Mary in Doctrine and Devotion

The Life of Mary in the Gospels

Twelfth in a Series

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.

Mary at the Foot of the Cross

CrucifixionNow there were standing by the Cross of Jesus His Mother, and His Mother's sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus, therefore, saw His Mother and the disciple standing by, whom He loved, He said to His Mother, "Woman, behold Thy son." Then He said to the disciple, "Behold thy Mother." And from that hour the disciple took Her into his home. (John 19: 25-7)

We come now to the closing scene of our Redeemer's mortal life, when His Blessed Mother again appears and stands out as a prominent figure on one of the last pages of Gospel history. We had almost seemed to lose sight of Her since the return from Egypt, and the retirement into the hidden life at Nazareth; certainly since the beginning of the public ministry at the marriage feast at Cana; and therefore, Her reappearance here, at the close of it, is so much the more remarkable, especially as She does not remain upon the scene and accompany Our Lord during the forty days of His sojourn upon earth after His Resurrection; but on the contrary, does not even find a place in the record either of that mystery, or of the Ascension. The pious imagination of the faithful may picture to itself what it pleases as to Mary's part in those glorious mysteries; but the Gospel only sets Her before us in the sorrowful mystery of the Crucifixion, just where we should, perhaps, have least looked for Her. Nevertheless, there She stands at the foot of the Cross; and as we cannot think of the Child laid in the hard bed of the crib at Bethlehem without His Mother watching over Him, so neither will the Gospel let us picture to ourselves the Man of Sorrows stretched on His last and more cruel bed of the Cross, on Calvary, without His Mother also.

And observe, it is only at the Crucifixion itself that She appears, not in any earlier stages of the Passion. She is not of the number of those women who followed Jesus along the way of sorrows, "bewailing and lamenting Him," and St. Leo points out to us the reason for Her absence. Those women, good and pious as they were, were only moved (he says) by human sympathy, at seeing a just man suffering unjustly; they wept as for a weak and helpless man, led forth to a cruel and ignominious death. But Mary must not be confused with these. She knew the dignity of the Sufferer, the causes and the fruits of the suffering; and She stood there as representing—almost as being in Herself at that moment—"the Church of the living God, the pillar of truth"; not attracted by any merely natural sympathy, or giving way to merely natural feelings. On the contrary, there is an entire absence of every sign of natural weakness and woe; no fainting or sobbing, no outcry, no wild gesture of uncontrollable grief; She stands motionless as a statue, not surely a statue of indifference, nor yet of stupor and amazement, but simply a statue of tranquility: a witness of all that happens, a fellow-victim in some sort with the Sufferer, Herself ready to do and suffer God's holy will in all things, even at this most trying moment in Her life. "She stood by the Cross of Her Son." Amid that troubled scene of pain and sorrow, blood and tears; amid the blasphemies of the executioners, the insults of the people, the consternation of the disciples, the cries and lamentations of the pious women, the last words and the loud cry of the Divine Victim Himself, the commotion and darkness of entire nature, Mary, the Virgin Mother Mary, with a strength beyond Her sex, beyond that of ordinary humanity, stood calm and silent. "I read that She stood," says St. Ambrose, "I do not read that She wept." And surely we cannot wonder that the Church should have always recognized in this most touching and amazing incident, a deep mystery, and a fruitful source of consolation and grace.

