Mary of Nazareth, biological mother of Jesus believed by Christendom to be the Messiah, Savior, and Son of God, is indisputably historical. She is, as well, a complex tapestry of history, legend, cult, theology, spirituality, liturgical feasts, piety, and artistic imagination. Mary has been the subject of intense devotion and dispute for millennia. In a universal way she can be considered part of the ancient goddess tradition of the archetypal Great Mother, like the Indian goddess Kali, the eternal feminine principle of life.
By the 2nd century in the Christian Church East and West, Mariology, the study of Mary, produced traditions in which the Church fathers idealized Mary. Mary-the New Eve-was viewed as the obedient female who reversed the disobedience of the first Eve, and makes possible the coming into the world the New Adam, Christ, or Emmanuel. History is replete with scholarly writings and Marian iconography, including paintings by great masters, Michelangelo's Pieta, popular devotions such as the 13th-century Angelus, the 15th-century Litany of Loreto, Hail Mary, and Rosary. The granting to Mary in 431 C.E. the title of Theotokos, meaning Mother of God, at the Council of Ephesus is but one of the many Church councils to theologically advance the importance of Mary. There is a long history of Marian apparitions or visions of Mary appearing to ordinary people, such as the vision of Mary at Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1531 or Bernadette's visions at Lourdes in 1858 to the later 20th-century phenomena of apparitions of Mary reported in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. The titles of Mary-Queen of Peace, Mirror of Justice, Mother of the Disappeared-reveal an enduring influence across generations, races, and cultures.
Contemporary critiques, articulated by feminists, find the patriarchal and misogynist influences in Western culture and religious tradition often provided a distorted vision of Mary. Passive female characteristics of submission, humility, and docility were projected onto Mary, and in turn, onto all women. Such representations offer an incomplete interpretation of both the historical Mary and the symbol that Mary is as a timeless model of courage, faith, and discipleship. Renewed interest in Mary, explored across religious and ancient spiritual traditions alike, is best exemplified in the title of the book Mary Is for Everyone (1997), a publication of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary established in 1967 for the purpose of enhancing understanding of Mary across faith traditions.
BIBLICAL ROOTS AND ROUTES
The search for the historical Mary takes its beginning point in the New Testament or Christian Scriptures. Little quantitatively exists in the books of the New Testament relative to biographical material on Mary. The Gospel of Luke provides most of the biblical material on Mary. The first chapter contains the story of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel announces the news to the young teenager Mary that she is "blessed among women," having found "favor" with God. She is to conceive and bear a son and his name will be Jesus, Emmanuel, meaning "God-with-us" (Luke 1:26-38). The Gospel of Luke also contains the universally famous prayer of Mary called the Magnificat, a prayer of praise attributed to Mary in accepting the angel's message to her (Luke 1:46-55).
The birth at Bethlehem, the customary presentation of the child Jesus by Mary and Joseph in Jerusalem, cautionary words to Mary foreshadowing her suffering, references to Mary "pondering" what she hears in her heart, the story of Jesus being lost and then found preaching in the Temple, and the scene where Mary is seemingly ignored by Jesus (Luke 3:31-35) provide brief windows of insight into the mother of Jesus. She is either "near the cross" as Jesus dies (John 19:25), or, in the synoptic gospels-Matthew, Mark, and Luke-"at a distance" and not mentioned by name (Matt. 27:55, Mark 15:40, Luke 23:49). Luke, also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, places Mary in the Upper Room after the Ascension (Acts 1:14). There is a vast field of research open on Mary, and modern biblical scholarship has been engaged in renewed attention to Marian texts in the New Testament, such as those previously identified along with the infancy narratives in Matthew and the Woman in the Apocalypse. The primacy of various texts and their interpretation divide Roman Catholic and Protestant views on Mary. Scripture scholar Raymond Brown has suggested that Protestants take their starting point on Mary from Mark 3:31-35, and Catholics begin with the Annunciation in Luke 1:39-46. In short, mainline biblically based Protestant traditions believe Mary's miraculous conception of Jesus through the action of the Holy Spirit and accept her revered position in being the mother of the promised redeemer. They consider that after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph produced other biological children. Most Protestant traditions shy away from the kind of Mariology that marks Catholicism.
Catholic tradition builds from and beyond the biblical texts to hold the singularity of Mary as perpetual virgin and mother solely of Jesus, a chaste relationship with Joseph, substantive doctrinal and dogmatic teachings on Mary, and much popular piety and ritual surrounding devotion to and veneration of Mary. For example, the Catholic Church holds as dogma-a permanent article of faith-the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The Immaculate Conception was declared dogmatic teaching in 1854, highlighting Mary's singularity as "blessed among women," which enabled her to escape the claims of original sin at the time of her conception in her mother's womb. In 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Virgin Mother's Assumption, which teaches that at the time of her death Mary was assumed-taken up body and soul-into the glory of heaven.
Both these dogmatic promulgations were the climax of centuries of belief and provided post-Reformation clarifications about Mary that intentionally distinguished Protestantism from Catholicism. Since the renewals in theology and practice inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), dialogue across Christian denominations and with other faith traditions, the development of feminist interpretation, appreciation for Marian devotion across cultures, resurgence of interest in the intersections of depth psychology and feminine spirituality, Mary, as the feminine face of the divine, continues to be the subject of intense devotion and dialogue.