This article introduces readers to traditions concerning the Virgin Mary in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and also discusses the basics of Marian worship and devotion, as well as Marian apparitions.
The Virgin Mary as the Divine Mother
In the Mediterranean world of the first century within which Christianity arose, goddess worship was widely practiced. Perhaps the greatest mother goddess of them all at that time was the Egyptian goddess Isis. Whatever the particular face or form of the mother goddess that was worshiped, She was the very embodiment of infinite mercy and compassion. And so, when Christianity arose and appeared on the stage in that part of the world, the Virgin Mary stepped into that role, and fulfilled that spiritual need – the need for devotion to a Divine Mother. God, sitting on His majestic throne all the way up there in heaven, seems too aloof and remote to many. In contrast to God the Absolute and Transcendent, Christianity has God the Son, or Jesus Christ, who is God Imminent and Manifest, to intercede on the believer’s behalf. But for those who relate more closely to a mother figure, there is the Virgin Mary, who can be seen as the intercessor to the intercessor. Surely Mary, the caring and compassionate mother of Jesus, can persuade her Son to intervene on the devotee’s behalf.
Most Protestant denominations, in their reforming zeal to get back to what they saw as the bedrock basics of the Christian faith, have neglected Mary in the austere reductionism of their particular form of Christianity. They see the veneration of the Virgin Mary, as practiced by the older denominations, like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, as being tantamount to idolatry. And so, they have coined a term that embodies their negative judgment on this practice: Mariolatry. The newer Protestant denominations accept the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, but do not make much of it beyond that. They ignore or dismiss what Catholics and Orthodox believers see as Mary’s unique and exalted status within Christendom: It was she who said yes to the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation, thus making the incarnation of Jesus Christ possible. It was she who became the human Ark of the New Covenant, bearing God the Son, or Jesus Christ, in whom the human and divine natures perfectly intermingled. To Protestants who object that Catholics and Orthodox believers worship the Virgin Mary, these older denominations counter that they worship Jesus Christ through the Virgin Mary.
The Basics of Marian Doctrine and Theology
Catholics and Orthodox believers say that they do not worship the Virgin Mary; rather, they venerate her. That may seem like a fine line, or a rather trivial distinction to many, but the distinction is this: Worship is reserved for God alone, which is seen as a Trinity in Christianity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost – whereas reverence is an attitude of honor and respect given to a created being who has attained a high level of holiness and sanctity. Reverence, or dulia in Latin, is owed the saints, and because Mary holds a unique position as being chief among the saints, she is held in the highest of reverence, a spiritual attitude known as hyperdulia. Mary’s unique and exalted position among the saints is due to the fact that it was she who made the incarnation of the savior Jesus Christ possible in the first place. Queen of Heaven, and Queen of the Angels are other reverent titles that are conferred on her. The spiritual esteem in which the Virgin Mary is held is second only to the divine persons of the Holy Trinity itself; Mary, as Queen of Heaven, reigns supreme over the angels, and over all the Christian saints.
By saying yes to the Archangel Gabriel and submitting to God in a spirit of purity and devotion, Mary reversed the fall of man that was initiated by Eve, the first woman. And so, in Catholic iconography, Mary is often shown with her foot on the head of a snake, for the snake that tempted Eve. Mary is also shown standing on the crescent moon as well. In order to be a pure vessel for the divine Christ child, Mary had to be born without sin; and so, Catholicism instituted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was adopted as church dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854. The papal bull that made this an official dogma of the Catholic Church was Ineffabilis Deus. Although the parentage and conception of Mary is not mentioned in Scripture, according to the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James, Mary was born to Joachim and Anna, who had been an elderly and barren couple, although it is unclear exactly how Mary was conceived. The tremendous popular support that led to the elevation of the Immaculate Conception to the status of a dogma had its roots in a vision of the Immaculate Conception by Catherine Laboure in 1830, which showed Mary standing on a globe. Catherine was told to have a medal made in its honor. The feast day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is December 8th; in Eastern Orthodoxy, it is December 9th. – 1.
Closely related to the doctrine, or dogma, of the Immaculate Conception is the question of the perpetual virginity of Mary, with the older denominations of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy favoring it, and the newer Protestant denominations tending to reject it or adopting a neutral stance. If Mary was immaculately conceived without sin, and Saint Augustine, in his formulation of the doctrine of Original Sin, claiming that Eve’s Original Sin had been passed on from generation to generation via the concupiscence of sexual desire, it only makes sense that Mary would remain sexless, and therefore sinless, throughout her whole life. Although the Orthodox Church believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary, it does not have the dogma of the Immaculate Conception because they have a different understanding of Original Sin than the Catholics, and do not see future generations bearing the guilt of Eve’s Original Sin in the same way. Orthodox believers argue that not having Mary immaculately conceived enhances her humanity, which she contributed to the humanity of Jesus. If you accept that Mary was a perpetual virgin, then Jesus’ siblings were either cousins or children of Joseph from a previous marriage, with Joseph being a widower; without the perpetual virginity of Mary, she could have gone on to give birth to them in a normal manner after the virgin birth of Jesus.
