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Saints Prophets and Spiritual Guides

An excerpt from The Lure of the Saints: Becoming Saints

The Virgin Mary Among Us
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Questions of Faith and Doubt


February 7, 2006

There’s Something About Mary

by Jon M. Sweeney

Catholics have adored Mary for centuries—calling her “blessed” as the gospels say—but did you know that Muslims also revere the Blessed Virgin, and that Protestants are increasingly turning to her, as well?

We know almost nothing about Mary for certain. There are no surviving documents that were written in her own hand. No letters, no diaries. We also don’t have any teachings of Mary, even though many Catholics would regard her as the saint above all others.

There are no eyewitness accounts of Mary’s life. Mary would have been in her mid to late forties at the time of Jesus’ Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Contrary to the legend of the gospel-writer Luke’s friendship with her, most scholars agree that none of the New Testament gospels were written less than twenty-five years after the events had occurred; Mary would most likely have been dead by then.

Muslims revering Mary is nothing new. No other woman is discussed as much in the Qur’an as Mary. In sura (chapter) 3, many of the extra-biblical traditions of the early church are retold: Mary’s mother, Anna, and her prayers to God for a child; Anna’s gift of her only daughter to the Lord; God’s predestination of Mary as innocent, pure, and set apart.

Also in the Qur’an (sura 3, verse 44) is found the most charming addition of all to the legend of the infancy of Mary. “The angels cast lots with arrows (like cupids), as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary.” In fact, the priest in the temple—to whom young Mary is said to have been given for raising and keeping pure—turns out to be Zachariah, the same priest who is also the father of John the Baptist.

Islam accepts the notion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that Mary was untainted by Original Sin), and also accepts much of the gospel accounts about the virgin birth, but it differs primarily on the nature of the child, Jesus. The Qur’an insists that Jesus was not God, but a prophet to be revered. In this sense, the virgin birth of Christ is compared to the origin of Adam, who was born without father or mother.

For many groups of Protestants, their interest in Mary is something new. Mary study groups are popping up in Evangelical churches these days. There is a feeling that Protestants have been too dismissive of Christ’s mother over the centuries.

Other Protestant groups, such as the Anglicans/Episcopalians, have actually come to formal doctrinal agreement with Catholics to remove doctrinal sticking points between them. In 2005, for instance, Anglican/Episcopal theologians joined Catholic theologians in issuing a joint document of agreement on the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary (that her body went to heaven after death). It is known as the “Seattle Statement,” named for the city in which they held their last meetings.

The Anglicans/Episcopalians said that the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are now deemed “consonant” with the spirit of biblical teachings. Previously, the Anglican argument against belief in these dogmas had been that they were extra-biblical and, therefore, not worthy of widespread belief. That’s now beside the point, says Australian Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley, who was the co-chair of the joint commission that produced the statement. Carnley explained from Seattle in May of 2005: “For Anglicans, that old complaint that these dogmas were not provable by scripture will disappear.”

Fascinating stuff—these rediscoverings of the Virgin—and only the beginning of much more to come.

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including THE LURE OF SAINTS.

More by Jon M. Sweeney.

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