You may say, indeed, that the Evangelist gives no indications of this mystery in his mode of relating the circumstance; that he simply records what happened as a matter of history, without manifesting any sentiment about it at all. And this is true. But the same remark might be made on every part of the Gospel narrative. Everything in it is simple, but everything is also profound; and these two characters are united and yet distinct, even as the two Natures in Him of Whom the Gospel speaks, Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who was at the same time perfect Man and perfect God, but yet one Person. Even so, the Gospels are to be received as narratives in all the simplicity of their historical meaning, and to be studied as mysteries in all the depth of their doctrinal signification; and yet they are but one and the same Scripture. This reflection must needs force itself, more or less, on every thoughtful student of the inspired narrative. None but the most careless and indifferent reader could rest content with what lies upon the surface in this passage of the Gospels. For, at first sight, the brief simplicity of St. John's words is so absolute that you would think he had failed to recognize any hidden food, either of doctrine or devotion, in what he said; as though it were possible that the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had leaned on Jesus' breast, and heard and felt the beatings of the Sacred Heart as He instituted the Sacrament of His love, should have been present when His Master was dying a death of agony and shame, and should have received from His dying lips the solemn trust of caring for His widowed and desolate Mother, and yet have felt no emotion at the tender confidence implied in so touching a gift. He expresses none in his words, but this is because he writes, not as a man, but as one inspired by the Holy Ghost; the Divine inspiration supersedes and conceals all human feeling; he records the facts which it concerned the Church to know; the full import of those facts the Church would hereafter learn through the same Holy Ghost, Who would be sent to teach Her all truth.

Sorrowful MotherBut again it is objected that the whole incident was simply natural, the dutiful act of a dying Son, affectionately careful to provide a home and a protector for a Mother who was presently to be left in singular desolation. But surely it is scarcely possible that any man can acquiesce in this interpretation who holds a right faith in the doctrine of the Incarnation; who really believes that Jesus Christ was God, and that He was at this moment accomplishing the one great end of His mission upon earth, paying the price of the world's redemption. The Evangelist who alone has recorded the incident of which we are speaking, goes on immediately to add that Jesus, "knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, 'I thirst'," after which, having said, "It is consummated," He "bowed His head and gave up the ghost." You see the Divine Wisdom, which "reacheth from end to end mightily and ordereth all things sweetly," was most careful in appointing every circumstance of this august ceremonial, if I may so speak—this "High Mass of the world's Redemption," as it has been called, "offered by Jesus to the Eternal Father, while countless angels are the audience and spectators." At such a moment there was no room for anything merely temporary, personal or private; all was public, universal, and of perpetual application, "for us men and for all salvation."

We know indeed that in that same hour Jesus prayed for His murderers and promised Paradise to the penitent thief; but though that prayer and that promise were made for certain definite individuals and couched in private and particular terms, yet they had also another and a larger sense, in which they are not even yet exhausted. He prayed not for those only who were then and there putting Him to death, but also for all sinners to the end of the world, who, as St. Paul tells us, are continually repeating as it were that crime, "crucifying to themselves again the Son of God;" and that most gracious promise to the thief is a pledge and assurance of the forgiveness of all true penitents even to the end of time. Just so, these few words spoken to His Blessed Mother and to St. John were of no merely temporary and present signification, but established the relation of Mother and Son between the Blessed Virgin and the faithful in all ages.

The Blessed Virgin stood at the foot of the Cross, not merely or principally because of the natural love which She bore to the Fruit of Her womb Who hung thereon; for nature would rather have taught Her, for His sake at least, if not for Her own, to be absent from so terrible a spectacle, since, so far from being able to relieve His sufferings, She could only add to them the further pain of witnessing Her own. But She was there for this very end, that She might receive this legacy from Her dying Son—us to be Her children. And St. John too stood at the foot of the Cross and received this last token of his Savior's love, not on his own account merely, and as something personal to himself as one of the sons of Zebedee, but rather as he was a type of all good Christians, the representative of the whole body of faithful disciples. And Our Lord spoke, not as the Son of Mary or the Master of John, but as the Redeemer of mankind; and therefore it was that He addressed the Blessed Virgin not by the endearing term of Mother, expressing that natural relationship towards Her which was then so deeply involved and so cruelly tried, but by the mere cold and distant name of Woman: "Woman behold Thy son." "Not as though He ignored or refused the duties of filial piety," says St. Ambrose, "but to show that everything in Him, even the most innocent and holy affections, was altogether subject to the one end for which He came into the world, to do the will of His Heavenly Father and to redeem lost humanity."