Although Mary is often called the Mother of God by the Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians see this title as being somewhat misleading, because God the Son, in His spiritual essence, is a person of the Holy Trinity, fully coequal and coeternal with God the Father. Therefore, they prefer the title of Theotokos, or God Bearer, which emphasizes the fact that she was just the human vehicle that made the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in human form possible. Both the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church believe that Mary, at the end of her life, was taken bodily up into heaven in what the Catholics call the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the Orthodox Church calls the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. The feast day of the Assumption / Dormition is August 15th. Mary was also present to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Although most Protestant denominations do not venerate the Virgin Mary, she is revered in the Anglican and Lutheran churches.
The Biography of Mary According to Scripture and Tradition
If Jesus could be called a semi-legendary figure in Christian history, for whom the lines between history and legend are blurred, it could be said that this is doubly true for his mother Mary. The gospels are our main historical source for Jesus, even if they aren’t pure history in the strictest sense of the word; nevertheless, Jesus is their main subject, so Jesus and his public ministry are covered extensively. Mary, on the other hand, is not the main focus of the gospels, so she is given a lot less coverage. The sad fact is that the Virgin Mary is not mentioned nearly as many times in the Christian gospels as she is in the Islamic Quran, even though Christianity considers her to be the mother of its savior. Add to this all the other Maries that are running around in the gospels, and the picture can get a bit confusing. And so, to get a fuller picture of Mary and her life story, we must go outside the canonical gospels and delve into apocryphal literature, such as the Protoevangelion of James.
Mary, as I said earlier, was born the daughter of Joachim and Anne, who were an elderly and barren couple. The birth of Mary was seen as something of a miracle, as it was totally unexpected, and Catholic dogma maintains that Mary was conceived immaculately, without sin, which probably means that she was conceived asexually. Although the actual date of Mary’s birth is unknown, Christians traditionally celebrate it on September 8th – wouldn’t you know that Mary was a Virgo? The year of Mary’s birth is estimated to be around 18 BC. In gratitude for her miraculous conception and birth, Joachim and Anne consecrated her into a monastery at age three, where she was raised in a pure, holy state; it is said that when she lacked food, Mary was fed by angels. Tradition has it that Mary was between twelve and fourteen years old when she was betrothed to Joseph, and that she survived the death of her son Jesus by eleven years, passing away via her Assumption around 41 AD. Since Jesus entrusted the care of his mother Mary to the Beloved Disciple, who is presumed to be John the Evangelist, as he was looking down from the cross in the Gospel of John, tradition has it that Mary lived with John in Ephesus until her Assumption.
Of all the canonical gospels, Mary figures most prominently in the Gospel of Luke, especially in its opening chapters; the Gospel of Luke mentions Mary by name some twelve times. Mary is first chosen by the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation. While she is deep in contemplation on this divine event, Mary sings the Magnificat, proclaiming that her soul doth magnify the Lord. After she conceives via the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary then visits her cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias, who is then pregnant with the fetus of John the Baptist in her womb. The moment Mary enters Elizabeth’s house, the fetus of John the Baptist jumps for joy inside Elizabeth’s womb. To those who accept the doctrine of reincarnation, this is a clear sign that Jesus and John the Baptist had known each other in their past lives as Elisha and his spiritual master and mentor Elijah, respectively.
Of course, Mary figures most prominently in the nativity of Jesus, and even though there are four canonical gospels, only the gospels of Matthew and Luke have nativity narratives. Another feature of these two gospels is that they both give genealogies for the descent of Jesus, showing his patrilineal descent through King David; however, these two genealogies differ significantly in their details. Nevertheless, these genealogies both show Jesus’ royal Davidic bloodline, which was an important prerequisite for any Messianic claims. The only problem is: If Mary conceived via the power of the Holy Spirit, making God Jesus’ true father, patrilineal genealogies showing Joseph as Jesus’ father would technically be false or misleading. But such was the patriarchal society and culture of the day. The nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke also differ significantly; Luke invents the historically questionable device of a Roman census in order to get the Holy Family to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, whereas Matthew simply has the Holy Family living in Bethlehem to begin with. Matthew’s nativity narrative is famous for the Star of Bethlehem and the Three Wise Men, or the Adoration of the Magi, whereas Luke’s nativity narrative features a manger with animals and shepherds tending their flocks by night.
