(General Mariology) Marian Typology
(T)he figure of the woman is indispensable for the structure of biblical faith. She expresses the reality of creation as well as the fruitfulness of grace. The abstract outlines for the hope that God will turn toward his people receive, in the New Testament, a concrete, personal name in the figure of Jesus Christ. At the same moment, the figure of the woman, until then seen only typologically in Israel although provisionally personified by the great women of Israel, also emerges with a name: Mary (1).
These words by Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, describe the inseparable union between Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. For Mary is the perfect creature who mediates her Son and Creator, the God-man, into the world. Christ created His Mother immaculately to prepare her for her role as Co-redemptrix: the woman with the Redeemer. And precisely because Our Lord made His Mother and endowed her with a co-redemptive mission, we should look to Our Lady to gain a better understanding of Christ and His mission. “Mary has been the subject of close theological study on account of her essential reference to the Word of God and, in him and through him, to the history of salvation” (2). The starting point of all Mariology should be her relation to Christ. A proper Mariology leads to a proper Christology. We see this most evidently with the early heresies of the Church, such as the Nestorian heresy. It wasn’t until Nestorius denied that Mary was the Theotókos, that it was revealed that he denied Christ’s divinity as well. “(O)nly when it touches Mary and becomes Mariology is Christology itself as radical as the faith of the Church requires. The appearance of a truly Marian awareness serves as the touchstone indicating whether or not the christological substance is fully present” (3). In Mariology, Christology is defended!
On the road to Emmaus, two of the disciples were conversing when Jesus joined them. He opened up the Scriptures (meaning the Old Testament) to them and interpreted all “the things concerning himself” (4). Christ, Himself, gives us the example of how to do exegesis! We must look back to the Old Testament to understand what is happening in the New. Or as St. Augustine has said, “the New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New.” This is known as typology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines typology as “the discernment of persons, events, or things in the Old Testament which prefigured, and thus served as a ‘type’ (or prototype) of, the fulfillment of God’s plan in the person of Christ” (5). As we search the Old Testament for all things concerning Christ, likewise we must do the same with Mary. But can this be done? Is Mary really foretold in the Old Testament? Juan Luis Bastero tells us that some scholars believe that “Mary is to be found in all the Bible, at least indirectly, because if Christ is spoken of throughout the Bible, then, by virtue of the indissoluble union that obtains between Son and Mother, she too is spoken of there: Ubique de ispsa; if the Bible is the book of Christ, then it must also be the book of his Mother” (6). Mary herself acts as a hinge between the Old and New Testaments. “Wherever the unity of (the two) Testaments disintegrates, the place of a healthy Mariology is lost” (7). Thus, R. Le Deaut has rightly said, “Mariology cannot rest satisfied in regarding the Old Testament merely as a rich source of images applicable to the Virgin in an accommodated sense, more or less appropriate. The Old Testament contains a precise revelation about the Mother of the Messiah, even if it be in outline only. It is a revelation that appears in the New Testament, the fulfillment of the Old, and in the traditional interpretation of the Church” (8).
The Church Fathers knew all of this. They, who laid the foundation for the “traditional interpretation of the Church.” St. John of Damascus (d. 750) said that Mary “was predestined in the eternal foreknowing counsel of God and she was prefigured by various figures and foretold by the Holy Spirit through the words of the prophets” (9). They used typology frequently in their biblical exegesis, searching for a defense against the Jews and heretics to show the truths about Mary, and thereby about Christ. The Fathers immersed themselves in the Old Testament to shed light on the truths of Christianity. Some of the Fathers, such as St. Jerome (d. 419), learned Hebrew in order to gain a better understanding. The Church Fathers developed a love affair with Scripture (10). This love of Scripture helped them defend the honor of their Queen and Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. “The fact that Mary is the Mother of the Redeemer is the ground on which is constructed the earliest Patristic thinking on Mary’s greatness, whether that thinking is expressed … in simple testimony to her virginal motherhood, or whether it focuses on the role of the new Eve in salvation history” (11). It is said that no one fights as hard as when they are defending their mother’s honor and the Fathers of the Church were no exception. They were constantly called to stand up for Mary’s honor, as she was slandered in frequent attempts to discredit Our Lord. In this article, I plan to show how the Fathers used the Old Testament, searching for Marian interpretations in order to defend Christ and Christianity against their adversaries. As always, the best place to start is in the beginning, the Book of Genesis.
Along with typology, the Church Fathers also employed what is known as recirculation. The basic idea of recirculation is that as the world was condemned by the participation of a man (Adam), a woman (Eve), and a tree (of the knowledge of good and evil); it would also be redeemed by the participation of a man (Christ the New Adam), a woman (Mary the New Eve), and a tree (the Cross). Genesis 3:15 provides the basis for this concept, when God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (12). The Church Fathers unanimously saw the “woman” prophesied of here as none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary who gave birth to Christ, the conqueror of both Satan and death. John Henry Newman has asserted “that the truth about Mary as new Eve constitutes a rudimentary but extremely important Marian doctrine left to us by Christian antiquity. It is the first meditation on her and on her mission, the fullest profile of her, the view of her that has been handed down to us in the patristic writings” (13). A few of the notables include St. Justin Martyr (the great Apologist, d. 165), St. Irenaeus (the first Mariologist, d. 202) who said “By disobeying, Eve became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way Mary, though she also had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race” (14), and Pope St. Leo the Great (the great defender of the Church against heresies, d. 461). There is also St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) who said that this prophecy “received its true fulfillment when that holy and unique One came, born of Mary without work of man…” (15). Likewise, St. Augustine (d. 430) tells us that “Mary was included in Eve; yet it was only when Mary came, that we knew who Eve was” (16). And in a hymn of St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) we find, “The Lord hath spoken it: Satan is cast out of heaven. And Mary has trodden on him who struck at the heel of Eve. And blessed be He, who by His birth has destroyed the foe!” (17) Elsewhere, St. Ephrem explains that “Because the serpent had struck Eve with his claw, the foot of Mary bruised him” (18). In his Quaestiones in Genesim, that great Spanish composer of Marian literature, St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) gives a marvelous exegesis of Genesis 3:15:
The seed of the devil is a perverse suggestion; the seed of the woman is the fruit of a good work, by which the perverse suggestion of the devil is resisted. She will tread upon his head, because from the beginning she expels his perverse suggestions from her mind. He will strike at her heel, because until the end he will try to deceive her mind, which he was unable to deceive with his first suggestion. Some have understood the following expression in reference to the Virgin, from whom the Lord was born: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” since it was promised that the Savior was going to be born from her, in order to defeat the enemy and to destroy death, of which the enemy was the author. For they also understand the following as a reference to the fruit of Mary’s womb; namely, Christ: “She will tread upon your head, and you will strike at her heel.” This means: You will attack him to kill him, but he (Christ), after you have been defeated, will rise again and tread upon your head which is death (19).
We see here in this exegesis the intimate union between the woman and her seed. Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation leads to the birth of the Savior, the one who “will rise again and tread upon … death.” Mary’s fiat wasn’t just a “yes” to the Annunciation, but rather also a “yes” to the death of her Son on the Cross, where Mary would also be crucified spiritually and a sword would pierce her heart as well. The Church Fathers, in seeing Mary as the “woman” of Genesis 3:15, unearth the seed for the doctrine of Mary as Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Co-redemptrix because she actively participates in the crushing of Satan’s head, and Mediatrix of All Graces because she mediated Christ into the world, who is the source of all grace. Nobody sums this doctrine up in relation to Genesis 3:15 better than that great master of Scripture, St. Jerome when he states: “Death came through Eve; life through Mary” (20).
Another place in the book of Genesis that the Church Fathers saw a prefiguring of Mary, which unfortunately is widely overlooked by modern scholars, is Genesis 49:9. In the RSV:CE, following St. Jerome’s Vulgate, the verse reads:
Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who dares rouse him up (21)?Yet, many of the Fathers do not translate the Hebrew word labi (another word for lion) the way Jerome does, who has it rendered as leaena (lioness in Latin). Due to the nature and constraints of this article, we cannot focus on this except in passing, and instead we will be looking at the translation that the majority of the Fathers use (a lion’s whelp or cub), and the interpretations that arise from such a translation (22). However, before we look to see what the Church Fathers have to say, we must briefly note another translation issue. The phrase, “from the prey” is rendered in the Septuagint as ek blastou meaning “from a sprout” or “from a shoot.” The LXX translation led many of the Fathers to look at Genesis 49:9 alongside Isaiah 11:1 which reads:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
This leads to not only a greater Christological interpretation for the Fathers, but as we shall see, a Mariological one as well. One of the earliest Fathers to see the connection between these two verses was St. Hippolytus (d. 235). In his exegesis, he shows that these verses foretell the Incarnation and the virgin birth:
By saying “lion” and “lion’s whelp,” he (Jacob) has clearly pointed toward the two persons: that of the Father and that of the Son. He said, “From a shoot, my son, you have gone up” in order to show the generation of Christ according to the flesh. Christ, after his Incarnation, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin, sprouted in her, and like a flower and a pleasant perfume, once he went out of that womb into the world, he appeared visibly. On the other hand, by saying “whelp of the lion” he indicates Christ’s generation according to the spirit, through which he appears to come directly from God, as he has shown him like a king born of a king. However, he has not remained silent about his generation according to the flesh but says clearly, “From a shoot, my son, you have gone up.” Isaiah says, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a blossom shall come up from it.” The root of Jesse was the stump of the patriarchs, like a root planted in the ground, and the rod coming out of it was Mary, because she was from the house and the family of David. The blossom that had come up from the rod was Christ, the one that Jacob had prophesied by saying, “From a shoot, my son, you have gone up” (23).
