“Mosaic of Virgin and Child” (A.D. 944), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.
Monday was the Feast of “Our Lady of Fatima,” and I was in Fatima, Portugal only three weeks ago as we walked the Camino to St. James of Compostela in Spain. Sunday was Mothers’ Day. And I will be conducting a Saturday morning seminar on Mary at St. Monica Catholic Community, my home parish in Santa Monica, California on June 1st. If you would like to attend the seminar, click here.
Throughout Church history Mary has been honored as the first person to say “yes” to Christ; the first person to place her faith in him; and the first person to live out her faith in a lifetime of devotion to her son.
I’d like to devote this week’s blog to my reflections on Mary, Jesus’ mother.
The Bible has much to say about Mary and her role in God’s plan for the salvation of the human family; the theme runs through Scripture like an azure thread. After the fall in Genesis 3, God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The oldest Jewish interpretation of this passage (3rd century B.C.) sees the serpent as symbolic of Satan and looks for a victory over him in King Messiah (Targum Neofiti and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan). The New Testament also takes this passage in a messianic sense (Romans 16:20, Hebrews 2:14 and Revelation 12), as do the early church fathers, beginning with Justin (ca. A.D. 160) and Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180). As we move ahead from Genesis in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah says, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). And Paul, in speaking of our redemption says: “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:4).
This thread that runs through Scripture is more fully developed and brightly colored in the gospel according to Luke. In the annunciation scene, the angel Gabriel says to Mary:
Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, his kingdom will never end. (Luke 1:28, 30-33)
Mary responds to Gabriel by saying, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). We then see Mary at important points in Jesus’ life and ministry. She gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem (fulfilling the prophecy of Micah 5:2); she and Joseph present Jesus in the temple for circumcision when he is eight days old (Luke 2:21-24); they find Jesus in the temple with the rabbis at Passover when he is twelve years old (Luke 2:41-52); Mary is present at the wedding at Cana where Jesus performs his first miracle at her request (John 2:1-11); she and his brothers seek Jesus out as he is talking to a crowd (Luke 8:19-21); she is present at the crucifixion, where Jesus gives her to John as his mother, and John to Mary as her son (John 19:25-27); and after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Mary is in the room with the disciples as they await the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). This last event is the final time Mary appears in Scripture.
Mary, Mother of God
As the early Church developed, it defined and codified the events and beliefs presented in Scripture. By the 3rd century Mary was being referred to interchangeably as “Mother of Christ” and “Mother of God.” The terms carry with them profound implications, for “Mother of Christ” emphasizes Jesus’ human nature, while “Mother of God” emphasizes his divine nature. By the 5th century the use of the terms created a crisis in the Church: Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, argued vehemently that the term “Mother of God” was incorrect, for he believed that Mary was the mother of the man Jesus, but not of his divine nature; according to Nestorius, Jesus was a man on whom God conferred his own divine nature sometime after Jesus’ birth. St. Cyril of Alexandria took the position that Mary was the mother of Jesus in both his human and divine nature; according to St. Cyril, Jesus was fully human and fully divine from the moment if his conception. At St. Cyril’s request, Pope Celestine convened the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 specifically to settle the issue. After much debate, the council concluded:
Nor was He [Jesus] first born of the holy Virgin as an ordinary man, in such a way that the Word only afterwards descended upon Him; rather was He united [humanity and divinity] in the womb itself, and thus is said to have undergone birth according to the flesh…For this reason [we] have boldly proclaimed the holy Virgin, “Mother of God.”
For we who live in the 21st century, this “Nestorian controversy” of the 5th century may seem remote and irrelevant, but it is extremely important to our understanding of who Jesus is. The Council of Ephesus affirmed that Jesus was no ordinary man who was infused with divinity at some time during his life; rather, from the moment of his virginal conception in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was fully God and fully human. For both Roman Catholics and Protestants, the Council of Ephesus established a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith: it defined the full humanity and divinity of Christ; in Jesus, God himself steps onto the stage of history, enfleshed as man. At the same time, it laid the cornerstone for all subsequent thinking about Mary, for if Jesus was fully God and fully human from the moment of his conception, then Mary was indeed, by implication, “Mother of God.” In 1953, Pope Pious XII (who set forth the Assumption of Mary as a Church doctrine) noted the importance of the decision at the Council of Ephesus when he said: “From this sublime office of the Mother of God seems to flow…all the privileges and graces with which her soul and life were adorned in such extraordinary manner and measure.”
