Mary, Mother of Christ
To many people it appears that Christians, especially Catholics, worship the Virgin Mary as some kind of Goddess.
The atheist Humanist looks upon Christian devotion to the Virgin Mary as the superstitious cult worship of an idealised female form, a sanitised pagan Goddess under new guise: christianised, but entirely imaginary and just not relevant to real life.
Such serious minded people regard with scorn and disbelief the Catholic teaching that a young Jewess became the Virgin Mother of God. Of course, in their view the notion of a Divine Creator is also an illusion, a distraction from reality only to be believed by weak minded and deluded people who are in need of help.
Agnostics, less assured, tend to look upon this particular Christian doctrine as a quaint and rather charming eccentricity - an irrational tribute to the beauty of femininity " .but why all this fuss about virginity? How can one believe, my dears, in such a thing as a virgin birth?"
COMMENT: [from Catechism of Catholic Church p.112] ("Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike" [S .Justin: Dialogue, 708-709], so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith.)
Other opinions tend to echo the view that Jesus and everything in relation to him are of minor importance: e.g. the Koran mentions Jesus as a minor prophet, which, from an Islamic point of view would reduce the mother of Jesus to total obscurity. Buddhism, presumably, would welcome Jesus and his mother into the great All of Being - accept all, believe all - a poetic mysticism in which people and things loose their particular and specific identity - their real value.
A substantial number of Christians themselves appear to view Mary merely as an icon. She may have been a real person once upon a time, but she is now deified and unreal. She bears the title of the Mother of God - but as a real person she is so far elevated from ordinary human existence that she is only to be worshipped, from a distance - slightly more approachable than Jesus, but not much. Such people find it vulgar and unthinkable that the Virgin Mother endured such earthly indignities as the breaking of her waters and the cutting of the umbilical cord that joined her to a blood-spattered male baby. Notions such as these would destroy her purity, her virginity - threaten Her godlike status!
All of these attitudes are travesties of the reality.
Consider the situation.
Mary was a young Jewish girl, probably aged fifteen or sixteen, when she learned that she was to be a mother. Young women in the Eastern Mediterranean, even today, are physically mature, ready for marriage, at an early age.
According to first century Jewish practices Mary was actually married to Joseph, who - it is not unreasonable to speculate - was a modestly well established village tradesman, a carpenter, economically ready for marriage - on this basis probably aged somewhere in the range of late twenties to early thirties.
(In accordance with the Jewish custom of the time there was a waiting period of six months or so before the marriage was consummated. We would call this relationship 'an Engagement'.)
In his account of the life of Christ Luke, the doctor turned writer, describes how Jesus was conceived:
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, so highly favoured! 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. Listen! You are to conceive 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 for ever and his reign will have no end.
Mary said to the angel, 'But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?' [Literally 'I have not known a man']
'The Holy Spirit will come upon you' the angel answered '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. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God'
'I am the handmaid of the Lord,'
said Mary 'let what you have said be done to me.' And the angel left her.
If you don't believe in angels this will appear to be so much hogwash. The choice is yours - but before you dismiss the story as irrelevant consider the natural process of conception and birth.
Imagine a creature from another planet listening to a description of how human beings are generated.
"A man has a fleshy thing that hangs between his
legs, which he normally uses to drain off excess body water. At moments of high excitement
this fleshy thing becomes erect, and he then lies on top of a woman and puts it into an
orifice between the woman's legs and with intense pleasure squirts a bit of juice into her
- and she becomes pregnant. That's how human beings are made!"
Unbelievable - but upon inspection and observation ET will be forced to agree that in outline this is exactly what happens (even should he fail to appreciate the deep love and friendship that, ideally, accompanies such an act).
The generation of life is a wondrous, marvellous thing, a mystery - and no matter how explained in terms of ovum and sperm, people who have generated new, small, human beings instinctively realise that there is something much greater than mere biology at work - no matter how wonderful this is. There is an awed awareness of the physical and mental characteristics of each individual child, and a puzzling, dawning realisation that unaided we could not have generated such an astonishing creature.
Imagine for a moment that God really does exist (I firmly believe it, but I do not take your faith for granted). As the author of life an all-powerful deity can dispense, theoretically, with any part of the normal and natural processes that He has instigated. Even the genetic scientist can artificially inseminate an ovum - and God, the arbiter of all things, will not alter His life-creating action simply because men, some say foolishly, have managed to isolate egg and sperm and combine them in a laboratory. I'm not certain that God approves of such procedures - except possibly when they are reverentially and lovingly directed towards the creation of life by and for infertile couples - but there is no doubt in my mind that He himself can generate life directly and immediately, without human ovum and sperm - should He wish to do so and should it be appropriate - not offending against the norms that He has established.
Followers of Jesus, flourishing in full faith, believe that it has been appropriate and will only ever be appropriate in one case: the conception of Jesus - for Jesus has only one Father, not another man, but God the Father, the originator of all life.
We believe that God Himself directly fertilised an ovum in the body of a young Jewish woman. Wonder of wonders, God, the author of all life, has, on one unrepeatable occasion, enclosed himself in the womb of a female member of the human race, becoming a real and living brother to all mankind. "Gestant puellae viscera" cries out Thomas Aquinas in awe and reverence: "Growing in the belly of a young girl".
In the womb of a young virgin, anticipated and prepared for through aeons of time, the Word of God became an embryo, by the direct act of His Father. There was no need for human seed. Such an intermediary would have been mere playacting. God was and is the Father of Jesus - not in the same sense that He is creator and generator of all mankind but in the sense that Jesus is a Son equal in nature to His Father, equally God, in the mystery of the Trinitarian nature of God.....
Hence the church confesses that Mary is truly 'Mother of God' (Theotokos) - as defined by the fathers of the Church at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431, and, in the Council of the Lateran in 649, that Jesus was 'conceived by the Holy Spirit without human seed'.
True God, but also true man!
I have no difficulty in believing that God, the author of all life, should show his love for all mankind, all creation, in this way. It is, naturally, difficult to understand how He did it, but not so hard to know why.
As St. Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews:
It was essential that he should in this way become completely like his brothers so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God's religion, able to atone for human sins. That is, because he has himself been through temptation he is able to help others who are tempted. (HEB2:17/18)
So what does all of this amount to?
From the Christian point of view there is a specific understanding that Mary is truly the Mother of a Divine Person. The fact makes her remarkable. God has chosen her, this young woman from the eastern Mediterranean. Was He wrong? Should He have chosen someone else, possibly someone more worthy? Scarcely! Who is the best judge?
The subject of His choice is worthy of great veneration: As Mary herself said:
'My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my saviour; because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid. Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name, and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him'. (Lk.1.46-50)
But what did her son have to say about it?
Now as he was speaking, a woman in
the crowd raised her voice and said, 'Happy the womb that bore you and the breasts you
sucked!' But he replied, 'Still happier are those who hear the word of God
and keep it!' (LK11:27)
*In Hebr. and Aramaic (and many other languages), 'brothers' is the word used for cousins or even more distant relations of the same generation.
Does this reduce the importance of Mary? Certainly NOT!
Jesus is saying that he loves every single human being with the same intensity as he loves his mother, and will do for each of us what he has done for her - provided we strive to do His will i.e. love God and our neighbour honestly and truly, with full mind and heart.
St. Augustine of Hippo (in 397 AD) underlines the point I try to make: "Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ". She is blessed, of course, in receiving the Word incarnate into her womb, but it is her faith that has made it possible.
Christ promised that He would lead all to the truth, that the gates of hell would not prevail against the holy body of His people (MT 16:18), which would always teach the truth. The truth revealed by Christ through His Church, about His Mother, is that she has been taken, body and soul into heaven*, given an immediate share in her son's resurrection. We too, of course, will share in this bodily resurrection in due course, provided we live good lives.
*The Doctrine of the Assumption (Latin: assumere, to take up)
Mary is the first fruit of many.
There is no doubt in my mind that from the moment John the beloved disciple accepted the dying Christ's request to look after his mother she was held in great veneration. Was she not the mother of Jesus, this remarkable man who had come among them? How else could it be?
I love to ponder upon some basic facts. First, Mary was and remained a virgin. The belief has existed in such strength and depth for such a long time that it would be impossible to deny it. St. Augustine, in a 4th century sermon, says of Mary: "she remained a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin" - and so, as the Catholic Catechism puts it, the liturgy of the church celebrates Mary as 'Aeiparthenos', the 'ever-virgin'.
In the practical order of things there would have been no reason why she and her husband should not have come together and expressed their love for each other sexually. But in the light of her stupendous mission, her almighty privilege, I can well imagine that she and Joseph received such great grace and love from on high - were in a state of awe and continued, questioning contemplation as to who Jesus might be, were so greatly empowered by God, that they realised how fitting it would be if they did not express their love sexually. Which is more important, after all, sex or love? There is for all human beings, "a time for embracing, a time to refrain from embracing". (Ecclesiastes3:5) With Mary and Joseph the time was merely extended, with their full-hearted co-operation, in loving faith.
Unbelievers will scoff, but the teaching of the Church, the belief of the disciples carried down the ages is based upon solid foundations. Following her son's death and resurrection we know that Mary and others met together constantly, in prayer and thanksgiving, dwelling upon and discussing the momentous events that had taken place. THE LIFE, DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS WAS A REALITY! They had seen and talked to him, eaten meals with him a few days after they had taken his dead body down from the cross! They knew he had died, but they also knew that he was alive once more! Amazing! What joyful discussions must have taken place! What questions there were to be asked, what details of his life there were to be assimilated and understood!
Would Mary not have recounted to her friends, to those who shared in these extraordinary events, the details of her life, how she and Joseph had lived, what their relationship had been? Of course she would - especially to John, and she was as knowledgeable about sex as any woman, even from an early age (Quote: ".. How can this be since I know not man?").
During the years following her anguish at the brutal murder of
her son and the amazement and joy of his resurrection - when she would have grown into a
mature woman in her early fifties - would she not have said with equal candour to John and
the others "Joseph and I lived together, but we did not know each other as do
other husbands and wives."? To the disciples, as to believers today, she
would not have had to offer any explanation other than the fact that her son was a special
man, with a special Father; that Joseph and she had often speculated about the amazing
circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. Jesus is the focus of their
The Living & Dying of Mary & Joseph
To many of us it is an irritation that we do not have exact, recorded information of all events in the life of Mary, and her husband. Poor Joseph scarcely gets a look-in at all, overshadowed by his wife. But even the information given about her is sketchy, and to the modern mind inadequate.
Had the birth of Jesus taken place today some lively person with a camcorder, functioning in the unremarkable village of Bethlehem, might have recorded a moment or two of the event, and later on possibly fed it to the media - perhaps as a tailpiece at the end of the Nine O'clock News - when the nature of the birth came to be realised.
Of course this is exactly what occurred at the time, within the limits of the media of the day, with only a few written scraps to assuage our thirst for first-hand information; and we must accept that this always will be so.
Fortunately, while there are fairly few details about Our Lady, the main facts concerning her son are quite clear, for those whose minds are open to the truth.
The account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is clear. But what about Joseph, and Mary?
In my young day Joseph was viewed as a rather elderly gentleman
who could never have had any vestige of a loving, sexual desire for his intended
wife. As an old fellow he could be presented as being past it! His existence was
then, and still is to some, I believe, an embarrassment and a difficulty of faith - for
those who are aware of sexual urges and the difficulty we experience in controlling such
powerful, natural inclinations.
Should we have such difficulties of faith and perception - allied to trouble in controlling our own sexual urges - we may feel uneasy about Joseph's close and loving relationship with his wife. The notion of the Virgin Mary having a fit, healthy husband with normal sexual desires can be awkward to some - an embarrassment! Better to kill off Joseph - present him as an old man with no sexual impulses or expectations. It's easier that way! But it is not real.
Expectations & Reality
It is likely that Joseph was perhaps as much as fifteen years older than his bride, and quite a normal man, judging from his reaction to the news of his fiancée's pregnancy.
A kindly man, who did not wish Mary to be stoned to death by neighbours - in that extreme era the usual community punishment for adultery - Joseph must have been heartstruck at the thought of her unfaithfulness. He must have felt such desolation and pain at the death of his plan to marry this beautiful young village girl.
Can you imagine the moment when Mary told him that she was pregnant? Joseph had great need of the words of the Angel Gabriel to enable him to accept the divine nature of the event. What torture of spirit and mind he must have been going through.
Up to the point of Mary's astounding conception of Jesus their expectation of a normal marriage was mutual. Even allowing for a certain amount of marriage arrangement in that place and at that time there can be little doubt that Mary would not have agreed to marry just anyone. She undoubtedly knew Joseph very well, and both liked and loved him, intended him to be her husband in the normal human way. Their betrothal created problems, first the amazing and unanticipated pregnancy and then a question of how they were to live together as husband and wife - slowly beginning to understand that theirs was to be, to say the least, an unusual and demanding marital relationship.
Alas, we do not know the details of their relationship - though perhaps we can imagine some of it, with due respect for their privacy - in the light of the understanding and teaching of the church from earliest times that Mary remained a virgin.
It is strange that we do not know at what moment in their marriage Joseph died. We simply know nothing; which is a bit weird, another lack that we must accept.
Even more mysterious, given Mary's special friendship with the writer of John's marvellous gospel, we must accept that we do not know when she died.
There have even been some, throughout the ages, who have believed that she did not die, that she was taken up to heaven before this event could took place.
The theory is based upon the absolute teaching of the Church that Mary was conceived in her mother's - Anna's - womb without the stain of original sin* (* The Immaculate Conception: defined as an article of faith in 1854) and that, because of this, she would not have been subject to death - a central consequence of the sin of Adam & Eve. The theological rationality of this escapes me, for Christ was totally sinless and he faced death.
I believe that at the very moment of her death,
having lived the remainder of her life in the fullness of faith, with an ever-deepening,
prayerful realisation of her son's identity as God incarnate, she was taken up to heaven,
body and soul - in the very instant of her death.
Now that Mary is in Heaven,
body and soul, in the glory that is God, she points the way for us.
KidStuff: The priest was asking Year I Primary Class why
Catholics love the Virgin Mary so much. A little boy answered, "Because She was
handmade by the Lord"