What’s with all this stuff about Mary?
I remember thinking that a lot as my journey into the historic Church deepened. This was several years into the journey and I was beginning to hit some walls. Ecclesiastical structure (the episcopate) had fallen pretty quickly. I mean, any serious reading of the 1 Timothy text in the Greek and the subsequent structure of the early Church just destroys any objection to the episcopal structure of the Church.
But I hit this snag with the Marian dogmas. I look back on it now and can’t really pinpoint why I was so uncomfortable with this, why I fought it so much. I honestly believe it had to do with several things. I had, as I’ve mentioned, been raised in a Protestant home. But it wasn’t just that I was raised Protestant. I was raised in a Protestant home that taught that the Catholic Church was literally evil and idolatrous. I mean, I remember at one point being told that the Pope was probably the Anti-Christ. It’s kind of sad to me now that I look back on it.
So I think that had a lot to do with it. But it was also, in my mind, illogical. I know that makes me sound really arrogant and, to be honest, I really was. I guess I thought that if it didn’t make sense to me, then it must not be right. Can I be brutally honest with you right now?
I suspect you have the same problem. I suspect we all have the same problem. We won’t say it out loud but, in practice, we act as though, if it doesn’t “make sense” to us, then it must not be true…or at very least is suspect. We moderns are pretty narcissistic and really lack humility. But that’s another post for another time.
So I think for me it was all the background noise of the Catholic Church being evil and my own hubris.
But, back to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Let’s define the Marian dogmas really briefly. I want to emphasize that this is very brief. I can’t really do justice to these in a limited space like a single blog post. So, very quickly, the Marian dogmas are:
A second thing to note on this objection is the Hebraic understanding of “brothers and sisters.” The Hebrew understanding of family was quite different than our own western understanding. We hear family and most of us think “nuclear family.” In other words, we only think of family and use the terminology of brother and sister for our immediate family. The Hebrew understanding was a bit different and included other relatives. In fact, from what I understand, the same word for “brother” in Hebrew was also used to mean cousin etc. So you can see how that language is imprecise.
A final answer to this objection is another Hebrew understanding. It was the duty of Jewish children to care for their aging parents. In the case of the Blessed Virgin, it would have been the responsibility of the eldest son to care for his mother after the death of the father. So, in this case, Joseph had presumably died (almost all scholars agree on this) and now Jesus, at His crucifixion, was also dying. He had to pass on care of His mother to someone in the family, a brother or sister. But there was no one there to pass that care on to and so Jesus passed that on to the Apostle John. You may say, “Yes but the Bible says that Jesus’ brothers and sisters didn’t believe in Him being the Messiah.” While that is true, it would not have removed their covenantal duties under Jewish law to care for their mother, had she been their mother.
I would also note that there is biblical precedence for this type of occurrence. In the Old Testament we have both Enoch and the prophet Elijah who are assumed into heaven. On a logical note, I ask you this. If we know the locations of the tombs of certain saints and even of the Saviour and we venerate those sites, don’t you think that we would know where the Blessed Virgin was buried? Don’t you think we would have some type of church building or statue built there?
It took me a long time to wrap my head around this. In fact, I’ll be honest. It was literally only yesterday that God opened my heart to see some things in Holy Scripture that sealed this for me. I had accepted this as a historic teaching of the Church and was willing to submit to it. But yesterday something happened that I can only describe to you and let you decide.
I was driving home from work last night, listening to a podcast on my drive. It was a conversation between Dr. Scott Hahn and another guy (Lawrence Feingold I think) about what they called the “integration” of the Old Testament and New Testament. In other words, you cannot understand the New Testament apart from the Old, nor the Old Testament without the New. In other words, what St. Augustine said. If you don’t know what that is, read my last post. As I was listening to this conversation, it was like a light switch flipped in my heart and I said out loud, “And Adam named the woman Eve because she was the mother of all the living, just as Mary is the mother of all those who have new life in Christ.”
So when we read the OT, we must understand that many things that we see there are prefigurements, foreshadowing, whispers of what is to come in the NT when the Messiah is revealed. In light of reading Holy Scripture this way, we see some things (and the Church has seen some things) about the Blessed Virgin.
