CNS PHOTO | CROSIERS
The liturgy for the feast of the Assumption links Mary with the woman clothed by the sun in the book of Revelation.
The most dramatic "Marian" passage in the New Testament is the story in Revelation 12 describing "a woman clothed with the sun" who gives birth to a son "who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron."
A first glance at this chapter could leave one with the impression that it is a symbolic description of Mary giving birth to Jesus. Early Church writers, however, did not see it that way. They typically understood the woman clothed with the sun as the new Israel, the Church.
It wasn't until the fourth century that the woman in this vivid description of the battle between good and evil was interpreted by some as referring to Mary. Only in the Middle Ages was Mary widely seen as the one symbolized in Revelation 12.
Even today, most Scripture scholars are reticent to see this story as a reference to Mary. Rather, they see it as a Christian adaptation of a myth found in several cultures in the ancient world about a goddess who would give birth to a saviour-king who would be pursued by a horrible monster personifying evil.
The notion that the woman clothed with the sun represents the Church is supported by the fact that the dragon in the story is angry not only with the woman, but also with her children – "those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus" (12.17).
Moreover, the woman of Revelation 12 "cries out in birth pangs in the agony of giving birth," something quite different than the placid scene in the Bethlehem stable that we associate with the birth of Jesus. Nor did Mary flee into the wilderness and neither was Jesus taken to the throne of God immediately after his birth.
Like so much of the imagery of the book of Revelation, it is difficult to know how to accurately interpret the story of the woman clothed with the sun. It was with great difficulty that the early Church discerned whether to even include the book of Revelation in the Bible, so mysterious and complex is its imagery.
Despite all that, the Church does include parts of Revelation 12 in its liturgy for the feast of the Assumption, thus implying that this biblical text does have relevance to Mary.
In his homily in 2007 for that feast, Pope Benedict XVI said "without any doubt" the woman clothed with the sun is Our Lady, Mary - "Mary who lives totally in God, surrounded and penetrated by God's light."
It is because Mary has given herself totally to God and other people that she is able to counter the threats of the dragon, the pope said.
It is only then that Pope Benedict said the woman is also the Church, which is always being persecuted and which needs to withdraw into the desert.
Both Mary and the Church show us how to stand up to the "dragon," the forces of evil, "a striking and disturbing manifestation of power without grace, without love, of absolute selfishness, terror and violence."
At the time John wrote the book of Revelation, the dragon was Nero and the power of the Roman Empire. Today, the dragon takes many forms. It can be seen, the former pope said, in the 20th century dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin as well as in ideologies that say it is absurd to pay attention to God and his commandments.
We obey the dragon when we "take everything we can get in this brief moment of life. Consumerism, selfishness and entertainment alone are worthwhile," he said.
This is a many-headed dragon which shows its faces in the evils of abortion, euthanasia, the gross imbalance between rich and poor, the destruction of the earth in order to gain profit, the drug trade, and the wars and dictatorships that destroy life, peace and freedom.
The dragon may appear invincible; it may seem that we have no real choice but to follow the dragon. "But it is still true today that God is stronger than the dragon, that it is love which conquers rather than selfishness," Pope Benedict said.
The old plaster statues of Mary that were once in every church showed her crushing the serpent with her heel, a not-quite-accurate depiction of Genesis 3.15. Despite that inaccuracy, Mary has long been seen as our surest defence against the wiles of the devil.
In the battle between good and evil, Mary stands irrevocably on the side of good, on the side of her son Jesus. When we fight that battle, we do well to go to Mary and seek her assistance. She is the one who will crush the head of the evil one.
Scholars and wise people dispute the meaning of Revelation 12. But when we must fight the greatest battle of all, the battle against evil, it is to Mary we should turn. She is the woman "who lives totally in God, surrounded and penetrated by God's light."