Mary in Doctrine and Devotion

The Life of Mary in the Gospels

Seventh 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.

PresentationThe Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple

And when the days of her purification were accomplished according to the Law of Moses, they took Him up to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord—as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord"—and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

And behold, there was in Jerusalem a man named Simeon, and this man was just and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. And he came by inspiration of the Spirit into the temple. And when His parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, he also received Him in his arms and blessed God, saying,

"Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word, in peace; Because my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; A light of revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory for Thy people Israel."

And His father and mother were marveling at the things spoken concerning Him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2: 22-35)

The Gospels tell us nothing about the Blessed Virgin after Her return from the house of St. Elizabeth to Her own, until Her going up to Bethlehem to be enrolled with St. Joseph; and "when She was there, it came to pass that Her days were accomplished that She should be delivered, and She brought forth Her Son" Jesus. Here, too, Holy Scripture only records the facts with brief simplicity, and leaves us to meditate within ourselves as to the thoughts and feelings of Mary at that supreme moment; the depth of Her self-abasement, the overflowing fullness of Her love and the unutterableness of Her joy, as first She gazed on the newborn Infant Who was at once Her Son and Her God.

One only observation of the Evangelists respecting our Blessed Lady's conduct at this time must not be overlooked. We are indebted for it (as usual) to St. Luke. He tells us that when the shepherds, warned by the angels, came to Bethlehem "to see the word which the Lord had showed to them, they found Mary and Joseph, and the Infant lying in the manger." Then they understood and believed all that the angels had told them, and they announced to those who were present all that they had seen and heard that night as they were keeping watch over their flocks in the fields; and all that heard wondered; but (the inspired writer adds with deep significance) "Mary kept all these words, pondering them in Her Heart." Observe the care with which he distinguishes the Blessed Virgin from all the other inhabitants or visitors of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night; how emphatically he bears testimony to Her higher gift of knowledge.

Adoration of the ShepherdsShe is silent, indeed, like the rest, or rather, She is more silent than the rest; but whereas they are lost in wonder, She alone of all the assistants at that scene, really understanding the mystery that had been accomplished, faithfully treasures up all that had been said. Her silence amid these amazing solemnities is not the fruit of indifference or unconsciousness; the very words of the Evangelist exclude such a misrepresentation of Her conduct, and it is still more pointedly contradicted by the triumphant and prophetic hymn which She had already sung in the mystery of the Visitation. Then, as we have seen, She was fully conscious of Her Son's dignity and of the fulfillment in Herself of all the promises which had been made to Abraham and to his seed forever, and She proclaimed aloud that in consequence of the great things which had been done to Her by Him that is mighty, all generations should from henceforth call Her Blessed. The indwelling within Her sacred womb, for nine months since the utterance of that hymn, of the very Wisdom of God Incarnate, has not darkened Her understanding and weakened Her apprehension of the truth. Rather, Her whole mind and soul have been more and more divinely illuminated, and She has become completely wrapped up in, identified with the mystery which She bore within Her; Her Heart is too full for words.

"She kept all the words, pondering them in Her Heart," meditating, digesting, comparing them with one another, till the time should come when She would bring them forth for the instruction of the Church and the world. She was silent, because She listened to the Divine Word speaking within Her, and to those who gave testimony to Him from without; She was silent, because She was absorbed in love and adoration. And if that other Mary was privileged to receive a special blessing from Jesus as having "chosen the best part," because she sat in silence at His feet "hearing His word," how could it fail to have been a most faithful source of benediction to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, that She, too, kept silence, and meditated, and treasured up in Her Heart the hymn that the angels had sung, and the words they had spoken about the Child that had been born that night?

Moreover whilst considering the period of Christ's infancy, it is important to observe that it was His good pleasure that Mary should be set forth in the Gospels side by side with Himself, and that He should receive during this time, whilst still inseparably connected with Her, some of the strongest and most striking testimonies to His Divinity that were given during the whole course of His mortal life. Not only was it proclaimed by the angels from Heaven to the shepherds, the first-fruits of the Jewish nation, but, as we learn from another Evangelist, the first-fruits of the Gentile world also, "the wise men from the East," publicly acknowledged it, ere yet He had been removed from the place of His birth. Guided by the Star and entering into the dwelling where the Child was, "they found Him with Mary His Mother, and falling down they adored Him." It was one of the privileges and blessings of Mary, that Her Son chose thus to manifest Himself under conditions which of necessity manifested Her also. Her lap was the throne whereon He would receive the first homage and adoration which was to be paid by those whom He had come to save.

