Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


On the Feast of Our Lady of Liesse, Thursday 2nd December, Father John Hemer, a Mill Hill Missionary who is Scripture Professor at Allen Hall, delivered the following very inspiring mediation on the role of Our Lady in Salvation.  We are deeply grateful to Father Hemer, and commend this text to all readers of this site as part of their Advent Preparation. It merits frequent revisiting. (Click on the "Read More" link at the end for the full text.)


Mary in the New Testament

In addition to Mary, St Matthew includes four women in his Gospel narrative. This is most unusual, indeed unique in a Biblical genealogy.  Each of them has these two things in common with Mary: a) that there is something strange or irregular about their union with their partners, which may have been scandalous to outsiders and b) they showed initiative and thus played an important role in God's plan.

Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah; she obtained children from him by deception, pretending to be a harlot. Rahab had been a harlot, but it was her initiative that enabled Israel to enter the Promised and. Ruth was a pagan, a Moabitess and she brought about her union with Boaz by her own initiative which was scandalous in itself (although she displayed rare love and devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi).  Without her, the Davidic line might never have come into being. Uriah's wife, (Bathsheba) had an adulterous union with David, but through her intervention, Solomon, their son, succeeded David. All this shows how God uses the most unusual, indeed scandalous circumstances and intervenes on behalf of the Messiah to bring about his plan. Each one of these women has had the courage to step outside of the accepted ways and standards of her own society in order to continue God’s line – (although they were not always conscious that this is what they were doing). Here is a hint of what we will meet later in the Gospel. If people are to do God’s will, if people are really going to live out their following of Christ, they will have to do similar unexpected or unusual things.

There were other divine interventions in several of the births he lists, in overcoming the sterility of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel for instance, but these women are not mentioned because there is nothing scandalous about their union. It seems then to be the combination of those two circumstances which are then found reflected in Mary which leads Matthew to mention these women. By showing the strange ways in which God works, he is giving a hint of the even stranger things that are to come in the Gospel. Matthew's community is also in a state of flux. Being Jewish was formally the thing that divided one from the rest of the world, but that has changed rapidly, barriers are going down. In Ruth and Rahab the barriers between Jew and gentile go down. In Rahab, Tamar and Bathsheba, the barriers between just and sinner go down, and in this very unorthodox inclusion of women,  the barriers between male and female go down.

In the bitter polemic which followed the split between the church and Synagogue, one of the accusations brought against Jesus was that he was illegitimate, the fruit of fornication. (Christians who were shocked by a BBC programme at Christmas 2002 which claimed that Mary may have been raped by a Roman soldier, could perhaps take consolation in the thought that this accusation has been around since the first century AD). What Matthew subsequently says about Jesus shows that this is not the case. However, even if Jesus were illegitimate, there is enough in Jewish history to show detractors that this sort of thing is nothing unusual, that this is in fact the sort of circumstance through which God has worked several times in the past.

The Annunciation

Mary’s objection to the angel is not as straightforward as it seems. She wonders how this can be enrei andra oun ginw,skew since I know not man. At this point Mary is a betrothed virgin, so although she has not yet had sexual relations, they are, in the normal course of things, likely to occur within the next year or so. It would therefore be a little redundant of Mary to make this objection if that’s all that was meant. So there must be a little more here. As the Church’s reflection on Mary progressed, fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine took this to mean that she had made a perpetual vow of virginity.
De la Potterie maintains that this somehow reflects the inner desire of Mary for virginity.
“If we see all this within the light of the initial salutation of the angel: ‘Rejoice, you who are full of grace, the lord is with you’, all becomes clearer and more luminous, all is harmonized”.

From her youth, under the impulse of the grace of God which accompanied her from the first years of her life – Mary lived in the perspective of her virginity. Even before her Son later proposed it as an ideal, Mary already existentially lived virginity…By the grace of God….Mary was prepared in an extraordinary way for the fact that she was to become the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God, virginally. This then is the grace which gives us the key to everything; it permits us to explain the entire content of the angelic annunciation to Mary; her desire for virginity, her preservation from sin and concupiscence, but also the grace of her divine maternity and finally of her consent, full of joyful enthusiasm for the design of God.”

Perhaps St Jerome translates the greeting as “Ave, Gratia plena” in the light of such considerations, and therefore translates accurately.

