The Role of the Blessed Mother in Salvation History
The role of the Blessed Mother in salvation history is immense, encompassing not merely the New Testament but, in quite significant ways, fanning across the Old Testament as well. From the Protoevangelium or “first gospel” of Genesis 3:15, where enmity between the serpent’s offspring and the woman’s offspring is foretold, to Revelation 12, where we see the woman ultimately triumphing over the serpent, the presence of our Lady spreads like a comforting mantle across all of salvation history.
In Genesis 3:15 God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” This passage gives us the first sign of a redemption to come not only through a Savior, but also with the help of a woman. God’s plan in salvation history was to obtain redemptive graces through both sexes, as St. Augustine states in his treatise,On Christian Combat: “The purpose of this is that the Devil might be defeated and punished by both natures [male and female] … because he was exultant about the victory over both.”Ancient tradition has consistently identified the offspring of the woman as the Redeemer, Christ—and so, by natural extension, the woman mentioned must be the Virgin Mary.
This tradition dates to the dawning days of Christianity, with Justin Martyr as the likely original Church Father to write on this theme in the early second century.In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin shows the parallel of the Mary-Eve connection, fleshing out the redemption in terms of salvation as manifesting in the same way the original sin was propagated, but in reverse:
[The Son of God] became a man through a Virgin, so that the disobedience caused by the serpent might be destroyed in the same way it had begun. For Eve, who was virgin and undefiled, gave birth to disobedience and death after listening to the serpent’s words. But the Virgin Mary conceived faith and joy … Thus was born of her the [Child] about whom so many Scriptures speak. Through him, God crushed the serpent …
St. Irenaeus of Lyons follows the same theme in his classic Adversus haereses (“Against Heresies”), stating, “Just as, once something has been bound, it cannot be loosed except by undoing the knot in reverse order … the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith.”
Genesis 3:15 begins the promise of salvation history and the Redeemer’s ultimate triumph over the serpent in a very poignant and significant way; of particular note is the manner of the wounds inflicted one upon the other. To strike at someone’s heels may hurt them, and perhaps cause a limp, but it will not kill them; however, to strike at someone’s head means to land them a potentially fatal blow, defeating them forever.This is precisely what we see in Revelation 12:
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet … in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon … Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son … who is to rule all the nations … But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne … And war broke out in heaven … The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth …”
(Rev 12:1-9, RSV)
These passages repeat the promise in the Protoevangelium that the course of salvation history will ultimately result in the serpent’s defeat. The text also makes it clear that the woman plays a pivotal role in this salvation, as intercessor and assistant to the one true Redeemer.
It is not merely the beginning and the end of Scripture that affirms the role of the Blessed Mother in salvation history, but multiple passages and persistent themes running throughout the entire corpus. In Exodus 25:10-22 we first encounter the Ark of the Covenant, that sacred dwelling place filled with the presence of YHWH; the Blessed Mother, when the Holy Spirit overshadows her at the Annunciation, is likewise filled with the presence of God.Scholars have drawn parallels between Exodus 40:35 and Numbers 9:18, 22—where we find descriptions of the “cloud” of the LORD settling over the tabernacle where the Ark resided—and Luke 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” In both passages, the same Greek verb is used to describe the overshadowing by the supernatural cloud of God (episkiazein).
Additionally, a piece of manna—that sacred bread given by God to the Israelites to sustain them during their desert wanderings—was kept inside the Ark as a reminder of God’s divine providence. In a footnote to Revelation 2:17 (“To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna …”), Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch write in The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: “The hidden manna refers to Christ himself … Manna was the bread that Yahweh gave to the pilgrims of the Exodus, a sample of which was hidden away in the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 16:31-34; Heb 9:4).”
Since this manna foreshadows Christ, the Living Bread who sustains us, we can therefore draw natural parallels with the Ark itself foreshadowing His mother; Mary enfolds the hidden Manna (Christ) inside her spotless womb for nine months. The Ark theme also brings us yet again to the culmination of salvation victory found in the book of Revelation.
The chapter breaks in Revelation are unnatural, not created by the author but rather inserted much later.This false division is particularly invasive in Revelation 11:19 and into Revelation 12; since the book originally had no breaks, these verses are best read in a continuous flow. When interpreting Scripture in this light, we get a clear representation of Mary as the New Ark of the New Covenant:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. A great portent appeared in the heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet …”
The Jerome Biblical Commentary notes: “The appearance of the Ark in this time of retribution indicates that God is now accessible … in the midst of his people.”It is the Blessed Mother, as seen through the typology of the Ark, who gives birth to the Redeemer and who continues, through her intercession and grace, to make Him visible to the world.
Further testimony to Mary as a type of New Ark of the New Covenant can be seen through scriptural references in the Gospels, reflecting those of the Old Testament. One primary example is Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary when her cousin makes the journey to visit her during her miraculous pregnancy. “And how has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth asks in Luke 1:43, clearly echoing King David in 2 Samuel 6:9 when he queries, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” Additionally, YHWH tells the Israelites that He will meet them in the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:22); so, too, is it in Mary where God meets His people in a concrete and stunning way.
The Old Testament is a treasure of wisdom literature, including the books of Song of Songs, Sirach, Wisdom, and Proverbs. The English wordwisdomis a feminine noun in both Hebrew (Chakmah) and Greek (Sophia), leading to a Biblical portrayal of “Lady Wisdom” which has been developed to gain a deeper understanding of Mary.St. Thomas Aquinas further links wisdom with faith, demonstrating the distinct connection between Mary and faith, while Pope Benedict XVI asserts that the personification of Lady Wisdom as Mary implies the response of God from the beginning of creation onward through salvation history, showing the “pure answer” of God’s merciful redemption and that “God’s love finds its irrevocable dwelling place within it.”
