‘The Fathers from the beginning called Mary the Second Eve. This has been the dogma proclaimed by the earliest Fathers.’ So Newman wrote on 5 March 1871. It was, for him another instance of the principle: Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus. [What has been held everywhere by everyone always]. This was enunciated by St. Vincent Lerins, and used by Newman as a rule of thumb for orthodox belief. He acknowledged that ‘There is no rule, against which exceptions cannot be raised’, but thought ‘the Rule a great and useful one.’
We do not know when Our Lady was first venerated, we simply do not know a time when the early Church did not do so. The Protoevangelium of St. James, which dates from the mid second century, belongs to that group of works which, whilst never canonical, was treasured by Christians for centuries because it filled in the gaps left by the Gospels. Nothing will shake my conviction that in St. Luke we have portions of the memoirs of Our Lady herself; where else could the Magnificat come from, or the story of the Annunciation. It thrills me to know that when I read these things, I am reading what the Blessed Virgin herself said; so I understand why it is early Christians wanted more.
The Protoevangelium filled the gap admirably. It described the circumstances of Our Lady’s birth, and how at the age of three she was brought by her parents to the Temple. It contains one of my favourite accounts of Our Lady. When she came to the Temple she was given to the High Priest who
set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her
How adorable is that?
Mary’s virginity is central to the tale. She is not simply any virgin, she is a consecrated one, one chosen from the beginning by God, and everything in the story centres around that – even the manner of the birth leaves her virginity intact.
It is easy, and often done, to reject this as ‘apocryphal’ and untrue. No one is saying it is an accurate account, but it is a very early document and was read by Christians for centuries, and before simply consigning it to the rubbish heap, we might ask why? The answer, surely, is because it chimed with that consensus of the faithful, with what had always been believed everywhere by everyone always?
We have here, a fragment showing us what the ordinary people believed. More than a hundred copies of this manuscript have survived, which is a great number for a document of that date, which attests to its popularity. It is the source from which the Church takes the names of Our Lady’s parents as Joachim and Anna, and to the early Church it provided a story which filled in the gaps left by Luke.
That speaks not only to the belief of the Church that Our Lady was always Virgin, it speaks to the veneration which has been held from the beginning. The angel that Mary would be forever ‘blessed’. If one is in a church which does not call Our Lady ‘blessed’, it might be worth asking why it has departed from what has been believed always, by everyone, everywhere.