St. Ambrose (d. 397) also sees Jacob showing that Christ comes from the Father and that the Father and the Son are one and the same. He goes on to say:Moreover, he represented the Son’s Incarnation in a wonderful fashion when he said, “From my seed you have come up to me.” For Christ sprouted in the womb of the virgin like a shrub upon the earth; like a flower of good fragrance, He was sent forth in the splendor of the new light and came up from His mother’s vitals for the redemption of the entire world. Just so, Isaiah says, “There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse and a flower shall come up out of the root.” The root is the household of the Jews, the rod is Mary, the flower of Mary is Christ. She is rightly called a rod, for she is of royal lineage, of the house and family of David. Her flower is Christ, who destroyed the stench of worldly pollution and poured out the fragrance of eternal life (24).
Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 410) focuses on Gen 49:9 and the whelp rising from the shoot and its use for the defense of the virgin birth:
(T)his whelp rises from the shoot: he was born from the Virgin, not from a seed but from a shoot. So Christ was born without sexual intercourse with a man and without the natural seed, like a bough or a branch. In this manner the reality of the assumption of the flesh from the Virgin is clearly demonstrated, and the contact with human or natural seed is excluded in the holy shoot (25).
St. Jerome adds concerning Isaiah 11:1, “The shoot is the Mother of the Lord, simple, pure, and sincere, who was not joined to any seed coming from without”(26). St. Leo the Great continues, “In this shoot, undoubtedly, the Blessed Virgin Mary was foretold, who descended from the line of Jesse and of David. Made fertile by the Holy Spirit, she brought forth a new flower of human flesh from her maternal womb, while still remaining a virgin in giving birth” (27). Likewise, St. Maximus of Turin (d. 466) and St. John of Damascus give the same Marian interpretation to Isaiah 11:1.
In the Fathers search for Old Testament prophecies that told of Mary’s virgin birth, Genesis 49:9 wasn’t the only verse they used. In fact, no other verse compares with Isaiah 7:14 in the amount of ink used in defense of Mary’s virginity! The Fathers looked to the prophecy from Isaiah as the key text pointing to Christ as the Messiah. However, they encountered much opposition from the Jews who disagreed with the early Christians interpretation of the word almah as “virgin.” In their denial of Jesus as the Messiah, the Jews argued that almah meant nothing other than “young woman” and thus was not proof of Jesus’ birth from Mary as a virgin. It was probably because St. Matthew tells us in his gospel that Christ’s birth is a direct fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 that the Church Fathers put all their effort in defense of this Old Testament verse. Whatever, the case, the Fathers certainly showed forth their love for the Mother in employing and protecting Isaiah 7:14 as a truly Christian prophecy. St. Justin Martyr explains why the virgin birth was foretold by Isaiah:
He said, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they will call his name, God with us.” Through the prophetic spirit God announced beforehand that things which are unimaginable and believed to be impossible for human beings would take place, in order that when it occurred it would be believed and received by faith because it had been promised. In order to ensure that someone does not accuse us of saying the same things as the poets, who say that Zeus came to women for sexual pleasure, we will explain the words of this prophecy clearly. The phrase “behold, the virgin shall conceive” means that the virgin would conceive without intercourse. If she had in fact had intercourse with someone, she would not have been a virgin. God’s power came on the virgin, overshadowed her and caused her to conceive while she remained a virgin (28).
St. Augustine also reminds us that the person being born was God Himself!
So do not let it surprise you, unbelieving soul, whoever you are, do not let it strike you as impossible that a virgin should give birth, and in giving birth remain a virgin. Realize that it was God who was born, and you will not be surprised at a virgin giving birth (29).
He also adds:
You will not doubt, therefore, the motherhood of a virgin if you want to believe the nativity of a God who does not relinquish the government of the universe and comes in flesh among human beings; who bestows fecundity on his mother yet does not diminish her integrity (30).
