- To understand the biblical foundations of the Dogma of the Assumption.
- To understand the deep Old Testament symbolism and imagery in Revelation 12, and its relation to Catholic beliefs about Mary.
- To appreciate how the biblical portrait of Mary is reflected and interpreted in the Church’s liturgy.
II. The ‘Woman’ of Revelation 12
A. The Ark Returns
The image of the woman in Revelation 12 actually begins in the last verses of Revelation 11- with the fantastic scene of the temple revealed in heaven along with the ark of the covenant.
Keep in mind that the chapter divisions in Revelation, as in all the books of the Bible, are artificial - imposed by scribes in the Middle Ages. There were no chapters in John’s original.
As it was written, John’s vision was this: "Then God’s temple in heaven was opened and the ark of the covenant could be seen in the temple . . . 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 . . . ." (see Revelation 11:19-12:1).
We have already explored the New Testament’s depiction of Mary as the ark of the new covenant (see Lesson Three).
To understand this scene, we have to understand the "back-story" concerning the ark.
The ark had been missing since around 587 B.C., when the prophet Jeremiah hid it in a cave before the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem (see 2 Maccabees 2:4-8).
Jeremiah foretold that the ark would remain hidden until "God gathers His people together again and shows them mercy."
The ark’s reappearance, then, was tied to the long hoped for restoration of the kingdom to Israel (see Acts 1:6).
The prophets envisioned this restoration as a great in-gathering of Israel’s exiles in a new exodus that would culminate in all nations worshipping in the temple at Jerusalem (see 2 Maccabees 2:18; Isaiah 11:12,15-16; Jeremiah 31:8,10; Ezekiel 36:25; 37:21; 38:8,12).
Jeremiah hearkens to both the first exodus and the kingdom and temple. He promises that the "glory of the Lord" will be seen in a cloud - as it came to the tabernacle in the time of Moses, and as it came to the temple ("the place") in the time of Solomon (see Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:11).
Indeed, the return of the ark was to be a sign of the return of God’s own presence to Israel. It would be a sign of His dwelling among His people - which the ark symbolized from the beginning (see Jeremiah 3:16-17; Ezekiel 37:37; Exodus 29:43-46).
We see all these images and expectations in John’s revelation.
John’s vision of the ark deliberately evokes the great "theophany" or appearance of God to Moses on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19:16-17).
In the Greek, the words translated in Revelation 11:19 as "flashes of lightning, rumblings" are the same as those translated "peals of thunder and lightning" in Exodus.
The "violent hailstorm" John beholds recalls the "fierce hail" that God rained down upon Pharaoh, which was also accompanied by peals of thunder (see Exodus 9:18,23).
And as Moses heard a "very loud trumpet blast," John, too, hears trumpeting and loud voices in heaven - using language again similar to that used to describe Moses’ theophany (see Revelation 11:15).
The scene also has echoes the Old Testament story of the fall of Jericho - which marked Israel’s entrance into the promised land, and the end of its exodus in the wilderness.
Bearing the ark, the Israelites marched around Jericho for seven days , circling the city seven times on the seventh day, blowing a trumpet that finally brought the city’s walls down (see Joshua 6:1-20).
In Revelation, the seventh trumpet likewise sounds with an "earthquake," signaling the beginning of a new world - the everlasting kingdom of Jesus (see Revelation 11:15,19).
John is showing us the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise - and the promise of Israel’s exodus. The kingdom has been restored. The ark has been revealed.
And the ark is revealed to be a woman - as we see in the very next verse.
B. The Queen-Bride
Revelation 12 uses Old Testament imagery to describe the "woman" as both the mother of Jesus and as the mother of the Church - which is the new people of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the bride of Christ (see Revelation 21:1-3; 9-13; 22-24).
But to understand what it means to say that Mary is the virgin queen mother assumed into heaven, we need to look closely at John’s use of Old Testament ideas and images.
As we noted in Lesson Two, Israel was often portrayed in the Old Testament as a woman, a virgin daughter espoused to God in a covenant relationship compared to a marriage bond.
In Revelation, John presumes this Old Testament idea, and develops the Old Testament’s image of daughter Zion giving birth to the Messiah.
In foretelling Israel’s salvation, the prophet Isaiah said that Israel would be arrayed like a queen-bride - gloriously crowned, radiant with the brightness of the sun and the moon (see Isaiah 60:19-20; 62:3-5). In the same way, Solomon’s bride is described as a queen radiant as the moon and the sun (see Song of Songs 6:4,10).
