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.
"The Angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a Virgin... and the Virgin's name was Mary" (Luke 1: 26-27).
If we would study the Evangelical history of our Blessed Lady in chronological order, we must turn to the Gospel of St. Luke. He alone has preserved to us all the precious details we have of the Conception, Birth, and Infancy of Jesus; the Canticles of Mary, Simeon, and Zachary, the salutation of Mary by the Angel and by Elizabeth, and the Angels' hymn on Christmas night, i.e., the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, and the Benedictus, the Ave Maria, and the Gloria in Excelsis. It has been conjectured, not without reason, that St. Luke must have enjoyed in some special manner the love and intimacy of the Blessed Virgin, since it is from Her alone (humanly speaking) that he can have gathered much of this knowledge. Even St. Luke, however, tells us nothing about Mary's birth and earlier years. He first introduces Her to us in the mystery of the Annunciation in these words, "The Angel Gabriel was sent from God, into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a Virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the Virgin's name was Mary."
There are those who would fain understand these words, as though, up to this moment, Mary had been in all respects a mere ordinary woman, differing in nothing from the other daughters of Eve; as though Her high destiny has been fortuitous (as it were) and unpremeditated; as though the Angel had been sent to Her rather than to any of the other Jewish maidens of that day, without any reason at all; as though She had been altogether unprepared and unthought-of, if I may so express myself, until the moment came for the immediate accomplishment in Her of the stupendous mystery of the Incarnation. Of course all Catholics know this to be untrue; but how untrue it is, perhaps we do not all sufficiently consider. Let us, then, distinctly bring before our minds the care (if one may so speak) with which the Blessed Virgin had been created and adorned by God, and made worthy—for so the Church speaks—of the high dignity to be imposed upon Her.
God does not work at random: He does nothing without an end. All things were created for some object or purpose, as men speak, and they are endowed by Him Who created them with the special qualifications necessary for the fulfillment of that object. Everything that we see in nature—the flower, the insect, the bird, and the beast, the earth, the sea, and the skies; and above all, we ourselves, who see and use these things, and reason about them—in a word, all created things, bear on them the impress of design, deep and marvelous, and of which, though their final issue may be beyond our ken, yet enough has been revealed to confound the atheist and to fill the devout soul with joy and admiration; enough to give us the most confident assurance of a sovereign wisdom that contrived all things at the first, and that still sustains them, guiding and shaping all the several ends of each particular thing towards the accomplishment of some one grand universal end of all things. This wisdom, when viewed with reference to the brute creation or things inanimate, we call nature. There is another and higher exhibition of the same wisdom, which manifests itself in the government of the world and in the disposition of human affairs, and this we call providence: higher than nature, because it has man for its object, whom God has placed at the head of nature to rule over it, and in some respects different from it, because of the introduction of a new and independent and often contrary element, viz. liberty or free-will.
But higher still, there is another and a yet more special exercise of this wisdom in that which concerns the attainment of the final end of all things—not the natural, but the supernatural destinies of mankind and of the world, the union of creation with its Creator: and this exercise of the sovereign wisdom of God, working not by nature, but by grace—not for this world, but for the next—is what we call predestination. Be not alarmed at the word; do not think that we are going to attempt with rash presumption to dive into the eternal counsels of God, or fathom some hidden mystery that is beyond us, not even that we are going to speak of high and difficult things, too hard for the simplest among you to comprehend. Not at all; we speak of predestination only in the sense in which I have just explained it, viz., as providence applied to its last end; that same providence which, in the order of things purely natural, clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the fowls of the air; which, in the moral order (as we call it), overrules all the actions of men to work out His own designs, yet without interfering with man’s liberty; and which also, in the highest or religious order, of which we are now speaking, brings about by means of His grace that final end for which all things else were made, to wit, the sanctification of His Name and the attainment of our salvation.
