While it may seem obvious to a Catholic that the Woman in Chapter 12 of Revelation refers to Mary, there are reasons why some scholars see not Mary, but an image of Israel or the Church. For example, the woman’s fleeing to the wilderness to be nourished calls to mind Israel in the wilderness being nourished by the Manna (12:6); and perhaps most direct is the reference to the woman being given “two wings of the great eagle” (12:14), which calls to mind Exodus 19:4 and the description of God’s care for Israel “on eagles’ wings.”
Perhaps the best way to account for this is to see here both images at once: Mary and the Church, as the New Israel. In fact, there are a series of parallels between Revelation 12 and John 19 (John’s account of the Passion, with Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross); this is then taken to mean that both passages—John 19 and Revelation 12—are recounting in some sense the same event, the event of the Cross: one from an earthly vantage point (Jn 19) and the other from a heavenly vantage point (Rv 12).
In both passages, we have:
- A “woman” (Rv 12:1; Jn 19:26)
- Mother of the Messiah (Rv 12:5; Jn 19:26)
- Mother of all Christians (Rv 12:17; Jn 19:26-27)
- Defeat of the Devil (Rv 12:7-12; cf. Jn 12:23, 31 with reference to the Cross)
- Birth pangs (Rv 12:2; cf. Jn 16:21 with reference to the Cross)
The birth described in Revelation 12 may include elements of the Nativity story, but also includes the Cross as the birth that brings the People of God from the Old Covenant to the New and reconciles us back to God. We can see this by noting the psalm that identifies the birth (Rv 12:5 citing Ps 2:9). This psalm is likely a coronation psalm that was applied to the Davidic king on the day he became king—at which time the king entered into a certain role as adoptive son of God (see 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7; Ps 89:27). In other words, the birth described here in Revelation 12 is not just the Nativity, but Christ’s enthronement on the Cross.
In John 19, Jesus refers to Mary as “woman” and entrusts her to the “beloved disciple”; and the beloved disciple takes her as his own mother. Traditionally, the beloved disciple has been understood as St. John; so why call himself the “beloved disciple”? The reason is because John sees his new relationship with Mary as not just pertaining to himself, but to all Christians: he calls himself “beloved disciple” because in taking Mary as his spiritual mother he embodies all disciples. That is, in John 19 on the Cross, Mary becomes the spiritual mother not just of John, but of all Christians. So, we have here in John 19 a “dual maternity,” of sorts—Mary is mother of Jesus and of all Christians.
And similarly in Revelation 12, the woman is the mother of the Messiah (Rv 12:5) and of all Christians: after describing the Woman as mother of the Messiah, the text goes on to describe the “rest of her offspring,” namely, “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rv 12:17). So once again, we have dual maternity in Revelation 12 as well.
In terms of Mary’s relationship to the Church, it’s best to say that Mary embodies the Church; in the words of the Church Fathers, she is an “eschatological type” of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 967, 972): she has in herself what the Church will have at the end of time in glory. Mariology and Ecclesiology always go together.
So, is the Woman of Revelation 12 Mary or the Church? The Catholic answer is “yes.” And St. John calls us to see both in this one polyvalent image: Mary embodies the Church and both are rightly called our “Mother” in Christ.
How can we grow closer to Mary? For she always points us to her Son—the closer we grow to her, the closer we grow to Jesus.