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The Blessed Virgin in the History of Christianity | John A. Hardon, S.J.
Christianity would be meaningless without the Blessed
Virgin. Her quiet presence opened Christian history at the Incarnation and will
continue to pervade the Church's history until the end of time.
Our purpose in this meditation is to glance over the past
two thousand years to answer one question: What are the highlights of our
Marian faith as found in the Bible and the teaching of the Catholic Church?
The first three evangelists were mainly concerned with
tracing Christ's ancestry as Son of Man and, therefore, as Son of Mary. St.
Matthew, writing for the Jews, stressed Christ's descent from Abraham. St.
Luke, disciple of St. Paul, traced Christ's origin to Adam, the father of the
human race. Yet both writers were at pains to point out that Mary's Son
fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah about the Messiah. He was to be born of a
virgin to become Emmanuel, which means "God with us." Luke gave a long account
of the angel's visit to Mary to announce that the Child would be holy and would
be called the "Son of God" (Luke 1:36).
St. John followed the same pattern. He introduced Mary as
the Mother of Jesus when He began His public ministry. In answer to her wishes,
Christ performed the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding feast
in Cana in Galilee. What happened then has continued ever since. Most of the
miraculous shrines of Christianity have been dedicated to Our Lady.
It is also St. John who tells us that Mary stood under the
Cross of Calvary as her Son was dying for our salvation. Speaking of John,
Jesus told His Mother, "This is your son." To John, He said of Mary, "This is
your Mother." The apostle John represented all of us. On Good Friday, therefore,
Christ made His Mother the supernatural Mother of the human race and made us
her spiritual children.
Mother of God
In the early fifth century, a controversy arose in Asia
Minor, where the Bishop of Constantinople claimed that Mary was only the Mother
of Christ (Greek=Christotokos). He was
condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, which declared that "the holy
Virgin is the Mother of God (Greek=Theotokos).
St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, was mainly
responsible for this solemn definition of Mary's divine maternity. It was St.
Cyril who thus composed the most famous Marian hymn of antiquity. It is a
praise of Our Lady as Mediatrix with God:
Through you, the Trinity is
Every other title of Mary and all the Marian devotion of the
faithful are finally based on the Blessed Virgin's primary claim to our
extraordinary love. She is the Mother of God. She gave her Son all that every
human mother gives the child she conceives and gives birth to. She gave Him His
human body. Without her, there would have been no Incarnation, no Redemption,
no Eucharist; in a word, no Christianity.
Through you, the Cross is venerated throughout the
Through you, angels and archangels rejoice.
Through you, the
demons are driven away.
Through you, the fallen creature is raised to
Through you, the churches are founded in the whole world.
you, people are led to conversion.
Logically related to her divine maternity is Our Lady's
perpetual virginity. From the earliest days the Church has taught that Mary was
a virgin before giving birth to Jesus, in giving His birth, and after His birth
All of this is already stated or implied in the Gospels. In
St. Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, all the previous ancestors are called
"father." But then we are told there came "Joseph, the husband of Mary of whom
Jesus was born, who is called the Christ" (Matthew 1:16). St. Luke twice
identifies Mary as "virgin," who "knows not man."
Already in the early Church, those who questioned Christ's
divinity were the same ones who denied His Mother's virginity. As explained by
St. Augustine, "When God vouchsafed to become Man, it was fitting that He
should be born in this way. He who was made of her, had made her what she was:
a virgin who conceives, a virgin who gives birth; a virgin with child, a virgin
labored of child-a virgin ever virgin."
Given the fact of the Incarnation, its manner follows as a
matter of course. Why should not the Almighty who created His Mother have also
preserved the body of which He would be born? But this appropriateness of
Mary's virginity makes sense only if you believe that Mary's Son is the living
Mary's freedom from sin, present at her conception, is
already taught by St. Ephraem in the fourth century. In one of his hymns, he
addresses Our Lord, "Certainly you alone and your Mother are from every aspect
completely beautiful. There is no blemish in you my Lord, and no stain in your
By the seventh century, the feast of Mary's Immaculate
Conception was celebrated in the East. In the eight century, the feast was
commemorated in Ireland, and from there spread to other countries in Europe.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some leading
theologians, even saints, raised objections to the Immaculate Conception. Their
main difficulty was how Mary could be exempt from all sin before the coming of
Christ. Here the Franciscan Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) stood firm and
paved the way for the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Blessed
Pius IX in 1854.