He might, if He had so willed, have entered into this world in some other way, and begun His human life at a mature age. He need have known nothing of the feebleness of infancy; or, knowing it and experiencing it, He might have left us in ignorance of all that details of that part of His life, as we are actually left in ignorance of other parts which we might deem of equal or greater importance. But on the contrary, He willed both to be born of a Mother, to be nursed at Her breast, and to receive from Her hands all those minute and tender offices which belong to that closest and most sacred of human relationships, and also that men should see Him in this condition and should pay Him their earliest acts of worship whilst yet He remained in it, that so a deep sense of Mary's privileges and dignity might be impressed on all hearts from the beginning. For surely all who saw Him thus voluntarily dependent on a Mother's care, and who at the same time (like holy Simeon and Anna) knew by a special illumination of their souls by the Holy Ghost Who He was, must have been lost in wonder and admiration at the greatness of Her privileges. And She Herself, from whom none of these things was hid, would not have neglected, but rather would have availed Herself to the very utmost of all those treasures of grace which Her extraordinary proximity to God had placed within Her reach. We know from the subsequent history of His life that the very touch of Jesus sufficed to communicate graces to those who touched Him worthily. Who then shall count or measure the graces which Mary drew from Him during the nine months in which He lay in Her sacred womb, and throughout all the years of His infancy and childhood?

This is a train of thought, however, which must be left to the pious imagination of the faithful; for ourselves, we must pass on to the Presentation of the Divine Infant in the Temple, an incident which has been recorded with great minuteness, and which, therefore, contains much that requires our notice with regard to our Blessed Lady.

PresentationIt was a part of the Mosaic Law that women should be accounted unclean for a certain number of days after childbirth, during which period the new mother was forbidden to touch any holy thing or to enter into the sanctuary. When the appointed days were fulfilled, she was required to bring to the door of the tabernacle of the testimony two offerings for sacrifice, the one for a holocaust, the other for sin. These the priest was to offer before the Lord, and at the same time to pray for the mother, who was thereby cleansed from the ceremonial impurity under which she had been laboring, and once more restored to the free enjoyment of all religious privileges. The words of this law, as written in Leviticus (ch. 12), seem clearly to confine its obligation to those women who had conceived and borne children in the ordinary way; and as Mary was in this respect a solitary exception among mothers, so was She the only one really exempt from this law of purification. Nevertheless She would not claim this exemption. Like Her Divine Son, and because She was animated by the same sentiments as He was, She would "fulfill all justice" (Matt. 3: 15). He was baptized with "the baptism of penance," as though He stood in need of "remission of sins" (Mark 1: 4); She was cleansed, as though She had once been unclean. And again, in the course of His public ministry, Jesus instructed His disciple Peter that He was really free from all obligation to pay the ordinary tribute (Matt. 17: 25), which was paid by the rest of the children of Israel for the support of the temple; nevertheless that "He might not scandalize them," He paid, providing the means of doing so by a secret exercise of His Divine Power. Just so, Mary submits to this general law of purification from which She is really free, lest She should otherwise "scandalize," by a premature discovery of the secret entrusted to Her keeping; and though She is Purity itself, and He Who is born of Her is "the Holy One," nevertheless, "after the days of Her purification were accomplished," She goes up to Jerusalem to be cleansed and to offer the sacrifice that was enjoined by the law of the Lord.

This sacrifice varied according to the wealth of the parents; if they could afford it, the mother was required to offer a lamb of a year old for the holocaust, "and a young pigeon or a turtledove for sin; but if her hand found not sufficiency," and she was not able to offer a lamb, then both the offerings might by young pigeons or turtledoves. Mary was come to "present to the Lord" the true Lamb of God, the ransom of the world, of Whose sacrifice upon the Cross those other lambs had been only prophetic figures; but though He was the Lord of Heaven and earth, He had "become poor for our sakes" (2 Cor. 8: 9), and His Mother was the wife of a poor artisan, and therefore She made the offering which was commanded to the poor; thus setting us an example in one act both of perfect obedience and true humility.

There is nothing beyond the exercise of these virtues by our Blessed Lady in a very eminent degree which calls for any special notice in the ceremonies of the Purification hitherto described; but a third ceremony which yet remains to be spoken of is full of mystery, and though at first sight it may seem principally to belong to the Child, a closer examination of the details will show that here, as elsewhere, great light is reflected from the Child upon the Mother.

