It is one thing to define a term; it is quite another to believe it. That the Church defines the meaning of Co-redemptrix as Mary’s entirely unique sharing in the work of Redemption with Jesus is clear. But on what basis does she believe it to be true?
God’s perfect providence, dictated not by absolute necessity but by divine disposition, the Heart of God expressed to the heart of man, is revealed with a certain primacy through Sacred Scripture.
The Mother of Jesus is rightly understood not as a woman in Scripture, but as The Woman of Scripture. She is, as we shall see, the “woman” of Genesis (Gen. 3:15), the “woman” of Cana (Jn. 2:4), the “woman” of Calvary (Jn. 19:25), the “woman” of Revelation (Rev. 12:1), and the “woman” of Galatians (Gal. 4:4).
But here we must ponder the revelation of the Woman of Scripture specific to her role “with Jesus” in the work of Redemption. We commence with the ancient Covenant between God and man and its written Testament.
The Great Prophecy—Genesis 3:15 (1)
“I will put enmity between you and the woman”
We begin at the beginning, in the Book of Genesis with the protoevangelium, the “first gospel.” For the merciful love of the Father permits fallen humanity to be in despair without a redeemer for only a few verses.
After the human “sin of sins” takes place, God is quick to reveal his redemptive plan to reverse or “recapitulate,” as the early Fathers would say, the sin of Adam and Eve. The Creator in his omniscience makes known a plan to bring about the serpent’s complete defeat by using the same basic means, though in reverse, by which Satan effected the loss of grace for the human family. In doing so, God the Father of all mankind further reveals his omnipotent sovereignty over Satan.
God reveals his redemptive plan of a future woman and her future “seed” of victory: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he (she) shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his (her) heel (Gen. 3:15).”
In this greatest of Old Testament prophecies, we see a struggle between a woman and her offspring, or “seed,” against Satan and his seed of evil and sin. With the revelation of the battle is the revelation of the eventual victory of the woman and her seed in the crushing of Satan’s head.
The “seed” who is ultimately victorious over Satan and his seed can refer only to Jesus Christ. No one else may lay claim to the redemptive victory of the crucified and resurrected Redeemer. The “woman” of the seed of victory must then also refer to Mary in the most essential and ultimate sense, who is alone the true and natural mother of Jesus Christ. Eve does not give physical birth to the Redeemer, nor does Israel, nor does the Church. Only Mary the “New Eve” does.
This Genesis passage is quintessentially prophetic, foretelling a definitive victory over Satan to take place in the future—”I will put.” So, too, must the two persons of the victory be in the future, so that through a woman yet to be born and her victorious seed, the loss of the first woman would be vindicated.
God places “enmity” between the woman and the serpent and their respective “seeds.” “Enmity” in scripture refers to a complete and radical opposition, (2) and it is precisely this enmity which separates the woman and her seed (Mother and Son) from Satan and his seed. It is within this divinely-established enmity that the nature and role of Mary Co-redemptrix is first foretold.
The woman shares with her seed in the struggle against the serpent and his seed. In the full light of salvation history, we understand that this passage foreshadows Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, who intimately shares in the identical struggle against Satan and evil as does Jesus the Redeemer. The Woman “with Jesus” participates in the great battle for buying back humanity, which is revealed by the Heavenly Father immediately after the first woman participates in the loss of humanity “with Adam.” Eve becomes the “co-peccatrix”—”with the sinner”; Mary is prophesied as the “Co-redemptrix”—”with the redeemer.” (3)
The “enmity” between the woman and the serpent also foretells the “Immaculate One,” who is both free from sin and full of grace. Only a person in total and complete opposition to the Evil One could be entirely immaculate or “stainless,” (macula meaning stain). In its positive meaning, this Woman will be “full of grace” (Lk. 1:28), for she positively bears the full fruits of Redemption applied to her in an exalted way, in a preservative way, through which she will never be touched by Satan and his sinful seed. (4)
The Heavenly Father’s “Immaculate One,” His Virgin Daughter full of grace, will represent humanity in the battle “with Jesus” for souls. She will be God’s greatest masterpiece, his greatest creature, fighting against his most heinous creature in this cosmic struggle. Only one free from sin could be an appropriate partner with the Redeemer in the work of Redemption. A sin-stained partner would be acting as a type of double agent, working with the Redeemer and with Satan at the same time. Mary will be the Co-redemptrix entirely and exclusively “with Jesus,” because she is first the Immaculate Conception. (5) Her freedom from sin from the moment of conception will be God’s gift to mankind, and her “fiat,” freely given, will represent mankind’s response. The necessity of this freedom, this total giving of self, is essential, for God respects absolutely the free cooperation of his creatures in the work of human salvation.