The next gospel event that features Mary is known as the Presentation of the Baby Jesus at the Temple; this happened forty days after the birth of Jesus, when Mary had completed her period of purification subsequent to Jesus’ birth, according to Jewish tradition. For this reason, it is also called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas, which is celebrated on February 2nd, about midway between Jesus’ birth at the old Roman Winter Solstice (December 25th) and the Spring Equinox. This event is only covered in the Gospel of Luke, and is full of waxing light and hope for the baby Jesus. Then, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph is warned about King Herod’s impending slaughter of the innocents in a dream, and escapes to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus. Mary is also present at the wedding celebration at Cana in the Gospel of John, where Jesus performs his first miracle of changing water into wine. And finally, Mary is there with Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple to watch Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospel of John. Jesus proclaims from the cross, “Mother, behold your son,” and Mary is dedicated to the care of the disciple John.
Mary is also there in the upper room with the other eleven disciples of Jesus after Jesus’ Ascension, and she is also there on the Day of Pentecost to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These are the major scenes and events in the life of the Virgin Mary, according to both canonical and apocryphal sources of Christian tradition. As my main source for this biographical material on the Virgin Mary, I have used the Wikipedia article “Mary, Mother of Jesus” – 2.
The Virgin Mary in Judaism and Islam
A rather curious thing is going on among many conservative evangelical Christian sects and denominations today in that everything Jewish is praised and adored, while everything relating to Islam is demonized and vilified. The objective truth is that this is a false and unfortunate spiritual situation that has its roots more in recent geopolitical events and movements, such as the rise of Islamic terrorism, than it does in the essential nature of Judaism and Islam themselves, and their basic disposition towards Jesus and Christianity. Most conservative evangelical Christians would be shocked to know the real truth – that Islam is a lot closer to Christianity, and has much more in common with it, than Judaism, which is more like a classic case of unrequited love on the part of these conservative Christians. And this fundamental truth is very apparent when we look at how these two religions view the Virgin Mary.
Let’s start with Judaism, the case of unrequited love. There is an ancient tradition in Judaism, which appears to have originated in the Talmud, and which is echoed later in another Jewish text from late antiquity, the Toledot Yeshu, that Mary was not a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but was impregnated by a certain Roman soldier named Pantera –Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, to be exact – out of wedlock. This Talmudic story was later seized on by the Roman philosopher Celsus in his scathing attack on Christianity entitled On the True Doctrine. Although the original text by Celsus has long since been lost, it has been reconstructed from Origen’s extensive quotes from it in his rebuttal thesis entitled Contra Celsum. Anyway, it seems like Pantera was serving in the Holy Land when he impregnated Mary, but was later transferred to the northern frontier to fight the Germans, where he was killed. We know this because his tombstone was found in October of 1859 during the construction of a railroad in Bingerbruck, Germany. The inscription on it reads:
Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera from Sidon aged 62 years, served forty years, former standard bearer of the first cohort of archers lies here – 3.
Of course, there have been doubts raised about the whole Pantera story. First of all, Pantera was a fairly common Roman family name at the time. Secondly, this whole story could have been invented by Jewish apologists in the early years of the Common Era as a polemic tool to discourage any potential conversions to Christianity. The scene in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew where Joseph finds Mary to be pregnant and wonders if she has been adulterous until he is told by angels in a dream that Mary has conceived via the power of the Holy Spirit is the passage in the canonical gospels that comes closest to hints and suggestions of the Pantera story. Under Mosaic Law, Joseph had every right to condemn Mary for adultery, but chose to believe in his dream and have compassion for her. The position that the religious cynic or skeptic would take would be to declare that the best way of hiding or covering up a potential flaw or embarrassment is to slap a holy cow over it – in this case, the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus.
Even today, there are skeptical TV shows making fun of Christianity by ridiculing Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus that have been aired on Israeli television; they can be googled up on YouTube. Nevertheless, when it comes to welcoming Christian tourists and their tourist dollars, the Israelis do so with a smile. If you aren’t going to be so cynical and skeptical, but are more open minded and willing to take a middle of the road approach, it is fruitful to imagine what the rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy would have meant to the young Jesus, and how it would have impacted his life and thought if they were true. The first chapter of Bruce Chilton’s book, Rabbi Jesus, is entitled “A Mamzer from Nazareth”, with the word Mamzer being Hebrew for an illegitimate child. I feel that it would have strengthened his spiritual resolve to seek out God as his Heavenly Father, and may have also convinced him that this world was not his true home. As a spiritual revolutionary who rose up against Rome and the brutal oppression of the Roman occupation, being illegitimately sired by a Roman soldier would have added a lot of poignant irony to his life story, and strengthened his pleas for forgiveness and compassion.