In order to understand Mary as “Mother of God” correctly, we need to understand the term, as it was used at the Council of Ephesus. It is abundantly clear from Scripture that God is eternal: he was not created or born, and he has no end. It is also clear from Scripture that the Son and the Holy Spirit also exist from all eternity: neither was created nor born, and they, too, have no end. When God chose to enflesh himself as man, however, he was born. Read John 1:1, 14 carefully: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Mary, a young girl from Nazareth, was the vehicle God used to enter the world: as the old Scottish poem puts it, “They all were looking for a King/ To slay their foes and lift them high:/ Thou cam’st a little baby thing/ That made a woman cry.” When God chose to enter the world he had created, he entered it in the same way we all enter it: through a woman. It is only in this restricted sense that Mary is the “Mother of God.”
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
Once the Church defined Mary as the “Mother of God,” inevitable consequences followed. During the early stages of the Nestorian controversy the perpetual virginity of Mary was postulated as a necessary condition accompanying Mary’s role as “Mother of God.” We get something of the original argument’s tone and substance by reading a letter from Pope Siricius (A.D. 384-399) to Anysius, Bishop of Thessalonica, on the subject:
You had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would never have chosen to be born of a virgin if He had ever judged that she would be so incontinent as to contaminate with the seed of human intercourse the birthplace of the Lord’s body, that court of the Eternal King.
Such thought is rooted not in Scripture, but in 3rd-century neo-Platonism, Manichaeism, and the rise of Christian asceticism, all of which held that the body is evil and the spirit good. Not all agreed with such thinking or with Pope Siricius, however. Helvidius argued that virginity was no better than the state of marriage, and he proposed Mary as an example of both states: virginity before Christ’s birth and motherhood of a large family afterward. St. Jerome wrote a vigorous response to Helvidius in A.D. 384, Adversus Helvidium (Against Helvidius), in which he defends the perpetual virginity of Mary. It is in this work that St. Jerome argues that the “brothers of the Lord” frequently mentioned in the gospels—and named in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:1-6—are his cousins or relatives, not his blood brothers born of Mary. St. Jerome’s work proved seminal, for from the 4th century onward, Mary’s perpetual virginity is often mentioned in patristic writings, though it was not put forward as official Church teaching.
At the first Lateran Council, in A.D. 649, that changed. Under Pope Martin 1, the Council stated:
If anyone does not in accord with the Holy Fathers acknowledge the holy and ever virgin and immaculate Mary as really and truly the Mother of God, inasmuch as she, in the fullness of time, and without seed, conceived by the Holy Spirit God the Word Himself, who before all time was born of God the Father, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate, let him be condemned.
Although not pronounced by an ecumenical council, the statement was broadly accepted by the Church, and in A.D. 681 the Sixth Ecumenical Council held at Constantinople accepted the Lateran Council’s statement on Mary’s perpetual virginity without question.
Since A.D. 681 Mary’s perpetual virginity has been a common theme in Church teaching. Today, however, it is important to clarify that Mary’s perpetual virginity in no way suggests the superiority of celibacy over the married state. God’s first commandment to men and women in the Bible is “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), and the Song of Songs celebrates married sexuality. The Church has long since repudiated the idea of the body being evil. I might also add that in the Roman Catholic Church marriage is a sacrament; celibacy is not. Mary’s perpetual virginity does not reflect a moral ideal; rather, it reflects the full acceptance of her unique role as “Mother of God” and what that role entails. To be the virgin mother of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is Mary’s personal, religious mission, a mission which she accepted on behalf of humanity at the Annunciation, saw through at the foot of the cross, continued among the disciples after the Resurrection, and continues to this day among the saints in heaven. That Mary would have other children by Joseph is thus incompatible with her unique role as ”Mother of God.”
Mary’s Immaculate Conception
The term “Immaculate Conception” refers to the belief that Mary was free from original sin from the moment of her conception. Although the Bible clearly states that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was, by a unique gift of God’s grace, preserved from original sin in order that she might make a suitable mother for Christ.