In the words of Pope Blessed Pius IX, "We declare,
pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed
Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception . . . was preserved from
all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be
believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful."
Four years after the definition, Our Lady appeared to St.
Bernadette in Lourdes, identifying herself as the Immaculate Conception. The
numerous miracles at Lourdes are a divine confirmation of the doctrine defined
by Pius IX. They are also a confirmation of the papal primacy defined by the
First Vatican Council under the same Bishop of Rome.
Assumption into Heaven
Not unlike his predecessor, Pope Pius XII defined Mary's
bodily Assumption into heaven. On November 1, 1950, the pope responded to the
all but unanimous request of the Catholic hierarchy by making a formal
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the
Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce,
declare and define as divinely revealed dogma: the Immaculate Mother of God,
Mary ever Virgin, after her life on earth, was assumed body and soul to the
glory of heaven.
The day after the definition, Pius XII told the
assembled hundreds of bishops his hope for the future: May this new honor given
to Mary introduce "a spirit of penance to replace the prevalent love of
pleasure and a renewal of family life stabilized where divorce was common and
made fruitful where birth control was practiced." If there is one feature that
characterizes the modern world, observed the Pope, it is the worship of the
body. Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven reminds us of our own bodily resurrection
on the last day, provided we use our bodies on earth according to the will of
Mother of the Church
Never in the history of Christianity has any general council
spoken at such length and with such depth about Mary as the Second Vatican
This is not surprising in view of the extraordinary devotion
to the Blessed Virgin in our day. What the Council did was put this devotion
into focus and spell out its doctrinal foundation.
First a quiet admonition. The council "charges that
practices and exercises of devotion to her be treasured as recommended by the
teaching authority of the Church in the course of centuries." True Marian piety
consists neither in fruitless and passing emotion, nor in a certain empty
Rather authentic devotion to Mary "proceeds from true faith
by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and are moved
to filial love toward our Mother and to the invitation of her virtues" (Constitution
on the Church, 67-8).
What are we being told? We are told that true devotion to
Our Lady is shown in a deep love of her as our Mother, put into practice by the
imitation of her virtues-especially her faith, her chastity and charity.
These are the three virtues that the modern world most
Like Mary, we need to believe
that everything which God has revealed to us will be fulfilled.
No wonder the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this astounding profession
of faith: "We believe that the most holy Mother of God, the new Eve, Mother of
the Church, continues in heaven her maternal role toward the members of
Christ." It all depends on our faith in her maternal care and our trust in her
influence over the almighty hand of her Son.
Like Mary, we need to use our
bodily powers to serve their divine purpose no matter what the sacrifice of our
Like Mary, we are to be always
sensitive to the needs of others. Like her, we are to respond to these needs
without being asked and, like her, even ask Jesus to work a miracle to benefit
those whom we love.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2001
issue of The Catholic Faith magazine.
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John Hardon, S.J. (b. June 18th, 1914 - d. December 30, 2000) was the
Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine. He was ordained
on his 33rd birthday, June 18th, 1947 at West Baden Springs, Indiana. Father
Hardon was a member of the Society of Jesus for 63 years and an ordained
priest for 52 years. Father Hardon held a Masters degree in Philosophy from
Loyola University and a Doctorate in Theology from Gregorian University
in Rome. He taught at the Jesuit School of Theology at Loyola University
in Chicago and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine at
St. John's University in New York. A prolific writer, he authored over forty
books, including The Catholic Catechism, Religions of the World, Protestant
Churches of America, Christianity in the Twentieth Century, Theology of
Prayer, The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan,
History And Theology Of Grace,
With Us Today: On the Real Presence of
Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and The
Treasury Of Catholic Wisdom, which he edited.
In addition, he was actively involved with
a number of organizations, such as the Institute on Religious Life, Marian
Catechists, Eternal Life and Inter Mirifica, which publishes his catechetical
courses. For more about Fr. Hardon, visit this
page at Dave Armstrongs website.
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