Swimming the Tiber 29: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

As a term, “the bodily assumption of Mary” is probably the second most confusing Marian doctrine. (The first most confusing is “the Immaculate Conception,” and that’s mostly because people think that it refers to Jesus’ conception instead of Mary’s.) Certainly, when I first encountered it, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. Once I learned about it, though, I actually had less trouble accepting it than most Marian doctrines.

In short, the Assumption refers to when Mary’s body was taken up into Heaven at the end of her life on earth. The main point of contention for this doctrine (even within the Catholic Church) is whether this event occurred before or after she died. There’s strong precedent for the former, and traditionally, the Church has always taught that she died, but people still fight over it for some reason.

Perhaps she is like Enoch and Elijah. Enoch appears most prominently in a genealogy in Genesis 5, where person after person is recorded as having died–except Enoch. Enoch, we are told, “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24, NRSVCE). The author of Hebrews reminds us, “By faith Enoch was transposed in order that he might not see death, and [he] was not being found because God transposed him; for before the transposition [it] has been testified that [he] has been well-pleasing to God” (Hebrews 11:5, my translation). Elijah is taken up in a chariot of fire (hence the song and, by way of that song, the title of this post) in 2 Kings 2:11: “As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven” (NRSVCE).

But perhaps Mary is different; most likely, like her beloved Son, she saw death, one final pain for the woman who suffered more than any other (not because no other woman has lost a child, but because no other woman has watched the death of, all at once, her Child and her God). And after her dormition (“falling asleep”), God took her up to be with her Son then. This brings to mind the death and burial of Moses; Deuteronomy 34 tells us that God buried him in the land of Moab, but his exact burial place was never known to the Israelites. What God chooses to do with someone’s body is up to him, naturally.

So why would Mary be taken bodily up to Heaven? Well, this recalls her status as the new Eve, which we talked about two weeks ago. Christ was the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5), the first to be resurrected fully in the glory of God, the first fruits of the new Creation (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)–as Adam was the first time around. Mary is the first woman of the new Creation, fulfilling her status as the new Eve and as mother of the Church through her Son.

Besides that, look again at Hebrews 11:5 and recall what we talked about last week–for who (except Jesus) can be more pleasing to God than Mary? Indeed, she is “graced” by God and he is with her (Luke 1:28). If Enoch was taken up because he was pleasing to God, how much more should Mary be taken up for the same reason?

I am now going to diverge off-topic briefly and talk about the moment at which all of these Marian doctrines fell into place for me–because it wasn’t an intellectual conversion, and if you’re at all like I was, then all of my talk up to this point doesn’t convince you one whit (even if you have trouble dismissing the arguments themselves).

You see, the way I was raised put Mary in a very negative light, not so much for what she did, but for what Southern Baptists used her to represent in the Catholic Church. Because Catholics, as we all knew back then, are idolatrous and polytheistic and worship people and things that are not God. And Mary became this symbol of that; any devotion to Mary, any positive thought about Mary, was shunned in the churches I grew up in.

Now, maybe it wasn’t entirely intentional, and maybe no one intended to paint Mary as a bad person, but it was the little ways in which we ascribed importance to passages or interpreted words or made assumptions. I mean, there were people who associated the woman of Revelation 12 (obviously the mother of Jesus when read sensibly) with the whore of Babylon in Revelation 17 (obviously not the same person). We read Luke 2 every Christmas, but I don’t recall ever reading Luke 1 in Advent. Jesus’ calling his mother “woman” was not seen as praising or relating back to Genesis 3, but was called condescension or disdain (as in, “Woman, make me a sandwich!” or, “Woman, get out of my sight!”).

So as I learned about Catholicism, Mary was the last piece of the puzzle. I had read de Sales’ “Catholic Controversy,” which made no mention of Mary (because the early Reformers were perfectly happy to venerate Mary), and almost every other question had been answered to my satisfaction, but I resented Mary, and I refused to accept Catholic doctrine about her.