Again, this word Woman, thus solemnly uttered at the close of Our Lord's ministry, naturally carries us back to that other occasion when it was first spoken at its commencement: we are transported in memory and imagination from Calvary to Cana. Then Jesus said His hour was not yet come; and during the course of His ministry, the Evangelists remind us of this mysterious hour, St. John telling us on more than one occasion (7: 30 and 8: 20), that the Jews "wanted to seize Jesus, but no one laid hands on Him because His hour was not yet come." But by-and-by, "before the feast of the Passover," we read that Jesus knew "that His hour had come, to pass out of this world to the Father" (13: 1). He begins also to speak of His death, and He says distinctly, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." He prays also, "Father, save Me from this hour! No, this is why I came to this hour. Father, glorify Thy name!" (12: 23-27) And after the agony in the garden, He tells His disciples, "Behold, the hour is at hand" (Matt. 26: 45).

Sorrowful MotherIn this hour then, now that it is come, He once more addresses the "Woman" whom so long ago He had seemed to disown and to separate Himself from, because the hour was not yet come. Jesus now recognizes Mary, speaks to Her, thereby assigning Her place in the new and spiritual kingdom which He was establishing. She was to be the Mother of its members: She was already the Mother of its Head—Himself, and could not, of course, ever cease to be so; but henceforth She was to be our Mother also, because we were now His brethren. "To as many as received Him He gave the power of becoming sons of God; to those who believe in His Name" (John 1: 12). St. John was the type of all these; and he became both the son of God and the son of Mary. As Jesus, by the mystery of the Incarnation, was given to God and to Mary as the Son of Man, so by the mystery of the Crucifixion we also are made at one and the same moment children of God and of Mary.

By the one mystery the Son of God was made Man; in the other, the children of men are made the sons of God; and in both Mary has Her place. In the one, She is declared by the salutation of an Angel to be the Mother of God; in the other, by the express appointment of God, She is made to be the Mother of men.

And yet once more; this title of Woman thus publicly proclaimed at the beginning of the new creation seems to take us back to the beginning of the old creation, when God said to the serpent, "I will put enmities between thee and the Woman, and thy seed and Her Seed; She shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for Her heel." For that prophecy was now being fulfilled: the serpent was at this very time pouring forth the utmost venom of his malice upon the heel of the Woman's Seed, the only part in which He was vulnerable, His human nature which He had received from Mary; and at the same time, that Seed of the Woman, or the Woman by Her Seed, was crushing the serpent's head. He was "blotting out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us; and He was taking the same out of the way, fastening it to the Cross, and despoiling the principalities and powers" (Col. 2: 14-15). And in the same hour, Mary also was fulfilling in a signal manner, in Her own person, a part at least of the sentence originally pronounced against the woman: "I will multiply thy sorrows and thy conceptions; in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children." For this scene of Mount Calvary was at once to make Her childless and to give Her multitudes of children; and certainly no one will dispute the fitness of that language of the prophet which the Church uses to express the dolors of Mary at that moment: "O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like to My sorrow... To whom shall I compare Thee, or to what shall I liken Thee, O daughter of Jerusalem?" (Lament. 1: 12; 2: 13) And as Jesus by the sacrifice He was then offering of Himself was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaias (53: 10): "If He shall lay down His life for sin, He shall see a long-lived seed," so Mary, by uniting in the same sacrifice, became a partaker in the same blessing, and She who had brought forth Her "first-born" without pain in Bethlehem, now became the Mother of "a long-lived seed" amid all the pangs of a most cruel martyrdom on Calvary.

