Encyclopedia of Religion
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William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Title generally applied to the birth mother of Jesus of Nazareth.

Christian scholars are not united in their understanding of the role and status accorded to the birth mother of Jesus. Within the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary has been venerated and indeed Mariology introduces a major female character into Christian doctrine and worship. Protestants, on the other hand, have downplayed Mary's role, implying that too much emphasis on Mary constitutes idolatry.

Luke's infancy narrative, the most detailed scriptural account of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, portrays Mary as an "active, personal agent in the drama of God's incarnation." Rosemary Radford Ruether (1979) argues that Luke's gospel narrative transforms Mary from being the historic mother of Jesus into an independent agent cooperating with God in the redemption of all men and women. Her humble obedience to the angelic messenger is recorded in these well-known words: "Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Through "Mary's song," the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-53), she proclaims herself as the embodiment of Israel. Through her God-ordained role, she becomes a key figure in the unfolding drama of the entrance of God into human history.

Mary can be understood as symbolizing the new Eve, as Jesus her son represents the second Adam. The concept of Mary as a perpetual virgin traces back to the early church fathers Ambrose and Jerome and their belief that the power and mystery of the sexual drive was associated with evil. By the late fourth century, churches were being dedicated to Mary on or near the site of a former temple belonging to a goddess. At this stage, Ruether argues, Marian devotion was appearing on two levels: Mary the virgin who was docilely obedient to the divine will, and Mary of the people, an earth Mother venerated for power in coping with natural crises.

By the fifth century, debate had arisen over the application of the title "Mother of God" (theotokos ) to Mary. From Egypt also emerged the belief in Mary's bodily assumption, which became papal decree in 1950. Ruether argues that in medieval theology Mary had become representative of redeemed humanity, and from the twelfth through to the fifteenth century, her veneration increased in inverse proportion to the downgrading of ordinary women. In 1854, the doctrine of the immaculate conception was declared Roman Catholic dogma, although the belief that Mary had been preserved from all actual sin is Augustinian in origin.

Three aspects help to account for the obscurity of Marian devotion in Protestant thought: strong emphasis on the Bible; the abolition of monasticism by the Reformers, together with the consequent rejection of virginity as the highest expression of Christian devotion; and a diminished emphasis on the "feminine" as a symbol of the church in relation to God (Ruether 1979).

The Virgin Mary encompasses the mystery and honor accorded the celibate state. In the words of Marina Warner (1985), she represents a central place in the history of Western attitudes to women. In fact, the sinfulness of Eve and the sinlessness of Mary are two prevalent themes illustrating attitudes toward women as the early church became institutionalized. A similar message was conveyed by the evil of sexual intercourse and the purity of celibacy. Spirituality and natural womanliness, throughout most periods of Christian church history, have been considered incompatible. Women who wished to embark on a spiritual journey needed to leave behind their sexuality. Virginity became the criterion for female spirituality in much the same way circumcision had been the sign of God's elect in the Old Testament. A cloistered environment offered women a "world that suggested and symbolized spiritual equivalence" (Nason-Clark 1993).

She . . . had no peer
Either in our first mother or in all women
Who were to come. But alone of all her sex
She pleased the Lord
Caelius Sedulius       (quoted in Warner 1985:xxv)

Nancy Nason-Clark


N. Nason-Clark, "Gender Relations in Contemporary Christian Organizations," in The Sociology of Religion , ed. W. E. Hewitt (Toronto: Butterworth, 1993): 215-234

R. R. Ruether, Mary (London: SCM, 1979)

M. Warner, Alone of All Her Sex (London: Picador, 1985).

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