I was going to a men’s group at the time, and it was there that a fellow named Robert Tunmire, himself a convert, talked about the time he finally came to terms with Mary. He was visiting a parish (I forget where, unfortunately), where there was one of those enormous statues of Mary that just rankles you as a Protestant. And for one reason or another, he ended up in there alone with this statue. And standing there in that room, he prayed (not to the statue, of course), “Mary, if you’ve got something to say to me, say it.” And he received the words of what I have since come to call the Tunmire prayer, because I still pray it often: “You should pray, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me to look upon all your daughters with the purity of your love for me.'”

Those words were powerful for Robert, and as I sat in that men’s group for another hour, they worked powerfully on me. Because it never occurred to me that Mary loves me–not just me as one among many humans on earth, but me personally. She sits enthroned in heaven as the queen mother, and she always does whatever Christ tells her to do (John 2:5), and he tells us more than anything to love–so surely she loves us, and prays for our well-being and the salvation of our souls. Which means that, all this time that I had resented Mary and treated her poorly, she loved me and prayed for me. It broke my heart, and on my way home that morning, I repented of my ill will and finally saw Mary in the glory of God, the way he intended.

This post concludes our in-depth examination of the Marian doctrines of the Church, which very nearly puts us in the home stretch for this series. Before long, we’ll examine historical and social issues around the Church, personal practice of Church doctrines, and a couple more differences between Church teaching and what I used to believe that I haven’t touched on yet. But next week, we’ll be looking at where we go when we die, and what the Church teaches about that.

Swimming the Tiber 28: For All Have Sinned

For [there] is not a distinction, for all [men] erred [on a particular occasion] and are behind the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus; which God set out as propitiatory through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures(errors/faults/sins) that came before, in the forbearancelit. holding-back of God, towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus.

– Romans 3:22-26 (my translation, simplified)

I have simplified my translation of the above passage because, frankly, rendering it like the original Greek may be informative, but it’s also confusing. My aim here is to clarify, not obfuscate.

Before I started looking closely at Catholicism, I had never heard this doctrine about Mary, but it’s possible some of you have. In addition to being born without original sin, remaining virginal throughout her entire life, being the worthy queen mother of the King of Creation, and indeed being the very Mother of God, Catholic doctrine holds that Mary never committed personal sin in the course of her life.

Like me, you are probably quick to reply with Romans 3:23 above or Ecclesiastes 7:20 or Psalm 143:2 or Galatians 3:22. “Scripture clearly indicates that all have sinned!”

Well, let me ask this: Did Jesus sin?

Before you answer, remember your Christology. Jesus is fully God, yes, but he is also fully man, meaning that if statements about “all men” are absolute and without exception, then he is included. But of course Jesus did not sin, despite being tempted in every way just as we are (Hebrews 4:15).

Now that we have established the prime exception, let’s look at the secondary one. Ecclesiastes 7:20 can be safely cleared, first, because it was true when it was written, and because the phrase “on earth” (like “under the sun” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes) reinforces that such things are impossible without God. Psalm 143:2, likewise, was true at the time, and in that psalm, David is asking the Lord to do exactly as Paul says in Romans 3. Galatians 3:22 depends on the verse immediately before it, which frames the statement in terms of the law: “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law.” (NRSVCE) This is the context in which all are imprisoned under the power of sin: exactly what Paul says in Romans 3:19-20.

So let’s focus on the Romans passage, since it seems to be the hinge on which this whole question swings. Like classic exegetes, let’s look at each phrase to determine the meaning of the whole. Before we do, it may be beneficial for you to refresh yourself on the concepts of soteriology, which I discussed at length early in this series.