Many modern scholars would dismiss this out of hand, claiming that in second temple Judaism – and indeed modern rabbinical Judaism - a commitment to virginity would be unthinkable. It’s quite true that according to the Pharisees, a person’s first duty is to marry and have children. Virginity was seen as something to be lamented rather than celebrated. But this was not so for the Essenes, and it may well be that their thinking had an influence on the family of Jesus. In the Temple Scroll, found in one of the Qumran caves the following is found:
“If a girl takes such a vow of continence without her father knowing about it, the father then is entitled to nullify it. Otherwise both are bound to keep it. Should a married woman take such a vow without her husband knowing about it, he can declare such a vow void. Should he however agree to such a step, both are bound to keep it.” (11Q 53,16-20, 54:1-3)
Put this together with the traditional orthodox view which derives from the 2nd c. Protoevangelium of James that Joseph was a widower who already had children. It seems perfectly plausible that Mary’s father could have entrusted her to a man (necessary for protection – think of Ruth) who would nevertheless be willing to observe such a vow. So the great astonishment of Joseph in Matthew at Mary’s pregnancy and his willingness to act on the dream also becomes perfectly plausible.

"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

The word for overshadow is enriskia,zw This is also used in Ex. 40:35: And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
So Mary is seen here as the tabernacle of God, or Ark of the covenant. Mary has found favour already with God, and now she is to receive greater favour. Gabriel’s words mean that this is the fulfilment of Nathan’s promise to David.
He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever……. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.'" (2Kgs. 7: 13, 16.)

The Magnificat

Lest we get any idea that bearing Christ is just about sitting around being holy, Mary sets off to visit and help Elizabeth. That is her response to having God inside her, roll her sleeves up and get cracking. Maybe also Elizabeth is the only person who will understand her since she is in similar circumstances. The Magnificat is a great series of ideas from the Old Testament. There is no specific mention of Jesus or anything that he specifically did. But Luke is saying thereby that these are some of the things that God promised in the Scriptures, well look – it’s all happened in Jesus. In his beatitudes Jesus pronounces blessing for the downtrodden but woe for the rich. It is also profoundly subversive and was at times banned under the more repressive regimes in Latin America. So lest we get the idea that this is a beautiful true story, Mary sings of how God turns the world upside down and gives us a hint of what Jesus will do.

The Greek says Meyaluneiyuc mou ton kurion my soul magnifies the Lord. That’s not quite the same as glorifies, it means make bigger. Imagine attending La Boheme. Puccini the composer is everywhere, his presence fills the theatre, but he is nowhere to be seen. Then the celebrated tenor starts the aria Che gelida la manina and his voice fills the theatre gloriously. What do you hear, the tenor or Puccini? In a certain sense the singer makes Puccini bigger, and conversely a poor singer would make Puccini’s work sound second-rate. Everything Mary does makes God bigger, her soul; her inmost being is about that.

We have all met people who seem to make God bigger.  In their presence it seems easier to believe in God, or reading their books strengthens our faith. That is what Mary does in the Church. Conversely, we’ve met people, sadly sometimes priests who seem to do the opposite.

Think of the way in which the Marian shrines make God bigger. They are always places in which the faith burns brighter, more intensely. Especially somewhere like Lourdes where the sick are at the centre we get a glimpse of how God views the world. People who would otherwise be marginalised are put centre stage. Mary makes God and his kingdom bigger.

To treat Our Lady as a rival to God is completely against the spirit of the New Testament. The verb γαλλιάω could be translated as ‘whoop for joy’. Apart from Our Lady of Sorrows, all the Marian feasts are associated with joy and many of her antiphons begin with the word “Gaude”.  Rejoice.

In Isiah we are told,(1:32-33) He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Jesus’ name – Jeshua   is the same as Joshua’s and means ‘Yahweh saves’. Moses could bring people out, but only Joshua could bring them into the Promised Land. Though the law….grace & truth have come….
 Jesus is to rule over the House of Jacob – not Judah which is David’s house.

Jesus will fulfil Jewish expectations, but, if he occupies the throne of David and rules over the House of Jacob, he is going to unite the kingdom, and he will go way beyond this. It means all the 12 tribes or Northern Kingdom. This implies a restoration of the entire Kingdom of Israel. The unity lost could not be brought about by any human political power. Mary’s response is the perfect model of Christian discipleship and she then does what a Christian is supposed to do with the good news – she tells somebody else about it.

Parallels in both the Old and New Testament concerning the Marian Story

St Luke was writing for a Jewish audience when he composed his Gospel and in order to demonstrate how the events of the New Testament are a fulfilment of what has gone before he alludes to Old Testament narratives to explain this as we see below:

In the narrative of the Ark of Covenant, Luke narrates it in order to allude to the story of the finding of the Ark in 2 Samuel – Mary  is Ark of the New Covenant. There are close parallels between this and the story of the Ark in 2 Samuel ch. 6.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, (1: 39)
And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baalejudah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. (2 Sam 6: 2)

 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit(1:41)
And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the horn. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart. (2 Sam 6: 14-16) 

And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (1: 43)
And David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, "How can the ark of the LORD come to me?" (2 Sam 6:9)

  And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home. (1:56)
And the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obededom the Gittite three months; and the LORD blessed Obededom and his entire household. (2 Sam 6:11)

Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.  And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. (Apoc. 11:19-12:2)
At the end of Book 11, the Ark of the Covenant is seen and then the woman is seen. The New Covenant is not a wooden box but the human flesh of Mary with Jesus, the Word of God made flesh inside her. Note that the original wooden Ark had been missing since the Babylonian Exile in 587 BC.

