1. Mary for today
1. Mary for today
Part 1 - The battle for a renewed Mariology Download PDF
Part 2 - The first thousand years Download PDF
Part 3 - The second thousand years Download PDF
Part 4 - Compromise at Vatican II Download PDF
Part 5 - The world in which Mary lived Download PDF
Part 6 - Mary in St Paul and St Mark Download PDF
Part 7 - Mary in St Matthew Download PDF
Part 8 - Mary in St Luke Download PDF
Part 9 - Mary in St John Download PDF
Part 10 - Church dogma and liturgical feast days Download PDF
Part 1 - The battle for a renewed Mariology
Any attempt to understand Mary today has to begin with the toughest battle of Vatican II, the issue of whether to give Mary her own document and continue along the road that had begun with the definitions of Immaculate Conception and Assumption, of exalting her privileges with new definitions as Mediatrix of all Graces and Co-redemptrix of the human race. Or to follow the direction of the council and include her in the document on the Church, which was the main topic of the Council. I am not exaggerating when I use the term ‘toughest battle’ because it was the turning point of two thousand years of history. Let us go backwards first, in order to go forward.
After the Assumption was defined in 1950 a split occurred between those who wished to further honour Mary with new titles, privileges, and dogmatic definitions, and those who desired to renew Marian theology and devotion by a return to original sources, a position that rose out of the early 20th century renewal through the biblical, liturgical, and ecumenical movements. The first group favoured Mary’s divine motherhood, her universal motherhood, her physical motherhood, her spiritual motherhood, her bridal motherhood. Karl Rahner took issue with this approach and proposed that grace rather than motherhood should be the founding idea of Marian theology. God gives human beings a gift of grace that justifies and forgives. Rahner saw Mary as an actual realisation of this mystery, receiving God’s saving, merciful grace and, as part of human history, entirely one of us, accomplishing her own life story. She hears the word of God and acts upon it with all her heart, as we are called on to do.
On the eve of Vatican II we have two contrasting schools of thought, those who saw Mary as an altogether special creature whose privileges paralleled those of Christ. By contrast, the position marked by the biblical, liturgical, and ecumenical movements, coupled with the renewal in the study of the church fathers, saw Mary as herself the recipient of grace and a special member of the community of the church. One was spiritually mystical in tone, driven by love, focused on the glories of Mary, full of emotional fervour, and dedicated to seeing Mary as the neck connecting the head and members of the body of Christ. The other was critically rational in tone, driven by a search for the truth, focused on Jesus Christ, full of clear-sightedness regarding the needs of the modern world, and appalled by the neck metaphor. And all this followed a century in which the Immaculate Conception and Assumption had been solemnly defined.
Clash of the Titans
Should the teaching on Mary be dealt with in the schema on the church or not? Such a simple and straightforward question was the occasion of a bitter dispute in which the titanic differences between each millennium of two thousand years came into open conflict. In August of 1963 those promoting the glories of Mary opposed the move to include, supporting instead a separate document that would give Mary due regard as superior to the church. Those in favour of inclusion thought it would be more ecumenically profitable as well as in keeping with the main theme of the council itself to check exaggerations by bringing Mary back into the theology of the church.
Culture Played its Part
National characteristics played a role in this division, with Spanish, Italian, Filipino, and Polish personalities favouring the maximalist heartfelt, enthusiastic strategy, while German, English, French, Belgian, and Dutch temperaments tended towards a more biblically based, theologically rigorous outlook. During the discussion the atmosphere became explosive, and almost violent. The privileges party denounced the move as a plot against Our Lady, using passionate accusations and sentimental appeals to make their case. The reform party rejected the accusations and argued that veneration of Mary could be all the more ardent if it were based on a more enlightened foundation.
So, a calmer decision could be reached in a more informed manner, a plenary session debate was arranged. Cardinal Santos of Manila spoke for the ‘separate schema’ party and Cardinal Franz Konig of Vienna for the ‘inclusion in the church’ party. The differences between the two presentations could hardly be exaggerated. Santos gave ten arguments in favour of a separate schema. He argued that given Mary’s relation to the Trinity, she has a position of priority with regard to the church beyond the level of laity and hierarchy; the faithful would see her inclusion in the church as reduction and loss. Besides, the constitution had already been composed and there was no place where she might be harmoniously added.
Konig gave four reasons why teaching on Mary should be incorporated into the schema on the church, including the theological one that Mary belonged there because she is a type of the church, what it will one day be, the pastoral one that the faithful were being encouraged to purify their devotion to Mary and get back to essentials based on scripture, and the ecumenical one that Mary in the church made possible a conversation with both Eastern and Protestant churches. In the days between the debate and the vote of the assembly, the atmosphere grew even more tense, with propaganda pamphlets calling it all a battle for or against the Madonna.
On October 29th, 1963, the vote was finally taken. It was the closest vote of the council: 1,114 in favour of incorporating teaching on Mary into the schema on the church, 1,074 against. Forty was a legitimate and sufficient majority. The vote was met with stunned silence, ‘a moment of dazed amazement.’ Then dismay arose over how could it be that the mother of God in whose womb the fundamental union of God and humanity was achieved, had become the source of such great division? In a kind of seismic upheaval the second thousand years of Marian devotion was forcibly shifted back to realignment with the pattern of the first thousand years. When the final draft of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church was eventually completed and voted on, it passed with only five negative votes.
Acknowledgement The writings of Kathleen Coyle and Elizabeth Johnson. Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 March 2012.
Part 2 - The first thousand years
At the Council
At Vatican II two patterns of approach to Mary came into conflict, and the first millennium won as the pattern for the third Christian millennium. Let us examine the two in more detail. Of the 2,500 bishops at the Council, 600 asked for a specific statement from the Council on Mary, 400 wanted a new title or role defined. A document had been prepared and sent out, build on all the old (the second millennium) principles and teachings. 100 bishops asked that the Council say nothing on Mary; the rest were silent on the topic. By a narrow majority, 1,114 to 1,074 the first draft document that had been sent out was rejected. A new text had to be produced, to incorporate the significant changes and content emerging at that time. The final text kept only 14 of the 117 papal quotations of the original draft and greatly increased the biblical references.
The New Testament stories of Mary form the primary source for all later interpretation, whether we see her with the family on the outside of discipleship as in Mark (3:31-35), in the genealogy of Jewish and Gentile ancestry as in Matthew (1:1-17), or as the Spirit-filled woman of faith as Luke presents her (1:35), or symbolising her at Cana and the cross as in John (2:1-12; 19:25-27). The earliest liturgical formulations (still with us today in the First Eucharistic prayer) places Mary with the saints in heaven, when we pray in union with Mary, Joseph, her husband, apostles and martyrs, and named saints. The mother of Jesus is part of a group of God-seekers, linked through time, the Communion of Saints. Liturgical prayer places Mary in the company of believers, living and dead.
