May 11-17, 2006
By Father Donald Bourgeois/ SUN episcopal laison
SUN photo(s) CNS
Mary’s Titles Tell and Explain Her Role in Salvation
Contemporary best sellers have brought new fame to Mary Magdalene (The Da Vinci Code), Jesus (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt) and Judas (The Lost Gospel of Judas).
The month of May brings to mind another person from the Bible whose presence is as timeless as any. What is known of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, biographically is quite limited in the Bible and is augmented by deduction and by non-biblical sources and traditions.
The Oxford Guide of People and Places of the Bible features less than two pages of material on this key person in the story of salvation. The Gospel of Luke provides the primary biblical source for Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus. The infancy narratives conclude with the mention Jesus at the age of 12 when he was lost in the Temple in Jerusalem. Afterwards Mary is mentioned only three more times: Interceding for the bride and groom at the wedding at Cana, standing at the foot of the cross of Jesus and praying with the Apostles in the Upper Room at Pentecost.
That her Jewish parents were named Anne and Joachim comes from tradition. Scholars, assuming that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., therefore believe that Mary, betrothed at the usual age of 14, might have been born in 18 or 20 B.C. The facts of Mary’s life after Pentecost are gleaned only from tradition. It is believed that she spent her final years with John the son of Zebedee to whom Jesus gave her as he hung upon the cross. Determining the date of her death is virtually impossible.
Any other information comes from the writings of the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Athanasius or from apocryphal writings often too new by biblical standards to be overly trustworthy. Yet in spite of so little information there is a great blend of Mariology and pious belief that commends Mary to the faith and hearts of believers. Most of this is the theological development of the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), citing Scripture, early church fathers and papal decrees, explains and defines at least 18 titles attributed to Mary. Several are so interrelated that they may seem like the splitting of theological hairs, but each adds a finer dimension to the faithful’s understanding of Mary.
Seat of Wisdom: Many of the most beautiful Old Testament texts on wisdom have been interpreted by the church as relating to Mary. The Book of Proverbs in chapters eight and nine describes Wisdom as raising her voice for all to hear: “Give heed! For noble things I speak; honesty opens my lips.” (8:6). The Book of Sirach states, “Wisdom sings her own praises, before her own people she proclaims her glory…’From the mouth of the Most High I came forth.’” (Sir. 24:1,3)
Full of Grace: Mary is known as “Full of grace” because at the Annunciation the angel Gabriel told her the Lord was with her. So, “the grace with which she is filled is the presence of him who is the source of all grace.” (CCC 2676) Handmaid of the Lord: In response to the angel Mary calls herself the Handmaid of the Lord. By agreeing to “let it be done to me according to your word,” Mary has placed herself at the complete service of God, a handmaid truly ready to do God’s bidding. Mother of God: Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is the first to call Mary this title: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43). Elizabeth’s question becomes the basis for the declaration of the Council of Ephesus (431) that Mary truly became the Mother of God by the human conception of the Son of God in her womb.
Immaculate: “Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary … was redeemed from the moment of her conception.” (CCC 491) This dogma was officially proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus which said that Mary was “by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
Ever Virgin: The early councils and subsequent creeds of the Church expressed the “deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood [of Mary].” In Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II says that the birth of Christ “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” (CCC 499/LG 57) The Catechism also offers a clarification of the biblical phrase “the brothers and sisters of the Lord.” (CCC 500) Mary of the Assumption: Proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus, the Assumption of Mary became dogma in 1954: “When the course of her earthly life was finished, [Mary] was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things…. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.”
New Eve: Mary’s title as the New Eve can be traced to the Book of Genesis and the crucifixion. When created in chapter two, Eve is called “woman” just as Mary is called “woman” by Jesus on the cross in giving her to St. John. Genesis 3 is often cited as the promise of Jesus as the New Adam, making Mary the New Eve in God’s plan of salvation.
Mother of the Church: “By her complete adherence to the Father’s will… the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity…. In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is mother to us in the order of grace.” (CCC 967/LG 61) The All Holy Virgin Mary is not some fanciful lady who adds a feminine mystique to Christianity. She is a real person whose titles have inspired generations of Catholics and Christians. She is the Advocate, Helper, Benefactress and Mediatrix who has guided the world to Jesus, her Son