A . MARY ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES
- We remain convinced that the holy Scriptures, as the Word
of God written, bear normative witness to God's plan of salvation,
so it is to them that this statement first turns. Indeed, it
is impossible to be faithful to Scripture and not to take Mary
seriously. We recognize, however, that for some centuries Anglicans
and Roman Catholics have interpreted the Scriptures while divided
from one another. In reflecting together on the Scriptures'
testimony concerning Mary, we have discovered more than just
a few tantalizing glimpses into the life of a great saint. We
have found ourselves meditating with wonder and gratitude on
the whole sweep of salvation history: creation, election, the
Incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ, the gift of
the Spirit in the Church, and the final vision of eternal life
for all God's people in the new creation.
In the following paragraphs, our use of Scripture seeks to
draw upon the whole tradition of the Church, in which rich
and varied readings have been employed. In the New Testament,
the Old Testament is commonly interpreted typologically:1
events and images are understood with specific reference to
Christ. This approach is further developed by the Fathers
and by medieval preachers and authors. The Reformers stressed
the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture, and called for a
return to the centrality of the Gospel message. Historical-critical
approaches attempted to discern the meaning intended by the
biblical authors, and to account for texts' origins. Each
of these readings has its limitations, and may give rise to
exaggerations or imbalances: typology can become extravagant,
Reformation emphases reductionist, and critical methods overly
historicist. More recent approaches to Scripture point to
the range of possible readings of a text, notably its narrative,
rhetorical and sociological dimensions. In this statement,
we seek to integrate what is valuable from each of these approaches,
as both correcting and contributing to our use of Scripture.
Further, we recognize that no reading of a text is neutral,
but each is shaped by the context and interest of its readers.
Our reading has taken place within the context of our dialogue
in Christ, for the sake of that communion which is his will.
It is thus an ecclesial and ecumenical reading, seeking to
consider each passage about Mary in the context of the New
Testament as a whole, against the background of the Old, and
in the light of Tradition.
The Witness of Scripture: A Trajectory of Grace and Hope
- The Old Testament bears witness to God's creation of men and
women in the divine image, and God's loving call to covenant
relationship with himself. Even when they disobeyed, God did
not abandon human beings to sin and the power of death. Again
and again God offered a covenant of grace. God made a covenant
with Noah that never again would "all flesh" be destroyed
by the waters of a flood. The Lord made a covenant with Abraham
that, through him, all the families of the earth might be blessed.
Through Moses he made a covenant with Israel that, obedient
to his word, they might be a holy nation and a priestly people.
The prophets repeatedly summoned the people to turn back from
disobedience to the gracious God of the covenant, to receive
God's word and let it bear fruit in their lives. They looked
forward to a renewal of the covenant in which there would be
perfect obedience and perfect self-giving: "This is the
covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those
days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will
write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they
shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33). In the prophecy of
Ezekiel, this hope is spoken of not only in terms of washing
and cleansing, but also of the gift of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-28).
- The covenant between the Lord and his people is several times
described as a love affair between God and Israel, the virgin
daughter of Zion, bride and mother: "I gave you my solemn
oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign
Lord, and you became mine" (Ezekiel 16:8; cf. Isaiah 54:1
and Galatians 4:27). Even in punishing faithlessness, God remains
forever faithful, promising to restore the covenant relationship
and to draw together the scattered people (Hosea 1-2; Jeremiah
2:2, 31:3; Isaiah 62:4-5). Nuptial imagery is also used within
the New Testament to describe the relationship between Christ
and the Church (Ephesians 5:21-33; Revelation 21:9). In parallel
to the prophetic image of Israel as the bride of the Lord, the
Solomonic literature of the Old Testament characterizes Holy
Wisdom as the handmaid of the Lord (Proverbs 8:.22f; cf. Wisdom
7:22-26) similarly emphasizing the theme of responsiveness and
creative activity. In the New Testament these prophetic and
wisdom motifs are combined (Luke 11:49) and fulfilled in the
coming of Christ.
- The Scriptures also speak of the calling by God of particular
persons, such as David, Elijah, Jeremiah and Isaiah, so that
within the people of God certain special tasks may be performed.
They bear witness to the gift of the Spirit or the presence
of God enabling them to accomplish God's will and purpose. There
are also profound reflections on what it is to be known and
called by God from the very beginning of one's existence (Psalm
139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:4-5). This sense of wonder at the prevenient
grace of God is similarly attested in the New Testament, especially
in the writings of Paul, when he speaks of those who are "called
according to God's purpose," affirming that those whom
God "foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the
image of his Son
And those whom he predestined he also
called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those
whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:28-30; cf.
2 Timothy 1:9). The preparation by God for a prophetic task
is exemplified in the words spoken by the angel to Zechariah
before the birth of John the Baptist: "He will be filled
with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke
1:15; cf. Judges 13:3-5).
- Following through the trajectory of the grace of God and the
hope for a perfect human response which we have traced in the
preceding paragraphs, Christians have, in line with the New
Testament writers, seen its culmination in the obedience of
Christ. Within this Christological context, they have discerned
a similar pattern in the one who would receive the Word in her
heart and in her body, be overshadowed by the Spirit and give
birth to the Son of God. The New Testament speaks not only of
God's preparation for the birth of the Son, but also of God's
election, calling and sanctification of a Jewish woman in the
line of those holy women, such as Sarah and Hannah, whose sons
fulfilled the purposes of God for his people. Paul speaks of
the Son of God being born "in the fullness of time"
and "born of a woman, born under the Law" (Galatians
4:4). The birth of Mary's son is the fulfilment of God's will
for Israel, and Mary's part in that fulfilment is that of free
and unqualified consent in utter self-giving and trust: "Behold
I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according
to your word" (Luke 1:38; cf. Psalm 123:2).
Mary in Matthew's Birth Narrative
- While various parts of the New Testament refer to the birth
of Christ, only two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, each from its
own perspective, narrate the story of his birth and refer specifically
to Mary. Matthew entitles his book "the Genesis of Jesus
Christ" (1:1) echoing the way the Bible begins (Genesis
1:1). In the genealogy (1:1-18) he traces the genesis of Jesus
back through the Exile to David and ultimately to Abraham. He
notes the unlikely role played in the providential ordering
of Israel's salvation history by four women, each of whom stretches
the boundaries of the Covenant. This emphasis on continuity
with the old is counter-balanced in the following account of
Jesus' birth by an emphasis on the new (cf. 9:17), a type of
re-creation by the Holy Spirit, revealing new possibilities
of salvation from sin (1:21) and of the presence of "God
with us" (1:23). Matthew stretches the boundaries further
in holding together Jesus' Davidic descent through the legal
fatherhood of Joseph, and his birth from the Virgin according
to Isaiah's prophecy "Behold a virgin shall conceive
and bear a son" (Isaiah 7:14 LXX).
- In Matthew's account, Mary is mentioned in conjunction with
her son in such phrases as "Mary his mother" or "the
child and his mother" (2:11,13,20,21). Amid all the political
intrigue, murder, and displacement of this tale, one quiet moment
of reverence has captured the Christian imagination: the Magi,
whose profession it is to know when the time has come, kneel
in homage to the infant King with his royal mother (2:2,11).
Matthew emphasizes the continuity of Jesus Christ with Israel's
messianic expectation and the newness that comes with the birth
of the Saviour. Descent from David by whatever route, and birth
at the ancestral royal city, disclose the first. The virginal
conception discloses the second.
Mary in Luke's Birth Narrative
- In Luke's infancy narrative, Mary is prominent from the beginning.