The image of this wise and faithful lady gives hope to a beleaguered people, and it is in this context of hope that comparisons have been made between the collective people of Israel in the Old Testament with the individual personality actively working with God to bring about that salvation in the New Testament. Scholars have shown how Mary’s life reflects Israel, demonstrating the history of salvation as God intended.
Salvation history is the story of God’s active and persistent efforts to seek an intimate relationship with His beloved people. The Mosaic covenant, unlike the Abrahamic covenant, was a suzerain-vassal commitment and as such, it required the Israelites’ consent—in other words, their fiat (“Let it be done to me according to Your word”). In order for God to establish this most intimate familial bond with His people, it was necessary to gain their free-will acceptance. Once that acceptance was given, God and man entered into a covenant of kinship, a bond of divine filiation.
So, too, was this free-will acceptance necessary in order to institute the New Covenant brought about through the Incarnation, Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ. The Blessed Mother stands for all humankind as she exhales her self-givingfiat, as she shows her full surrender to the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas says that “There is a certain spiritual wedlock between the Son of God and human nature. Wherefore, in the Annunciation the Virgin’s consent was besought, in lieu of that of the entire human nature.”Enhancing Aquinas’ thought, Marian scholar George Kirwin states: “Mary represents mankind by virtue of God’s decision which I would find implicit in the typology of the Daughter of Sion according to which she was invited by God to welcome messianic salvation in the Person of Christ by consenting to the marriage of mankind with the Messiah.”
Although the people of Israel agree to the covenants presented to them, such as seen in Joshua 24, their submission is never permanent; they break their word nearly as soon as their fiat hits the air. Mary reverses this, acting on the part of humanity to create a divinely stable covenant to seal the transmission of grace and redemption through Christ.
Mary’s fiat doesn’t begin and end at the Annunciation, but rather extends throughout her Son’s life and even beyond, to this day, as we see so explicitly in John 21:26-27. In this scene, the disciple John stands for us all as Christ gives us His mother: “‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
Pope Benedict XVI, in his exhortation “On the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission” neatly sums up the Blessed Mother’s role in salvation history:
In Mary most holy, we see perfectly fulfilled the ‘sacramental’ way that God comes down to meet his creatures and involves them in his saving work. From the Annunciation to Pentecost, Mary of Nazareth appears as someone whose freedom is completely open to God’s will … This mystery deepens as she becomes completely involved in the redemptive mission of Jesus … She is the Immaculata, who receives God’s gift unconditionally and is thus associated with His work of salvation.
The Blessed Mother contains within her the prototype of perfect humanity as seen in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. She gives birth to her divine Son so we, too, may share in this ultimate, beautiful plan of salvation, willed by the Father and guided by the overshadowing presence of the Holy Spirit.
About the author:
Jenny duBay is a Catholic freelance writer and domestic abuse advocate, author of www.createsoulspace.org and www.prodigalparishioner.com. “If it’s God’s will, may it please Him to move my pen.” (St. Teresa of Avila)
St. Augustine, De Agone Christiano, 22, 24, as cited in Dominic J. Unger, The First Gospel: Genesis 3:15 (Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 1954), 192.
Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, ed., “Lumen Gentium,” The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1999), 55. Henceforth LG.
Luigi Gambero, S.M., Mary and the Fathers of the Curch: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 46
Ibid., 47. See also LG 55, 56.
Gary G. Michuta, Making Sense of Mary (Wixom, MI: Grotto Press, 2013), 102 and John Bergsma, Mountains and Mediators (Volume 1): A Survey of the Old Testament (Harahan, LA: Catholic Productions, 2010), audio, CD 2.
“… the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men.” Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications from the Editio Typica (1994; repr., New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1995), no. 721.
Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and John Reumann, eds., Mary in the New Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 132.
Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, eds., The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, New Testament, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 496.
Taylor Marshall, PhD, “Catholic Apocalypse: Book of Revelation Audio Commentary,” Taylor Marshall Podcast, Episode #084, http://taylormarshall.com/2015/07/084-revelation-chapter-12-our-lady-of-the-apocalypse-catholic-apocalypse-part-7.html (accessed November 29, 2017).
Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 482.
Taylor Marshall, PhD, “Immaculate Mary and Personified Wisdom in the Old Testament,” http://taylormarshall.com/2011/02/immaculate-mary-and-personified-wisdom.html (accessed November 29, 2017); Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 26.
Pope John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio (On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason),” The Holy See, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html (accessed July 27, 2017), 26.
In particular, see the work of George F. Kirwin, “Queenship of Mary—Queen Mother” and “Mary’s Salvific Role Compared with That of the Church”; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion; and the work of Scott Hahn, particularly his book Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God and his video series, The Bible and the Virgin Mary.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III (1911; repr., Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), q. 30, a. 1, co.
George F. Kirwin, “Mary’s Salvific Role Compared with That of the Church,” Marian Studies: Vol. 25, Article 10, http://ecommons.udayton.edu/marian_studies/vol25/iss1/10 (accessed October 28, 2017).
Pope Benedict XVI, “Sacramentum Caritatis (On the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission),” The Holy See, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis.html (accessed October 14, 2017), 33.