  • For there is not a distinction. Jews and Greeks are on equal footing. Knowing the law of Moses does not help you. Sacrificing at the temple in Jerusalem does not help you. The justice of God is available to all equally, and its necessity is obvious to all.
  • For all [men] erred. “All” is masculine, but collective. All men are all people. Everyone commits discrete acts of sin (presumably, excepting any exceptions, like Jesus). The aorist is used here, though a translation in the perfect sounds more natural (“all have sinned”) and is frequently used instead. The tense provides that sense of discrete acts, which is what clearly distinguishes this from original sin.
  • And are behind the glory of God. This is often translated “fall short,” but I retained a more literal translation because it recalls Romans 3:9, not to mention 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and 2 Timothy 4:7. The point is that, though we try to win, we lose the race when we run it alone.
  • Being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus. Our justification is a gift by the grace of God (see the rest of Psalm 143). We are released from the bindings of sin because God freely gives this to us, specifically through the atonement of Jesus’ death on the cross.
  • Which God set out as propitiatory. God gives his grace, our justification, to reconcile us to himself.
  • Through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures that came before, in the forbearance of God. In short, faith grants us access to this justification, because the blood of Christ acquits us of sin at God’s discretion. This we already know from our examination of soteriology.
  • Towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus. This brings to mind verses like Psalm 71:10-13, where enemies of God’s people claim that he has abandoned them, but he proves himself and brings glory to his holy name. Note also that God is justifying the one out of faith, that is, the one who lives from faith or comes from faith; this suggests that he is justified not merely who assents, but he whose life reflects his faith.

Consider also that, when Jesus forgives sin, he makes a request of us: “Sin no more” (see John 5:14; 8:10-11).

We already know that God has given Mary a special grace to escape original sin. This passage in Romans suggests that it is God’s grace which frees us also from personal sin and makes it possible for us to obey the Lord and “sin no more.” We also know that Jesus’ atonement is retroactive (that is, it applies to the saints and holy ones who lived and died before Jesus did, such as the patriarchs–see Hebrews 11).

There should be no danger, then, in saying that God, by his discretion, could give Mary the grace not only to escape original sin, but also to resist temptation and avoid personal sin throughout her life.

“But why?” you may say. I certainly did. I argued, “Well, fine, maybe it’s possible, but what purpose could there possibly be in doing this?”

Well, remember what we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. Mary is, first of all, a vessel for the Lord God Almighty; should not such a vessel be holy and pure in God’s sight? But more than that, Mary is Jesus’ own mother, and Jesus never sinned–so we know he obeyed the commandment to honor his father and mother. What greater honor could he do her than to free her first from the shackles of sin in which we have all been enslaved?

Next week, we have one final topic about Mary before we move on; it should be less controversial than these, if for no other reason than it’s not unique to Mary. Look forward to an examination of the bodily assumption of Mary!

Swimming the Tiber 27: The Types of Mary

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 Garden

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 Bush

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).

The Ark is inferior to Mary because the old covenant is inferior to the new (Hebrews 8:6). The Ark contained the old covenant (Exodus 25:16), Mary the new (Luke 22:20).

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.

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.

Swimming the Tiber 26: How Will This Be?

And the angelhere and throughout, (messenger / envoy) said to her, “Fear not, Mary, for [thou] found [on a particular occasion] grace(favor) besidehere and throughout, (before / with / in the presence of) God. And behold, [thou] will conceive in [thy] belly and [thou] will bring forth a son and [thou] will call his name Jesus. This [man] will be great and will be called [the]1 son of [the] highest [one] and the lord God(God, as lord,) will give to him the throne of his father David, and [he] will be king(rule) over the household of Jacob unto the ages and of his kingdom [there] will not be an end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since [I] do not know a man?” And having answered, the angel said to her, “A holy spirit will come upon thee and a power of [the] highest will overshadow thee; wherefore also the holy [one] being brought forth2 3 will be called [the] son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also herself has conceived a son in her old age and this is the sixth month for the [one] called barren; because no word will be powerless4 beside God.” And Mary said, “Behold the slave of [the] lord; may [it] come to be for me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.

– Luke 1:30-38 (my translation, emphasis added)

In my experience, most Protestants don’t think often of this passage; without any devotion to Mary, evangelical/Baptist communities don’t ascribe much importance to it. Sure, it mentions a few crucial details about fulfilling prophecies and such (Jesus was born of a virgin), but its details don’t come up very often.

