Mary in Doctrine and Devotion

The Life of Mary in the Gospels

First 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.

Introduction—The Obscurity of Our Blessed Lady in the Gospels

I am met at once, upon the very threshold of the subject, by an objection which is often urged—that the life of Mary is not recorded in the Gospels at all, or at least, that the notices of it are so few and simple, that it would not be possible to form from them a complete portrait of Her. In fact, this is the very stronghold of the Protestant argument against devotion to our Blessed Lady. They say that nothing is more certain or remarkable in the Gospel narrative than the profound silence and obscurity in which Her history is involved. It is true indeed (they acknowledge) that She appears for a while in the beginning of the Gospel, from the very necessity of the case, because Jesus was a Child and Mary was His Mother; that this accounts for Her being the principal figure, or one of the principal figures, in the Mysteries of the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Purification, and some others; but that, after this, as soon as our Blessed Lord appears and acts for Himself, beginning "to do and teach," then our Blessed Lady immediately disappears into an obscurity from which She scarcely again emerges; that henceforth the Apostles, disciples, and even ordinary men and women to whom Our Lord spoke, or for whom He did anything, occupy a more prominent position in the Gospels than Mary does. Nay, more than this, Protestants claim, it is not mere obscurity, not perfect silence in which our Blessed Lady is buried in the pages of the Evangelists; that Her name does appear two or three times on the surface, but only to be slighted, and as it were, driven back again by some seeming rebuke. She is not merely passed by; She seems to be almost rudely thrust aside.

Let us consider this objection in its twofold form before we proceed to examine Our Lady’s life in detail.

Marriage of CanaIt is said, then, that whereas other children of Adam are noticed by our Divine Redeemer in a way which has secured for them an everlasting renown, one alone stands buried in the darkest and almost impenetrable shade, and that one is Mary, His Mother. Of St. John the Baptist, Jesus says that he is something more than a prophet, and that there has not arisen a greater among those that are born of women; of Simon, the son of Jonas, He says that he is Peter, and upon this rock He will build His Church; of the Chananaean woman, that her faith is great; of the centurion, that He has not found such faith, not even in Israel; of Mary Magdalen, that she has chosen the better part, and that wherever the Gospel was preached (that is to say, throughout the whole world), what she had done for Him should be told as a memorial of her. These all receive testimony of praise from the lips of our Divine Redeemer; but of the Virgin Mary, His own Mother, Her whom all generations were to call blessed, He neither praises the faith nor the devotion; He neither proclaims Her dignity nor promises Her everlasting reward; He is wholly silent concerning Her. No, not wholly silent: She speaks to Him once on a very public occasion, and He answers, "Woman, what is that to Me and to Thee?" She desires to speak with Him again on another occasion, and He uses words which seem almost to disown the relationship between them, "Who is My Mother? and who are My brethren?" And yet once more, when a woman lifted up her voice from among the multitude to proclaim Her praises, saying, "Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts that nursed Thee," Jesus noticed it only to turn aside the praise from His Mother, and to extend the privilege by making it common to all the disciples, saying, "Yea, even more blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it."

And the same thing may be observed if we study the actions recorded of our Blessed Lord as well as His words. When He sat weary and thirsty by the well-side, He forgot His own needs that He might convert and instruct the woman of Samaria; when the woman taken in adultery was brought to Him, He became her public advocate and defender; when He saw the grief of the widow of Naim, He had compassion on her, and raised her son to life; when He was Himself sinking under the weight of His Cross, He stops to address a few last words to the women who were following Him with tears. For all His creatures He has a look, a word, or deed of kindness; for publicans and sinners, for strangers and harlots, for the multitude crying aloud for His death, for His executioners, and for the very stones of the holy city of Jerusalem; all these have their share in His tender thoughts of mercy and compassion. Mary alone has none, or seems to have none. Neither word nor deed of love, or but one or two only, is recorded of the Son towards His most Blessed Mother when once His public life has begun. She is not one of the chosen witnesses of His glory on Mount Thabor, nor receives the highest pledge of His love at the Last Supper; and, when She reappears to bear Her share in the sufferings and disgrace of Her Son on Mount Calvary, He addresses Her not as Mother, but as Woman, and speaks to Her only to give Her to another. Further yet: pass on to the Resurrection of Jesus, and all the joys and triumphs which followed it. Who, one might have thought, had a greater claim to share in these than His own Mother? Who had cared for Him more lovingly? Who had stood by Him more perseveringly, even under the terrible shadow of the Cross? Who had drunk more deeply of His chalice of suffering and humiliation? And who then had a prior claim to Hers, to be made a partaker in the joy and glory of His Resurrection? And yet you will seek in vain for any mention of Mary among all the several appearances of Our Lord which are recorded with such minuteness. Blessed was Mary Magdalen, first privileged to see Him; blessed Mary, the mother of James, and her companions, who saw Him next; blessed the disciples going to Emmaus, to whom He made Himself known in the breaking of bread; blessed the Apostles, assembled together in that upper room, when suddenly He appeared in the midst of them; blessed Thomas, who was called to put his finger and his hand into those most Sacred Wounds; blessed those who were privileged to receive His last words upon earth and to look on Him as He was raised up to Heaven. But which of these blessings is for Mary, the Mother of Jesus? Not one. She on whom the Church calls so triumphantly in Her Easter hymn, bidding Her "rejoice because He Whom She has borne has risen as He said"—She alone, I say, remains, as far as the Scripture narrative tells us—and, of course, in giving you the life of our Blessed Lady as recorded in the Gospel, I am not going to add one iota to the inspired record—She alone remains without a blessing. We see Her on Mount Calvary, when Jesus was hanging bleeding on the Cross; we see Her again on the day of Pentecost, when Jesus was gone back into Heaven; we see Her nowhere in the interval.