Western Church Silence
In light of what was to come, the relative silence of the first three centuries is remarkable. She was not mentioned by most theologians; there was no public, official veneration of Mary, the church celebrated feast days in honour of martyrs, which Mary was not. The main issue that was to bring Mary out of the shadows for the Western Church was a growing discussion about the identity of Jesus Christ. In that increasingly heated debate, ideas about her motherhood were used to defend first the humanity and then the divinity of the Messiah, that he was true human flesh, not just apparent humanity (Docetism). Mary’s pregnancy in history ensured the human authenticity of Jesus’ body. The first principle of any sound Mariology is that any truth about Mary is first of all a truth about her Son.
The Turning Point
The Council of Nicea (325) affirmed the divinity of Christ and the Council of Ephesus (431) affirmed that Mary was the mother of the one who is personally the Word of God. The essence of the controversy was Christological, but the Marian title of Theotokos (God-bearer) bore the brunt of the dispute. From this point on the development of the Marian cult goes public and attention focuses on Mary in herself.
Eastern and Western Christianity differed during these centuries. The eastern, Greek-speaking church was marked by fervent, enthusiastic reflection and imaginative interest in Mary. The western, Latin-speaking church, by contrast, displayed a restraint rather more parallel to the gospels and earliest eastern theologians. When the Marian creations of the East arrived in the West, they quickly took root and flourished. But in the early centuries the West did little to generate fervent, poetic ardour, thinking instead about Mary largely in relation to the mystery of Christ and the graced life of the community.
Augustine summed up much of the approach to Mary with his comment: “It means more for her, an altogether greater blessing, to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been Christ’s mother.” Discipleship is emphasised over motherhood, and discipleship is what we are called on to share in with Mary (see Mk 3:31-35; Mt 12:46-50; Lk 8:19-21).
The Desert Fathers and Mothers
With the era of Constantine and the tolerance of Christianity, martyrdom gave place to asceticism as the ideal, and Mary, Queen of Virgins, became patroness of ascetics and celibates. In this changed view of the Christian life, Mary appears in a new light. In an important document of that time, The Proverbs of the Council of Nicea (AD 325), we find a most extraordinary picture of Mary that projects onto her all the ideals of what at that time a nun was thought to be.
Mary never saw the face of a strange man; that was why she was confused when she heard the voice of the angel Gabriel. She did not eat to feed her body, but she ate because of the necessity of her nature. She withdrew all by herself into her house, being served by her own mother. She sat always with her face turned towards the East, because she prayed continually. Her brothers wanted to see her and speak to her. And she did not receive them. She slept only according to the need of sleep. When she put on a garment she used to shut her eyes. She did not know many things of this life, because she remained far from the company of women. If therefore, a girl wants to be called a virgin, she should resemble Mary.
We may smile at this portrait and dismiss it as the product of a pious eccentric whose fevered imagination and unbounded admiration of Mary led him to ignore the clear testimony of the Gospels, notably the Visitation, that certainly do not present her as a pious recluse. But in fact The Proverbs of Nicea was an authoritative document and the portrait it gives was by no means a fanciful exception to the common view of Mary. Christians of that time did tend to think of her in those terms.
Of course, popular piety, then as now, was hugely influential. This often takes its own course and draws theology after it. This is the case with devotion to Mary. In the West, Mary was situated within scripture and liturgy, in the midst of the community rather than above it. This era is called ‘objective’, not requiring enthusiastic personal devotion to Mary, but honouring her among many notable models of faith including the apostles and martyrs. A quite different mood takes over in the second millennium, when a more ‘subjective’, emotional type of relationship increasingly glorifies Mary in her own right, especially her ability to obtain and dispense mercy.
References - Elizabeth Johnson; Kathleen Coyle. Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 April 2012.
1. What are the major features of the first thousand years?
2. What are the main Gospel features of Mary?
3. How do you react to The Proverbs of the Council of Nicea picture of Mary?
Part 3 - The Second Thousand Years
Among the new factors emerging in the church of the second millennium was a growing legal system within church office, an increasingly severe penitential system, and an increasing remoteness from the risen Christ as a saving figure who was now turned into a stern and just judge. Eternal salvation was regarded as exceedingly difficult; the torments of hell could be avoided by recourse to Mary, a powerful help for sinners, for she was mother of the judge as well as mother to the sinner. As all this spun out, Mary became detached from the gospel story of salvation history.
With the High Middle Ages and the revival of European culture, by the 12th century devotion to Mary was widespread. Great cathedrals were built; St Bernard and the Cistercians expressed her glories through the time of the Crusades, the era of feudalism, and of courtly love. Social and historical developments had their influence on Marian doctrine and devotion. Terms from chivalry emerged as Mary was addressed as ‘Our Lady’ and ‘Madonna’, respectful titles given to feudal aristocrats. Mary, simple maiden of Nazareth, is made one of the aristocracy, the great Queen of Heaven, with a place above the church, between God and the highest angels.
From Mother to Mediator
What began as the understanding that Mary was the means by which God came to earth, the vehicle so to speak, of Christ’s saving presence in history, now becomes a mediation that functions in reverse to effect sinful humanity’s going back to God. The image that becomes popular was of Mary as the ‘neck’ connecting Christ with his body the church, and as the ‘aqueduct’ through which the graces of Christ flow. St. Bernard was to say that God ‘wills us to have everything through Mary’. Today, theologians have been made aware by Protestant criticism that in the undeveloped Catholic theology of the Holy Spirit, Mary had replaced the Holy Spirit as advocate, mediator, comforter, and bestower of graces. We are now called to give back to the Holy Spirit what belongs to the Holy Spirit and to Mary what belongs to Mary.
Consciousness of sin and fear of judgement were characteristics of this era. The awesome God the Father was seen as stern king and just judge, difficult to approach. Christ, too, was far removed from ordinary people as a distant feudal king. Divine mercy found its expression in the mother of Jesus, intercessor for those who sought her aid in pleading with her Son. Given the climate of fear, it is little wonder that devotion to Mary blossomed into a profusion of prayers, hymns, cathedrals, pilgrimages, poems, miracle stories, dramas, songs, images, and practices in an outpouring that is impossible to codify.
The Reformation and its Enduring Effects
In the 16th century, at the time of the Reformation, theology and piety were at a low ebb and Marian devotion was by turns sentimental and superstitious, a virgin beautiful but not sacred, or a powerful mother who promised salvation despite the lack of ethical living. Rene Laurentin, the French Mariologist, sums up the era as "repelled by a desiccated intellectualism, people sought life on the imaginative and sentimental plane. Throughout this period of decadence, popular enthusiasm for the Blessed Virgin never faltered, but the adulterated fodder it was nourished on consisted of trumpery miracles, ambiguous slogans, and inconsistent maunderings.”
