The Virgin Mary is a well-recognised figure throughout the world, as she is a part of some of the most populous religions in the world. Catholicism, Protestantism, and even Islam have Mary as part of their religious tradition, but her role in each of these differs. To Catholics, she is the sinless Mother of God who holds almost divine status and a powerful heavenly influence, while to Protestants she is merely an exemplary woman who humbly submitted to the task of bringing the Saviour into the world, and to Muslims she falls somewhere in between the two views.
The Bible describes Mary as a young virgin betrothed to Joseph, a descendent of King David. During her betrothal the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her not to be afraid, for she had found favour with God; she would conceive and bear a son, who would be called the Son of the Most High and would establish an eternal kingdom. Mary believed the angel’s message, knowing that God’s power could accomplish such a thing even though she was a virgin, and submitted to the task given her
Joseph, after also being visited by an angel, believed also and took Mary as his wife as the angel of the Lord commanded instead of breaking off the betrothal because of her pregnancy. When Caesar Augustus was conducting a census he took her to Bethlehem, the city of David, and there she gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God, in a manger. Shepherds nearby were told of the news by angels glorifying God and went to pay homage to the new-born King, and the event even reached across the globe to the East, where wise men discerned the coming of the King and followed a star to find him and present him with rich gifts.
Mary appears less frequently in gospel accounts after Jesus’ birth; most importantly she is plays a role in the beginning and end of Jesus’ public career. Jesus’ first miracle happened at a wedding feast in Cana, when the wine ran out—an embarrassing thing for the groom, who was meant to supply the wine for the festivities. Mary informed Jesus of the problem, telling the servants to do everything he asked, and Jesus turned water into wine better than had yet been served, thus taking on the role of the bridegroom as a foreshadowing of the role he assumes as the Bridegroom of the Church. Mary is present again at the most climactic point of his mission on earth—his crucifixion, where he conquered Death through dying himself and accomplishing redemption for the world. At this most crucial point in his life on earth, as he hung on a cross in agony, he still remembered his duty as a son and gave his most beloved disciple the duty of caring for her as his own mother.
As the Church grew and expanded, the view of Mary changed as traditions were added to elevate her status. In Eastern traditions the mother of a king ruled as queen rather than one of his multiple wives taking that position, and this view influenced the view of Mary: she became to Christians the powerful Queen Mother, the mother of God himself. As a more gentle figure to Catholics, she became an influential mediator between men and God rather than Christ as Mediator. To further bolster Mary’s elevated status, Catholic tradition added to biblical accounts the doctrine of the immaculate conception, claiming that Mary was conceived of without original sin: her mother had been barren and her birth was only made possible by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. She became also a warrioress against evil, battling the wiles of Satan with her purity, and the way to salvation (Migiel and Schiesari; Calvin, 74).
The veneration of Mary was one of the points that Protestants took issue with in Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. John Calvin, in his “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” argued against those who claimed that the faults of the Church were not serious enough to disturb all of Christendom (71) and included in his catalogue of egregious heresies the Catholic view of Mary. The Church had so elevated Mary that they passed into idolatry, styling her “the gate of heaven, hope, life, and salvation” and even giving her the right to command Christ (74). Such idolatry, among other heresies, was prominent among the issues Protestants took with the Catholic Church which provided the impetus for dividing all of Europe in the Reformation.
Protestant opposition brought renewed interest in the typology of Mary, as Catholics turned to the Old Testament for support of the high status they accorded her. Every influential woman in biblical history was seen as a type of Mary, from the first woman created to Judith in the Apocrypha. Mary was seen as the New Eve, accomplishing through her obedience salvation from the sin that Eve brought about by her disobedience; she was the mother of the King as Bathsheba was to David, the intercessor for her people like Esther, and the protector against the enemies of God’s people like Deborah and Judith. The bride in Song of Songs was also Mary, the perfect presentation of the Church as the bride of Christ, and the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs (Migiel and Schiesari; Cross).
While the Catholic view of Mary’s significance in the history of redemption diverges from the biblical account of her, Mary continues to be a figure Christians can learn much from. Her chastity and humble submission to the task God assigned for her are exemplary of the way in which we should respond to God’s working in our lives and his purposes for us.
Calvin, John. “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” Rome Reader. Geneva College, 2010. 71-75. Print.
Cross, Bryan. “Mary in the Old Testament | Called to Communion.” Called to Communion. 30 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/09/mary-in-the-old-testament/>.
Migiel, Marilyn, and Juliana Schiesari. “Refiguring Woman: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance.” Google Books. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://books.google.it/books?id=ZMATQm0TLv0C>.
Sheen, Fulton. “APOSTOLATE OF THE LAITY.” : Fulton Sheen, Our Lady and the Muslims. 11 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <http://apostolate-of-the-laity.blogspot.it/2011/01/fulton-sheen-our-lady-and-muslims.html>.