The Virgin Mary
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854. The idea is that Mary herself was conceived without sin. The RCC also teaches that "in consequence of a Special Privilege of Grace from God, Mary was free from every personal sin during her whole life" (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 203; this view was endorsed by Augustine).
“In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace” (CC, 490).
“Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854 – ‘The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin” (CC, 491).
In addition, “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long” (CC, 493).
Alan Schreck makes a case for this doctrine as follows. He argues that
“it seemed impossible to Christians that the all-holy God, whose very nature is opposed to sin, could have been born to someone bound by the sin and rebellion of the fallen human condition. How could Mary have been a sinner, and still have carried the fullness of the all-holy God in her womb? How could she have consented so freely and unquestioningly to God’s plan if she shared the rebellious nature of the children of Adam and Eve? Christians eventually came to believe that it would have been impossible for Mary to respond as she did, and for God to dwell within her, unless God had given her a remarkable, special grace. It was beyond the capacity of an ordinary human being to respond as Mary did and to have the fullness of God dwell within her without God’s special assistance” (176-77).
The Dogma of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary was proclaimed by the Council of Trent in 1545-63 (but also embraced by a number of Protestant Reformers, including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, says Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord, 87; Bloesch also cites John Wesley as an advocate of perpetual virginity).
The dispute over Mary emerged when some in the early medieval period began teaching that Jesus was not born of Mary in the natural way, but had somehow "sprung out of her womb" in a mysterious and miraculous manner. Ratramnus of Corbie responded that such a doctrine would lead to docetism. He insisted, in rather strange terms, that Jesus was born "by the natural door, yet without violating its virginal integrity." He insisted that Mary was a virgin “before the birth, in the birth, and after the birth.”
Paschasius Radbertus (842-53) likewise affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary but insisted that Jesus could not have been born as other babies but rather "came to us even while the womb was closed, just as he came to his disciples even while the doors were closed” (De Partu Virg. 1).
It was common to appeal to Ezek. 44:2 as referring to this miraculous phenomenon: “This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened and no one shall pass through it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut."
The controversy ended abruptly with no final resolution.
The Catechism affirms the following:
“The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’ And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the ‘Ever-virgin’” (CC, 499).
“Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus [see Mt. 12:46-50; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; John 2:12; 7:1-5,10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19]. The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary’ [cf. Mt. 28:1]. They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression [Gen. 13:8; 14:16; 29:15]” (CC, 500).
See Mt. 1:25 (“until”). Even if Mary did not have other children, this does not prove she remained a virgin all her life. This doctrine would also require us to believe in the perpetual virginity of Joseph! This idea would appear to be based in part on an ascetic, un-biblical view of sex, according to which sexual relations are defiling or demeaning.
The references to Jesus' "brothers and sisters" were interpreted in three different ways in the early church. (1) Epiphanius (4th century) argued that they were Joseph's children by a previous marriage. Joseph was a widower who thus brought to his marriage with Mary at least four sons and two daughters (Mk. 6:3). (2) Jerome (4th century) was the first to suggest they were "cousins". A problem with both these views is the way Mark 6:3 and Mt. 12:46 closely associate Jesus' "brothers and sisters" to Jesus' "mother" rather than to Joseph. The Greek word for “cousin” is nowhere used of these individuals (cf. Col. 4:10). (3) They were Jesus' younger brothers and sisters, born to Joseph and Mary in later years.
The Dogma of Mary’s Bodily Assumption
This belief about Mary was officially defined by an “infallible” declaration from Pope Pius XII in 1950.
“Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (CC, 966).
The Role of Mary in Redemption
Mary’s role as mother of the Messiah, together with the doctrines espoused by Rome, as noted above, have contributed to a growing emphasis on her contribution to human redemption. Thus we read in the Catechism that “Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity. Thus she is a ‘preeminent and . . . wholly unique member of the Church’; indeed, she is the ‘exemplary realization’ of the Church” (CC, 967). Because of her singular cooperation with God “she is a mother to us in the order of grace” (CC, 968). This motherhood of Mary continues even today: “Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. . . . Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (CC, 969).