The great and special instrument of this work, the means which, above all others, brings about this end is, as you know, the Incarnation. And of this, St. Paul says, "The Gospel of God which He had promised before by His prophets in the Holy Scriptures concerning His Son, Who was made to Him of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was predestinated the Son of God in power" etc. (Rom. 1: 1-4) This speaking of the Son of God as predestinated can only have reference to His human nature, to the mystery of His Incarnation; for as God, He existed from all eternity; He was co-equal with the Father; He predestinates, not is predestinated. What is here spoken of, therefore, is that eternal decree whereby it was ordained that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity should be united to human nature in the Person of Jesus Christ; and this Jesus, being both God and Man, was predestinated to be the Head of all the elect. Now this predestination of Jesus Christ contains within itself, necessarily involves and supposes as a part of itself, the predestination of Mary also, because it was only in and through Her that He was to receive His Sacred Humanity. It is impossible to conceive of the one without at the same time thinking of the other also. Jesus Christ could only be the subject of a decree of predestination, inasmuch as He was the Son of Man, and He was the Son of Man, only inasmuch as He was the Son of Mary. Mary, then, must needs have been included, virtually at least, if not expressly, in that decree which predestined Jesus to be the first-born of the elect.
Hence it is that the Church does not hesitate to apply to our Blessed Lady those well-known passages of Holy Scripture which speak of the origin and dignity of "Wisdom"—passages which seem primarily to be spoken of the uncreated Wisdom, the Word of God, but which also have a manifest reference to His Incarnation; and parts of which, in their literal sense, can hardly apply to any other than Her in whom the Incarnation was accomplished; as for instance, "I came out of the mouth of the Most High, the first-born before all creatures... The Creator of all things commanded and said to Me, and He that made Me rested in My tabernacle... From the beginning and before the world was I created." "The Lord possessed Me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made." (Ecclus. 24: 5, 12, 14; Prov. 8: 22) Of course I men-tion these texts in this place, not with any intention of insisting upon the justice of the interpretation which applies them to Mary, but only by way of apology or explanation, showing how they have come to be so applied; viz. that as "Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but manifested only in the last times" (1 Peter 1: 20), so Mary too, of whom He was to be born, must needs have been foreknown also, though manifested only when the "fullness of time was come." Indeed, St. Paul says of us all that we were "chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1: 4); but in how much more eminent a sense must not this be true of Her from whom Christ Himself was to receive that flesh and blood which was to redeem mankind?
We must not argue, however, merely on a priori grounds and proofs deduced from reason and the necessity of the case. I am to confine myself in these Lecture to what is told us in the Bible. So let us open the sacred volume and see what tokens of this decree of the predestination of Mary are to be found there during the ages that intervened between the Creation and the Incarnation. It is acknowledged that there is an unbroken chain of types, and figures, and prophecies concerning the birth and mission of Jesus, even from the very commencement of the world; is there any token that Mary also was present to the Divine mind from the beginning?
It is not necessary that we should rehearse the history of man's creation, trial, and fall. It is only the announcement of the remedy with which we are concerned. In the midst of His anger, God remembered mercy; and He makes this consoling promise: He says to the devil, who had deceived man and tempted him to his ruin, "I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed; she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel" (Gen. 3: 15). These are the words in which the promise stands in our own translation of the Bible... Other ancient and Eastern translations (we are told) unite the woman and her seed in the promise of victory, saying, "They shall crush thy head." It matters not for our present purpose which of these translations ought to be accepted as the more critically correct; for in each of them (and in the Protestant translation as well) the woman stands forward as a prominent feature in the picture. In this first announcement of a promised Redeemer, His Mother is distinctly contemplated and named, and the Redeemer Himself is mentioned only in relation to Her; He is the "woman’s seed;" a very peculiar expression, indicating one who should be born in some wonderful manner, and not according to the ordinary laws of generation; in a word, it points unmistakably to the Blessed Virgin Mother, Mary, and Her Child, Jesus. Thus the two adversaries, whose strife was to last so long as the sun and moon should endure, and whose combats make up the history of the world, are named in the first pages of the Bible; and they are, on one side, the devil, on the other, the woman; and again, the seed of the devil and the seed of the woman.
