This post will meander a bit, so let me put one of the major points here at the beginning, so I can return to it without sounding way off-base: the Catholic Church teaches that Mary was born without original sin. If you’ve ever heard of the Immaculate Conception, that refers to this doctrine (it does not refer to the conception of Jesus, which–though also immaculate–is unique in far more ways than just that). In order to wrap around to this point, I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about the types of Mary.
You may want to look back on my post about original sin. There’s also a brief refresher on types in my first post on the Eucharist. Here’s an even briefer overview of those highlights: (1) Types are inferior to the thing or person they prefigure, and (2) types are often both literal and allegorical (they were real, historical things/people, but they also serve to illuminate other things/people).
First, let’s talk about a few of the things that prefigure (i.e., are types of) Mary. Some of these I have hinted at before, but others will seem completely new.
The first to show up is the Garden of Eden. Eden, after all, contains the Tree of Life (which we know is a type of Jesus and the Eucharist). If the Tree of Life is Jesus, then Eden must be his mother. Eden contains and nurtures the Tree of Life. The entire purpose of that garden is to guide the faithful family of God to eternal life through the tree, which is in the center of the garden.
In the same way, Mary contained and nurtured Jesus Christ, first in her womb and then in her home. Her entire purpose is to serve the Lord (the word in Luke 1:38 often translated “handmaid” literally means a female slave) and to point others to him (John 2:5).
Eden is inferior to Mary because it lacked any capacity to prevent the Fall. Eden could do nothing to stop our first ancestor from sinning, but Mary prays eternally for the faithful from her throne in heaven.
The burning bush of Exodus 3 is another example. The bush contains the very presence of God, but it is not consumed by the blaze. Because of the presence of the Lord, this becomes holy ground, to be respected by Moses and all others. The bush also rouses Moses from his time in the wilderness and compels him to begin his ministry, his mission to save his people. (We also know that Moses is a type of Jesus, from being miraculously saved at birth from a vengeful king’s infanticide to being the man by whom the Word of God and the bread from heaven come.)
In the same way, Mary held the whole Godhead in her womb and in her arms, but was not consumed. She is the one to kick off Jesus’ ministry (see John 2 again), in spite of his objections.
The burning bush is inferior to Mary because, though it contains the presence of God, it does not contain him bodily. His presence there is temporary, even fleeting, but Mary brought forth the Word made flesh, who reigns forever at the right hand of the Father.
The Ark of the Covenant
In the same way that the burning bush contained the presence of God, the ark of the covenant does even more. We’ve already seen that the Ark prefigures the Eucharist, since it contains the presence of God, but it also prefigures Mary for the same reason. It, too, is holy and should only be touched by the worthy (see again 2 Samuel 6).
Now let’s look at the people that prefigure Mary; these aren’t in chronological order, but there’s a reason for that. As above, a couple of these should be familiar to you by now.
I mentioned Sarah last week as an example of a miraculous mother, one whose promised child it should not have been possible to conceive. This is one of the primary ways in which Sarah prefigures Mary, but there is another: as the mother of Israel. As much as Abraham is the father of a nation, Sarah is its mother, for it is through Sarah that the nation of Israel is promised (Genesis 17:15-21).
In the same way, Mary conceives Jesus impossibly, and she is the mother of the Church. Aside from the obvious–that the Church is Jesus’ body (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; etc.)–there is also John 19:25-27, where the apostle John, who throughout his Gospel has referred to himself as the “beloved disciple,” sets himself up as the generic believer in Christ and is given responsibility for Jesus’ own mother.1
I talked about Bathsheba two weeks ago as queen mother. In case you’ve forgotten, you can read that post again.
I mentioned it then, too, but I will repeat it: Bathsheba is inferior to Mary because Bathsheba is deceived by Adonijah, and because Solomon is inferior to Jesus.
You’re probably not familiar with the story of Judith, but you should recall that her story is canonical. The short version is this: a town of Israel (Bethulia) is under siege, and Judith is a wise and God-fearing widow who lives there (Judith 8). She steps up when all others live in fear (cf. 1 Samuel 17). She prays to God for aid (Judith 9) in a way that resembles Mary’s Magnificat (compare Judith 9:11-14 with Luke 1:46-55). She goes out to the Assyrian general Holofernes, astounds him with her beauty, beguiles him, tricks him, and beheads him (Judith 10:1-13:10). Upon her return to Bethulia, she is praised (Judith 13:18-20).
Aside from her assent to do the will of God, like the young David in 1 Samuel and Mary in Luke’s Gospel, and aside from the Magnificat, there is also the praise for Judith and for Mary: of Judith it is said that she is blessed above all women, and that praise for her will never cease; Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42, NRSVCE), and Mary says of herself, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (verse 48, NRSVCE). Mary is also wise and faithful, as is Judith, and Mary stands opposed to the Devil, who makes war with her children (Revelation 12:13-17). Judith’s defeat of Holofernes is reminiscent of Mary, too, in traditional depictions of Mary crushing the head of the serpent (since Mary is a descendant of Eve, Genesis 3:15 was often interpreted to refer to her as well as to Christ).