It doesn’t help that interpretation often interferes between the text and the English translation in most Bibles. The passage I have made bold above, being the second most important quote from Mary in the passage, is often translated, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” or, “How can this be, since I have not known/lain with a man?” The former is passable, but I think cleverly evades the point; the latter is outright fabrication because the tense is objectively and purposefully wrong.

There are a lot of comments available in the above passage, most of which are interesting, but beside the point–but I left out my especially nerdy commentary on the bold text because I wanted to make sure you saw it. First, let’s look at the easy part: “a man.” Even bad translations of this passage get this part right, and the meaning is obvious: Mary does not know (Biblically) any man. She knows no man. This is indefinite specifically because no particular individual is mentioned (nor any particular class, since it is a singular noun). It is the generic noun “man.” She doesn’t know man. It’s not that she doesn’t know the man; she doesn’t know any man.

Well, fair enough, you say. That seems straightforward.

Then let’s look at the harder part, the part that Protestant translators avoid translating accurately: “[I] do not know.” This is in the present tense. As I said above, it is bad translating to render it in the perfect tense (an action in the past–or in this case, a lack of action in the past–with an effect on the present, emphasizing the current state of affairs). Translating this as the perfect relegates it to the past quite naturally; if she has not known a man, then she may yet know a man. It implies a malleable state–this thing has not happened, but it can.

The present tense isn’t like that. Where the perfect tense refers to past events with an effect on the present, the present tense does the opposite: it refers to events happening right now. Now, obviously, she’s not in the process of knowing a man, which the angel can plainly see, so that’s not what she’s saying. The present tense here indicates imperfective aspect in the primary sequence. That means that it refers to habitual or ongoing action in the present or future. As I just said, ongoing is ruled out because she wouldn’t need to mention it (like the dad joke where someone asks, “What are you doing?” and the answer is, “Talking to you”–it’s funny because it’s unnecessary and obvious). The alternative is habitual action–it’s not that she hasn’t yet known a man, it’s that she doesn’t do that kind of thing. She’s not a virgin just because she isn’t married, but because she has chosen to be a virgin.

Of course, you’re free to disagree. I’m sure more than one Greek-literate person out there is yelling at their computer screen, “No, it’s because she’s habitually virtuous up to that point!” That’s fair, I guess, although I maintain that the perfect tense would suit that meaning… perfectly. ( YEEEAAAHHH!)

But consider that this also explains why she asks “how” this can happen. She’s not woefully uneducated; she surely understands the logistics. And the angel’s word is prophetic (you will conceive), so if she were about to enter a normal marriage to Joseph, this doesn’t seem like a complex question. Compare this to Zachariah’s confusion in Luke 1:18 or Sarah’s in Genesis 18:12. The main difference here is that Mary is asking not because pregnancy is technically impossible (she is not barren), but because of her vow to remain celibate before God. The question is not doubting God’s power, but trying to reconcile her duty to her vow and her wish to accept the word of the angel.

If you’re still wondering what I’m talking about, it’s this: the Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is to say, there was no point in Mary’s life during which she was not a virgin.

If you’re like I was, you’re saying, “Wait, what? Why? What about Jesus’ brothers? What about Joseph?”

Legitimate questions, all. First, I’ll repeat myself: It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that Mary remained virginal her entire life.

As for the why, you’re bound to get a few mixed responses on that. The quickest answer is always, “Because that’s the way God wanted it,” which is pretty unsatisfying, let me tell you. Another reason is to maintain the purity and virtue of Mary (recall my post on the virtue of virginity?) as the holy vessel through which God Himself entered the world. (You may recall that some earlier vessels for God required absolute reverence–Exodus 3:1-6; 2 Samuel 6:6-7.)

Tradition is pretty strong on this point, generally speaking. St. Augustine, considered by many historically-minded Protestants to be one of the “good ones,” points to the east gate in Ezekiel’s vision as a type of Mary:

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.