The Reformers’ criticism was largely justified, and Trent called for correction of abuse. But regarding Mary, Catholics developed a severe case of fixation, while Protestants developed a severe case of amnesia. Devotion to Mary became a badge of identity, and it was virtue to promote her glories.
The Reformers did not turn against Mary in herself. They rejected her veneration on Christological grounds. Luther, who wrote one of the best treatises on Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, protested at what he saw as false honour done; in praying to Mary and asking for favours, it could be detracting from Christ as sole mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5). It is encouraging to see in our own times the widening acceptance of Mary in Protestant circles, especially her role in the Incarnation and the whole process of salvation. The loss of tenderness and a harsh, judgmental, and thoroughly masculine ecclesial emphasis is the price paid for the loss of Mary in any church!
From Then On
The end result was to cut off thought about Mary from the rest of theology, especially treatments of Christ, salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. The late Fr. Pat Bearsely S.M., an internationally respected Mariologist, puts it very well as “we have a picture of a vigorous Mariology growing luxuriantly in an otherwise impoverished theological garden.” At this point we have an independent subject governed by a set of its own rules:
- The rule of singularity (Mary is unique).
- The rule of analogy (in her own way Mary parallels Christ in all things).
- The rule of eminence (Mary surpasses other Christians in all things).
- The rule of suitability (God could have, should have, and therefore did do great things for his mother. Duns Scotus).
Out of these rules result the view of Mary as the unique, immaculately conceived virgin mother of God par excellence, graced with perfect virtue, the totally obedient, humble handmaid who was also Queen of Heaven with power to intercede for our salvation, and who was assumed body and soul into heaven. But this pattern retains its fatal flaw, its isolation from theology, especially Christology, as a whole; Mariology had indeed gone off on its own track. It had lost touch with modern forms of thought, theology, and spirituality. However, filling a great need, it flourished.
Acknowledgement - Elizabeth Johnson and Kathleen Coyle. Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 May 2012.
1. What do you see as the most significant features from this time?
2. How have they affected the understanding of Mary we have grown up with?
3. 1 Timothy 2:5 says “There is only one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” Why is this a significant piece of Scripture?
Part 4 - Compromise at Vatican II
From Mediatrix to Model
No text could be written to satisfy both sides in Vatican II. The group that saw Mary in parallel with Christ (as type of Christ) continued to urge the definition of Mary as mediatrix or at least as mother of the church. The very title of the chapter on Mary shows the compromise attempted: ‘The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.’ The Constitution on the Church opens with the ringing words, ‘Christ is the light of all nations’; the church helps shed this light by proclaiming the gospel to every creature. Mary is a pre-eminent member of the church and faith-filled mother of Jesus Christ, once a pilgrim on earth herself and now with God in glory.
The Marian chapter returns to biblical and early Christian sources to sketch out Mary’s significance in relation to Christ and the church. Various gospel texts emphasise her motherhood, by which the Redeemer entered the world, and her faith, which led her to respond creatively to the call of God. The dynamism of her life lay in the way she grew in her pilgrimage of faith from the annunciation to the upper room at Pentecost. Her pilgrimage led her into the glory of God. The reality of Mary’s life is intertwined with the great events of saving history.
Mary in relation to Christ and Community
But the text often uses the term ‘nevertheless’: Mary’s unique role in salvation as mother of the Redeemer gives her a special relationship to the Trinity (as type of Christ), ‘at the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam, she is one with all human beings in their need for salvation’ (as type of church and humanity) (Lumen gentium #53). United with her Son in the work of salvation from his birth to her presence at his side in heaven (as type of Christ), she nevertheless did not understand his reply when she found him in the temple but pondered it in her heart (as type of church and humanity) (LG #57).
Besides relating Mary to Christ, the chapter also positions Mary as a member of the church. The mediatrix issue kept touching a raw nerve and a carefully worded statement was included: the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjuditrix, and Mediatrix. These however are to be so understood that they neither take away from nor add anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator. For no creature could ever be classed with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer’ (LG #62). The title is now one of several, in a context of piety rather than doctrine, and describing practice rather than prescription. In place of Mary as mediatrix, the council reached back to early Christian theology to emphasise Mary as a model of the church. St. Ambrose taught that ‘the mother of God is a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ’ (LG #63). As a model, she signifies the church called to its spiritual best.
Limitations within the Chapter
The chapter is a long way from being satisfactory. Unlike the most significant chapter documents, it fails to place Marian theology in dialogue with the modern world. It fails to clarify what belongs to the Holy Spirit rather than Mary, an absence that causes functions of the Holy Spirit to be attributed to Mary’s maternal mediation. Nor was any connection established between Mary and women, Mary and the poor. But we need to remember that in this chapter more is said about Mary than by any council in history; it set a new but old direction for development. By placing her within the doctrine on the church, Mary was reconnected to the whole communion of saints living and dead.
Reform, Renewal, not Rejection
After the council, interest in things Marian rapidly diminished in industrialised countries. Theology became occupied with questions of Christ and faith in God along with the social and moral issues arising in the modern world. The council had intended that devotions be reformed, not that they be eliminated. But disappear they did, despite the heroic efforts of Paul VI in Marialis Cultus. Certain pious practices that not long ago seemed suitable were now being rejected. He does not promote these devotions because they are linked with the social and cultural patterns of a past age, showing the ‘ravages of time’. Paul called on the whole church to act creatively to renew these forms in accord with contemporary sensibilities, as respectful of sound tradition and open to the legitimate desires of today’s people (MC #24). To do this, four guidelines were set in place to renew devotion in a creatively faithful way: it is in these four papal guidelines that we can see the fault line between the two millennia. From the principles of singularity, analogy, eminence, and suitability (basic to the second millennium) we leap to biblical, liturgical, ecumenical, and anthropological.
Biblical does not just mean skilful use of certain texts but steeping devotion to Mary in the great themes of the Christian message of salvation. Liturgical calls for practices of piety that should flow from and lead back to the Eucharist and harmonise with the liturgical seasons, notably Advent and Christmas. Ecumenical implies that honouring Mary should be based in sound scripture and clearly centring on Mary’s relationship with Christ, avoiding any exaggeration that would mislead other Christians about the true doctrine of the Catholic Church (MC #62). That renewed devotion to Mary should be anthropological points to attuning to the human sciences that chart the changed psychological and sociological conditions in which people live today, and most notably, women.
