Who was Mary?

When our daughter Jennifer was born in a mission hospital in Kampala, Uganda, my husband, our two-year-old son, and I were delighted. Congratulations poured in from different parts of the world. A letter from my in-laws contained an unforgettable sentence, “If it’s a girl, her middle name will be Maria.”

Maria?” I said, incredulously. “Why Maria?”

My husband reminded me that while he is a Seventh-day Adventist, his family is Catholic, and all Sequeira girls are named in honor of Mary.

“But…” I started. Protestant feelings against venerating Mary surged through my body, “How can we name our daughter after the Virgin Mary?”

Since it is a family tradition, I gave in. My daughter was dedicated “Jennifer Maria.”

A simple issue of name, but it stirred up some deep feelings, underscoring the dilemma many Seventh-day Adventists—nurtured in the Protestant lineage—might face.

The Protestant dilemma

James Hitchcock, history professor at St. Louis University, understands the Protestant dilemma: “Given their assumptions, these Protestant misgivings are also quite understandable, since an appreciation of Mary’s place in the economy of salvation required centuries of inspired theological meditation on the relatively few biblical texts which mention her. Looked at merely through common sense, there is validity in the Protestant argument that, if God intended Mary to have a crucial role in the lives of Christians, she ought to have been featured more prominently in the New Testament.”1

What do we really know about this special Jewish maiden?

What the Bible says

The Bible refers to Mary over 20 times.2 Matthew honors her name in the genealogy of Jesus. The gospel speaks of her engagement to Joseph, and her conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. Joseph wants to break the engagement quietly, but informed by an angel in a dream, he believes the story of her pregnancy, and assumes the responsibility of caring for her and her son. The Wise Men from the East visit the family and leave precious gifts for the child.

Mark mentions that Mary and Jesus’ brothers and sisters are present when He preaches on Sabbath in a synagogue. Luke identifies Mary as a cousin of Elizabeth, whose husband Zacharias was a priest.

Luke provides a detailed narrative of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel who tells her that she has “‘found favor with God.’”* She is to bear a child whose name shall be called Jesus, son of the Most High. Mary questions, “‘How will this be,…since I am a virgin?’” After the angel explains to her that she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring to this world its Saviour, she responds: “‘I am the Lord’s servant,…may it be to me as you have said.’” Obedience and surrender follow faith.

During Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth’s unborn child leaps for joy in her bosom, recognizing the Holy Child’s presence. Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit” cries out: “‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’” She later calls Mary “’mother of my Lord.’”

“More humble than ever before, Mary set forth to magnify the Lord in those stirring lines (Luke 1:46-66) which have come down to us as the immortal Magnificat. It is Mary’s hymn of praise to God for His wonderful works. This jubilant song pours from her heart and in its richness and sweep sets forth the wide range of her spiritual experience. In it we can see that Mary knew the age-old Psalms of her people and also the Song of Hannah.”3

Joseph and Mary proceed to Bethlehem. There was no room in the inn for them. In a musty animal shelter, they turn in, and Mary gives birth to this child of promise. Shepherds come with homage after angels tell them of the Saviour’s coming. Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

After the traditional eight days, Jesus is circumcised. Then, after 40 days, Mary prepares for purification rites. As Jesus is dedicated in Jerusalem’s temple, pious Simeon, led by the Holy Spirit, reaches out to bless the child. Simeon praises God for sending light to the Gentiles and salvation for the Jews. His prophecy that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul resounds many years later at the foot of the cross.

But Herod is already after the child. The family flees to Egypt. They return to Nazareth after Herod’s death. Aged 12, Jesus accompanies Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem for Passover. Homeward bound, His earthly parents are terrified to discover that Jesus is missing. They return to Jerusalem and find the child conversing with the temple teachers. He tells his parents He must be about His Father’s business. Again, the Scripture records that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.”

John describes the wedding at Cana in Galilee. When Mary tells Jesus that the supply of wine had run out, He reminds her, “‘My time has not yet come.’” With implicit faith, she tells the servants, “’Do whatever he tells you.’” Soon they witness His first miracle.

Jesus remembers His earthly mother’s needs. Dying on the cross, He leaves her in the tender care of John, His beloved disciple. Mary hears the joyful news of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene and joins the men and women in the Upper Room after the Ascension.