St. Augustine here employs an almost Scotus-like (or rather pre-Scotus-like) explanation. With God all things are possible. Should we be surprised then that God chose to be born as a man in a manner absolutely unique to all mankind? Certainly not! It was fitting for God to be born man from a womb that was pure and virginal; a womb that henceforth would be the holiest womb of all. The virginal womb that held God within it for nine months is kept virginal by miraculous means performed by the very baby that made the womb His dwelling. St. Maximus of Turin, in a beautiful Christmas sermon using Isaiah 7:14, expresses the fittingness of the mystery of Mary’s virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ:
Christ, the salvation of all things, then, is born—He who the prophets testified is the king of the nations. He is born of a virgin, as Isaiah declares …. The manner of His birth proves the truth about the Lord: a virgin conceived without knowing a man; her belly was filled, having been touched by no embrace; and her chaste womb received the Holy Spirit, whom her pure members preserved and her unsullied body carried. Behold the miracle of the mother of the Lord! She is a virgin when she conceives, a virgin when she brings forth, a virgin after birth. What glorious virginity! What splendid fruitfulness! The world’s goodness is born and there is no pain of childbirth. The womb is emptied, a child is brought forth, and still virginity is not violated. For it was fitting that, when God was born, the value of chastity should increase, and that one who was untouched should not be violated by His coming—He who came to heal what was injured—and that bodily purity should not be harmed by Him who bestows virginity on those who have been baptized and had formerly been unchaste. The child who has been born, then, is placed in a crib. This is God’s first dwelling place, and the ruler of heaven does not disdain these straitened circumstances—He whose home was the virginal womb. Clearly Mary was a fit habitation for Christ not because of the nature of her body but because of the grace of her virginity (31).
We see with Maximus, that Christ being born of Mary’s virginal womb did not diminish her virginity in any way, but rather sanctified her womb. Mary truly became the Temple of the Holy Spirit with God dwelling within her.
With Proclus of Constantinople (d. 446), we see a new tact taken with the defense of Mary’s virginity. Here he enters into an imaginary conversation with the Blessed Mother and has her defending herself:
But I also want to question the Virgin against the unbelieving Jews. Tell me, O Virgin, who made you a mother before marriage? How did you become a mother, yet remain a virgin? Persuade the Jews that a Virgin gave birth; close the mouths of the unbelievers. She, with authority, answers me thus: Why do the Jews marvel that a Virgin gave birth, seeing that they do not marvel when a dry branch produces a shoot, against nature? They see the branch, without roots, flowering indoors, and do not ask how or why it happened; instead, they are always asking questions about me! “Behold, the Virgin shall conceive in her womb and bear a son” (32).
And yet with all these wonderful arguments showing how Isaiah 7:14 applied to Our Lady, the Jews continued to resist. For them, the prophecy said “young woman” and not “virgin.” They also claimed that Isaiah was referring to the wife of Ahaz and not Mary. Let us see what the Fathers have to say in reply. First up, we will hear from the great Cappadocian Father St. Basil of Caesarea (d. 379):
No one … ought to let himself be led astray by the calumnies of the Jews, who assert that the prophet was speaking of a young woman and not of a virgin. Then the text would say: “Behold the young woman shall conceive in her womb.” In any case, it is the most absurd thing imaginable to think that what was given to us by the Lord as a sign should be something so common and familiar to nature (33).
Next we will listen to the wisdom of St. Jerome:
Isaiah tells of the mystery of our faith and hope: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” I know that the Jews are accustomed to meet us with the objection that in Hebrew the word almah does not mean a virgin but a “young woman.” And to speak truth, a virgin is properly called bethulah, but a young woman, or a girl, is not almah but naarah! What then is the meaning of almah? A hidden virgin, that is, not merely virgin, but a virgin and something more, because not every virgin is hidden, shut off from the occasional sight of men (34).
Notice how easily and masterfully he refutes the Jews! They probably felt sorry for ever allowing Jerome to study Hebrew from them. For he didn’t let any of the Jews put forth purposeful mistranslations in hopes of discrediting Christianity. St. Jerome learned the language for this very reason; to truly know and master every aspect of Scripture!
In listening to St. Basil, we saw that Isaiah’s prophecy was meant to be a sign. Going back to Scripture a couple of verses before Isaiah 7:14, we see that in Isaiah 7:10 the prophet says:
“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give to you a sign.”
