Recently,* I wrote about how Jesus isn’t the model of our faith, because He didn’t have faith (He had/has the sort of perfect knowledge that supplants faith). And so, I asked, who are our models of faith? Looking at Hebrews 11-12, I answered generally: the Saints. But there are two worthy of special mention. One of those is Abraham, our father in faith, who I wrote about last time. Today, I want to talk about our mother in faith, the Virgin Mary.
In some ways, Mary might seem less of an obvious choice than Abraham. As we saw in the post on Abraham, he is frequently described as our father in faith. Can the same be said for Scripture treating Mary as our mother in faith? Yes, but in a more subtle way. The two clearest areas are at in the dialogue with St. John at the foot of the Cross and in St. John’s heavenly vision (it’s not a coincidence that the same Disciple is involved in each, the one with whom the Virgin Mary spent her last years on Earth).
Let’s look first to the foot of the Cross (John 19:26-27):
When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
Now, those who don’t want to give a large role to Mary in Christianity often write this off by saying that Jesus is just securing that His widowed mother has a home. That’s true enough, although a particularly ironic claim, given that most of these same critics also believe that Mary had other children, including the Apostle James, who could have taken care of her. But that can’t be the only thing going on here. I mean, Jesus could have entrusted His Mother to the care of the Apostle John without calling her his mom, or referring to the Beloved Disciple as her son.
After all, Scripture contains several admonitions to care for widows (for example, James 1:27 and 1 Timothy 5:3) without declaring those widows our mothers. So why does Jesus go further? Mary is not John’s mother physically, nor is her her son physically. Rather, Jesus is establishing (or revealing) Mary’s spiritual motherhood. That’s the way that Mary is John’s mother. And this spiritual motherhood isn’t limited to the Apostle John. It’s not for nothing that John is presented throughout this Gospel as the “Beloved Disciple,” a model of discipleship for us to emulate and from which to learn.
This is made clearer in the heavenly vision that John sees in Revelation 12. After seeing the (Marian) images of the Ark of the Covenant and Temple (Rev. 11:19), he sees a pregnant woman enthroned in Heaven (Rev. 12:1-2), who gives birth “a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5), a clear reference to Christ (Rev. 19:15). This woman is at war with the serpent, just as Eve was. In the last verse of the chapter (Rev. 12:17), we hear that “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.” So the Bible is actually explicit that the Mother of Christ is also the Mother of Christians.
Those who are squeamish about thinking about Mary as our spiritual mother in this way will suggest that the Woman of Revelation 12 shouldn’t be understood literally. Instead, we should view her as an image of Israel / the Church (and it’s worth pointing out here that Revelation speaks of the Church as the true Israel). This interpretation is a good one, but it just points to the Marian nature of the Church. That is, the revelation John received of the glorified Church was seeing the Church as Mary. Far from belittling Mary, this interpretation places Mary at the center of the faith life of the Church. (I’ll return to this in a future post, soon).
And it’s right that we should view Mary this way. She is frequently spoken of as the faithful one. While the Apostles betray or desert Christ, and even the faithful women stand at a distance, Mary is unwavering. She stands (stands!) at the foot of the Cross. She’s so closely united to Christ in His Passion that the Prophet Simeon says to her (Luke 2:34-35): “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
We’re familiar with Elizabeth’s first praise of Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). We’re perhaps less familiar with her second praise: “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43, recalling David’s question about the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6:9). But for our current purposes, the most important praise Elizabeth visits upon Mary is the last one: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Mary’s entire life, and her role as our spiritual model and our model of faith, can be captured in those words: blessed is she who believed.
Previously, in discussing Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, I said:
Here, we meet the intensity of Abraham’s faith in its fullest. He’s faced with two seemingly irreconcilable truths: God is to bless all nations through Isaac, and he is to sacrifice Isaac. And his response isn’t to give up one belief for the other, but to hold to both, in the face of seeming absurdity, because he completely trusts the God who is responsible for both.
With the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), we see Mary demonstrate that same radical faith. When the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will conceive the Christ Child, she has one question. That question is lamely translated in the RSV:CE, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34). That question makes little sense, since she did have a husband (Matthew 1:19), having undergone the first of the two stages of a Jewish wedding (inaccurately described as a “betrothal” in modern translations, for lack of a better term). Rather, her question is better translated by the KJV: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34 KJV). Or to put it more bluntly: Mary is asking how she can get pregnant since she isn’t having sex with her husband.
This points to the very thing that the early Christians repeatedly told us about Mary: that she was a perpetual virgin, seemingly having previously taken some sort of vow of celibacy. You’ll notice that the angel Gabriel never tells them to remain celibate throughout the pregnancy, and yet Matthew 1:24-25 says that Joseph “took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son.” Many readers misunderstand that “until” to mean that they had relations after Christmas, but (as St. Jerome showed) the Greek doesn’t necessitate such a reading. The question we should be asking is: why were Joseph and Mary celibate after the Annunciation at all? And that oddity is another flag pointing towards Mary’s virginity.
And Mary doesn’t break this promised virginity, or even offer to give it up. Just as Abraham holds in faith to two paradoxical truths – that he will be the father of many nations through Isaac, and that he is to sacrifice Isaac – Mary likewise holds to the promise of her virginity and the promise of her motherhood. Her question to the angel makes sense exactly here: she’s asking how she will manage to be a virgin and a mother simultaneously. And the angel Gabriel’s answer speaks directly to this: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:29).
In Hannah’s hymn (1 Samuel 2), itself a prefigurement of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Hannah proclaims, “The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn” (1 Samuel 2:5). Like the Magnificat, the theme of the hymn is that the Lord can raise up the lowly and cast down the proud, and one of the examples she gives is of a barren woman bearing many children. Mary more than fulfills this. The paradox of her virginal motherhood, a paradox which all Christians must acknowledge, is beyond even the sacrifice of Isaac in holding to two seemingly incompatible truths.
From the Annunciation to the Crucifixion to all eternity, Mary faithfully follows God. She follows Him in the message of the angel, she follows Him to Calvary, and she follows Him even into heavenly glory. Blessed is she who believed!
*Not as recently as I would have liked! Sorry for the delay in posting – I travelled a bit after returning to America on May 28, and spent the last week getting settled into my new parish assignment, St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, Kansas.