Have you ever been stumped on an airplane, sitting next to one of our Protestant brothers or sisters, feeling a bit defensive that maybe—just maybe—some of our Catholic doctrines really aren’t biblical?
First, we’ll take a look at Mary here; other articles will follow on the communion of saints, the Eucharist, and the papacy.
Note: To get the most out of this article, you may want to have a Bible handy as you read it since the biblical references are many. (In fact, there are too many for us to link them all!)
Mary is often the most difficult stumbling block for non-Catholics, often leaving them wondering, “Why all this attention on her and taken away from Jesus?”
Perhaps the most important thing for us to communicate is that salvation is a family affair; as Patrick Madrid put it, any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine. This is the way of the covenant, since covenants establish family bonds—between us and God, and with one another. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches; anybody connected to Jesus is connected to one another, and death does not sever this union.
In Christ, Mary becomes our mother. Of course, we don’t worship her—but we do honor and love her; and she loves us as her spiritual children in and through the work of her son.
Mary as New Eve
This is the meaning of Mary as the New Eve; in John’s writings, he consistently refers to Mary as “woman.” This is not an accident; his Gospel begins with “In the beginning,” a clear allusion to the opening verses of Genesis. In referring to Mary as “woman” in John 2:4 and 19:26, John draws our attention back to an ancient prophecy about a certain woman—the woman whose seed will definitively defeat the serpent, the devil himself:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
In referring to Mary as “woman,” Jesus is pointing out that Mary is the fulfillment of this woman, and he is her “seed,” who will defeat the evil one once and for all.
While the woman in Revelation has a few layers of meaning (she is the Church and the New Israel), it’s also clear that she is the mother of the Messiah (see Revelation 12:5, i.e., Mary); and she has other children: “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (12:17). The meaning here is the same as in John 19:26-27, where Mary becomes mother—not just of Jesus—but also of the beloved disciple (who embodies all disciples). As the New Eve, Mary is the fulfillment of both Genesis 3:15 (the woman whose seed crushes the serpent) and Genesis 3:20 which describes Eve as the “mother of all living.” Mary is the mother of all the living not by nature, but by grace in Christ Jesus.
Mary Reflects Her Son’s Light
Mary is our spiritual mother and she always points to Jesus (“do whatever he tells you,” John 2:5); and she always participates in the work of her son—both in his suffering (see Luke 2:35: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also”) and in his resurrection (this is the meaning of the Assumption, see Catechism of the Catholic Church 966).
The language of participation is important here: as the moon participates in the radiance of the sun, so too does Mary (and all of us) participate in the work and life of God.
For more on this topic, check out Ascension’s book, How to Pray Like Mary.
Participation is always non-competitive—just as the moon’s source of light is entirely derivative from and dependent upon the sun. So, too, Mary’s glory is always derivative from and entirely dependent upon that of her son. In this way, the grandeur of Mary glorifies Jesus—it does not take away from him, but shows his power.
The Immaculate Conception
Often, frankly, this is the divide between Catholics and Protestants: Protestants tend to think in terms of a zero-sum paradigm—any piece of the pie given to Mary, the saints, or the sacraments is taken away from Jesus; whereas, Catholics think in terms of participation: it’s never a matter taking anything away from Jesus, but a matter of sharing more deeply in his life—through the sacraments, Mary and the saints, and so on (see CCC 970). Everything is rooted in Jesus and it all deepens our communion with Jesus.
Since the doctrinal language of the Church (e.g., Immaculate Conception) makes explicit what is implicit in Scripture, it is important to connect the dots. Typology always moves from the lesser to the greater: if God created the first Eve without sin, it’s fitting he would do the same with the new and greater one; thus, the Immaculate Conception can be seen as the implication of Mary as the New Eve. Here, sacred Tradition and the magisterium are of great help in coming to see with greater clarity the fullness of all that God has done for us in the New Covenant.
Importantly, Mary, too, needs a savior, as she declares herself (see Luke 1:47). She is saved by the grace of Jesus Christ—but in a special way: she is saved from sin beforehand, whereas we are saved after falling into sin. It’s as if God prevented Mary from falling into a swimming pool; whereas, he saved the rest of us after we were already drowning.