We read in the book of Exodus (ch. 13) that the Lord commanded Moses, and Moses communicated the divine command to the people, that in memory of their deliverance out of Egypt and out of the house of bondage, "every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel should be sanctified unto the Lord, for they are all His." "For when Pharaoh was hardened and would not let us go"—thus they were instructed to say to one another, father to son, handing on the tradition of the law and its motive—"the Lord slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beasts; therefore, I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the womb of the male sex, and all the firstborn of my sons I will redeem" with a price; which price we elsewhere (Num. 18: 16) learn was "five sicles of silver, by the weight of the sanctuary."

It would appear that this offering to God of the firstborn rested on a double foundation; the one general or universal, applicable to all mankind, the other belonging to the children of Israel in particular. The firstborn were to be offered to God, just as the first fruits of the earth were offered, viz., as an acknowledgement that "all things are His," and that we have no right or title to the use of anything excepting only from His bounty; but they were to be offered also in memory of that signal mercy which God had bestowed upon the Israelites when He delivered them out of the hands of Pharaoh by "slaying every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive woman that was in prison, and all the firstborn of cattle" (Exodus 12: 29), but among the children of Israel there died not one. Christ therefore was offered, "sanctified," to the Lord for a double reason; viz., as the "firstborn of every creature" (Col. 1: 15), and as "the firstborn Son of Mary" (Matt. 1: 25). In Him we are all sanctified, according to that which He Himself said, "for them do I sanctify Myself" (John 17: 19; cf. Heb 10: 10). He came to take the place of all the victims and the sacrifices that had been offered since the world began, as the Prophets had foretold and the Apostles testified concerning Him. "Sacrifice and oblation Thou wouldst not, but a body Thou hast fitted to Me. Holocausts for sin did not please Thee; then said I, Behold I come" (Ps. 39: 8; Heb. 10: 5-6). That body has now been prepared for Him, formed by the operation of the Holy Ghost in the womb of Mary. The Word has been made flesh, and He has now "come," and at once the offering is made; this is the first step, so to speak, in the ascent of Mount Calvary; it is the preface and pledge of the Passion.


The Passover in Egypt.

And as Jesus began in this mystery His Passion, so too did Mary Her Dolors. We reckon the Presentation indeed among the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary; but through the prophecy of Simeon it also fittingly finds its place among the Dolors of Mary. For this Presentation of Her Son to God was not to Mary what the presentation of a child at the font of Baptism is to an ordinary Christian mother, neither was it a merely formal ceremony, as it might have been to an ordinary Jewish mother. It cost Her more than the few coins which the law exacted; it partook of the nature of Abraham's sacrifice, when in obedience to God's commands he "took his only-begotten son Isaac whom he loved, and went into the land of vision, to offer him for a holocaust." Even had the whole scene passed without a single witness beyond the principal and necessary actors, had no word of prophecy been spoken, but all had been done in the most quiet unimpressive manner, as a mere matter of routine repeated every day for each firstborn child that was brought, still we might have been sure that a heart so thoughtful and meditative as Mary's could not have been idle at such a solemn moment. She was not insensitive to the true meaning of the act She was performing.

St. Paul teaches us that everything in the Old Law had its true fulfillment in the Life and Death of our Blessed Lord, and in His Mystical Body the Church; and although the great majority of the Jews, a gross and carnal people, may never have been solicitous to penetrate beneath the surface of their religious worship, yet there must have always been some privileged souls, interiorly illuminated by Divine grace, to pierce through the clouds and shadows of the outward letter, and to drink deeply of the inward spirit; and such a soul, above all others, was Mary's.

