Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the daughter of Heli, of the tribe of Judah and of the royal lineage of David. While a maiden, but betrothed to Joseph, the angel Gabriel announce to her that she was to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. The angel told her that through the power of the Holy Spirit that she would become the mother of the everlasting Son of the Father (Luke 1:26-35). The angel also told her that Elisabeth, her cousin, was to be a mother too. This caused Mary to visit her cousin three months and then return home (Luke 1:36-56).
Within a few months Joseph discovered was with child, and he became determined to give her a bull of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1) instead of handing her over to the law to suffer the penalty which he supposed she had incurred (Deuteronomy 22:23, 24). Later when the angel assured him of the truth, and Joseph took Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:18-25).
The time of the child’s birth occurred during the time of a counting throughout the land. So Joseph, being of the house of David, took Mary with him to Bethlehem. There the child, Jesus, was born and lain in a manger. On the eighth day, as prescribed by Jewish law, Jesus was circumcised and Mary received purification in the temple by offering “a pair of turtle-doves and two young pigeons” (Leviticus 12:2-4). There Mary was met by the prophets Simeon and Anna, and heard them give thanks and prophecy. Being warn of Herod’s threat to the child they fled to Egypt, staying about a year before returning to Nazareth (Matthew 2:11-23). When Jesus was twelve he went to the Passover feast in Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph, he stayed after the feast causing them to miss him on their journey home. They returned to the city to search for him, and found him in the temple. Jesus remained with Mary from that time until the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 2:41-52).
During Jesus’ ministry Mary is mentioned four times. The first is at the marriage at Cana, the scene of Jesus first miracle when he changes water into wine after his mother asked him to (John 2:1-4). The second mention of Mary is when she, with his brethren, desire to speak with Jesus. A disciple informs him of their wish to speak to him, he replied, “Who is my mother, and brethren?” Stretching forth his hand toward his disciples he continues, “Behold my mother, and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, who is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:46-40; Luke 8:19-21). (It should be noted that the author has two interpretations of these verses that are summarized: One, Jesus appears here to refuse to recognize any authority on the part of his relatives, or any privilege which their kinship might afford. Two, Christ’s replies seem to be metaphorical: Rejected by Israel, Christ intimates the formation of a new family of faith that supercedes the racial claims which Israel has known till this time and will receive into that family all those who become his disciples.) The third time is during the crucifixion, Jesus, as he is nearing death, commends his mother into the care of his beloved disciple John, and from that hour the disciple took care of Mary (John 19:25-27). Finally Mary is mentioned engaged in prayer with others of the faithful in the upper room in Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:14).
A great tradition surrounding Mary has evolved, especially in Roman Catholicism. The early Church Father rarely mentioned Mary except in contrast to Eve. The devotion to Mary, or Mariology, probably owes much of its impetus to two currents of early and medieval Christian thought: the predilection for celibacy and virginity as a lifestyle superior to marriage, and the prevention of Jesus from being touched by sin, particularly original sin. The first of these was congenial to the tradition of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” (even after Jesus’ birth), which was current by the time of Athanasius, and later included in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which states that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. The second current of thought is observed in the canonization of the title Theolokos (“Mother of God”) for Mary at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD); this was a title favored in Alexandria, where such a Christology was developed.
As a brief note concerning the history of this development it might be said that as Christ became a more austere and distant figure in medieval theology, Mary took his place as the human representative in heaven and the figure to whom popular piety looked. She eventually became known in the Western Church as the “co-redemptress” and “mediator of all grace,” the latter being popularized by St. Alphonsus Liguori. The doctrine of Mary’s bodily ascension into heaven was first introduced into orthodoxy by Gregory of Tours (d. 594), and declared Catholic dogma in 1950.
Even though there was a vigorous reaction against Marian devotion during the Reformation, mainly due to the rejection of a belief in the saints, more emphasis on Christ and his works, and a more positive attitude toward sex and marriage, devotion of Mary increased in Roman Catholicism. The devotions in the Church include the little office of Our Lady as well as the Saturday mass and office, and the popular Hail Mary, rosary, Angelus, May and October devotions (some retained by the Anglican Church). Mary’s major feast days are Assumption, August 15; Nativity, September 8; Annunciation, March 25; Purification, February 2, or Candlemas; and Visitation, July 2, moved to May 31 in RC Church. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, p. 702
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 624