Paul VI pointed out that women feel alienated from Mary because traditional piety presents her as a ‘timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others’, a picture formed by previous generations who drew on their own cultural norms regarding women. The church ‘does not bind herself to any particular expression of an individual cultural epoch or to the particular anthropological ideas underlying such expressions’ (MC #36). The task of our times is to employ our own awareness, name the problems honestly, and offer an attractive presentation suitable to this age.
Karl Rahner gave a perceptive insight that the image of Mary in the church has always been closely tied to the image of women at any given time. Since the culturally conditioned image of women in our day is undergoing radical change, this raises important questions if we are to have an image of Mary for our times and our Church.
Source - Johnson, E. A. (2004). Truly Our Sister. Continuum: New York. Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 June 2012.
Part 5 - The World in which Mary Lived
Her Feet on the Ground
Sociology and archaeology have given us so much in recent years in reconstructing the life of a woman in first century Israel. There is real value in trying to understand the meaning of Mary as a particular person with her own life to compose, not as a woman divorced from her history, and turned into the maternal face of God, the eternal feminine, the idealized church, etc. We may even feel closer to her. She was an actual human person, a mother at between twelve and fifteen years of age, struggling with her own life journey, which was also ‘a pilgrimage of faith,’ including its dark night (Vatican II).
Miriam of Nazareth was a poor woman, along with the many poor women whose lives are lost in the mists of unimportance. She lived her life in an economically poor, politically oppressed, Jewish peasant culture, marked by exploitation and public violence. This is not the Mary we have been given. Instead we have the Mary of the ruling classes of medieval Europe, who made Mary one of themselves, “Madonna, Our Lady”. “About Palestinian housewives they knew nothing; if they had, they would have found her like the maids of their palace kitchens or the peasant women of their domains”. Before they could venerate Mary, they had to extract her from her own historical life and turn her into the ideal woman, a high-class gentlewoman like themselves.
A Woman in her World
What was life like for a woman such as Mary in the Hebrew world of the first century? It is no easy search as the Bible focus is on men. Of the 1,426 names given, 1,315 are men, 111 are women: only 9%. The realm of public and communal life is dominated by kings, warriors, priests, prophets, and sages. The more private or domestic area of life, traditionally that of a woman like Mary, receives little direct attention. Given the extremely few references to Mary in the NT and the little we can gain from her in history, it is surprising how great a significance she has in both Christian and Muslim traditions.
At the level of human activity, the primary Mediterranean cultural value was ‘being’, responding to life’s experiences, rather than taking charge and ‘doing.’ Mary in the role of ‘doing’ can be seen at the wedding in Cana where she invites Jesus to intervene in a moment of need, then gives instructions to the servants, and apparently ‘takes charge’ of the situation; her behaviour rather indicates that she and Jesus are somehow related to this couple and family. It would be very shameful for a non-relative to interfere in the affairs of a non-related family.
Yet, even here, Mary responds spontaneously as a female relative is expected to respond; with concern for the honour of the family lest it be shamed by a sudden shortage of wine at a celebration. When Mary learns from the angel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is pregnant, she sets out with haste to visit her. Mary’s response to the news is spontaneous and immediate, proper to the present moment. Different values overlap (the present moment, spontaneous response, a significant other from the group).
Of Farms and Feeding
The economy of Ancient Israel was based on agriculture. Poor soils and insecure rainfall meant that life was precarious for families living in tiny highland villages such as Nazareth, a small village that may have numbered between 300-400 people. The normal pattern of the whole peasant family working the land did not apply for the family of Joseph. Nearby, the large city of Sepphoris was under construction. There, a builder or stone worker (rather than carpenter, or worker in wood, a rare and precious commodity), would find employment. Joseph may well have moved to Nazareth which was within a brief hour or two walk of 3-4 miles, in order to find work offered at the growing, gleaming Herodian city of Sepphoris. The destruction of the former city of Sepphoris as brutal Roman reprisal for the revolt of Judas the Galilean in 4 BCE with its burning of the city and enslavement and levelling of surrounding villages would have been part of the life of a young mother, Miriam, with her new-born son, as would the enslavement of her friends and relatives.
We know much about village agricultural economy and the work that would have made up most of Mary's life. Most households and villages survived by growing grain (wheat and barley), olives and grapes, as well as orchard and garden crops. Each family kept a few animals, sheep, goats, cows, oxen, important as a food source if the crops failed - a not infrequent event as rain was notoriously unreliable. A good growing season allowed for three harvests.
Women spent the same number of hours as men in planting, weeding, harvesting. Men probably did the initial work of ploughing, clearing, and terracing. This would average out at 4-5 hours a day for women, in fields removed from the house. Nearer home would be a small family plot where tasks more compatible with child care would be carried out. This was gardening work, cultivating fruit trees, vines, vegetables, herbs. This took up a significant part of the day.
Food production was only part of the work; food had to be stored for the non-growing season. Archaeology has turned up a wealth of storage jars and pits. Grains, olives, fruit and herbs had to be transformed into forms that keep. Threshing, pounding, drying, pitting foodstuffs for year round supply was a woman's responsibility. We know today how much work is involved in preserving and processing staple cereal crops: soaking, milling, grinding, mixing, setting to rise, baking, before bread, the staff of life, is available. The parable of the leaven in the bread in Mt. 13:33 was a scene the child Jesus saw Mary engaged in many times.
Grain processing on its own took two hours a day. Add the preparation of other foods, and the dairy produce with its routine care of animals, feeding, milking, and cleaning the domesticated animals quartered in the ground floor of the house or courtyard. Other areas of responsibility were making clothes (remember the seamless garment in the crucifixion scene - John 19:23-24) as well as household vessels and implements such as pottery and baskets.
The common courtyard, surrounded by extended family or close kinship group, contained a shared oven, a cistern for water, and a millstone for grinding grain. This was the kitchen area where food was prepared and cooked in the open air. Domestic animals also lived here. The people of the village as a whole shared larger food-preparation facilities such as a threshing floor, olive press, and wine press. The diet was mainly grain and olive oil, with some fruits, vegetables, and wine, along with occasional milk products if one had flocks of sheep, or fish if one lived near the lake. Living at subsistence level, households by and large grew their own food, did their own building, and sewed their own clothes from cloth that they spun and wove, mostly woollen cloth from sheep.
Much of what I have outlined is typical, monotonous, and repetitive. Yet this was her life. In this way she contributed to the work of her Son. When she did take time to visit her Son when he was about his work, it was exceptional enough to be recorded (Mk 3:31-35). Together with Joseph she lived as one of the insignificant people of Nazareth. She lived out her whole life in the spirit of her Fiat. We live out the mystery of obedience in the ordinary events and pre-occupations of everyday life. Humble fidelity, constant, unspectacular, patient, this is the mark of Mary's life as well as the life of most of us. We offer to God what we can, a God who can take the very ordinariness of a life like Mary's - or our own, and use it to bring in the great mystery of the reign of God.
