Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > ARCIC > AGREED STATEMENT > A. Mary
full document
for printing


  PREFACE - select
A. Mary According to the Scripture
  CONCLUSION - select


  1. We remain convinced that the holy Scriptures, as the Word of God written, bear normative witness to God's plan of salvation, so it is to them that this statement first turns. Indeed, it is impossible to be faithful to Scripture and not to take Mary seriously. We recognize, however, that for some centuries Anglicans and Roman Catholics have interpreted the Scriptures while divided from one another. In reflecting together on the Scriptures' testimony concerning Mary, we have discovered more than just a few tantalizing glimpses into the life of a great saint. We have found ourselves meditating with wonder and gratitude on the whole sweep of salvation history: creation, election, the Incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ, the gift of the Spirit in the Church, and the final vision of eternal life for all God's people in the new creation.

  2. In the following paragraphs, our use of Scripture seeks to draw upon the whole tradition of the Church, in which rich and varied readings have been employed. In the New Testament, the Old Testament is commonly interpreted typologically:1 events and images are understood with specific reference to Christ. This approach is further developed by the Fathers and by medieval preachers and authors. The Reformers stressed the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture, and called for a return to the centrality of the Gospel message. Historical-critical approaches attempted to discern the meaning intended by the biblical authors, and to account for texts' origins. Each of these readings has its limitations, and may give rise to exaggerations or imbalances: typology can become extravagant, Reformation emphases reductionist, and critical methods overly historicist. More recent approaches to Scripture point to the range of possible readings of a text, notably its narrative, rhetorical and sociological dimensions. In this statement, we seek to integrate what is valuable from each of these approaches, as both correcting and contributing to our use of Scripture. Further, we recognize that no reading of a text is neutral, but each is shaped by the context and interest of its readers. Our reading has taken place within the context of our dialogue in Christ, for the sake of that communion which is his will. It is thus an ecclesial and ecumenical reading, seeking to consider each passage about Mary in the context of the New Testament as a whole, against the background of the Old, and in the light of Tradition.

    The Witness of Scripture: A Trajectory of Grace and Hope

  3. The Old Testament bears witness to God's creation of men and women in the divine image, and God's loving call to covenant relationship with himself. Even when they disobeyed, God did not abandon human beings to sin and the power of death. Again and again God offered a covenant of grace. God made a covenant with Noah that never again would "all flesh" be destroyed by the waters of a flood. The Lord made a covenant with Abraham that, through him, all the families of the earth might be blessed. Through Moses he made a covenant with Israel that, obedient to his word, they might be a holy nation and a priestly people. The prophets repeatedly summoned the people to turn back from disobedience to the gracious God of the covenant, to receive God's word and let it bear fruit in their lives. They looked forward to a renewal of the covenant in which there would be perfect obedience and perfect self-giving: "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33). In the prophecy of Ezekiel, this hope is spoken of not only in terms of washing and cleansing, but also of the gift of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-28).

  4. The covenant between the Lord and his people is several times described as a love affair between God and Israel, the virgin daughter of Zion, bride and mother: "I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine" (Ezekiel 16:8; cf. Isaiah 54:1 and Galatians 4:27). Even in punishing faithlessness, God remains forever faithful, promising to restore the covenant relationship and to draw together the scattered people (Hosea 1-2; Jeremiah 2:2, 31:3; Isaiah 62:4-5). Nuptial imagery is also used within the New Testament to describe the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21-33; Revelation 21:9). In parallel to the prophetic image of Israel as the bride of the Lord, the Solomonic literature of the Old Testament characterizes Holy Wisdom as the handmaid of the Lord (Proverbs 8:.22f; cf. Wisdom 7:22-26) similarly emphasizing the theme of responsiveness and creative activity. In the New Testament these prophetic and wisdom motifs are combined (Luke 11:49) and fulfilled in the coming of Christ.

  5. The Scriptures also speak of the calling by God of particular persons, such as David, Elijah, Jeremiah and Isaiah, so that within the people of God certain special tasks may be performed. They bear witness to the gift of the Spirit or the presence of God enabling them to accomplish God's will and purpose. There are also profound reflections on what it is to be known and called by God from the very beginning of one's existence (Psalm 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:4-5). This sense of wonder at the prevenient grace of God is similarly attested in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul, when he speaks of those who are "called according to God's purpose," affirming that those whom God "foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son … And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:28-30; cf. 2 Timothy 1:9). The preparation by God for a prophetic task is exemplified in the words spoken by the angel to Zechariah before the birth of John the Baptist: "He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15; cf. Judges 13:3-5).

