I was going to try to have this written by the 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, since that would have been fitting. But then I got sick. So you get it today, the feast of St. John of the Cross.
Throughout the history of the Church, and beyond, when we examine the biblical record, people from all walks of life have recounted stories of "apparitions" from heaven. That is, they have described how a spiritual being has manifested to them with a message of some sort, either for them, personally, or for the whole world. We recall that God Himself would appear to Adam and Eve, and that He Himself gave them their sentence and the hope of their redemption after the Fall (Genesis 3). He and two angels appeared in the form of men to Abraham (Genesis 18). Jacob wrestled with an apparition (Genesis 32:23-33). God appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and to all of Israel as a pillar of cloud above the Ark of the Covenant. Angels, too, often manifested to people, bearing messages. We remember particularly the Archangel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary that she would bear Jesus and be His Mother, and the angelic choirs that told the shepherds about Jesus' birth.
Occasionally, it was not God or His angels who did the appearing, but other faithful servants of His. Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus during His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). On the other hand, Satan and his demons can also appear to people, so as to lead them astray. St. Paul warns us that he can even appear as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:24). We must, therefore, not automatically assume that, because someone has claimed to have visions of God or His Saints, that they are legitimate, for the claimant could be deceiving or deceived.
What, then, are we to think about the historical claims (that is, the ones not in the Bible) of Jesus or Mary or other saints appearing with messages from God? Since the Bible records countless legitimate cases of this happening, it would be unwise to simply dismiss these claims. However, since Satan can use such means to deceive, we must be on our guard to properly discern the truth.
The official stance of the Catholic Church towards the reality of apparitions is that they fall under the category of "Private Revelation." That means, such apparitions will never be able to alter the essential truths of the Scripture or Tradition, and, in fact, must be judged according to Public Revelation. Indeed, if a contradiction is determined between the alleged apparition and the Church's deposit of faith, the apparition is deemed fraudulent and unworthy of belief. But even in cases where the apparition seems all true and good, and receives the approval of the Church, that approval always comes in the form of a "negative approbation"--that is, the Church declares such an apparition to be "worthy of all belief", but it never forces anyone to believe in the apparition. Provided we do not refuse to believe in, say, Our Lady's appearances to St. Bernadette in Lourdes out of contempt, we are not sinning or in any other way "less Catholic" for not believing.
And yet, the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin that have been approved (there are 12 so far) do make very compelling cases for their credibility. The person or people to whom our Lady appears are almost always children, usually unlearned (and a few that would probably be considered as having learning disabilities today). Many times, Mary would speak to them in the official language of their country, while they only spoke a particular dialect (such as when the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette, speaking French, which Bernadette knew only a little, as she spoke the Patois dialect). Yet, upon gruelling questioning from parents, other townsfolk, civil and religious authorities, some sympathetic, but most of whom were downright hostile, the children's stories never wavered. In fact, for as long as any of the visionaries lived, their stories would never change, even in the smallest detail, even when trick questions and deliberate attempts to confuse them were made.
And then, of course, there were the miracles. I won't go through all twelve approved accounts, primarily because that would just make this article too long, and, secondarily, because I am not so familiar with them. But I will highlight three particular examples: The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in Mexico, in 1531; the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes to St. Bernadette in France, in 1858; and the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to the three shepherd children in Portugal, in 1917.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
In 1531, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a native Mexican convert to Catholicism, on the barren hill of Tepeyac, in what is now Mexico City. She instructed Juan Diego to tell the bishop that she desired a church to be built on that location. When Juan Diego delivered the message, the bishop, rightfully, was sceptical, and told Juan to ask for a sign from the Lady to prove her identity. Juan Diego did as the bishop requested, and when he encountered the Blessed Virgin three days later (on December 12th), she told him to go to a particular barren spot on the top of the hill, where, she said, he would find flowers growing, despite being winter. Juan Diego did find flowers growing--Castillian roses, to be specific, flowers not indigenous to Mexico! He gathered them up in his tilma (a traditional peasant's garment), and took them to the bishop. When Juan Diego opened up his tilma, letting the flowers fall to the ground, the image of the Virgin remained on the tilma! The bishop began the construction of a church, and within 10 years, nine million native Mexicans had converted to Christianity! The image is still kept today in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, despite the fact that normal tilmas, having been made from cactus plants, would have disintegrated after 20 years or so. The image is unfaded, and has been authenticated by scientists as having no natural explanation. It has even the elements, rigourous testing, and even an ammonia spill in the 70's, from which it apparently repaired itself with no outside help!
Our Lady of Lourdes
In February of 1858, St. Bernadette Soubirou, her sister, and a friend, were out gathering firewood when Bernadette wandered into the hollow of a rock at Massabielle, the town of Lourdes' dump. There, she fell into an ecstasy, and saw an apparition of "a beautiful lady" all dressed in while, with a blue sash around her waist, gold roses on her feet, and holding a rosary, which she invited Bernadette to pray with her. Eighteen times over the course of the next five months, Bernadette continued to visit the grotto, talking with the woman whom she knew only as "the Beautiful Lady." On one such visit, the Lady asked her to drink from a nearby spring--only, there was no spring nearby. The Lady indicated a patch of dirt inside the grotto, so Bernadette obediently knelt down and scratched at the ground for a bit. Immediately, water began to bubble forth (even though the ground there had been perfectly dry previously. The spring at Lourdes still exists and continues to pour fourth around 30 to 40 Litres per minute. While chemical analyses of the water has shown that it is typical, potable water, many people have been healed from drinking it or bathing in it, beginning with Catherine Latapie, on March 1st, 1858. The walls of the shrine at Lourdes are lined with discarded crutches from those who have claimed to be healed.
The Beautiful Lady told St. Bernadette to ask the local priest to build a church in her honour, but the priest refused unless Bernadette could determine the name of her mystical visitor. Having received no response to her previous questions about the Lady's name, Bernadette nevertheless went back to her and asked again. This time, the Lady responded by saying, "Je suis l'immaculée conception"--"I am the Immaculate Conception." Bernadette had no idea what this term meant--the doctrine itself had only been promulgated four years earlier--but the title more than convinced the religious authorities, who agreed to build the church. The local bishop declared the apparitions worthy of belief in 1864.
Our Lady of Fatima
On May 13th, 1917, Lucia Santos and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were tending sheep when a woman which Lucia described as being "brighter than the sun" appeared to them. The Lady would continue to appear, imploring the children to pray the rosary for peace, and to do penance for the conversion of sinners. Over the course of the next six months, the Lady would come again on the 13th of each month. Despite harsh treatment from authorities. Lucia and the others were even thrown into prison, despite being so young, so as to be forced to miss the August 13th apparition. While at first the children were upset, the other prisoners consoled them. After a little while, though, the children actually led the other locked up criminals in praying the Rosary! After their release from prison, Our Lady came to meet them on the 19th of August.
Our Lady had promised a miracle to the children on the date of the last Apparition, October 13th, in order that all might believe. On that day, nearly 100,000 people showed up to see the promised miracle--and they were not disappointed. Senhor Avelino de Almeida of O Século (Portugal's most influential newspaper, which was pro-government in policy and avowedly anti-clerical), had just the day before written an article sneering at the credulous peasants, "whom the miraculous still attracts, seduces, bewitches, consoles, and fortifies." Yet, he himself, as a journalist, came to witness the last apparition, and faithfully recounted what he saw: "Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws - the sun 'danced' according to the typical expression of the people."
Witnesses reported that the sun shone out brilliantly, on what had been up to that point a cloud-darkened day. It whirled like a gigantic fire-wheel, sending out streamers of green, red, orange, and purple which lit up the faces of the multitude. Then, gyrating madly, it plunged precipitately before returning to its original position in a zigzag pattern. Senhor Almeida could only say of it that it was "unique and incredible if one had not been a witness to it."
These brief overviews hardly do justice to the stories they relate, and I would urge you to investigate them more completely, for they are signs of God's continued presence in our world, of His miraculous power, and of our need for ongoing conversion to Him. While, again, the Church does not require belief in these apparitions, in light of the evidence one must seriously ask themselves why they would not. On the other hand, however, we must always be ready and willing to test the spirits. If an apparition contradicts revealed truths, we must disregard it--no matter how good or true it feels. And we must be obedient to the Church. If it declares an apparition to be unworthy of belief, we must not believe in it. We can never set a particular religious experience over and above the Church itself.
The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary serve to further demonstrate her motherly work of mediation, calling us back to her Son. In nothing is this more clear than in the prayer that she told the three children at Fatima to add to the Rosary: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy."
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)
Monday, December 14, 2009
I was going to try to have this written by the 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, since that would have been fitting. But then I got sick. So you get it today, the feast of St. John of the Cross.
Posted by Gregory at 7:08 am
Saturday, November 07, 2009
Hey all you happy readers!
Don't let the title worry you. I still intend to write more here! ...Eventually...
Nevertheless, at the prompting of my wife and a good friend, I've started up a new side venture that's going to be a bit more personal, a bit less structured, and more designed to answer readers' questions and comments in a pastoral and non-debative style. I've titled it after the Dominican motto of "Contemplare et contemplata allis tradere", and you can find it at http://www.doubting-thomist.blogspot.com.
In the past, here, I've had a few people say that during the dialogues in certain comment sections to my posts, I've engaged in "theological wranglings" and debating that has perhaps intimidated and chased away some readers. That's the kind of thing that will not be going on at the new blog, and so those readers who appreciate the more devotional aspects of Barque of Peter will probably feel much more at home at Contemplare et contemplata allis tradere. Those who enjoy the more technical, apologetical, "wrangling" that happens here, well, that will still go on here. But not there.
So yeah, that's the update. Hope to see you here--and there!
Posted by Gregory at 11:52 am
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Sorry for the long delay, everybody! I've been pretty busy lately with life and all. I'm still planning to write an article or two about Marian Apparitions (maybe more than two--we'll see how it goes), but it turns out that I need to do some research to really delve into it, and I just haven't had time to do that research, with work, volunteering at my parish (RCIA, Youth Ministry, Children's CCD program) and taking a Foundations for Ministry course offered through my diocese. So, sadly, I've found myself less available to update the blog. Hopefully I'll get something up soon...