Sacred art and Mary

According to Roger Calkins, “The cult of the Virgin, which had its origins in the twelfth century, flowered in the thirteenth, and brought with it new attitudes about the role of the Virgin as the human Mother of God as well as the intercessor for Man’s salvation.”4

Along with the evolving cult, artworks depicting Mary also flowered. Many symbols were attached to her portrait: the lily denoting virginity; violets depicting humility; the enclosed garden her purity; a doorway symbolizing chastity, to be opened by the Holy Spirit; an open container and well-spring denoting her virginal state and the fact that God will fill Mary’s empty womb with water from the well-spring of life.

Some artworks show Mary’s hands cradling her Babe, pointing to Him, or showing an attitude of benediction. Michelangelo’s famous marble, The Pieta (1498-99), in St. Peter’s Basilica, shows Mary in a superior position as the vertical line with the limp body of her Son across her lap adding a horizontal crossbar to the sculpture. Death of the Virgin, a mosaic from Palermo, Italy, illustrates the thinking of the day. A miniature Mary wrapped in swaddling clothes represents her spirit being taken heavenward by Christ and the angels.

More venerations in art and literature may be noted. A Hymn to Mary—Old English poem—calls her “The Queen of Paradise,”5 coming from David’s royal line, implying she is of noble birth! Not only is Mary seen as Queen of Heaven, but the Mosaic in the Apse of Saint Maria in Trastevere, Italy, shows Christ and Mary sharing the throne. An ivory carving in the Louvre, Paris, reveals how this occurred—Christ Himself crowned her!

A carving of the Ivory Virgin and Child includes an apple, reminiscent of Eden. Christ is the second Adam, so Mary, through her special relationship, is seen as the second Eve.

The Book of Hours in The Hague, Holland, contains an illustration, Donors Kneeling Before the Virgin and Child,6 in which Mary is shown mediating between humanity and Christ.

So, through the ages in European tradition, Mary emerges as co-redeemer, seated in heaven with Christ her Son.

Catholics and Mary

For Protestants to understand the elevation of Mary in Catholic theology, we must first consider the Roman Catholic view of the Virgin.

First, the perpetual virginity. Catholic theology teaches that Mary was a virgin before the birth of her Son, and that she remained so throughout her life.

Second, the immaculate conception. Christopher Kaczor says: “The Immaculate Conception refers…to Mary’s exemption from original sin from the first moment of her conception.”

Third, the bodily assumption. Mary’s total person (body and soul) went to heaven (was assumed into heaven), unlike Christ who ascended, and unlike the saints whose souls ascended but whose bodies did not.7 This teaching for Catholics is a dogma (i.e., belief which cannot be changed). Mark Brumley explains: “The dogma of the Assumption means that the Virgin Mary now experiences in heaven that union of glorified body and soul which her son enjoys. She is no disembodied spirit, but a complete human person, body and soul, matter and spirit, reigning with Christ.”8

Fourth, Mary the co-mediator. Eamon R. Carroll says: The “holy Church honors with special love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son.”And further, “the entire body of the faithful pours forth urgent supplications to the Mother of God and of men that she, who aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers, may now, exalted as she is, above all the angels and saints, intercede before her Son in the fellowship of all the saints.”9

Fifth, the appearances of Mary. In the last half of this century, the Roman Catholic Church has claimed at least 69

appearances of Mary.10 See sidebar.

Recent Marian Apparitions

The Roman Catholic Church has reported an increasing number of Marian apparitions and messages, which include the following:

  • Our Lady of the Rosary, Prouille, France, 1208. Thereafter, the rosary was preached and introduced as a remedy for heresy and sin. This apparition led to the founding of the Dominican order.
  • The Black Madonna, Czestochwa, Poland, 1382. Painting attributed to St. Luke was displayed. In 1430, at the appearance of the Madonna, a looter died. The Black Madonna became the symbol of Polish unity.
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe, Guadalupe, Mexico, 1531. Juan Diego, an Aztec Indian, claimed he saw Mary four times. His uncle was revived from death, and he received a message to build a church. Mary’s image is preserved on a poncho. An estimated six million Aztecs were converted.
  • Our Lady of Lavang, Lavang, Vietnam, 1798. During a severe persecution of Catholics, Mary seemed to have appeared and offered assurance that all prayers would be answered. A church was built in 1886, was enlarged in 1928, and was destroyed during the Vietnam war.
  • Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Paris, France, 1830. Amidst troubles facing the throne and in the midst of world misery, cures and conversions were identified and attributed to a medal commemorating the appearance of Mary.
  • Our Lady of Lourdes, Lourdes, France, 1858. Bernadette, 14, saw 18 visions of Mary. In one vision, she was told to dig a hole and bathe. A healing spring appeared, and Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site.
  • Our Lady of Fatima, Fatima, Portugal, 1917. Three children saw many visions over six months. They were scared by a vision of hell. The visions mentioned the end of World War I and predicted World War II. Visions also spoke of the world being punished for offending God.
  • Our Lady of Medjugorje, Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, 1981. Mary gave six young people ten secrets. Her message was simple: Convert, pray, fast, return to God, and expect suffering ahead as humanity nears self-induced catastrophe.

