, even if Mary’s mediation extends to all other graces, Eucharistic graces would seem to be the singular exception.

The response to such a notion of Mary’s sacramental mediation requires a distinction between remote and proximate mediation. Remotely, Mary acted as Mediatrix simply through her cooperation with the Incarnation. Proximately, she continues to act as Mediatrix in the dispensation of graces;[3] it is in this sense that the Eucharist becomes a question. Most obviously, the Blessed Virgin participates in dispensing Eucharistic graces remotely through her motherhood. Presumably referring to Moses’ striking of the rock in Exodus 17:6, St. Ephrem unites the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Eucharist in two poetic lines:

From a virgin womb as if from a rock,
sprouted the Seed from which harvests have come.[4]

Like the water than miraculously sprang from the arid rock to revive the Chosen People, the Son who sprang from the Virgin’s womb brings life to the myriads of the New Israel. However, this Son is also the Seed that falls to the ground and dies in order to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24). As Ephrem makes clear in the following verses, the fruit that Christ’s death bears is not only the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, but also the Eucharist that is the inexhaustible food of believers.[5] In a direct way, Mary provided the body of Christ that would accomplish man’s salvation and feed the Church through all generations. In this very most fundamental sense, Mary is a cooperating principle in Christ’s meritorious Passion;[6] consequently, she is also a cooperating principle in the application of that merit through the sacraments. Even in this fundamental sense of her historical cooperation in the Incarnation, Mary may be called the Mediatrix of all graces.[7]

However, the cooperation of accepting her role as Theotokos also results in more proximate forms of cooperation in dispensing Eucharistic graces. Mary’s motherhood leads directly to her role as exemplar of the Christian receiving the Eucharist. St. Ephrem reinterprets the query of Proverbs 30:4 in the allegorical light of Christ:

Who has bound the waters in a veil?
Look: a font in a veil—the bosom of Mary!
From the cup of life, a drop of life,
We, your handmaids, have received in a veil.[8]

The dense imagery of this passage, probably referring to a Syrian practice for reception of Communion,[9] points to Ephrem’s understanding of Mary’s motherhood as an image and prototype of the believers’ participation in the Eucharist. Ephrem regularly refers to Christ’s body as clothing;[10] it is natural for him to refer to Mary’s body as a veil for Christ as well. Through her motherhood of Christ, the Blessed Virgin bore the physical image of God that is Christ’s body, yet she also perceived the hidden image of God, the eternal Word, that is both concealed in and revealed through human flesh.[11] In the same way, the Christian receives the physical image of Christ’s body, yet he also recognizes the hidden reality of the Real Presence.[12] The same fountain held by the veil of Mary’s bosom is held by each believer at the reception of Holy Communion.

The proximate form of the Blessed Virgin’s cooperation in the dispensation of Eucharistic graces requires first a Scriptural and liturgical basis. Although Jesus’ Mother appears only twice in the Gospel of John, it is significant that her first appearance is at the Wedding at Cana, the first sign of Jesus’ public ministry (Jn 2:3–5). St. Ephrem points to the sign of the water’s becoming wine as a type of the Eucharist.[13] Accordingly, one may read the role of Jesus’ Mother as prefiguring her cooperation in the later Sacrament. Particularly noteworthy, then, is Mary’s request to Jesus for the sake of the wedding hosts: she brings Jesus word of their predicament and directs the servants to follow his instructions. Thus, it is because of his Mother that Jesus performs the sign typifying the Eucharist.

Similarly, the Roman Canon gives Mary first place among those present at the Eucharistic sacrifice. The Church offers the sacrifice “Communicantes, et memoriam venerantes, in primis gloriosae semper Virginis Mariae…”[14] As exemplar of the Church and model of all Christians, Mary is primarily present at the offering of the Eucharist, just as she was present at the foot of the Cross. Consequently, the priest and the faithful act in communion first with her. This would imply a certain likeness between the participation of the faithful at the Mass and the role of the Blessed Virgin together with them. Though she is not and cannot be an ordained priest, Mary must share in the priesthood of the baptized by which they offer the sacrifice in communion with the priest—and that in the highest degree. Due to her maternal role and Immaculate Conception, Mary is able to participate in the sacrifice most worthily and fittingly.