– Ezekiel 44:1-3 (NRSVCE)

Reading that in the context that Augustine did, it doesn’t seem to mean anything but the perpetual virginity of Mary.

An early (second century) document called the Protoevangelium of James (though not canonical) points to the ancient status of this teaching. The story goes like this: Mary’s parents devoted her as a child to the Lord (in the manner of Samuel, in 1 Samuel 1:11, and of the women serving in the temple of the Lord, who, though meant to be virginal, were defiled by Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel 2:22, and also in the manner of Anna in Luke 2:36-38). Eventually, it became necessary that Mary be married, in order to protect her virginity, and so Joseph (according to the Protoevangelium, a widower with children from his first marriage) was chosen for the job. Not all of those details are part of the doctrine, but the story was intended to explain confusion about that relationship in particular.

For the first few centuries of church history, the “brothers” of Jesus were considered step-brothers (the children of Joseph’s first marriage). St. Jerome (a strong proponent of Mary’s virginity and virginity in general) suggested that, because of a Jewish idiom of the time, the term could also refer to Jesus’ cousins.

This latter use is reinforced via a particular reading of the Gospels. In Mark 6:3, we see that the list of Jesus’ brothers includes “James and Joses and Simon and Judas.” In Mark 15:40, we see that a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joses, was at the crucifixion. In John 19:25, we see that Jesus’ mother Mary, and also Mary’s sister Mary (not even the Romans, who numbered their children, gave two living children the exact same name, so “cousin” makes sense here, too), and Mary Magdalene were present at the crucifixion. A syncretic reading of the two passages suggests that Mary, the wife of Clopas, is the same Mary, the mother of James and Joses. Of course, those were all common names, so that James and Joses might not be the same James and Joses mentioned nine chapters earlier, but Mark did have a tendency to name-drop (cf. Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21).

There are other points of contention for this issue. Many Catholics point to John 19:25-27 as evidence in favor of Mary’s virginity. After all, if Jesus were the eldest, and Mary had other sons, he should pass off responsibility for her to one of his brothers, but instead he chooses the beloved disciple (the apostle John, according to tradition). That he chose John as his replacement suggests that he had no brothers to choose. (The counter-argument, of course, is that he was not on good terms with his brothers, or perhaps simply that none of his brothers attended the crucifixion. This is reinforced by Matthew 12:46-50–see also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21–and John 7:1-10. It’s a fair point, so these arguments balance out, in my estimation.)

Consider also that in Luke 2:41-52, there is no mention of siblings at a time when siblings should be appropriate to the story. Consider that the behavior of the “brothers” toward Jesus are like that of older relatives (see John 7 again, and Mark 3:21), but would not have been appropriate to younger siblings.

In response to the so-called linguistic arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity–that “until” in Matthew 1:25 implies a change in behavior, or that “first-born” implies that a “second-born” must have existed, I have little to say, because I remain flabbergasted that I also used these arguments in the past.

The words “until” and “till”–in English, in Greek (ἕως), or in Hebrew–do not strictly require a change in behavior after the time described. If I say, “He did not write another word until he died,” did he start writing again after death? The point of the word is to describe a span of time (from point A to point B) during which a certain fact was true. If nothing states that things changed afterward (and nothing in Scripture does), then we cannot assume Mary and Joseph began to have sexual relations after the birth of Jesus on the basis of this word alone.

This supposition about “first-born” implying the existence of a “second-born” is utter nonsense. If a woman bears only one child, that child is her first-born (because no child has been born from her before that one). In the same way, if I drive a motorcycle tomorrow, that will be my first time driving a motorcycle, even if I never drive one again; or if I were called upon to coach the Green Bay Packers, I would coach my first professional football game, and then I would never coach another–but the one I coached would be no less my first.

