Last week, we began our investigation of the image of “the woman clothed with the sun” as described in the Book of Revelation (11:19-12:6). Since the time of the early Church Fathers, this image of the woman has had a three-fold symbolism: the ancient people of Israel, the Church and the Blessed Mother.
However, as we learned last week, the fullness of the image is the Blessed Mother, for she fulfills the prophecies regarding the coming of the Messiah, and she is the Mother of the Church.
There are other important reasons for identifying “the woman clothed with the sun” as our Blessed Mother. The passage in question began with a revelation of heaven, the temple, and the Ark of the Covenant. Remember in the Old Testament the ark housed the Ten Commandments, the Law of God and God’s Word. The ark also contained the priestly staff of Aaron and a golden jar containing an omerful of manna (Ex 16:32, Nm 17:25, Heb 9:14). As the Israelites journeyed to the Promised Land, a cloud, signifying the presence of God, would descend upon or “overshadow” the tent where the ark was kept. Later in the Temple of Jerusalem, the ark was kept in the Holy of Holies, the inner core of the Temple where the Jewish people believed God dwelt.
After the description of heaven, the temple and the ark, the next verse describes “the woman clothed with the sun.” Mary is the mother of Jesus, whom she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Archangel Gabriel announced, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; hence, the holy offspring to be born will be called Son of God” (Lk 1:35). The connection between Mary and the Temple, the Holy of Holies and the ark is clear.
Keep in mind also that when St. John saw this vision, the ark had been lost for over 500 years. The prophet Jeremiah had hidden the ark to prevent its capture and desecration by the Babylonians, and declared, “The place is to remain unknown until God gathers His people together again and shows them His mercy” (2 Mc 2:7). In this vision, St. John saw the ark and then he saw Mary. Mary carried in her womb our Lord, who is the Word of God, the true High Priest and the Bread of Life. Truly, Mary is the new Ark of the New Covenant, which our Lord as priest will make with His Blood spilled in the sacrifice of the Cross.
If this “woman clothed with the sun” refers to our Blessed Mother, how then do the birth pangs mentioned in Revelation fit? Since she was free of Original Sin through her Immaculate Conception, Mary was free of child-bearing pains. The pain, therefore, must refer to the pain she shared when she stood at the foot of the Cross (Jn 19:25), a pain prophesied by the priest Simeon at the circumcision: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed and you yourself shall by pierced with a sword so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Lk 2:34-35). Interestingly, St. Paul also speaks of “labor pains” in handing the faith on to his people: “You are my children, and you put me back in labor pains until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). So the pain takes on a spiritual significance, that pain in sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and that pain in being the Mother of the Church and bringing others to her Son.
Mary’s description as “the woman clothed with the sun” also depicts her glory fulfilled in her Assumption. Pope Pius XII in Munifentissimus Deus, the declaration of the dogma of the Assumption, recognized that the early Church fathers looked to “the woman clothed with the sun” when providing the New Testament foundation for the belief (No. 27). Note that that is why the passage in question is read at the Mass for the Solemnity of the Assumption. Moreover, the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) taught, “Finally, the Immaculate Virgin preserved free from all stain of Original Sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords (cf. Rv 19:16) and conqueror of sin and death” (No. 59). Note that in making this statement, the Second Vatican Council referenced the passage from Revelation in question.
One last point to consider: Pondering our entire exposition of this topic, we can step back and see how our Blessed Mother her role and her imagery in this passage of Revelation fulfills the Old Testament. For this reason, the early Church fathers identified Mary as “the New Eve.” In the third chapter of Genesis, the first Eve succumbed to the temptation of wanting to be like a god, disobeyed God’s command and sinned. In contrast, Mary is full of grace, free of all sin. At the Annunciation, she said to Archangel Gabriel, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done according to thy word,” submitting fully to the will of God (Lk 2:38).
Through the first Eve came death and the closing of the gates of heaven; through Mary came everlasting life won by the saving work of Jesus. While the first Eve is called “the mother of all of the living,” Mary is truly the Mother of all of those living spiritually in the life of grace.
Finally, after the Fall, God said to the serpent, Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers…” (Gn 3:15). In Revelation, we find Satan represented by a dragon. The Hebrew word nahash used in Genesis means both serpent and dragon. Also, the enmity between Mary and Satan, between her offspring and Satan’s is found in Revelation. The New Eve typology was presented early in the Church by St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene, just to name a few, and was also highlighted in Vatican Council II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Chapter VIII, entitled, “Our Lady.”
Therefore, “the woman clothed with the sun,” as depicted in the Book of Revelation, is clearly a beautiful reference to the role of our Blessed Mother in the plan of salvation.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)