Part 6 - Mary in St Paul and St Mark
It is in the New Testament that we find the beginnings of Christian reflection on Mary; it is important to insist that these are the beginnings and not the fullness of Marian teaching and practice which has developed over the centuries. The earliest reference from the mid-fifties to the Mother of Jesus is found in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law. (Gal 4:4).
Little can be said for a Marial interpretation of this passage, but a basic affirmation is made: at the beginning of Jesus’ life there was a woman, his mother. Paul’s interest is to indicate that Jesus was authentically Jewish and human, as communicated through a Jewish mother. The Christology of the passage is the profound centre of the statement; its message about Mary is limited to the facts of her being a woman and a mother. As early as this passage a central point of Mariology is established: Any truth about Mary is first of all a truth about her Son.
Why Mary’s Absence from the Preaching of the Apostles?
1. The apostles stick to the essentials: they were concerned to announce Christ, his passion and resurrection, his exaltation to God’s right hand and the salvation he brings.
2. Mary was still living; it was not fitting to speak of her.
3. Palestinian society was strongly patriarchal; it would not have been acceptable to speak of her.
4. The first generation had no idea of such issues as the virginal conception and assumption. The apostles knew only the adult Jesus, a prophet; they lived with him while he preached and worked miracles. They have no personal memory of the childhood of Jesus. Curiosity about his birth and childhood comes much later; the Infancy Narratives are the last part of the Gospels to be written. It is the Passion and Resurrection that are first.
5. It was the resurrection that posed the question. “Who is this Jesus?” The answer eventually takes two Gospel writers back to the infancy and birth and conception, and one to the pre-existence of the Word. It is in this context that Mary was presented in the late stages on the development of the New Testament.
Mary in Mark: (Mk 3:20-21, and 31-35)
The mother of Jesus in all four Gospels, but they present four quite distinct pictures. The gospels have distinctly different views of Mary, reflecting the evangelists’ diverse theologies of world history and understandings of Jesus, and the needs of the local churches for which they wrote. In Mark we have just the faintest outline; Matthew gives us a slightly stronger sketch; in Luke and John we have a vivid painting or full-bodied sculpture of the woman disciple and mother. In no Gospel is Mary the dominant figure; always she is presented as being in some relationship with her Son. That is her role, not as an end herself, but as a pointer to her Son. What is fascinating about Mary and her role in our salvation story is the significant development in the appreciation of her by the various Gospel communities of later times.
Not a Popular Beginning
The temptation is often to bypass Mark to get on to the more flattering texts. The earliest Christian tradition on Mary is the story of the visit of the mother and brothers (Mk 3:31 to 35). This is not one of the more popular Marian texts; it seems to cast Mary in a negative light and embarrasses those who are devoted to her. If all we had was the Markan Gospel, we would have the name of the mother from 6:1-6a, two negative stories of rejection, and no deep devotion to Mary as integral to Catholic Christianity.
What is Mark Doing?
The Gospels cover a passage of over 60 years; earlier traditions are modified, and understood in a better way. The text on the family of Jesus asserts that it is open to every human being, a family not limited by blood, tribe, nation, colour, or culture; in this family there is a place for each one. And in this family there we could be mother, brother, sister for Jesus, (but not Father!! V.35). Mark's primary intention is not to say anything about Mary; it is to cast Jesus' words in as strong a light as possible. This is best done by powerfully contrasting the two families.
Mary was probably not known to Mark and his community; with so few references it is unlikely Mary was a significant figure in the early Markan church. The main point is not that Jesus did not care for his mother; he did. The point being made is that to belong to Jesus in relationship depends on the faith of a disciple; it does not depend on blood. Affection for his mother is not the issue; discipleship is!
We need to appreciate the overall perspective of Mark. In this Gospel everybody fails Jesus - his disciples, his people, his family. He dies with that terrible cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know Psalm 22 begins with that line but ends on a positive note; but let us not rush to that point until we recognize that in Mark Jesus dies in utter desolation, without any relieving features at all. Jesus’ isolation could go no further: deserted by his disciples, taunted by his enemies, derided by those crucified with him, misunderstood by his family, suffocating in the darkness of evil. But the worst is now: feeling even abandoned by God. At least his mother and brothers are in good as well as bad company!
Mark's Second Reference
The story of Jesus' unhappy return to his own home town results in the villagers taking offence at him, and speaking of his relatives and family identity. It is stated that he is son of Mary, brother to James, Joses, Judah, Simon, and his sisters are still there among the people. The son of Mary seems too familiar a figure to them to be of any religious significance. Sadly, the villagers ask the right question: "Where did this man come from or get all this learning?" But they give the wrong answer. They think they know the source of his power and authority because they know his earthly origins. What they miss is the faith dimension that is part of being a disciple; it is not enough to know the Son of God only as the son of Mary.
Augustine was to add an important comment to these Markan scenes when he reminded us that: “For Mary, it was a greater thing for her to have been Jesus’ disciple than to have been his mother.” Discipleship is a matter of faith rather than the natural relationship of family, an important issue in those early days when becoming a Christian could and did lead to family division (see Mk13:12).
References - Brennan, W. (1988). The sacred memory of Mary. Paulist: NY. | Maloney, F. J. (1988). Mary: Woman and mother. Paulist: NY.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 August 2012.
Part 7 – Mary in St Matthew
Mary plays a small but significant role in Matthew, principally in the infancy narrative. Questions were being asked about the origins of Jesus, his ancestry, his birthplace, his place in the Old Testament, and his parents. This Gospel attempts to answer such questions, firstly by placing Jesus deep within the Jewish tradition and as the fulfilment of their messianic hope. These ancestors were mainly ordinary folk who advanced God’s plan by their fidelity to the usual tasks of everyday life.
This moves from Abraham to David to the Messiah, one end of Jewish history to the other, humble beginnings to glorious fulfilment. Four notable exceptions occur in the patriarchal cadences; women rarely were mentioned in Jewish genealogies; four in a brief genealogy is exceptional. Why should these four women be part of a list that ends with Mary, the mother of Jesus?
a. St. Jerome regarded the four as all sinners, and Jesus came to save sinners; later Jewish tradition considered Rahab and Ruth as heroines. Most certainly, these women were not considered sinners in Jewish tradition. They were looked on with respect and praised for their deeds.
b. Luther said they were all foreigners; Matthew makes much of Jesus' mission to foreign Gentiles. But Matthew does not emphasise their non-Israelite origins. This is not necessarily the case with Tamar or Bathsheba. And the theory fails to take into account the fifth woman, Mary, of whom Jesus, called the Christ, was born.
c. All five share irregular marriages yet were vehicles of God's messianic plan. All have something extraordinary or irregular in their situation, their marriage relationship, and their pregnancy. It was a scandal to those outside the mystery of God's plan working through them.
d. Each occurs at a critical moment in the history of God's people. All preserve the God-willed line of the Messiah. Tamar at the critical origins of the tribe of Judah, before the entry into Egypt, Rahab at the moment of entry into the Promised Land, later marrying Joshua and becoming ancestor to several prophets including Jeremiah, Ruth at the beginnings of Kingship in Israel, and Bathsheba at its full flowering in Solomon. In difficult circumstances these foremothers each dreamed of a future and acted to bring it about.