Posted by Gregory at 2:37 am
Friday, September 11, 2009
Having looked at the Four Marian Dogmas of the Catholic faith, I thought I'd briefly reflect on another belief about Mary which is rather controversial in the dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics: That is, the notion of Mary as "Mediatrix". While this Marian title is not "Dogma" per se, it is, nevertheless, a frequently occurring thought and belief in Catholic writings and devotion, and a source of much misunderstanding regarding Mary for non-Catholics. In fact, it could be argued that this title of Mary, or at least its misunderstood meaning, is perhaps the source of the controversy surrounding Mary between Catholics and non-Catholics. An incorrect understanding of Mary's mediatorial role is the reason why so many accuse the Catholic Church of divinising Mary, of minimising Christ, and of perverting the Gospel.
The Fifth Marian Dogma?
While not a Dogma of the Church, it is still important to reflect on this teaching because it does have great import for our faith as Catholics. Moreover, many feel that it may soon become the fifth Marian Dogma. Others are, in fact, petitioning for that very thing (Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was among them during her lifetime). For myself, I think defining the teaching as Dogma would be good, because in so doing, the Church would be handing down the definitive definition of Mary as Mediatrix--the title's proper meaning and the limits of that meaning--in a manner that Catholics can be confident has been given to us free from error. Such a dogmatic definition, then, rather than widening the rift between Catholics and non-Catholics, could rather, in fact, help to repair it by giving concrete expression to an otherwise often misunderstood teaching.
Mary, Our Mother
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 967-970, discuss Mary's mediatorial role in the context of her Motherhood of all the Church. We discussed this Motherhood in the article Mary, Mother of God, stating that we have been adopted through Christ as sons and daughters of God and made a part of the divine family. We have the Father as Our Father, the Son as our Brother, and His Mother for our Mother, which Scripture confirms when Jesus gave Mary into the care of John, the "Beloved Disciple" who stands as a type of all of us (John 19:26-27), and who himself would call Mary the mother of all those "who obey God's commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus" (Rev. 12:17).
...she is our Mother in the order of graceAccording to the Catechism, therefore, we see that Mary's role as "Mediatrix" refers to her willing cooperation in God's plan of Salvation. It was through her that Jesus came to the world as a Man, in order to die for us. In that sense, then, she "mediated" Him to us. As the Catechism continues to say, she functioned in this role from the moment of the Annunciation, through Jesus' birth, all the way to her motherly suffering with Him at the Cross, when the sword of sorrow pierced her heart. Yet it goes on to assure us that Mary didn't leave this role when she was assumed to heaven, but continues to mediate for us through her prayers and intercessions for us.
967 By her complete adherence to the Father's will, to his Son's redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church's model of faith and charity. Thus she is a "preeminent and...wholly unique member of the Church"; indeed, she is the "exemplary realization" (typus) of the Church.
968 Her role in relation to the Church and to all humanity goes still further. "In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior's work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace."
969 "This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation....Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix."
970 "Mary's function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin's salutary influence on men...flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it." "No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source."
It is here that those who do not agree with this doctrine usually bring up 1 Timothy 2:5, which says, "For there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and humanity, himself a human being, Christ Jesus." If there is only one mediator, the objection goes, and that mediator is Jesus, then it cannot be Mary. For Catholics to thus invoke Mary as Mediatrix is a direct contradiction with Scripture!
However, in examining the issue, one must clearly keep in mind what the text of 1 Timothy actually says, in context. Starting at verse 1 of chapter 2, we find St. Paul urging all Christians to intercede for the needs of others. Such intercession is precisely what is referred to in the Catechism as Mary's primary mediatorial role. Thus, if we can intercede for each other, how is it then unbiblical for Mary to do so? Secondly, pay close attention to what Jesus' sole mediation refers to: He is the "one mediator between God and humanity." That is, Jesus reconciles us to God. He acts as the go-between for us, in inaugurating the New Covenant in His blood. This is not what the Church claims about Mary--that she mediates between us and God. Rather, in bearing Jesus to us, she mediates to us the Mediator. In praying for us, she brings our needs to that One Mediator. When Jesus listens to her pleas on our behalf and gives His grace to us, "the gifts of eternal salvation", as the Catechism says, they are mediated to us through Mary as a result of her intercession for us. In other words, the graces won for us by Jesus on the Cross flow to us through Mary, who bestows them on us with a Mother's loving touch.
Sharing In, Not Competing With
This is why, in paragraph 970, the Catechism tells us that Mary's mediation in no way obscures the sole mediation of Jesus. Her power and role as mediatrix comes directly from Jesus, as she shares in His divine life--just as the Priest's power and authority are but a sharing in Christ's high priestly ministry. Looking at it from the other direction, just as we are all called to mediate Jesus to the world through our prayers, good works, and testimony of the faith--and this mediation is derived solely from Jesus' salvific work--so Mary is the mediatrix par excellence, performing this task in a more complete and perfect manner than we could. The superiority of her mediatorship is more tangible, too, in the fact that she alone bore Christ and gave Him to us.
Understood in this way, we see, on the one hand, that Mary's mediatorial role is not a lesser sort of the same kind as Christ's--in that she mediates us to God the Father as the bringer of the Covenant. On the other hand, we see that Mary's mediatorial role is, in fact, of the same kind as our own, but far superior, as she literally brought Christ into the world, and continues to bring Christ to the world, and the world to Christ, through her prayers and intercessions.
The Humble Way to Jesus
This is why we as Catholics turn to Mary in our prayers, asking her to intercede for us. Many accuse us of going to Mary instead of to Jesus, objecting to such a course by saying that we have the right to go straight to Him. And this is true, we do indeed have access to the Throne of Grace because of Him, and can indeed boldly enter in. No one denies that, and Catholics often do approach Christ directly, such as at Mass, where we receive Him physically and tangibly in the Eucharist. When she appeared to the children at Fatima, Portugal, Mary herself taught them this prayer, "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy." This sums up Mary's role--to lead us to Jesus, to tell us, as she told the servants at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (John 2:5).
Yet, the fact remains that "God opposes the proud but He gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). There are times when a humble awareness of who we are, of our sinfulness, would make us realise what a bold act of presumption it would actually be to approach Christ directly. While He has made the way for us, we have not always made ourselves worthy to walk in that way. Thus, it is unarguably more humble to ask others to go to Him on our behalf--and Queen among those others, the one we can be most sure that Jesus will listen to, is Mary, His own Mother and ours, who is always ready to plead our case with Him. There is no competition, for when we go to Mary, she brings us to Jesus. And when we have gone to Jesus, He gives us His Mother to be our own.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)
Posted by Gregory at 7:47 pm
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
The final Marian Dogma is that of her Assumption into Heaven. I personally find this Dogma to be rather less controversial than the two that preceded it, though perhaps a bit harder to accept that Mary, Mother of God. Hopefully, then, I'll only need one article to cover what I need to say about it. This last of the Dogmas is the logical extension of Mary's Immaculate Conception, as well as a further sign of our hope in the Final Resurrection. As in previous articles, I'll examine the common objections, and, in so doing, provide the biblical and historical basis for the Doctrine.
Pope Pius XII, in 1950, defined the Dogma of Mary's Assumption thus: "By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" (Munificentissimus Deus, no 44).
That is, at the end of Mary's life, Jesus took her, body and soul, to heaven, just as He will for all of us at the Final Resurrection, and just as God did for Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament. There's an important distinction to be remembered here. Mary was assumed into heaven, unlike Jesus, who ascended to heaven. The difference is this: while Jesus rose to heaven on His own power, because He is God, Mary was brought up to heaven by God, and not by her own power.
This Dogma is a fitting conclusion to that of Mary's Immaculate Conception, for physical death was a consequence of Original Sin. Since Mary herself was free of Original Sin, it was impossible that death should hold her. Whether or not Mary did, in fact, die, is unclear from the definition. The oldest traditions, however, hold that she did. Being free of Original Sin, this death, it seems, would be unnecessary, but Mary chose to die in order to more fully imitate her Son, Jesus.
Answering Common Objections
There are two basic objections to belief in Mary's Assumption: First, it's not mentioned in the Bible, and second, the historical evidence for it comes rather late after the time of the Apostles, and therefore it probably wasn't believed by them. Apparently, some people find these objections so convincing that some Protestant authors, trying to "evangelise" Catholics, can post webpages titled, The Assumption of Mary Refuted! However, as I hope to demonstrate with this article, the given objections do not in any way "refute" the Dogma. In fact, they amount essentially to an "argument from silence", which is the weakest of all arguments.
1. The Assumption is Not in Scripture
As I've said in previous articles on the Marian Dogmas, the belief that, for something to be true or a matter of the Christian faith, it must be contained within Sacred Scripture, is at best erroneous, and at worst, absurd. After all, there are a good many things of great import to the Faith that are not mentioned in the Bible simply because they did not exist at the time of the writing of the Bible, or, if they did, they were simply assumed to be obvious. For example, the Bible has no explicit condemnation of the evil of Abortion, yet the Church has always held that this is gravely sinful. The Bible doesn't condemn outright the belief in Reincarnation, either, because it simply wasn't an issue for those to whom it was written. Thus, the fact that something is not mentioned in the Bible does not make it automatically false or irrelevant. In the case of Mary's Assumption, the simple fact is that it was very likely that the majority of the New Testament texts were already written before the end of Mary's life. St. John's Gospel and his Revelation are the two most probable exceptions, and John's Gospel ends before Jesus' Ascension into Heaven, let alone Mary's Assumption.
According to Dr. Mizzi's article, linked above, he claims that Mary is last mentioned in Acts, as being in the Upper Room at Pentecost. This, however, is not true, or, at the very least, is debatable. The fact is, Revelation 12 very clearly describes a woman in heavenly glory--a woman who gives birth to the Christ-child. Now, who gave birth to Christ? Mary! Thus, the last time Mary is mentioned is in Revelation--and when we encounter her there, she is very clearly described as being in Heaven. The one book of the Bible likely written after Mary's Assumption does very clearly seem to imply that same Assumption.
