The Woman Clothed with the Sun

Q: During the Solemnity of the Assumption we had a reading from the Book of Revelation that mentioned a lady clothed with the sun, a child and a dragon. Does the lady refer to the Blessed Mother?

First, let’s refresh our memories with the passage from the Book of Revelation (11:19-12:6):

Then God’s temple in heaven opened and in the temple could be seen the Ark of the Covenant. There were flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, an earthquake and a violent hailstorm. A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Because she was with child, she wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky: it was a huge dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns; on his heads were seven diadems. His tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, ready to devour her child when it should be born. She gave birth to a son — a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and to His throne. The woman herself fled into the desert, where a special place had been prepared for her by God; there she was taken care of for 1260 days.

Since the time of the early Church Fathers, this image of “the woman clothed with the sun” has had a threefold symbolism: the ancient people of Israel, the Church and the Blessed Mother. Regarding the ancient people of Israel, Isaiah described Israel as follows: “As a woman about to give birth writhes and cries out in her pains, so were we in your presence, O Lord” (Is 26:17). Of course, one must remember too that it is from the ancient people of Israel that both Mary and the Messiah came.


The “woman clothed with the sun” may also represent the Church. Later in verse 17, we read, “Enraged at her escape, the dragon went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep God’s commandments and give witness to Jesus,” the “offspring” being the baptized children of God, the members of the Church. Pope St. Gregory posited, “The sun stands for the light of truth, and the moon for the transitoriness of temporal things; the holy Church is clothed like the sun because she is protected by the splendor of supernatural truth, and she has the moon under her feet because she is above all earthly things” (Moralia, 34, 12).

Finally, the woman can be identified with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary gave birth to our Savior, Jesus Christ. St. Bernard commented, “The sun contains permanent color and splendor; whereas the moon’s brightness is unpredictable and changeable, for it never stays the same. It is quite right, then, for Mary to be depicted as clothed with the sun, for she entered the profundity of divine wisdom much, much further than one can possibly conceive” (De B. Virgine, 2).

In identifying the image of “the woman clothed with the sun” as our Blessed Mother Mary, the fullness of the imagery of the ancient people of Israel and the Church emerges. Consider the ancient people of Israel. When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he declared (as translated in the New American Bible, 1968), “Rejoice, O highly favored daughter! The Lord is with you. Blessed are among women” (Lk 1:28). Then continuing, he said, “Do not fear, Mary. You have found favor with God. You shall conceive and bear a son and give Him the name Jesus. Great will be His dignity and He will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of David His father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever and His reign will be without end” (Lk 1:30-33). These statements reflect the prophecy of Zephaniah regarding the ancient people of Israel and the coming of the Messiah: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has removed the judgment against you, He has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!’” (Zep 3:14-16). Therefore, Mary, the mother of the Messiah, as the “woman clothed with the sun” represents the fulfillment of the prophecy given to the people Israel.

Likewise, Mary, again seen as “the woman clothed with the sun,” rightfully represents the Church, for Mary is the Mother of the Church. St. Paul is his Letter to the Galatians asserted, “…When the designated time had come, God sent forth His Son born of a woman, born under the law, to deliver from the law those who were subject to it, so that we might receive our status as adopted sons” (4:4-5). Expounding upon this point, the Vatican Council II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), teaches, “At once virgin and mother, Mary is the symbol and the most perfect realization of the Church: “the Church indeed…by receiving the Word of God in faith becomes herself a mother. By preaching and Baptism she brings forth sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life” (No. 64). Moreover, the Vatican Council II continued, that in her glorious assumption, Mary “is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come” (No. 67). Finally, at the end of the third session of Vatican Council II, November 21, 1964, when Lumen Gentium had been promulgated, Pope Paul VI declared, “We proclaim the Most Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of the Church, i.e. of the whole people of God, faithful and pastors, and we call her most loving Mother.” Therefore, the Blessed Mother represents the fulfillment of the image of the Church: she who is the mother of the Savior who founded the Church, is a spiritual mother to all who through baptism are the adopted children of God and members of the Church.

Here it is worth citing the teaching of Pope St. Pius X in his encyclical, Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum (1904): “Everyone knows that this woman signified the Virgin Mary…John therefore saw the most Holy Mother of God already in eternal happiness, yet travailing in a mysterious childbirth. What birth was it? Surely it was the birth of us who, still in exile, are yet to be generated to the perfect charity of God, and to eternal happiness” (24).

At this point, we will pause and continue our discussion next week, examining other reasons why the woman “clothed with the sun” refers to our Blessed Mother.

Editor’s note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

Fr. William Saunders


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's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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