“She will crush your head.” The revelation of the Co-redemptrix in Genesis 3:15 does not depend upon the debated pronoun translation, whether “he” or “she,” of this second line of the prophecy. It is revealed first in the Eternal Father’s foretelling of the future battle in which Mary, woman of the “seed,” mother of the redeemer, will intrinsically participate with her Son against those with whom they have enmity, Satan and his seed.
It is nonetheless noteworthy that in the revealed text, it is the woman who must struggle directly against the serpent, while the seed of the woman is in parallel struggle against the seed of the serpent. If we are to properly respect the parallelism in the text, it is appropriate to conclude from the first “enmity” announced between the woman and the serpent, that the subsequent pronouns then logically refer to the first protagonist, the woman, and the first antagonist, the serpent. The pronoun “she” thereby refers to the woman-protagonist crushing the “head” of the serpent-antagonist. (6)
The traditional Vulgate which conveys the Genesis passage with the female pronoun, “ipsa” or “she” has been used by numerous popes in papal documents in referring to Mary. For example, Bl. Pius IX in the papal bull defining the Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus (Dec. 8, 1854), refers to the woman of Genesis 3:15 as Mary, who will crush the head of Satan “with her virginal foot” and clearly identifies the Mother’s sharing in the Son’s redemptive victory. This is but one of several examples from the papal magisterium that identify without question the woman of Genesis 3:15 as Mary:
The Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, enlightened by instruction from on high, taught that the divine prophecy: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed,” clearly and plainly foretold how there was to be a merciful Redeemer for mankind, namely, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ. They also taught how the prophecy pointed to His Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, and how it clearly expressed at the same time their common enmity toward the devil. Just as Christ, the Mediator between God and men, by taking our nature, cancelled the decree of condemnation against us, triumphantly nailing it to the cross, so too the most holy Virgin, intimately and indissolubly united to Christ, became with Him the everlasting enemy of the venomous serpent, and thus shared with Her Son His victory over the serpent, crushing as she did the serpent’s head with her virginal foot. (7)
It is telling that Our Lady herself does not appear to be hindered by a pronoun translation debate when in the Church-approved Miraculous Medal apparitions of Our Lady of Grace at Rue de Bac (Nov. 27, 1830), the vision and subsequent medal depict the Mediatrix of all graces as literally stepping on the head of the serpent with her foot. (8)
Mary Co-redemptrix is the Woman of Genesis 3:15. But she is also the Woman and the Virgin Mother of Isaiah, who in another great Old Testament prophecy is foretold in bringing forth the great sign of salvation predicted to Ahaz: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name, Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). She is further the Woman of Micah, who “in travail” brings forth the future ruler who will save Israel: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth, then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel” (Mic. 5:2-3). The prophecy of the travail of the woman refers not to birth pains due to sin, inapplicable to the Immaculata conceived without original sin and its effects, but rather to the co-suffering that awaits the Mother of the Redeemer in giving spiritual birth to the many at the greatest of prices.
Old Testament Types and Symbols of the Co-redemptrix
And what of the many great women of the Old Testament, who in their very persons foretell of the Co-redemptrix to come?
Sarah, wife of Abraham, through a miraculous birth, gives birth to Isaac and becomes the “Mother of nations” (Gen. 17:15-17). Mary, through a miraculous birth, gives birth to the Redeemer and becomes the Mother of all peoples (cf. Lk. 1:38Jn. 19:25-27).
Rebecca dresses Jacob in the clothing of Esau to obtain the inheritance of the first born from his father, Isaac (cf. Gen. 25:1-40). Mary dresses Jesus in the clothing of humanity to obtain for the rest of the human family the inheritance of the Heavenly Father. Rachel gives birth to Joseph, the future savior for the tribe of Jacob, who is sold for twenty pieces of silver by his own brethren (cf. Gen. 37:28). Mary gives birth to Jesus, the future savior of all people, who is sold for thirty pieces of silver (cf. Mt. 26:15).
