Figures of Thought

Franciscan University Press; 174 pp.; $6.95, paper; 1990.


by Leon J. Podles


Mary's stock is rising in the Church today. The temporary eclipse she suffered in some circles after Vatican II is passing.


Fr. George Montague has now added to a truly Catholic and ecumenical under­standing of the role of Mary in Our Father, Our Mother.


His book has three main sections: "God as Father and Mother," "Mary and the Feminine Face of God," and appendices with stories of both Catholics' and Protestants' experiences with Mary. Fr. Montague makes his main contributions in the second section in which he traces the biblical background of Mary's role.


The most original insight in the book is how Mary fulfills the role of the Queen Mother in the Kingdom of Judah. The wife of the King of Judah was not the queen, possibly because he had many wives. A king's mother was given the title Cebira, which is usually translated as Queen Mother. She is the transmitter of the promise of God's faithfulness, because it is through her of all his wives that the previous king conceived his heir.


Montague sees in Luke's and Matthew's infancy narratives the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah-King, and the implication that Mary as His Mother inherits and fulfills the role of Queen Mother in the Old Testament. "The Queen Mother was honored by her son; she was a recognized power at the court; she often interceded with the king for favors; and she had a throne next to his" (p. 97).


Montague sees a biblical basis for the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin Mary in this last detail. Montague also gives a lucid summary of other biblical motifs that culminate in Mary: the Virgin Daughter Zion, and Mother Zion.


Nor are these ideas only theological exercises. Montague emphasizes that Mary "is the model of response to the Good News, and she is the Mother not only of the Messiah but of the community of believers. The Holy Spirit continues to use these motifs and functions of Mary in the ongoing spiritual formation of the Church and of the individual disciple" (p. 137). Montague discusses the Marian Consecration, and reprints letters from both Catholics and Protestants who acknowledge the work of Mary in a wide variety of ways in their lives.


In light of his explanation of the biblical background of Mary, Montague hopes that those who want to use the title "Mother" to address God will see how ill-advised it is. Jesus spoke of God only as a Father, but He gave us a Mother. "To reveal His maternal face Cod chose not a maternal title but a human Mother" (p. 140, emphasis in original). The title Father is especially appropriate to God both as transcendent and immanent; a real human person, Mary, rather than a title, is fittingly the revelation of God's immanent, close, cherishing love for the world.


Because this book explains the biblical sources of teaching on Mary, it would be helpful in explaining Marian doctrine to Protestants, to whom these doctrines appear as alien as Mormonism.


Montague also addresses feminists, and therein lie some dangers. He tends to accept their assumptions.


He joins in the universal chorus condemning patriarchy. The chief fault of modern society, however, is its lack of patriarchy. Fathers play a decreasing role in families and the Church, and the Jewish achievement that gave destructive males a constructive role as fathers is being lost in Western Christian societies. John W. Miller's recent book, Biblical Faith and Fathering: Why We Call Cod "Father" (Paulist Press, 1989), provides a valuable antidote to feminist propaganda against patriarchy.


Montague seems to say one can call God "Mother," although he gives good reason not to do so. He neglects several important points, however: the Scriptures use metaphors and similes not as ornamental figures of speech but as figures of thought, in accordance with the concrete, realistic approach of Hebrew. Therefore it means something different when the Bible says that God is a Father, but that He is like a mother, or a rock, or a fire, etc. Metaphors emphasize similarity, similes difference. Moreover, these metaphors have the authority of divine Revelation. Roland M. Frye has discussed these issues in the pamphlet, Language for Cod and Feminist Language.


Montague also discounts the impor­tance of Christ's masculinity. That such a central part of Jesus' human identity would be unimportant is highly improbable. I have discussed this matter in "The Emasculation of God" (America, Nov. 25th, 1989).


These are minor flaws in Montague's book, however, and show that even the best of us can be misled by a trendy atmosphere. If he can get feminists to realize the importance of Mary, and to stop trying to get us to call God our "Mother," even this concession to trendiness can be overlooked.


Published by Reflections, December, 1991.