Blessed Virgin Mary
- The Annunciation
- The Visitation
- Jesus’ Birth
- The Flight into Egypt and the Circumcision
- Early Christian Ideas
- Feast Days
- New Views
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 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).
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 1:46-56). 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.
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.
Over the centuries many festivals evolved to pay tribute to the im-portant 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.
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.