“If, as St. Irenaeus says, [the Blessed Virgin Mary] acted the part of an advocate, a friend in need, even in her mortal life; if as St. Jerome and St. Ambrose say, she was on earth the great pattern of virgins; if she had a meritorious share in bringing about our redemption; if her maternity was gained by her faith and obedience; if her divine Son was subject to her; and if she stood by the cross with a mother’s heart and drank in to the full those sufferings which it was her portion to gaze upon, it is impossible that we should not associate these characteristics of her life on earth with her present state of blessedness. And this surely she anticipated when she said in her hymn that all ‘generations should call me blessed.’
I am aware that in thus speaking, I am following a line of thought that is rather a meditation than an argument in controversy, and I shall not carry it further. But still, before turning to other topics, it is to the point to enquire whether people’s surprise, at our belief in the Blessed Virgin’s present dignity, does not arise from the fact that most of them have never calmly considered her historical position in the Gospels, so as rightly to realize what that position imports. I do not claim for the generality of Catholics any greater powers of reflection upon the objects of their faith than Protestants commonly have. But, putting the run of Catholics aside, there is a sufficient number of religious men among us who, instead of expending their devotional energies (as so many serious Protestants do) on abstract doctrines, such as justification by faith only, or the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, employ themselves in the contemplation of Scripture facts, and bring out before their minds in a tangible form the doctrines involved in them and give such a substance and color to sacred history as to influence their brethren. And these brethren, though superficial themselves, are drawn by their Catholic instinct to accept conclusions which they could not indeed themselves have elicited, but which, when elicited, they feel to be true. However, it would be out of place to pursue this course of reasoning here; and instead of doing so, I shall take what perhaps you may think a very bold step—I shall find the doctrine of our Lady’s present exaltation in Scripture.
I mean to find it in the vision of the Woman and the Child in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Now here two objections will be made to me at once; first that such an interpretation is but poorly supported by the Fathers, and secondly that in ascribing such a picture of the Madonna (as it may be called) to the Apostolic Age, I am committing an anachronism.
As to the former of these objections, I answer as follows: Christians have never gone to Scripture for proof of their doctrines until there was actual need from the pressure of controversy. If in those times the Blessed Virgin’s dignity was unchallenged on all hands as a matter of doctrine, Scripture, as far as its argumentative matter was concerned, was likely to remain a sealed book to them. Thus, to take an instance in point; the Catholic party in the Anglican Church (say, the Nonjurors), unable by their theory of religion simply to take their stand on tradition, and searching for proof of their doctrines, had their eye sharpened to scrutinize and to understand in many places the letter of Holy Scripture, which to others brought no instruction. And the peculiarity of their interpretation is this—that these have in themselves great logical cogency yet are but faintly supported by patristical commentators.
As to the second objection which I have supposed, so far from allowing it, I consider that it is built upon a mere imaginary fact, and that the truth of the matter lies in the very contrary direction. The Virgin and Child is not a mere modern idea; on the contrary, it is represented again and again, as every visitor to Rome is aware, in the paintings of the Catacombs. Mary is there drawn with the Divine Infant in her lap, and she with hands extended in prayer, he with his hand in the attitude of blessing. No representation can more forcibly convey the doctrine of the high dignity of the Mother and, I will add, of her influence with her Son.
…In controversy with Protestants you could certainly use the traditional doctrine of the Church in early times as an explanation of a particular passage of Scripture, or at least as a suggestion, or as a defense, of the sense which you may wish to put upon it, quite apart from the question whether your interpretation itself is directly traditional. In the same way it is lawful for me, though I have not the positive words of the Fathers on my side, to shelter my own interpretation of the apostle’s vision in the Book of Revelation under the fact of the extant pictures of Mother and Child in the Roman Catacombs.
