Mary in Doctrine and Devotion

The Life of Mary in the Gospels

Fourteenth 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 as a Witness of the Gospel

All these with one mind continued steadfastly in prayer with the women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren (Acts 1: 14).

AscensionThis is the account—almost the whole account, I might say—which St. Luke gives us of the way in which the Apostles spent the nine days which intervened between Our Lord's Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Ghost, according to His promise, on the day of Pentecost. He tells us that after they had seen their Lord going up into Heaven and received out of their sight by a cloud, they returned to Jerusalem; and when they were come into the city, they went up into an upper room, where abode Peter and John, and the rest of the Apostles; and all these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren. Then, on one of these days (we are not told which) they proceeded to elect one of the disciples to succeed to the vacant place in the Apostolic college, made void by the apostasy and suicide of the traitor Judas. This election would seem to have been made in this same place, in this large upper room, which may well have contained the whole number of the disciples, "about a hundred and twenty," and it is believed to have been the same room again, of which the Evangelist goes on to speak at the beginning of the next chapter, saying, "And when the days of Pentecost were drawing to a close, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a violent wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting... And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost..."

You will observe that Holy Scripture says no more of Our Blessed Lady's share in the triumph of Her Son's Ascension, than it did of Her share in the joys of the Resurrection, so that the pious imaginations of the faithful have been left at liberty to invent reasons supposing Her to have been either absent or present, according to their several tastes. Primitive tradition has not been more explicit on this subject than Holy Scripture; so it is not to be wondered at that great difference of opinion has prevailed upon it. The same question has been raised as to Mary's presence with the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, and Her reception of the gift of tongues. Here however there has been a more general opinion in favor of Her presence; and I think most persons studying with attention that portion of Scripture of which I have just set before you an abridgement, would probably come to the same conclusion: if not distinctly stated, yet certainly it seems implied. I do not mean however to lay any stress upon it in this place, as I wish to avoid everything on which a question might fairly be raised; and I would only call your attention to the distinct mention of Her by name amongst those who, in obedience to Her Son's command, were waiting and praying for the coming of the Holy Ghost. She is included of course in the first general term used—She was one of "the women;" but the sacred historian thought fit to make mention of Her separately—the "women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus." Grammarians teach us—what indeed must be obvious to every thoughtful mind—that where a part is named separately, or connected with the whole, it is intended to give a certain excellence or pre-eminence to that part. As when the Evangelist speaks of "Peter and the Apostles" (Acts 5: 29), the form of expression shows that he was in some way distinct from, and superior to, the rest of his companions; so here also by naming "the women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus," a certain dignity is assigned to Her which deserves at least this passing notice.

However, the great fact on which I wish to fix your attention at present is this: Our Blessed Lady lived on this earth a long while after the Ascension of Her Divine Son; whether the time was nine years, or fifteen, or as others have thought, twenty-four, it matters not. Surely the fact of Her having been left behind at all is somewhat strange. Jesus says that, "Where our treasure is, there our heart is also." Mary's "treasure" was now in Heaven; why was not She Herself allowed to be there also? The penitent thief on the cross did but give one testimony to the truth, did but make one act of faith, of love, and of hope, and he was rewarded with a promise of immediate admission into paradise; why should Mary, the Virgin Most Faithful, the tender Mother, the Mother of Sorrows, be left so long in the land of exile among the wayfarers of this earth, amongst the enemies of Her Son, amongst His murderers and blasphemers, in a world of sin and woe? Perhaps the single fact recorded in the text may suggest an answer. Mary was to be the model, the strength, the encouragement of the Apostles, both in the great work that lay before them, and in the days of patient expectation, which were to precede that work. She had known Jesus for three-and-thirty years, they had only known Him for three; She had "kept many words, pondering them in Her heart," which should now be brought forth; She was the sacred depository of many secrets, which must now be revealed; She was a spotless mirror, in which the Sun of Justice should be reflected on the Infant Church; She was, as it were, Herself a living Gospel, in which the words and works, the life, the Heart and mind of Jesus might be read and learned. Let us draw out these conclusions at greater length.

The great characteristic of the Apostles, considered as founders of the Church, was this: that they were to be witnesses of Jesus Christ. These were the last words which Our Lord spoke upon earth before His Ascension. He told the Apostles that they should be "witnesses for Me in Jerusalem and in all Judaea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth" (Acts 1: 8). When the Apostles proceeded to elect one into the place of the traitor Judas, this is what they said, "One must become a witness with us of His resurrection" (Ibid. 22). When they began to preach, this is what they continually insisted upon, that they were witnesses of that which they taught (Acts 2: 32; 3: 15; 5: 32; 10: 39; 13: 31). Of course they also had a divine internal conviction of all the facts which they taught, but they preached them to the Heathen and Jewish world as witnesses. So also, when they wrote as well as spoke, they appealed to the same ground of credibility. The beloved disciple, St. John, lays the greatest possible stress upon this in the beginning of his Epistle, as though everything depended on it (1 John 1: 1-3). St. Luke, in like manner, in the preface to his Gospel, introduces himself and claims the belief of his readers, not indeed as being an eye or ear-witness himself, but as being an accurate recorder of events which he had carefully collected from those who had been such witnesses. And of course the Apostles were witnesses, as they themselves say, "of all things that Jesus did (and suffered) in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem" (Acts 10: 39); not all of them indeed of everything, but all of most, and some of them at least of all, or nearly all. Thus, three only could testify to the Transfiguration on Mount Thabor, only one to the scene on Mount Calvary, and none at all to the first moments of the Resurrection. And certainly—and this is the important point which I desire specially to impress upon your minds—not one could bear testimony to Our Lord's private and hidden life before "He began to do and teach;" still less could they speak, of their own knowledge, concerning that greatest and primary Mystery, His Conception and Birth. This fact involves most serious considerations, not often seriously reflected upon, with reference to Our Blessed Lady.