If St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4: 15), could justly claim the title of a parent in their regard, because he had preached the Gospel to them, and converted them from Heathenism, saying, "In Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, did I beget you," how much more justly may not She claim to be our Mother, from whom we have received not the mere oral preaching of the Gospel, but the Author of the Gospel Himself. If the manifold labors of the Apostolate give a right to the name and authority of a Father, and may even be justly compared to the pains of maternity: "My dear children, with whom I am in labor again, until Christ is formed in you" (Gal. 4: 19), certainly the Dolors or the Compassion (as it is sometimes called) of Our Lady on Mount Calvary, give more than a sufficient right to the name and affections of Mother. She had borne us, as it were, in the womb of Her affections from the moment of the Annunciation, when She knew that the Holy One which would be born of Her was to save His people from their sins, and knew also the cost at which He must do it. When She made an offering of Him in the Temple, and the aged Simeon told Her of the sword that should pierce Her soul, She received Him back from the hands of the priest, not to bring Him up as Her own Son and for Herself, but even as Jochabed received back her infant child Moses from the hands of Pharaoh's daughter, as a child whom she was to nurse for a while, but when he should be grown up, must deliver again that he might "go forth to his brethren and redeem them from their affliction." And now that the time is fully come, She stands on Mount Calvary, not as a mere spectator, but as a partaker and a co-operator in a great supernatural mystery. She stands there, to consummate that offering of Herself and of Her Son which had first been made thirty-four years before, in those words which She addressed to the Angel, "Behold the Handmaid of the Lord; be it done to Me according to thy word;" an offering which had been renewed again and again ever since, but was now to be ratified for the last time and forever.

Sorrowful MotherBut Oh!, who shall say what the ratification cost Her! Two opposing interests divided Her Maternal Heart; two contrary affections contended within Her, like the two twins struggling in the womb of Rebecca—the Son of God and the sons of men; and it was impossible that either should be satisfied except by the sacrifice of the other. The sons of men were not to be saved but by the death of the Son of God; if the bitter chalice of suffering and of death was to pass away and He drink it not, they would still remain in bondage: which should prevail? Well might She at such a moment repeat the lamentation of Rebecca: "If it were to be so with me, what need was there to conceive?” To what end did I conceive the Son of God, if He was to be thus cruelly sacrificed in My sight? Wherefore was I saluted as "blessed amongst women," if I was to be made the most desolate of mothers? Such at least would certainly have been the voice of nature; but not such was the voice of Mary. She knew that "the elder must serve the younger;" that He was come among us "as One Who serveth;" She had brought Him forth, not that He might live, but that He might die, to the end that we should live. She was not the Mother of a Man-God Who afterwards became a Victim for the sins of the world, but She was the Mother of One conceived and born only to be a Victim; She had been made the Mother of God that She might also become the Mother of men.

There hung Her first-born, the Son of God, expiring on the Cross; but from His own dying lips She receives the other, "the disciple whom He loved"—"Woman, behold Thy son." And in him She receives all those other disciples whom Jesus loved; those whom He so loved that He laid down His life for their sakes. She understands and accepts the exchange; She undertakes, and ever after fulfills, the office assigned to Her. For when God bestows a title, or calls by a special name, His works accompany His words, or rather His words are themselves works. They are not like the words of men, a mere breath of the mouth dividing the air, striking the ears of those who hear, and then passing away and becoming as though they had never been; they are works, as I have said—they do what they say. As at the first, "He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created," so has it continued ever since. God called Abram Abraham, or the father of many nations, and He made him such. He changed the name of Simon to Peter, or Rock, and He made him the rock whereon He built His Church. And so here also, when He called Mary our Mother, He made Her such. He filled Her Heart with a Mother's love and care for us; He endowed Her with a Mother's power and Mother's privileges in our regard. And since His words once spoken do not pass away, but abide forever, She still remains, and will remain to the day of judgment, and even in the day of judgment itself, our most tender and loving Mother. Yes, Mary is the Mother of Jesus, and She is also our Mother; Mother of Him in Heaven, of us on earth. What then may we not hope for? For what can She not do with Him? What will She not do for us? He Who gave the command, "Honor thy father and mother," cannot be indifferent to a Mother’s prayers. She who received this last dying injunction from Her Son to "behold Her children," will not neglect Her children’s wants.

"Repeat then, O my soul," let us boldly cry out with St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, and so many others of the Saints—"Repeat, O my soul, with joy and confidence, 'I will rejoice and be glad; the Mother of God is my Mother; the Mother of the Judge is also the Mother of the criminal; the final judgment in our regard hangs upon a Mother's prayers and a Brother's word'."

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