The worship of the Virgin Mary is central to the life of the modern Catholic Church. In its dogmatic teachings she is held to have been the Mother of God, a perpetual virgin, conceived without sin and transported to heaven without bodily dissolution. She has her own prayers: the Ave Maria, the Salve Regina, and the devotion of the Rosary. Her feasts are dotted through the Church’s calendar. Her relics and shrines are to be found from Walsingham to Guadalupe. Her image adorns the walls of countless pious households and, although the aesthetic poverty of today’s saccharine and tinselly Catholicism makes it easy to forget the fact, she has been the inspiration of some of the finest achievements of the human spirit: the cathedrals of Chartres and Strasbourg; the paintings of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, and Velasquez; the poetry of Dante, Petrarch, and Yeats; the music of Palestrina.
Yet to contemplate the present dimensions of the Marian cult, in all its mixture of sublimity and tawdriness, and then to look back to the beginnings of Christianity is to be confronted by an acute historical problem. How and why did this worship of Mary develop? It played no part in the original Christian Church and Mary herself is a relatively inconspicuous figure in the Gospels. How many present-day worshippers of the Virgin realize just how few references there are to her in the New Testament and how flimsy a foundation they provide for the massive doctrinal structure which has been reared upon them? It is not just that the traditional nativity scene turns out not to be there at all (there is no mention of a stable; the “manager” could equally well have been translated as “crib”; the ox and ass come from a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah).
More disconcerting is the notable infrequency of the Virgin’s appearances. She is mentioned only twice by Saint Mark (once in a disparaging context). Saint Matthew includes her in his brief account of the nativity, but virtually omits her thereafter. Saint John brings her in twice, once at the marriage at Cana, where she is apparently rebuked by Christ (“Woman, what have I to do with thee?”), once at the foot of the cross. Saint Luke’s more developed narrative describes the annunciation, visitation, nativity, and purification, but even he mentions Mary only once thereafter. In none of the Gospels does Christ appear to his mother after his resurrection, though in the Acts of the Apostles she is once seen among them after the Ascension. Her death goes completely unmentioned.
The Evangelists thus offer little support for the view that Mary was unusually virtuous or that she had any influence on Jesus; indeed Mark leaves the impression that she rejected his mission. The Epistles of Saint Paul, which mention her only once, confirm that there was no initial Marian devotion in the apostolic church. In short, of the four modern Catholic dogmas about Mary …