No Christian imagines that our Blessed Lady was less "just and devout" than was holy Simeon, or doubts but that She, like him, had long been waiting for the consolation of Israel; "looking for its redemption" like Anna the prophetess and those to whom she spoke. Moreover, She had been instructed in the mystery of the Incarnation by a messenger from Heaven, and was privy to all its secrets in a way that no other created being could be, for She was the tabernacle in which they had been wrought. She knew that Her Son was "to reign in the house of Jacob forever," but She knew also that "His name was called Jesus, because He should save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1: 21), and She knew the cost at which their salvation was to be purchased. For we cannot suppose that She was as one of those whom Christ rebuked as "foolish and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets had spoken, and who knew not therefore that Christ must needs suffer and so enter into His glory" (Luke 24: 25). On the contrary, our natural instincts seem to constrain us to believe that, like Timothy (2 Tim. 3: 15), She had "from (Her) infancy known the Holy Scriptures which would instruct (Her) to salvation;" and at any rate, it was quite impossible that She who kept so carefully and pondered in Her heart the words of the shepherds, would have been less careful and diligent in meditating upon the inspired words of the Prophets and the announcement of the Angel. It is no extravagant assumption then, but the reasonable conclusion of every thoughtful and reverent mind, that this ceremony of the Presentation in the Temple was to our Blessed Lady, as it certainly was to Her Divine Son, a foreshadowing of, and a preparation for, His Passion and Death.

PresentationBut in truth we are not left to our own speculations upon this subject: there is much in the sequel of this incident, as recorded in the Gospel, to throw light upon its hidden meaning and the thoughts and feelings of our Blessed Lady. We have said that this was, as it were, the first act in the redemption of the world; Christ came to redeem mankind; all things were to be re-established in Him (Eph. 1: 10); in Him there is neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28; Col. 3: 11); and He would give a foretaste and figure of this universal redemption, by gathering around His very cradle the first-fruits of all ages, sexes, states and conditions of life. Infants did Him homage in St. John the Baptist, yet unborn, and in the sacrifice of martyrdom by the Holy Innocents; old age comes to salute Him today at the Presentation in the Temple, in holy Simeon and Anna, in kings and shepherds, the highest and the lowest have already paid Him tribute. The holy state of matrimony has been privileged to acknowledge and proclaim Him, in Ss. Elizabeth and Zachary; the holier state of virginity had from the first been brought still nearer to Him in His spotless Mother, and today the revered state of widowhood is worthily represented by "Anna, a prophetess, who was advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the Temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day."

We need not, however, speak of all of those who took part in the ceremony of today: we will speak only of Simeon, "a just and devout man… he also took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word, in peace, because my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel! And His father and Mother were wondering at these things which were spoken concerning Him."

Here we must interrupt our narrative, not to comment upon the beautiful canticle we have recited, whose figurative language about our Blessed Lord as the Light of the world only repeats what had been "spoken before by the mouth of His holy prophets from the beginning," and especially by the evangelical prophet Isaias (9: 2; 42: 6; 49: 6; 60: 1-3), but to make a remark upon what is said about our Blessed Lady and St. Joseph, that they "wondered at the things that were spoken." This word "wonder" is not always to be understood in its ordinary acceptation, as denoting "the effect of novelty upon ignorance;" otherwise it could never have been used of our Blessed Lord, for example, of Whom nevertheless we read that He wondered at the unbelief of the people of Nazareth, and again at the faith of the centurion (Mark 6: 6; Matt. 8: 10). Neither can it be so understood of our Blessed Lady in this place; for in fact Simeon had spoken nothing that was really new to Her, nothing of which She can be said to have been ignorant.

It has been suggested, therefore, that Her wonder may have been excited at finding that the secret entrusted to Herself was revealed also to him, or again at his publishing it to others even under the veil of metaphorical language in the Nunc dimittis: the interpretation, however, of one of the Greek Fathers, commenting upon this passage, seems preferable, where he observes that the knowledge of great and mysterious things renews the sense of wonder in the mind as often as they are again brought before it; for this was precisely what was happening to Mary on the present occasion. She had known for ten months past the blessed mystery now revealed to Simeon. She had "seen with Her eyes, She had looked upon, and Her hands had handled" the Word of Life for forty days before it was given to Simeon to do the same; and his hymn, therefore, the natural outpouring of his own gratitude and a testimony to as many as stood by, taught Her no new truth, but it set the truth before Her afresh; it quickened Her apprehension of the "great things" that had been done in Her, and recalled the feelings of Her heart when first they had been announced by the Angel in Nazareth, or when the Annunciation had been fulfilled by the Nativity in Bethlehem.

First DolorThe sacred narrative goes on to say that "Simeon blessed them," and said to Mary alone, "Behold, this Child is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And Thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed." It has been well said of this prophecy, delivered so immediately after the birth of Jesus, and fulfilled not only in His natural Body during His whole life upon earth, but also in His Mystical Body the Church in every age from that day to this, that it is of itself a convincing proof of the Divine origin of Christianity.