I have now set before you, as plainly as I can, what I believe to be a fair and moderate account of the impression as to our Blessed Lady which many persons receive from a study of the Holy Gospels; and I think it ought not, therefore, surprise us that Protestants should sometimes object against our devotion to Her, that it seems to them altogether inconsistent with this impression.

Of course I do not mean to say that this impression is true; God forbid. It is one special object of these Lectures to correct its errors and supply its deficiencies, so as in the end to substitute for it the truth. I only mean that since we cannot deny the main facts from which that impression has been derived, it is for us to show that the Protestant interpretation of those facts is false, and the conclusion which is sometimes drawn from them unwarranted. That conclusion may be briefly stated thus: The Church exalts the Blessed Virgin high above every other of God’s creatures; the Bible buries Her in obscurity; therefore, the Church contradicts the Bible. By Catholics, on the other hand, the question would rather be stated in this way: We believe and know that the Blessed Virgin was the Mother of our Redeemer, and that She was the purest, the most perfect and holy of God’s Saints; whence comes it then that so little is said about Her by the Evangelists? Being so near and dear to our Blessed Lord, as She undoubtedly was, both for Her own goodness’ sake, and also from Her relationship to Him, why is it that we do not read of His ever addressing to Her words of kindness and consolation, of praise and exaltation, but often (or at least more than once), and on very public occasions, words of seeming coldness, as though disowning and rebuking Her?

This is the problem which must be solved, and I have stated it fully and fairly, as the first step necessary towards its solution. Next I would make a few general remarks, which may help to clear away preliminary difficulties and predispose unwilling minds for the due reception of the truth.

VisitationFirst then, let me observe, that since no one can doubt that the silence of Holy Scripture about the life of our Blessed Lady is by design, it will hardly be pretended by any man who believes in Christianity at all, but that it is a fact which requires explanation. Mary was the chosen person in whom the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God was to be accomplished, and as such, She had been the subject of many prophecies ever since the world began. By and by, when the fullness of time was come, She is saluted by an Angel as "full of grace;" by one inspired with the Holy Ghost, She is called “blessed among women.” Being asked and having given Her consent, She becomes the Mother of God; She bears Him in Her womb for nine months; She brings Him forth, feeds Him at Her own breast, nurses and cares for Him, is the companion of His flight into Egypt, partakes of all His toil and sufferings, and—O greatest mystery of all—He obeys Her; and yet little or no notice is taken of Her afterwards, so far as the Gospels tell us, by a Son Who was the model of all perfection, and Who was Himself the Author of the commandment, Honor thy father and mother. This obscurity and humiliation is certainly mysterious, i.e., it is a fact which does not carry with it its own explanation, but supposes some hidden meaning, some profound truth, which challenges our investigation and exercises our faith.

Next, I would have you remember that the real greatness and glory of Mary is all wrapped up and contained in that one thing, that She was the Mother of Jesus, Mother of the Word Incarnate; and this was a dignity which, having once been given, could never be retracted. No subsequent silence, or seeming silence, in the sacred narrative, could ever counterbalance this one overwhelming fact, which is a foundation more than sufficient for all the high and glorious things which Holy Church ever says of Her. It was impossible that any greater thing should be said of Her, or greater thing done in Her, than that which is said and had been done; and silence and obscurity are not an unfitting sequel to such a beginning. Other persons might stand in need of words or deeds of Jesus to mark them out as distinguished from the common mass of mankind. But Mary needed no such memorial. She was already separated and raised far above every other daughter of Eve. She had been made the Mother of God, and She remains so forever.