Consider the following: “This union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to his death; it is made manifest above all at the hour of his Passion:
Thus the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross. There she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, enduring with her only begotten Son the intensity of his suffering, joining herself with his sacrifice in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim, born of her . . .” (CC, 964).
The following explanation is designed to put fears to rest about Mary’s role:
“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it. No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (CC, 970).
We should also take note of the following papal declarations.
"God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation. For this is his will, that we obtain everything through Mary" (Pope Pius IX, 1846-78).
"As no man goes to the father but by the son, so no one goes to Christ except through his mother" (Pope Leo XIII, 1953).
"It is the will of God that we should have nothing which is not passed through the hands of Mary" (Pope Pius XII, 1953).
The Church’s devotion to Mary “is intrinsic to Christian worship” (CC, 971). Mary is honored with the title “’Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. . . . This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration” (CC, 971).
Catholic devotion to Mary is nowhere better seen than in the Ave Maria. See CC, 2676-2679.
Important Biblical Texts concerning Mary
(1) Luke 1:26-38
(2) Luke 1:39-45
(3) Luke 1:46-56
(4) Luke 11:27-28
(5) John 19:26-27
(6) Revelation 12:1-6
There are numerous accounts in ancient literature of a usurper appointed to die at the hand of a yet unborn prince who plots to gain control of the throne by killing the child at birth. One of the more famous myths concerns the birth of Apollo (son of Zeus). As his mother, the goddess Leto, reached the time of delivery, the dragon Python sought to kill them both. With the aid of winds sent by Zeus, Leto fled to the island of Delos where she safely gave birth to Apollo who only four days later found Python at Parnassus and killed him. A similar myth emerged in Egypt concerning “Set the dragon who pursues Isis, the pregnant mother of Horus. When the child is grown, he too kills the dragon” (Johnson, 116). These stories, notes Johnson, “were living myths in the first century and were probably known to both John and his Asian readers” (116). However, this is not to suggest that John drew from them to tell the story of the conflict between Satan and the Christ child.
Vv. 1-2 - A “sign” (cf. 12:3; 15:1 for semeion in the singular; 13:13,14; 16:14; 19:20 in the plural, all the latter in reference to false miracles performed by the beast, the false prophet, or demonic spirits) appears to John in the same “heaven” he had been viewing in 11:19, “which is the otherworldly dimension in which receives all of his visions” (Beale, 625). Who is this “woman”?
· A few have argued that the woman is Eve, whose offspring was to be the serpent’s great enemy (Gen. 3:15).
· Roman Catholic commentators, as expected, have generally argued that the woman symbolizes Mary, the literal birth mother of Jesus. This view did not arise until well into the 6th century a.d. Not all contemporary RC scholars embrace this view. As Keener notes, “one may also doubt that Mary was specifically persecuted after Christ’s enthronement, requiring protection for 1,260 days” (314).
· Various cults have claimed that the woman is one of their own number (the Christian Scientists insist that the woman is Mary Baker Eddy, the child = her unique doctrinal teachings, and the dragon = the modern mind that disdains and seeks to destroy her influence!).
· Some have identified her with the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem of Rev. 19:7-8; 21:9-10.
· Others have said she is exclusively OT Israel (see Walvoord, p. 188).
· Still others argue that she is exclusively the NT Church.
· The most probable interpretation is that the woman symbolizes what we might call the believing messianic community: both OT Israel and NT Church. Later in the chapter we read that when the woman is persecuted she flees into the wilderness and has other children who are described as faithful Christians. In other words, the woman is both the community of faith that produced the Messiah and the community of faith that subsequently follows and obeys him. John clearly envisioned an organic and spiritual continuity between OT Israel and the Church. They are one body of believers.
