Mary and the Gospels

In the Gospels, Mark, Luke, and John all take a very different approach to Mary's role in the life and works of Jesus Christ. (The fourth Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew, is fairly similar to the Gospel of Luke.) The differences among their portrayals of Mary have implications for how the Church understands her and on the Marian devotions practiced by believers. Many Catholics tend to favor the images of Mary from the Gospel of Luke, which describes the Annunciation and includes a passage that extols Mary's virtues.

Luke describes how the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary and greets her: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Mary must have shown her fear, because the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” The angel tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, the Son of God.

Understandably, Mary is confused. She asks: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” The angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:28–35).

What is the Virgin Conception?

Mary conceived of Jesus while remaining a virgin, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The concept of the Virgin Conception has been a stumbling block for many believers, and some scholars believe that Mary went on to have more children — siblings of Jesus.

The Magnificat

When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth (who is pregnant with John the Baptist), Elizabeth greets Mary with these words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? … Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Mary replies with the passage that has come to be known as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is might has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

In reciting the Magnificat, which is based on the prayer of Hannah from the Book of Samuel, Mary shows that she is learned in Scriptures and is heavily influenced by the Jewish concepts of God.

The Rest of Luke's Narrative

The Gospel of Luke shows Mary as pious and obedient to God as it describes the birth of Jesus, the homage of the shepherds, and the presentation in the Temple. For the most part, Mary seems to understand her role in the divine plan. When Jesus has been lost for three days and Mary finds him with the scholars in the Temple, she rebukes him and he replies, “Did you not know I must be about my Father's business?”

Just as Christ ascended into heaven after the Resurrection, the Church asserts that Mary overcame death and was assumed body and soul into Heaven by means of divine power. The Assumption does not appear in the Scriptures but was proclaimed as a doctrine by the pope in 1950.

In the Gospels of Mark and John

Mark and John sometimes portray Mary in a less positive light. Take the passage of Mark 3:20–35 as an example. In this passage, Jesus and his apostles are in a house near the Sea of Galilee, and a huge crowd has gathered outside. Jesus' family comes to take him, for they fear for his sanity. They say: “He is beside himself.” When someone tells Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you,” he replies, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” This passage may lead to the assumption that Mary was not one of the original disciples, and Mark never says that she ever became one.

The Gospel of John initially seems to show that Mary does not have full knowledge of the divine plan. When she tells her son at the wedding feast at Cana to do something since the couple has run out of wine, Jesus replies, “Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not yet come.” Yet he does as she asks, even though he seems to think that she does not realize the importance of his work for the Father, and how it should take precedence over family interests.

At the end of the Gospel of John, we see the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross with one of Jesus' disciples. Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the disciple, “Son, behold your mother.” The Church interprets this as Jesus giving his mother a spiritual role as mother of the disciples. This role of discipleship is viewed as giving rise to the great doctrines and devotions to Mary that later developed in the Church.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary should not be confused with the Virgin Conception of Jesus. Through the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Church asserts that Mary was conceived and born free from original sin, the lack of grace, and the tendency to sinfulness that marks ordinary mortals.

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