But next, it is to be noted that the silence of the Gospels about our Blessed Lady is, as has been already hinted, only partial. Even of our Blessed Lord Himself, who lived upon this earth for three-and-thirty years, the Gospel only gives some brief records of His Infancy, and then, in fuller detail, the acts of His public ministry during three years. During these three years it is that we lose sight, as it were, of our Blessed Lady; but before that time, God's providence had so ordered the course of events, that all the principal honors that were paid to the Divinity of His Son Incarnate upon earth, were paid whilst He was in His Infancy, still in His Mother’s arms; as for instance, the testimony borne by the angelic host on Christmas night, the adoration of the shepherds and of the wise men, the testimony of the aged Simeon, the holy widow Anna, and the rest. These all came at a time when honor and glory were necessarily reflected from them upon Mary also. And above all, She appears before us raised to the highest degree of dignity by that meaningful sentence of Holy Writ, which tells us nearly all we know of Jesus' life for thirty years—that it was spent in obedience and subjection to Mary and Joseph.

By and by He began His public ministry; and then Her maternal relationship to Him, so active and real during His hidden and private life, seems to be suspended, almost extinguished; yet does it therefore follow that it was really destroyed? Take a somewhat parallel case. During the Passion of Christ, His Divinity was (one might almost say) hidden and kept out of sight. Did it therefore cease to be? Is our faith in it thereby impaired? Just so, though Mary's relationship to Jesus was kept out of sight, sometimes ignored or almost denied, during the period of His public ministry, yet it did not therefore cease to be, nor is our reverence for it at all diminished. The Divinity of Christ was (so to speak) passive—so far as the Gospels teach us—during His private life, which lasted for thirty years, and during this same period the dignity of Mary as His Mother is most conspicuous. Contrariwise, during the three years of Our Lord’s active and public life, the dignity of Mary is obscured, and His own dignity proclaimed. Which of these obscurities is the greater and the more mysterious? And whence comes it that men take scandal at the one and not at the other?

Alas! there are, I know, those who treat both mysteries alike; who both deny any special privileges and dignity in our Blessed Lady, and who would fain degrade our Divine Redeemer Himself to the level of ordinary humanity; and such men have, at least, the merit of consistency. But there are also those who certainly profess to believe that Jesus, the Son of Mary, was also God of God, true God of true God, even during those long months when He lay a helpless Infant on His Mother's knees, and when He fled to Egypt to escape from a jealous tyrant's hate, when He hungered in the wilderness, or thirsted sitting at Jacob’s well, when He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and finally when He hung dying upon the Cross. Why then would any of them rashly deny that there may have been special prerogatives in Mary, the Mother of the same Jesus, only because of certain words addressed to Her, or a certain reserve of the Gospels about Her, which seem to them at first sight hard to be reconciled with them? Does not rather one of these mysteries explain and counterbalance the other? Are they not, as it were, the two sides of the same medal? Do they not seem to be parts of one and the same Divine plan, teaching mankind lessons of humility and submission by the joint examples of Jesus and Mary? At any rate, it is undeniable, that there is a certain resemblance between them; and it may be, therefore, that when we come to study the subject more closely, we shall find that of all the lessons of Christianity, next after the Cross of our Blessed Lord Himself, there is none more full of instruction for ourselves than this obscurity of Mary; of all the imitations or copies of the Life of Jesus, there is none more exact than the Life of Mary.

AssumptionIt is time that we should examine more closely the problem which has been set before us, of our Blessed Lady's seeming obscurity in the Gospel history. And for the present, at least, we will indulge the statement of that problem as put in its strongest form by Protestant controversialists, and we contend that, in spite of its outward appearance seeming to derogate from Our Lady's greatness and holiness, yet in its true inward meaning, it in no way contradicts Catholic doctrine, but, on the contrary, raises our Blessed Lady to the highest possible dignity, and is in itself an additional proof of Her sanctity and greatness.