Fulfilment in the Unexpected
Mary brings to fulfilment the promise inherent in the life of all these women. God works through the extraordinary and unexpected. These final two explanations seem to apply to all five women, not just four. That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit (1:20); there is just enough whisper of a scandal, and a clear history that the God of Israel who is the God of Jesus sides with the outcast, the endangered woman and her child.
God works in history through the abused Tamar who suffers injustice from Judah and his sons; through Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who becomes a heroine of Jewish liberation; through Ruth, vulnerable Moabitess, who enters the messianic line; through Bathsheba who is violated by the king, whose husband is murdered, whose life is appropriated to the royal purposes without negotiation or discussion, and yet who becomes a vital link in the Davidic history. The same is true of Mary. She is not a member of the Davidic line (see Lk 1:5) but becomes so through Joseph's espousal of her, a sort of "illegitimate" royalty, as with her Son. She is vulnerable to the sanctions of the law and liable to rigorous punishment. She is voiceless in Matthew's narrative, yet, along with her extraordinary predecessors, embodies and brings to pass the blessings of God, becoming the arena of sacred history, the place where God's promises to Israel are carried out. Against the prejudices and head-wagging of contemporary culture and social standards, all these women were to be considered as the wonderful instruments of God's plan for humanity.
Wisdom from the East (2:1-12)
Matthew and Luke tell very different stories. Matthew begins in Bethlehem then brings the family up to Nazareth by a circuitous route, via Egypt, that reflects his own theological interest. The parents live in a house in Bethlehem, settled rather than transient, where the child is born. The magi enter this house as the goal of their quest. The danger of death that Mary earlier faced from patriarchal law now gives place to the menace of the state in the form of Herod. The messianic title ‘King of the Jews’ appears here in its only use before the passion narrative where it appears above the Cross. Suffering looms on the horizon.
The magi were people engaged in mystic, supernatural arts, notably astrology, rather than kings. They represent the wise and learned among the Gentiles. They make the first public acknowledgement of the messianic identity of Mary’s child, but it brings peril by drawing the unwelcome attention of the powerful to the existence of this young vulnerable child. The magi find the child ‘with Mary his mother’; she is there at the heart of the new things God is doing in this world. But she is also at the centre of the terror and displacement that follows the visit of the magi as Joseph, warned in a dream of those who sought to put out the light of the star at its rising, took ‘the child and his mother’ and fled by night into Egypt.
This is a scene of terrible fear propelling escape in the dark from oncoming murder with no guarantee of success; the iron swords, the baby blood, the red pavement stone, the empty eyes and grief of shocked mothers, a young family’s life in exile in a foreign land, with a strange language, customs, and institutions. The plight of millions of refugees is in solidarity with the plight of this small family of 2,000 years ago. Few things are more traumatic than losing your family’s home. In a foreign land, Joseph, as a migrant worker, a non-national, would have had to do the most menial tasks in order to survive - the position of many underprivileged refugees. Mary’s own situation would not have been any better. It is a pity that popular devotion to Mary does not recall her in this experience as a poor courageous woman.
References - Brown, R. et al. (1978). Mary in the New Testament. Fortress/Paulist Press: NY.
Moloney, F. J. (1988). Mary Woman and Mother. St. Paul Publications: Homebush.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 September 2012.
1. Does this picture of Mary seem far removed from the Mary we have grown up with?
2. What risks did Mary take with her “Yes” to God to be the mother of Jesus?
3. What elements in Matthew’s account bring it close to our own day?
4. An annunciation to Joseph rather than Mary. Why does this happen in Matthew?
Part 8 – Mary in St Luke
Annunciation (LK 1:26-38)
Mary is not a disciple in the historical sense that she accompanied Jesus during his ministry, but in the sense that she heard the word of God and acted on it. In Luke’s theology the faith that marks a genuine disciple consists in hearing and acting on God’s word. This reminds us of Elizabeth’s earlier words, blessing Mary for her believing, because the things said to her by the Lord would reach fulfilment. The annunciation scene depicts Mary with a mood of celebration as a hearer and doer of God’s word.
The overarching purpose of this account is to disclose to the reader at the outset the truth about Jesus’ messianic identity. Using titles of Christology and language developed by the church after the resurrection, (‘Son of the Most High’) the scene vividly dramatises the theological point that Jesus did not just become the Son of God after his death (Paul), or even at his baptism (Mark) but is Son of God from his very conception in this world. At the same time, by making Mary the central character, Luke invites reflection on Mary’s faith and her action in her own right. The text has been fundamental in influencing the development of honouring Mary.
Conceived of the Holy Spirit
‘Overshadowing’ always means the Spirit of God drawing near and passing by in order to save and protect. God’s Spirit is a creative power in the begetting of Jesus. We look to the text for religious meaning, not physical or what actually happened historically. We shall never know that because the Gospel writers drew on the details of the Old Testament annunciation accounts to relate this sacred moment of choice. Mary is called to trust, for she will be empowered and protected by God.
In the opening scenes of Genesis, the Spirit of God blows like a mighty wind over the dark waters and the world came into being. At this new moment of the renewal of creation, the Spirit is on the move again. At Easter, by the Spirit, Jesus is raised from the dead and made Son of God in power, so the same life-giving Spirit brings life from both empty tombs and empty wombs.
Divine freedom does not override created human freedom but waits upon our response. Mary responds with courage and with joy and prophecy to this unexpected call. In affirming her own identity as handmaid of the Lord in her assent, Be it done to me according to your word (v.37), she makes a radical act of trust in God, based on a bedrock conviction that God is faithful. Here we have the story of a young peasant girl who discerns the voice of God in her life commissioning her to a great task. Exercising independent thought and action, she asks questions, takes counsel with her own self, and makes a self-determining act of choice.
It changes her life, and as a woman of Spirit, she embarks on the task of partnering God in the work of redemption. Like any prophet, she asserts herself before God saying, “Here I am.” “It is her word and faith that makes possible God’s entrance into history” (Reuther).
Visitation: Joy in the Revolution of God (Lk 1:39-56)
In this meeting Mary sings out a prophetic song of praise to God, the Magnificat. This song can barely contain Mary’s joy over the liberation coming to fruition in herself and the world through the creative power of the Spirit. Her no to oppression completes her yes to solidarity with the project of the reign of God. She sings the great NT song of liberation – personal and social, moral and economic – a revolutionary document of intense conflict and victory, praising God’s actions on behalf of marginal, exploited peoples.
The other figure in the drama is Elizabeth. Having resigned herself to living with disappointment over never having a child, Elizabeth now has to deal with an ‘unexpected blessing’. Mary in turn has to figure out how to deal with a blessing that causes more problems than it solves. Like many young women in similar straits, she leaves town to seek the wisdom of an elderly relative. This older woman had been faithfully walking in the ways of God for many long years. She stands in the list of barren Hebrew matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, and Hannah, symbol of barren Jerusalem.
All signal God’s vindication of the lowly with stories of humiliated women blessed by conceiving and bearing a son. A long life of attentiveness to the Spirit enables Elizabeth to conceive this child as not a gift for Zechariah or her people alone (as patriarchal law would have it), but signifying God’s regard for her as a loved and valuable person, “for so the Lord has done for me.”
While Luke is careful in not giving Elizabeth the title of prophet, as one filled with the Holy Spirit she functions as one. Other famous women who helped deliver Israel from peril speak as she does. Deborah praises Jael, slayer of their enemy, “Most blessed be Jael among women” (Judges 5:24) and Judith is praised “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth” (Judith 13:18). Elizabeth’s word of praise of Mary joins her young cousin in solidarity with a long heritage of women whose creative action, undertaken in the power of the Spirit, brings liberation in God’s name.
Mary remains with Elizabeth for three months (cf. 2 Sam 6, Ark of the Covenant). The support they share with each other enables them to mother the next generation of prophets, John the Precursor and Jesus the Saviour. On balance, Elizabeth stands as a moving embodiment of the wisdom and care that older women can offer younger ones, who, brave as they are, are just starting out on their journey through life. Her presence assures the younger woman that she does not face the uncertain future alone. Elizabeth’s mature experience sustains the new venture.
References - Kathleen Coyle and Elizabeth Johnson.
Part 9 – Mary in St John
John gives two key places to the Mother of Jesus in his gospel: Cana where Jesus officially starts his public life with his first sign, the best wine, and the Cross, the flow of blood and water, the final sign, where Jesus ends his public life.
Mary at Cana (Jn 2:1-11)
Amid the feasting, dancing, and singing of the wedding, the wine gives out. The mother of Jesus notices, and brings this to Jesus’ attention but he declines to get involved for ‘my hour has not yet come.’ Disregarding his hesitation, she bids the servants to follow his word, which they did, filling to the brim six stone water jars with a capacity of twenty plus gallons. Biblical scholarship tells us that the story of Cana has all the earmarks of a popular story or folktale, originally circulating to express people’s interest in the early, hidden life of Jesus, similar to the finding of the twelve-year old boy in the temple. Such stories exist as one type of literature that carries God’s message of salvation. “The evangelist is not responsible for the origin or historicity of a story; he is responsible for the message it serves to vocalise.” (R. E. Brown).
Quite clearly the main purpose of the Cana narrative is Christological, to reveal the person of Jesus gifted with the glory of the Messiah. In the coming days ‘the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it’ (Amos 9:13). The 120 to 180 gallons of wine signify the abundant salvation for which light, water, and food are other Johannine symbols. With such abundant symbolism it is not surprising that the mother of Jesus is never given her personal name but functions strongly at the symbolic level as image of the true believer because of her faith in Jesus.
Mary’s presence in this scene ties Cana to the cross, the other Johannine scene in which she appears and where Jesus’ hour has now come. While highly symbolic, this Cana story is grounded in the historical reality of its time. A festive wedding supper with friends and relatives lasted through the night into the next day. The stone water jars add another authentic note, stone jars being preferable to clay pots.
That ‘they have no wine’ is more than an embarrassment to the providers of the feast and the couple. It is a painful reminder of the harsh economic situation in which the wedding guests all lived. Mary named the need and took steps to seek a solution. Because she persisted, a bountiful abundance soon flowed among the guests. Far from silent, she speaks; far from passive, she acts; far from being subservient to the wishes of her son, she goes counter to his wishes, finally bringing him along with her; far from yielding to a grievous situation, she takes charge of it, organising matters to bring about benefit to those in need.
With the words “Do whatever he tells you”, the mother of Jesus alerts the servants to listen to his word and follow his way. In John’s gospel women play surprisingly significant roles, both in the number of incidents recounted and their theological consequence: the Samaritan woman, Martha of Bethany, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene. The mother of Jesus gives her instruction to the servants at the wedding feast, charging them to turn believingly to Jesus. They do so on the strength of her testimony.
All humanity and Judaism had to offer was six water jars for ritual cleansing, insufficient for a wedding feast. It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection ‘on the third day’, that the mundane and ordinary is replaced, transformed into the glorious new wine of God’s promised fulfilment. The meaning of the whole of this gospel is ‘sign-alled’, prefigured in this first sign.
Mary at the Cross (Jn 19:25-27)
Death as an act of violence causes unnameable grief in the hearts of those who love and lose another. John’s gospel gives us in brief shorthand the scene: John 19:25-27 Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Many works of art conjure up all the anguish and desolation a woman could experience who had given birth to a child, loved that child, raised and taught him, even protected the child only to have him executed in the worst imaginable way by the power of the state. The gospel never describes Mary as holding the body of her dead son when he is taken down from the cross, yet the artistic image of the pieta captures the inexpressible sadness at the heart of this event.
The presence of women at the cross is attested in all four gospels. A group of them kept vigil, standing firm in the face of fear, grief, and the scattering of the male disciples. There is no mention in the Synoptic tradition of the mother among the women at the cross. Luke places her in Jerusalem with the community at Pentecost. The gospels stress that all the male disciples fled. This unnamed beloved disciple, probably not one of the twelve, plays a role that is utterly peculiar in John’s gospel. He is the witness who guarantees the validity of the Johannine community’s understanding of Jesus.
The two great unnamed figures appear together, the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple. They are both historical persons but are not named because they function as symbols of discipleship. Standing by the cross they are turned towards each other by Jesus’ words and given into each other’s care. Henceforth they represent the community of true believers that it is Jesus’ mission to establish. They mark the birth of a new family of faith, born in blood and water, and founded on the following of Jesus and his gracious God. Jesus reinterprets family in terms of discipleship. There is symmetry between the woman and the man; mother and son; both are equal partners in the family of disciples, functioning as representatives of a larger group, the church.