One final point to address: “What about Joseph?” For a long time, this was a sticking point for me. It was unfair, said I, even unconscionable that Joseph should be married to a beautiful young woman and be forbidden from intercourse with her. Withholding sex can even be grounds for an annulment in some cases, suggesting that one or both parties did not comprehend marriage before entering into it. But recall again my post on the virtue of virginity, and recognize that any family containing the only-begotten Son of God is going to be holy, set apart, and dedicated to purity and devotion to God. In that context, it’s important to recognize that Joseph knew what he was getting into (even if he were not an old widower, Mary’s vow of celibacy would have been specified up front, not a surprise for the wedding night).

Consider also the words of Sts. Augustine and Jerome:

Thus Christ, about to be born from a virgin, who–before [she] knew who had been about to be born from her–had resolved to remain a virgin, [Christ] preferred to approve holy virginity, [rather] than to command [it]. And thus also in the woman herself, in whom he accepted the form of a slave, [he] wanted virginity to be freely chosen.

– Augustine, De Sancta Virginitate 4 (my translation)

You say that Mary did not remain a virgin: I assert to you more that Joseph himself was a virgin on account of Mary, in order that a virgin son was born out of a virgin union. For if fornication does not befall a holy man, and [it] is not written that he had another wife: but to Mary, whom [he] was reckoned to have [as wife], [he] was a more capable guardian than husband: [it] remains that he who merited to be called the father of the Lord stayed a virgin with Mary.

– Jerome, De Perpetua Virginitate Beatae Mariae
Adversus Helvidium
19 (21) (my translation)

All that to say, St. Joseph is even more saintly than I thought. Hardly a rip-off, especially when you get to raise the Son of God, teaching him your trade and getting to know him intimately as only a father can, all while living alongside the greatest of the saints, Jesus’ own mother, Mary.

But just how great is Mary? Let’s dig deeper next week, when we talk about the Catholic doctrine that, in order to prepare a holy vessel worthy of himself, God ensured that she would be born without the stain of original sin.

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The Queen Mother

Back to the passage
1 Whether the definite article is implied here or not is not clear. Because this (as in verse 35 below) is a predicate (that is, the same construction as the subject, but only describing the subject, not working as one), the definite article is omitted even when it would otherwise be included specifically to denote this as the predicate. Including the article would either make it the subject or indicate that no new information was being provided. The former makes no sense, and Mary’s reaction to this suggests that the latter use would be inappropriate (this is new information to her). You a perfectly free to translate this as indefinite (“[he] will be called [a] son,” etc.), but there is no reason to weigh that interpretation more heavily than the one I have rendered.
2 This phrase is neuter, probably agreeing with the implied τέκνον, “child.”
3 Some manuscripts insert: from you; others: in you
4 Literally every word will not be powerless; there is also a good chance this is a Hebraism rendered in Greek, where ῥῆμα–here and in the next verse rendered “word”–means “the matter at hand” or “the subject of which I am speaking.”

Swimming the Tiber 25: The Queen Mother

When I first heard the title “Queen of Heaven,” I must admit that I was troubled. In the limited context in which I grasped monarchy (and divine relationships), I said something like, “So Mary is supposed to be the spouse of Joseph, but she’s really the spouse of the Father (as the Father of Jesus) or the Holy Spirit (as the one who ‘overshadowed’ Mary), and now she’s the spouse of Jesus (the King)?”

Well, first of all, the Incarnation lacks the vulgar carnality of Zeus’ conquests. There was nothing sexual about the entire arrangement (after all, we know that Mary remained a virgin, or else there would have been no virgin birth). We also know that Mary was the spouse of Joseph (he did not break off their engagement, and he raised the Son of God as his own son).1

But the real crux of this question was in Mary’s relationship to the King. As an ignorant American, I had very little experience with the methods and manners of monarchies. All I knew was that England had kings and queens and sometimes they were spouses and sometimes a king or queen had a bunch of lovers (instead of spouses) to avoid sharing power. There was probably also an element of taking fairy tales at their word: if you marry a prince, you get to be queen when he becomes king.