The Bible makes no direct reference to Mary’s Immaculate Conception, although the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the concept is present in Scripture by implication. Luke clearly presents Mary as an exceptionally holy person, and one could argue (and the Roman Catholic Church does) that only a flawless holiness would in any way be proportionate to the role that Mary is asked to fulfill. Such reasoning is supported by God’s demand for holiness in all those who draw near to him (“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do,” 1 Peter 1:15) and by the thoroughly biblical doctrine that God calls and fashions his saints according to his own good pleasure (Romans, chs. 8, 9). Based on such biblical principles, the Roman Catholic Church sees an incomparable holiness in Mary that was not only present at the time of the Annunciation, but that extends back to the moment of her conception. Such a position, however, took centuries to develop.
The early Church fathers all regarded Mary as holy, but none regarded her as sinless. The tendency to emphasize her holiness was powerfully stimulated, however, by the Council of Ephesus when it established Mary as “Mother of God.” By the 8th century, the belief that Mary’s holiness was flawless was firmly established throughout the Byzantine Church, and by A.D. 1099, St. Anselm, representing the Western Church, could write: “It was fitting that she be clothed with a purity so splendid that none greater under God could be conceived: (De conceptu virginali, 18). Throughout this early development, the Church never officially addressed the issue of Mary’s sinlessness; the thoughts we have concerning it are those expressed by individual men and women in a devotional context. No effort seems to have been made to reconcile the idea with the clear teaching of Scripture that sin is universal.
By the 12th century, however, the popular understanding of Mary’s holiness led to statements that she was not only the holiest of God’s creatures, but she was so holy that she was born free from any taint of original sin. Such statements triggered vigorous debate. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in spite of his deep devotion to Mary, thought the idea absurd, and the great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote: “If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never been stained with the contagion of original sin, this would have detracted from Christ’s dignity as the savior of all men” (Summa Theologica 3a, 27.2 ad 2). Clearly, if “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and if Christ is the savior of all men (1 Timothy 4:10), then Mary could not have been born sinless. Yet, the idea continued to run deeply in popular devotion.
The firmly established fact of the universality of sin and of Christ’s universal redemption precluded any possibility of the Church accepting the Immaculate Conception—until Duns Scotus (A.D. 1264-1308) stepped on to the scene. A brilliant scholar, Scotus argued that if Mary had been preserved from original sin, this would not have freed her from dependence on Christ’s redemptive work; on the contrary, “…Mary more than anyone else would have needed Christ as her Redeemer, since she would have contracted original sin…if the grace of the Mediator had not prevented this. Thus, as others needed Christ so that the sin already contracted should be remitted for them through His merit, so Mary had even greater need of a prevenient Mediator lest there be sin to be contracted and lest she contract it” [(In 3 sent. 3.1, “Per illud patet” (Vives 14:171)]. To those of us living in the 21th century, Scotus’s words may seem like scholastic quibbling, but to medieval theologians they turned the tide of opinion in favor of the Immaculate Conception. After Scotus, liturgical celebrations in Mary’s honor flourished and in 1477 Pope Sixtus IV approved the feast of the Conception of the Immaculate Virgin.
Yet, debate continued to rage for centuries. Those who opposed the Immaculate Conception—both Roman Catholics, and later, Protestants—felt that the Faith itself was at stake, while its defenders regarded their position as a matter of loyalty to Mary, “Mother of God.” It was not until the 19th century that Pope Pius IX settled the dispute for Roman Catholic Christians once and for all. On December 8, 1854, after two commissions had studied the question for six years, Pius IX issued a statement that defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of faith:
To the honor of the holy and undivided Trinity, to the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, to the exaltation of the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and by Our Own, declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her Conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the omnipotent God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore is to be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.
Ineffabilis Deus (Acta Pii IX 1.1.616)
Mary’s Assumption into Heaven
The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
Munificentissimus Deus (A.A.S., Vol. 42, 1950, p.796)
With these words, on November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII closed the final chapter on nearly 2,000 years of development concerning the person and role of Mary in the Church—at least for Roman Catholic Christians. Notice that the pronouncement rests upon the three teachings about Mary that we have already explored: She is “Mother of God,” “ever-Virgin,” and “Immaculate.” It was necessary that all three qualities be ascribed to Mary before the Assumption could be fully accepted by the Church.
