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The Blessed Virgin in the History of Christianity
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Christianity would be meaningless without the Blessed Virgin. Her quiet presence opened Christian history at the Incarnation and will continue to pervade the Churchs history until the end of time.
Our purpose in this meditation is to glance over the past two thousand years to answer one question: What are the highlights of our Marian faith as found in the Bible and the teaching of the Catholic Church?
The first three evangelists were mainly concerned with tracing Christs ancestry as Son of Man and, therefore, as Son of Mary. St. Matthew, writing for the Jews, stressed Christs descent from Abraham. St. Luke, disciple of St. Paul, traced Christs origin to Adam, the father of the human race. Yet both writers were at pains to point out that Marys Son fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah about the Messiah. He was to be born of a virgin to become Emmanuel, which means God with us. Luke gave a long account of the angels visit to Mary to announce that the Child would be holy and would be called the Son of God (Luke 1:36).
St. John followed the same pattern. He introduced Mary as the Mother of Jesus when He began His public ministry. In answer to her wishes, Christ performed the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana in Galilee. What happened then has continued ever since. Most of the miraculous shrines of Christianity have been dedicated to Our Lady.
It is also St. John who tells us that Mary stood under the Cross of Calvary as her Son was dying for our salvation. Speaking of John, Jesus told His Mother, This is your son. To John, He said of Mary, This is your Mother. The apostle John represented all of us. On Good Friday, therefore, Christ made His Mother the supernatural Mother of the human race and made us her spiritual children.
Mother of God
In the early fifth century, a controversy arose in Asia Minor, where the Bishop of Constantinople claimed that Mary was only the Mother of Christ (Greek= Christotokos). He was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, which declared that the holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Greek=Theotokos).
St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, was mainly responsible for this solemn definition of Marys divine maternity. It was St. Cyril who thus composed the most famous Marian hymn of antiquity. It is a praise of Our Lady as Mediatrix with God:
Through you, the Trinity is glorified.
Every other title of Mary and all the Marian devotion of the faithful are finally based on the Blessed Virgins primary claim to our extraordinary love. She is the Mother of God. She gave her Son all that every human mother gives the child she conceives and gives birth to. She gave Him His human body. Without her, there would have been no Incarnation, no Redemption, no Eucharist; in a word, no Christianity.
Logically related to her divine maternity is Our Ladys perpetual virginity. From the earliest days the Church has taught that Mary was a virgin before giving birth to Jesus, in giving His birth, and after His birth in Bethlehem.
All of this is already stated or implied in the Gospels. In St. Matthews genealogy of Jesus, all the previous ancestors are called father. But then we are told there came Joseph, the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ (Matthew 1:16). St. Luke twice identifies Mary as virgin, who knows not man.
Already in the early Church, those who questioned Christs divinity were the same ones who denied His Mothers virginity. As explained by St. Augustine, When God vouchsafed to become Man, it was fitting that He should be born in this way. He who was made of her, had made her what she was: a virgin who conceives, a virgin who gives birth; a virgin with child, a virgin labored of child-a virgin ever virgin.
Given the fact of the Incarnation, its manner follows as a matter of course. Why should not the Almighty who created His Mother have also preserved the body of which He would be born? But this appropriateness of Marys virginity makes sense only if you believe that Marys Son is the living God.
Marys freedom from sin, present at her conception, is already taught by St. Ephraem in the fourth century. In one of his hymns, he addresses Our Lord, Certainly you alone and your Mother are from every aspect completely beautiful. There is no blemish in you my Lord, and no stain in your Mother.
By the seventh century, the feast of Marys Immaculate Conception was celebrated in the East. In the eight century, the feast was commemorated in Ireland, and from there spread to other countries in Europe.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some leading theologians, even saints, raised objections to the Immaculate Conception. Their main difficulty was how Mary could be exempt from all sin before the coming of Christ. Here the Franciscan Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) stood firm and paved the way for the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Blessed Pius IX in 1854.
In the words of Pope Blessed Pius IX, We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception was preserved from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
Four years after the definition, Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, identifying herself as the Immaculate Conception. The numerous miracles at Lourdes are a divine confirmation of the doctrine defined by Pius IX. They are also a confirmation of the papal primacy defined by the First Vatican Council under the same Bishop of Rome.
Assumption into Heaven
Not unlike his predecessor, Pope Pius XII defined Marys bodily Assumption into
heaven. On November 1, 1950, the pope responded to the all but unanimous request
of the Catholic hierarchy by making a formal definition:
Mother of the Church
Never in the history of Christianity has any general council spoken at such length and with such depth about Mary as the Second Vatican Council.
This is not surprising in view of the extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Virgin in our day. What the Council did was put this devotion into focus and spell out its doctrinal foundation.
First a quiet admonition. The council charges that practices and exercises of devotion to her be treasured as recommended by the teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries. True Marian piety consists neither in fruitless and passing emotion, nor in a certain empty credulity.
Rather authentic devotion to Mary proceeds from true faith by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and are moved to filial love toward our Mother and to the invitation of her virtues (Constitution on the Church, 67-8).
What are we being told? We are told that true devotion to Our Lady is shown in a deep love of her as our Mother, put into practice by the imitation of her virtues-especially her faith, her chastity and charity.
These are the three virtues that the modern
world most desperately needs.
No wonder the new Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this astounding profession of faith: We believe that the most holy Mother of God, the new Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven her maternal role toward the members of Christ. It all depends on our faith in her maternal care and our trust in her influence over the almighty hand of her Son.
Father John A. Hardon, S.J., was the
author of numerous books, including The Catholic Catechism.
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