|Aureliano Milani, Expulsion of Adam and Eve (18th c.)|
Today’s post is for those Protestants who view the Church’s teachings on Mary as unnecessary and odd, rather than evil. There are a lot of you out there, and for good reason.
Let’s be honest. If you’re not Catholic, or even if you’re a Catholic who grew up without much of a focus on Mary, the Catholic devotion to Mary is hard to understand. It seems, if not idolatrous or superstitious, at least … weird. More specifically, it seems excessively devotional and sentimental, the sort of thing that might work in a culture in which men kiss each other when they meet, but which just doesn’t fit in our culture.
But Marian devotion is neither superstition nor mere emotionalism. In fact, Catholics care about Mary so much because Scripture does.
At first, that answer sounds surprising, because Mary doesn’t seem to be mentioned that often in Scripture. But that’s just on the surface. We need to dive deeper. To see what I mean, let’s consider Genesis 3:15. In the midst of cursing the serpent for his role in the Fall, God says:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
To get what’s going on here, let’s look at several dimensions of this passage.
“Seed” is one of the ways that descendants are described in Scripture. But it’s measured through the man. In part, that’s because ancient cultures tended to have an inaccurate understanding of human sexuality. They understood how agriculture worked: you planted the seeds of a certain plant in soil, and if the soil was fertile, then the offspring of the original plant grew. They assumed human reproduction worked the same way, with the man providing the “seed,” and the woman providing the “soil.” Many of the terms used today (like “fertility”) are holdovers from this view. Hebrew was no exception to this: the same word, zera` meant seed, semen, and descendent, as we see in passages like Genesis 38:8-9.
The point is, we hear continually about “the seed of Abraham” (2 Chronicles 20:7), “the seed of David” (1 Kings 11:39), “the seed of Jacob” (Psalm 22:23), etc., but not the seed of a woman. There are only two exceptions to this in all of Scripture. One of those times is in Genesis 16:10, in which the angel promises Hagar that she’ll have many descendants. There, they’re referred to as her seed, because it’s specifically about her children, not Abraham’s children by his wife Sarah.
The only other time is here, in Genesis 3:15. Why?
The answer is clear enough. As the Evangelical pastor John MacArthur explains, “the unique reference in Genesis 3:15 to “her Seed” looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Christ.”
Understood in this way, the passage is quite beautiful: it means that at the very moment of the Fall, God promised that the story wasn’t over yet, that Satan wouldn’t have the last laugh, and that the Virgin-Born would come and save us from our sins.
This interpretation is also the only one to explain the strange language used. Jesus doesn’t have a biological human father, so it would be inaccurate to refer to Him as “the seed of Joseph.” He’s the offspring of the Virgin Mary in a way that He’s not the offspring of anyone else. Given the Virgin Birth, it becomes clear why God should speak of “her Seed.”
Given the answer to the last question, this one is simple. If Genesis 3:15 is a promise of the Virgin Birth, then “the Woman” is the Virgin Mary. You can’t have the Virgin Birth without the Virgin.
But this point is an important one for two reasons: first, because it establishes a parallel between Mary and Eve, a parallel that the early Christians grasped. They even share a title, Woman. Remember that, at the time of the Fall, Eve is still called “Woman” (Gen. 2:23), as she doesn’t get renamed Eve until Genesis 3:20, a few verses later.
But it’s important for a second reason. It means that the Virgin Mary is prophesied from the very first Book of the Bible. God is promising us (and threatening Satan) that a woman will come along who will give birth to a Son who will save us.
And note well: Scripture speaks of “the Woman,” not just “a Woman.” Too often, the Virgin Mary is treated as an unnecessary element (or at best, a replaceable part). But Scripture shows that she was part of God’s plan of salvation from the very moment of the Fall. In fact, we can say that God, who “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), chose the Virgin Mary for this role from all eternity. Genesis 3:15 is just the first time He reveals this to us, since it’s the first time we need redemption.
Often, when Genesis 3:15 is mentioned, the debate has revolved about the second half of the verse. Since a neuter pronoun is used, the second half of the verse literally translates, “it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise its heel.” Is this a reference to Jesus? Mary? Christians? The Church? All of the above? This is an interesting debate, but it risks missing the other half of the verse, which is no less shocking.
Recall that God is addressing the serpent, Satan. He says: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That is, Our Lord depicts the battle between good and evil as a battle between Mary and Satan. Those are the two sides: you’re either with Mary, or you’re with the devil. You can be a child of Mary, or you can be a child of the devil. There’s no room to be lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16).
That’s what Genesis 3:15 is saying. To be sure, it’s saying a lot more than that: for example, about the ultimate triumph of Christ over Satan. But it’s hard to get around the fact that the enmity between the serpent and the woman is a foreshadowing of the fight between Satan and Mary, a fight that continues between his offspring and hers until the Last Judgment. Given this, the reasons for the Catholic devotion to Mary should be clear. It’s not about excessive emotionalism, but understanding the spiritual battleground.
|Domenico Beccafumi, Fall of the Rebel Angels (1530)|
Everything up to this point has been, in my view, pretty straightforward exegesis. Even Protestants like MacArthur admit that Genesis 3:15 is about the Virgin Birth, and no Christian can claim ignorance of who that Virgin is. But when we ask why God should description the battle as the serpent against the Woman (instead of the serpent against the Seed of the Woman, as we might expect), we are speculating a bit.
But it’s worth asking, because it might sound that Genesis 3:15 is raising Mary to the level of God. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Scripture continually shows Satan being defeated by created beings. For example, in a passage heavily reminiscent of Genesis 3, Revelation 12 describes the fall of Satan in this way (Revelation 12:8-9, 13):
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. […] And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child.
So once again Scripture speaks of how Satan, the serpent, is at war against the woman [the Mother of Christ, the “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5)]. A few verses later, after he fails to corrupt the Mother of Christ, he goes after us (Revelation 12:17): “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” In other words, the devil is at war with those of us on Mary’s team.
So we see the devil fighting (and losing) first against St. Michael, against the Mother of Christ, and against Christians. But why does Christ choose to defeat Satan by proxy? I suspect it’s that God doesn’t treat Satan as a worthy adversary, because he’s not. It’s the heresy of dualism to treat God and Satan as equally-powerful opposing forces. They’re not. This is the very heart of the matter. Satan’s arrogance is encapsulated in his claim: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). But despite his fiercest efforts, Satan will never succeed in making himself like the Most High. God’s decision to repeatedly defeat Satan via created beings like the Virgin Mary makes this fact abundantly clear.
Of course, this is in no way an exhaustive examination of the Scriptural references to Mary. But I think it does enough to show why Mary is so central to Catholic spirituality: Scripture presents her as part of the plan of redemption from the very moment that redemption is needed, and depicts the choice between good and evil as a choice to be a child of Mary or a child of the devil. Given this, go be a child of Mary!