The new Garden where the faithful find perfect peace with their Creator.
The new Eve, the mother of all those who live by faith as the Church.
The new Ark of salvation who carries those who have faith in God through the floods of this world to the new world of God’s new creation.
The new Tabernacle where God dwells.
The new Sarah who carries in her womb the true and better Israel.
The new Rachel who weeps for her children in their pain.
The new Ark of the Covenant who bears the Word of God.
The new Hannah who rejoices in her miraculous conception.
The image of the Church who says to God, “Be it done unto me…”
The mother of all the faithful at the foot of the Cross when our Lord says, “Behold your Mother.”
The Queen Mother of heaven crowned with the stars of heaven who gives birth to the Messiah.
The one who gives birth to the seed of Eve who will and has crushed the serpent’s head!
(Credit to Ben Harris for this litany)
Can you see it? Can you see the scope and beauty of what God has done in becoming flesh and choosing His vessel? Can you see her as God has given?
Behold thy Mother, Church!
Behold the one who, in her flesh, has born the incarnate Word of God, who now calls you brother and sister!
Behold thy Mother, through the Son, who is given from the Father in the unity of the Spirit before all time!
Behold and worship Christ the Lord!
It’s not secret to anyone who has kept up with my blog that I have been on a faith journey for the last several years. Over the last two to three years, that journey has taken a noticeably catholic turn. There are two main reasons for this.
First, the Bible.
I take very seriously the Word of God. Everyone who knows me knows that, not only do I take God’s Word seriously, I love God’s Word. Reading, learning and studying God’s Word has been one of the great joys of my life to date. When I came to faith in Jesus, one of the first prayers I prayed was, “Lord, help me to love Your Word. Help me to hunger and thirst for Your Word. Give me a desire to know You in Your Word.”
Our gracious Father has granted that request. He has given me an ache in my soul that only His Word can fill. He has made me hunger and thirst after His Word. Man cannot live on bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. I live and breathe for God’s Word. I read it and study it and dissect it.
I love and read and study God’s Word because it is His revelation of Himself to us. Of course we have general revelation in God’s creation. And we have others ways by which we may see God. But God has given us His Word written down so that we may know Him and serve Him rightly.
The second main reason for this is my reading and studying of the Church Fathers. Now, before anyone gets all upset, I am not saying that the Fathers are inerrant. I am not saying that they are on par with revealed truth in God’s Word. However, what I am saying is that they speak to us who, in our modern context, think we’ve got this thing figured out and they say to us, usually with one voice, that there are things about the Christian faith that make most Protestants really nervous.
The Fathers tell us what the Church has always believed and how the Church has always practiced her faith. This is enormously helpful for us today. There is a deep desire among many younger Christians today to connect with the historic Church…and I am profoundly grateful for this desire. I applaud it and encourage it for all!
I encourage it even it makes you uncomfortable and perhaps even leads you to conclusions that sound…well, Catholic.
Let me give you an example from my own life and faith journey. As I said, it’s no secret that my journey has led me out of Protestantism and into a distinctly catholic position. But I struggle and question many of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. But I want to be intellectually and emotionally honest with myself and with you and maybe you need to ask yourself this same question.
Are my problems with the Catholic Church real problems with biblical reality or do I just not want them to be true?
Here’s my example. I have been wrestling with some things. One of them is all this dogma about Mary. For my Protestant friends...it’s okay for you to call her The Blessed Virgin. Scripture calls her blessed so it is quite alright for you too as well. But there are some things about the dogma of the Church that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around.
Like the perpetual virginity of Mary.
The first time I heard this I literally laughed out loud. I was like, “Right. You mean to tell me that Joseph was married to her and never had sex with her? Right.” Seems logical, right? So, here’s where it gets interesting for me. As I said, been studying and wrestling with all this a lot. So, how can it be possible that Mary was perpetually a virgin and surely no one actually believes this, right?
Actually lots of people in the early Church believed it and taught it. I will give just one example: St. John Chrysostom.