To put things in perspective, the original Jewish Jesus movement, the Jerusalem Church of James the Just, had no need to believe in a virgin birth for Jesus, since they saw their spiritual leader as merely being a human prophet and spiritual teacher. That Jesus’ birth was seen as nothing notable or extraordinary by Jesus’ original followers can be inferred from the fact that there is no nativity narrative in the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel to be written. For Mark, the whole story starts with Jesus’ baptism, when God adopts him as His son; this is called an Adoptionist Christology, which is the simplest and lowest Christology of all, being the first step in the divinization of Jesus Christ. Matthew embellishes the divinity of Jesus even more with its nativity narrative, but Luke is the one who really puts Mary and the virgin conception and birth of Jesus front and center in his gospel. John’s Christology, as proclaimed in the prologue to his gospel, is so high and exalted that the mundane details of Christ’s birth are irrelevant. But Luke is the gospel that really exalts Mary.
From Judaism, which, for Christians, is the case of unrequited love, we now turn to Islam and its teachings on Mary. With Islam, the shoe is on the other foot, and you could call Islam’s relations with Christianity more like the case of the spurned lover. The Muslim holy book, the Quran, mentions Jesus – Issa – some 137 times, and mentions Mary – Maryam – by name some fifty times, which is more times than she is mentioned in all the Christian gospels. Whereas Judaism has traditionally made fun of Mary and the virgin birth of Jesus, Christians may be surprised to find out that Islam believes in the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary, and in Jesus’ role as the Messiah. In Christianity, Jesus’ virgin birth is seen as a sign that God was his true father, but in Islam, God has no need of fathering a son, but simply brings about the virgin birth of Jesus as a generous and magnanimous display of His awesome creative power. All that God has to do to create anything is simply to proclaim its existence, and it is. And so it was with the virgin birth of Jesus; Muslims see Jesus as being created in the womb of Mary via God’s word, and the power of the Holy Spirit, which, in Islam, is not incorporated into any Holy Trinity.
Muslims have a very exalted view of Mary, and declared her, along with her son Jesus, to be a sign of God to humanity; they also see Mary as being dedicated to God’s service while she was still in the womb, and also believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Islam also accepts the apocryphal Christian tradition that Mary was consecrated to the service of God in the temple at three years of age; they also believe that she had access to the Holy of Holies. Islam sees Mary as being the most pure and virtuous of all women, chaste and obedient to God; a whole chapter or Surah of the Quran is devoted to Mary, and how she gave birth to Jesus. This is Surah Nineteen, entitled Maryam, which is the only Surah or chapter of the Quran that is named after a woman. According to Islamic tradition, Allah reveals to Mary’s father, Imran, that he will send him a boy who will be a prophet and miracle worker, but Imran is puzzled and disappointed when his wife Hannah delivers a girl. When Imran protests that a girl cannot be a prophet, verse 3: 36 from the Quran has Allah responding that He knows better what has been delivered; of course, Allah fulfills his promise to Imran when Mary gives birth to Jesus. – 2.
Both Christians and Muslims accept the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary, but here the similarities end. Mary is definitely a heroine and role model for all women in the Quran, but she is more like a feminist heroine who must go it alone, because there is no Joseph. Mary accepts the word of God to create Jesus in her womb in an Annunciation scene from the Quran that is a lot like that from the Gospel of Luke. – 2. Mary goes out alone into the desert to give birth to Jesus; she shakes a palm tree that appears to be dead and barren, but it provides her with nourishing dates. When she gets thirsty, lo and behold, a spring of life giving water bursts forth from the rootstock of the date tree. Having no mate, no spouse, Mary walks back into her village after giving birth to Jesus out in the desert; being alone and single, but with a baby in her arms, Mary naturally arouses the suspicion and hatred of the townspeople, who want to stone her. But just then, Jesus performs his first miracle, according to the Quran: He begins to speak with the voice of a grown man, telling the people that he is a sign from God, and is a promised prophet and miracle worker.
Isn’t there a rather strange love triangle going on between the three Abrahamic religions regarding how they see Mary and her son Jesus? In contrast to Judaism’s negativity and cynicism, Islam reveres both Jesus and his mother Mary. Yet so many Christians today love Judaism and hate Islam, which is actually much closer to Christianity than the former.
Understanding Marian Devotion in Catholicism
Both of the older denominations of Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, venerate the Virgin Mary, but the devotional practices of the Catholic Church towards the Virgin Mary are much more elaborate and involved. Protestants may dismiss all the devotions and prayers that the Catholics lavish on the Virgin Mary as being mere blind ritualism, but of course, Catholics don’t see it that way. Catholics may have their doctrines and dogmas regarding the Virgin Mary, but when it comes to Marian devotional practices, the logical and academic domain of theology is transcended, and the devotee enters the realm of heartfelt feeling and emotion. The whole point is to see things through the spiritual perspective and the heart of the Divine Mother, who brought the savior Jesus into the world. Within the Immaculate Heart of Mary live both the joy and wonder of giving birth to the Savior and sharing his blessings with the world, as well as the unspeakable sorrow and grief she had to endure in seeing her Son tortured and crucified, and losing him long before his time.
