James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.
Now it came to pass as Jesus was saying these things, that a certain woman lifted up her voice from the crowd, and said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts that nursed Thee." But He said, "Yea, even more blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it." (Luke 11: 27-28)
These words of our Blessed Lord are so like those on which we spoke in our last lecture, that we might almost have taken them together and made them the subject of a single discourse. They were spoken, however, on a different occasion, and are worth considering by themselves. Of course they bear on the face of them something of the same general character, as far as our Blessed Lady is concerned, as those others, of which we have already treated, so that I do not doubt that some of you who were brought up in heresy, still retain a kind of uneasy suspicion in their regard, as though there really were some Protestant sense in them, and some note of censure set by them upon those who would magnify the glories of Mary. Yet the Church, on the other hand, has selected them to be read as the Gospel of the Mass on some of Her principal festivals. Since nobody therefore will accuse the Church of taking part with the enemies or detractors of Mary, it is clear that there must be some way of understanding the words in a totally different sense from that which the Protestant hearer thinks they convey. Let us examine what that difference is.
Protestants contend that Our Lord here denies what the woman said, and puts something else, more or less contrary to it, in its stead. Let us grant for a moment that this account of the words is literally true (though we shall presently see that it is not); yet even so, it would by no means follow that our Blessed Lady received no blessing, and deserved no congratulations for having given birth to Jesus, and having brought Him up through infancy and childhood to man's estate, which is the conclusion they desire to draw.
Compare other sayings of Our Lord, whose form more or less nearly approaches to this reading of the text, and see how far they will bear this same hard and literal handling. Jesus bade the Pharisees on one occasion, "go and learn what this meant," which God had spoken by the mouth of the prophet Osee, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice" (Matt. 9: 12). What did it mean? Did it really abrogate the Divine Law which had enjoined so many sacrifices, and did it sanction the substitution of voluntary works of mercy in their stead? And did Jesus intend that they should gather this lesson from it? He says also in the same place, "I am not come to call the just, but sinners." Had He not then come for the just? Had He no call, no message for them? Was there really a class of men upon earth who had no need of His saving help? And again, at another time, Jesus bade His Apostles take no thought how or what they should speak, when they were brought before kings and governors for His sake, for (He said) "it is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you" (Matt 10: 20). Did He mean to deny that the Apostles had any part in what was spoken on these occasions? Or is there not rather in all these passages a comparison instituted between two classes of things or persons, and a preference given to one over the other, which preference, however, is strongly expressed by a Hebrew idiom, that would seem to accept the one and reject the other?
It is hardly necessary to multiply examples of the same mode of speaking, which abound in Holy Scripture; I will only bring one other, which is sufficiently remarkable to deserve a separate mention. I allude to the words which Our Lord once addressed to "great multitudes" who were following Him, when He "turned round and said to them: If any man come to Me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14: 26). Did any individual among those great multitudes ever understand this precept of the God of love to condemn all natural affection and to enjoin the opposite feeling of hatred?
The conclusion then is obvious, that even if Our Lord's words to the woman who proclaimed the praises of His Mother had been far stronger than they were, even had they distinctly denied that Mary was entitled to any praise at all, and rebuked the woman for offering it to Her, still they would have been of no controversial value for the purpose for which Protestants would fain use them, unless it could be shown that they had been spoken simply and positively, and not merely by way of comparison with something else.
However, when we come to consider the words more thoughtfully and without prejudice, it is clear that Our Lord does not deny what the woman had said at all, nor does He put something else in its stead; on the contrary, He repeats, acknowledges, and confirms the truth of what she had said, and only goes on to add something else to it, to say something further and of more practical importance above and beyond her announcement. She had said, "Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts that nursed Thee." And Christ answers, Yea—Yes—it is so; they are blessed indeed; but still more "blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it." (Note: while the Latin word 'Quinimmo'—used in the Vulgate Bible and the Roman Missal—can be translated as 'rather' or 'yea rather,' it can also be translated as 'indeed,' 'in fact,' 'but truly,' 'furthermore,' 'and more,' or 'even more.' In the Scriptural quotation at the beginning of the article, we have combined the translations which best illustrate the author's point.) And this second and greater blessedness belongs—Protestants themselves being judges—to Mary, as well as, in addition to and as a preparation for, that other blessedness of which the woman first spoke.
In other words, the woman had said that Christ's Mother was blessed for Her maternity's sake, because She enjoyed the singular privilege of being the Mother of God. And Christ added, Yes, but She is still more blessed because of Her purity's sake, Her sanctity. He does not indeed speak of His Mother only, but of all who hear His Word and keep it. But this does not exclude His Mother, and what Protestant will dare to say that His Mother did not hear His Word and keep it too—more especially because Holy Scripture distinctly testifies that She did (Luke 2: 19, 51).
