What is one to say when someone questions venerating Our Lady? In me it inspires a sense of sadness. It drags the Blessed Virgin into controversy which is of men; oddly, or not, I have never had a woman find this a cause for controversy. One can, of course, pray for those who do this, and one can point out, for the millionth time that no one worships Our Lady. Those who refuse to see the difference between worship and veneration are, alas, like those who cannot see the difference between red and green; it is a form of spiritual colour-blindness. It is when they have resort to the Scriptures to support their views that a reasonable response can be made.
No one disputes that during the earthly Ministry of Our Lord, Our Lady was not one of those who followed Him from place to place. It is certain that we see her telling the servants at the Wedding at Cana to do as He tells them. It is equally certain that she tried to bring Him back home when He was criticised and attacked by those in the locality; so might any mother do for a beloved Son. Were St Mark all we had to go on then little attention would have been paid to Mary of Nazareth; but then were his Gospel the only one, we would be at something of a loss over the Resurrection. But of course, whilst concentrating on one Gospel and neglecting other sources may be the way of the polemicist, it is the way neither of the scholar nor reading with the eye of Faith.
Our Lady was there, with many others, at Pentecost, St Luke tells us this, as he tells us so much more about her. We know about the Annunciation because of St Luke, who also tells us more about the birth of Jesus than anyone else; it is Luke who also gives us the few details we have of His early life. St Matthew’s Gospel covers some of the same ground, but in less detail. Where did St Luke get his information? We cannot know, but we do know he collected information from eye-witnesses, and Our Lady seems the most likely source for all of this.
But let us go back a step. Why do we accept St Luke’s Gospel? Some time ago I asked Bosco what books he thought should be in the Bible, and he told me, no doubt in jest, that it was on the contents page. Of course there was no “contents page” in the original manuscripts, and we know their name and that they are “Scripture” only by the voice of the Church. Jessica wrote interestingly on the early history of the New Testament, and her piece has many references for those interested. The point to be made here is that the same Church which tells us that there are only four Gospels and which names them, also tells us that Christ was born of a Virgin. It does not go into detail about the early life of Jesus, but all the early traditions are agreed that Our Lady was a Virgin, and before relatively recent times, no one save a few heretics, read the Gospel references to the “brothers” and “sisters” of the Lord as being uterine siblings. There is more on this here, but the point is the same, that if we accept Tradition gives us Scripture, then we accept as a corollary that it knows how to interpret it; were that not so then on what basis would we accept the Canon of Scripture? As Austin Ferrers put it:
The fact on which our faith reposes is not the fact of Christ’s history alone, it is the doubtle fact of that history taken together with the existence of the spirit-filled Church which proclaimed that history and lived by its fruits. And the Church accepted the virginal conception as a harmonious part of the sacred story; once it had been set forth it could not be thought away; it belonged so absolutely in its place. Inspired authority established the belief; Ignatius and Irenaeus make it a kernel of orthodoxy.
There is, of course, nothing to stop anyone calling themselves a Christian and believing whatever they want, but they cannot in so doing claim to be orthodox or in the Tradition of the Church whose book they are choosing to read by the light of their own intellect; wisdom might suggest tempering one’s own views with the great cloud of witnesses who have been here before us.
The recent series on the origin of the Canon has, I hope, been a help here, as one of the things it shows is the importance the first Christians attached to “handing on” what they had received from Jesus and the Apostles.
There are limits to what even the Spirit-filled Church can do. She is inspired to proclaim facts and interpret them. She is not inspired to create new facts; that seems to be uniquely the job of people who think they know better. The Creed states orthodoxy. We believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” There is, as St Matthew makes clear, a paradox here. In her “yes” Our Lady not only opened the gate to our redemption, she also opened the door to a personal scandal which could have ruined her life. Even the righteous St Joseph behaved as any man might on learning that his betrothed was with child. Being a righteous man he did not want to shame her, so he was minded to put her aside privately; only the Angel stopped him. Our Lady was willing to bear that for us.
Now, of course, there is nothing to stop anyone claiming that all of this tradition about the mother of Jesus being a virgin is just that, a tradition, but since the same is true about the canon of Scripture, I am not sure that the person making such a claim has not just sawn off the branch of the tree upon which he is sitting. In saying, in effect, “my reading of Scripture is x” he is begging the question of how he knows what is and is not Scripture in the first place.
Equally, there is nothing to stop anyone claiming that Our Lady had other children, although the very idea seems to me impious. But such a claim would need to explain why Our Lord gave over His mother to the care of St John rather, than as was the Jewish custom if there was more than one child, to the next eldest. So again, we ask ourselves whether the evidence of Scripture justifies what the Church has always taught, and we find that it does, and that it is the unorthodox who has to explain why the majority of Christians for most of history have been wrong and he and the few who agree with him is correct. Since, invariably, such critics also criticise the idea that the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals, there is a certain irony in their insistence on their own infallibility in whatever matter it is upon which they wish to pronounce.
It takes a great deal of chutzpah, or perhaps it is ignorance, to prefer one’s own reading of Scripture to that of the Church which told us and tells us what it is. I have too little of either to wish to go there. Moreover, when it comes to the Blessed Virgin, I have to admit a bias. She is for me an invariable help in coming to her Son. In this sense, this is a very personal post, as I have found the Blessed Virgin an invaluable help on my journey, and sometimes she has been one of the few lights in the darkness. So, to those, such as Bosco, who insist on being unpleasant about her, I direct one comment. Just what do you think any good Jewish boy would think of anyone criticising his mother? If your version of Christianity pushes you to disparage the mother of Our Lord, then you, or it, is doing something very wrong.
Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.