As with the Immaculate Conception, there is no explicit mention in the Bible of Mary’s Assumption; yet, in the full text of Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII insists that the doctrine rests firmly on Scripture. The argument is ingenious. In Genesis 2:17 God tells Adam: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” And God is correct. Adam and Eve eat from the tree, sin enters the world, and death quickly follows. Genesis 5 is a walk through the graveyard: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether Adam lived 930 years, and then he died. When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh…Altogether Seth lived 912 years, and then he died,” and so on through ten generations to Noah. As Paul points out, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and the Bible dramatically illustrates this. But given the teaching of the Immaculate Conception, Mary is sinless! It follows, then, that since sin and its punishment of death delay the final triumph of the ordinary Christian, anyone perfectly free from sin would also be free from death and the corruption of the grave.
To flesh out such an argument, we need to probe beneath the surface of Scripture and explore an imbedded pattern in its fabric. Paul tells us that “just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19). In this passage Paul explains by analogy how the death of one man, Jesus, can save the entire human family. If we apply Paul’s analogy to Mary, we find that just as Eve, through her disobedience, proved the mother of the dead, not of the living, so Mary, through her obedience, proved the mother of the living, not of the dead. In contrast to Eve, Mary—the New Eve, by accepting God’s will at the Annunciation, brought life to men through her son, Jesus—the New Adam. And just as Eve cooperated in original sin and shared with Adam his life and the sufferings that were sin’s punishment, so Mary cooperated with Christ in giving him birth and in sharing in his life, his sufferings and his rewards. Consequently, just as things said of Adam apply proportionately to Eve, so do things said of Christ apply proportionately to Mary. As Jesus achieves a complete victory in body and soul over sin and death, so Mary achieves a complete victory in body and soul through Christ. Thus, as Jesus ascended into heaven to take his place at the right hand of the Father, so too was Mary assumed into heaven to take her place at the side of her Son.
Biblical evidence for Mary’s Assumption rests upon discerning this very subtle analogy imbedded in the fabric of Scripture, and discerning such an analogy depends upon centuries of prayerful reading and study by men and women under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. History reflects the long developmental process. During the 7th century, Pope Sergius I (A.D. 687-701) prescribed four Marian feasts: the Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, and Dormition. It isn’t until the 8th century that the word “Assumption” appears in reference to Mary, when Pope Adrian I (A.D. 772-295) uses it in place of the term “Dormition” (“falling asleep”) for the last of the four Marian feasts. Pope Leo IV (A.D. 847-855) stressed the Assumption when he prescribed a vigil for the night before the feast. During the 13th century, Pope Innocent IV held that the Assumption was a matter of conscience for the individual believer, since the Church had not taken a definitive position on it. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus supported the idea, although it never took on the importance of the Immaculate Conception, nor did it create any serious controversy. In fact, it is not until the 20th century that explicit mention is made of the Assumption in papal teaching. Pius XII mentions it in his papal encyclical, Mystici Corports (June 29, 1943), and he asks that it be carefully studied in Deiparae Virginis Mariae (May 1, 1946). The investigation that followed led to his pronouncement in Munificentissimus Deus (November 1, 1950) that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” It is significant that Pius XII made this pronouncement in the fullest exercise of his teaching authority, speaking infallibly as the Vicar of Christ. This was the first time a dogmatic pronouncement was made ex cathedra by a Pope since the First Vatican Council of 1870 pronounced that the Pope is infallible in such matters of faith and morals.
Mary’s Spiritual Motherhood
The development of thought concerning Mary took nearly 2,000 years to complete, and the end result is an exquisite and subtly detailed portrait; in it, Mary is a model of faith, the first of redeemed humanity and the prototype of every Christian. She is a woman who responded to God in absolute faith and gave her life over entirely to Christ. What we are promised in Scripture, Mary has received. The Church also teaches that she is the sinless mother of God who sits in heaven at her Son‘s right hand; in this unique position, Mary serves as the spiritual mother of each of us who make up Christ’s Church.
When Roman Catholics refer to Mary as “our Mother,” it is very easy to misunderstand the term, for it makes use of another analogy, comparison between the divine and human. The Roman Catholic understanding of Mary’s spiritual motherhood operates on at least three levels. The first is metaphor: Mary acts toward men and women as a mother acts toward her children; she is concerned about them, she prays for them, and she intercedes for them. The second level is adoptive: when Jesus gave Mary to John and John to Mary at the foot of the cross, he not only established a mother/son relationship between them, but between Mary and all believers for all time. The third level is spiritual: Mary affects a real generation in the spiritual order to all men and women in this life, although it is important to understand that her role is subsidiary to that of the Holy Spirit and Christ, and that it depends upon them. In Mary’s role as the spiritual mother of humanity, she cooperates with her Son and the Holy Spirit in the redemption of the human family.