It is not, however, in this point of view that we have now to look at it, but only in that part which affects Mary. And surely even the most prejudiced student of Holy Writ must needs confess that She is here united with Her Divine Son in the most intimate and unlooked-for manner. She seems to be made the one solitary partner of His lot; singled out to share with Him in the sharp sorrow of these contradictions, and also—for so runs the prophecy—in their fruits, viz., "that out of many hearts thoughts shall be revealed." These last words certainly seem to be attributed by the inspired prophet to the Mother no less than to the Son. There is some difficulty, no doubt, as to the exact interpretation of them; but it does not seem possible to deny to Mary at least some share in their meaning, and I cannot see how less can justly be concluded from them than that which has here been stated, and which the history both of the Gospel and the Church so abundantly confirm, viz., that the names of Jesus and Mary are inseparably united in the rise and progress of Christianity.

I know that there is another way of taking this passage, by which the words, "...and a sword shall pierce Thine own soul," are made a parenthesis, and the words, "that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" are made to depend on what preceded, and to refer only to the Son. But certainly this is not the obvious meaning of the text; it wrests the words from the order in which they are, only because it is not easy to understand how the sufferings of Mary were to reveal the thoughts of men's hearts.

We acknowledge the difficulty, but do not like to do this violence to the text in order to escape from it; nor does it seem necessary that we should. The sufferings of Mary and the contradictions of Jesus reached their climax both at the same time, viz., when He was nailed to the Cross on Calvary. That was most emphatically "the sign which shall be contradicted;" it was "to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Gentiles foolishness," and Mary was never separated from the Cross. She alone seems to have fully appreciated its power, whilst suffering most keenly from its bitterness. Even the faith of the Apostles could not stand the trial of the whole Passion throughout; at one time or another "they all forsook Him and fled." And from that day to this, whatever contradictions Christian doctrine has been exposed to, Mary has had Her share in them; whatever heresies may have attacked the natures or the person of Christ, have always attacked also, more or less directly, the dignity, privileges or power of Mary. Nor did the early Fathers of the Church find any surer mode of guarding the true doctrine about Jesus than by defining carefully the titles and privileges of His Mother. And in these later days, the inseparable union of the Mother and the Son has been still more strikingly demonstrated by the experiences of the "reformed churches" (as they are called) upon the Continent, and, I fear we must add, by the real condition of religious opinion among the great mass of our own Protestant fellow country-men.

Catholics, who have always honored the Mother, still confess, adore, and worship the Son; while those who, whether secretly or openly, have ceased to confess Jesus as very God, began by scoffing at Mary as the Mother of God. If Mary, then, and Jesus are thus intimately united in the history of our Redemption and in Christian doctrine, is it strange that they should be united also in Christian devotion? And is there not occasion to ask whether haply this part of the prophecy of Simeon may not even now be unconsciously fulfilled by some of those who take offence "in the thoughts of their hearts" at Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin? The love of Mary is a proof of the love of Christ, and it cannot exist without compassion for Her bitter sorrows, which compassion, if faithfully cherished, will prove a source of great and innumerable graces. Let those, then, who are conscious to themselves that they never give a thought either to Her Dolors or Her Joys, see what token they have of any share in the Resurrection provided by the Child.

One more word upon our Blessed Lady’s demeanor on this occasion of the Presentation, and then we will end our comment upon the circumstances of this mystery. We read than when Simeon's prophecy was ended, and Anna, too, had confessed to the Lord, Joseph and Mary, "having performed all things according to the law of the Lord, returned into Galilee, into their city Nazareth." Mark the unruffled self-possession and perfect resignation of Mary in Her still unbroken silence. Others around Her are prophesying and confessing of the greatness and glories of Her Son; She calmly and diligently fulfills all that the law required, as though He were an ordinary child; redeeming, according to the terms of the Mosaic ritual, Him Who was in truth the world's Redeemer, even as She had Herself submitted to be purified, though perfect purity. Then She is told of a sword that is to pierce Her own soul, and by the very vagueness of the prophecy its terrors are indefinitely increased; yet She asks no question, nor seeks for more light than God has been pleased to give Her. She simply accepts the intimation of His will in the terms in which His messenger makes it, and with this She is content: "Her strength is in silence and hope" (Is. 30: 15), so sublimely peaceful that men might almost mistake it for ignorance and insensibility, did they not see that in the end, when the sword really comes on Mount Calvary, She receives it with the same perfect tranquility—the same invincible might, of a will wholly resigned and identified with the will of God.

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