Mary, Blessed Virgin

Mary, Blessed Virgin

Jesus was born to a human father named Joseph and a human mother named Mary. The Bible tells that Mary conceived the child by the power of God's Holy Spirit before the couple was married, however. For this reason she is known as the Virgin Mary, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although she is present at various events recorded in Christian scripture, Mary figures most prominently in the biblical passages describing the events surrounding Jesus' birth. In Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, Mary is the most revered of all the saints, honored both as the mother of the Lord and for her own spiritual attributes: purity, faith, humility, love, steadfastness, and introspection. Artists have often pictured Mary in blue robes, as the color blue symbolizes truth, love, fidelity, and constancy in Christian art.

The Annunciation

The Gospel according to Luke gives the most detailed portrait of Mary's miraculous pregnancy. In an event that later became known as the Annunciation, she receives a visit from Gabriel, an angel who greets her with the phrase "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). He then tells her that she is to bear a son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, whom she will name Jesus and who shall be acclaimed as "the Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:32). Generations of Christians have interpreted the angel's greeting, along with heaven's selection of Mary to be Jesus' mother, as signs of her great purity and virtue. She demonstrates her steadfast faith in God and her humility by assenting to the decree delivered by the angel, saying, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:27).

The Visitation

After receiving the angel's visit Mary hurries to see her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a son who will become the prophet called John the Baptist. During the meeting between the two women, often referred to as the Visitation, Elizabeth honors Mary as the mother of the Lord. Mary exults in the fulfillment of God's promise to bring both mercy and justice to those on earth in a long speech known as the Song of Mary, or the Magnificat (Luke 1:4656). The title Magnificat, which means "it magnifies," comes from the first word of the Latin version of the hymn:

My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; For he who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, In remembrance of his mercy, As he spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his posterity for ever [Luke 1:47-55].

Various branches of the Christian church have incorporated this beautiful hymn of praise into the liturgy of daily religious services. In addition, numerous composers have set it to music. Mary's hymn not only underscores her faith and humility, but also reveals her love of God, her gratitude for the gift God has made to her, and her joy at the prospect of seeing God come to the rescue of the needy and downtrodden.

Jesus' Birth

In both the Gospel according to Luke and the Gospel according to Matthew, Mary and Joseph receive visitors around the time of Jesus' birth. Matthew's account implies that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem. He tells of a mysterious star that guided a number of learned men from Eastern lands, the Magi, to the site of Jesus' birth in order to pay him homage.

By contrast, Luke's story has the couple journeying to Bethlehem in order to comply with a Roman census. Since the Bethlehem inn was full the couple spent the night in a stable, where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Shepherds received notice of the holy birth from angels and came to Bethlehem to worship the newborn Son of God. The shepherds explain to Mary and Joseph how they came to know of the child's birth, and Mary "kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). Thus Luke's account also shows Mary to be a seeker of spiritual wisdom. Because of her faith and her heart's inclination to "ponder" God's ways, many Christians view Mary as a model of contemplation and the contemplative life.

The Flight into Egypt and the Circumcision

The Gospel according to Luke and the Gospel according to Matthew also differ in their accounts of the events following Jesus' birth. Matthew fails to mention Mary's role in these events. Nevertheless, Luke's account gives us one more clue as to Mary's character. Matthew reports that King Herod ordered soldiers to kill all the male infants in Bethlehem so that he might rid himself of the child the Magi identified as the King of the Jews (see Holy Innocents' Day). The Holy Family escapes the slaughter because an angel warned Joseph about what was soon to occur. Following the angel's mandate the family journeys to Egypt. This event, called the Flight into Egypt, is not reported in Luke's gospel. Luke instead says that eight days after his birth, Jesus'parents had him circumcised and gave him the name Jesus. These events illustrate Mary's obedience to Jewish law and her continuing cooperation with the divine plan announced to her by the angel Gabriel.

Early Christian Ideas

Early Christian writers and teachers, such as Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), Irenaeus (c. 120-140 to c. 200), and Tertullian (c. 155-160 to after 220) compared Mary to Eve, the first woman, whose story is told in the Bible's Book of Genesis. Eve heard God's command and disobeyed, but Mary listened to the angel Gabriel and gave her assent to God's plan. Thus Mary was cast as a "second Eve," the woman who would bring a savior into the world to undo the damage done by Adam and Eve's disobedience. This comparison was heightened by the medieval calendar of Christian holy days, in which Adam and Eve were commemorated on December 24, and Jesus'birth on December 25.

Early Christian leaders sometimes disagreed on the nature of the role Mary played in the birth of the Savior and the degree of veneration that should be accorded to her. They resolved some of these issues in the year 431 at the Council of Ephesus. The Council declared that Mary was the Theotokos, or "God bearer," paving the way for greater devotion to be dedicated to her.