Now, a young woman giving birth to a virgin is no sign at all! But a virgin giving birth surely is. St. Basil goes on to say:
Then, since Ahaz does not ask for a sign, neither in the depths nor from the heights, so that you might understand that he who descended into the lowest regions of the earth is the same who rose above all heavens, the Lord himself gave a sign: a sign truly extraordinary and portentous, far superior to the common law of nature: the same woman is both virgin and mother; and though remaining in the holy condition of virginity, she also obtains the blessing of childbearing (35).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387) goes on to tell us what constitutes a sign and that the sign of Isaiah cannot possibly refer to Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, as the Jews claimed:
Now then, a sign has to be something extraordinary. For the water from the rock was a sign, and the parting of the sea, and the turning back of the sun, and things of that sort. But what I am about to say has greater argumentative force against the Jews: … the prophecy happened within the sixteen years (of Ahaz’s reign), Hezekiah was born at least nine years earlier. What need was there to make a prophecy about someone who had already been born before his father became king? Indeed, he does not say: “she conceived,” but: “the virgin shall conceive,” in the style of a prediction (36).
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) also comments:
If she had not been a virgin, there would have been no sign, since a sign has to be something out of the ordinary and beyond the laws of nature, something that makes an impression on those who see it and hear of it. That is why it is called a sign, because it stands out. This would not be the case if it could be confused with other common events; so that, if the discourse refers to a woman who gives birth according to the law of nature, why would this be called a sign, since it is something that happens every day? Therefore, in beginning his speech, he did not say simply: Behold a virgin, but: Behold, the Virgin. By adding the article, he indicates a unique virgin, distinct from all the others (37).
As one can see, the “sign factor” is essential to Isaiah’s prophecy.
Another factor to the prophecy is the “hiddenness” of Mary as a virgin that St. Jerome mentioned above. The question that is asked is why is Mary betrothed in marriage to St. Joseph? Her virginity becomes “disguised” by this marriage. The Fathers explain the importance of Our Lady’s secret virginity:
The marriage with Joseph was planned so that Mary’s virginity might remain hidden from the prince of this world. For the external forms of marriage were adopted by the Virgin, almost as if to distract the Evil One, who has always preyed on virgins, ever since he heard the prophet announcing: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” With this marriage, then, the tempter of virginity was deceived. For he knew that the coming of the Lord in the flesh would entail the destruction of his dominion (38).
Finally, we hear the words of Cyril of Jerusalem as he gives his catechumens a lesson in apologetics:
It would be opportune to pose this question to Jews: Was the Prophet Isaiah being truthful or false when he said that the Emmanuel would be born of a virgin? If they accuse him of being a liar, they are not doing anything odd: they are accustomed not only to accuse the prophets of lying but to stone them. If, on the other hand, the prophet is truthful, accept the Emmanuel. He who is to come and he whom you wait, was he or was he not born of a virgin? If not, you are accusing the prophet of falsehood. But if you are waiting for something that will happen in the future, why do you reject what has already happened (39)?
After the Fathers explored Isaiah 7:14 to show that Mary was a virgin in giving birth, they turned to Ezekiel 44:1-2, giving it an allegorical interpretation, to prove (against the Jews and heretics) that the Blessed Virgin was a perpetual virgin:
Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. And he said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.”
St. Jerome did not hesitate to attribute these verses to Mary:
Some quite emphatically understand this closed gate through which only the Lord God of Israel passes … as the Virgin Mary, who remains a Virgin before and after childbirth. In fact, she remains always a Virgin, in the moment in which the Angel speaks with her and when the Son of God is born (40).
And elsewhere:
Only Christ opened the closed doors of the virginal womb, which continued to remain closed, however. This is the closed eastern gate, through which only the high priest may enter and exit and which nevertheless is always closed (41).
His defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity was a very serious matter for him, for he was also engaged in debate over the value of virginity in general. He liked marriage, only in that it produced more virgins for the world!
St. Ambrose also commented:
What is that gate of the sanctuary, that outer gate facing the East and remaining closed…? Is not Mary the gate through whom the Redeemer entered the world? … Holy Mary is the gate of which it is written … (42). (She) is the good gate that was closed and was not opened. Christ passed through it, but he did not open it (43).
St. Proclus of Constantinople gives his commentary on the verses as well. While doing so, he suggests a strange entrance point of the Holy Spirit into Our Lady:
(Jesus) as God does not break the virginal seals: in such wise He exits the womb as He entered there through the ear; thus He was born, as He was conceived: without passion He entered, without corruption He exited, according to the prophet Ezekiel who says: “This gate will remain closed” (44).