First of all, there are many feast days associated with the Virgin Mary, and many of these involve key events in her life. The feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas, which is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, is on February 2nd. The feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25th (go figure – nine months before Christmas). The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on August 15th, which is the day she was taken bodily up into heaven according to Christian tradition. The months of May and October are considered to be especially important for devotion to the Virgin Mary; coincidentally, these months correspond roughly to the signs of Taurus and Libra, two signs that are ruled by the goddess planet Venus. In the Catholic Church the month of October is dedicated to the praying of the Rosary, which is the most important prayer cycle concerning Mary.
The prayer cycle of the Rosary is one of the most important prayers in the Catholic Church. It centers on twenty different mysteries, which are key events in the salvation of humanity through the Lord Jesus Christ, and since this is a Marian prayer cycle, the focus is on seeing and understanding these key events through the eyes and heart of Mother Mary, who is considered to be the spiritual mother of all Christians in Catholicism. Through meditation on these events, which are called Mysteries, the goal is to cultivate spiritual appreciation and gratitude in the heart and mind of the devotee regarding what the savior Jesus Christ and his mother Mary went through on our behalf. These twenty Mysteries are divided into four different categories of five (and five is a number sacred to the goddess / planet Venus). These are the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Glorious Mysteries and the Luminous Mysteries, which are as follows:
The Joyous Mysteries – The Annunciation; The Visitation; The Nativity; The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; The Finding of Jesus in the Temple.
The Sorrowful Mysteries – The Agony in the Garden (of Gethsemane); The Scourging at the Pillar; The Crowning with Thorns; The Carrying of the Cross; The Crucifixion.
The Glorious Mysteries – The Resurrection; The Ascension; The Descent of the Holy Spirit; The Assumption of Mary; The Coronation of the Virgin.
With these first fifteen Mysteries, the Mystery Cycle was complete, and so the Rosary remained for many years, ending with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and her coronation as the Queen of Heaven. But Pope John Paul II added five more Mysteries to the cycle of the Rosary, which he called the Luminous Mysteries. They are as follows:
The Luminous Mysteries – The Baptism of Jesus; The Wedding at Cana; Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God; The Transfiguration; The Institution of the Eucharist. – 4.
The Many Faces of Mother Mary: Marian Apparitions
According to Catholic Mariology, the Virgin Mary, as the mother of all Christians, is forever watching over her flock, and is always ready to intercede on the spiritual behalf of her children whenever and wherever there is a real and urgent need. And so, Mary has made many apparitions, in various forms, down through Christian history whenever her spiritual help was needed. Usually, Mother Mary has chosen those who were humble, uneducated and pure of heart to be her witnesses and spokespeople. Some apparitions, such as Our Lady of Lourdes, have been intimately connected with spiritual healing; others, such as Our Lady of Fatima, have been intensely involved with prophecy. The beguiling Divine Feminine, like the ever changing phases of the Moon, has taken many forms, with each being appropriate and well suited to the place and circumstances of the apparition. The phenomenon of Marian apparitions is probably the best demonstration of the Monistic principle – that one essential divine being, in this case the Virgin Mary – can assume many different forms and manifestations. This was made quite apparent to me when I strolled past the various Marian exhibits in a museum located on the grounds of Costa Rica’s Basilica de Los Angeles – it was quite a spectacle to behold the forms and figurines of all the Virgins who were the patron deities of various countries, colonies and principalities scattered throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
Describing all these different Marian apparitions and their stories could easily fill a whole book, but there are a few which are of major importance, which I will describe briefly here:
The Virgin of Guadalupe – In December of 1531, a poor indigenous peasant named Juan Diego was up on Tepeyac Hill, not far from modern day Mexico City, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to him. She told Juan Diego to go to his parish priest and tell him that she wanted a church to be built on the very spot of her appearance. She promised Juan Diego that “None who seek me here in true need or affliction shall go away unconsoled.” Juan’s parish priest, Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, was highly skeptical of Juan Diego’s claims, and told him to come back to him and bring a sign. Juan Diego went right back to Tepeyac Hill and the Virgin told him to fill his apron with the flowers that were growing on the hill, even though it was the middle of winter, and then take them to the bishop. Juan did as he was told and hurried back to the bishop, and when he emptied his apron of all the flowers, his bishop saw that an image of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe, miraculously appeared on his apron. A small church was erected on the site of the apparition, and three others nearby at later dates. Construction was started on the largest church in 1695, completed in 1709, and raised to the rank of a basilica in 1904, where the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe remains to this day. In 1946, Pope Pius the XII officially proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe to be Patroness of the Americas. – 5.