The prophetess Deborah is Barak’s active partner in the victory over Sisera (which leads to the crushing of Sisera’s head by Jael), for which Deborah later proclaims a hymn of exultation (cf. Judg. 4:5). Mary, Queen of Prophets is the active partner with Christ in the victory over sin and the crushing of Satan’s head, for which she proclaims the greatness of the Lord (cf. Lk. 1:46).
The valiant Judith battles against the enemy Holofernes, and triumphs over him with the cutting off of his head (cf. Jud. 8-16). The valiant Mary battles against Satan, and triumphs over him with the crushing of his head (cf. Gen. 3:15, Jn. 19:27).
Queen Esther finds favor with King Ahasuerus in risking her life to save her people from a decree of death. Mary Co-redemptrix finds favors with Christ the King in offering her life for the mission of Redemption in the saving of all people “with Jesus” from the decree of eternal death (Lk. 1:38).
A phenomenal Old Testament type of Mary Co-redemptrix is found in the noble “Mother of Maccabees” (cf. 2 Mac. 7). Under a persecution from the secular king, Antiochus, six sons, one after the other, are torturously murdered in the presence of their mother because of their fidelity to the fasting practices of the Covenant.
Antiochus himself calls upon the mother to intervene with her seventh son to save himself by accepting the offers of wealth and power from the king, if the son will only turn away from the fasting disciplines of the Covenant. The mother instead takes the opportunity to appeal to her son with words of encouragement and exhortation, instructing him to, “accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers” (2 Mac. 7:29).
How eloquently the Mother of Maccabees foreshadows the story of Mary Co-redemptrix! The seven swords of sorrow that will pierce the Mother s heart are predicted in the sufferings of the seven sons of Maccabees. The courageous glance, amidst the necessary tears, from the face of the Mother directed to the face of the crucified Son at Calvary convey in a message beyond words the imperative to persevere in the redemptive plan of the New and everlasting Covenant. The temptations of wealth, power, fame, or even the “futility” of the upcoming crucifixion whispered to the Son by the Prince of this world, are countered by the witness of humility, poverty, and obedience manifested by the faithful Virgin Mother, who herself wholly Immaculate, is the greatest and most worthy fruit of the Redemption wrought by her Son.
The scriptural account of the Mother of Maccabees and her seven sons ends with the words: “Last of all, the mother died, after her sons” (2 Mac. 7:41). So too, the popes tell us, does the Mother Co-redemptrix experience at Calvary a true “dying with Him in her heart, pierced by the sword of sorrow,” (9) where the Mother of the Redeemer is “crucified spiritually with her crucified son.” (10)
The Mother Co-redemptrix is moreover foretold in the greatest of all Marian symbols of the Old Testament, the “Ark of the Covenant.” The Ark is the place of “Gods presence,” bearing fragments of the tablet of the Ten Commandments, the staff of Aaron, and the mysterious manna from heaven, which together represent the law, the priesthood, and the sustaining food of the Covenant. As such the Ark is the concrete sign of the saving covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel (cf. Deut 31:25; Ex. 16:4-36; Num. 17:1-13).
Likewise, the Mother of the Redeemer bears within herself Christ the New Law, Christ the High Priest, and Christ the Eucharist, which makes her the supreme Ark of the New Covenant. She is the divinely created and crafted bearer of the new and eternal covenant between divinity and humanity, the free and active Ark made of incorruptible wood, who both bears and suffers with the High Priest of the Everlasting Covenant. Every groaning of the Old Testament yearns forward to the Incarnation and to the fulfilled mission of Christ the Redeemer. And every longing for the redeeming Son is also, according to the saving plan of the Eternal Father, a longing for the co-redeeming Mother. For, as Blessed Pope Pius IX instructs in the dogmatic proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, both the Redeemer and the Co-redemptrix were indissolubly willed by the Father of all mankind to partake in the mission of human Redemption in “one and the same decree.” (11)
The above article is from the second chapter of “With Jesus”: The Story of Mary Co-redemptrix.