Objectors will argue that the Woman in Revelation 12 is not Mary, but rather is the Church, or possibly the Israelite people of God. To this I say three things: First, hermeneutically, every other character in the passage refers to definite individuals: the Child is Jesus, the dragon is Satan, etc. Why, then, would we make the Woman a symbol of a group or nation of people--except to avoid the obvious interpretation that the Woman is Mary? Second, how is it that we can say that the Church gave birth to Christ, when clearly it was Christ who established the Church? If the Woman represents the Church, it is only because in Mary the Church finds the full expression of its ideal. Finally, interpreting the Woman to be Israel makes more sense, but it still fails to explain away our first point. Moreover, Mary, a daughter of Israel, encapsulates in herself the faith and expectation of her people, and brings it to fruition in the Incarnation. Thus, if the Woman of Revelation is the Church or the faithful Israelites, it is only a secondary meaning to the primary and obvious interpretation that this Woman is, indeed, Mary.Add to that the fact that the author of Revelation, in his Gospel, consistently refers to Mary as "Woman", and the case is even more sure. As Cardinal Newman put is, "The holy apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary who was exalted on high and the veneration of all the faithful" (Mystical Rose, 20).
Thus we see that Mary's presence in Heaven is related in Scripture. To reply further to the objection that the Assumption is unbiblical, I would point out that the Bible itself gives precedent for the Assumption, in the cases of Enoch (Genesis 5:24; Ecclesiasticus 44:16; Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah the prophet (2 Kings 2:11). If these two men, due to their holiness and service of God, merited a bodily assumption at the end of their lives, how much more the all-holy and fully obedient Mother of God, who gave us Jesus as our salvation?
2. The Lack of Early Christian Witness
Since the lack of biblical testimony has been shown to both be an erroneous claim as well as a meaningless objection, let's turn to the more substantial objection--that the earliest Christians, and thus the Apostles, did not believe in Mary's Assumption. Since Catholic Doctrine claims to go right back to the Apostles, this claim is a bit more serious than the last. And the fact is, the first authoritative teacher of the Early Church to testify to Mary's Assumption in a writing which we have today, is St. Gregory of Tours, who wrote in the sixth century. That's about 400 years between Mary's Assumption and the first Church Father to mention it! Why was it not mentioned sooner, if the Apostles really knew of it and believed in it? The late date, it seems, casts doubt upon the Apostolic origin of this Tradition.
The fact is, however, that there is evidence that predates St. Gregory of Tours' writing. While he is the first Church Father whose writings we have that mention it, that again is an argument from silence, for not everything the Church Fathers taught was written down, and not everything they wrote down has survived to our own times. On the other hand, there are other documents from earlier times that give witness to Mary's Assumption. The difference here is that they are not official writings of Church leaders, but apocryphal accounts. While what they contain may not be utterly true in every regard, they nevertheless show that the tradition of Mary's Assumption can be traced back to the late third or early fourth century, in writings such as Liber Requiei Mariae or "The Book of Mary's Repose", as well as the "Six Books" which contain narratives of Mary's assumption.
Another point verifying the Assumption is the utter lack of Marian relics. The early Church took burial very seriously, laboriously marking out the tombs of saints for veneration, and usually keeping pieces of cloth with the saint's blood on it, or parts of bone, or whatnot, as "sacramentals", which are items which encourage faith and often are means of God's grace for the faithful. Biblically, when a dead man was buried on top of the bones of the prophet Elisha, the man was instantly restored to life. In the New Testament, handkerchiefs blessed by St. Paul were taken to the sick, who would be healed. These things led to the early Church's veneration of relics. That such devotion existed to almost fanatical degree is illustrated in The Martyrdom of Polycarp:
But the jealous and envious Evil One...took care that not even his poor body should be taken away by us, though many desired to do this, and to claim our share in the hallowed relics. Accordingly he put it into the head of Nicetas...to make an application to the Governor not to release the body, 'in case,' he said, 'they should forsake the Crucified and take to worshiping this fellow instead'...Little do they know that it could never be possible for us to abandon the Christ who died for the salvation of every soul that is to be saved in all the world--the Sinless One dying for sinners--or to worship any other. It is to him, as the Son of God, that we give our adoration, while to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they have earned by their matchless devotion to their King and Teacher....So after all, we did gather up his bones--more precious to us than jewels and finer than pure gold--and we laid them to rest in a spot suitable for the purpose. There we shall assemble, as occasion allows, with glad rejoicings, and with the Lord's permission we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom (17-18).In AD 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, the Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics from Mary's tomb in order that the Council would be more greatly blessed. The Bishop had to reply that such relics did not exist, saying, "Mary had died in the presence of the apostles; but her tomb, when opened later...was found empty and so the apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven." This leads us to the final point--that Mary's tomb in Jerusalem is, in fact, empty!
So, again, why the 200 year gap, then, between the earliest witnesses and the Apostles? In AD 135, the Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jerusalem and rebuilt it as Aelia Capitolina. From that time until the Emperor Constantine, Jerusalem was a pagan city. After Constantine's mother, St. Helena, went there to search for the True Cross, the Church returned and was able to excavate and rebuild the holy shrines on the sacred locations where the Gospels were lived. It was then that Mary's empty tomb was rediscovered, and the testimony of the Apostles regarding Mary's Assumption was remembered and revived.
Conclusion: Overcoming Prejudice and Rejecting the Traditions of Men
After the Council of Ephesus declared that Mary was truly the Mother of God, a wealth of Marian devotion sprung up, and the Feast of Her Assumption (or Dormition, in the East) became the earliest Marian feast day on the Catholic calendar. Since that time, through the writing of St. Gregory of Tours, St. John Damascene, and onward, the Assumption was accepted by the whole Church, and continued to be until the time of the Reformation, when the Protestants rejected it because it had no explicit mention in Scripture. Since, as we have seen, the "refutations" of Dr. Mizzi and other Protestants do not actually demonstrate that the Assumption did not happen, and there is no proof that Mary did, in fact, decompose in her grave, on what basis do Protestants then reject this Catholic teaching?
Moreover, there is nothing in Christian theology--even Protestant theology--that precludes or contradicts the possibility of Mary's Assumption. With no evidence against it, either in Scripture or in history, and with the unanimous historic testimony of Sacred Tradition promoting belief in the Assumption, I submit that the only grounds for rejecting Mary's Assumption are simple prejudice against it and man-made tradition. Let us then embrace the ancient faith of the Church and celebrate Jesus taking His Mother up to Heaven to be with Him, knowing that when He comes again, He will bring us also, body and soul, to the place which He has prepared for us!
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)
Posted by Gregory at 6:29 pm
Friday, August 14, 2009
In Part 1 of our examination of Mary's Immaculate Conception, we looked at various common objections to the doctrine, namely that the Bible says that all have sinned, and that if Mary were without sin, she wouldn't need Jesus to save her, but could potentially even have been the saviour. Having demonstrated that the first objection is based on a problematical interpretation of Scripture, and is therefore inconclusive, and having demonstrated that the other objections stem from an inadequate understanding of the Catholic dogma, or worse, on an inadequate understanding of our own salvation, we turn our attention now to presenting the Catholic Church's basis for its belief.
A Reminder Regarding Tradition
As with our discussion of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, I hasten to remind the reader that the Scriptures are not the sole rule of faith for Catholicism. Thus, a doctrine not explicitly spelled out in Scripture does not mean that it was not divinely revealed or any less binding upon the believer. We hold that Sacred Tradition, passed down from the Apostles, the understanding of which has developed over time (as has the understanding of Scripture), is just as much the Word of God as Scripture--and, in fact, Sacred Tradition encompasses Sacred Scripture within it. That is, Scripture itself is a form of Sacred Tradition, and the particular format of Scripture that Christians use today is a direct result of Tradition, and the Magisterial actions of the Church.
This point is crucial in our study of the Blessed Virgin Mary, because the dogmas about her are not explicitly stated in Scripture. There are, however, several passages that imply these doctrines more or less clearly. In the case of the Immaculate Conception, Scripture does more to corroborate the doctrine than to demonstrate it. That said, I plan to reverse the normal order of the discussion, and to begin with a logical approach, move to the historical testimony, and conclude with Scripture. First, however, let us review the actual Dogma.
The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).In this one sentence, densely packed with theological teaching, we see the following:
1. Mary received this grace "from the first moment of her conception," that is, from the moment God created her soul and infused it into her body.
2. Mary was "preserved free from all stain (Latin, macula) of original sin," that is, unlike the rest of us, in which the "active essence" of original sin is removed through baptism, for Mary, God never permitted it to even take hold. He prevented sin from touching Mary's soul. Further, in place of sin, she received the fullness of God's grace: the original sanctity, innocence, and justice was conferred upon her, which excluded every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, that essentially pertain to original sin.
3. Mary was given this grace "by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race," that is, Mary was uniquely given this gift because of her role as the Mother of God. It was bestowed upon her only because of Jesus' sacrifice, and in anticipation of the same. He thus saved Mary in a more perfect way than He did for the rest of humankind.
Immaculate Beginning, Logical Conclusion
In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve in His image and likeness, elevating them higher than the animal kingdom, giving them rational souls. He created them perfect, without any trace of sin, and filled with His divine grace. When they succumbed to the Serpent's temptations, however, they lost that gift of grace, not only for themselves, but also for all of us. This, of course, is Original Sin--that first sin of Adam and Eve, and the attendant consequences for us.
When Jesus came, He came as a Second Adam, to undo and save us from the consequences of Original Sin, so that we could be given sanctifying grace again, and be restored to correct relationship with God and with each other. Jesus, by virtue of His conception by the Holy Spirit, and His own Divine Nature, was Himself born in the same immaculate state as our original Parents, in order to fully recapitulate their initial disobedience. As St. Paul says, "Just as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience are many to be made upright" (Romans 5:19). Logically, though, we know that two people were involved in the Original Sin, and so, just as there is a New Adam in Christ, so there is also a New Eve in God's economy--the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since this was to be her role, God created her in the state of Grace which was otherwise lost in our First Parents, in order that, as Jesus perfectly recapitulated Adam's disobedience, Mary could perfectly recapitulate Eve's. I will explore this concept in greater depth when we examine the Biblical evidence for the doctrine.