AnnunciationThe foundation of the whole Christian religion, or rather its very essence, its sum and substance, is the doctrine of the Incarnation; the doctrine, that is, that Jesus Christ was no mere man, or the Son of a man; but that in His one Divine Person were united the two natures, of man, and of God; that He was "made indeed of a woman," born of the Virgin Mary, but that He had no man for His father, having been conceived by the Holy Ghost. This is the whole of Christianity; and all other doctrines flow from it as their source or cluster round it as their center. And who was there, my brethren, who could bear testimony to this foundation, this essential corner-stone, or (as I have more truly called it) this summary of the Christian Faith, without which the whole system would have no meaning or value? Clearly there was no human testimony possible, save of one only person, Her in whom the Mystery itself was accomplished. She alone could throw a flood of light upon that secret work of God. If in other matters the Apostles were to be witnesses to the world, in this Mary must have been a witness, and the only human witness, to them; an Evangelist to the Evangelists, an Apostle to the Apostles, as some of the Doctors of the Church have called Her; or, as we sing daily in the Litany, Queen of the Apostles, their Mistress, Mother and Teacher.

During Our Lord's life, the Apostles themselves did not know the Mystery. St. Peter indeed confessed, illuminated by a special Divine revelation, "Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God;" and sooner or later, all the other Apostles had the same faith. Witnessing the power and goodness of His miracles, hearing the sublime wisdom of His discourses, and His own declarations concerning Himself, they could not believe otherwise; but such belief and knowledge was necessarily indistinct and insecure, so long as they were ignorant of the fact of the Incarnation, as it really happened. We count all human knowledge as imperfect, which only comprehends the outward phenomena of things, and knows nothing of their inward essence, their causes, or manner of being what they are. The Apostles had an implicit and virtual faith in the Divinity of Jesus impressed upon their hearts by their own daily experience, so to speak, of His presence in the midst of them, yet they knew not how He was God. They saw and felt, and knew that He was man; how then could He also be God? Had the Divinity come down upon a mere man, at that wonderful scene in the river Jordan, when St. John the Baptist and others "saw the Spirit coming as a dove from Heaven,” upon that human form which “came up out of the water… and the Spirit remained upon Him" (John 1: 32)? There came indeed at that time a voice from Heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased;" but had that man been the Son of God before that hour, and from the moment of His birth? Or had He only become so now by adoption, or by inspiration, or by some mysterious way, and would He always remain so? Had this human form which they saw before them been merely filled with the Divine Presence in some special manner, which might hereafter be withdrawn again, and the man be left as any one of themselves? Or was He really no man at all, but was there only the outward appearance of a man, as Angels in olden times had sometimes taken to themselves this form for a limited time and purpose? Who and what was Jesus? They had heard Him called the son of Joseph; He was commonly "supposed" to be his son, and we do not read that they had been instructed otherwise. It was only after the Resurrection and Ascension that they knew the Mystery of the Incarnation in a formal and explicit way; and that knowledge, humanly speaking, they could only receive from Mary. She alone had seen and heard the Angel in the Mystery of the Annunciation, and from Her testimony the Apostles and the Church were to receive it.

You will remind me that the Holy Ghost was sent down for this very purpose, "to teach all truth," and that these things therefore were revealed by Him, rather than told by Mary. But you must remember that this direct action of God did not supersede the use of ordinary human means here, any more than in the case of the inspiration of the writers of the Gospels and other parts of the Bible. God revealed to them all truth, not without, but in and through, the use of human industry and care and diligent examination. The language of St. Luke, in whose Gospel all these particulars of the Birth and Infancy of Jesus are far more fully recorded than by any other of the Evangelists, clearly points to some human testimony; and none was possible but Mary's. He says (in the beginning of his Gospel) that "he has diligently attained to all things from the beginning, according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word." Mark that significant phrase, so emphatically repeated, "from the beginning." Who was such an eye-witness "from the beginning?" None but Mary. The Mystery of the Incarnation had indeed been in some measure revealed to St. Joseph by the Angel, sent to reassure him and to command him to take his Spotless Spouse to his home; also to St. Elisabeth at the time of the Visitation, when she exclaimed, "Whence is this to me that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" But both of these witnesses, there is every reason to believe, had been gathered to their rest long before the close of Our Lord's life upon earth, and we may be quite certain that God did not allow these hidden things to be revealed before His Resurrection, according to His own express command with reference to the Transfiguration and other tokens of His Divinity. We repeat then, Mary was the one only witness who could speak to the very foundation of the Christian Faith.