She is the link between John the Baptist and Jesus, whose miraculous
births are laid out in deliberate parallel. She receives the
angel's message and responds in humble obedience (1:38). She
travels on her own from Galilee to Judaea to visit Elizabeth
(1:40) and in her song proclaims the eschatological reversal
which will be at the heart of her son's proclamation of the
Kingdom of God. Mary is the one who in recollection looks beneath
the surface of events (2:19,51) and represents the inwardness
of faith and suffering (2:35). She speaks on Joseph's behalf
in the scene at the Temple and, although chided for her initial
incomprehension, continues to grow in understanding (2:48-51).
- Within the Lucan narrative, two particular scenes invite reflection
on the place of Mary in the life of the Church: the Annunciation
and the visit to Elizabeth. These passages emphasize that Mary
is in a unique way the recipient of God's election and grace.
The Annunciation story recapitulates several incidents in the
Old Testament, notably the births of Isaac (Genesis 18:10-14),
Samson (Judges 13:2-5) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-20). The angel's
greeting also evokes the passages in Isaiah (66:7-11), Zechariah
(9:9) and Zephaniah (3:14-17) that call on the "Daughter
of Zion", i.e., Israel awaiting with joy the arrival of
her Lord. The choice of overshadow' (episkiasei)
to describe the action of the Holy Spirit in the virginal conception
(Luke 1:35) echoes the cherubim overshadowing the Ark of the
Covenant (Exodus 25:20), the presence of God overshadowing the
Tabernacle (Exodus 40:35), and the brooding of the Spirit over
the waters at the creation (Genesis 1:2). At the Visitation,
Mary's song (Magnificat) mirrors the song of Hannah (1
Samuel 2:1-10), broadening its scope so that Mary becomes the
one who speaks for all the poor and oppressed who long for God's
reign of justice to be established. Just as in Elizabeth's salutation
the mother receives a blessing of her own, distinct from that
of her child (1:42), so also in the Magnificat Mary predicts
that "all generations will call me blessed" (1:48).
This text provides the scriptural basis for an appropriate devotion
to Mary, though never in separation from her role as mother
of the Messiah.
- In the Annunciation story, the angel calls Mary the Lord's
"favoured one" (Greek ,
a perfect participle meaning one who has been and remains
endowed with grace') in a way that implies a prior sanctification
by divine grace with a view to her calling. The angel's announcement
connects Jesus' being "holy" and "Son of God"
with his conception by the Holy Spirit (1:35). The virginal
conception then points to the divine sonship of the Saviour
who will be born of Mary. The infant not yet born is described
by Elizabeth as the Lord: "And why is this granted to me
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (1:43).
The trinitarian pattern of divine action in these scenes is
striking: the Incarnation of the Son is initiated by the Father's
election of the Blessed Virgin and is mediated by the Holy Spirit.
Equally striking is Mary's fiat, her Amen' given
in faith and freedom to God's powerful Word communicated by
the angel (1:38).
- In Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, the praise offered
to God by the shepherds parallels the Magi's adoration of the
infant in Matthew's account. Again, this is the scene that constitutes
the still centre at the heart of the birth story: "They
found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger" (Luke
2:16). In accordance with the Law of Moses, the baby is circumcised
and presented in the Temple. On this occasion, Simeon has a
special word of prophecy for the mother of the Christ-child,
that "a sword will pierce your own soul" (Luke 2:34-35).
From this point on Mary's pilgrimage of faith leads to the foot
of the cross.
The Virginal Conception
- The divine initiative in human history is proclaimed in the
good news of the virginal conception through the action of the
Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 1:34-35). The virginal conception
may appear in the first place as an absence, i.e., the absence
of a human father. It is in reality, however, a sign of the
presence and work of the Spirit. Belief in the virginal conception
is an early Christian tradition adopted and developed independently
by Matthew and Luke.2
For Christian believers, it is an eloquent sign of the divine
sonship of Christ and of new life through the Spirit. The virginal
conception also points to the new birth of every Christian,
as an adopted child of God. Each is "born again (from above)
by water and the Spirit" (John 3:3-5). Seen in this light,
the virginal conception, far from being an isolated miracle,
is a powerful expression of what the Church believes about her
Lord, and about our salvation.