The second logical argument states that there is an incongruity in supposing that the flesh from which Jesus Christ became incarnate should ever have belonged to one who was the slave of Satan. Yet this is the status of all who are born in Original Sin. Since this state of affairs is unfitting for the Incarnation of the Lord, and since God could do something to remedy that, logically, He would have. Or, in the formulation of Eadmer, intimate friend and scribe of St. Anselm of Canterbury, "Decuit, potuit, ergo fecit." Bl. John Duns Scotus would further develop this point, saying that "the perfect Mediator must, in some one case, have done the work of mediation most perfectly, which would not be unless there was some one person at least, in whose regard the wrath of God was anticipated and not merely appeased."
In other words, Jesus, who Himself gave the Law, was bound to fully obey that Law (for it is a contradiction to suppose that the Perfect Lawgiver is somehow free from His own Perfect Law). As such, He perfectly honoured His Mother, by saving her perfectly and completely from Sin.
The Church's Enduring Testimony
As I noted in Part 1, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was formally defined as Dogma only in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Further, before this time there had been some controversy even among Catholic scholars and theologians about whether Mary was immaculately conceived. However, despite the fact that a few eminent theologians did not hold to the Immaculate Conception of Mary, even they held that she remained sinless throughout her life, as the Catholic Church has always taught since the beginning. It was the particular development of the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness--that she was sinless from the moment of her conception--that was contended, not the fact of her sinlessness.
The Liturgical Feast
The primary witness to the fact that the Church has always held Mary to have been Immaculately Conceived, as well as just free from actual sin, comes from the liturgical calendar, which celebrates Mary's Immaculate Conception on December 8th (nine months before it celebrates her Nativity). Jesus Christ, the very author and perfector of our faith, has His conception celebrated on March 25th, nine months before His nativity on Christmas Day, December 25th. All of the saints' feast days are celebrated not on their earthly birthday, but on their "heavenly birthday", the day they died. All but two, other than Jesus Himself: The Blessed Virgin, and St. John the Baptist, of whom it is said that the Holy Spirit sanctified him while in his mother's womb, when Mary visited her (Luke 1:15, 39-41). The fact that Mary's conception is also celebrated indicates to us that the Church holds that while John the Baptist was sanctified while still in the womb of Elizabeth, Mary's own sanctification was significantly greater and more perfect, occurring at the very moment of her conception, and preserving her even from the stain of original sin. While Mary remains infinitely lesser than Jesus, the God-man, she is still thus greater than even His precursor, of whom Jesus Himself said, "I tell you, of all the children born to women, there is no one greater than John" (Luke 7:28).
Early Church Writings
Moreover, there are countless texts from the Early Church (dating right back to AD 70, while Scripture itself was still being written) which implicitly and explicitly speak of Mary's sinlessness, and even her Immaculate Conception.
Texts known as The Ascension of Isaiah (AD 70) and The Odes of Solomon (AD 80), both speak of the birth of Jesus as occurring without causing Mary any pain. At first glance, this doesn't seem significant to the question of her Immaculate Conception, but consider, if she was not tainted with Original Sin, then the curses that followed from Original Sin would not have had power over her. One of the curses, according to Genesis 3:16, was pain in childbirth. For the Early Church to teach that Mary had no pain during Jesus' birth clearly implies her Immaculate Conception. The early dates of these writings, too, lend credence, for very likely Mary herself, if not people who knew her well, were still alive and would have corrected this misinformation.
Other early Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Julius Firmicus Maternus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Theodotus of Ancyra, and Sedulius elaborate upon Mary as the New Eve, and compare her obedience with Eve's disobedience, and equate the state of Mary's soul with Eve's before the Fall.
Other Fathers of the Early Church wrote explicitly of Mary's absolute purity, such as Ephrem the Syrian, who wrote in the Nisibene Hymns (27:8, AD 361), "You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?"
St. Ambrose of Milan referred to Mary as "a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin" (Commentary on Psalm 118:22–30, AD 387). St. Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian of the Church, was quoted in Part 1, as excluding Mary from the company of sinners. Others who so testified include Hippolytus, Origen, Maximus of Turin, Theodotus of Ancyra, John of Damascus, Gregory of Tours, and others. (For more exhaustive lists and quotations, see the Catholic Encyclopedia and Catholic Answers.)
There was no controversy regarding belief in Mary's sinlessness, or indeed her immaculate conception, until around the twelfth century. The Feast of the Conception of Mary, having long been celebrated in the Eastern Church, was introduced to St. Anselm of Canterbury during his exile in Campania and Apulin. His friend and disciple, Eadmer of Canterbury, helped to spread devotion to Mary's Immaculate Conception, and St. Anselm the Younger, abbot of Bury St. Edmund's, introduced the Feast to the Western Church. Unfortunately, this drew sharp criticism from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who, not knowing of the doctrine's history in the East, called it "foreign to the tradition of the Church", and reproved St. Anselm the Younger for introducing the feast of his own authority without approval from the Pope.
Bernard argued that Mary could not have been sanctified before she existed--that is, from the moment of the creation of her flesh in the womb. He further argued that Mary's sanctification after that point would render honour to her birth, but not to her conception. St. Albert the Great and his most notable pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas, would follow this reasoning in rejecting the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception. However, in so doing, they committed the fallacy of the excluded middle, not at that time understanding the distinction between "active" conception, that is, the generation of the body by the parents, and "passive" conception, which is the infusion of the soul into the body by God, thus giving life to the foetus. St. Bernard's objections are overcome when it is understood that the Dogma refers to Mary's passive conception--that at the moment when God infused Mary's soul into her body, He removed all stain of original sin. This was not before Mary's existence, nor was it some time after her conception. Rather, it was simultaneous with that event.
St. Thomas Aquinas further would object to the doctrine in his Summa Theologica on the grounds which we addressed in Part 1, namely, that if Mary had never sinned, what need did she have of a Redeemer? Ironically, however, his own writings and theological framework ultimately laid the grounds for the final definition and declaration of the Dogma! This was how, for example, Blessed John Duns Scotus could argue that Mary herself was redeemed in a more perfect manner than the rest of us, by preservation rather than rescue.
After Duns Scotus, the Feast and the doctrine grew in acceptance, and the universities and religious orders took up its celebration, except for the Dominicans, who resisted it, following the example set by their own St. Thomas. In 1439, the dispute was taken up by the Council of Basle, which ruled that it was a holy and pious doctrine which in no wise contradicted the Catholic faith. However, since the Council was not an Ecumenical Council (that is, having all the Church's bishops present), its ruling was not authoritative or binding. In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV officially placed the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the Latin Calendar, and while he refrained from giving a definitive pronouncement at that time, he did forbid, by pain of excommunication, anyone from calling the opposite viewpoint from his own heretical. While the Council of Trent refused to comment on the question, the doctrine was more and more widely accepted by all the Church. Finally, in 1661, Pope Alexander VII settled the question by defining the definitive meaning of the term "Conception" in relation to the "Immaculate Conception", stating that it did absolutely refer to the creation and infusion of Mary's soul into her body. From that time on, all controversy ceased, even though Alexander VII hadn't formally pronounced on the dogma in a manner qualifying as "ex cathedra." However, his pronouncement was repeated almost verbatim (after having actually been quoted earlier on) in Pope Pius IX's document, Ineffabilis Deus, when he gave the final, infallible pronouncement of the Dogma.
Thus we see, from this cursory view of the history of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that the controversy surrounding it did not extend to the whole Church, but was limited to the academic spheres of England and France, primarily. Furthermore, their objections to the Dogma resulted not from its untruth, but from their misunderstanding of the terms by which the truth was expressed. Had St. Bernard understood what was meant by the term "conception", had St. Thomas seen how Mary's salvation was preeminent among God's creatures, and had all the opponents of the Dogma been more familiar with the writings and Tradition of the Eastern Church, the Controversy may have been averted altogether. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, "If St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and other theologians had known the doctrine in the sense of the definition of 1854, they would have been its strongest defenders instead of being its opponents." And yet, the controversy itself served only to clarify fully the beauty of God's grace given to Mary at her conception.
The Scriptural Evidence
I said above that Mary's Immaculate Conception is in Scripture only implicitly, and by way of deduction, and thus serves to corroborate the Dogma rather than to prove it. Having given the logical argument, and shown the unchanging teaching of the Church on the subject, let us turn to the Scriptures and show how they do, in fact, support Mary's Immaculate Conception.
The New Eve
As I mentioned above, the Early Church Fathers spoke often of Mary's Immaculate Conception in terms of her role as the New Eve. In Romans 5, St. Paul shows how Christ came as the New Adam to recapitulate the First Adam's sin and thus offer us redemption. Paul emphasises the parallel by stating repeatedly that "one man's" trespass plunged us all into sin, and "One Man's" obedience rescued us from it (cf. Rom 5:12, 15-19). But the account of the fall of our first parents in Genesis 3 clearly implicates two people in the Original Sin (to make no mention of the Serpent). While in Romans 5, St. Paul singles out the "man" as a parallel to Jesus, in other places, such as 1 Timothy 2:14, he singles out Eve, almost dumping the whole of Original Sin in her lap! Clearly, then, while Jesus' perfect obedience to the Father, even to death on the Cross, mediated to us the Covenant which reconciled us to the Father, St. Paul's typological parallel is logically incomplete without accounting for Eve's role in the Fall. And if "one woman" played a role in the Fall, the logic of Paul's typology requires that "one woman" also play a role in our redemption. That woman, of course, being the Blessed Virgin.
That is not to say that Mary's role in redemption is equal to that of Christ's, or that she alone could have redeemed us, or any such thing. But the fact is, she plays a role--and while that role isn't explicitly acknowledged by St. Paul in Romans 5, it is both implicitly and explicitly acknowledged in other passages, as we shall see.
Eve = Mary: The Parallels
The first and primary way in which Mary cooperates in our Redemption in her role as the New Eve, according to Scripture, is through her Fiat at the Annunciation. While on the one hand, Eve was tempted to disobedience by the Devil, Mary was invited to a new level of obedience by the Angel. And while Eve gave her assent to Satan, Mary gave her assent to God.