  6. Following through the trajectory of the grace of God and the hope for a perfect human response which we have traced in the preceding paragraphs, Christians have, in line with the New Testament writers, seen its culmination in the obedience of Christ. Within this Christological context, they have discerned a similar pattern in the one who would receive the Word in her heart and in her body, be overshadowed by the Spirit and give birth to the Son of God. The New Testament speaks not only of God's preparation for the birth of the Son, but also of God's election, calling and sanctification of a Jewish woman in the line of those holy women, such as Sarah and Hannah, whose sons fulfilled the purposes of God for his people. Paul speaks of the Son of God being born "in the fullness of time" and "born of a woman, born under the Law" (Galatians 4:4). The birth of Mary's son is the fulfilment of God's will for Israel, and Mary's part in that fulfilment is that of free and unqualified consent in utter self-giving and trust: "Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38; cf. Psalm 123:2).

    Mary in Matthew's Birth Narrative

  7. While various parts of the New Testament refer to the birth of Christ, only two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, each from its own perspective, narrate the story of his birth and refer specifically to Mary. Matthew entitles his book "the Genesis of Jesus Christ" (1:1) echoing the way the Bible begins (Genesis 1:1). In the genealogy (1:1-18) he traces the genesis of Jesus back through the Exile to David and ultimately to Abraham. He notes the unlikely role played in the providential ordering of Israel's salvation history by four women, each of whom stretches the boundaries of the Covenant. This emphasis on continuity with the old is counter-balanced in the following account of Jesus' birth by an emphasis on the new (cf. 9:17), a type of re-creation by the Holy Spirit, revealing new possibilities of salvation from sin (1:21) and of the presence of "God with us" (1:23). Matthew stretches the boundaries further in holding together Jesus' Davidic descent through the legal fatherhood of Joseph, and his birth from the Virgin according to Isaiah's prophecy – "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son" (Isaiah 7:14 LXX).

  8. In Matthew's account, Mary is mentioned in conjunction with her son in such phrases as "Mary his mother" or "the child and his mother" (2:11,13,20,21). Amid all the political intrigue, murder, and displacement of this tale, one quiet moment of reverence has captured the Christian imagination: the Magi, whose profession it is to know when the time has come, kneel in homage to the infant King with his royal mother (2:2,11). Matthew emphasizes the continuity of Jesus Christ with Israel's messianic expectation and the newness that comes with the birth of the Saviour. Descent from David by whatever route, and birth at the ancestral royal city, disclose the first. The virginal conception discloses the second.

    Mary in Luke's Birth Narrative

  9. In Luke's infancy narrative, Mary is prominent from the beginning. She is the link between John the Baptist and Jesus, whose miraculous births are laid out in deliberate parallel. She receives the angel's message and responds in humble obedience (1:38). She travels on her own from Galilee to Judaea to visit Elizabeth (1:40) and in her song proclaims the eschatological reversal which will be at the heart of her son's proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Mary is the one who in recollection looks beneath the surface of events (2:19,51) and represents the inwardness of faith and suffering (2:35). She speaks on Joseph's behalf in the scene at the Temple and, although chided for her initial incomprehension, continues to grow in understanding (2:48-51).

  10. Within the Lucan narrative, two particular scenes invite reflection on the place of Mary in the life of the Church: the Annunciation and the visit to Elizabeth. These passages emphasize that Mary is in a unique way the recipient of God's election and grace. The Annunciation story recapitulates several incidents in the Old Testament, notably the births of Isaac (Genesis 18:10-14), Samson (Judges 13:2-5) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-20). The angel's greeting also evokes the passages in Isaiah (66:7-11), Zechariah (9:9) and Zephaniah (3:14-17) that call on the "Daughter of Zion", i.e., Israel awaiting with joy the arrival of her Lord. The choice of ‘overshadow' (episkiasei) to describe the action of the Holy Spirit in the virginal conception (Luke 1:35) echoes the cherubim overshadowing the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:20), the presence of God overshadowing the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:35), and the brooding of the Spirit over the waters at the creation (Genesis 1:2). At the Visitation, Mary's song (Magnificat) mirrors the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), broadening its scope so that Mary becomes the one who speaks for all the poor and oppressed who long for God's reign of justice to be established. Just as in Elizabeth's salutation the mother receives a blessing of her own, distinct from that of her child (1:42), so also in the Magnificat Mary predicts that "all generations will call me blessed" (1:48). This text provides the scriptural basis for an appropriate devotion to Mary, though never in separation from her role as mother of the Messiah.