Like the other qualities of Mary, the idea of her spiritual motherhood also took centuries to develop. No one before Pope Leo XIII (A.D. 1878-1903) went beyond the metaphorical or adoptive sense of Mary’s spiritual motherhood. Pope Benedict XIV (A.D. 740-1758) best summarizes the understanding of Mary’s role as Mother up to his time: “The Catholic Church, schooled by the Holy Ghost, has always most diligently professed, not only to venerate [honor] Mary most devoutly as the Mother of the Lord and Redeemer, the Queen of heaven and earth, but also to honor her with filial affection as the most loving Mother who was left [to the Church]…” With Leo XIII, however, the idea of Mary’s spiritual motherhood took a giant leap beyond metaphor and adoption. In a series of ten encyclicals, Leo XIII stated that Mary “is our Mother not in a human way but through Christ”; she is “at one and the same time God’s Mother and our Mother”; and “just as the most holy Virgin is the Mother of Jesus Christ, so she is the Mother of all Christians”; indeed, the “whole human race was entrusted” to Mary’s care. Pope Pius X, Leo XIII’s successor, took Leo’s thoughts a step further, and in doing so defined the real aspect of Mary’s spiritual motherhood. His words are worth quoting at length:
Is not Mary the Mother of Christ? She is therefore our Mother also…As the God-Man He acquired a body composed like that of other men, but as Saviour of our race He had a kind of spiritual and mystical Body, which is the society of those who believe in Christ. “We, the many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5)…Mary, bearing in her womb the Saviour, may be said to have borne also all those whose life was contained in the life of the Saviour. All of us, therefore, who are united with Christ and are, as the Apostle says, “Members of His body, made from His flesh and from His bones: (Ephesians 5:30), have come forth from the womb of Mary as a body united to its head. Hence, in a spiritual and mystical sense, we are called children of Mary; and she is the Mother of us all…the Most Blessed Virgin is at once the Mother of God and of man…
(Ad diem illum, 1904)
As a Mother in this sense, Mary is entrusted with the care of the human family in a direct, spiritual way. Hence, Roman Catholics see Mary as actively involved in the redemption of the human family, as nurturing her children, and as bringing them to Christ, who alone provides their salvation. Consequently, Mary holds a unique and very important place in the life of the Church: she is to a Christian what a mother is to a child.
Nothing of what the Church believes about Mary should in any way detract from or add to what Christ did on the cross: as Paul tells us, all men and women “are justified freely by…grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). It is a very important theological distinction that in the Roman Catholic Church the role of Mary is discussed under the topic of ecclesiology, the study of the Church, not under soteriology, the study of salvation. It is Christ alone who saves, not Mary.
In spite of the Church’s careful definitions, popular devotion to Mary sometimes goes astray. At times in the history of the Church—as well as among individual believers—Mary is incorrectly pictured in a position or role that she does not hold. We can all think of such instances. When this happens, it is wrong. Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document that discusses Mary’s role in the Church, is careful to point this out:
The various forms of piety towards the Mother of God, which the Church has approved within the limits of sound and orthodox doctrine, according to the dispositions and understanding of the faithful, ensure that while the mother is honored, the Son through whom all things have their being (cf. Col. 1:15-16) and in whom it has pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell (cf. Col. 1:19) is rightly known, loved and glorified and his commandments are observed…[The Church] strongly urges theologians and preachers of the word of God to be careful to refrain as much from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the Mother of God…Let them rightly illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always refer to Christ…[but] let them carefully refrain from whatever might by word or deed lead the separated brethren or any other whatsoever into error…
(Lumen Gentium, VIII, 4)
I should close this reflection on Mary by saying that the Church rightly takes a very cautious attitude toward approving any alleged apparitions or private revelations associated with Mary. Although such reports receive a great deal of publicity and often attract believers, very few have received any official sanction by the Church. When an apparition or revelation is alleged, the Church may, at its discretion, subject it to a review, which is quite rigorous. The outcome of such reviews falls into one of four categories: 1) those that are false or intentionally deceptive; 2) those on which the Church takes no position at all; 3) those that receive a “negative approval”; and 4) those that receive “positive affirmation.” The first two categories are self-explanatory, and the vast majority of apparitions and personal revelations fall into them. The apparitions of Mary at Guadalupe and Medjugorje fall into the second category, on which the Church has taken no position. Of those that receive a “negative approval,” the Church merely states that the apparition or revelation contains nothing contrary to Scripture or Church teaching, and believers are free to accept the message as their individual consciences dictate. The apparitions of Mary at Lourdes and Fatima fall into this category of “negative approval.” Very few apparitions or private revelations have received the Church’s “positive affirmation.” A “positive affirmation” does not guarantee authenticity; it only means that the experience is “worthy of pious belief.”