The Immaculate Conception

What is the point of the Immaculate Conception? It seems all very well for Mary but how does this affect us? Mary was conceived without sin, unlike the rest of humanity, so doesn’t she have a head start?  It might be useful to look at this through a story – a modern-day parable. 

In the 1970’s there was a young Northern Irish seminarian, Colum Kelly from Belfast.  At first the young man was suspicious of everyone at Upholland, the seminary, but after a few months learned to relax. He learned that his suspicion which for him was normal – indeed essential for self-preservation - was not normal.  How does this happen?  Very often it begins at a young age in the home where we speak of dysfunctional families. Usually one or both parents behave in a way which is destructive, but the children know nothing else so they think it’s normal. It may not be until their teens they start to realise there is something wrong with their family, that things are not normal at home, even though the parents pretend they are and that they are the happiest family in the street.

Part of the point of today’s feast is to remind us again of what is normal. As Paul says in Romans: All have sinned and lack the glory of God. But that’s not the way it’s meant to be.

Mary does not give us the power to regain the image of God, to be what we are meant to be, that s Jesus, but she is an example, she gives us the encouragement that it is possible to be who God wants us to be – that is - saints. Original Sin means that our desires are distorted, we desire in a way that is often not helpful, we desire things that make us less than human. Mary’s Immaculate Conception means that her desiring was always ordered in the right Way. Charles Aznavour sang a song: “I only have eyes for you”. It’s a human being in love, and while that doesn’t take away all the normal human desire, the loved one is the focus of all that. All his other desires as it were, get in line behind that one. From the beginning Mary only has eyes for God, and all her desires get in line behind that.

But if that’s the case, then does she need a saviour? In the Magnificat she calls God her saviour, but if there is no sin how can we speak of salvation?  Or we can put it this way:

If a man falls down a hole and you pull him out, you have saved him. If you see the man going near the hole and you pull him back, you have also saved him; you are still his saviour even though he has never fallen. That’s what God does for Mary. He saves her by preventing her from sinning.

The Church usually dogmatically defines something because that doctrine is threatened or disputed. In 1854 when Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception there was no such dispute. It was more out of devotion and love for Mary than any desire to combat heresy or schism. 

However, in the middle of the 19th Century, European thinking was starting to go down roads which were destructive to humanity in the extreme. Schopenhauer believed that instead of love guiding the universe Life was just a big struggle with a universe that was basically there to make life extremely difficult for us with nothing beyond the present daily struggle – that is a life without hope.

Darwin and the various people who ran with his ideas seemed to think that there was no benign purpose behind creation. We are not made in the image of God, just the products of a very harsh process of natural selection. Nietzsche also thought that life was a power struggle, but he was not content to sit down and be the victim of natural selection, he was determined to win this struggle. God was dead and so the superman, the strongest man would impose his own will on the world. He hated Christianity precisely because it always tried to offer a chance to the weaker one. These ideas of course were part of the philosophical underpinnings of Nazism.

Karl Marx saw the whole of human history as a great struggle between the classes, and those who followed his ideas had no regard for the dignity of the individual. All that had to give way for the good of the state. This led directly to the deaths of millions under various communist regimes.

Just at the time when most destructive views of the human race were appearing, when people were starting to say that we are just random clumps of cells and that there is no higher purpose to human existence than survival and procreation, the church holds up the icon of Mary immaculate. The church holds up before the world an image of pure goodness and love. The church holds up someone who never knew the cynicism or indifference that continues to gnaw away at our society.

Providentially, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception came at point when it had never been more needed. Right at the time when the foundations were being laid for the culture of death, the Church held up to the world someone who truly had lived life to the full, in the deepest sense of the word.


In the person of Mary our Mother, the Church presents one who by her fiat is fully human, fully alive and co-operating fully with God’s Will.  In the new Eva we are given someone who, free from the stain of Original Sin is the embodiment of new life in Christ.

What the Church holds up to the world is in fact normal, but the world is so distorted that sin and selfishness, the culture of death seems normal.  We are offered the choice between the way of God, Who is Love, or the way of the world which has little to offer in the way of Life but rather the opposite – an obsession with self, material goods and ultimately the death of our real selves; the death of our souls; the death of Life and Love for which each of us was made in the Image of Christ who gave us His Mother that She might show us the way to Him.