  11. In the Annunciation story, the angel calls Mary the Lord's "favoured one" (Greek , a perfect participle meaning ‘one who has been and remains endowed with grace') in a way that implies a prior sanctification by divine grace with a view to her calling. The angel's announcement connects Jesus' being "holy" and "Son of God" with his conception by the Holy Spirit (1:35). The virginal conception then points to the divine sonship of the Saviour who will be born of Mary. The infant not yet born is described by Elizabeth as the Lord: "And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (1:43). The trinitarian pattern of divine action in these scenes is striking: the Incarnation of the Son is initiated by the Father's election of the Blessed Virgin and is mediated by the Holy Spirit. Equally striking is Mary's fiat, her ‘Amen' given in faith and freedom to God's powerful Word communicated by the angel (1:38).

  12. In Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, the praise offered to God by the shepherds parallels the Magi's adoration of the infant in Matthew's account. Again, this is the scene that constitutes the still centre at the heart of the birth story: "They found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger" (Luke 2:16). In accordance with the Law of Moses, the baby is circumcised and presented in the Temple. On this occasion, Simeon has a special word of prophecy for the mother of the Christ-child, that "a sword will pierce your own soul" (Luke 2:34-35). From this point on Mary's pilgrimage of faith leads to the foot of the cross.

    The Virginal Conception

  13. The divine initiative in human history is proclaimed in the good news of the virginal conception through the action of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 1:34-35). The virginal conception may appear in the first place as an absence, i.e., the absence of a human father. It is in reality, however, a sign of the presence and work of the Spirit. Belief in the virginal conception is an early Christian tradition adopted and developed independently by Matthew and Luke.2 For Christian believers, it is an eloquent sign of the divine sonship of Christ and of new life through the Spirit. The virginal conception also points to the new birth of every Christian, as an adopted child of God. Each is "born again (from above) by water and the Spirit" (John 3:3-5). Seen in this light, the virginal conception, far from being an isolated miracle, is a powerful expression of what the Church believes about her Lord, and about our salvation.

    Mary and the True Family of Jesus

  14. After these birth stories, it comes as something of a surprise to read the episode, narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels, which addresses the question of Jesus' true family. Mark tells us that Jesus' "mother and his brothers" (Mark 3:31) come and stand outside, wanting to speak to him.3 Jesus in response distances himself from his natural family: he speaks instead of those gathered around him, his ‘eschatological family', that is to say, "whoever does the will of God" (3:35). For Mark, Jesus' natural family, including his own mother, seems at this stage to lack understanding of the true nature of his mission. But that will be the case also with his disciples (e.g. 8:33-35, 9:30-33, 10:35-40). Mark indicates that growth in understanding is inevitably slow and painful, and that genuine faith in Christ is not reached until the encounter with the cross and the empty tomb.

  15. In Luke, the stark contrast between the attitude towards Jesus of his natural and eschatological family is avoided (Luke 8:19-21). In a later scene (11:27-28) the woman in the crowd who utters a blessing on his mother, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked", is corrected: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it". But that form of blessing, as Luke sees it, definitely includes Mary who, from the beginning of his account, was ready to let everything in her life happen according to God's word (1:38).

  16. In his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke notes that between the ascension of the Risen Lord and the feast of Pentecost the apostles were gathered in Jerusalem "together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers" (Acts 1:14). Mary, who was receptive to the working of God's Spirit at the birth of the Messiah (Luke 1:35-38), is here part of the community of disciples waiting in prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit at the birth of the Church.

    Mary in John's Gospel

  17. Mary is not mentioned explicitly in the Prologue of John's Gospel. However, something of the significance of her role in salvation history may be discerned by placing her in the context of the considered theological truths that the evangelist articulates in unfolding the good news of the Incarnation. The theological emphasis on the divine initiative, that in the narratives of Matthew and Luke is expressed in the story of Jesus' birth, is paralleled in the Prologue of John by an emphasis on the predestining will and grace of God by which all those who are brought to new birth are said to be born "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (1:13). These are words that could be applied to the birth of Jesus himself.

  18. At two important moments of Jesus' public life, the beginning (the wedding at Cana) and the end (the Cross), John notes the presence of Jesus' mother. Each is an hour of need: the first on the surface rather trivial, but at a deeper level a symbolic anticipation of the second. John gives a prominent position in his Gospel to the wedding at Cana (2:1-12), calling it the beginning of the signs of Jesus. The account emphasizes the new wine which Jesus brings, symbolizing the eschatological marriage feast of God with his people and the messianic banquet of the Kingdom. The story primarily conveys a Christological message: Jesus reveals his messianic glory to his disciples and they believe in him (2:11).