And as it was in the beginning, so it continued ever afterwards. In all that the prophets announced, in all that the patriarchs and the principal figures of the old law foreshadowed about the coming Messias, "the woman" had Her place; they could not be separated, the woman and her seed, the Mother and Her Son. At one time it is Isaias who prophecies, "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son" (7: 14), or again, "There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root" (11: 1); where the prophet's words immediately call to our minds that rod of Aaron, laid up in the tabernacle of the testimony, which in a miraculous manner, and not in obedience to the ordinary laws of cultivation, budded and bloomed forth blossoms or flowers, and bore fruit (Num. 17: 8), thereby presenting us with a lively image of the miraculous birth of Jesus from the virginal womb of Mary. She is the rod of Aaron, the rod out of the root of Jesse (the family of David), and Jesus is its flower; a flower springing up as the flowers of the field do, without the care and cultivation of man. At another time, it is the prophet Micheas (who seems to stand in much the same relation to Isaias as the Evangelist St. Mark does to St. Matthew, each being apparently the abbreviator of the writer who preceded him), foretelling the future greatness of the little town of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Our Lord; and here again (v. 2) special mention is made of Her that should bear Him. The prophet first speaks of His Divine generation as the Son of God, saying that, "His going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity;" and then he mentions also His human generation, His birth, of the Blessed Virgin, in time, "the time wherein she that travaileth shall bring forth."
Elsewhere, we find Jeremias (31: 22) declaring that "the Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth, a woman shall compass a man." In the beginning woman was made out of man; now man, the Man, the Man-God, the beginning of the new creation, shall in the fullness of time be "made of a woman" (Gal. 4: 4) and that not in the ordinary way of generation, but by a new creative act. To create differs from to make; it implies not only a work, an operation, but also the introduction of a new principle; and hence it has been observed that the word is used only on three specific occasions in the Book of Genesis: first, when God created the original matter out of which the world was made; next, when He added feeling to His creatures, as in the creation of animals; and lastly, when He added intelligence, and created man. And now the Blessed Virgin is a new creation. "The Lord hath created a new thing;" new for two reasons: first, that it was to be the work of God alone, without the cooperation of any creature; and secondly, the woman was to conceive and bring forth a man—not a child, but a man. "Had the prophet said (says St. Bernard, Hom. 2, de Laud. Virg. Mariae), a woman shall compass an infant, a child, it would not have seemed to be a new and marvelous thing. But now that he has said, a woman shall compass a man, we ask what novelty, what miracle is this? We ask with Nicodemus, 'How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born again?' But we turn to the virginal conception and birth of Christ, and there, amid the many new and marvelous things which it contains, we shall find this also. For Jesus was already a man, even when carried in the womb or fed at the breast; a man in wisdom, not in age; in strength of mind, not of body; in maturity of understanding, not in size of limb."
You see, then, as this same St. Bernard says in another place (Serm. Infra Oct. Assump. 8), how "Mary was promised from Heaven over and over again to the Fathers; foretold by prophetic oracles, and prefigured by symbolic miracle. For She was that priestly rod which bore a flower, though it had no root; She was that fleece of Gideon, which alone was moist with dew when it was dry upon all the earth beside; She was that gate in the vision of Ezechiel, which looked toward the East, which should be shut and not be opened, and no man should pass through it, because the Lord, the God of Israel, had entered in by it." And so he goes on, here and elsewhere, to enumerate different types and figures of Holy Writ, which, following the tradition of the Fathers, he interprets of Mary.
Still more distinct prophecies of Mary were those famous women who, from time to time, were raised up in so remarkable a manner, and filled so conspicuous a place in the history of the chosen people—Anna, Debora, Esther, Judith, and others, who in different ways and degrees were really types, foreshadowing Her that was to come. The exceptional child-bearing of some, the extraordinary virtues and heroic exploits of others, their beauty and strength, or wisdom and simplicity, their faith and purity, their courage and sanctity, are all united and find their perfect realization only in "Mary, of whom was born Jesus;" just as the most famous patriarchs and prophets, judges and warriors, priests or other heroes of the Old Testament, are typical in various ways, of Christ the King and Priest and Prophet of the whole world and of all time. But while Protestants willingly acknowledge the prophetic character of all in the Old Testament that can be referred to Jesus, and do not require a distinct warranty of Holy Scripture for each reference, they have not been in the habit of making a similar use of other passages which refer to Mary; and since such an application of them is nowhere enjoined in the Sacred Books, they can scarcely claim a place proportioned to their importance in these Lectures. The general subject, however, of Her predestination could not be altogether omitted, since it is certain that She was present in an especial manner to the mind of God, and was set before the minds of men in prophecy, from the beginning of the world, so that a devout student of the Old Law, "looking for the redemption of Israel (Luke 2: 38)," must needs have looked also for the coming of some very remarkable woman to be the Mother of the Redeemer.