It could be said that the miraculous apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego was the catalyst that was the most responsible for the conversion of the indigenous population of the Americas, and of New Spain, to Christianity. Today, her image is enshrined at altars not just throughout Mexico, but throughout California and the American southwest as well. Mexicans today call themselves not just Christians and Catholics, but Guadalupana as well, identifying themselves as children of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Our Lady of Lourdes – In 1858, The Virgin Mary began appearing to a peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in a village named Lourdes in southern France, in the foothills of the Pyrenee Mountains, where a spring of healing water miraculously appeared. In her apparitions, the Virgin Mary called herself the Immaculate Conception. The Virgin Mary appeared some eighteen times to Bernadette, who had considerable trouble convincing her local parish priest of the validity of the apparitions. Finally she succeeded, and Lourdes has become quite a mecca for those seeking spiritual healing from Mother Mary. Mary requested that a chapel be built in the town to which people could come in processions seeking her healing help. In 1862, the local bishop finally proclaimed the legitimacy of the apparitions; in 1871, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated; by 1889, the Basilica of the Rosary was completed, along with several hospitals and a medical bureau to assist in the validation of the many cures which had occurred at the shrine in Lourdes. Lourdes remains an important pilgrimage site to this very day. – 6.
Our Lady of Fatima – From May 13th to October 13th, 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared multiple times to three young children in the Portugese town of Fatima, some 75 miles north of Lisbon. The visions of Mary were preceded by three visitations of an angel, who instructed the children on how to say prayers, including the Rosary, and how to make sacrifices for the reparation of sins. Since the communist revolution was happening in Russia at the time, Mary urged her devotees to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart; she also urged penance and making reparation for sins in general. At the final apparition on October 13th, devotees got to witness the miraculous dance of the sun. Since the initial apparitions in 1917, the apparition site has grown considerably, featuring the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, which includes fifteen altars, one for each mystery of the Rosary. A hospital, a medical bureau and a perpetual adoration chapel are also included in the complex. The bishop of the diocese in which the apparitions occurred formally gave his approval to devotion to Our Lady of Fatima in 1930. – 7.
Our Lady of Medjugorje – Also known as the Queen of Peace and Mother of the Redeemer, Our Lady of Medjugorje has been drawing thousands of devotees since she first began appearing to a group of six Herzegovinian youths in the town in the former Yugoslavia back in the 1980s. Since the initial apparitions and communications, other messages have purportedly been delivered over the years. The Vatican has yet to give full official approval to the apparitions as being authentic, and two former bishops of the local diocese have stated that they believe the apparitions to be a hoax. In recent years, Pope Francis has softened the Vatican’s stance on Medjugorje considerably, saying that the original visions of the youths are worth studying in more depth; he also said that there are people who go there, convert, find God, and their lives change, a spiritual fact that cannot be denied. And so, the ban on officially organized pilgrimages to Medjugorje was lifted by the Vatican in May of 2019. – 8.
The case of Medjugorje brings up an important point: that the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution, does not automatically give its official sanction to Marian apparitions and other purported miracles. All these have to be subjected to a rigorous verification process before official approval is granted. Some have accused this approval process of being biased or politically motivated in various ways, depending on the particulars of the case at hand, and perhaps there is some of that going on, but the Catholic Church feels that it has certain standards to uphold. The lack of full official approval from the Vatican, however, has not stopped pilgrims from flocking to Medjugorje.
The Virgin Mary appears to Mirjana in Medjugorje on July 2nd, 2019. Judge yourself from her countenance whether or not you feel if the apparition she is witnessing is true and authentic.
The Geopolitical Dimension of Marian Apparitions
As we have seen, Mother Mary is full of motherly care and concern for the wellbeing of her children, in body, mind and spirit. And one thing that has had an undeniable impact on the spiritual state of her children down through the ages is the worldly or political conditions they have had to live under and endure. Mary’s son, Jesus, was able to say that he had overcome the world (John 16: 33), but as for the rest of us, we are still struggling with it. The Catholic Church, or any other major Christian denomination you might wish to consider, is an institutional form of religion, and as such, is not only a religious or spiritual entity; it is also a political entity, subject to political movements and dynamics, and part of the political landscape that makes up our world. And so, however individual devotees or believers may react to a Marian apparition and the movement that grows around it, the Church, as a religious institution, also has its own reaction, which is due to a combination of factors, both religious / spiritual as well as political.