Besides the prophecies of the protoevangelium, the patriarchs, and the prophets, the Fathers of the Church looked also to the Wisdom literature of the Davidic Kingdom in search of Mary in the Old Testament. In their interpretations of these passages, they took an allegorical approach, similar to that used in the interpretation of Ezekiel 44:1-2. The place that bore the most fruit was the Psalms. The Fathers’ Mariological interpretation of the Psalms still remains a normative part of the Roman Liturgy (45). This is important to note, due to the truths about Mary that the Liturgy presents. It is lex orandi, lex credandi in the surest sense. As Roschini observed:
The liturgical prayer of the Church (her worship) is an expression of the faith of the Church, a faith that precedes liturgical prayer or worship, and therefore becomes a pledge of that faith. Consequently, it is not the liturgy (with its forms of prayer and worship) that produces the faith or the truths of faith, but the faith that produces the liturgy, i.e., the expressions of prayer and worship, as the tree produces the fruit, and not contrariwise (46).
Thus we can observe the interpretation of the Psalms and catch a glimpse at the Marian Faith of our Fathers. For this reason “the time-consuming labor involved in listing all the verses in the Psalter referring to Mary is without doubt one of the more important contributions that the Fathers made toward the development of Marian devotion” (47). Let us look at a few of these verses.
Psalm 22:9: “Yet thou art he who took me from the womb”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains to his catechumens the meaning:
Heed well the expression: “You brought me forth from the womb.” It means that (Christ) was conceived and brought forth from the Virgin’s womb without the involvement of man (48).
Psalm 45:9: “At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.”
St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740), the Father of Mary’s Queenship, naturally applied this verse to Mary, the Immaculate Queen (49).
Psalm 67:6: “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God has blessed us.”
St. Jerome gives us the realities that the earth and the increase (or fruit) point to:
Do you want to know what this fruit is? It is the virgin from the Virgin, the Lord from the handmaid, God from a human creature, the Son from a mother, the fruit from the earth (50).
St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) adds:
Yes, the earth has yielded its fruit, because the Virgin did not conceive her Son by man’s doing but because the Holy Spirit stretched out his shadow over her (51).
Psalm 68:24-26: “Thy solemn processions are seen, O God, the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—the singers in front, the minstrels last, between them maidens playing timbrels: ‘Bless God in the great congregation, the Lord, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!’”
St. Augustine, commenting on these verses, says that the Blessed Virgin is the head of the maidens playing the timbrels. Like Miriam, Mary Aled the people of God and the angels of heaven in the praise of the Almighty” (52).
Psalm 72.6: “May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass.”
St. Maximus of Turin uses this verse in a sermon on the nativity of the Lord, substituting “fleece” for “mown grass,” to describe the “hidden virginity” of Mary after the Incarnation which we mentioned above:
Mary brought forth one whom she did not conceive in a sexual way. Thus the Lord was born, then, so that no one would suspect His future birth or believe it or perceive it. How would they believe that this would be when they hardly believe what happened after? That the Savior would thus hiddenly and secretly descend into a virgin the prophet David has already prophesied beforehand when he said: He will descend like rain upon fleece. For what takes place with such silence and so noiselessly as a shower upon a fleece of wool? It strike’s no one’s ears with its sound, it sprinkles no one’s body with the damp of spattered moisture, but without disturbing anyone it completely absorbs throughout itself the whole shower that has poured down, not knowing a particular course but by its firm softness offering many courses; and what seems to be resistant because of its density is open because of its fineness.
Rightly, then, do we compare Mary to fleece—she who conceived the Lord in such a way that she absorbed Him with her whole body; nor did she undergo a rending of that same body, but she was tender in submission and firm in chastity. Rightly, I say, is Mary compared to fleece—she from whose offspring saving garments are woven for the people. Clearly Mary is fleece since from her tender womb came forth the lamb who Himself, bearing His mother’s wool (that is, flesh), covers the wounds of all peoples with a soft fleece. For every wound of sin is covered with the wool of Christ, tended by the blood of Christ, and, so that it may receive health, clothed in the garment of Christ (53).
This image of fleece in the Psalm seems to arise out of a mistranslation. It would seem to work better with the story of Gideon and the fleece in Judges 6. Nevertheless, applied to Psalm 72 or not, the image of Mary as fleece is still quite beautiful and St. Maximus masters the parallel!
Psalm 78.14: “In the daytime he led them with a cloud.”
St. Jerome sees in this cloud that led the Israelites through the desert by day an image of the virginal Mary: “(S)urely we ought to see in the light cloud holy Mary, who was not weighed down by any manly seed” (54).
Psalm 87.5: “And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her’; for the Most High himself will establish her.”
The poet Venantius Fortunatus (d. 600), in a song called In lauden sanctae Mariae, says:
“Mother Zion!” A man will say, and he became man in her; this very man born in her is the One who established her. And the One who established her is the Most High himself. This mother Zion was the Virgin Mary (55).
