“The Fruit of Thy Womb”

Hail Mary Image

Part 7 in our weekly series on the “Hail Mary.”

Last week we considered Elizabeth’s words to Mary: “blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” but we only considered the blessing part: we bless Jesus.

This week let us consider the remarkable way she describes Jesus: the fruit of Mary’s womb.

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We can be a bit flippant about these expressions. “Oh, that’s just how they talked.” A parallel example is the line in Genesis, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore” (Genesis 4:1). Most of the time we just shrug our shoulders and say, “oh, that’s just their quaint way of saying, ‘had sex’.” But in John Paul’s biblical meditations on “the theology of the body,” he stops to consider why they talk that way. Why call it “knowing”? Language carries insights – especially biblical language. We should think about the words that Scripture uses to describe things. Adam did not just have sex with his wife. He “knew” her more deeply. (John Paul emphasizes that he knew her as one capable of conceiving: a new element of who she is. Most sex does not include this kind of knowing.)

Similarly, rather than dismiss “fruit of thy womb” as just a quaint way of saying “baby,” we should consider why St. Elizabeth, in the prophetic state of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41), used this expression. The Hail Mary, in fact, is an encouragement to meditate on these words: not to skip over them, but to ponder them, over and over, day after day. “Fruit of her womb”?

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St. Thomas has an almost quaint meditation on the word “fruit.” The fruit of a plant is two things. First, it is the culmination, the perfection. An apple tree grows and matures – until it can bear fruit. That’s the whole purpose of its existence. The word “flourishing” is similarly beautiful: something is literally flourishing when it is in flower. That is the sign of a healthy, adult plant.

So too Jesus is the flourishing of Mary, her perfection, her culmination. This is what she was made for. This is the flourishing of humanity: to bring Jesus into the world. Mary has born fruit!

But second – and even more quaint, almost – St. Thomas points out that fruit is sweet. The same can be said of flowers. Modern science can sometimes get us into an over functional account of these things: The fruit is sweet so that birds will eat it, and poop out the seeds. But let us not miss the gratuitousness of a plum, or a rose: just plain wonderful, sweet.

So too the fruit of Mary’s womb. Not just a product, a fruit. Jesus is sweet!

In fact, one of the tradition’s favorite hymns, maybe written by St. Bernard, is Jesu Dulcis Memoria: “Jesus, sweet to the memory | giving true joy to hearts | but even sweeter your presence | beyond honey and all else.” We should think of Jesus this way: sweeter than honey, the perfect fruit.

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That is the deepest theology of Jesus: he is the one we enjoy. But there is another theological angle on “fruit of thy womb.” It is a statement about Christology.

In a couple weeks we will discuss the most proper theological statement of the truth. “Mother of God” is the perfect culmination of the Christological debates: Jesus is truly God, he is truly man (and thus son of Mary), and there is but one Jesus, not one “part” who is son of Mary, and another who is son of God.

But even finer are the biblical anticipations of this title in Elizabeth’s prophetic words to Mary: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). Anyone familiar with the Old Testament – and Elizabeth is the wife of a priest – knows that “Lord,” Adonai, is the word devout Jews used in place of the unspeakable name YHWH. “The Mother of my Lord” means “the Mother of YHWH.” This says even more than the later theological title, “Mother of God.” Luke 1 uses “Lord” to mean YHWH no fewer than fifteen times.

But in “fruit of thy womb,” Elizabeth encourages us to go deeper. To contemplate the depth of the connection between YHWH and Mary. As in all Marian spirituality, the point is not to exalt Mary. The point is to meditate on how close God has come to us. YHWH himself has not only lain in Mary’s womb, but become the fruit of that womb. Sweeter than honey.

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How do you appreciate the closeness of God in Jesus? How do you savor his sweetness?

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

eric.m.johnston

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