  19. The presence of the "mother of Jesus" is mentioned at the beginning of the story: she has a distinctive role in the unfolding of the narrative. Mary seems to have been invited and be present in her own right, not with "Jesus and his disciples" (2:1-2); Jesus is initially seen as present as part of his mother's family. In the dialogue between them when the wine runs out, Jesus seems at first to refuse Mary's implied request, but in the end he accedes to it. This reading of the narrative, however, leaves room for a deeper symbolic reading of the event. In Mary's words "they have no wine", John ascribes to her the expression not so much of a deficiency in the wedding arrangements, as of the longing for salvation of the whole covenant people, who have water for purification but lack the joyful wine of the messianic kingdom. In his answer, Jesus begins by calling into question his former relationship with his mother ("What is there between you and me?"), implying that a change has to take place. He does not address Mary as ‘mother', but as "woman" (cf. John 19:26). Jesus no longer sees his relation to Mary as simply one of earthly kinship.

  20. Mary's response, to instruct the servants to "Do whatever he tells you" (2:5), is unexpected; she is not in charge of the feast (cf. 2:8). Her initial role as the mother of Jesus has radically changed. She herself is now seen as a believer within the messianic community. From this moment on, she commits herself totally to the Messiah and his word. A new relationship results, indicated by the change in the order of the main characters at the end of the story: "After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples" (2:12). The Cana narrative opens by placing Jesus within the family of Mary, his mother; from now on, Mary is part of the "company of Jesus", his disciple. Our reading of this passage reflects the Church's understanding of the role of Mary: to help the disciples come to her son, Jesus Christ, and to "do whatever he tells you."

  21. John's second mention of the presence of Mary occurs at the decisive hour of Jesus' messianic mission, his crucifixion (19:25-27). Standing with other disciples at the cross, Mary shares in the suffering of Jesus, who in his last moments addresses a special word to her, "Woman, behold your son", and to the beloved disciple, "Behold your mother." We cannot but be touched that, even in his dying moments, Jesus is concerned for the welfare of his mother, showing his filial affection. This surface reading again invites a symbolic and ecclesial reading of John's rich narrative. These last commands of Jesus before he dies reveal an understanding beyond their primary reference to Mary and "the beloved disciple" as individuals. The reciprocal roles of the ‘woman' and the ‘disciple' are related to the identity of the Church. Elsewhere in John, the beloved disciple is presented as the model disciple of Jesus, the one closest to him who never deserted him, the object of Jesus' love, and the ever-faithful witness (13:25, 19:26, 20:1-10, 21:20-25). Understood in terms of discipleship, Jesus' dying words give Mary a motherly role in the Church and encourage the community of disciples to embrace her as a spiritual mother.

  22. A corporate understanding of ‘woman' also calls the Church constantly to behold Christ crucified, and calls each disciple to care for the Church as mother. Implicit here perhaps is a Mary-Eve typology: just as the first ‘woman' was taken from Adam's ‘rib' (Genesis 2:22, pleura LXX) and became the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20), so the ‘woman' Mary is, on a spiritual level, the mother of all who gain true life from the water and blood that flow from the side (Greek pleura, literally ‘rib') of Christ (19:34) and from the Spirit that is breathed out from his triumphant sacrifice (19:30, 20:22, cf. 1 John 5:8). In such symbolic and corporate readings, images for the Church, Mary and discipleship interact with one another. Mary is seen as the personification of Israel, now giving birth to the Christian community (cf. Isaiah 54:1, 66:7-8), just as she had given birth earlier to the Messiah (cf. Isaiah 7:14). When John's account of Mary at the beginning and end of Jesus' ministry is viewed in this light, it is difficult to speak of the Church without thinking of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, as its archetype and first realization.

    The Woman in Revelation 12

  23. In highly symbolic language, full of scriptural imagery, the seer of Revelation describes the vision of a sign in heaven involving a woman, a dragon, and the woman's child. The narrative of Revelation 12 serves to assure the reader of the ultimate victory of God's faithful ones in times of persecution and eschatological struggle. In the course of history, the symbol of the woman has led to a variety of interpretations. Most scholars accept that the primary meaning of the woman is corporate: the people of God, whether Israel, the Church of Christ, or both. Moreover, the narrative style of the author suggests that the ‘full picture' of the woman is attained only at the end of the book when the Church of Christ becomes the triumphant New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-3). The actual troubles of the author's community are placed in the frame of history as a whole, which is the scene of the ongoing struggle between the faithful and their enemies, between good and evil, between God and Satan. The imagery of the offspring reminds us of the struggle in Genesis 3:15 between the serpent and the woman, between the serpent's seed and the woman's seed.4

