Sometimes, when we are familiar with a person, we convince ourselves we know more about them than we actually do. Families are, for example, notorious for thinking they know other family members well. Whereas, in fact, good friends may — and probably do — know them better.
A little reflection uncovers a similar case with Mary, the Mother of God. However, in encountering other Christians — and even Muslims — who each have different relationships with Mary, the question arises, “What do I know or think I know about Mary?”
With almost no effort, I can come up with at least four perspectives on Mary, definitely related but also distinct, each revealing different aspects of the same holy woman. They would be: Mary in the New Testament; Mary in Roman Catholicism; Mary in Orthodox Christianity; and Mary in Islam.
Let’s look at these “four Marys” individually.
First, in the New Testament, Mary is clearly and understandably secondary to Jesus. That is not to say she is not important — she is quite important for Luke — but the New Testament is interested in Jesus, not Mary. In the Gospel of John, while Jesus is dying on the cross, he entrusts his mother to John, “the disciple he loved” (19:25-27). In John’s gospel, Mary plays an important role in the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding in Cana.
Yet, many Christians are surprised to learn that Mary is never mentioned by name anywhere in John’s gospel. Mary is mentioned by name once in the Gospel of Mark, five times in Matthew and 12 times in Luke. However, outside the stories leading up to and including the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, she is named only once in Matthew and not at all in Luke. The Mary of the gospels plays a powerful role in the conception and birth of Jesus, and then recedes far into the background.
In Roman Catholicism, Mary has a huge role in art, devotion and theology. There is even a division of theology concerned with Mary: Mariology. In relatively recent times, Mary has become the object of veneration connected with appearances. Almost entirely silent in the gospels, the Mary in most apparitions is connected with a message. One need think only of La Salette, Lourdes, Fatima, Knock and elsewhere, where huge centers of devotion have been erected on sites where Mary is believed to have appeared.
The only two officially infallible statements of popes concerned Mary: the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and the Assumption by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Catholic devotion to the Mother of God was considered extreme and even idolatrous by some of the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.
The Second Vatican Council, while highly revering Mary, recognized that theologically questionable practices have arisen in some quarters of Catholic piety and tried to correct this (cf. Lumen Gentium, 66-67). Nevertheless, Mary, under numerous aspects, remains popular in Roman Catholic piety. A cursory reading of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar reveals 18 Marian feast days during the year, three of which are holy days of obligation.
Orthodox Christianity also holds Mary in great reverence, though somewhat differently from Roman Catholicism. Kallistos of Diokletia, a Greek Orthodox metropolitan archbishop and theologian, notes that in Orthodoxy, Mary “is honored, revered, loved but not the subject of critical analysis. We have no developed ‘Mariology’; indeed, the very word, suggesting as it does an autonomous and systematically organized body of doctrine, has about it a non-orthodox flavor.”
Metropolitan Kallistos also notes that Orthodox tradition and piety never separate Mary from Christ. This is true in Catholicism as well. Pope Paul VI in his apostolic exhortation “Marialis cultus,” published on 2 February 1974, reminds Catholics of “the indissoluble link and essential relationship of the Virgin to the Divine Savior; we reject any tendency to separate devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary from its necessary point of reference — Christ.”
The Orthodox approach to Mary is deep, powerful and modest, not unlike the woman herself in the gospels. However, with simplicity and wisdom, Metropolitan Kallistos notes “the Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the apostles,” while Christ was proclaimed to the whole world. With the traditional Orthodox sensitivity to the “ineffable,” or that which cannot be adequately expressed, Metropolitan Kallistos warns: “There is a danger of trying to say too much about the Mother of God. St. Basil’s warning is not to be forgotten: ‘Let things ineffable be honored in silence.’ ”
Finally, if Mary is rarely mentioned by name in the gospels, that is not the case with the Quran where مريم, Maryam, Mary, appears many times — 18 times alone in the expression “Isa (Jesus), son of Mary.” Sura (chapter) 19 of the Quran is named after Mary. Great stress is placed on her special and elevated role in God’s plan. The Quran speaks of the Virgin birth several times (3:37-38; 19:20; 23:52; 66:12) and of the Annunciation.
The Quran states repeatedly that, while Jesus is a messenger of God and one of the most important prophets, Jesus is only human. It follows then that for Muslims Mary is the mother of the man Jesus and nothing more. This, however, has not deterred Muslims from having great devotion to her. In the Middle East, Christian shrines to Mary are visited frequently by Muslims as by Christians. One of the most magnificent mosques in the United Arab Emirates is masjid maryam ’um ʽisā, that is, Mosque of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
As we begin the month of May — the month of Mary for Catholics — it might be refreshing to see how the image of Mary is adaptable and powerful in different contexts. To the words of the Magnificat, “all generations will call me blessed,” one could add all places, cultures and even faiths.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.