In the OT a woman often represents Israel (see Isa. 52:2; 54:1-6; 61:10; 62:1-5,11; 66:7-13). This imagery is also used of the Church in the NT (see 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:31-32; 2 John 1; cf. Rev. 21:2,9; 22:17). The imagery of a woman in the pains of childbirth is also a common one in the Bible, and is used often of Israel in distress. See Isa. 21:3; 26:17-18; 37:3; 51:2-3; 54:1-3; 65:9,23; cf. 66:10 and 22; Jer. 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; Micah 4:9). Isa. 66:7 is especially vivid, for there we find the metaphor of Israel bearing a child to indicate the arrival of the period of salvation and restoration.
Some have pointed to the fact that in certain Jewish writings the 12 signs of the zodiac represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps this was to suggest that Israel on earth had a heavenly identity of some sort. Aune points out that “the zodiac appears on a number of mosaic floors of Jewish synagogues in late antiquity” (2:681). Others contend that the “sun”, “moon” and crown of “twelve stars” appear to be an echo of Jacob, his wife, and the eleven tribes of Israel who bow down to Joseph, the twelfth, as found in the latter’s dream in Gen. 37:9. In other ancient Jewish writings Abraham, Sarah, and their progeny are symbolized by the sun, moon, and stars respectively. At minimum, the 12 stars would seem to stand both for the 12 tribes of Israel and the reconstitution and continuation of true Israel in the 12 apostles of the church.
The woman is pregnant and suffering birth pangs. On the one hand, this represents the longing expectation and anticipation of the Messiah’s birth on the part of those in the OT community of faith (cf. Luke 2:25-38). But it is also a symbolic reference to the persecution of the covenant community and the messianic line during the period of the OT leading up to Christ’s coming. That persecution is in view is evident from the word translated “in pain” (basanizo). This term is used in the NT of suffering, punishment, trial, and persecution (Matthew 8:6,29; 14:24; Mark 5:7; 6:48; Luke 8:28; 2 Peter 2:8) and in Revelation of torment inflicted by demons (9:5) or by God (11:10; 14:10; 20:10). As Beale points out, “the idea of persecution is also highlighted by the fact that basanizo is not attested anywhere in biblical or extrabiblical literature with reference to a woman suffering birth pains” (629). Caird brings together both ideas when he says that “the agony of her labour is the suffering endured by the loyal people of God as they waited for their anointed king” (149).
So-called apparitions or appearances of Mary are not considered official public revelation on a par with either Scripture or apostolic tradition: “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (CC, 66). Nevertheless,
“Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’ revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church” (CC, 67).
The following are the more prominent among the many purported apparitions of Mary:
(1) On December 9, 1531, Mary supposed appeared to Juan Diego, a Mexican peasant (hence, “Our Lady of Guadalupe”). This occurred @ fives miles north of Mexico City. She identified herself as the “ever virgin, Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains it in existence.” It is said that within six years of the apparition more than nine million natives were baptized.
(2) On September 19, 1846, two young cattle herders named Melanie Mathieu and Maximin Giraud reported seeing a beautiful lady near La Salette, France.
(3) At Lourdes, France, on February 11, 1858 on the Feast of the Annunciation, to 14-year old Bernadette Soubirous. Mary is purported to have said: “I am the Immaculate Conception,” a title Bernadette reportedly had never before heard. This occurred four years after the idea of Mary’s immaculate conception was made official Catholic dogma. The “Lady” appeared 18 times and gave Bernadette three secrets. Countless miracles are reported to have occurred in connection with Lourdes and this apparition.
(4) In Fatima, Portugal, between May and October of 1917, Mary reportedly appeared six times to three children, aged seven to ten and spoke, among other things, of the impending rise of Russia and the devastation it would bring if the country were not consecrated to her immaculate heart. [The Miracle of the Sun]
(5) Since 1981 six children have reported witnessing several apparitions of Mary near Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia.