Mary, Mother of Jesus (First Century)
There is no woman in the history of the world who has generated more attention, enthusiasm, and devotion than the Virgin Mary. She has been the subject of thousands of paintings, poems, and prayers. She has captured the hearts of monks, sailors, kings, and knights, and millions of people have claimed that their devotion to her has made them better, wiser, and more pure than they might otherwise have been. Still, there is astonishingly little known about her life, and only a few words attributed to her.
According to church tradition, Mary's parents, Joachim and Anne, had to wrestle through a period of infertility before giving birth to her. Their story is preserved in an ancient extrabiblical text, the
One day Joachim went to the temple to pray and was told that he had no children because of his sins. Distraught, he went into the wilderness to pray for forty days. He neglected to tell Anne where he was going, and this omission intensified her grief. Not only was she barren, she thought, but she was also a widow. She went out to her garden and saw a mother bird feeding her babies in a nest. She could only lament with the cry of so many couples who struggle with infertility. “
While she was praying, an angel came to her and told her that she would bear a child. At the same time, an angel came to Joachim with the same message. The two then rushed to the city gates to embrace. Their little Mary was born exactly nine months (less one day) after she was conceived.
Figure2-1: Mary, Mother of Jesus
When Mary was a teenager, she was visited by the archangel Gabriel, who, according to the Gospel of Luke, said to her, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (An archangel is an angel of the highest order.) After calming her fears, he went on to tell her that she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus, who would be called “the Son of the Most High.”
Gabriel explained that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. After struggling with the question of how she could have a child when she had not yet known a man, Mary responded, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
When she visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, Mary told Elizabeth her news and offered the exultant prayer of praise known as “The Magnificat,” which retains an important place in the liturgies of both the Eastern and Western Churches.
What is the Immaculate Conception?
The Immaculate Conception is the belief that from the moment of Mary's conception, she was freed from the stain of original sin, which was passed on to all after the Fall. The Immaculate Conception is a significantbelief in the Roman Catholic Church, but has never been subscribed to by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Little is known about Mary from this point on, although there are a few incidents related to her in the Scriptures. It is believed that she was at the foot of the cross at the Crucifixion, and that Jesus asked his apostle John to look after her. This scripturally based belief gave rise to the legend that Mary lived out the end of her days with St. John in what is now known as Ephesus, Turkey, where a small stone structure is believed by many to be “the house of Mary.”
Because so little is known about Mary's life, she has been the subject of much speculation. Each age has imbued her with the qualities most admired at that time. In years past it was her apparent meekness and deference to her son that was most emphasized.
In recent years, however, small details of her life have been reinterpreted. For example, after Jesus's ascension into heaven, Mary was in Jerusalem with the rest of the small band of Christians, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the distillation of Christ's message to the world. Now it is believed that Mary was an integral part of the nucleus of this community of believers.
If little was said about the mother of Jesus during her lifetime, the millennia have since propelled her to a position right behind Jesus in interest, study, and devotion. There is no other saint as loved and admired as Mary is.
Some modern-day scholars do not believe that Mary was the one who actually composed the Magnificat, but that it may have been written by the author of Luke's Gospel or may have had its beginnings in a song composed by early Christians.
Art has also fed the continuing interest in Mary, with hundreds of paintings and sculptures done by masters as well as by unknown artists. Found in churches and museums, these works have been widely reprinted for the public in books and magazines, and also appear on television and the Internet.
Special Marian exercises — such as reciting the rosary — help keep Mary prominent in personal devotions, as the faithful often ask her to intercede for them to Jesus in the hope that he will not deny his mother what she asks of him.
The Church holds to four principal doctrines about the Blessed Mother. From the ancient world there is her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ, and her divine maternity that made her the mother of God. According to the Roman Catholic Church, it is important to realize that Mary does perform the miracles that constitute her doctrines, but not by her own power. She merely channels the power that comes from God. In the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed a third doc-trine: the Immaculate Conception, which states that Mary was conceived without original sin. (The Immaculate Conception has often mistakenly been thought to refer to Jesus.) Finally, the Assumption was officially declared by the Roman Catholic Church in the twentieth century. The Assumption is the belief that Mary was taken, body and soul, into heaven at the end of her years on Earth.
Where and when Mary died is uncertain, although there has been a good deal of speculation. The apostle John is believed to have cared for her after the Crucifixion, but here, too, there is no agreement by religious scholars as to exactly how or where that occurred. The Virgin Mary is commemorated on many different days in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. In the Roman Catholic Church, the entire month of May has often been called “Mary's Month.” During this month, Catholic-school children traditionally crown a statue of Mary with flowers.
The belief in the Assumption has been bolstered by the fact that, as with Christ, no bodily relics of the Virgin Mary have ever been discovered. There are relics associated with things that she touched, or wore, however. In particular, her “belt” has been much venerated through the ages.
Mary's name will crop up in the next few hundred pages in the context of those saints who have a special devotion to her and those who claim to have seen her in apparitions. Over the centuries these visions have kept Mary alive in the minds and hearts of the faithful.
There have been more apparitions of Mary than of any other saint. According to some sources there have been around 20,000 appearances of Mary from the year A.D. 40 to the present. These apparitions are reported to have occurred in almost every culture in the world. In most cases, Mary comes dressed in the local garb and speaking the local tongue.
Those who directly witness an apparition are called “visionaries.” In cases such as Fatima, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared multiple times, thousands have gathered to witness the apparitions. Although only the visionaries see Mary, others can often glimpse accompanying phenomena, such as the famed “miracle of the sun” at Fatima, witnessed by an estimated 70,000 people (see Chapter 17).
What is “Marian”?
“Marian” is an adjective used to denote special reverence for Mary, in devotions and feasts. A Marian year, for example, is a twelve-month period periodically set aside by popes as a time of renewed devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Marian feasts — the Assumption and the ImmaculateConception — honor Mary.
Apparitions can also come in the form of weeping statues and icons. When statues bleed, the tears and sweat are most often human tears, sweat, or blood. When icons weep, they tend to emit a myrrh-scented olive oil, which is believed to contain healing properties.
Historically, apparitions were sometimes related to building projects — many of the great churches of the world, such as St. Mary Major in Rome, are associated with apparitions. In other ages, apparitions of Mary have offered encouragement or healing. More recently, apparitions have contained frightening warnings about the apocalypse, as well as exhortations to pray and work for peace.
A couple of years ago in Clearwater, Florida, the tinted windows of an office building seemed to be forming a mosaic of the Blessed Mother, attracting believers and the curious. Special parking areas near the building were roped off for the “viewing.”
Even when scientists have explanations for those phenomena, the devout are often willing and eager to believe that a link exists between them and Jesus in the form of his mother, Mary, as she visits the faithful on earth.