The following is an excerpt from a chapter in the recently published book Meet Mary: Getting to Know the Mother of God, Sophia Institute Press, January 2008. The book is be available via the Sophia Institute Web site, www.sophiainstitute.com.
Mary in the Bible and the Early Church
So, who is this woman who has had cathedrals named for her, poems written about her, and battles fought in her honor? Who is this Mary?
Of the details of her life, we know little. Much of what we do know was recorded in the pages of the New Testament and passed down through the oral tradition of the early Church. Written on scrolls of parchment and the walls of the catacombs, this history gives only the briefest sketch of the woman who brought Jesus into the world.
The glimpses into her life and character that we do get, however, are rich with significance, which is exactly why millions of men and women through the centuries have found in her a model of holiness, a companion in suffering, and, above all, a mother of their own.
Mary in the New Testament
In the pages of the New Testament, we have the oldest historical record of Mary’s life. Almost all that we know of her earthly existence we know from the four Gospels, which were written sometime between 50 and 100 A.D, along with the oral tradition passed on by the first Christians.
We know she was raised in Galilee, one of the most remote corners of one of the most remote provinces of the ancient Roman Empire. We know that when she came along in approximately 14 B.C., Israel was governed by Herod, a sadistic and power-hungry king who ruled at the pleasure of the emperor in Rome. A representative of that emperor, the governor, also sat in Jerusalem, supervising the soldiers, keeping an eye on Herod, and putting down the periodic rebellions that sprang up among the Jewish people.
We also know that Mary was Jewish, a member of a people that had been persecuted, enslaved, exiled, and oppressed for thousands of years, yet who continued to worship the God of its ancestors and reject the polytheism of its oppressors. We know that she married a carpenter named Joseph, gave birth to a son named Jesus, watched her son become a man, and later watched him die on a cross.
The most detailed written information we have on Mary’s early life and relationship with her son comes from the Gospel of Luke. Luke, more so than any of the other Gospel writers, was concerned with giving an in-depth history of Jesus’ life, so he included more detailed information about Jesus’ early years than the others did. In his Gospel, there are five key events in Christ’s early life that involve his mother. Here they are, according to their traditional names:
1. The Annunciation (1:26-38), where the Angel Gabriel greets Mary with the words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” He then informs her that she will conceive a child, who will go on to become the savior of the world. After asking, “How can this be, since I know not man,” Mary accepts his answer, replying, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.”
2. The Visitation (1:39-56), where Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist. When Elizabeth first sees Mary, her child leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth cries out, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” and Mary proclaims in return, “All generations will call me blessed” (1:48).
3. The Nativity (2:22-38), where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger, and as the Christmas plays remind us, “wrapped him in swaddling clothes.”
4. The Presentation (2:22-38) of the infant Jesus in the Temple by Mary and Joseph, a Jewish ritual duty. There, an old man named Simeon prophesies about Jesus, and warns Mary that “a sword will pierce your own heart too.”
5. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple (2:41-52), where, after Jesus tells Mary and Joseph that “I must be about my Father’s business,” we learn that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
From the Gospel of Matthew, we also learn about:
1. The Betrothal of Mary (1:18) to Joseph, the carpenter.
2. Joseph’s Confusion (1:20) about Mary’s pregnancy. When he considers divorcing her quietly, an angel appears to him, saying, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived of her is of the Holy Spirit.”
3. The Arrival of the Three Wise Men (2:13-18), who “going into the house saw the Child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.”
4. The Flight of Jesus’ Family (2:13-18), where Joseph was again instructed in a dream to “take the Child and his mother and flee into Egypt.”
5. The Return into Israel (2:19-23), where, after Herod the Great’s death, an angel once more speaks to Joseph, telling him to “rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
Beyond the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew, there are five more important references to Mary in Scripture, including:
1. The Wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11), where at Mary’s request, Jesus performs his first public miracle—turning water into wine—and begins his active ministry. Mary’s words to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” describe the heart of her message to all believers across time.
2. Mary at the Foot of the Cross (Jn 19:25-27). Hanging upon the Cross, Jesus says to Mary and to the disciple whom he loved, “Woman, behold, your son…behold, your mother.” We also learn that “from that hour, the disciple took her into his home.”
3. The Presence of Mary in the Upper Room (Acts 1:13-2:4), awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit, with the early disciples of Jesus.
4. Paul’s Reference (Galatians 4:4) to the Savior “born of a woman.”
5. John’s Vision in Revelation (Rev 12:1), where he describes “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” He goes on to make it clear that he’s referring to Mary, declaring, “She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.” John also alludes to the woman’s “other offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.”
With one or two exceptions, that is all the New Testament has to say about the mother of Jesus. Yet those few passages, coupled with the oral faith and life of the Church of Jesus and his first apostles and disciples, are the foundation of what the Catholic Church teaches and believes about Mary; the seeds from which fully formed doctrines would emerge. We’ll explore the relationship between the seeds and their blossoming fruits in the next chapter, but for now, let’s sum up the key Marian themes that emerge in the New Testament.
Mary’s Miraculous Motherhood: Although Mary is really and truly Jesus’ mother, she is a mother like no other. The child born of her was conceived virginally; he had no man for a father. So, from the beginning, we get a rather strong indication that Mary’s relationship with God was a bit different from most women’s (or men’s).
The Unity of the Mother and Child: This theme is particularly evident in Matthew, where in the first chapters the two are almost never mentioned more than a breath apart.
Mary’s Suffering: Being the mother of the Christ is no easy job. Her midnight flight into a strange land, the warning of a sword piercing her hear