The next parallel is seen in Mary's Visitation to Elizabeth. Eve, having eaten of the fruit, brought it to Adam so that he might share in her sin. Mary, on the other hand, brought the most blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus, to Elizabeth, sanctifying John the Baptist in the womb and blessing Elizabeth with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Mary very literally "mediated" Jesus to them.
Third, while Eve was cursed with pain in childbirth, the Angels announced Joy to the world at the birth of Jesus from Mary. Again, while Eve was cursed with a yearning for Adam, who would dominate her, Mary yearned that all would come to Jesus, and herself prompted Him to perform His first miracle and thus begin His Ministry. More, where the Fall brought a rift between Adam and Eve, where blame was passed, at the Cross, Mary was completely united to Her Son in His Suffering, as the sword of suffering pierced her heart as Simeon had foretold.
If these parallels are insufficient to convince the sceptic, then I present further evidence. Note what Adam names Eve when he first sees her: "She is to be called Woman" (Gen 2:23). It is this very term, "Woman", that is used to describe Mary by St. John (and St. Paul) in the New Testament. Twice, John has Jesus address His Mother by the title, causing no small wonder among scholars and laymen alike. Yet the answer is here, in Mary's role as the New Eve. Jesus is not treating her as a stranger, or speaking to her with disrespect. Rather, He Himself affirms the fulfilment of the type. The first time is at the Wedding Feast of Cana, where Mary prompts Jesus into His public ministry. The second time is at the Cross, where He gives her into John's care.
St. John makes the parallel perfectly explicit, however, in his Apocalypse. In chapter 12, he describes a vision of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of stars about her head, who gives birth to the Messiah, as the dragon waits to devour Him. This vision depicts the fulfilment of God's first promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15, that there would be enmity between the Woman and the Serpent, and between her seed and his. John directly identifies the Dragon with "that ancient serpent" of Genesis 3. The Woman, then, the Mother of the Messiah, is the seed of that First Woman, and her own Seed, the Christ, will bring defeat to Satan. And just as Eve was called "the mother of all those who live" (Gen 3:20), so this Woman, Mary, the Blessed Mother, is Mother to all those who live in Christ (Rev 12:17).
I will discuss this mystery of Mary's participation in our redemption in a later article (after I write Mary, Assumed Into Heaven), but her role as the New Eve ties into the question of her Immaculate Conception in two ways. The first is the final comparison between Mary and Eve, and the second is in the words of God's promise of Genesis 3:15.
Immaculate Eve, Immaculate Mary
The final parallel between Eve and Mary, then, that fulfils the typology, is the state of their soul. God had created Adam and Eve in an elevated state of Grace, free from sin, perfect and fully integrated in their wills, their desires, their emotions. This is the state in which they were before the Fall. It is the state that Jesus lived on earth as a Man, free from sin, in order to redeem us, and fulfilling through it the type of the New Adam. We thus conclude that God specially created Mary in this same state of grace, through the Immaculate Conception, in order that she may more fully parallel Eve.
Genesis 3:15: Enmity between the Woman and the Serpent
Further, Mary's role as the New Eve fulfils the promise of God in Genesis 3:15. He says to the Serpent, "I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; it will bruise your head and you will strike its heel." The latter part was fulfilled in Christ, whose "heel" was "struck" in the crucifixion, when the power of darkness appeared to have won, only to have been fully defeated--it's head crushed--instead. But what does it mean for God to put enmity between the Woman and the Serpent? Since all those born in sin are slaves to sin, and thus to Satan, it cannot be said that we are enemies of Satan. It is only once we have been redeemed that we become his enemies. But according to God's prophecy, He puts the enmity between the Serpent and the Woman before her seed crushes his head and redeems mankind. No one, as we said, born in sin is an enemy of Satan. Thus for the Woman, Mary, to be truly the enemy of the Serpent, she was conceived without sin. This was not, again, independent of Christ's sacrifice, but it did precede its occurrence in time. Thus we see in Genesis 3:15 the root of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant
There are other Old Testament Types which Mary fulfils, such as that of the Eastern Gate, which we mentioned in the article on her Perpetual Virginity. I will not elucidate upon all of them, but I would be remiss if I did not again highlight Mary's fulfilment of the type of the Ark of the Covenant in connection with her Immaculate Conception; for just as the Ark was the holiest of all the sacred objects of Israel, so Mary is the holiest of all God's creatures (as the Eastern Church calls her, Panagia, the All-Holy). Just as the Ark was made of "incorruptible wood" and overlaid with "pure gold (Ex 25:10-11; Deut 10:3; according to the Septuagint), so Mary was preserved uncorrupted by sin.
Kecharitomene: What's so Amazing about Grace?
Finally, we turn to what I find to be the most compelling of the Scriptural texts pertaining to Mary's Immaculate Conception--and that is the Angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary at the Annunciation: "Hail, Full of Grace" (Luke 1:28). The first thing to note about this greeting is the fact that Gabriel addresses Mary first, not by her name, but by the phrase, "Full of Grace" (all one word in the Greek), in place of her name. In other words, Gabriel has, in effect, changed Mary's name--just as Abram became Abraham; Sarai, Sarah; Jacob, Israel; Simon, Peter; and Saul, Paul. The changing of a name was significant in Scripture, and the new name spoke something about who that person is in God's eyes (which, being the eyes of Truth, are the only eyes that count), about their calling, and about their destiny. Compare Jesus' promise to the Church of Pergamum in Revelation, to give to those who persevere, "a new name" (Rev 2:17).
So, Gabriel gives to Mary a new name, addressing her by the title that is more true of her than her own name. That name in the Greek is Kecharitomene, the depth of meaning of which I shall attempt to unpack. According to Thayer's Lexicon, the root word is "charitoo". Verbs in Greek which end in "oo" mean "to put someone into the state of" the root word, which here is "charis", which means "Grace". So what is "Grace"? We discover its meaning by looking at the only other passage in Scripture which uses a form of "charitoo", Ephesians 1:
Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,The phrase "his free gift to us" in verse 6 translates the form of charitoo, "echaritosen", which is in the "aorist, active, indicative" tense, which means, basically, that God is presently actively giving His grace to those whom He has chosen. So what does that Grace do, according to Ephesians 1? It makes us adopted children of God, gives us all the spiritual blessings of heaven, making us holy and faultless before Him in love, and given us freedom and forgiveness from sin. In sum, charitoo is the life and power of God to be holy and free from sin. That's what Grace is, and according to echaritosen, that's what God is actively doing for us who are in Christ.
who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ.
Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made
to be holy and faultless before him in love,
marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ.
Such was his purpose and good pleasure,
to the praise of the glory of his grace,
his free gift to us in the Beloved,
in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins.
Such is the richness of the grace
which he has showered on us
in all wisdom and insight (vv. 3-8).
How does that compare to Kecharitomene? Well, its different construction points to the fact that it has a different meaning--though that meaning is still based on charitoo: the state of being holy and free of sin. Unlike echaritosen, which is in the "aorist, active, indicative tense", Kecharitomene is a "perfect passive participle". So what's that mean? According to Blue Letter Bible, the Perfect tense means an action has been completed in the past in such a manner that it does not need to be repeated, and its effects endure to the present. The Passive tense means that the action is done to the subject. A Participle is a "verb noun", like in English. Putting it all together, Kecharitomene means that, at some definitive point in the past, God put Mary into the state of being holy and free from sin, in such a way that the action needs no repetition, but its effects endured throughout her lifetime. This act of grace was so complete that it could be said of Mary as though it were her very name. That is the powerful meaning behind the Angel's greeting of "Chaire, Kecharitomene"--"Hail, Full of Grace!" While it alone does not definitively bring us to Mary's Immaculate Conception, it does certainly point to her absolute sinlessness, purity, and holiness. Along with the rest of the evidence, the Immaculate Conception is very well corroborated by Scripture, attested to by Tradition, and evidenced by Reason.
Our Lady's Own Words
Before I conclude, however, having demonstrated the truth of Mary's Immaculate Conception, there is one last piece of evidence that I would submit, strictly as further corroboration. Over the centuries since the time of Christ, from time to time, God has sent Mary to the world with a message for mankind. The Church has approved many of these apparitions, and while it does not mandate belief in such private revelations, after much thorough investigation, the Church rules that specific ones are "worthy of all belief". After this series on Marian Dogmas, I will write a few articles regarding Marian Apparitions. For the present, I mention them as an opportunity to give the Blessed Virgin herself a voice regarding her Immaculate Conception.
In 1830, a full fourteen years before Pope Pius IX would officially define the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mother appeared to a poor and rather unintelligent nun in a convent on Rue de Bac, in Paris, named St. Catherine Labouré. She appeared to St. Catherine standing on a globe with her hands outstretched, with rays of light streaming from her hands. Around her was an inscription which said, "O Mary, Conceived Without Sin, Pray For Us Who Have Recourse To Thee." She told St. Catherine to have medals struck with this image and prayer on them, and promised that whoever wore such a medal would receive great graces from God through her. Thus, a decade and a half before the official declaration of the dogma, Mary bore witness to her Immaculate Conception--and this witness was confirmed through many miracles, as people began to wear what became known quickly as the "Miraculous Medal", and the promised graces of healings and other miraculous help from God were reported.
Later, in 1858, Our Lady appeared to a poor, illiterate peasant girl in Lourdes, in the south of France. She asked young St. Bernadette Soubirous to meet her in a grotto outside the village, where they would pray together. Despite harsh doubts, and even harassment by the local (and very atheistic) authorities, Bernadette kept up her appointments with the Lady for the two weeks that the Lady had requested Bernadette come. At one meeting, the Virgin told Bernadette to drink from a spring, which at that moment did not exist. In obedience to Our Lady's command, Bernadette dug at the ground, and washed her face in the dirt, to the ridicule of all the onlookers (who came to see a spectacle, since they could not see the Lady). Yet after Bernadette left, a spring miraculously bubbled forth, and flows in Lourdes to this day! Moreover, many healings have been reported after drinking or bathing in the water: the lame have walked, the blind have seen, cancer has been cured, and on and on! The Lady, however, had not told Bernadette who she was (though the whole town assumed it was Mary, if it was anyone at all). On the final day, St. Bernadette asked again who the Lady was, and she answered, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Bernadette, being illiterate and, quite frankly, a bit delayed, had no idea what this phrase meant, but she took her answer to the parish priest, who himself knew very well that the Pope had just defined the dogma four years earlier, and also knew that St. Bernadette could have no knowledge of what the dogma meant, let alone what it was called! In this way, Our Lady again confirmed the Pope's definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception--owning it as her name, as once Gabriel had named her "Full of Grace." For the two things are of a piece.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)
Posted by Gregory at 6:26 pm
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
We turn our attention now in our series to what I consider to be the most controversial of Marian Dogmas (which is why I'm a bit surprised at how much controversy Mary's Perpetual Virginity actually generated in the Introductory post). It seems somewhat ironic that in my faith journey, the ideas and doctrines that were the hardest for me to come to believe are now the ones to which I am most devoted. I think specifically of Our Blessed Lord present in the Eucharist, and Mary herself, in general. But of all the teachings about Mary, that she was immaculately conceived was the hardest belief for me to accept. Yet now, if it is possible to be more particularly devoted to one aspect of a person over and above others, her Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that most captivates my imagination and devotion, and makes me love my Mother all the more.
As I mentioned briefly in the Introductory post to Marian Dogmas, the first two Dogmas to be defined by the Church, namely, that Mary is the Mother of God, and that she is Perpetually a Virgin, spoke more about Mary's role in salvation history than about her personal identity (though those two things aren't entirely separate issues). What I mean is, God created and called Mary for a purpose (just as He does for all of us). The dogma of Theotokos succinctly sums up that purpose--that Mary was to be God's Mother--that God the Son would become Incarnate through her. The second dogma, her Perpetual Virginity, highlights the method by which God became Man--namely, the Virgin Birth--, but also illustrates poignantly the overwhelming holiness of God and the importance of His Incarnation, by teaching us that Mary, and her womb, was now consecrated exclusively to Him.
In these later centuries, however, the Church has seen fit to declare and promulgate two dogmas that deal more with who Mary is than with what she did. The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception tells us about how God created Mary--to be full of grace and thus free of sin--, and the Dogma of Mary's Assumption into Heaven gives us the logical conclusion to a life that is free from sin, and thus, free from sin's consequences, which, as Romans 6:23 tells us, is death.
But I thought...
As in the previous articles, in part one, I'll look at the common objections to the Dogma, and then turn, in part two, to give a positive defense of it, examining Scripture, logic, and the historical witness. But before I move on to counter the specific objections, I want to pause and clear up some misconceptions about the Immaculate Conception.
First of all, many people who first hear the term think that it doesn't refer to Mary, but to Jesus, and that it is another way of referring to His Virgin Birth. This is not the case. While Jesus, certainly, was conceived without any stain of original sin (and thus could be considered to be "immaculately conceived"), the Dogma refers to Mary herself, and her own conception. The second misconception regarding Mary's Immaculate Conception is that people sometimes wonder if the Church thus teaches that Mary herself was born of a virgin. This, too, is not the case. Mary's parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, were a married couple like any other, except, as The Protoevangelium of James tells us, like so many notable couples in God's salvation history, they were barren and unable to have children. As with Abraham and Sarah, God miraculously intervened in this elderly couple's life, and they, through otherwise natural means, conceived and gave birth to Mary. (Incidentally, this miraculously late birth to the elderly Joachim and Anne rather succinctly explains why Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, was so much older than her, according to Luke's Gospel.)
The Official Promulgation of the Dogma
So, if Mary's Immaculate Conception doesn't refer to Jesus' virgin birth, or teach that Mary was born of a virgin, too, then what does the Dogma teach? According to the official pronouncement by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the Catholic Church holds it to be an infallibly revealed truth "that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin" (Ineffabilis Deus).
The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception holds not simply that she was conceived free of Original Sin, but that she continued to remain sinless throughout her life. It is no small wonder that this teaching often receives the criticism that it does! The objections are many, but to my mind they seem to boil down to four main arguments--two from Scripture, one from History, and one from Logic. In sum, the objections run, 1. The Bible teaches very plainly that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23); 2. Mary herself calls God her "saviour" in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); 3. Many saints and teachers of the Church have disbelieved in Mary's Immaculate Conception, including St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the Church's greatest theologian; and 4. If Mary was sinless, that means that Christ's death on the Cross was unnecessary--either God could have just "zapped" us all sinless, or Mary could have died to save us all. That, in a nutshell, covers the main objections to the Immaculate Conception. Let's take them in their turn.
1. Romans 3:23--"All have sinned"?
I begin with what could be considered the most damning objection to the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception, and that is St. Paul's statement in the Epistle to the Romans about the universality of sin. He writes,
Well: are we any better off? Not at all: we have already indicted Jews and Greeks as being all alike under the dominion of sin. As scripture says:St. Paul is really hammering home the point that, whether one is Jewish or Gentile, they are a sinner and need Christ's salvation. As I said when stating the objection, Paul clearly states that "all have sinned", and even quotes Psalm 14 and others to make his case. But does Paul's case actually allow for no exception? Have all, in fact, sinned?Not one of them is upright, not a single one,Now we are all well aware that whatever the Law says is said for those who are subject to the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world brought under the judgement of God. So then, no human being can be found upright at the tribunal of God by keeping the Law; all that the Law does is to tell us what is sinful.
not a single one is wise,
not a single one seeks God.
All have turned away, all alike turned sour,
not one of them does right, not a single one.
Their throats are wide-open graves,
their tongues seductive.
Viper's venom behind their lips;
their speech is full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet quick to shed innocent blood,
wherever they go there is havoc and ruin.
They do not know the way of peace,
there is no fear of God before their eyes.
God's saving justice was witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, but now it has been revealed altogether apart from law: God's saving justice given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. No distinction is made: all have sinned and lack God's glory, and all are justified by the free gift of his grace through being set free in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:9-24, NJB)
The fact is, St. Paul's discourse does, in fact, allow for exceptions, for all people have not, in fact, sinned. For most of my life, I assumed that Romans 3 was referring not simply to the actual sinful deeds committed by people, but to the underlying fact that all of us are born into a state of original sin, and are thus, at our core, wicked and guilty. Thus, I thought, when Paul said that "all have sinned", he meant that all are equally bound to this Original Sin. Of course, I was wrong here on several points: First of all, to be born with original sin does not mean that we are thereby wicked at our core, or guilty of any actual sin. What Original Sin means is that, due to Adam and Eve's initial rebellion from God, they lost the life of Grace in which God had created them. They became spiritually dead, and they passed on this state of spiritual death to their descendants. Original Sin, in a nutshell, means that we are born without the active life of Grace within us. While this means that we thereby have a disordered tendency toward sin, it does not mean that we are inherently wicked, or that we are guilty of sin by having that disordered tendency towards sin (known as Concupiscence). Since simply being "born in sin" does not make us guilty of sin, St. Paul cannot be specifically referring to Original Sin when he says that "all have sinned." Rather, the context makes it clear that Paul is saying that the "all", whoever that includes, have committed actual sin. That is, they have done sinful acts--they "have sinned, and fallen short of God's glory."
From this more accurate understanding of what St. Paul is saying, we are in a better position to know whether there are, in fact, exceptions to Paul's "all". The first and most notable exception to St. Paul's indictment that all have sinned, is, of course, Our Lord and Saviour, "the Man Jesus Christ" (1 Tim 2:15), about whom the book of Hebrews clearly states, "For the high priest we have is not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin" (Heb 4:15). Now, one will say that Jesus does not count, since He was God, and therefore ontologically could not sin. And this is true, but it is also true that in Jesus, God became fully human, and, to that end, would have to fit into St. Paul's "all". And if that's the case, then "all" has an exception.
Are there other exceptions? Absolutely. Consider newborn babies (or even those still in the womb) who cannot make a choice, let alone choose to sin. They have committed no actual sin, and if one dies before doing so, it is true that they lived a sinless life. Consider also, for example, those who have a mental handicap that prevents them from understanding the rightness and wrongness of certain behaviours. They are not guilty of sinning, because to sin entails making a choice to do wrong. If a person does not choose to do wrong, they are not guilty of wrongdoing. These cases (and others that could be mentioned) demonstrate that "all have sinned" is not an absolute statement encompassing all people, everywhere, for all time. Since not all people have committed actual sin, Romans 3:23 cannot be conclusively used as an objection to the Church's teaching on Mary's Immaculate Conception, for how can one definitively assert that Mary wasn't one of these exceptions?
2. Luke 1:47--Mary called God her "Saviour"
While Romans 3:23 might not be conclusive on its own, when combined with Mary's referring to God as her Saviour in her Magnificat, it seems evident that she was, in fact, a sinner--because only sinners need a Saviour, right? Thus, the objection runs, since Mary needed a Saviour, she must have sinned, and thus the Immaculate Conception is a false doctrine.
This objection is a pretty thoroughgoing one. It is, in fact, part of the reason why St. Thomas Aquinas, as mentioned above, did not believe in Mary's Immaculate Conception. However, as with St. Thomas, those who put forth this objection have a wrong or incomplete understanding of what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception actually teaches. We'll explore it more specifically later on when we provide a positive defence of the doctrine, but for now, let us look again at Pope Pius IX's formulation: "the most Blessed Virgin Mary...in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin" (emphasis mine). That is to say, Mary's Immaculate Conception was only achieved, or even possible, because of Jesus' Death on the Cross. Yes, when Mary was conceived, Jesus hadn't been born, let alone died, yet. However, God, who exists outside of Time, already saw Christ's Passion in the eternal present as having been accomplished. He thus applied the salvific merits of Jesus' sacrifice to Mary in a special way at her conception. This is analogous to how the Old Testament saints were saved. Since no one can be saved without Jesus' sacrificial death on the Cross, those saved before the temporal act of His Passion were nevertheless saved by Christ's passion in an anticipatory way. That is, not only does Christ's sacrifice extend into the future to perpetuity for all generations yet to come and to experience His saving grace, but it extends retroactively and covers all those who lived faithful lives to God before Jesus' death and resurrection. Thus, while the particular method of Mary's salvation was unique, it nevertheless was fully dependent upon the Cross of Christ. As such, Mary truly could exclaim that her soul "rejoices in God my Saviour!"
Further, when Christ saves us, it is through the forgiveness of sins--that is, He takes away the sins we have already committed. In Mary's case, though, she was saved from sin not after committing it, but before. Blessed John Duns Scotus pointed this out as he wrestled with St. Thomas' objections to the Immaculate Conception. He compared sin to a muddy pit on a path. When a person walks down the path and falls into the pit, Jesus saves them by pulling them out and cleaning them off. But with Mary, He saved her not by pulling her out of the pit, but by keeping her from falling into it. In this way, he argued, Mary's salvation was actually greater and more perfect than our own. Thus, Mary even more truly could say, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour! For He has looked upon the lowliness of His handmaid. Yes, from now on, all generations shall call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is His name!"
3. The Dogma has not always been believed
This objection stems from the Catholic Church's claim of Apostolic Tradition. Since the Church claims that she teaches nothing new that was not passed down from Christ and His Apostles, at least in seed form, objectors to Mary's Immaculate Conception point out that it was not universally held since the beginning of the Church, and, in fact, several notable saints denied it, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, and, as we mentioned above, St. Thomas Aquinas. Further, the Council of Trent, which was expected to define the matter, opted not to do so, and thus left the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception dangling until Pope Pius IX finally declared it in 1854. If, therefore, there was such debate and disagreement about this dogma, how could it have been passed on as Sacred Tradition from the Apostles?
This objection highlights the tension between the Catholic Church's claim to possess the "Fullness of the Faith", and the development of doctrine over the ages. While on the one hand, the Church holds that all its dogmas were, essentially, handed down from the Apostles, this does not preclude natural development of those doctrines over the years, through reflective thought and further study. While the Church held certain teachings since the beginning, how those teachings were definitively stated or properly understood has grown over time. This is seen, for example, in the Dogma of the Trinity--that there is One God who subsists in three co-equal and co-eternal Persons. Scripture itself never explicitly teaches that formulation; nor was it arrived at very quickly. And over the centuries before the Doctrine of the Trinity was fully hammered out, there was much dissension and controversy surrounding it. The same is true for the doctrine of Original Sin, and of the Canon of Scripture itself, as well as many other doctrines of the Church. It should be no surprise that there were some who questioned certain formulations of a dogma that was otherwise believed since the beginning. When we examine the historical evidence for the Immaculate Conception, we'll have a clearer understanding of this idea. For now, though, let us briefly look at what the Church did teach throughout the centuries.
The seed of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was sinless. This is evident from various sources in the early Church, most notably St. Augustine, who stated, "Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins--for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?--so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?" (Nature and Grace 36:42). Even those theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, who disbelieved in the Immaculate Conception, as such, upheld the belief that Mary was, nevertheless, free of actual sin. It was only as the Church's teaching on Original Sin itself developed, that the question of whether Mary was conceived free from Original Sin could itself even be pondered. Nevertheless, the implications from Scripture, and the abundant testimony of the Church, overcame those who objected. How this took place, we shall examine more thoroughly in part 2.
4. The Dogma Nullifies Christ's Saving Work
The final objection to Mary's Immaculate Conception is that, if she is free from sin, then Jesus Christ did not need to die for our sins. This objection takes one of two directions, typically (if not both together). The first is that, if God could create Mary free from original sin, then He could have just as easily created all of us free from original sin. And if that's the case, then the whole Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were needless wastes of time. The second point along this line is that, if Mary were truly sinless, then she could have saved us from our sins herself.
Both of these objections display a fundamental misunderstanding, either of the Immaculate Conception itself, or of basic Christian soteriology in general. The first objection is easily answered by recourse to the official declaration of the dogma, where we again note that Mary's Immaculate Conception was performed by God for her as a "singular" or unique act of grace, which was accomplished only in light of Christ's redeeming work on the Cross, and only because of her particular and important role in salvation. Thus, to say that God could have just "zapped" us all sinless, rendering Christ's atoning work as needless (as one person said in conversation with me), completely misses the point of the Immaculate Conception, and the fact that it was only accomplished by the merits of Christ's sacrifice.
The second form of the objection, it seems to me, is the worse of the two, because it goes beyond simply misunderstanding Mary, to misunderstanding our Salvation. Jesus was not able to save us merely because He was sinless (though that was certainly part of it). He was qualified because He was, in fact, God in the flesh. An offense against an infinite God is an infinitely grievous offense. Only an infinite price can satisfy it. None of us are infinite, and thus cannot satisfy our debt to God. Even Mary, who was sinless, was still not infinite. Only Jesus, who is God, is infinite and thus could satisfy the debt of our sins. Since He became truly one of us, He was able to pay that debt on our behalf.
Further, because we as humans do not own ourselves, but are servants of God, we cannot choose to make such a sacrifice for another. Only Jesus, who, as God, was fully in ownership of Himself, could voluntarily offer Himself on our behalf. Thus, supposing that simply because Mary was free from sin, it made her qualified to somehow save us shows a rather fundamental misunderstanding of our salvation. As such, the "logical" objection to Mary's Immaculate Conception fails to counter the doctrine as it is based on faulty premises.
This sums up my responses to the common objections to Mary's Immaculate Conception. If any of my illustrious readers has any further objections which I have overlooked, I invite them to share them in the comments for further discussion. In Part 2, we'll turn to look at Scripture, to see if it offers any clues to the doctrine, and then look at the historical witness of the Church.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)
Posted by Gregory at 3:28 pm
Saturday, July 25, 2009
In Part 1 of our examination of the Church's teaching of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, we looked at the common objections to the teaching based on misinterpretations of the biblical texts that seem to indicate that Mary had other children. Having shown that the biblical "evidence" against Mary's perpetual virginity is inconclusive, at best, and, further, showing the dearth of historical testimony to such a position, let us turn our attention now to what else the Bible has to say with regard to the subject of Mary's Perpetual Virginity, as well as look at the Church's historical testimony regarding this doctrine. Finally, we will conclude by discussing what we can learn from this teaching in order to help us grow in our Christian faith.
"Material Sufficiency", not "Formal Sufficiency" of Scripture
The first thing to note, with regard to the biblical proof for Mary's perpetual virginity (or any Catholic teaching, for that matter), is that Catholics do not believe in the concept of "Sola Scriptura"--that is, we do not believe that the Bible must specifically teach something for it to be a part of the Faith, nor do we believe that the Bible alone is the sole infallible judge of all such doctrines. That said, many Catholics including myself believe that everything the Church teaches is, at least implicitly or by way of logical extension, contained in the Bible. That is, we believe in the "material sufficiency" of Scripture, but not in its "formal sufficiency". Since most non-Catholic Christians believe in Sola Scriptura, it is important when defending the Catholic faith, to show that, a) the Church does not contradict the Bible, when properly understood, and b) that Scripture does, in fact, point to a particular Catholic teaching, even if it never explicitly asserts it.
This is the case with various Christian teachings, such as the Trinity itself, or the two natures of Christ--divine and human. Catholic doctrines such as Purgatory or praying to the saints also have implicit support in Scripture, though they are never explicitly taught. It is also the case with Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Nowhere does the Bible emphatically state that Mary never had marital relations with Joseph, or that she was consecrated to virginity for her life. However, like the Trinity, the Bible does provide certain indications that Mary had intended to, and had followed through on the intention to, remain a virgin her whole life. Moreover, the Bible also attests to the fittingness of such a state when it teaches that virginity is a higher state of life than regular married life.
Exhibit A: The Annunciation
So where does the Bible imply that Mary had intended always to be a virgin? Let us look first at Luke 1:26-38, the account of the Annunciation:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. He went in and said to her, 'Rejoice, you who enjoy God's favour! The Lord is with you.' She was deeply disturbed by these words, and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, 'Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favour. Look! You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor, David; he will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his reign will have no end.' Mary said to the angel, 'But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. And I tell you this too: your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.' Mary said, 'You see before you the Lord's servant, let it happen to me as you have said.' And the angel left her (NJB).Mary's Question
When the angel announces to Mary that God wants her to bear a son, she asks either a very poignant or a very stupid question, depending on what side of the Perpetual Virginity fence one is on: "How can this be, for I have no knowledge of man?" (v. 34). Luke had told us in verse 27 that at the time that Gabriel appeared to Mary, she was already betrothed to Joseph. Had Mary expected to enter into a normal marriage with Joseph, surely she would know by that time how babies are made. Surely her parents weren't so negligent as all that! Nevertheless, she is genuinely puzzled by the angel's announcement. Recall that the angel Gabriel had only told her that she would conceive--not when this would occur. Logically, had Mary been intending to have a normal relationship with Joseph, she would have assumed that such a birth would take place in the normal way of things. That she felt it necessary to ask how this was to happen clearly implies that not only had she not had any previous "knowledge of man", but that she clearly intended not to with Joseph, either.
Angelic Visitation as Sign of Conception's Impossibility
A second point to draw from this passage, is the fact of its very occurrence. Every time an angel announces the conception of a baby, that child is to be someone great in God's plan (consider Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist). The other key thing, however, in every other angelic announcement, was that it was physically impossible for the child's mother to conceive. In every other case, the mother was barren. In two of the four cases, the mother had also undergone menopause. And in each situation, this difficulty was very clearly stated by the sacred authors. When we come to Mary, however, while other similarities are present, Luke does not tell us that Mary is barren. Rather, Mary herself tells us why it would be impossible for her to conceive, thus warranting angelic visitation--and that takes us back again to her odd question. Not only was she a virgin when Gabriel showed up, it was a state of life to which she had consecrated herself.
Thus, Mary's question is crucial to understanding the Perpetual Virginity. If she had not intended to remain ever-virgin, what other meaning could her question have had?