Again, there is another principle of Scripture interpretation which we hold as well as you. That is, when we speak of a doctrine contained in Scripture, we do not necessarily mean that it is contained there in direct categorical terms, but that there is no satisfactory way of accounting for the language and expressions of the sacred writers, concerning the subject matter in question, except to suppose that they held concerning it the opinion which we hold—that they would not have spoken as they have spoken unless they held it. For myself I have always felt the truth of this principle, as regards the Scripture proof of the Holy Trinity. I would not have discovered that doctrine in the sacred text without previous traditional teaching. But, when once it is suggested from without, it commends itself as the one true interpretation, from its appositeness—because no other view of doctrine, which can be ascribed to the inspired writers, so happily solves the obscurities and seeming inconsistencies of their teaching. And now to apply what I have been saying to the passage in the Book of Revelation.
If there is an apostle on whom our eyes would be fixed, as likely to teach us about the Blessed Virgin, it is St. John, to whom she was committed by our Lord on the cross—with whom, as tradition goes, she lived at Ephesus till she was taken away. This anticipation is confirmed; for, as I have said above, one of the earliest and fullest of our informants concerning her dignity, as being the Second Eve, is Irenaeus, who came to Lyons from Asia Minor and had been taught by the immediate disciples of St. John. The apostle’s vision is as follows:
‘A great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet; and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered. And there was seen another sign in heaven; and behold a great red dragon…And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered, that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son. And she brought forth a man-child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod; and her son was taken up to God and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness.’ Now I do not deny of course that under the image of the woman, the Church is signified; but what I would maintain is this, that the holy apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary who was exalted on high and the object of veneration of all the faithful.
No one doubts that the ‘man-child’ spoken of is an allusion to our Lord: why then is not the ‘woman’ an allusion to his Mother? This surely is the obvious sense of the words. Of course they have a further sense also, which is the scope of the image; doubtless the child represents the children of the Church, and doubtless the woman represents the Church. This, I grant, is the real or direct sense, but what is the sense of the symbol under which that real sense is conveyed? I answer, they are not personifications but persons. This is true of the child, therefore it is true of the woman.
But again, not only mother and child, but a serpent is introduced into the vision. Such a meeting of man, woman, and serpent has not been found in Scripture since the beginning of Scripture, and now it is found at its end. Moreover, in the passage in the Book of Revelation, as if to supply, before Scripture came to an end, what was wanting in its beginning, we are told, and for the first time, that the serpent in Paradise was the evil spirit. If the dragon of St. John is the same as the serpent of Genesis, and the man-child is ‘the seed of the woman,’ why is not the woman herself she whose seed the man-child is? And, if the first woman is not an allegory, why is the second? If the first woman is Eve, why is not the second Mary?
…Scripture deals with types rather than personifications. Israel stands for the chosen people, David for Christ, Jerusalem for heaven. Consider the remarkable representations, dramatic I may call them, in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea: predictions, threatenings, and promises are acted out by those prophets. Ezekiel is commanded to shave his head and to divide and scatter his hair; and Ahias tears his garment and gives ten out of twelve parts of it to Jereboam. So, too, the structure of the imagery in the Book of Revelation is not a mere allegorical creation, but is founded on the Jewish ritual.
…Coming back, then, to the vision in the Book of Revelation, I ask, If the Woman ought to be some real person, who can it be whom the apostle saw, and intends, and delineates, but that same Great Mother to whom the chapters in the Proverbs are accommodated? And let it be observed, moreover, that in this passage, from the allusion made in it to the history of the fall, Mary may be said still to be represented under the character of the Second Eve. I make a further remark: it is sometimes asked, Why do not the sacred writers mention our Lady’s greatness? I answer, she was, or may have been alive, when the apostles and evangelists wrote; there was just one book of Scripture certainly written after her death, and that book does (so to say) canonize and crown her.
But if all this be so, if it is really the Blessed Virgin whom Scripture represents as clothed with the sun, crowned with the stars of heaven, and with the moon as her footstool, what height of glory may we not attribute to her? And what are we to say of those who, through ignorance, run counter to the voice of Scripture, to the testimony of the Fathers, to the traditions of East and West, and speak and act contemptuously towards her whom the Lord delighteth to honor?”
-John Henry Newman in Difficulties of Anglicans.