Why are these supernatural things happening? According to a Catholic commentator, “the dream [of St. John Bosco] appears to point to two of the pillars of Catholicism as being essential during this time of great distress: the fact that Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist is the salvation of all who believe in Him, and that the Immaculate Virgin, Jesus [sic] mother, will always help all those who seek her Son. It is precisely these two elements of the Catholic faith that are strengthened, reinforced and brought to public attention by the recent reports of Marian apparitions and Eucharistic miracles!”11

Seventh-day Adventists and Mary

Seventh-day Adventists, along with our Catholic friends, believe Mary was chosen by God to play a unique role as mother of the Saviour. However, on the basis of the Scriptures, we reject the veneration of Mary’s person, including the belief that she is in heaven and acts as a mediator between the sinner and the Saviour. The Bible teaches that we can approach Jesus directly through prayer and that He is our only mediator.12 We believe that Mary, just like all other redeemed believers, awaits the resurrection.

Adventists also reject the concept of the immaculate conception. Paul’s assertion that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12) applies to Mary as well. Ellen G. White comments: “The only hope of redemption for our fallen race is in Christ; Mary could find salvation only through the Lamb of God. In herself she possessed no merit. Her connection with Jesus placed her in no different spiritual relation to Him from that of any other human soul. This is indicated in the Saviour’s words. He makes clear the distinction between His relation to her as the Son of man and as the Son of God. The tie of kinship between them in no way placed her on an equality with Him.”13

How then should Seventh-day Adventists relate to Mary? Since we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, we repudiate devotion to the saints. Catholic tradition has elevated Mary to a position in which she is venerated as almost equal with Christ. On the other hand, we could learn to give Mary the attention she deserves as the one especially chosen to bear and nurture the Son of God—the Savior of the world.

Perhaps we should heed Luci Shaw, a poet and publishing executive, who writes, “It could be different if we avoid both extremes, and look at Mary clearly enough to see the woman shown us in the Bible. Not only was she a simple mortal, unpretentious enough for us all to identify with, but she nudges our self-centered ‘me generation’ toward the path of the God-centered, the faithful, the obedient.”14

Jean Sequeira is a member of the editorial staff of the Adventist Review. Her address: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A. E-mail: 74532.2477@compuserve.com

* All Bible quotations are from the New International Version.

Notes and references

  1. James Hitchcock, “Mary,” Catholic Dossier (May/June, 1996).
  2. Matthew 1:16, 18, 20; 2:11,13; 13:55; Mark 6:3; Luke 1:27, 30, 34, 38, 39, 41, 46, 56; 2:5, 16, 19, 34; John 2:1, 3, 5; Acts 1:14.
  3. Edith Deen, All the Women of the Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1955), p. 160.
  4. Robert G. Calkins, Monuments of Medieval Art (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979), p. 137.
  5. Burton Raffel, Poems From the Old English (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964).
  6. Calkins, p. 219.
  7. Munificentissimus Deus (Pope Pius XII bull, 1950).
  8. Mark Brumley, “Mary’s Assumption: Irrelevant and Irreverent?” Catholic Dossier (May/June 1996).
  9. Eamon R. Carroll and O. Carm, “Light on Our Blessed Lady,” Catholic Dossier, Ibid.
  10. Available at: http://www/members.aol.com/bjw1106/marian12.html
  11. Available at: http://wwwmembers.aol.com/bjw1106/marian1b.html
  12. See Matthew 7:7-11; John 14:13, 14; 15:16; 16:23; 24; Hebrews 4:14-16; 7:24, 25; 9:15; 12:24; 1 John 2:1.
  13. The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1898), p. 147. In this moving literary portrait of Jesus, Ellen White makes several references to Mary: Her poverty (pp. 44, 50, 52); her faith in Christ’s birth (98); her role as Jesus’ first human teacher (70); her misunderstanding of Christ’s mission (56, 82, 90, 147); her sharing in His suffering (56, 90, 145, 744); her perplexities at home (86, 89, 90, 321); her hopes at the wedding of relatives in Cana (145); her spiritual relation to Christ (147); and Christ’s tender provision for Mary at the crucifixion (752).
  14. Luci Shaw, “Yes to Shame and Glory,” Christianity Today, (December 12, 1986), p. 22.