Mary and the True Family of Jesus
- After these birth stories, it comes as something of a surprise
to read the episode, narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels,
which addresses the question of Jesus' true family. Mark tells
us that Jesus' "mother and his brothers" (Mark 3:31)
come and stand outside, wanting to speak to him.3
Jesus in response distances himself from his natural family:
he speaks instead of those gathered around him, his eschatological
family', that is to say, "whoever does the will of God"
(3:35). For Mark, Jesus' natural family, including his own mother,
seems at this stage to lack understanding of the true nature
of his mission. But that will be the case also with his disciples
(e.g. 8:33-35, 9:30-33, 10:35-40). Mark indicates that growth
in understanding is inevitably slow and painful, and that genuine
faith in Christ is not reached until the encounter with the
cross and the empty tomb.
- In Luke, the stark contrast between the attitude towards Jesus
of his natural and eschatological family is avoided (Luke 8:19-21).
In a later scene (11:27-28) the woman in the crowd who utters
a blessing on his mother, "Blessed is the womb that bore
you and the breasts that you sucked", is corrected: "Blessed
rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it".
But that form of blessing, as Luke sees it, definitely includes
Mary who, from the beginning of his account, was ready to let
everything in her life happen according to God's word (1:38).
- In his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke notes that
between the ascension of the Risen Lord and the feast of Pentecost
the apostles were gathered in Jerusalem "together with
the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers"
(Acts 1:14). Mary, who was receptive to the working of God's
Spirit at the birth of the Messiah (Luke 1:35-38), is here part
of the community of disciples waiting in prayer for the outpouring
of the Spirit at the birth of the Church.
Mary in John's Gospel
- Mary is not mentioned explicitly in the Prologue of John's
Gospel. However, something of the significance of her role in
salvation history may be discerned by placing her in the context
of the considered theological truths that the evangelist articulates
in unfolding the good news of the Incarnation. The theological
emphasis on the divine initiative, that in the narratives of
Matthew and Luke is expressed in the story of Jesus' birth,
is paralleled in the Prologue of John by an emphasis on the
predestining will and grace of God by which all those who are
brought to new birth are said to be born "not of blood,
nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of
God" (1:13). These are words that could be applied to the
birth of Jesus himself.
- At two important moments of Jesus' public life, the beginning
(the wedding at Cana) and the end (the Cross), John notes the
presence of Jesus' mother. Each is an hour of need: the first
on the surface rather trivial, but at a deeper level a symbolic
anticipation of the second. John gives a prominent position
in his Gospel to the wedding at Cana (2:1-12), calling it the
of the signs of Jesus. The account emphasizes the new wine which
Jesus brings, symbolizing the eschatological marriage feast
of God with his people and the messianic banquet of the Kingdom.
The story primarily conveys a Christological message: Jesus
reveals his messianic glory to his disciples and they believe
in him (2:11).
- The presence of the "mother of Jesus" is mentioned
at the beginning of the story: she has a distinctive role in
the unfolding of the narrative. Mary seems to have been invited
and be present in her own right, not with "Jesus and his
disciples" (2:1-2); Jesus is initially seen as present
as part of his mother's family. In the dialogue between them
when the wine runs out, Jesus seems at first to refuse Mary's
implied request, but in the end he accedes to it. This reading
of the narrative, however, leaves room for a deeper symbolic
reading of the event. In Mary's words "they have no wine",
John ascribes to her the expression not so much of a deficiency
in the wedding arrangements, as of the longing for salvation
of the whole covenant people, who have water for purification
but lack the joyful wine of the messianic kingdom. In his answer,
Jesus begins by calling into question his former relationship
with his mother ("What is there between you and me?"),
implying that a change has to take place. He does not address
Mary as mother', but as "woman" (cf. John 19:26).