Many wonder how in the world can Mary be considered “queen” when she is in fact Jesus’ mother—not his wife! But this is to think only in terms of European monarchies, where the queen was typically the king’s spouse. But in ancient Israel, things were different.
In fact, it was specifically the mother of the Davidic king that was queen. In fact, since kings had multiple wives—such as Solomon who had seven hundred wives—this made sense (after all, they only had one mother). The “queen mother” was an office known as the gebirah. Every single Davidic king is introduced alongside his mother; and when the kingdom definitively crumbles and the first major wave of exile gets under way in 597 B.C., the queen mother is taken immediately after the king—indicating her very high standing in the kingdom (see 2 Kings 24:12; Jeremiah 29:2).
In 1 Kings 1-2, we see the contrast between being the king’s wife versus being his mother: in chapter one, Bathsheba—as wife of the king—has to bow down and do obeisance just to talk to King David, her husband (see 1 Kings 1:16, 31). But in chapter 2 things look very different, when her son Solomon is on the throne. In fact, this is a very important scene, as a number of the key aspects of the office of the queen mother are on display—for example, her role of bringing the needs of the people to the king and acting as an intercessor. In 1 Kings 2:13-17, Adonijah approaches Bathsheba (mother of King Solomon) with a request to bring to the king, indicating the queen mother’s significance in this capacity:
Seated on the Throne
“Please ask King Solomon—he will not refuse you—to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife” (1 Kings 2:17); Bathsheba responds, “Very well; I will speak for you to the king” (1 Kings 2:18).
Notice the display of honor given to the queen mother by King Solomon, her son:
“So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne [kiseh], and had a seat [literally “throne,” kiseh] brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right” (1 Kings 2:19).
These are all clear symbols of honor, including being seated at the right hand of the king (see Psalm 110:1)—and she is literally seated here on a “throne,” next to the king.
Jesus is the long-awaited Davidic King and he is restoring the kingdom. The reason Mary is queen is because Jesus is the Davidic King and his kingdom is the restoration and elevation of the Davidic Kingdom (see Luke 1:32-33). This is why Mary, in Revelation 12, is depicted with a “crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). The stars call to mind Joseph’s dream (see Genesis 37:9); in other words, this woman is the queen mother of the new Israel.
One question people sometimes have about 1 Kings 2 is that Solomon ultimately does not grant Bathsheba’s request. While there is a lot behind the scenes between Adonijah and Solomon, it is not necessarily the case that Bathsheba herself becomes a type of Mary; rather, the office of the queen mother is a type of Mary’s role in the New Covenant.
What we have, then, in the queen mother of the Davidic Kingdom is an earthly portrait of what Mary does in a heavenly way in the New Covenant: as the queen mother had the role of bringing the needs of the people to the king, so too Mary brings our needs to the ultimate king, her son Jesus Christ.
Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant was the holiest object in all of Israel. It was built with the most precious acacia wood available and overlaid with gold. It was kept in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and later the Temple (see Exodus 25:10-22). The Ark held a jar which held the Manna, Aaron’s priestly rod, and the Ten Commandments (see Hebrews 9:4). The Ark was the most revered object in all of Israel; there’s no way an ancient Israelite could ever have said, “I love the Lord—just get that Ark away from me!”
At first glance, there are obvious parallels between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant: both house the presence of God (i.e., in Mary’s womb); both contain the bread of life (the Manna and Jesus who is the Bread of Life); and both hold the priesthood (Aaron’s high priestly rod in the Ark, and Jesus the eternal high priest in Mary’s womb); and both hold the word of God (the Ten Commandments in the Ark, Word made flesh in Mary’s womb).
After the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in 586 B.C., the Ark was never seen again. When the rebuilding of the Temple was complete in 515 B.C., it did not have the Ark of the Covenant in it.
Signs in Revelation
This makes all the more significant the way in which chapter eleven of Revelation ends. John sees a vision of the heavenly Temple and he recounts seeing the Ark of the Covenant—after it had been missing for over five hundred years:
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple” (Revelation 11:19).
This would have been ecstatic for someone like John from a Jewish background, having gone centuries without the Ark!
