Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mary, Queen of Heaven

In my earlier post on Mary's perpetual virginity, I mentioned how the Roman Catholic Church interprets the Ark of the Covenant as a typology, an Old Testament prefiguration of Mary in her role as Theokotos. There are two New Testament references to the Ark of the Covenant. The first, found in Hebrews 9:4, contains a description of the Ark and a brief explanation of its significance.  The second is found in the Apocalypse of St. John, better known as the book of Revelations. The seventh trumpet has sounded, and the twenty-four elders worship God "because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign" (Rev. 11:17).
And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth (Rev. 11:19-12:2).
The Ark of the Covenant was the single holiest object in the Jewish faith, which had disappeared after the destruction of Solomon's Temple. Its recovery was, next to the long-awaited Messiah, the most anticipated event of the Jewish people. Yet here, as the Ark is being unveiled, John swiftly transitions into describing a woman in the throes of labor pains, about to give birth "to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Rev. 12:5) -- a universally acknowledged reference to Christ. Is this a coincidence?  The Ark of the Covenant is revealed in the same breath as a woman giving birth to the son of God. Indeed, the entire chapter can be read as the story of the Nativity, seen in a cosmic light. Even the Holy Family's forced exodus to Egypt and Herod's slaughter of the innocents (recorded in Matthew 2:13-18) are obliquely referenced.

The most straightforward interpretation of this passage is that John is speaking of Mary. Both her prefiguration in the Ark of the Covenant and her status as Mother of God are directly referenced in this passage. In what exalted light do we now perceive Mary: clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, with a crown of twelve stars? Indeed, this is the very imagery employed in the iconography of the early Church.

Veneration of Mary as the "Queen of Heaven" relies on an Old Testament typological reading of the Davidic monarchy. Even from the first verse of the New Testament, Jesus is identified as "the Son of David." This title is most frequently used in the Gospel of Matthew, which focused on Christ's role as King of the Jews. One of the common elements shared by monarchies in the Ancient Near East, including the Davidic line, was a respect and veneration for the "Queen Mother." This was partly out of practical necessity, what with the prevalence of polygamy, but it was also derived from the tremendous respect and value these cultures located in families and in elders. This is, after all, the very culture from which we learned the Commandment to "Honor thy father and mother."

There are a few passages which hint at the role of the Queen Mother in court politics; the one cited most often is 1 Kings 2:12-20. After the death of David, Solomon ascended to the throne, "and his kingdom was firmly established."
Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king arose to meet her, bowed before her, and sat on his throne; then he had a throne set for the king's mother, and she sat on his right. Then she said, "I am making one small request of you; do not refuse me." And the king said to her, "Ask, my mother, for I will not refuse you" (1 Kings 2:19-20)
There are several noteworthy elements of this story. First, Bathsheba was interceding on behalf of Adonijah, the king's brother, and the text indicates that the Queen Mother was regarded as an advocate for others. Indeed, Adonijah himself said that if Solomon would not refuse him if  Bathsheba made the request (2:17). Second, when Bathsheba entered, Solomon stepped down from his throne and bowed to meet her, demonstrating a degree of respect for the Queen Mother that would be inconceivable if applied to anyone else. Third, Solomon gave his mother a throne and set her up at his right hand, confirming her elevated rank and his filial devotion to her. Fourth and finally, he encourages her request and reinforces her intercessory role.

In this particular case, Bathsheba was being used by Adonijah as an unwitting foil in preparation for a rebellion.  However, the principle remains, as did the power of the Queen Mother. The 'lamenting prophet' Jeremiah is commanded to "speak to the king and the queen mother" (Jer. 13:18). This verse is commonly interpreted as referring to Jehoiachin and his mother Nehushta, the same queen mother who is given primacy of rank when Nebuchadnezzar exiled them to Babylon in 2 Kings 24:15.

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus, as the rightful heir to the Davidic kingdom, had a throne set for his mother Mary. This elevated station is confirmed by John's vision in Revelation, which reveals Mary in undeniably regal imagery. Her active role as the Queen Mother is seen and reinforced by a third Catholic dogma: the Assumption of Mary.

The assumption is the most recent of Marian dogmas to be defined, in the Apostolic Constitution of 1950, and it is the only one defined by the Pope speaking ex cathedra (that is, following the Vatican I formula of papal infallibility. In this work, titled Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII declared
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
I'll leave discussion of papal infallibility for a later post, but for now a few pointers.

The first thing to note is that this dogma does not affirm that Mary was taken up into heaven before her natural death. The Eastern Orthodox Church explicitly confirms the death of Mary in their parallel dogma ("the Dormition of Theokotos) and this understanding is actually shared by most Catholics.

The second point is that this doctrine affirms Mary's special relationship with her son Jesus, and also her son's steadfast devotion to the Law. Jesus sought to truly honor His mother, and her bodily assumption into heaven is a testament to that.

The third point, and this cannot be repeated enough, is that Christianity has always affirmed a bodily resurrection. The only special privilege allotted to Mary is that her bodily resurrection preceded the final resurrection shared by all believers. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the only reason for a separate dogmatic definition. The dogma of the Assumption affirms that Mary prefigures the whole body of believers, the entire family of God.

In this way, Mary is herself a typology for the Church.

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