If one looks at the various apparitions of the Virgin Mary that I introduced you to above, we find that a common factor that unites them all is that Mary appeared in a time and place of critical need for her children, and in many cases worked as an important catalyst for needed spiritual change and direction. So let’s go back and review each one of the major apparitions of Mary cited above and see what was going on in the world at the time and place in which she appeared in which Mary’s spiritual help and transformational influence were needed:
The Virgin of Guadalupe, who the Catholic Church has designated as Patroness of the Americas, was able to convert the masses of indigenous people of the Spanish colonies in North, South and Central America to the Christian faith in a way that the patriarchal padres and conquistadors couldn’t. In his conquest of Mexico, Hernan Cortez met with a number of other allies to his cause, especially the grizzly practice of human sacrifice by the Aztecs, which engendered a lot of resentment on the part of the neighboring tribes, whose captives were often used as fodder for this practice. But the Virgin of Guadalupe conquered the hearts and minds of the indigenous masses with her motherly love, and helped the indigenous peasants to endure a colonial subjugation that was brutally oppressive in many other ways.
Our Lady of Lourdes, who also called herself the Immaculate Conception, can be seen as part of the spiritual movement within mid nineteenth century Catholicism that finally led to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception being recognized as an official dogma of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX. But even beyond this, the mid nineteenth century was a time of great and cataclysmic change in the world; the industrial revolution was in full swing, and modern science, medicine and technology were making great strides forward. It was also a period of many democratic revolutions and populist uprisings throughout Europe. The humble and illiterate peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous demonstrated that, amidst all this intellectual and technological sophistication, the Lord often favors the humble and pure of heart. When the traumas and stresses of life in the modern world were getting to be overwhelming, Lourdes appeared as a sanctuary of spiritual healing.
When Our Lady of Fatima appeared in 1917, the obvious geopolitical threat was the Russian communist revolution and the rise of world communism, which has been a grave threat to the spiritual liberty and autonomy of man, and human society in general, no matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on. Politically speaking, this was a cause that the Catholic Church in Rome could get solidly behind; Pope John Paul II, who came from the communist country of Poland, was a great devotee of Our Lady of Fatima.
Our Lady of Medjugorje appeared in the early 1980s, not too long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which heralded the fall of communism in many countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Appearing in 1981, it could be said that Our Lady of Medjugorje catalyzed the relaxing of the Spartan restrictions and discipline of Soviet communism through the movements of Perestroika and Glaznost that happened under Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and the mutual downsizing of nuclear stockpiles between the Soviet Union and Reagan’s America. The apparitions at Medjugorje also took place in what would become, in the following decade, a very turbulent and war torn part of the world – Bosnia and Herzegovina, the central nucleus of a turbulent and volatile Eastern Europe and the Balkans as religious and ethnic tensions, which had been frozen under communist rule, erupted once again into the forefront in a region that was the geopolitical tinderbox that started World War I.
There was yet another important series of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, namely the apparitions of Our Lady of Mount Carmel of Garabandal, which happened continuously over a four year period from 1961 to 1965 in the small village of San Sebastian de Garabandal in northern Spain. The four years over which the apparitions happened were an especially tumultuous time in the Cold War, with John F. Kennedy going up against Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev in the Cuban missile crisis. But where the institutional Catholic Church was concerned, the Marian apparitions at Garabandal, which also featured the Archangel Michael, were especially controversial, because the Catholic council of Vatican II, in which the church underwent and extensive modernization process, happened from 1962 to 1965. On June 18th, 1965, Conchita Gonzalez, one of the visionaries, delivered a message from Mother Mary on Spanish television that made a pointed reference to “Many Cardinals, Bishops and priests following the road to perdition…” Hmmm… It seems like Mother Mary was not on the side of the Vatican II reformers. And so, in spite of the sheer extent and intensity of the apparitions, and all the supernatural trance phenomena associated with them, and in spite of all the scientific and psychological study and observation of the visionaries, the institutional Church never quite officially accepted the apparitions at Garabandal, probably because the content of the revelations went against the grain of what was happening politically in the Church at the time. – 9.
The Eastern Orthodox Perspective on Marian Apparitions
The whole phenomenon of Marian apparitions seems to be uniquely, or at least mostly, a preoccupation of the Western Roman Catholic Church. Although the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos, or God Bearer, holds an equally important and honored place within the Eastern Orthodox Church as She does in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy takes a more skeptical position on Marian apparitions, for several reasons. Although even an Eastern Orthodox mystic or believer can be blessed with a vision of the Virgin Mary, Marian apparitions aren’t as important or sensationalized as they are in Catholicism, and don’t develop the same cult-like following that they have garnered in the Roman Church. The Western Church’s entire approach to Mary, and to her apparitions, is more fervent and activist in nature than that of the Eastern Church, whose spirituality is more reflective and quietist. And come to think of it, these basic spiritual differences between the Christian East and the Christian West are reflected in their entire civilizations and cultures as well.
