Where the Church Gets Its Marian Teaching
As we saw last time, the problem with the claim that Catholic devotion to Mary is “pagan” is that there is simply no evidence for it. When we look at the early Christian Church, we find that it is as convinced that devotion to Mary is perfectly in accord with Scripture as it is that the worship of Jesus is.
So how is it that the Church builds the mountain of Marian doctrine and devotion on the molehill of Marian biblical references? The answer: The Church doesn’t build its doctrine and devotion on the Bible at all. It grows it from the seed of Sacred Tradition which comes down to us in both written and unwritten form from the apostles.
Consider, for instance, the idea of the Trinity. The word “Trinity” no more appears in the Bible than the term “Immaculate Conception”. (Indeed, if it comes to it, the word “Bible” doesn’t appear in the Bible either). But what we find is that, while the word doesn’t show up there, the idea does.
To be sure, that idea may not always be instantly clear and obvious. Jesus may, for instance, offer some head scratchers like “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) or “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God” (Luke 18:19) that may suggest to some that he is not God. But the thing to bear in mind is that the same people who record these sayings also record Jesus clearly claiming deity in statements like “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). They also give us big clues about how to understand Jesus’ “hard sayings” about his seeming rejection of his deity when they give us their own very clear conviction that such sayings do not, in the slightest, really contradict the faith of the Church that Jesus is “the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1-2). In short, the gospel writers (and the Church after them) see paradox, rather than contradiction, in the words of Christ and remain in firm possession of the fact that Jesus is, indeed, God.
Because of this conviction about Jesus’ true identity, the New Testament writers do something else: they believe that Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he makes a strange and seemingly outrageous claim about a collection of books written centuries before his birth:
"These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48)
In other words, if you want to understand what the Old Testament is really all about, the first thing you need to know, according to the Risen Christ, is that it is really about, not Moses, Israel, the adventures of King David, the prophets and so on. Rather it is, at its deepest core, about Jesus of Nazareth and his body the Church. Search in it deeply enough and you will find him there, for his Spirit is the true author of the whole thing and it is one gigantic prophetic foreshadow pointing to him.
That proposition would be too shocking if it were not Jesus telling us. After all, just as Evangelicals can’t find a single passage of Scripture saying “Mary is Immaculately Conceived, Assumed into Heaven, and Perpetually a Virgin, so let’s all pray to the Mother of God!” so you will search in vain for any passage in the Old Testament that says, “One of these days, a man named Jesus of Nazareth will be born of a Virgin, work miracles, teach with the authority of God and then be rejected by the elders, crucified, die, be buried and rise from the dead on the third day, after which he will pour out the Holy Spirit on his disciples and they will call Gentiles into the New and Everlasting Covenant of his Body and Blood.” But when we look at the New Testament we discover that, sure enough, that’s just how he and the apostles he trained read the Old Testament anyway. Jesus insists that the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New.
That’s why Jesus takes for granted the literal sense of, say, the story of the manna in the wilderness—and then insists that it is really about him: the true Bread of Life (John 6). It’s why he says that the story of the Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9), lifted up to heal Israel of snakebite, is most profoundly about him—lifted up on the cross to heal us of the Ultimate Snakebite in the Garden (John 3:14). It’s why Paul sees the passage through the waters of the Red Sea as a divine sign pointing to the passage from death to life in the waters of baptism (1 Cor 10). Again and again, Jesus, the apostles (and their students, the Fathers of the Church) see the imagery of Scripture referring to the mysteries revealed in the New Covenant. They believe that just as we write with words, so God writes with people, events, places, and things in order to communicate his mysteries to us. The Passover lamb slaughtered in the Temple communicates the truth about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The tree of life in the Garden communicates the truth of the tree of Life that is the Cross. The kingdom of David prefigures the Kingdom of Heaven founded by the Son of David.
In exactly the same way, then, the early Church believed that of the mysteries prefigured in the Old Testament is the Blessed Virgin Mary from whom the Word made flesh received his humanity. And so, as we saw last week, the Fathers of the Church see the truth about Mary, Christ’s greatest disciple, foreshadowed in the Old Testament. But they do not do so as if the Old Testament were a Rorschach blot and they are just imagining some connection that does not exist. Rather they do so because revelation has given them every reason to connect her with the revelation of the Old Testament. Case in point: the Ark of the Covenant.
When Luke records the story of the Annunciation and Mary's visit to Elizabeth, he carefully records the words of the Archangel that the Holy Spirit will "overshadow" Mary (Luke 1:35), using the exact Greek word used in the Septuagint to describe the way the Shekinah—the very glory of God—"overshadowed" the place where the Ark was kept (Exodus 40:35; 1 Kings 8:10). He also draws parallels between King David and Elizabeth by noting that they each use similar language to ask “Who am I that the Ark of the Lord/Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9; Luke 1:43). Likewise, he records that Mary, like the Ark, spent three months in the hill country of Judea (2 Samuel 6:11; Luke 1:56). And, as David leapt before the Ark as it entered Jerusalem, so Luke is careful to note that John likewise leapt in Elizabeth’s womb (2 Samuel 6:16; Luke 1:41).
Luke’s point is that Mary is the New Tabernacle or Ark of the Covenant. It’s a point echoed by the apostle John when he describes the Incarnation by saying that "the Word became flesh and [in literal Greek] tabernacled among us" (John 1:14). As the Old Testament Ark that resided in the Tabernacle was associated with the rod of Aaron the Great High Priest, the Ten Words of the Law, and Manna (Hebrews 9:4) so Mary's womb contained the Great High Priest of the New Covenant, Who is the Word made flesh and the Bread of Life.
Because of the intimate connection between Mary and Jesus, the early Church quickly grasped that she, his greatest disciple, was a model for all disciples of the Christian life and that, as we shall see in upcoming posts, she had been entrusted, in a unique way, with the permanent task of being First Guardian of the Faith.