“Crucifix,” Church of the Holy Trinity, Fatima, Portugal.
(Designed by German artist Robert Schad, the crucifix in the newly consecrated basilica at Fatima (2007) has generated enormous controversy. People love it or hate it. Schad describes his crucifix as a “stylized Christ which pays tribute to all the world’s cultures; critics call it a “hideous monstrosity.”)
In John 19: 19 we read, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Hebrew (NIV, “Aramaic”), Latin and Greek.” In The Creator beyond Time and Space (Costa Mesa, CA: Word for Today, 1995), Chuck Missler argues that the Hebrew phrase forms an acronym, the first letter of each of four Hebrew words spelling YHWH, the tetragrammaton for the name of God. Recognizing this, claims Missler, prompts the chief priests “to protest to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews” (John 19: 21). I had read Missler’s argument many years ago, and trusting it, incorporated it into my teaching.
I was wrong.
After listening to my lecture on John 19: 19, Russ Wills, one of our learned LBS students, asked for clarification on a point of Hebrew grammar in the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” In researching an answer, I found that Missler is wrong, and that I had perpetuated his error. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!
Here’s the scoop. The Gospel according to John is written in Greek, as are all of the New Testament books. The Greek phrase, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” in John 19: 19 is: ’Ihsoûs ó Nazoraîos ó Basileùs tôn ’Ioudaìov. A Latin translation would read: “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum,” (from which we get the acronym so often seen in Christian art: INRI). Missler claims that the Hebrew would have read: “Yeshua HaNazarei v Melech HaYehudim (the “v” is “w,” in English), making the tetragrammaton, YHWH.
But here’s the thing: Grammatically, the Greek construction used on the sign of the cross is an appositive; there is no conjunctive “and” in the Greek (kaí or dè), nor is there in a correct English translation. In order to make Missler’s acronym YHWH work, the Greek needs a conjunctive and, or waw in Hebrew (“Jesus of Nazareth, and the King of the Jews”). It does not have one. Thus correctly translating the Greek into Hebrew forms the acronym YHHH, not YHWH.
I don’t know of any instances in Old Testament Hebrew in which an appositive construction has a conjunctive (waw) when referring to the same person (e.g, Judges 11: 25: “Are you better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab?”). Adding a conjunctive would obviously create confusion: “Are you better than Balak son of Zippor and the king of Moab?” In the same way, “Jesus of Nazareth and the King of the Jews” invites the impression that two people are nailed to the cross: Jesus of Nazareth and the King of the Jews!
As Job said in Steven Mitchell’s translation: “I take back everything I said, and I am content about being dust” (Job 41: 6)!
This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
—John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
We arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
All photos of our pilgrimage are by Ana Maria Vargas
We arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela late Sunday afternoon, April 28, 2013, completing the “Portuguese Route” of the Camiño de Santiago, officially becoming “peregrinos.”
We were eighteen people among millions who have made this journey for over 1,000 years, a journey of faith, honoring St. James.
Recall that when Jesus chose his twelve disciples, four of them were intimate friends and business partners: Peter and his brother Andrew; James and his brother John. Peter, Andrew, James and John were born in Bethsaida, a village just a few miles north of the Sea of Galilee: the four boys grew up together. James and John were both sons of Zebedee and his wife, Salome, who was the sister-in-law of Mary, making James and John Jesus’ cousins. The five men—Peter, Andrew, James, John and Zebedee—were partners in a commercial fishing business on the Sea of Galilee.
Among the twelve disciples, Peter, James and John made up Jesus’ inner circle. Only they were chosen to witness the Transfiguration. James is the first Apostle to be martyred, as we read in Acts 12: 2—“It was about this time [A.D. 44] that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.”
Tradition holds that James left Palestine sometime after Pentecost, A.D. 32 and took the Gospel to Iberia, modern day Galicia in Spain, returning sometime before A.D. 44. After his execution by Herod, tradition holds that his mortal remains were transported to Santiago, where they were buried. James is the patron Saint of Spain, and in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches his feast day is July 25; in Orthodox churches it is April 30.