While not denying their existence, the Eastern Church takes a more detached and skeptical view, not just of Marian apparitions, but of visions and apparitions in general. Metaphysically, they draw a clearer distinction between God or the Holy Trinity as part of the uncreated dimension of reality versus the created part of God’s universe, which includes not only Mary as the Queen of Heaven and Queen of the Angels and the saints as well, but all the rest of creation. Visions and apparitions, even ecstatic or heavenly ones, can be distractions to the quest for Theosis, or union with God, which is the goal of every Orthodox believer; they can also be psychic phenomena, or even demonic delusions. And so much of the Marian apparitions that have dominated Catholic spirituality seem to have the illusory or unstable nature of psychic phenomena, or the over the top excesses of sentimentality and emotionalism. While the Catholic Church studies Marian apparitions and other miracles in a scientific spirit, the Eastern Orthodox approach is more apophatic, taking refuge in the truth that ultimately, only God is real.
Theologically as well, a lot of the messages relayed by the visionaries who receive revelations, purportedly from the Virgin Mary, have serious flaws from an Orthodox perspective. First of all, the apocalyptic urgency and dire warnings contained in these messages spring from Western theological constructs that are basically foreign to Eastern Orthodoxy. Many messages portray Mary as intervening in order to protect her followers from the wrathful judgment and punishment that would be inflicted by her Son – and Jesus Christ, in reconciling humanity back to God, does not inflict punishment on anyone in Orthodox theology. Marian apparitions like those at Lourdes have emphasized the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a doctrine that is not accepted by the Orthodox Church. In converting barbarian tribes to Christianity, and in Christianizing the various indigenous peoples it conquered, the Catholic Church was also more open to using religious syncretism to assimilate foreign deities and beliefs into the church, including local indigenous goddesses as well; these forces could well have played a big role in the great number of Marian apparitions that have characterized Western church history.
If you would like to read a through and scholarly study of the subject of Marian apparitions from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, I would recommend that you read the following article, which is also an excellent introduction to the whole subject in general:
Mother Mary Outside the Church
Does the Church have a total monopoly on the Virgin Mary and devotion to her? In other words, is there any valid veneration of, or devotion to, the Virgin Mary that is not sanctioned by the institutional church, whether that be Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox – or Lutheran or Anglican, if you prefer? To many conservative Christians of these denominations, there isn’t. To them, the only valid approach to Marian devotion is within the context of her relationship to Jesus Christ, the Redeemer she brought into this world. Yet, if you surf the internet and google up the Virgin Mary, you will find many sites, many videos and many web pages that approach the Virgin Mary from outside the framework of conventional Christianity. Go to a “New Age” site dealing with Mother Mary, and you will find her reverently discussed in terms of chakras and healing rays. Mother Mary has even permeated popular music and culture, with the best known example being the Beatles’ “Let It Be”. In short, everyone loves Mother Mary – and what is there not to love? She is the very embodiment of healing love, mercy and inner peace.
In short, the Virgin Mary is the Christian embodiment of the archetype of the Divine Mother. An archetype can be defined as a seed form, symbol or idea that conveys or stands for a powerful underlying spiritual force or reality. In other words, Mother Mary is a channel or gateway that allows the tremendous spiritual power of motherly mercy, nurturing and grace to flow into this world, and into the hearts of her devotees. And this spiritual archetype that the Virgin Mary embodies does not need the theological context or sanction of Christianity to be able to work its magic. As I said at the beginning of this article, the Virgin Mary was Christianity’s replacement for the great Egyptian Mother Goddess Isis, who was worshiped and venerated all around the Mediterranean when Christianity was getting its start in the first century AD. And other religions, such as Hinduism, which has a highly developed tradition of goddess worship, have their goddess figures who channel motherly healing love as well. The great Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, who tragically lost his beloved mother very early on in life, was a lifelong devotee of the Divine Mother, who he described as “the Mother behind all mothers”.
While doing my research for this article, I was amazed to find how multifaceted and profound the whole subject of the Virgin Mary was, both within the context of the Christian spiritual tradition as well as outside it. Verily, verily, I have only skimmed the surface of what is undoubtedly a vast and deep ocean of divine motherly love. For those who find it hard to relate to Christianity through the person of Jesus Christ for one reason or another, Mother Mary may well provide an alternative gateway into the mysteries of the Christian faith. Indeed, she may be more accessible to many than even the Savior himself. And Mother Mary does indeed seem to be very active and involved in the spiritual lives of her children and devotees, even more so in many ways than Jesus Christ himself. Whereas the masculine face of divinity can seem to be too aloof and transcendent at times, the feminine face of divinity, as reflected in Mother Mary, is imminent and always standing close by, ready to offer her spiritual help and succor.
- The Essential Mary Handbook: A Summary of Beliefs, Devotions and Prayers by Judith A. Bauer, pp. 252 – 253. @1999 by Judith A. Bauer. Published by Liguori Publications, Liguori Missouri, USA
- Ibid, pg. 244.
- Ibid, pp. 249 – 250.