It will help us yet further to see the true meaning of this passage, and to detect the falsehood of the ordinary Protestant interpretation of it, if we compare it with another passage in the Gospels, of which a similar misuse has been made by other Protestants. It is recorded by the same Evangelist, St. Luke, a few chapters later in his Gospel (18: 18): "A certain ruler asked Jesus, saying, 'Good Master, what shall I do to possess everlasting life?' And Jesus said to him, 'Why dost thou call Me good? None is good but God alone'." There have been certain heretics before now, and there are some even at the present day—Arians, Socinians, Unitarians, and the like—who argue, from this, that Jesus was not God; for that He disclaims the title of Good, and says that none is Good but God alone. And it is very possible for one reading the words carelessly to fall into this mistake; very possible for one who has always been taught, and is firmly persuaded, that Jesus is not God, and wishes to persevere in this belief, to deceive himself by a plausible argument of this kind, just as all Protestants, or nearly all, deceive themselves into thinking that in those other words which we are now considering, Our Lord disclaims and rejects the praises given to His Blessed Mother. I say nearly all, because some learned commentators, such as Grotius for example, frankly acknowledge that Our Lord's answer is by no means a contradiction, but a correction and completion of the woman's remark.
The truth is, that in neither case did Our Lord deny, disclaim, or reject what had been said. In both cases He only sought to supply what was wanting to the speaker, and to turn what had been said to practical purpose. This ruler had called Him Good, and he had done well; but he meant nothing more by this title than an acknowledgement of His Goodness in the same sense as we might have called any other amiable, benevolent, and upright person, good. But Jesus sought to draw him on to something further; to make this the occasion and foundation of instructing him in the doctrine of His Essential Divinity. Just so, in the passage before us, this woman had called the Mother of Jesus blessed, and she had done well; but Jesus sought to draw her on to something further, to make it the occasion of instructing her and all future generations in the infinite dignity and blessedness of religious faith and obedience. Neither the woman nor the ruler erred in what they said, but they had not said enough; their meaning and intention fell short of the truth; and partial truth is often quite as injurious as mere unmixed error; indeed sometimes it is far more so.
The praise of our Blessed Lady's privilege as Mother of God in the mouth of this poor woman was all very well; but it was calculated to turn men’s minds away from any practical imitation of Our Lady's virtues, since, as a privilege, it was wholly personal and incommunicable to any other; but the case was far otherwise with Her sanctity; this could be imitated, and this is what our Blessed Lord desired. And therefore in His answer He really declares that those who imitate Her in Her faithful observance of God's Word, shall be made partakers with Her of a higher blessedness; so that if it were possible for a man to equal or surpass the sanctity of Mary, he would also receive an equal or a greater blessing than that which is the reward of Her Maternity. In Mary both these blessings were united; so that Jesus is not comparing Mary with some other person, but only comparing the different gifts and offices which were united in Her one person; and He teaches that Mary's greatness and blessedness as a Saint, as one hearing the Word of God and keeping it, is superior to that which She enjoys by virtue of the incommunicable privilege of Her office as His Mother. She was glorious indeed, most glorious and blessed, raised far above all creatures, by Her office as Mother of God; but She is yet more glorious and blessed for Her personal purity and holiness; Her perfect sanctity is a higher gift than Her relationship to God.
This is what Our Lord really teaches us in those words, so strangely misinterpreted by Protestants; and this is what Catholic Bishops and Doctors of the Church have always said from the beginning. "More blessed was Mary," says St. Augustine, "in receiving Christ's Faith than in conceiving Christ's Flesh;" and St. Chrysostom declares that She would not have been blessed at all, though She had borne Him in the Body, had She not also heard the Word of God and kept it. Of course, this is an impossible supposition, for She was made holy that She might be made His Mother, and the two blessings cannot in Her be divided. She who was chosen to supply flesh and blood to the Eternal Word, was first filled with grace in Her soul that She might be made worthy, or at least less unworthy, of so stupendous a privilege.
It remains then that She had a double blessedness—of office, and of qualification for it; and the latter was the greater of the two. It was also the one which it most concerned Our Lord as Teacher of mankind to insist upon, because it was more or less within the reach of all, whereas the privilege of Her Maternity was altogether beyond us, at least in its literal sense; for we must not forget that Christ in His infinite love has vouchsafed to call us also to a real, though spiritual participation even in this most intimate relationship to Himself, since He says, "They who hear the Word of God and do it, they are My Mother and my brethren." We all know that faith and obedience give us a title to be considered the brethren of Christ, for we are taught that to "as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God," and "if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ" (John 1: 12; Rom. 8: 17). We are then His brethren; but how can we become also His Mother? By bringing Him forth in the hearts of others, as St. Paul says of himself, writing to his Galatian converts, "My little children, of whom I am in labor again until Christ be formed in you." (Gal. 4: 19). St. Gregory the Great and St. Anselm comment upon this passage, saying, "He may be said to bring forth Christ, who introduces him to the heart of a disciple; He becomes Christ's Mother, whose voice causes the love of God to be produced in the soul of his neighbor. A man becomes His brother or sister by believing; he becomes His Mother by preaching."