But I never knew the concept of the queen mother. The queen mother is not the ruling monarch (Queen Elizabeth is a queen and a mother, but not the queen mother), but rather the spouse of the ruling monarch’s father. That is to say, she was married to the king, and then the king died, and her son became king. This is the context in which Mary is the “Queen of Heaven.” With Jesus as King, his mother holds a special place in Creation.

The concept of the queen mother can be found in a few places in Scripture. First, there’s the place in 1 Kings 2:13-21, where Adonijah goes to Bathsheba (the queen mother of King Solomon) to request her aid. When she goes on his behalf to Solomon, we see that Solomon sets up a throne for her, and she sits at his right hand. We see that the queen mother has authority and respect and influence (since she is sought to make this request of Solomon).

We see, in a way, a reflection of this event in John 2:1-11. Mary comes to Jesus to intercede on behalf of those hosting the wedding–“They have no wine.” Unlike Bathsheba, she has not been deceived by those requesting something of her (Adonijah is trying to steal the throne by marrying one of King David’s wives), and unlike Solomon, Jesus does not make promises that he fails to deliver on (in the verses following those referenced above, Solomon goes on to kill Adonijah and anyone who supported his claim to the throne). Instead, we see Jesus express his desire not to participate, but Mary’s request (as the queen mother) has influence, so he performs his first public miracle. (This incident, combined with the reality of intercessory prayer that I talked about a couple of weeks ago, is behind almost all Catholic devotion to Mary as an intercessor, someone who can pray on our behalf and ask for our aid.)

The prophet Jeremiah also mentions the queen mother in Jeremiah 13:18; 22:26; 29:2. The idea of a queen mother is also a thing that still exists. (It’s entirely possible that my own ignorance of this throughout my youth is an isolated incident, and most people know what a queen mother is.)

To further connect Mary to Jesus as the queen mother, we see Luke 1:43 (Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary, “the mother of my lord”). We also see John use frequent royal language about Jesus in John 18:33-37; 19:2-5, 10-15, 19-22. When we get to verse 25, we’re well aware of Jesus’ kingship (mostly because of John’s excellent use of irony).

And [they] stoodlit. had been made to stand before the cross of Jesus, his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the [one] of Clopas, and Mary the Magdalene. Jesus, therefore, having beheld the mother and the disciple standing nearlit. having stood near, whom [he] loved, [he] says to the mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then [he] says to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own [things].

– John 19:25-27 (my translation)

The full importance of this moment involves a position for Mary that we’ll discuss later, but we clearly see Jesus’ mother being identified in a special way in the midst of his crucifixion, at which point we’re acutely aware that he is the King. Her status as queen mother is reinforced here.

There is one final passage to look at: Revelation 12:1-6. Here we see Mary “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” How do we know this is Mary? Because she’s pregnant, and the devil sought to consume her child as soon as he was born (recall Matthew 2:16-18, compare Exodus 1:15-16). We see that this child is to rule (literally shepherd) all the nations (compare Matthew 25:31-36; John 10:1-18), and that he is taken at birth to the throne of God.

I hope that clears up the question a little bit. Mary is the Queen of Heaven, not as the reigning monarch, but as his mother. We ask for her prayer because there is established precedent that Mary can (and does) make requests of Jesus, which he fulfills out of love for her. She is given special consideration as beautiful and regal, with her own throne (as with Bathsheba in 1 Kings) and her own crown (as in Revelation). Every aspect of this is based not on her own merit, but on the grace granted her by God through Jesus Christ.

Next week, we’ll be tackling another major point of contention about Mary: the doctrine of her perpetual virginity and just how that relates to all these “brothers” Jesus is said to have in the Gospels.

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1 It’s important to note that Mary is called the spouse of the Holy Spirit in several places, as well as the spouse of St. Joseph. Polygamy should not be presumed here, but a mystical relationship that I will tackle a little bit more next week. Suffice it to say for now that Mary’s relationship to the Holy Spirit does involve the conception of Jesus, but does not involve a carnal act of conception.