One of the beautiful things about Catholic theology is that it sees story as one of its main interpretive filters. Protestantism, on the other hand, focuses much more on historical context and the text itself.
To modern ears, the Protestant ways sounds great, but there’s one big problem: this is not how most of the biblical writers, Jesus, the apostles, the early church, nor most of church history have ever treated the Bible. They were and have been much “freer” with the text (yes, often to a fault). Catholicism’s rootedness in ancient ways of reading invites them into new dimensions and interpretations.
Take Mary, for example. Catholics see her foretold in the Old Testament just as much as Jesus is. They see her in prophecies and allegorically represented in other women. They see parallels between her and the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the Temple, saying they all carried the Holy of Holies within them, and were revered for it.
There are three biblical offices of authority among God’s people: Prophet, Priest, and King. Christians see Jesus as the fulfillment and highest expression of each of these, but in the Advent event, you can see Mary serving these functions as well. So today, as a Protestant, I want to sit with this and revel in some beauty and divine mystery.
Mary, the High Prophetess
A biblical “prophet” is not someone who tells the future; it is someone who speaks the true words of God with divine authority. They claim a divine origin and “conception” for the Word they “deliver”. And all prophetic words find their truest and most authoritative expression in Jesus himself–the singular, definitive “Word” of God.1,2
If Jesus was the Word of which the former prophets’ words were only a shadow, then Mary herself was the truest and most literal human prophetess: having the True Word of God conceived within her by divine decree, she then faithfully delivered it to the world.
The legitimacy of her Prophetic office is testified by the fact that she delivered the truest and highest Word of God. (It’s also interesting that the only other person in the Advent story explicitly described as a “prophet” is another woman, Anna.3)
Mary was the prophetess that all other prophets were anticipating.
Mary, the High Priestess
Priests served several functions for God’s people. Primarily, they were servants of God, set apart to care for the material and spiritual needs of the people and prepare the ritual sacrifice for their sins. Priests had no land, for God himself would be their inheritance.
Mary is blessed by God, who says he is “with” her, setting her apart for his service and giving her Himself (literally) as her inheritance for her faithfulness. She responds by boldly taking on the title of servant.4 One could see this as Mary’s Priestly ordination.
Mary goes on to birth Christ and, just as the priest would do with the sacrifice, she performs preparation, dedication, and purification rituals on Jesus at the temple.5,6 Years later, Mary watches at the cross, as the final and ultimate sacrifice take place.
Even more literally, Mary cares for the material and spiritual needs of the “body” of Christ, the very body to which we are now joined and by which we are nourished each week at the Communion Table. As a priestess, Mary sets apart, consecrates, and gives out the body of Christ for his people.
Mary, as a priestly servant of the Lord, cared for, nourished, and responded to the needs of the body of Christ.
Mary, the High Queen
Remember, these are “offices”, not in some big, other-worldly cosmic sense, but in a very human practical sense. They are ways that authority is exercised among God’s people.
I’m not saying Mary is a “queen” of Creation itself or reigns as a “queen” for all time–only that there is a type of earthly authority usually exercised in the human office of “King” that is most truly expressed in the life of Mary.
How so? In Jesus, the exercise of royal authority is redefined. It is not lording over subjects, but lowering and emptying oneself on their behalf, bearing responsibility to lead for the good of others.
When Jesus says “not my will but yours be done”7, and when Mary says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”8, they are both speaking expressions of authority as Christ has redefined it in Adventing among us.
The earliest known hymn to Jesus, has parallels to Mary’s own song, the Magnificat. In the same way that Jesus empties himself and is therefore highly exalted, Mary empties herself and so is exalted and blessed by generations to come.
Mary shows how true, godly, royal authority is faithfully exercised by human beings–through humble submission and the bearing of weight for the sake of the world.
Paul, the orthodox blogger (I promise)
This is not my “doctrine of Mary”. I’m not saying Mary fulfills these offices in some cosmic sense. These are just some beautiful ideas I could see being true–a silent space in the Mystery of God where there might be some awe.
Just to be clear, I think Mary was an absolute human being: born with a sinful nature, full of doubt and sins, who had other kids, and was not a “co-redemptress” with Christ.
But in saying that, I’m not thinking less of Mary. In fact, the more human one considers her, the more incredible her faithfulness and obedience is, and the more of a model she can be for us to live out those divine offices today.
So may we each look to Mary this Advent season; and in her obedience and faithfulness, let us see how we might deliver God’s word, care for his Body, and exert our God-given authority in ways that resonate with that most blessed of women.
[image credit: “The Annunciation” by Henry O. Tanner]