You see then, how truly I said that the Church recognizes no contradiction, not even a shadow of opposition, between these passages of Holy Writ and Her own teaching as to the dignity and blessedness of Mary; and yet no one can pretend that She overlooks these passages, or fails to give them a clear, definite, and important meaning. And indeed if men would only be more careful than they ordinarily are to distinguish between the sacred text and the commentary which particular associations have put upon it, it would have been impossible that they should have so misconstrued plain and simple words like those of our text. This woman who lifted up her voice from among the multitude, and cried out to Jesus, "Blessed is the womb that bore Thee," only gave utterance to a thought which must needs have been present to the hearts and minds of thousands. For she spoke the language of nature and of truth. "A wise son," says King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs (10: 1), "maketh the father glad, but a foolish son is the sorrow of his mother." There is a most intimate union between the honor or the dishonor of children and their parents; and this woman's exclamation therefore, I repeat, was most simple and natural. Not less natural, if I may say so, was the answer of Jesus. For He had come among men as their Master and Teacher, to show them the way to Heaven, and He never lost an opportunity of pointing it out to them. He would not have this woman, then, divert her attention from the one only thing which it concerned her to know; He would not allow her admiration of His words and works to be wasted in idle commendation of another's good fortune; but He would show her how she might obtain an equal or a greater blessing for herself.
This is a complete summary of the incident; and nothing but the inveterate prejudice of a mind starting with settled disbelief in Our Lady's privileges, and eagerly looking out for everything that might be made to militate against them, can account for the attempt to fasten another interpretation upon it. On the other hand, a mind that is full of Catholic devotion to Our Lady, and conscious of the deep significance of every word which fell from the lips of Jesus, when it meditates on the words spoken on this particular occasion, finds in them fresh testimony, if not to the power, yet certainly to the sanctity of Mary. Conscious of that double blessedness of which I spoke just now—of office, and of fitness for it—it seems to recognize in the relative value which Our Lord assigns to each, a confirmation of what had been proclaimed by St. Elizabeth, who filled with the Holy Ghost, first saluted Mary as blessed by virtue of Her office, saying: "Blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb;" and then goes on to allege the other, deeper and earlier foundation of Her blessedness, Her own faith: "Blessed art Thou that has believed."
And this is only in exact conformity with what Catholic theology teaches us—i. e., with what reason and Scripture and the Doctors of the Church teach us—concerning the laws of God's dealings with the children of men; viz., that when a person is chosen by God for any office, he is always prepared and fitted by Him, and endowed with all the gifts and graces that are necessary for the proper discharge of the duties of that office; as was in the case of Moses, for example, and Josue, chosen to be leaders of the children of Israel under the Old Law; or, again, in the Apostles, the leaders of the new children of Israel, the Christian Church. God, having called them to that high office, also fitted and fashioned them for it. He gave them the gift of speaking with divers tongues, and of working miracles. He filled them with the Holy Ghost, that they might know what answers to make when they were brought before the tribunals of their heathen persecutors. He inspired them with a burning zeal for the salvation of souls, to encourage them in their labors, and with a constancy to endure all torments, even death itself, in the discharge of the trust committed to them. And so it was, in a yet higher degree, with reference to our Dear Lady. She was chosen for an office higher than that of prophets or apostles, above and beyond all the other offices ever bestowed on one of Adam's race, an office that could only be held by one, and, on that account, requiring—if not compelling—special and singular gifts to be bestowed by God on the person selected to fill it.
Without inquiring, then, into the details of Mary's sanctity, we are assured beforehand that it must needs be something extraordinary, almost surpassing our powers of appreciation, even as the dignity of Her office surpasses them. If all that approaches near to God in any way is consecrated and sanctified; if the very temples and churches, instruments and vessels of His service are ordained to be set apart by solemn consecration, and henceforth have a sacredness peculiarly their own; if those who at any time have been chosen to become special representatives of the Most High, have ever received special gifts to fit them for their office, what must have been the sanctity of Mary, what the gifts and graces bestowed upon Her to prepare Her to become the Mother of God? It was for this that, as we believe, by a special and singular grace of God, She was exempted from the universal law of original sin; it was for this that Her virginal purity was preserved by a miracle, and a Virgin bore a Son; and it was for this same cause that we believe Her to have been "full of grace" and "blessed among women;" Queen of Angels and of Saints, the ideal of human perfection, the most perfect model of every Christian virtue; with the faith of the patriarchs, the wisdom of prophets, the zeal of Apostles, the constancy of martyrs, the chastity of virgins; with charity the most ardent, humility the most profound, patience the most tried and the most triumphant, resignation the most courageous, conformity to the will of God the most absolute; higher in holiness, as in dignity, than any other of God's creatures, whether men or angels; higher than Angel or Archangel, Cherubim or Seraphim, Thrones, Principalities, or Powers—in a word, Queen of Heaven and earth.
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