“And when he had taken her, “he knew her not, till she had brought forth her first-born Son.” He hath here used the word “till,” not that thou shouldest suspect that afterwards he did know her, but to inform thee that before the birth the Virgin was wholly untouched by man. But why then, it may be said, hath he used the word, “till”? Because it is usual in Scripture often to do this, and to use this expression without reference to limited times. For so with respect to the ark likewise, it is said, “The raven returned not till the earth was dried up.”6 And yet it did not return even after that time. And when discoursing also of God, the Scripture saith, “From age until age Thou art,” not as fixing limits in this case. And again when it is preaching the Gospel beforehand, and saying, “In his days shall righteousness flourish, and abundance of peace, till the moon be taken away,”8 it doth not set a limit to this fair part of creation. So then here likewise, it uses the word “till,” to make certain what was before the birth, but as to what follows, it leaves thee to make the inference. Thus, what it was necessary for thee to learn of Him, this He Himself hath said; that the Virgin was untouched by man until the birth; but that which both was seen to be a consequence of the former statement, and was acknowledged, this in its turn he leaves for thee to perceive; namely, that not even after this, she having so become a mother, and having been counted worthy of a new sort of travail, and a child-bearing so strange, could that righteous man ever have endured to know her. For if he had known her, and had kept her in the place of a wife, how is it that our Lord commits her, as unprotected, and having no one, to His disciple, and commands him to take her to his own home?”
I read that and was like…wait…what?! Chrysostom goes on to talk about his “brethren” and I highly recommend you read it for yourself. By the way, Chrysostom was the man that many consider to be the father of the Orthodox Church and perhaps one of the greatest preachers that has ever lived.
But it wasn’t just the Fathers that believed and taught this. The hero of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, also maintained the same teaching. Luther said, “Christ our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb…This was without the co-operation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that.” (Luther’s Works, Volume 22, 23.) By the way, Calvin and Zwingli also defended the perpetual virginity of Mary.
If you’re like me, you’re like, “Yeah but those dudes could be wrong.” Well, yes they could be. So let’s look at what the Bible has to say. Matthew 1 details Jesus’ birth for us and he says in verses 24 and 25,
“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”
So right away, if you’re like me, you’ll say…See?! “He knew her not until…” implying that he “knew her” after the birth of Jesus. Problem with that is almost every commentator I read on this (including Calvin) says that phrase was put in there to prove that Jesus’ birth was not as a result of sexual relations with Joseph. But you may say, like me, “Yeah but the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.”
Does it? Here’s the problem with that. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages don’t have separate words for “brother,” “cousin,” or any other near relative. The term “brother” was used for all kinds of relationships (1 Corinthians 15:6, Matt. 23:8, Acts 7:23 to name a few).
Still not buying it?
Okay, another compelling piece…When Jesus is hanging on the cross, where are his siblings? If He had siblings, why weren’t they there? You may say, “Well, because they didn’t believe in Him.” Okay but neither did the High Priest and he was there, as were the Roman soldiers and many others. Don’t you think that if your brother was being executed, you’d show up, especially if you didn’t believe in Him? I mean, this is your opportunity to be able to say, “See, Mom?! I told you He wasn’t the Messiah.”
But aside from that, the interesting part is that Jesus hands over care of His mother to St. John. Now if you’ve done any sort of study on the culture of the day and the Jewish tradition, Jesus, as the oldest son, would have been responsible for the care of His mother (we assume that Joseph was dead by this time). And if He couldn’t fulfill those obligations, one of His siblings (if He had any) would be required to. But He didn’t pass that on to a sibling, He passed that responsibility along to one of the Apostles. Why?
Okay…so here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that I buy all this as of yet. What I am saying is…
What if it’s true? What if the teaching of the Church for the last couple thousand years is true? Does that in any way diminish who Jesus is, what He accomplished? Does it change anything for you, for me?
Pray for me as I seek wisdom and clarity on these things I struggle with. You may say, “What difference does it make?” If you’re Protestant, you already know the answer to that. It matters because, if the Church is right about that…what else are they right about?
Pray for me. Pray for yourself and seek God’s wisdom in His Word, His Church and those who have gone before. We do this for the glory of Christ and of His Church!
Soli Deo Gloria!
 John Chrysostom. (1888). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew. In P. Schaff (Ed.), G. Prevost & M. B. Riddle (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Vol. 10, p. 33). New York: Christian Literature Company.