Psalm 97:
This Psalm is one of victory proclaimed by King David as he enters the Promised Land. Again, we turn to St. Jerome for his commentary:
The title superscription of this psalm is: “When his land was restored to him.” Since it says, “was restored,” it is evident that the land had been his before, was afterwards lost, then recovered again. What land is this that was restored to David? David’s land is holy Mary, the mother of the Savior: “who was born to him according to the flesh of the offspring of David.” The promise made to David was fulfilled in the virginity of Mary and in her childbearing, when a virgin was born of a virgin. The announcement of the Gospel: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” thus came to pass, so that what had been promised to David was restored to us through holy Mary” (56).
Psalm 132:4-6: “‘I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.’ Lo, we heard of it in Ephrathah, we found it in the fields of Jaar.”
Once more, the master of Scripture, St. Jerome:
Many exegetes think that this foreshadows the Church, but to me it seems to refer not so much to the Church, as to holy Mary. It even says: “Behold we heard of her in Ephratha; we found her in the fields of the wood.” … Someone may say that here “Ephratha” stands for Bethlehem. To be sure we read in Genesis: “He came into Bethlehem, that is, Ephratha.” This is said of Jacob when his wife Rachel died in Ephratha. Let us look into the origin of the name Ephratha. It is written in Paralipomenon (Chronicles) that Maria, the sister of Moses and Aaron, had married a man by name, Or—not Ur, but Or. By reason of this marriage the right order is defined and expressed as follows: “Mary, the sister of Moses and Aaron, that is, Ephratha.” … This, then, is the source of the name Ephratha in our psalm. Perhaps some one questions the derivation because it is so novel, but I refer such a one to the authority of the Book. “Behold we heard of her in Ephratha.” The Hebrew text has “him” instead of “her,” calling attention to Him who is to be born of the descendants of David: “We heard of him in Ephratha:” because these words point to Mary (57).
Psalm 132:8: “Arise, O Lord, and go to thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy might.”
These words came to the Fathers’ minds while meditating on the dormition and assumption of Our Blessed Lady. Today in the Greek Liturgy on the Feast of the Assumption they sing: “Come hither, all who love this festival, come let us dance and sing, come let us weave to the Church a garland of song: for today the ark of God’s presence has come to rest!” (58)
With this Psalm in mind, St. Jerome exlaims:
The ark is verily the holy Virgin, gilded within and without, who received the treasure of universal sanctification. Arise, O Lord, from the Father’s bosom, to raise up again the ruined race of our first parent (59).
St. Hesychius of Jerusalem (d. 450) adds:
The ark is without doubt the Virgin Mother of God. For if thou art the gem, with reason is she the ark; and because thou art the sun, the Virgin will necessarily be called heaven; since thou art the unfading flower, the Virgin must assuredly be the plant of incorruption and paradise of immortality (60).
And on Mary as the ark, St. Maximus of Turin comments:
But what would we say that the ark was if not holy Mary, since the ark carried within it the tables of the covenant, while Mary bore the master of the same covenant? The one bore the law within itself and the other the gospel, but the ark gleamed within and without with the radiance of gold, while holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity; the one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly (61).
Ending our treatment of Mary in the Psalms, we hear from St. John of Damascus as he describes the Dormition of the Blessed Mother:
Your holy and all-virginal body was consigned to a holy tomb, while the angels went before it, accompanied it, and followed it; for what would they not do to serve the Mother of their Lord? Meanwhile, the apostles and the whole assembly of the Church sang divine hymns and struck the lyre of the Spirit: “We shall be filled with the blessings of your house; your temple is holy; wondrous in justice” (Ps 65:4). And again: “The Most High has sanctified his dwelling” (Ps 65:4); “God’s mountain, rich mountain, the mountain in which God has been pleased to dwell” (Ps 68:16-17) (62).
Now let us briefly explore Marian interpretations found in the other parts of the Wisdom literature.
Job 38:36: “Who gave woman wisdom and skill in embroidery?”
St. Epiphanius of Salamis calls to mind the Patristic Eve/Mary parallel with this verse:
Indeed the words refer to two women: one is the first Eve, who skillfully wove the visible garments of Adam, whom she herself had reduced to nakedness. To this toil, then, she had been destined. Just as nakedness was discovered because of her, so to her was given the task of reclothing the sensible body against visible nakedness. To Mary, instead, God entrusted the task of giving birth, for our sakes, to him who is the lamb and the sheep; from his glory, as from a veil, by the power of his immortality, a garment is skillfully woven for us (63).