Judith is inferior to Mary because Mary’s wisdom, assent, and praise are greater than Judith’s. Mary did not beguile or deceive, but stood openly in devotion to God and to her beloved Son. And Mary’s assent brought about not mere temporal salvation (Israel fell to Assyria eventually anyway), but eternal (through Jesus Christ her Son).
Perhaps the most important type of Mary is Eve, our first mother. She is the first woman of Creation, the mother of all humanity, and it is through her that sin entered the world. Even considering this, we know that it is not Eve’s failing that led to this fall, but Adam’s–for it was Adam who was responsible for teaching her the rules of the Garden (God gives those commands to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17, then creates Eve; no other account of these commands is evident in the text). It was also Adam who stood by and said nothing while she dealt directly with the serpent (Genesis 3:6–“she gave some to her husband, who was with her”). And it was Adam who, knowing the law of God, stood idly by while the first sin was committed, and proceeded to participate in it himself. This is why Adam is the one responsible for original sin, but Eve was the route by which this sin entered the world.
Just as Jesus is the new Adam (Romans 5:12-21), Mary is the new Eve. She is the first woman of the new Creation, being given grace by God (Luke 1:28 might be better translated, “Greetings, graced one!”) and being the first of Jesus’ disciples.
Consider also the text of John 1-2. Even a casual reader will notice a similarity between John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1, but the similarities between the creation story of John and the creation story of Genesis continue. John notes the passage of days in his first chapter. Verses 19-28 mark the first day, 29-34 the second day, 35-42 the third, day, 43-51 the fourth day. John 2:1 begins with On the third day, which brings us to… seven days.
At this point, John tells the story of a wedding, just as Genesis 2 tells of the first wedding. But where the story of Genesis went wrong–the first man and the first woman, after their marriage, fell into sin–the story of John goes perfectly. In Genesis, the first woman (Eve) gave to the first man (Adam) sin, and in so doing, all Creation fell. In John, the first woman of the new Creation (Mary) gives to the first man of the new Creation (Jesus) faith and obedience (John 2:3-5). Where Adam failed and sinned, Jesus succeeded and prevailed, and here foreshadows his death (“My hour has not yet come,” compared with John 17:1; 19:27).
So it is that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, brings salvation to the world (just as Adam brought death), but it is Mary, by her assent to the angel (Luke 1:38), who is the route by which salvation comes to us.
Jesus himself further solidifies this connection between Mary and Eve. In the midst of this creation narrative (John 1-2), he addresses her as “woman.” This is not, as some claim, derogatory or disrespectful (how can Jesus, who is without sin, disobey the commandments of God and disrespect his own mother?), but links Mary with Eve and the first prophecy of Christ in Genesis 3:15.
Eve’s inferiority to Mary is obvious–she brought forth sin through her assent to the serpent, where Mary brought forth salvation through her assent to the angel of God. But this leaves one peculiar area where Eve and Mary do not line up, according to the Protestant reading: Eve was created without original sin.
How can Eve, a type of Mary, be created without original sin, but Mary–in every way Eve’s superior–be subjected to it?
Consider, too, the other types of Mary I have mentioned. Eden is a place where man and woman walk with God daily, yet it is inferior to Mary, since it only prefigures her. The burning bush has made the very ground around it holy; how then can Mary be less holy? The ark of the covenant cannot even be touched by the unworthy (no matter how good their intentions); how then can Mary be defiled by original sin?
This doctrine has led to another, which I will discuss next week–the conclusion of this idea, grounded in the rich Tradition of the Church. Even more than any other topic so far, though, it will probably give you pause. Pray about these things as we move forward.
How Will This Be?
For All Have Sinned
1 No doubt many will dispute this interpretation of John. Nevertheless, the literary effect of an anonymous author stands in such a way. Consider also the commentary of Origen, that we must become like St. John, accepting Mary as our mother, and in so doing stand at the foot of the cross in faith, being named by Christ not as a son of Mary, but as the Son of Mary, that is, Christ Himself (cf. Galatians 2:20).
Consider also that, all the times we see the beloved disciple, we may interpolate ourselves. In John 13:21-30, we are so beloved by God that we may rest near his heart (Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4) and inquire of him directly (1 Timothy 2:5-6; see again Hebrews 8). In John 20:1-10, though we do not understand the mysteries of God, we may have faith and believe in his Word. In John 21:4-8, we may recognize our Lord even though those around us do not. In John 21:20-24, we the Church persist until Christ’s return (cf. Matthew 16:18) and we testify to the truth in Christ. It is therefore also appropriate that, in John 19:25-27, we take Jesus’ mother as our own and show her the respect and honor which Jesus shows his own mother.
Whether you take these passages as descriptive or prescriptive is up to you, I suppose, but either way, it seems obvious that Mary is the mother of the Church, especially in light of Revelation 12.