Exhibit B: Jesus Gives Mary to John's Care
Going from the beginning of Jesus' earthly life, we jump now to the end of it. The second biblical text indicating Mary's perpetual virginity is also the one which I find most compelling. John 19:25-27 tells us,
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, 'Woman, this is your son.' Then to the disciple he said, 'This is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (NJB).Care For Parents: It's the Law
We mentioned this text in the article about Mary being the Mother of God, in the context of her being the Mother of all Christians, as well. But this passage also indicates her perpetual virginity, as well, for if Mary had had other sons, it would have been their duty, under the Law, to take care of their mother (see Exodus 20:12, Prov. 23:22, Sirach 3:12ff, and, in the New Testament, 1 Tim. 5:8). Yet Jesus' last act from the Cross is to entrust her to the care of John the Apostle, who is nowhere indicated to be any relation of Jesus whatsoever. Doing this would have been a grave insult to James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, were they actually Jesus' brothers and the sons of Mary. He essentially would be disowning them from His family, as would Mary herself, by accepting this arrangement!
Not Qualified Due to Lack of Faith?
Now, some object that Jesus' brothers didn't believe in Him until after the resurrection (cf. John 7:3-10), and that is why Jesus didn't entrust His mother to them. But this objection makes no sense, since they were still, ostensibly, Mary's children, and honour- and law-bound to care for her. Furthermore, at least some of them did, in fact, believe in Jesus after His resurrection (consider James and Jude, authors of their respective epistles), and Jesus, in His divine foreknowledge, would have known that. Thus, there was no reason for Jesus to not have entrusted them with the care of Mary, unless, in fact, they were not His brothers and her children, and therefore had no legal claim on them to care for her! As such, the fact that Jesus felt it to be necessary to entrust Mary to John quite definitively indicates that she had no other children. This, combined with her otherwise unusual question in Luke 1:34, shows rather clearly, if implicitly, that Mary was perpetually a virgin.
Exhibit C: Virginity the Higher Calling
While these two are the most direct passages with regards to Mary's perpetual virginity, there are a few other points to consider before leaving the question of the Bible's position. First, while the Bible affirms that marital relations and childbearing are definitely good things, there are passages that tell us that virginity is a higher calling. Revelation 14:1-5 describes a group of people known as the 144,000. While their identity is far from certain (to the chagrin of the Jehovah's Witnesses), there are some definite descriptors about them which make them worthy to be numbered in this group. Verse four begins the description: "These are the ones who have kept their virginity and not been defiled with women..." Their life of perpetual virginity heads the list of qualifications for the specific honour awarded to them in this passage--to have learned "a new hymn" and to sing it "in the presence of the four living creatures and the elders" (v. 3). Furthermore, St. Paul writes at length about the blessing and the merits of a celibate life, as freeing one to be more able to devote him- or herself fully to the will of God (1 Corinthians 7). He begins this chapter by saying, "Yes, it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman" (v. 1). Later on, he explicitly states, "If someone with strong passions thinks that he is behaving badly towards his fiancee and that things should take their due course, he should follow his desires. There is no sin in it; they should marry. But if he stands firm in his resolution, without any compulsion but with full control of his own will, and decides to let her remain as his fiancee, then he is acting well. In other words, he who marries his fiancee is doing well, and he who does not, better still" (vv. 36-38, emphasis mine). Finally, Jesus Himself advocates celibacy for those to whom it is given:
The disciples said to him, 'If that is how things are between husband and wife, it is advisable not to marry.' But he replied, 'It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted. There are eunuchs born so from their mother's womb, there are eunuchs made so by human agency and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can' (Matthew 19:10-12).From these three passages, we see that virginity is a higher state than married life, though it is not the call of every person. Being, however, that Mary herself is the highest honoured of all human beings, it is greatly fitting that God would have graced her to live according to a higher state of life.
Exhibit D: Old Testament Typology
Further, the early Church Fathers have seen in Ezekiel 44:1-3 a type of Mary. In chapter 43, Ezekiel sees the Lord enter into the new Jerusalem from the Eastern Gate, and proceed to show to Ezekiel the New Temple. In chapter 44, Ezekiel writes,
He brought me back to the outer east gate of the sanctuary. It was shut. Yahweh said to me, 'This gate will be kept shut. No one may open it or go through it, since Yahweh, God of Israel, has been through it. And so it must be kept shut. The prince himself, however, may sit there to take his meal in the presence of Yahweh. He must enter and leave through the porch of the gate.'The Fathers allegorically interpreted this as Mary's virginal conception of Jesus--that is, the Holy Spirit, who is Yahweh, the God of Israel, had "been through" the "gate" of Mary when He overshadowed her; thus, it was fitting that no one else should do so. Only the "Prince", Jesus, Son of God and Prince of Peace, would be permitted to "sit there and to take his meal", that is, to derive His nourishment in Mary's womb, and then "leave through the porch of the gate" at His birth. Do not mistake me to mean that Ezekiel 44 is a prophecy of Mary's perpetual virginity. Rather, it is a type of it, just as the Bronze Serpent of Numbers 21:4-9 was a type of the Crucifixion (cf. John 3:14-15).
Finally, another type in Scripture clearly connects to Mary's perpetual virginity. That is, the type of the Ark of the Covenant, fulfilled in Mary, which we discussed at length during the Rosary series. That is, as Mary fulfils the type of the Ark, in that the Ark held the 10 Commandments, the Manna, and Aaron's priestly rod which budded, so Mary held in her womb the Law Giver, the Bread of Life, and the true High Priest in Jesus Christ, so too as the Ark was the holiest of all sacred objects, Mary is the holiest of all God's people, and, finally, as no one could touch the Ark, so Mary was "untouched", perpetually a virgin.
This, then, summarises the "positive" biblical proof for Mary's perpetual virginity. I personally found it quite compelling when I was becoming a Catholic. Moreover, the Church has always found it compelling, as it has consistently, from the earliest times, upheld belief in Mary's perpetual virginity. As we mentioned in the last article, the early Christian writing, The Protoevangelium of James, written probably around AD 120, was composed primarily as a defense of Mary's perpetual virginity. About it, Origen would later write,
"The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity" (Commentary on Matthew 2:17 [A.D. 248]).Later, in AD 354, St. Hilary of Poitiers, in his Commentary on Matthew, would argue for Mary's perpetual virginity based on Jesus' giving Mary to John's care at the crucifixion. St. Epiphanius of Salamis argued for Mary's perpetual virginity from her very name, for even by his time (AD 375), Mary was always known as "the Virgin Mary" or "the Blessed Virgin Mary". He states, "And to holy Mary, 'Virgin' is invariably added, for that holy woman remains undefiled" (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 78:6 [A.D. 375]).
We mentioned in the last article as well St. Jerome's treatise, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, which he wrote around 383. In it, he himself marshals Sts. Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr in defense of Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Other notable defenders of and believers in this doctrine include St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Pope Siricius I, and Pope Leo I, among many others, whom it would be tedious for me to quote at length. Of course, Catholic Answers already did that, here.
Official Church Promulgation
With this much historical weight behind it, it seems almost unnecessary for the Church to have officially promulgated it at an Ecumenical Council. Yet, it was declared at the Second Council of Constantinople. In AD 553, at the Council of Constantinople, the Church labeled as heretics those who denied "that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her" (Anathemas against the 'Three Chapters' 2). After the Second Council of Constantinople, the title was universally accepted and promulgated by the Church. Later, in AD 649, Pope Martin I convened the Lateran Council, which issued this statement:
If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.Hostile Witnesses
Thus belief in Mary's Perpetual Virginity was universally held by the Catholic Church, and, after the Schism of 1054, the Orthodox Church continued to teach and believe it, as well. In fact, all of the early Reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and even John Wesley are on record as affirming the teaching. (For the Zwingli quotations, follow the link and scroll to the end of Calvin's section.)
The unanimity of belief, compounded with the Scriptural evidence for it, serve to overwhelmingly attest to the truth of Mary's Perpetual Virginity. In light of this, on what grounds does anyone fail to uphold that Mary was, in fact, Ever-virgin?
Implications of Mary's Perpetual Virginity
Nevertheless, some people still object to the doctrine, despite the abundant evidence, asking "what difference does it make?" This question implies that since a particular teaching does not specifically pertain to one's salvation, that it is somehow "negotiable", or "less true". However, such an opinion opens the door to questioning which doctrines are necessary to be believed in order to be saved, and which ones aren't. It is a question that has many different answers depending on to whose faith-tradition one belongs. Further, the truth of a doctrine is not dependent upon its relevance.
Safeguards Belief in Jesus' Virgin Birth
But the fact is, there are various implications to Mary's Perpetual Virginity for us. The first, as I mentioned in the Indroductory Post, is that it serves to safeguard belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. While belief in Jesus' virgin birth is not dependent upon belief in Mary's perpetual virginity, it's interesting to note that, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch (Anglican deacon and historian of the Reformation), during the Renaissance, Protestant rationalists began to deny the perpetual virginity in order to deny Jesus' virgin birth. They seemed to understand that the two stood or fell together. Thus the Reformers mentioned above regarded Mary's perpetual virginity as "the guarantee of the Incarnation of Christ."
Testifies to Higher Calling of Virginity
Belief in Mary's perpetual virginity also bears witness to us of the exaltedness of the celibate state. I mentioned above in the biblical defense of the doctrine that while the Bible (and the Church) does not view marriage and marital relations as bad or sinful, it does maintain that virginity is the higher calling. Mary is, therefore, the perfect exemplar of that calling, and an inspiration to those who pursue that vocation in their own lives.
Beacon of Purity
Finally, Mary stands, as ever-virgin, as a beacon against the degraded sexual mores of our culture. Where society screams sex, sex, sex, Mary points the way to a more blessed purity. While people would have us believe that we are just animals with instincts that demand satisfaction, and that we cannot control our baser desires and therefore should simply give in, Mary shows us by her example that this need not be the case. Moreover, through her prayers for us, she wins us the graces to persevere in purity and chastity. Let us thus turn and petition Mary for her prayers on our behalf in the words of the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J:
Immaculate Virgin Mary, I confide my chastity to your maternal heart. I ask your help to guard my senses, especially the eyes, for an unchaste eye is the messenger of an unchaste heart. Knowing my pride, I pray for that humility which invites the mercy of God. Knowing that I am human, I shall not be surprised at the urge of concupiscence, but trusting in your care I rely on your protection and all the graces that I need from your divine Son. Amen.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)
Posted by Gregory at 3:02 am