            Unlike the merely remote participation afforded by her natural motherhood and exemplarity, the Blessed Virgin’s intercessory role makes her a direct participant and principle in the dispensation of sacramental graces. Mary’s intercession is firmly established within Church Tradition; one need only refer to the long history of the Sub tuum praesidium as a single example.[15] The teaching on Mary’s intercession follows the indirect witness of the Scriptures: as Jesus turned the water into wine at the prompting of his Mother, so he grants sacramental graces at the intercession of his Mother. Thus, Mary’s intercession makes her an indirect cause of the graces bestowed through the Sacraments.

As Mary’s exemplar role followed from her maternal role, so her role as Mediatrix results from her intercessory office. In a prayer attributed to St. Ephrem, Mary is addressed in clear words of praise: “After the Mediator thou art the mediatrix of the whole world.”[16] Two aspects become immediately clear in this brief line. First, Mary’s mediation is subordinate to Christ’s and dependent upon it; second, her mediation is universal. Insofar as Christ will grant all that his Mother asks of him, her intercession may be considered a dispositive cause of the dispensation of graces for which she intercedes. Consequently, she may be granted the title of her Son in a subordinate and cooperating sense, becoming the Mediatrix of graces.[17] If, as is appropriate for the Mother of all the redeemed,[18] she intercedes for all the graces bestowed upon men, hers is a universal mediation as the Mediatrix of all graces.

The nature of Mary’s role as Mediatrix of all graces may be understood in light of her historical role in the Incarnation: her cooperation in the distribution of grace corresponds to her cooperation in the source of grace.[19] Accordingly, the Eucharistic aspect of her mediation reflects the Eucharistic aspect of her motherhood—a topic St. Ephrem considers at length in his Tenth Hymn on Faith:

Behold the fire and the Spirit in the womb which bore you,
Behold the fire and the Spirit in the river in which you were baptized.
Fire and Spirit are in our baptism,
Fire and the Holy Spirit are in the bread and the cup.[20]

The nexus of the Incarnation, Christ’s Baptism, the baptism of believers, and the Eucharist has been widely explored in systematic theology, but St. Ephrem adds another aspect. Instead of referring simply to the Incarnation, he refers instead to Mary’s womb and so to her motherhood. Moreover, the lines appear to create a chiasmus, such that the lines on baptism are related and the lines on Mary’s womb and the Eucharist are related. This reading is supported by St. Ephrem’s more explicit comparison slightly earlier in the poem of the veil of Mary’s bosom to the veil of the communicant.[21]

As the fire and the Spirit were in Mary’s womb so that it might bear the Christ, so also the fire and the Holy Spirit are in the bread and the cup so that the believer might bear the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Further, the Body and Blood of Christ, hidden in the communicant’s body, reveal and cause the spiritual reality of sanctifying grace in the believer, just as the body of Christ revealed the spiritual reality of his divine Person to Mary.[22] This parallel, already touched upon in the discussion of Mary’s exemplarity, lies at the root of her proximate mediation of Eucharistic graces. It is fitting that she who bore the Son of the eternal Father should intercede, uniquely and particularly, for those graces by which the believer spiritually bears the divine Person through his human nature. Thus, the most direct form of Mary’s cooperation in the dispensation of Eucharistic graces appears in her special intercession for communicants.

Consequently, the direct reception of the Eucharist in no way negates the Blessed Virgin’s role as Mediatrix of all graces. She is not “another mediator,” making up the difference where Christ cannot quite mediate alone. Rather, the Blessed Virgin’s mediation depends upon Christ’s and, if anything, is proportional to his mediation. Precisely because the sacred species of bread and wine are the Body and Blood of the Incarnate Son of God, because the Holy Eucharist is the most intimate and direct contact with Our Lord attainable in this life, Mary takes on a role uniquely involved in the reception of the Holy Eucharist by each individual. Far from being an obstacle to Mary’s mediation, the directness of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist enhances the Blessed Virgin’s remote and proximate mediation.

