The Christian's Mission to Birth Christ

As Joseph Ratzinger once noted, two ostensibly conflicting trends of theology were funneled into the Second Vatican Council: the ressourcement movement, on the one hand, which emphasized a retrieval of biblical and patristic studies and, on the other hand, a school of Marian devotion characterized by piety and affectivity.[1] Despite division among the Council Fathers of Vatican II on how to address Marian theology, it was decided that Mary would be included in Lumen Gentium, the Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church.[2] This integration was meant to emphasize the profound theological correlation between Mariology and ecclesiology, a connection that, while brought to greater clarity in the past millennium, has deep roots in both the New Testament and the writings of the Church fathers. For, as Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “Ever since theologians began reflection on the figure of Mary, they have considered her in relation to Christ and the Church.”[3]

Yet, despite Vatican II’s best efforts, contemporary Mariology often neglects the essential intersection with ecclesiology that accounts for Mary’s identity as both the mother of Christ and the exemplar of her Son’s unblemished bride: the Church. Moreover, theologians in the past century, such has Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar—who were both well-trained in the writings of the Church fathers—have noted that the correlation between Mary and the Church is located in their shared mission of “birthing” Jesus in the hearts of believers. In line with Lumen Gentium’s approach toward an ecclesial-Mariology, I propose that a patristic-informed exegesis of the mysterious woman of Revelation 12 highlights the biblical and theological basis for devotion, especially with respect to the motherhood of Mary and of the Church. 

For early Christians, Revelation 12’s vision of a woman “clothed with the sun” simultaneously portrayed the Church as a whole as well as the mother of Christ, the two being nearly indistinguishable in this biblical passage. While the historical-critical method alone might preclude this reading, the multi-layered exegesis of Church Fathers, especially that of Origen of Alexandria, liberates us from the pressure to identify the woman of Revelation 12 exclusively with either Mary or the Church. Moreover, Origen’s analysis of John 19 clarifies how the multivalent meanings of Revelation 12 harmonize in a way that informs both Mariology and ecclesiology.

Revelation 12 opens with a conflict between a heavenly woman giving birth and a red dragon identified in v. 9 as “the Devil” and “Satan,” the “ancient serpent” of Genesis 3.

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. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth . . . She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. The child was caught up to God and his throne (Rev 12:1–5).

The twelve stars on the Woman’s crown may refer to the twelve tribes of Israel since Joseph’s dream in Gen 37 depicts the twelve patriarchs of Israel as stars;[4] but, since the Woman’s children are later called witnesses to Jesus (cf.12:17), the number twelve here likely refers also to the twelve apostles, as it does in Rev. 21:14. G. K. Beale harmonizes these two possible readings by suggesting that the Woman “[Incorporates] the people of God living both before and after Christ’s coming.”[5] At the same time, the birth of “a son . . . destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” would, to the ears of an early Christian, call to mind the birth of the messiah, Jesus, as depicted by the gospels of Matthew and Luke. As Abbot Denis Farkasfalvy writes, even though “the physical and individual mother of Jesus is not directly signified [in Revelation 12] . . . Jesus’ mother as a historical person is clearly presupposed.”[6]

The description of the Woman in vv.1–6 precedes a parallel account in vv.13–18, which follows an interlude of a heavenly battle in vv.7–12. This second portrayal of the Woman adds another dimension to her identity:

When the dragon saw that it had been thrown down to earth, it pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly to her place in the desert . . . Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus (Rev 12:13-17).

The same Woman who birthed the messiah is for a second time persecuted by the dragon and taken to the desert for safety. In these verses, however, the Woman is said to have other offspring, whose birth is strangely never narrated but presumed; neither is the Woman described as laboring for these other children as she did for the messiah. The relevance of this observation will be discussed later; for now, we should note the explicit identification of the Woman’s “other offspring” with “those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus,” that is, all Christians. Hence, the Woman seems to primarily signify the Church, the spiritual mother of all Christians who both births and nourishes them through the sacraments and the proclamation of the Gospel.

Yet, can we still affirm that this Woman is at the same time Mary? Beale seems to think that we cannot; he argues that, although the text may contain a secondary reference to Mary, the fact that the Woman has other children who are Christians seems to resist this identification.[7] In what way then, pace Beale, could Mary be mother to the other offspring of v.17?

I propose that Mary can be identified with the Woman of Revelation 12 so long as we understand the anguished labor described in v.2, not as the “happy birth of Bethlehem,” but as the “messianic birth” mentioned in John 16:21, in which Jesus says: “When a woman is in labor; she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a [human being, ἄνθρωπος] has been born into the world.”[8] Christ here speaks of his imminent crucifixion in terms of a woman in labor, an intense suffering which produces a joy that overwhelms prior travail.[9]

Thus, the true “birth” of Christ is accomplished with his redemptive work, which took place on the wood of a cross rather than the wood of a manger. In connection with this, Roch Kereszty writes, “Mary . . . completes giving birth to the Messiah when she suffers the sword piercing her heart (Lk 2:35) as she witnesses Jesus enthroned on the cross and taken up to heaven in the resurrection.”[10] Thus, in Revelation 12, “the childbearing of the woman means in temporal terms the whole history of the Church.”[11] While the Woman of Revelation primarily symbolizes the Church as a whole, there is undoubtedly “overlap” with the historical person of Mary.[12] When viewed from this perspective, Revelation depicts Mary as anticipating in her own sufferings the Church’s anguished labor throughout history as it continues to birth Christ in its members.

By considering another episode from John’s gospel, we can better understand the precise way in which Mary is the mother not only of Christ but of all believers, and is thus further associated with both the Church and the Woman of Rev 12:

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.”Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (Jn 19:25-27).

Christ hands over his mother to the care of his “Beloved Disciple,” whom many early Christians assumed to be John the Evangelist. More is occurring here, however, than a simple assurance of parental well-being. Commenting on this very passage, Origen of Alexandria writes:

He who wishes to be another John must become . . . another Jesus. While Mary has no son other than Jesus, as it appears to those who think correctly about her, nevertheless Jesus said to his Mother, “Behold your son” (Jn 19:26), and not, “Behold, this man also is your son.” In other words, he said to her, “This man is Jesus, whom you bore.” Indeed, when someone is perfect, it is no longer he that lives, but Christ lives in him (cf. Gal 2:20); therefore when he [Jesus] speaks of him [John] to Mary, he says, “Behold your son, that is, Jesus Christ.” (Origen, Commentary on John 1:6; PG 14, 32).[13]

According to Origen, Mary is the mother of individual Christians only insofar as she is the mother of Christ. In fact, as Origen says, “Mary has no son other than Jesus”; one must be transformed by the Spirit into Christ’s image (cf. 2 Cor 3:18) and be “in Christ” if one is to call Mary his mother.

With Origen’s words in mind, recall the Woman’s two sets of offspring in Revelation 12: (1) the messiah, Jesus, and (2) the Church, the ecclesial body of all Christians. While the painful birth of the messiah is described in v. 2, there is no description of birth for the other offspring. The reason for this may be connected with Origen’s above insight. While the Woman of Rev 12—and by extension the historical Mary—only gave birth once, this one birth of the messiah is sufficient since all Christians are offspring of Mary only insofar as Christ, her only son, is born within their souls.

The “new birth” Jesus speaks of in John 3:5–7 is this birth of Christ himself within the Christian. Hanging from the cross, Christ declares John to be Mary’s son, in effect recognizing that the Beloved Disciple had Christ living within him (cf. Gal 2:20). This encounter between Christ and John illustrates the transformation of identity undergone by every baptized Christian. Farkasfalvy writes, “Under the Cross . . . the disciples’ new status is declared. . . . becoming Mary’s son means stepping into Jesus’ place in the world . . . with a renewed existence.”[14]

The Woman of Revelation 12 illustrates the connection between Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the universal Church by highlighting their shared mission of birthing Christ in the hearts of Christians and therefore of leading them to conformity with Christ’s cruciform nativity at Golgotha. As Kereszty points out, “Mary conceived Jesus first by faith and only later in her womb.”[15] Mary’s spiritual fertility, which “extended to embrace the whole Church,” suggests that her identification with the Church goes beyond mere metaphor.[16] Kereszty writes, “Mary is not outside the church. In fact, Mary is the church’s ‘most excellent member,’ her perfect beginning and perfect consummation.”[17]

The heavenly Church is essentially “the bride” of Christ (cf. Rev 21:2, 9), the totality of those who have had Christ born in their souls and have been crucified with him (cf. Gal 2:20). Furthermore, the mission of these Christians is not only to birth Christ in themselves but also to labor for the birth of Christ in the souls of others, such as Paul and Timothy who nurtured the Christians of Thessalonica like a “nursing mother cares for her children” (1 Thes 2:7). As Henri de Lubac says, “If, therefore, the Church is mother, each Christian is or also should be a mother” in the sense of birthing and rearing Christ in others, thereby “participat[ing] in the maternal function of the Church.”[18] Who else can guide us in this vocation besides the woman who alone perfectly birthed Christ both physically and spiritually? Von Balthasar puts it thus:

[The Fathers] note that only Mary gave birth to the Son of God physically, while all other Christians imitate her by giving birth to him pneumatically . . . Yet the Fathers are forced to relativize this—in itself uncrossable—boundary. They realize that Mary is the type of the Church, not as a mere “foreshadowing” . . . but as an archetype, that is, as the perfectly, unsurpassably realized “Idea” of the Church.[19]

In living out our call to “birth Christ,” we have Mary as not only our example and coworker but also as our mother. Those who are coworkers with Mary, and therefore with Christ and the Church, can draw encouragement from the realization that Mary loves her spiritual children with the same love that she has for her divine Son, who is birthed within each Christian’s heart.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole,” in Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011), 19–20.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Marian Mold of the Church” in Mary: The Church at the Source, 141.

[4] G. K. Beale, NIGTC: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 627.

[5] Ibid., 627.

[6] Denis Farkasfalvy, O.Cist., The Marian Mystery: Outline of a Mariology (Staten Island, NY: Society of St. Paul, 2014), 47.

[7] Beale, NIGTC, 629.

[8] Farkasfalvy, The Marian Mystery, 47; Roch Kereszty, O.Cist., The Church of God in Jesus Christ (Washington D.C.: CUA, 2019), 324. Even apart from a canonical hermeneutic, we can plausibly interpret Revelation 12 as in continuity with John’s gospel and therefore as consciously referring to Christ’s description here of his passion and death through the uses of the term “hour” and the imagery of a woman in labor. See Farkasfalvy, 46.

[9] Notice that the original Greek speaks of joy that a “human being,” rather than a “child,” was born into the world. Farkasfalvy, The Marian Mystery, 45 n56.

[10] Kereszty, The Church of God in Jesus Christ, 324.

[11] Farkasfalvy, The Marian Mystery, 47.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cited in Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 74.

[14]  Farkasfalvy, The Marian Mystery, 45–46.

[15] Kereszty, The Church of God in Jesus Christ, 216.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Henri de Lubac, S. J., The Motherhood of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1982), 79.

[19] Von Balthasar, “The Marian Mold of the Church” in Mary: The Church at the Source, 141–42.

Featured Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Woman of the Apocalypse, 1630; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jean-Paul Juge

Jean-Paul Juge recently completed his MA in Theology at the University of Dallas and is currently applying to doctoral programs in theology.

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