The earliest records of visits paid to St. James at Santiago date from the 8th century, and the first pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees date from the 10th century; pilgrims began arriving from England in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Pope Calixtus II (c. 1065-1124) was a great proponent of the pilgrimage, and a beautiful 12th century illuminated manuscript bearing his name became the standard “guidebook” for pilgrims, Codex Calixtus.
Construction of the Cathedral began in 1075, and it was consecrated in 1128; like the Cathedral at Tui it reflects a synthesis of the Romanesque and Gothic styles. The baroque façade was added in 1740, as was the baroque interior altarpiece, the focal point of which is St. James himself.
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Inside the Cathedral, looking down the central nave.
St. James looks down upon the perigrinos from behind the altar.
The crypt below the main altar houses the relics of St. James and two of his companions: St. Theodorus and St. Athanasius. The crypt is the final pilgrim destination.
We celebrated the “Pilgrims’ Mass” at noon on Monday, the day after our arrival. It was perhaps the most beautiful and moving Mass I have ever attended. Our “Camino” was one of the highlights of my life, and Mass at the Cathedral was the greatest highlight of all. The most moving moment was at the end of Mass, before the dismissal, with the swinging of the Botafumeiro, dispensing clouds of incense.
Video by Libby Allman
On our final day of pilgrimage we walk from Padron to Santiago, completing our “Camino.” It has been a glorious journey, filled with wonder, enchantment and enormous beauty.
We can know God through many means: the beauty of the world around us; the beauty of God’s Word; the beauty of one another. We only have to open our eyes and take time to see. And that’s what pilgrimage is about: taking time to see.
Vineyards producing “wine to gladden men’s hearts” (Psalm 104: 15).
A simple life of growing crops . . .
. . . and rearing sheep.
The “peregrinos” celebrate as the mile markers drop into single digits!
On “The Way” we passed through towns and villages; farms and pastures; vineyards and gardens. We met fellow peregrinos, pilgrims on “The Way” from Europe, Asia and Africa; pilgrims walking and riding bicycles; pilgrims, young and old, rich and poor. I had read that no one really knows why he or she walks the Camino. Along “The Way,” the saying goes: “the Camino will provide.”
And it certainly does.
The Camino forces us to slow down; move inward; notice the world around us; be gentle with ourselves; forgive our weaknesses—and forgive one another. “No one knows what it’s like to walk in my shoes,” one says by way of excuse. On the Camino we all walk in the same shoes. Together we empathize; together we love; together we celebrate the simple joy of being alive and of being together.
Odd, the stuff we think about on extended walks!
Over the next four days we journey from Arcade to Pontevedra; Pontevedra to Caldas do Rei; Caldas do Rei to Padron; and finally Padron to Santiago. Magical days, each one a blessing of inconceivable richness.
Pilgrimage is a metaphor for life. We all start out at the same place. We have tough uphill climbs and easy down hill strolls; long, flat stretches and quiet rest stops; intimate companionship and blessed solitude. I mentioned earlier the rhythm of our days: rise early; start out fresh; walk briskly; find a comfortable pace; let your mind wander.
This July I’ll be 66 years old, and I’m very much like an old car: I’m fast and easy on the downhill; OK on the flats; and I struggle on the uphill, huffing and puffing. Thankfully, no parts have fallen off along the way!
During the first hours on the trail I notice little physical things: my left foot and my right hip hurts. A bit later, my right hip doesn’t hurt anymore; now my left knee does. Oh, look at that: my left foot stopped hurting somewhere along the way! Funny, I didn’t notice when.
As the day goes on the minor pains disappear and I become much more aware of the walk’s rhythm, its easy flow. By late morning I begin noticing details along the trail. It’s early spring, there has been a lot of rain and the flowers have just begun to bloom. Wisteria abound.
Beautiful wisteria colors our pilgrimage. It is everywhere; a symphony in lavender!
My grandmother had wisteria in her backyard. I haven’t seen wisteria in decades. Then again, I probably have; I’ve just not noticed.
That’s one of the great blessings of pilgrimage. The journey allows us to see.
Last night I became violently ill. Yesterday we had tapas at the end of the day, enjoying one another’s company in a seafood bar near the water. About half of us had oysters; I had a double portion, along with a crab.