John moves seamlessly from the Ark to the Woman, crowned with twelve stars (Revelation 12:1; keep in mind that the chapter divisions are not original and that chapter twelve needs to be read on the heels of chapter eleven). There is no way someone from John’s background could mention seeing the Ark after all these years, and then just move on to something else. Rather, John is telling us that the New Ark is the Woman—Mary herself.
St. Luke paints the same portrait of Mary. In describing her journey to visit Elizabeth, he does so in a way that intentionally parallels the movement of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. One or two parallels might make one wonder if it might be just a coincidence; but as the parallels add up, Luke’s intent becomes all the clearer—Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant. Here are the parallels from 2 Samuel 6:
- Both Mary and David “arose and went” (Luke 1:39; 2 Samuel 6:2)
- Both David and John the Baptist “leap” (Luke 1:41; 2 Samuel 6:16—John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb, David before the Ark)
- Both David and Elizabeth ask a similar question: Elizabeth asks before Mary, “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and David asks, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (Luke 1:43; 2 Samuel 6:9)
- David and Mary remain three months (the length of time the Ark remains at the house of Obed-edom, and the length of time Mary remains at the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:56; 2 Samuel 6:11).
Even the geographic region of both journeys is the same, namely, the hill country of Judea (see 2 Samuel 6:2; Luke 1:39).
But perhaps most significant of all is the Greek word employed by Luke in 1:42, which is normally translated as “exclaimed.” If I were to ask an audience to guess what movie I’m thinking of, and I simply gave the clue “good versus evil,” they would be at a loss. But if I went on to say “light saber”—that would make it pretty clear. The Greek word behind “exclaimed” in Luke 1:42 is definitely a “light saber” moment.
The Ark and Mary’s Assumption
The Greek word here is anaphoneo, which is used only once in the entire New Testament. It occurs five times in the Greek Old Testament—every single time with respect to Levites praising the Ark of the Covenant. And here we have, once again, a Levite in Elizabeth (see Luke 1:5) praising the Ark of the New Covenant.
In the Old Testament, for example in the taking of Jericho in Joshua 6, the Ark is immensely powerful; as the Ark was powerful in earthly battles in the Old Covenant, so too the New Ark—Mary—is immensely powerful in our spiritual battles in the New Covenant.
The acacia wood used to make the Ark, especially with it being overlaid with pure gold, was sometimes referred to as “incorruptible wood.” This points ultimately to Mary’s Assumption; she goes before us—receiving what we all hope to receive at the end of time—namely, the resurrection of the body. Mary, as first and model disciple, uniquely participates in the work of her son. And though she was preserved from sin from the beginning (and in this sense was not subject to death), most of the Tradition believes that Mary did in fact die. Her son was also sinless (and therefore not subject to death, strictly speaking), and yet he entered into death on our behalf.
Overcoming the Grave
It is exceedingly fitting, then, that Mary, too, would enter into death, as way of fully participating in the mystery of her son. This is why the doctrine of the Assumption simply states that “when the course of her earthly life was finished, [Mary] was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissumus Deus, cited in CCC 966)—leaving open-ended the question of whether she did in fact die.
In a sense, the entirety of the Faith comes together in Mary: she is the model disciple in being the first to “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21; see Luke 1:28, 38-39 as well). While there is a distinction between Jesus’ spiritual and biological family, this does not necessarily entail a separation: Mary is, in fact, first on both accounts—as biological mother and model disciple, who becomes mother of all disciples.
Jesus’ Transfiguration is a sign or “sacrament” of our own resurrection (see CCC 556). In Mary’s assumption, we see fully the redemption of the body (see Romans 8:23); we see what God wants to do with each one of us at the end of time. Truly, in Jesus and Mary we see that God has definitively overcome the grave, a victory in which we all will one day participate.
How can we more fully enter in the mystery of Mary—not as an “add-on” to the Catholic Faith, but as the embodiment and centerpiece of God’s plan for all of us?
If you enjoyed this blog post, you’ll love Dr. Swafford’s upcoming Great Adventure Bible study, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, which is now available for preorder! Sign up right here so we can notify you as soon as Romans is available.
About Andrew Swafford
Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension. Swafford is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.