Uncovering the symbolism of the mother/beloved disciple scene links Jesus’ death, the gift of the Spirit, and the foundation of the Christian community. Mary as a precious symbolic figure has the unfortunate effect of deleting her human reality as a historical woman with a crucified son, something that has continued for much of church history. Even if she did not stand at the foot of the cross in three gospels, even if she was still in Nazareth - the more likely event, news would soon have reached her. Her grief would be no less, and she joins the many women who experience such loss at the hands of the powers that rule to serve their own interests, among the women who cry out: “No more killing of other people’s children!”
John Paul II in speaking to the four leaders of the Marist orders told them, “It is up to you to show in original ways the presence of Mary in the life of the Church and in the life of people.” Both Cana and Calvary in John demand our attention. In Cana we are given Mary’s last recorded words, “Do whatever he tells you.” We find that in the word of the Scriptures. Calvary and the flow of blood and water remind us of Baptism and Eucharist. Scripture and Sacrament are the heart of our existence as Church, the source of renewal and new life, of unity in our divisions, of renewal in weariness, of new life in stagnation. Mary, our caring mother, points this out to us.
References - Brown, R. E. (1997). Mary, the first disciple, in St. Anthony Messenger 104 (May) 10–13.
Johnson, E. A. (2006). Truly Our Sister: A theology of Mary in the communion of saints. Continuum: NY.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 November 2012.
Part 10 – Mary in Church Dogma - Liturgical Feasts
Understand and Accept What?
The church has stated that there is ‘a hierarchy of truths’ and from the current scene one could easily get the impression that the Marian dogmas, for better or worse, do not have the priority and influence that they used to have. They are often the source of great difficulty with regard to their source - or lack of it! - in Scripture, as well as their contemporary relevance. The mysteries of faith as expressed in doctrines and dogmas are historically conditioned, with a meaning not always self-evident. They bear the marks of the philosophical and theological thinking of their own time and may not always be the most suitable for every time and place. Their meaning may even change from one historical period to another, because of the limitations of the language in which they are expressed. [Mysterium Ecclesia: On the Historical Conditioning of Dogma, (1973), speaks of ‘bearing the changeable conceptions of a given epoch’].
History is a good teacher. Saints Bernard, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure explicitly rejected the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; it was totally unknown to the Church Fathers; the Holy Office in Rome in 1644 forbade the use of the title ‘Immaculate Conception’. Our three saints can hardly be said to be wanting in authentic faith. In this area of dogma we are standing on sacred, delicate and shifting ground.
Marian doctrine did not emerge till some centuries had passed, until the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary to be Theotokos, the God bearer. The church was busy with other matters; a huge doctrinal development was in progress through five centuries. The knowledge of the one, true, good God was replacing the multitude of gods. The birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Lord were now the defining points from which the reality of God was affirmed. Trinity and the truths about Jesus Christ had to be in place before those about Mary. The presence of Mary is so interwoven with the gift of Christ himself, with the grace of belonging to the Church and its mission, that they are virtually inseparable.
Limitations in Dogmatic Expression
Dogma does not reveal everything. It attempts to capture the faith of the community, but God is not confined in any formula which reflects the limitations of its time, language, and thinking. We have to learn to distinguish what has a universal value from what is situated only in the context of its era. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception reflects a certain view of original sin held around 1854, and thinking has greatly evolved since then; the dogma has to grow with the development of theology. The challenge they all present is how to make them speak to the 21st century rather than be confined to formulas that we nod our heads at without understanding them or seeing that they say anything to our time and world.
Dogma gives the impression of granting certain ‘privileges’ to Mary which makes her an exception. All of this has resulted in distancing and isolating Mary rather than making her more approachable. What do we know about these beliefs developed over the course of history? What are the values and the limits of each dogma? What was intended when it was defined and what kind of attention should it receive? Dogma carries the seal of approval by the Church, manifesting a certain consensus of the faithful.
How many have been proclaimed, and have they been defined in the same way? In our history as Church there are four major affirmations about Mary: ‘Mother of God,’ ‘always a virgin,’ immaculate since her conception, and fully participating in the Resurrection of Christ since the end of her earthly existence (Assumption). They are not all from the same period of time, nor do they have the same degree of relation to the Bible.
The dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption came late in Church History, in the 19th and mid-20th centuries, marking the beginning and closing of a remarkable century of Marian devotion. Behind the definitions lies a long history. The first questions concerning the Immaculate Conception of Mary (be clear, it is her conception the dogma speaks of rather than the virginal conception of her Son, an all too frequent misunderstanding that would be clarified by renaming the dogma as ‘the Conception of the Immaculate Virgin’) were raised in the middle of the 5th century in discussions on the sanctity of Mary between Augustine, Pelagius, and the cultured Italian bishop, Justin d’Eclane.
In the East, towards the end of the 7th century, the feast of the Conception of Mary was celebrated under different names: ‘the Announcement of the Holy God-bearer’, the ‘Conception of St. Anne’, her ‘Conception of Mary’. In the Middle Ages, the great theologians were divided on the question. Thomas Aquinas objected on the grounds that the Immaculate Conception could be interpreted as Mary’s being saved independently of Christ, without need of him. The feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of Mary was celebrated in Jerusalem from the year 500, and a hundred years later in Constantinople by the decree of the Emperor.
Before the Council of Ephesus (431) there had been but one liturgical feast of Mary, the feast of the Purification, celebrated only in certain parts of the Eastern Church. But after Ephesus the feasts began to multiply. From the beginning of the 6th century various churches celebrated Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven. This was a belief that originated not from biblical evidence or even patristic testimony, but as ‘fitting’. It was fitting that Jesus should rescue his mother from the corruption of the flesh, and so he must have taken her bodily into heaven. By the 7th century four separate Marian feasts were observed in Rome: the Annunciation, the Purification, the Assumption, and the Nativity of Mary. At the end of the century the feast of the Conception of Mary began in the East, but did not enter the West until the 11th century.
Unlike other Marian dogmas, Mary’s divine motherhood has deep and solid scriptural roots. In 25 texts she is referred to as mother, while only two texts call her virgin. Mary’s Son who shares the Father’s divinity from all eternity, begins to exist in her at the moment of incarnation; he is ‘born of a woman’.
Year of Faith
John Paul II called Mary the Star of Evangelization—the first to bring Jesus to the world and to live with him the longest of any of his friends, apostles, and disciples. We are to celebrate a year of faith starting in October. We are not to forget that Mary marks our path as first disciple, model in faith, and the ideal to which the church aspires.
References - Coyle, K. (1998). Mary in the Christian Tradition: From a contemporary perspective. Twenty-Third Publications: Mystic CT.
Prevost, J-P. (1988). Mother of Jesus. Novalis: Ottawa.
Published in the Marist Messenger 1 December 2012.
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