Half our group spent half the night throwing up!
As I said, pilgrimage is a metaphor for life. Sometimes s*%# happens!
But we get over it, and the journey continues.
After finding our “legs” from Valença to Porriño, the following days settled into a comfortable routine: rising early, hitting the trail fresh and settling into our walk, arriving at our daily destination during late afternoon, averaging around 15 miles each day. I had read that the “Portuguese” route is the most beautiful of the many Camino routes one can walk, and it certainly proved to be exquisite.
Walking from Porriño to Arcade the terrain is stunning as we cross the Louro Valley, and after a long, gentle climb leave asphalt and follow a beautiful trail through thick forest. In classical Greek arkadia evokes a pastoral vision of nature, the unspoiled domain of the god Pan, a virgin wilderness replete with frolicking dryads and nymphs.
Arcadian literature emerges in classical Greece, finds full expression in Virgil’s Eclogues and settles into convention in Sir Philip Sydney’s 1590 Arcadia, a sprawling romance of shepherds, nymphs and intrigue. Written to entertain his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Sydney’s Arcadia consists of five “books” or “acts,” mirroring the 5-part structure of classical dramaturgy: exposition, action, complication, reversal, catastrophe. The narrative arc is in chronological order with dazzling sets of poems linking each of the five books. Enormously influential in its day, hardly anyone reads Sidney’s Arcadia today. As one wag has put it: “The Arcadia has not suffered the indignity of too much popularity.”
All of this stuff rattled around inside my head as I trekked along, whistling “The Happy Wanderer”:
I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.
My knapsack on my back!
Dr. Creasy trekking the forest, on the lookout for nymphs!
For the past three decades I’ve led well over 100 teaching tours to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Italy and various islands throughout the Mediterranean. But a pilgrimage is very different from a Bible teaching tour. A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey, an exploration of one’s faith, probing its nooks and crannies. On “The Way” we will cover a lot of miles, but we will also take a journey into the depths of our hearts. I’m reminded of David saying in Psalm 139: 23—“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.”
That’s a brave thing to ask of God. When we awoke this morning in Valença, Portugal I think all of us had anxious thoughts, wondering if we were up to the challenge of walking “The Way.” I know I did. Would my knees hold up? Would my feet sprout blisters? Would I make it over the hills and mountains, through the valleys and across the streams? Would I be able to walk day after day, mile after mile?
With those anxious thoughts in mind, we left Valença and headed toward Tui, Spain. Just outside of town we saw the beautiful River Miño, dividing Portugal and Spain and the Tui Cathedral in the distance.
Our first group photo, with the Tui Cathedral in the background.
We set a good pace, fresh as we were, easily making it to the Cathedral by midmorning. Perhaps the first Gothic cathedral built in all of Iberia, the Tui Cathedral dates from the 12th century, fusing the Romanesque and Gothic styles. The organ is especially beautiful. Containing some parts from 1410 (perhaps the oldest organ parts in the world), but mostly from the 18th century (the age of Bach), the four-manual organ was rebuilt in 1995 by Gerhard Grenzing.
The beautiful pipe organ of Tui Cathedral, Spain.
From the Cathedral, the Camino descends into the Louro Valley and on to Porrino, a stretch of about 18 km, or 11 miles—an easy day for our first steps on “The Way,” just getting a feel for the journey. Although the trail snakes through forested areas and villages, it is clearly marked by milestones pointing us toward our destination.
One of many milestones along “The Way.”
As I walked along, the scenery was beautiful: woodland hills, tiny villages and fields abloom with flowers. Before we left San Diego weather reports warned of chill and storm on the Camino; yet, bright skies and crisp weather ruled the day. God clearly smiled down upon us!
Early in the morning our group tended to walk together, gradually stringing out as the day went on. I made an effort to talk to most everyone along the way, but by afternoon I settled into my own pace and my own thoughts. This is a very different tour from any I had led before. I am not really the leader; I am a participant. That hasn’t happened in a long while. I’m always the guy standing in front of class talking, always the one planning the itinerary, pacing the trip and shaping the conversations.
Today was very different. I thought a lot about how I came to be here, and I thanked God for the opportunity, the resources and the health to make such a pilgrimage. I was just scratching the surface of what lay beneath, but it was a start.
Our journey would hold many surprises and insights.
In Porrino, finally—with delicious tapas: braised octopus, with olive oil & paprika!