A reader writes:
I’m in RCIA right now, and I have a question that’s been bothering me for a while. I’m hoping you can shed some light. Someone on one of the combox threads posted the following:
“Our lady is holding back the hand of her beloved son from seeking retribution on those who wear the clerical cloth and those that are worshiping as humanists and not God himself.”
Now, the fellow in question may or may not be right, but I’m sure I’ve heard the first part of the quote before.
Here’s my question: I thought (as a Protestant) that it was Jesus who was staying the hand of God (out of love for His Son, God was withholding immediate judgment on the world). The quote makes it sound like it’s Mary who’s staying the hand of Jesus. I know the Church teaches that Mary intercedes for us with Christ, but this is starting to sound like a daisy chain. Help?
It’s understandable that this type of image would be a bit perplexing, especially if one is coming from a Protestant background, since many Protestants stress the idea of Jesus turning away God’s wrath from us.
Basically, the "holding back the hand" metaphor is just that: a metaphor. As such, it contains elements of truth, but it is also figurative. Mary is not literally holding back Jesus’ bodily hand to keep him from physically whacking erring clergymen. Neither is Jesus literally holding back God the Father’s hand to keep him from physically squashing us with it. That’s a metaphor.
The question is: What does the metaphor mean and what are its limits?
It would seem that the metaphor can refer to the fact that it is through Christ’s death (and his ongoing intercession at the "right hand" [another metaphor] of the Father) that we are treated more mercifully than we otherwise would be. In this sense we can say that Jesus restrains the "wrath" (bad consequences) that would otherwise come to us, for God has chosen to make his mercy toward us conditional on the work of his Son. Thus Jesus could be depicted as staying the Father’s wrath or holding back his hand.
But the metaphor also has limits. First, God doesn’t literally get angry. Anger is a passion, and God doesn’t have passions. When Scripture speaks of God’s anger, it’s using a metaphor to communicate the idea that he will allow bad consequences to occur to those on earth on account of their wrongdoing. He’s not literally seething with rage.
Quite the contrary! It is he who sent his Son to die for us on the Cross and thus provide salvation in spite of our sins! God sent his Son because he loves us and wants us to be saved. Thus he’s really on our side. It’s true that he will allow bad things to happen if we refuse his offer of grace (i.e., he will allow us to choose to reject him if we insist on it; he won’t force himself on us), but he wants to provide us with grace, and he sent his Son to make that possible.
Thus if we wish to view what is literally true, we must look past the metaphor of anger and of Jesus restraining his Father from squashing us in a fit of rage. That image is not literally true.
The content of the metaphor seems to consist in two points: (1) We deserve bad consequences for our sins but (2) we don’t receive these bad consequences because of Jesus’ work on our behalf.
Going beyond the metaphor, we also recognize (3) the Father loves us and (4) it is he himself who sent his Son so that we might receive mercy.
The same exact thing applies if we speak of Mary (or anyone else) restraining divine wrath. That’s a metaphor as well, and it communicates basically the same content, with the necessary changes folded in.
God wants to give us benefits, but he has willed that these benefits sometimes be contingent on the prayer of others. Thus he encourages the Christian community to be built up in love and concern for each other by giving it additional benefits when we are drawn out of ourselves to be concerned for and to pray for other people. It’s his reward system for turning our thoughts to him and to others, instead of focusing exclusively on our selves.
Based on this fact, it would be possible to modify the metaphor of restraining divine anger such that the intercession of Mary (or anyone else who prays) is pictured as what averts the bad consequences that would otherwise come. As the Mother of Christ, Mary is a particularly powerful intercessor, and so this metaphor is sometimes applied to her, but it could also be applied any time anyone’s prayers help us out.
Yet the content of the metaphor is basically the same: (1) We deserve bad consequences on account of our wrongdoings but (2) we don’t receive these bad consequences (at least in some cases) because of the intercession of another (Mary, in the case we are considering).
Looking beyond the metaphor, we also realize (3) that God (Father and Son and Holy Spirit) loves us and (4) it was God himself (Father and Son and Holy Spirit) who allows us to be blessed through the intercession of others, based on the work of Christ.
Hope this helps!