For consider what was the end and object for which the Son of God came down from Heaven, and became Man upon earth. It was to heal and to save the perishing sons of men. This was the one purpose of His mission; the very thing which gave Him His Name and title, "Jesus, the Savior." "The Son of Man is come to save that which was lost." "They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill. I am not come to call the just, but sinners." "I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost." All these are His own words about Himself. And again, in a parable, He describes Himself as a shepherd leaving behind Him, uncared for (as it were) the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, whilst He goes diligently in quest of the one that is lost, over which, when it is found, He rejoices more than over all the rest of the flock who had never wandered from the fold. And in the parable of the prodigal son, the same truth is set before us in a yet more striking manner. The fatted calf is killed, the first robe, and the ring, and the shoes, are given to the reclaimed spendthrift and sinner, whilst the eldest and always dutiful son is (as it were) forgotten and made no account of, suffered to continue at his labors in the field, whilst all this rejoicing is being celebrated over his repentant brother. I say the dutiful son is, as it were, forgotten, because, of course, in spite of all these blessed and consoling truths with reference to the condition of penitents, it must always remain most certain that innocence is really, and in itself, more pleasing to God, a God of perfect purity and holiness, and more highly favored by Him in other ways, than penitence, however sincere.

Passing this over, however, for the present, thus much is distinctly established by Our Lord's own words, that whatever might be His predilections and laws of action, considered as God, yet considered as God made Man, and looking only to His life here upon earth, sinners would undoubtedly occupy a greater share of attention, and receive more abundant and more gracious tokens of His love, than those just men (if there were such) who needed not penance, or than His own Most Blessed Mother, miraculously preserved from sin, as the Church teaches that She was.

It is in most perfect harmony, then, with this view of Our Lord's mission upon earth, as derived from His own words, that, whereas we find little or no notice taken by Him of our Blessed Lady, He should have bestowed the highest praises and promised an immortality of glory to the penitent woman who had been a sinner; that He should have placed at the head of His Church a Peter who had thrice denied Him; that He should have chosen for one of His first Apostles and Evangelists a Matthew who had been a publican; as the Apostle to the Gentiles, a Paul, one of the first persecutors of the Mystical Body of Christ; as the first to receive the promise of Paradise, a public malefactor undergoing the just punishment of his crimes.

All this, I repeat, is in the strictest harmony with His other words and works: and if anyone should be disposed to complain on Mary's behalf, as the dutiful son in the parable complained for himself, "Behold for so many years do I serve Thee, and I have never transgressed Thy commandments, and yet Thou hast never done any of these things for Me; Thou hast never singled Me out for praise, nor bestowed special privileges upon Me, nor given Me extraordinary tokens of Thy love;" surely Jesus might well answer in the very words of the father in that same parable, "My child, thou art always with me, and all I have is thine." This is Mary's privilege, which shall not be taken away from Her, and there is no need of those outward and extraordinary manifestations of favor which were granted for the encouragement of the penitent. She was always with Jesus, and already in possession of all His choicest gifts and graces. As the sun when it rises in the heavens illumines all things upon earth, however distant or however near, yet at the same time extinguishes those lesser lights, the moon and the stars, which are in the same firmament with itself, even so the bright rays of the sun of justice, penetrating through the mists of ignorance and corruption in which the whole world was enveloped, imparted life and strength to souls long dead in sin or but feebly exerting themselves against it, but blotted out for a while and obscured from human vision another purer and nobler being, which owed all its excellence indeed to this same sun, and was in fact being warmed and illuminated by it at this very time in the highest possible degree, only in a sphere beyond the reach of our limited faculties.

I do not set this before you as the only, nor even necessarily as the best, explanation which can be given of the problem which we are attempting to solve. Other explanations of particular parts of the problem will come before us in the course of these Lectures, some of which may be found abundantly sufficient to cover the whole extent of the difficulty. But I do not wish to anticipate, in this Introductory Discourse, any of the details of the Gospel history. I therefore content myself with insisting upon a general view of the matter which is certainly true, and which ought, I think, to satisfy any unprejudiced mind that objections drawn from the first appearances of Scripture may be by no means insurmountable, and therefore, that there is no real inconsistency between the preeminence assigned to Mary in the Catholic Church and the silence or obscurity in which the Gospels are supposed to leave Her.

It still remains, however, to explain why Her Divine Son should not only not have addressed to Her words of praise and exaltation, but should even have spoken in terms of seeming coldness and rebuke. Let us then now apply ourselves to the solution of this second mystery; and I believe that a reference to the laws of God's dealings with chosen souls will again suffice to unravel the perplexity, and to bring light out of seeming darkness.

Since the accomplishment of the Incarnation, the only road to glory has been by the way of the Cross; if we would reign with Christ hereafter, we must suffer with Him here. Humility is the foundation of all Christian excellence, and without humiliations, a soul will scarcely attain or retain humility. Moreover, humiliations, in order to produce in us humility, must come to us on those very points in which we may seem to be raised above others, and in which we are therefore specially exposed to the danger of pride. Put these simple thoughts together—and there is not one of them which you can call in question—and have you not at once a key to the riddle which now perplexes you?

Coronation BVMMary has been raised from the low estate of a poor unknown maiden to the unapproachable, incommunicable dignity of the Mother of God. If Lucifer and all his host could fall away from their high estate and be precipitated into Hell through a sin of pride, to how much more danger (humanly speaking) was this handmaid of the Lord exposed, who from a lowly daughter of Juda was raised to the dignity of Queen of Angels and of men? Of course, I set aside for the present all consideration of any special privileges conceded to our Blessed Lady, of exemption from sin and even immunity from all temptations to it, because those to whom I address myself do not admit of such a privilege, and certainly the plain text of Holy Writ does not teach it. I am arguing for the benefit of those who look upon the Blessed Virgin as upon any other child of Adam; and I invite them to compare Her outward circumstances, the undeniable facts of Her life, with the conduct of Her Divine Son towards Her, and to say whether such conduct does not admit of an easy explanation in harmony with Catholic teaching about Her, by reference to the known laws of God’s dealing with the souls of men, as revealed by Himself, and exhibited in action towards others. I proceed then to develop my argument as follows:

The danger of pride is always in proportion to the degree of exaltation. In old Pagan times, in the proudest moment of a man's life, when he was receiving all the honors of a public triumph, a slave was employed to stand immediately behind him during the ceremony of the procession, continually whispering into his ear, "Remember that thou art also a man, and wilt one day die." This humiliating memento, unnecessary at other and ordinary times, was considered essential or convenient amid the intoxication of such extreme exaltation. Even so, to speak humanly, only in an infinitely higher degree, was there danger of pride in such singular exaltation as Mary's. God, Who in the case of His most highly-favored servants does not commonly dispense with any of His ordinary moral laws for the government and discipline of mankind, but brings them to the height of perfection which they attain by means of those laws—God, I say, would not even for Mary suspend or reverse His ordinary mode of dealing with men, but would act on His usual rule, apportioning Her a degree of humiliation suitable to Her exaltation. And if this was to be so, then it was essential that the humiliation should come to Her in the line of, and by means of, Her very exaltation itself; it must come to Her through Her Son, and in matters springing out of, and naturally flowing from, Her Divine Maternity; otherwise the humiliations would not really touch Her at all. This is quite obvious to those who will seriously reflect upon it. A great general, proud of his military achievements, is not humbled by any failure in rhetoric, or because another is preferred before him in matters of mechanical skill; any more than a statesman cares to surpass his neighbors in physical strength, or thinks that his opinion should always be law in matters of naval or military science. But let a general or a statesman meet with disappointment and defeat, precisely where he looked for a triumph, let him fail precisely in those matters in which he most prided himself for his superiority, and this will be his humiliation; this will be his trial and lesson in humility.

To Mary, then, the Mother of God, those would be true humiliations, and only those, which should seem to set Her aside and disown Her in that particular relationship; and these are what were awarded to Her. To be called Woman instead of Mother; to have the name and relationship of a mother made common, as it were, to all the disciples, to all who "kept His word and commandments;" to be publicly almost disowned and disavowed, always passed over and seemingly forgotten, these were Her humiliations; they were at once the fruit and the test of Her most perfect virtue. The supreme humiliation of the God-Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ, was not when He was despised and rejected of men, but when He seemed to be forsaken also by His Heavenly Father, and He burst forth into that agonizing cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" So with our dear Lady (in whose life we look naturally for the most perfect copy of Her Son’s life, since that is given to be the model of all Christian lives), Her greatest humiliation was to be deserted, or to seem to be deserted, by Her Son, as He had been by His Father. And, as through all His humiliations, and in spite of them all, He was always God, and received, or was entitled to receive, the adoration of men and Angels as such, just so Blessed Mary, in spite of all apparent slights and humiliations, remained always the Mother of God, and as such is entitled to our veneration and homage.

I conclude, then, that the objection which Protestants make against Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin, so far as it professes to be founded upon the Gospel narrative of Her life, is, when rightly considered, no real objection at all, and the prejudice which rests upon it ought to be abandoned. Mary is passed over in silence by Her Divine Son, whilst others are encouraged or rewarded by praise, because, as Physician of souls, He had more need to deal with sinners than with Her. She is separated from Him, almost disowned and rebuked, because a deep foundation of humility was necessary for the extraordinary height of sanctity that was to be built up in Her soul: and of this humility, these humiliations were the occasions and the safeguard.

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