The proximate mediation of the Blessed Virgin in the dispensation of Eucharistic graces reflects her remote mediation by her motherhood. Her direct involvement in the dispensation of sacramental graces contextualizes the place of the sacraments within Mariology, but it also illuminates the role of Mary in the sacraments. For example, the traditional Marian design of Byzantine churches, in which an icon of the Madonna and Child stands directly above the altar, reflects not only Mary’s role in the Incarnation but also her proximate role in dispensing Eucharistic graces. Although it is not articulated theologically, the icon reflects an understanding of Mary’s sacramental mediation before the development of a clear theological position on the matter. However, a theological exploration of recent Mariological insights, founded upon the patristic insights of an Eastern Father and Doctor, provides a fuller understanding of the original Byzantine insight. Further, the Eastern insight from both St. Ephrem the Syrian and Byzantine church architecture allows for a more complete knowledge of the Roman Rite.


Primary Sources

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 5 vols. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2007.

Ephrem the Syrian. Hymns. Translated by Kathleen E. McVey. New York: Paulist Press, 1989.

Ephrem the Syrian. The Hymns on Faith. Translated by Jeffrey T. Wickes. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2015.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Translated by James Canon Bastible. Charlotte: TAN Books, 1974.

The Saint Andrew Daily Missal: With Vespers for Sundays and Feasts. Great Falls: Saint Bonaventure Publications, 1999.

Scheeben, Matthias Joseph. Handbuch der Katholischen dogmatik. 6 vols. Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 1954.

Secondary Sources

Amar, Joseph P. “Perspectives on the Eucharist in Ephrem the Syrian.” Worship 61, no. 5 (September 1987): 441–54. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=

den Biesen, Kees. Simple and Bold: Ephrem’s Art of Symbolic Thought. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2006.

Narinskaya, Elena. The Poetic Hymns of Saint Ephrem the Syrian: A Study in the Religious Use of Poetry in Fourth-Century Christianity. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2013.

Wickes, Jeffrey. “Mapping the Literary Landscape of Ephrem’s Theology of Divine Names.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 69 (2015): 1-14. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26497707.

[1] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, trans. James Canon Bastible (Charlotte: TAN Books, 1974), 212.

[2] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Cosimo, 2007), III, q. 79, a. 1, c.

[3] Ott, Fundamentals, 212.

[4] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, trans. Kathleen E. McVey (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), “Hymns on the Nativity” 4:87.

[5] Ephrem the Syrian, “Hymns of the Nativity” 4:89.

[6] Cf. Matthias Joseph Scheeben, Handbuch der Katholischen dogmatic, vol. 5/2 (Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 1954), 1771.

[7] Ott, Fundamentals, 212.

[8] Ephrem the Syrian, The Hymns on Faith, trans. Jeffrey T. Wickes (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 10:15.

[9] Jeffrey T. Wickes, Hymns on Faith, 124n28.

[10] Cf. Ephrem the Syrian, “Hymns on the Nativity” 16:11.

[11] Ephrem the Syrian, “Hymns on the Nativity” 16:3.

[12] Ephrem the Syrian, “Hymns on the Nativity” 16:7.

[13] Ephrem the Syrian, “Hymns on the Nativity” 4:92.

[14] The Saint Andrew Daily Missal: With Vespers for Sundays and Feasts (Great Falls: Saint Bonaventure Publications, 1999), 973.

[15] Long, Edward. “Our Lady in the Liturgy.” The Furrow 5, no. 6 (1954): 360-67.

[16] “Oratio IV ad Deiparam,” quoted in Ott, Fundamentals,211.

[17] Cf. Scheeben, Handbuch,1771.

[18] Ott, Fundamentals,215.

[19] Ott, 215.

[20] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith 10:17.

[21] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith 10:15.

[22] Cf. Ephrem the Syrian, “Hymns on the Nativity” 16:3.

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