(1) For extended commentaries, cf. T. Callus, S.J., Interpretatio mariologica Protoevangelii, vol. 1, Tempore post-patristico ad Concilium Tridentinum, Rome, 1949; vol. 2, A Concilio Tridentino usque ad annum 1660, Rome, 1953; vol. 3 Ab anno 1661 usque ad definitionem dogmaticum Immaculatae Conceptionis (1854), Rome, 1954; cf. D. Unger, O.F.M.Cap., “Patristic Interpretation of the Protoevangelium,” Marian Studies, vol. 12, 1961, pp. 111-164; cf. A. Bea, S.J., “II Protoevangelio (Gen. 3:15) nella tradizione esegetica,” L’Osservatore Romano,Oct. 30, 1954, p. 1; “Maria SS. Nel Protovangelo (Gen. 3:15),” Marianum, vol. 15, 1953, pp. 1-21; cf. S. Manelli, F.F.I., All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed, Academy of the Immaculate, 1995; “Mary Co-redemptrix in Sacred Scripture,” Mary Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate Theological Foundations II, Queenship, 1996, pp. 71-80.
(2) For other examples of “enmity” in Scripture, cf. Num. 35:21-22, Deut. 4:42, Deut. 19:4, 6.
(3) Cf. Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, Maria: Mitterloserin, Salzburg, Dec. 9, 1990, Informationsblatt der Priesterbruderschaft St. Petrus, n. 12, Wigratzbad, Jahrgang, 1991.
(4) Bl. Pius IX, Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, 1854.
(5) Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, Homily on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1973; cf. John Paul II, General Audience, Dec. 7, 1983, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, December 12, 1983, p. 2; General Audience, Jan. 24, 1996, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, January 31, 1996, p. 11; cf. also H. M. Manteau-Bonamy, O.P., Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teachings of St. Maximilian Kolbe, trans. by R. Arnandez, F.S.C., Franciscan Marytown Press, 1977, chs. 2, 7.
(6) For an extended discussion of the parallelism of the Genesis 3:15 text, and a defense of the ipsa, “she,” pronoun from historical and medieval commentaries, particularly Cornelius à Lapide, cf. Bro. Thomas Sennott, M.I.C.M., “Mary Co-redemptrix,” Mary at the Foot of the Cross II: Acts of the International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, Academy of the Immaculate, 2002, pp. 49-63. The author offers the following initial explanation in support of ipsa and quotes Cornelius a Lapide in support:
“In Hebrew hu is ‘he,’ and he ‘she’ . . . There is no ‘it’ in Hebrew, both hu and he can be translated ‘it’ depending on the context.
In Greek ‘he’ is autos, ‘she’ aute, and ‘it’ auto.
In Latin ‘he’ is ipse, ‘she’ ipsa, and ‘it’ ipsum…
Cornelius à Lapide in his great Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram says that the underlying mystery is even reflected in the Hebrew grammar. ‘Also hu is often used instead of he especially when there is some emphasis on action and something manly is predicated of the woman, as is the case here with the crushing of the serpent’s head
… It makes no difference that the verb is masculine yasuph, that is “(he) shall crush,”
for it often happens in Hebrew that the masculine is used instead of the feminine and vice versa, especially when there is an underlying reason or mystery, as I have just said’ (C. a Lapide, Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, Larousse, Paris, 1848, p. 105). The ‘underlying mystery’ is, of course, that Our Lady crushes the head of the serpent by the power of Our Lord.”
(7) Bl. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus; For other papal magisterial or conciliar references citing Mary’s unique role in Redemption as revealed in the Genesis 3:15 passage, cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical Augustissimae Virginis, 1897; ASS 30, p. 129; St. Pius X, Encyclical Ad Diem Ilium, Feb. 2,1904; ASS 36, p. 462; Pius XI, Encyclical Divini Redemptoris, 1937; AAS 29, p. 96; Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, 1937; AAS 42, p. 768; Encyclical Fulgens Corona, 1953; AAS 45, p. 579; Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 55; Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Signum Magnum, May 13, 1967; John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, March 25, 1987.
(8) See the descriptions of the apparitions found in R. Laurentin, Catherine Labouré et la Medaille Miraculeuse, Paris, 1976.
(9) Leo XIII, Encyclical Jucunda Semper, Sept. 8, 1894; ASS 27, 1894-1895, p. 178.
(10) John Paul II, in an Address at the Marian shrine in Guayaquil, Ecuador on January 31, 1985, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, March 11, 1985, p. 7.
(11) Bl. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.