We must then not allow ourselves to be misled by the extreme simplicity of the Gospel narrative, when first the name of Mary appears in the records of history. More is contained in the words than appears on the surface. "The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, and the virgin's name was Mary," but that virgin was "not now found by chance, nor for the first time; She had been chosen from the foundation of the world; She had been foreknown by the Most High and prepared for Himself (St. Bernard, Serm. 2 de Laud. Virg.)"
This is the point on which I would have you specially to meditate before you examine the facts of our Blessed Lady's life in detail. "She had been foreknown by the Most High and prepared for Himself." For what use or purpose had She been so prepared? Since in a certain sense it is true of every one of us, that we were foreknown by God and prepared for Himself; as the Wise Man says, "The Lord hath made all things for Himself" (Prov. 16: 4), and again the prophet Isaias, "I have created man for My glory" (43: 7). Nevertheless forasmuch as "in a great house (such as the world is) there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earth, and some indeed unto honor, but some unto dishonor" (2 Tim. 2: 29), it behooves us to enquire to which of these classes the Blessed Virgin belongs, since an all-wise and all-powerful God ever apportions the means to the end, and fits every instrument for the work for which it has been chosen. For what then did He prepare the Blessed Virgin? We call upon Her in the Litany of Loreto as Vessel of Honor, Spiritual Vessel, Singular Vessel of Devotion—and with good reason, since "He that made Her rested in Her tabernacle." She was created to be the Mother of Jesus. Consider how much is involved in this. If, when a material temple was to be built for the mystical habitation of God under certain signs and symbols in the Old Law, God Himself gave the plan for it, and ordered all things, even to the minutest details connected with its erection, how much more, now that a living temple is to be created for the corporal indwelling of the Son of God, will it be prepared with care and finished with a solemnity and magnificence worthy of its object.
"Wisdom hath built herself a house," as Holy Scripture speaks (Prov. 9: 1). Wisdom, the Eternal Wisdom of God, God Himself, has decreed from all eternity to build Himself a house. He does not choose one already existing, the best He can find, and furnish it as best He may. He is the Almighty Creator, and He builds the house Himself. It is not a house which He will merely enter as an independent Being, dwell in for a while, and then abandon. It is a house from which He is to fashion for Himself a body that shall henceforth and forever be a part of His own Being. From all eternity He has been, He is, and ever will be God: "God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds;" but He is now about to become also "Man, of the substance of His Mother, born in the world;" and this His chosen Mother is the Virgin Mary. He is to become "perfect man, of a rational soul and human flesh subsisting." This human flesh once united to His Divinity will never again be separated from It; its sufferings and death will redeem the world. It will afterwards rise again from the dead, ascend up into Heaven, and sit on the throne of the Most High. And this human flesh, so highly privileged, so intimately united with God, is to be formed of the blood of Mary. "What wonder then," as St. Bernard justly asks, "if God, Who shows Himself wonderful in all His Saints, were to show Himself yet more wonderful in His Mother?" It has been well said that, "a wonder is no wonder in a wonderful subject." What more wonderful subject can be conceived than that God should vouchsafe for man’s sake to be born of a woman, and that that woman should be a mother, and yet remain a virgin? It ought not then to surprise us if we should find other wonders in the history of this Virgin's life; rather it would be strange if we did not. I have no intention, however, of entering into particulars and speculating what gifts and privileges might reasonably be expected in Her, nor do I invite you to enter on any such speculation yourselves at a time when we intend to follow so closely the inspired record of Her life. I only beg you to have this general reflection present to your minds whilst listening to what may be said upon that record, and especially to recall it and dwell upon it as often as you encounter those who may feel perplexed or scandalized by Catholic doctrine about Mary's power and prerogatives.
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