17 February 2018

Mary mother of Jesus

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is obviously an important figure in Christianity. However for much of Church history she epitomises Protestant – Catholic animosities; downgraded by the former and elevated by the latter. What is the history of Mary?

The mother of Jesus is one of several woman of that name in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke provides the early information about Mary and Jesus: her engagement to Joseph, the announcement of her pregnancy, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and His presentation in the Temple and her panic at accidentally abandoning Him in Jerusalem while on pilgrimage. Only John provides information on Mary’s relationship with the adult Jesus: participating in His first miracle in Cana when he turned water into wine and Jesus, from his cross, committing her to the care of the disciple John. The virgin birth of Jesus and the unique relationship that she had with Him surely merits our attention. The standard theological understanding of Jesus is that He is fully God and fully human at the same time, and Mary had a fundamental role in this. Both at Cana and from the cross Jesus addresses Mary as ‘Woman’, and this is unique in Greek literature of the time, emphasising the closeness of their relationship. Her presence at His crucifixion is surely one of the most poignant scenes in the entire Bible; a mother witnessing such a vicious torture upon her son.

It was common in the early church era to contrast Eve and Mary: the former had privilege but lost everything through disobedience and the latter had very little but gained everything through obedience. This probably developed as an extension of Paul’s contrast of Adam with Christ in Romans 5. The concept of the perpetual virginity of Mary, associated with her singleness, was advocated by bishops Ambrose (339-397) and Augustine (354-430) and used as a powerful type of the church. The idea of the ascension of Mary into heaven developed in the late fourth century, initially only her soul, in the late sixth century her body too.

Devotion to Mary gained in popularity in the Middle Ages and in the eleventh century the ‘Hail Mary’ developed as the most popular prayer to her. It consists of a compilation of the words of the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:28) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:42) to which was added, in the fifteenth century, a petition for help in time of death. Although Reformers and Roman Catholics expressed opposing views on the position of Mary, it was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that papal decrees defined the latter church’s doctrine of Mary.

The centrality of Mary in Roman Catholic theology is illustrated by the fact that on 6 December 1854 Pope Pius IX declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – that Mary was free from sin from the moment of her conception.

Four years later, on 11 MARCH 1858, fourteen year old Bernadette Soutirous saw a young woman near Lourdes; it was the first of eighteen such appearances. On 25 March the woman identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Lourdes has thereafter become a major pilgrimage centre for Roman Catholics.

On 15 August 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the doctrine of the Assumption – that upon her death, Mary had ascended bodily into heaven.

Protestants profoundly disagree with these doctrines and argue that Mary, while privileged in being chosen to carry and give birth to Jesus, was an ordinary sinner like everyone else in the human race.

Devotion to Mary is still a dividing factor among churches, nowhere more so than in Ireland. The principal shrine to Mary is in Knock, County Mayo. It is claimed that on the evening of Thursday 21 August 1879 Mary, Joseph and John appeared to a group of fifteen people with ages ranging from six to seventyfive. This apparition lasted three hours, achieved immediate fame and Knock has become a place of pilgrimage ever since. As part of the centenary celebrations, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine on 30 September 1979.

It seems strange that Protestants and Roman Catholics can disagree so profoundly about someone who is as central to the life of Jesus as Mary, His mother. Fundamentally the Protestant case rests upon Scripture alone and the Catholic case rests upon Scripture plus tradition. The Catholic case uses information in a mid-second century document known as Protoevangelium of James. According to this source, when Mary was three years old she was brought to the Temple by her parents Joachim and Anna where she was dedicated to God and a life of perpetual virginity. Joseph, an elderly widower, was appointed as her guardian in an agreement to protect her and guard her virginity. The brothers – James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, and sisters, unnamed, of Jesus (Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56) are in fact His step brothers and step-sisters, the older children of Joseph by his first wife. This document was condemned as heretical in the sixth century but proved popular and influential in the early church era. It provides much of the basis for Roman Catholic perceptions of Mary. Protestants disregard the Protoevangelium of James and assert that Mary had at least three other sons and at least two daughters in her marriage to Joseph.

Certainly there is agreement that Mary was highly favoured in being chosen to bear the Son of God, but it was blessing at a cost, with Mary bearing the inevitable gossip and disapproval that such a pregnancy would have incurred. The painful scene at Christ’s crucifixion is sharpened by considering the final and loving communication concerning son and mother recorded in John 19:26. Mary came through that experience and is last recorded in Acts 1:14 where she is named among the earliest believers who gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem.