The Mediatrix in Apocalypse 12
"And there appeared a great wonder in Heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars."
"While the woman evokes images of Jerusalem and of the Church, it is Mary who provides the connecting link which holds these two symbols together. She stands situated in the middle, as a bridge that connects the Old dispensation to the New. As a young Jewess, she was born into and under the Old Covenant, yet in giving birth to Christ and standing by Him at the Cross, she plays a vital role in ushering in the New Covenant age."
Editor's Note: Apologist Jacob Michael presents a succinct Catholic Apologetic based on the Holy Scriptures. He has chosen to call his column Quid Dicit Scriptura? - What Saith the Scriptures? He utilizes the approved and superior Douay-Rheims Roman Catholic version in his apologia and holds to the Council of Trent's decree to "accept Sacred Scripture according to the meaning which has been held by Holy Mother Church and which She now holds. It is Her prerogative to pass judgment on the true meaning and interpretation of Sacred Scripture and will not accept or interpret it in a manner different from the unanimous agreement of the Fathers."
Some passages below are highlighted in blue bold for emphasis. All words of Our Lord are in red bold.
We move now to another of St. John's writings to see another manifestation of Mary's role as Mediatrix. In the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse, St. John sees a vision of a woman in Heaven, and this woman takes on several different characteristics throughout the vision. The narrative begins like this:
"And a great portent appeared in Heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.
And another portent appeared in Heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads.
His tail swept down a third of the stars of Heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, One Who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to His throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days" (Rev. 12:1-6).
Verse 2 shows to us a "woman" - recall that St. John records Our Lord referring to Mary as "woman" twice in his gospel - who is in the pains of labor, giving birth to a "male child."
The words of the text recall for us two prophetic texts from the prophet Isaias, which speak of Jerusalem/Israel/Zion as a woman in labor:
"Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son"(Is. 66:7)
"Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs, when she is near her time, so were we because of thee, O LORD; we were with child, we writhed, we have as it were brought forth wind" (Is. 26:17-18).
In these passages, Jerusalem is a woman who is giving birth to the New Covenant children, who are here represented by "a son." At first glance, then, it would seem that St. John's "woman" is also Jerusalem, but a closer examination reveals that Jerusalem does not - and can not - exhaust the meaning of the "woman." There are three reasons why this is so:
1) The latter passage, Is. 26:17-18, portrays a woman the pains of labor (this matches the vision of St. John), but the woman in this passage never gives birth (while the woman in Rev. 12 does)
2) The former passage, Is. 66:7, portrays a woman who does give birth to a son (this matches the woman of St. John's vision), but she does so apart from any kind of labor pains (while the woman in Rev. 12 does experience birth pains)
3) The "male child" born to the woman in Rev. 12 is said to "rule all the nations with a rod of iron," which is a clear reference to the Messiah as He is portrayed in Psalm 2: "Ask of Me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Ps. 2:8-9).
As to objection #3 above, if the "woman" of Rev. 12 gives birth to the Messiah - and the linkage with Psalm 2 makes this undeniable - then the woman must be, first and foremost, the Virgin Mary. There is, quite simply, no other woman who gave birth to the Messiah. It may be argued that Jerusalem collectively "gave birth" to the Messiah in some symbolic fashion, but this is not supported directly by any Old Testament text. In fact, there is no Old Testament text that ever speaks of a collective "Mother" of the Messiah.
The "woman" of Rev. 12 takes on a new persona in verse 6, when she flees "into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days." The parallel to this passage is found in verse 14 of the same chapter:
"The woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time" (Rev. 12:14).
We can see the link to verse 6 in the two parallel phrases, "nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days," and "nourished for a time, and times, and half a time." In verse 14 we have the added detail that the woman is given "the two wings of a great eagle." Additionally, both verses tell us that the woman takes refuge in "the wilderness."
The wilderness imagery should be enough to point us in the right direction, for it seems that St. John is evoking the Exodus narratives, when Israel wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. We find support for this hypothesis when we link the "eagle's wings" of Rev. 12 to two passages that describe Israel:
"You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself" (Ex. 19:4).
"For the LORD's portion is His people, Jacob his allotted heritage. He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the LORD alone did lead him, and there was no foreign god with him. He made him ride on the high places of the earth, and he ate the produce of the field; and he made him suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock" (Dt. 32:9-13).
The mention, in both verses 6 and 14, of "1,260 days" or "time, and times, and half a time," is an explicit reference to the prophecy of Daniel:
"He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law; and they shall be given into his hand for a time, two times, and half a time"(Dan. 7:25).
"The man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward Heaven; and I heard him swear by him who lives for ever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time; and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be accomplished" (Dan. 12:7).
These prophetic passages refer to a future time when "the saints of the Most High" will be persecuted. I propose, then, that St. John's use of this prophetic imagery, as well as the reference to God's protection of Israel in the wilderness, is a symbolic way of describing the Church in tribulation and testing. Certainly this would make sense for St. John's audience, in the years immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, when persecution of the Church by the Jews was reaching its peak.
The imagery is picked up again in verses 13-17:
"And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child.
But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.
The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood.
But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon had poured from his mouth.
Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea."
The dragon, not being able to harm the woman directly, wages war against her "offspring," which evokes for us the prophetic text of Genesis 3:15:
"I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed. She shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel." (Gen. 3:15).
This is actually the third time the Genesis imagery is evoked by St. John in this chapter. The previous two times occur in verse 4 ("And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth") and in verse 9 ("And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world").
In the former passage, the dragon stands before the woman, waiting for her to give birth so that he can devour the child - this corresponds to the prophecy of Genesis 3 that the serpent would "lie in wait" to strike the woman's heel. The latter passage explicitly evokes the Genesis narrative by describing the dragon as "that ancient serpent" and as St. Bernard has affirmed in this passage, this serpent "lays snares for our heel, because he opposes the end of a good action with greater craft and power." The serpent may hiss and threaten, but it cannot hurt us if we resist the devil.
Thus far, then, we have seen the woman taking on three different personalities: she reminds us of Jerusalem, she reminds us of Mary, and she reminds us of the Church.
We now return to the problem found in verse 2: "she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery."
We have already seen that Jerusalem does not fit this text, for when she gave birth there was no labor pain, and when there was labor pain she did not give birth. This cannot be a reference to Our Lady either, for Sacred Tradition tells us that she experienced no pain in giving birth to Our Lord. Finally, this text does not fit the description of the Church, simply because the Church can not be said to have given "birth" to the "male child" Who is Our Lord. Jesus preceded the Church, thus, this woman cannot be the Church.
So what are we to make of the labor pains?
Indeed, there is one other passage in Scripture that speaks of a "woman" who is in the pains of child birth:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:20-22).
In this passage (also written by St. John), it is Our Lord Who likens the hour of His Passion to the hour of a "woman" who is "in travail." To put it another way, the pains of labor here are linked to the Cross, and the birth of the child is symbolic with the birth of the Church.
In fact, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ is referred to as a kind of birth in the Acts of the Apostles:
"But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days Je appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now His witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this He has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, 'Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee'" (Acts 13:30-33).
Note here how the raising of Jesus from the dead is said to "fulfill" the Psalm which says, "today I have begotten thee." This explains why the "birth" (both in Bethlehem and at Calvary) in Rev. 12:5 is immediately followed by a reference to the Ascension of Christ:
"She brought forth a male child… but her child was caught up to God and to His throne."
If this is the case, then Rev. 12:2 is a symbolic reference to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ - a kind of shorthand for the entire Paschal Mystery, encompassing the death of Christ on Good Friday and the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.
What is difficult, but necessary, for the reader to do is to juggle all these inter-woven images and hold them in tension. The woman is Jerusalem, the Church, and Mary, while the birth spoken of in verses 2 and 5 is simultaneously the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and also the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord. Here is how it all hangs together:
While the woman evokes images of Jerusalem and of the Church, it is Mary who provides the connecting link which holds these two symbols together. She stands situated in the middle, as a bridge that connects the Old dispensation to the New. As a young Jewess, she was born into and under the Old Covenant, yet in giving birth to Christ and standing by Him at the Cross, she plays a vital role in ushering in the New Covenant age.
Most importantly for our discussion, St. John locates her - in verse 2 - directly in the center of the Passion. If the woman as Mary gives birth to the Messiah, the pains of labor also place us at the foot of the Cross, and so St. John has given us a tapestry that portrays Mary, Mother of the Messiah, at the foot of the Cross and helping to give birth to the Church.
The woman suffers the pains of labor because the Church on earth is still in the wilderness, for the symbolic 1,260 days, suffering trials and tribulations. Hence the woman is simultaneously in Heaven and on earth. She wears a crown to symbolize her victory, for St. John often uses the symbol of the crown to represent the victorious:
"Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).
"And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer" (Rev. 6:2).
However, though the woman is victorious in Heaven, the Church on earth is suffering through a time of testing and persecution. Verse 12 puts it most succinctly:
"Rejoice then, O Heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!"
While there is suffering and tribulation for the Church on earth, there is also the promise of victory, which is portrayed in three ways:
1) The "woman" is victorious, already wearing the crown - this symbolizes both Mary, already victorious and assumed into Heaven, and also the Church Triumphant
2) The Church is victorious in a prevenient manner, as is shown in verses 15-16, where the woman is pursued, but unharmed, by the dragon and his assaults
3) The individual Christian is victorious to the degree that he successfully wages war against the dragon and is obedient to the commandments of Christ (see vs. 17)
The ramifications of this chapter of Revelation, especially as it pertains to Mary as the Mediatrix of Grace, are mind-boggling. The birth pains of the woman - who is Mary, first and foremost - recall the Passion of Christ, and thus, St. John has given us a literary picture of Our Lady's participation in sufferings of Christ and the birth of the Church. While it is Christ Who suffers on the Cross, St. John makes suffering a particular characteristic of the "woman" - Mary. In other words, St. John makes a veiled reference to the Passion, not by evoking images of the Messiah, but by presenting to us the Mother of the Messiah, suffering the pains of birth.
Just as at the wedding at Cana, so also here St. John makes Mary an active participant in the birthing of the Church. At the foot of the Cross, she becomes the Mother of the "blessed disciple," which, as we have seen from the cross-reference to John 14:21, is a symbol of all Christians who keep the commandments of God. This is underscored by St. John again in Rev. 12:
"Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Rev. 12:17)
Again, the reference to the "offspring" recalls the "seed" of the woman mentioned in Genesis 3:15, and once again we have a link created between Eve and Mary. This same link was suggested, in a more subtle way, at the wedding at Cana: on the "third day," which is also the seventh day of St. John's mystical "week" (for more on this topic, see my essay on the Wedding at Cana), we are shown a wedding at which the only two individuals (as opposed to collective groups) named are Jesus and His mother. This evokes the imagery of Creation, which also culminated on the seventh day with wedding, naming Adam and Eve as the two main characters. We already know from St. Paul's writings that Jesus is the New Adam - it is not difficult to connect the dots in St. John's writings and see that Mary is the New Eve.
Thus, as the New Eve, whose children are all those who "keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus," Mary takes on the title that was first given to Eve:
"The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20).
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