Moreover, two things are very observable with reference to this testimony of Mary. First, it is this same Evangelist (St. Luke) through whom we receive it, who distinctly tells us on three different occasions of Mary's habit of silent observation, pondering over and treasuring up all these things in Her heart, as though (which even Calvin himself has remarked) the time would one day come, when She must bring them forth and speak of them. Another Protestant commentator (Grotius) also has observed that St. Luke seems to have mentioned this fact of Mary's habit of thoughtful meditation upon the words and deeds of Her Divine Son and of others in His regard, precisely because She was the authority from whom he had received the narrative that he was recording. And the second observation to be made is this: that in spite of very critical circumstances that might have seemed to make it the duty of the Blessed Virgin—certainly, Her interest—to speak sooner, yet She kept the secret locked up in Her own breast so long as Jesus remained on earth. Her holy spouse, St. Joseph, in the inscrutable providence of God, is allowed to be troubled when he learned that She was with Child: yet even under this most painful trial, She opens not Her mouth to reveal Her Divine Maternity, but in silent patience awaits the intervention of God.

VisitationBut now the time is come that She should speak, and the secrets of God's wisdom and power, and the hidden counsels of His love, whereof She alone of creatures had before been fully cognizant, are by Her revealed to the Apostles and Evangelists, as the converters and instructors of the world. St. Ambrose remarks that it is no wonder that St. John should have spoken more clearly and more sublimely on the Divine Mysteries than the other Evangelists, since he had ever at hand, and to his filial charge had been entrusted, the chosen Vessel in whom these Mysteries had been accomplished, "the Hall or Court (as he calls Her) of the heavenly sacraments." And it is St. Luke, who was so diligent in seeking testimony from those who had been eye-witnesses from the beginning, and who cannot fail therefore to have sought in an especial manner the testimony of Mary—it is St. Luke, I say, who also, alone of the Evangelists, records at length the visit of the Angel Gabriel and his message, the Virgin's fear and the Angel's encouraging assurances; the adoration of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple, the three days' loss and the finding again in the Temple; in a word, all the particulars of the Infancy and Childhood of Jesus, and (we may add) of His forerunner also, St. John the Baptist, which Mary would have known, partly of Her own knowledge and partly from what She had been told by Her cousin St. Elisabeth.

What then is the lesson to be drawn from these considerations? Briefly this: you are exhorted to consider well the beautiful harmony and proportions of everything connected with our Blessed Lady's position in the Gospel record of the scheme of man's Redemption. In the Mystery of the Visitation, we have seen how our Divine Redeemer was pleased to make use of His Holy Mother as His instrument in conveying the highest grace and the first-fruits of Redemption after He came upon earth, the sanctification of St. John the Baptist in his mother's womb. In the marriage-feast at Cana of Galilee, He made Her the first cause and motive in the manifestation of His miraculous powers in favor of men. In other words, in the economy of grace, whilst Our Lord was yet upon earth, She occupied the first place among created beings; She was the chosen channel or instrument whereby Her Son vouchsafed to dispense His gifts and graces, both temporal and spiritual: and now we see that She occupies the same place also in the economy of faith; Her place is the first in the order of Gospel evidence; She is the only witness of that Mystery which is above every other, the Incarnation. "Take away Her contribution to the Gospel testimony, and you find not simply a link broken, but the very fastening of the whole chain gone; not merely a gap or a break made in the structure, but the foundation gone" (Cardinal Wiseman's Essays, vol. 1, p. 591).

She stands immediately next to the Holy Ghost, the first and highest of all merely human witnesses to the truth of Christianity. Her place then in the upper chamber at Jerusalem and with the Apostles afterwards, Her office and duties there, were strictly analogous to Her place and office in the chamber of Her home at Nazareth, in the Stable at Bethlehem, and—as we Catholics believe—in the Church of God ever since. In Nazareth, She cooperated with the Holy Ghost for the Incarnation of the Son of God; in Jerusalem, She with Him proclaims and manifests that great Mystery to the world. In Nazareth, the Holy Ghost came down upon Her, and She was made the Mother of our God; in Jerusalem, the same Holy Ghost comes down upon Her, and She is made in a certain sense the Mother of our Faith. "Thy voice," says an ancient and pious interpreter of Holy Scripture, "was to the Apostles the voice of the Holy Ghost; whatever was necessary to each by way of supplement or testimony, for the confirmation in their minds of what they had received from the Holy Ghost, they received, O Blessed Virgin, from Thy sacred mouth. Thou wert, as it were, His interpreter. Thou art the Mother of our Faith" (Rupert Abb. Tuit. in Cant. lib. 1 p. 6, de Div. Off. lib. vii c. 25).

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