Feast Days

Over the centuries many festivals evolved to pay tribute to the important events in Mary's life. The first festival scheduled in honor of Mary was called the Commemoration of St. Mary and dates back to the fifth century. Some researchers report that it was scheduled for the Sunday before Christmas, others believe that it was held on December 26 or even on January 1. It celebrated Mary's death, which was viewed as her birth into heaven. This observance eventually evolved into the Feast of the Assumption, and the date was changed to August 15.

Other Marian festivals still celebrated today commemorate events related to the Nativity. The Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), for example, honors the fact that Mary and Joseph complied with Jewish law by taking their son to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. In the Roman Catholic Church the day celebrates Mary's role as the mother of God. Candlemas (February 2) commemorates Mary's purification in the temple 40 days after Jesus' birth. The Annunciation (March 25) recalls the angel Gabriel's visit to the Virgin Mary and her acceptance of the mission with which God entrusted her.

Other important Marian festivals include the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8) and a Roman Catholic observance called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8). In addition, many people celebrate Marian festivals particular to their community. Mexicans, for example, honor the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12. All told, the major feasts dedicated to Mary, plus those feasts celebrated only in certain places or observed by certain monastic communities, numbered about 1,000 by the early twentieth century. This number reflects the love and respect accorded to the Blessed Virgin Mary by generations of Christians.

New Views

In recent decades feminist theologians have begun to question some of the traditional doctrines concerning Mary. Some of these views are critical, suggesting, for example, that in upholding Mary as both virgin and mother, religious authorities have encouraged both women and men to view female sexuality as dirty and shameful. Others object to the emphasis placed on Mary's humility in her role as exemplary woman, noting that church officials have used this image of Mary to support the subordination of women in society. Nevertheless, for many people Mary models a deeply faithful Christian spirituality to be adopted by all those who follow the teachings of Jesus, both men and women.

Further Reading

Ceroke, C. P. "Mary, The Blessed Virgin, I (in the Bible)." In New CatholicEncyclopedia. Volume 9. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Clement, Clara Erskine. A Handbook of Christian Symbols. 1886. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1971. Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. "Mary, The Blessed Virgin." In their The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Cuneen, Sally. In Search of Mary. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. Hulme, F. Edward. The History, Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Chris-tian Art. 1891. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1969. McManus, Jim. All Generations Will Call Me Blessed. New York: Crossroad, 1999. Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1991. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Munro, Winsome. "Mary, the Virgin." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Web Site

The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute of the University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic university with a Marian focus, has set up a page of questions and answers about Mary: (Click on "Questions")

Mary, Blessed Virgin

Jesus' mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, appears in only one of the four biblical accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). The Gospel according to John claims that she was present during the agonizing hours that Jesus spent on the cross (John 19:25). In spite of the scant attention that the Bible gives to Mary's role in the Easter story, the image of Mary witnessing and grieving over her own son's execution has gripped the imagination of countless Christians over the centuries (see also Seven Sorrows, Feast of the). During the Middle Ages this scene from Mary's life fascinated western European Christians. Painters and sculptors produced numerous images depicting Mary in her grief. This image was often referred to by its Latin name, Mater Dolorosa, meaning Sorrowing Mother. Musicians and poets also elaborated on this image in verse and song. The "Stabat Mater," a famous Latin hymn that invites listeners to enter into Mary's grief as she stood at the foot of the cross, achieved widespread popularity during this era. This avid interest in Mary's reaction to her son's suffering and death gave rise to a variety of tales that elaborated on the sparse biblical account of her deeds on Good Friday. For example, one medieval legend concerning the events of the first Good Friday pictured Mary, distressed and perhaps confused with grief, wandering through the night in search of her dead son. A legendary incident also established itself firmly in the devotional exercise known as the Stations of the Cross. This religious exercise took root in Europe during the Middle Ages but reached the height of its popularity centuries later. One of the stations depicts an encounter between Mary and Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem as Jesus, bent under the weight of his cross, staggers towards the site of his own crucifixion.

In another devotional exercise found among Roman Catholics of Hispanic or Italian descent, people gather together on the evening of Good Friday to meditate on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary as she grieves for her dead son. This observance, which Hispanics call the Pésame or the Soledades, may take a variety of forms. In some church ceremonies, a figure of the crucified Christ will be removed from the cross, anointed with oils, and placed inside the tomb. Ritualized expressions of sympathy and solidarity are then offered to the grieving mother. In other places the observance revolves around a silent nighttime procession in which participants, holding lit candles, imagine themselves accompanying Mary in her grief. Some contemporary Pésame ceremonies offer participants a chance to speak, linking the grief in their own lives with that of the Virgin Mary.

Further Reading

Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin, eds. The Folklore of American Holidays. Third edition. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. Reumann, John. "Mary." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 9. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
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