Proverbs 8:22: “The Lord created me”
St. Ambrose takes up this quote from Scripture to fight against the heresy that Christ was not truly human, and consequently Mary was not a true mother:
We understand what was written about the Incarnation of the Lord: “The Lord created me” to mean that the Lord Jesus was created from the Virgin to redeem the Father’s works. And truly, one cannot doubt that this was said in reference to the mystery of the Incarnation, when the Lord assumed flesh to free his works from slavery to corruption and to destroy, by the suffering of his body, the one who held the power of death (64).
Proverbs 9:1: “Wisdom has built her house”
St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) comments on the perfect man, the Incarnate Wisdom that is Christ, who dwelled within Our Lady without the use of human hands:
When the Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, the new man was formed in her. He is called new because he was fashioned by God, not in the usual human way, but differently, so that he would become a dwelling of God, not made by human hands. For the Most High does not dwell in places made by hands; not that is, in dwellings built by human effort (65).
Song of Solomon 4:12: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed.”
St. Jerome used this as one more passage that spoke of Our Lady, saying it referred to “the mother of our Lord, who was a mother and a Virgin” (66).
Outside of the Wisdom Literature there are other secondary (if you will) images that the Church Fathers saw as an allegorical or typological reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Gregory of Nyssa saw the burning bush that was not consumed in Exodus 3 as prefiguring Christ being born without violating Mary’s virginity:
It seems to me that, already, the great Moses knew about this mystery by means of the light in which God appeared to him, when he saw the bush burning without being consumed. For Moses said: “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision.” I believe that the term “go up closer” does not indicate motion in space but a drawing near in time. What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once an intermediate space of time had passed. As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted. Nor should you consider the comparison to the bush to be embarrassing, for it prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin (67).
St. Gregory the Great saw Mary as the highest mountain in Isaiah 2:2:
Isaiah said in a prophecy, “In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be made the highest mountain.” And this mountain has been made the highest mountain, because Mary’s height has shined out above all the saints. For, just as a mountain implies height, so the house signifies a dwelling place. Therefore she is called mountain and house, because she, illuminated by incomparable merits, prepared a holy womb for God’s Only-begotten to dwell in. On the other hand, Mary would not have become a mountain raised above the peaks of the mountains had not divine fecundity raised her above the angels. Further, she would not have become the Lord’s house had not the divinity of the Word assumed humanity and come to dwell in her womb. Mary is justly called mountain rich in fruits, because the best fruit was born from her, namely, a new man (68).
With Jeremiah 31:22: “How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing on earth: a woman protects a man,” St. Jerome sees the new thing to be God-made-man entering into the virginal womb of Mary and preserving her virginity:
(T)he Lord has done a new thing on earth. Without seed of man, without carnal act, without conception, the woman will enclose the man in the haven of her womb … the perfect man will be contained in the woman’s womb for the normal period. At the same time it must be pointed out that we can describe as creation the birth of the Savior and the conception of God (69).
Finally, we look at Daniel 2:34: “a stone was cut out by no human hand.” Severus of Antioch (d. 538) sees this as symbolic of Christ being born of the Virgin Mary. St. Jerome also took this view. He said it was “a prophecy signifying that He would be born a virgin of a virgin. ‘Hands’ is, of course, to be understood of the marital act” (70).
As we have seen, the Fathers of the Church searched deep into the Old Testament for any hint of a foretelling of Our Lady. And wherever they encountered Mary, she was always in relation to Jesus Christ, her Son. The truths about Mary ultimately affect the truths about Christ. This was always at the front of the Fathers’ minds. They battled against heresies for love of Jesus Christ, His Blessed Mother, and the Church which Christ established. In defense of the Blessed Mother, they found contained within the Hebrew Scriptures passages that defended her virgin birth and perpetual virginity, her true motherhood of Christ, her purity and beauty, and also her Queenship. It is because of the Fathers and their tireless defense of Mary and the rest of the faith, that we are now able to enjoy such rich doctrines and beautiful devotions and liturgies concerning Our Blessed Mother.
We realize that this article did not give an entire and complete description of every Father’s comments on every passage of the Old Testament that applied to Mary. Were this to be done, I suppose the world itself (or at least this article) could not contain the wisdom and treasure that would be found. Instead our hope is that by seeing the documentation provided, it will spur the faithful on to a greater love and study of Our Lady, the Fathers of the Church, the Scriptures (Old and New), and their intersection. Much wisdom can be obtained by what the Holy Fathers have to say about both Mary and the Scriptures. We should not be afraid to go back and inquire of their knowledge. After all, they lived closer to the time that Christ walked the earth and a few were disciples of the Apostles themselves. The Patristic legacy is one of immense value and should be studied and spread throughout all Christendom. For a Catholic, the spread of the Fathers can be the best tool of evangelization. As John Henry Newman said, “to be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.”

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