Jesus no longer sees his relation to Mary as simply one of earthly
- Mary's response, to instruct the servants to "Do whatever
he tells you" (2:5), is unexpected; she is not in charge
of the feast (cf. 2:8). Her initial role as the mother of Jesus
has radically changed. She herself is now seen as a believer
within the messianic community. From this moment on, she commits
herself totally to the Messiah and his word. A new relationship
results, indicated by the change in the order of the main characters
at the end of the story: "After this he went down to Capernaum,
with his mother and his brothers and his disciples" (2:12).
The Cana narrative opens by placing Jesus within the family
of Mary, his mother; from now on, Mary is part of the "company
of Jesus", his disciple. Our reading of this passage reflects
the Church's understanding of the role of Mary: to help the
disciples come to her son, Jesus Christ, and to "do whatever
he tells you."
- John's second mention of the presence of Mary occurs at the
decisive hour of Jesus' messianic mission, his crucifixion (19:25-27).
Standing with other disciples at the cross, Mary shares in the
suffering of Jesus, who in his last moments addresses a special
word to her, "Woman, behold your son", and to the
beloved disciple, "Behold your mother." We cannot
but be touched that, even in his dying moments, Jesus is concerned
for the welfare of his mother, showing his filial affection.
This surface reading again invites a symbolic and ecclesial
reading of John's rich narrative. These last commands of Jesus
before he dies reveal an understanding beyond their primary
reference to Mary and "the beloved disciple" as individuals.
The reciprocal roles of the woman' and the disciple'
are related to the identity of the Church. Elsewhere in John,
the beloved disciple is presented as the model disciple of Jesus,
the one closest to him who never deserted him, the object of
Jesus' love, and the ever-faithful witness (13:25, 19:26, 20:1-10,
21:20-25). Understood in terms of discipleship, Jesus' dying
words give Mary a motherly role in the Church and encourage
the community of disciples to embrace her as a spiritual mother.
- A corporate understanding of woman' also calls the Church
constantly to behold Christ crucified, and calls each disciple
to care for the Church as mother. Implicit here perhaps is a
Mary-Eve typology: just as the first woman' was taken
from Adam's rib' (Genesis 2:22, pleura LXX) and
became the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20), so the woman'
Mary is, on a spiritual level, the mother of all who gain true
life from the water and blood that flow from the side (Greek
pleura, literally rib') of Christ (19:34) and from
the Spirit that is breathed out from his triumphant sacrifice
(19:30, 20:22, cf. 1 John 5:8). In such symbolic and corporate
readings, images for the Church, Mary and discipleship interact
with one another. Mary is seen as the personification of Israel,
now giving birth to the Christian community (cf. Isaiah 54:1,
66:7-8), just as she had given birth earlier to the Messiah
(cf. Isaiah 7:14). When John's account of Mary at the beginning
and end of Jesus' ministry is viewed in this light, it is difficult
to speak of the Church without thinking of Mary, the Mother
of the Lord, as its archetype and first realization.
The Woman in Revelation 12
- In highly symbolic language, full of scriptural imagery, the
seer of Revelation describes the vision of a sign in heaven
involving a woman, a dragon, and the woman's child. The narrative
of Revelation 12 serves to assure the reader of the ultimate
victory of God's faithful ones in times of persecution and eschatological
struggle. In the course of history, the symbol of the woman
has led to a variety of interpretations. Most scholars accept
that the primary meaning of the woman is corporate: the people
of God, whether Israel, the Church of Christ, or both. Moreover,
the narrative style of the author suggests that the full
picture' of the woman is attained only at the end of the book
when the Church of Christ becomes the triumphant New Jerusalem
(Revelation 21:1-3). The actual troubles of the author's community
are placed in the frame of history as a whole, which is the
scene of the ongoing struggle between the faithful and their
enemies, between good and evil, between God and Satan. The imagery
of the offspring reminds us of the struggle in Genesis 3:15
between the serpent and the woman, between the serpent's seed
and the woman's seed.4
- Given this primary ecclesial interpretation of Revelation
12, is it still possible to find in it a secondary reference
to Mary? The text does not explicitly identify the woman with
Mary. It refers to the woman as the mother of the "male
child who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron",
a citation from Psalm 2 elsewhere in the New Testament applied
to the Messiah as well as to the faithful people of God (cf.
Hebrews 1:5, 5:5, Acts 13:33 with Revelation 2:27). In view
of this, some Patristic writers came to think of the mother
of Jesus when reading this chapter.5
Given the place of the book of Revelation within the canon of
Scripture, in which the different biblical images intertwine,
the possibility arose of a more explicit interpretation, both
individual and corporate, of Revelation 12, illuminating the
place of Mary and the Church in the eschatological victory of
- The scriptural witness summons all believers in every generation
to call Mary blessed'; this Jewish woman of humble status,
this daughter of Israel living in hope of justice for the poor,
whom God has graced and chosen to become the virgin mother of
his Son through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. We are
to bless her as the handmaid of the Lord' who gave her
unqualified assent to the fulfilment of God's saving plan, as
the mother who pondered all things in her heart, as the refugee
seeking asylum in a foreign land, as the mother pierced by the
innocent suffering of her own child, and as the woman to whom
Jesus entrusted his friends. We are at one with her and the
apostles, as they pray for the outpouring of the Spirit upon
the nascent Church, the eschatological family of Christ. And
we may even glimpse in her the final destiny of God's people
to share in her son's victory over the powers of evil and death.
we mean a reading which accepts that certain things in Scripture
(persons, places, and events) foreshadow or illuminate other
things, or reflect patterns of faith in imaginative ways (e.g.
Adam is a type of Christ: Romans 5:14; Isaiah 7:14 points
towards the virgin birth of Jesus: Matthew 1:23). This typological
sense was considered to be a meaning that goes beyond the
literal sense. This approach assumes the unity and consistency
of the divine revelation.
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strongly Jewish matrix in both Matthean and Lucan versions,
an appeal to analogies with pagan mythology or to an exaltation
of virginity over the married state to explain the origin
of the tradition is implausible. Nor is the idea of virginal
conception likely to derive from an over-literal reading of
the Greek text of Isaiah 7:14 (LXX), for that is not the way
the idea is introduced in the Lucan account. Moreover, the
suggestion that it originated as an answer to the accusation
of illegitimacy levelled at Jesus is unlikely, as that accusation
could equally have arisen because it was known that there
was something unusual about Jesus' birth (cf. Mark 6:3; John
8:41) and because of the Church's claim about his virginal
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word brother' usually denotes a blood brother, the Greek
adelphos, like the Hebrew 'ah, can have a broader
meaning of kinsman, or relative (e.g. Genesis 29:12 LXX) or
step-brother (e.g. Mark 6:17f). Relatives who are not siblings
could be included in this use of the term at Mark 3:31. Mary
did have an extended family: her sister is referred to at
John 19:25 and her kinswoman Elizabeth at Luke 1:36. In the
early Church different explanations of the references to the
brothers' of Jesus were given, whether as step-brothers
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text of Genesis 3:15 speaks about enmity between the serpent
and the woman, and between the offspring of both. The personal
pronoun (hu') in the words addressed to the serpent,
"He will strike at your head," is masculine. In
the Greek translation used by the early Church (LXX), however,
the personal pronoun autos (he) cannot refer to the
offspring (neuter: to sperma), but must refer to a
masculine individual who could then be the Messiah, born of
a woman. The Vulgate (mis)translates the clause as ipsa
conteret caput tuum ("she will strike at your head").
This feminine pronoun supported a reading of this passage
as referring to Mary which has become traditional in the Latin
Church. The Neo-Vulgate (1986), however, returns to the neuter
ipsum, which refers to semen illius: "Inimicitias
ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius;
ipsum conteret caput tuum, et tu conteres calcaneum eius."
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of Salamis (402), Panarion 78.11; Quodvultdeus
(454) Sermones de Symbolo III, I.4-6; Oecumenius
(c.550) Commentarius in Apocalypsin 6.
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