  24. Given this primary ecclesial interpretation of Revelation 12, is it still possible to find in it a secondary reference to Mary? The text does not explicitly identify the woman with Mary. It refers to the woman as the mother of the "male child who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron", a citation from Psalm 2 elsewhere in the New Testament applied to the Messiah as well as to the faithful people of God (cf. Hebrews 1:5, 5:5, Acts 13:33 with Revelation 2:27). In view of this, some Patristic writers came to think of the mother of Jesus when reading this chapter.5 Given the place of the book of Revelation within the canon of Scripture, in which the different biblical images intertwine, the possibility arose of a more explicit interpretation, both individual and corporate, of Revelation 12, illuminating the place of Mary and the Church in the eschatological victory of the Messiah.

    Scriptural Reflection

  25. The scriptural witness summons all believers in every generation to call Mary ‘blessed'; this Jewish woman of humble status, this daughter of Israel living in hope of justice for the poor, whom God has graced and chosen to become the virgin mother of his Son through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. We are to bless her as the ‘handmaid of the Lord' who gave her unqualified assent to the fulfilment of God's saving plan, as the mother who pondered all things in her heart, as the refugee seeking asylum in a foreign land, as the mother pierced by the innocent suffering of her own child, and as the woman to whom Jesus entrusted his friends. We are at one with her and the apostles, as they pray for the outpouring of the Spirit upon the nascent Church, the eschatological family of Christ. And we may even glimpse in her the final destiny of God's people to share in her son's victory over the powers of evil and death.


  1. By typology we mean a reading which accepts that certain things in Scripture (persons, places, and events) foreshadow or illuminate other things, or reflect patterns of faith in imaginative ways (e.g. Adam is a type of Christ: Romans 5:14; Isaiah 7:14 points towards the virgin birth of Jesus: Matthew 1:23). This typological sense was considered to be a meaning that goes beyond the literal sense. This approach assumes the unity and consistency of the divine revelation.

    Back to text
  2. Given its strongly Jewish matrix in both Matthean and Lucan versions, an appeal to analogies with pagan mythology or to an exaltation of virginity over the married state to explain the origin of the tradition is implausible. Nor is the idea of virginal conception likely to derive from an over-literal reading of the Greek text of Isaiah 7:14 (LXX), for that is not the way the idea is introduced in the Lucan account. Moreover, the suggestion that it originated as an answer to the accusation of illegitimacy levelled at Jesus is unlikely, as that accusation could equally have arisen because it was known that there was something unusual about Jesus' birth (cf. Mark 6:3; John 8:41) and because of the Church's claim about his virginal conception.

    Back to text
  3. Although the word ‘brother' usually denotes a blood brother, the Greek adelphos, like the Hebrew 'ah, can have a broader meaning of kinsman, or relative (e.g. Genesis 29:12 LXX) or step-brother (e.g. Mark 6:17f). Relatives who are not siblings could be included in this use of the term at Mark 3:31. Mary did have an extended family: her sister is referred to at John 19:25 and her kinswoman Elizabeth at Luke 1:36. In the early Church different explanations of the references to the ‘brothers' of Jesus were given, whether as step-brothers or cousins.

    Back to text
  4. The Hebrew text of Genesis 3:15 speaks about enmity between the serpent and the woman, and between the offspring of both. The personal pronoun (hu') in the words addressed to the serpent, "He will strike at your head," is masculine. In the Greek translation used by the early Church (LXX), however, the personal pronoun autos (he) cannot refer to the offspring (neuter: to sperma), but must refer to a masculine individual who could then be the Messiah, born of a woman. The Vulgate (mis)translates the clause as ipsa conteret caput tuum ("she will strike at your head"). This feminine pronoun supported a reading of this passage as referring to Mary which has become traditional in the Latin Church. The Neo-Vulgate (1986), however, returns to the neuter ipsum, which refers to semen illius: "Inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius; ipsum conteret caput tuum, et tu conteres calcaneum eius."

    Back to text
  5. Cf. Epiphanius of Salamis (†402), Panarion 78.11; Quodvultdeus (†454) Sermones de Symbolo III, I.4-6; Oecumenius (†c.550) Commentarius in Apocalypsin 6.

    Back to text

Index | Centro Activities | Course | Publications | Conferences
Week of Prayer | Library | Interconfessional Dialogues
Directory of Ecumenical Study Centers | Society of the Atonement
Guest Book | Credits | Site Map

1999-2005 © - Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Inc.
Remarks to Webmaster at webmaster@pro.urbe.it