John, in using this Old Testament imagery, is showing us the queen-bride, Israel.
The twelve stars of her crown are an obvious symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel. But throughout Revelation, the twelve tribes are also reckoned as signs of the twelve apostles, the representatives of the new Israel, the people of God, the Church (see Revelation 7:4-8;21:12-14).
So the woman in Revelation is Daughter Zion and Mary. But as Daughter Zion was a symbol of whole people of God - Israel- the woman in John is also a symbol of the Church.
Paul, in language similar to that of Revelation, called the Church "the Jerusalem above . . . our mother" (see Galatians 4:26-27; Isaiah 54:1), and spoke of the Church as the bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5:31-32). John referred to the Church as a "Lady" (see 2 John 5).
So it is natural to see that Mary, as presented in Revelation, is the mother of the Church, and is a symbol for the whole Church, which gives birth to a new people of God. Indeed, Mary, as the Mother of the Church, is said to have "offspring" in addition to the one male child she gives birth to. Those children are described as those who believe in Jesus (see Revelation 12:17).
John’s woman is depicted in a painful childbirth, again evoking Old Testament images of Daughter Zion in travail - suffering in exile, awaiting the birth of her salvation (see Micah 4:10; Isaiah 26:17-19).
Isaiah said that Daughter Zion, amid roaring sounds from the temple, would give birth to a male child and more children (see Isaiah 66:6-10). The scene is very similar in John.
We should note, too, that John’s choice of words in Revelation 12:1-2 seems to deliberately evoke Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s birth (see Isaiah 7:10,14). In both, we read of a sign high in the sky, and of a woman with child giving birth to a son.
John is showing us Daughter Zion giving birth to the Messiah.
The son born to the woman is said to be "destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod." This is a reference to Psalm 2, which depicts God giving His son the nations as an inheritance, and instructing the son to "rule them with an iron rod" (see Revelation 12:5;Psalm 2:7-9).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, this Psalm is interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus (see Acts 13:32; Hebrews 1:5). So in showing us the Messiah’s birth to Daughter Zion, John is, at the same time, showing us that Jesus is that Messiah and Mary is that Daughter Zion.
In John’s vision, the Christ child is taken to heaven and enthroned, as a battle breaks out in between a huge dragon and the heavenly host.
C. The First Gospel
Here we see a dramatic portrayal of the promise made by God in the Garden of Eden - the so-called protoevangelium or "first gospel" (see Genesis 3:15).
Recall that God promised to place "enmity" between the serpent and "the woman," and between their respective "offspring." That the woman’s offspring would strike at the serpent’s head with his heal.
Now, examine the scene in Revelation.
We have a "woman," and an dragon that John clearly identifies as "the ancient serpent," the Devil who deceived the whole world (see Revelation 12:9). The woman, then, must be the "new Eve" foretold in Genesis.
The serpent is waiting beneath the woman to devour her offspring. And the birth of this son and "the rest of her offspring" is the occasion of moral combat in which the serpent is ultimately defeated.
The final image of the woman in Revelation 12 is that of the woman fleeing into the desert - to a place specially prepared for her by God.
Later in his vision, John sees the woman given eagle’s wings to fly to a place in the desert where she would be nourished by God (see Revelation 12:6,14).
John’s language here recalls Jesus’ words to the apostles - that He was going to the heaven to "prepare a place" for them "so that where I am you also may be" (see John 14:1-3).
The language of preparing a place is often used in the New Testament to describe the destiny that God has planned for His children - He prepares a place for believers at Christ’s right hand (see Matthew 20:23), and prepares the kingdom for those He has blessed (see Matthew 25:34; see also 1 Peter 1:5; 1 Corinthians 2:9).
John also evokes God’s care for Israel in the wilderness, where He bore the people on eagles’ wings in their time of trial (see Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 1:31-33; 32:10-12). And God’s care in the desert included nourishing His people with bread from heaven (see Deuteronomy 8:2-3,6; Wisdom 16:20-21,26).
- Lesson One: A Biblical Introduction to Mary
- To understand the basic outlines of the New Testament’s witness to Mary.
- To appreciate how the Old Testament forms the essential background for what the New Testament teaches about Mary.
- To understand “typology” and its importance for reading the New Testament texts concerning Mary.
- Lesson Two: Wedding at Cana, Garden in Eden
- To appreciate the Old Testament symbolism that forms the deep background to the Gospel account of the wedding feast at Cana.
- To understand how Mary is depicted as a “New Eve” in this account.
- To appreciate the importance of the Old Testament marriage symbolism for John’s recounting of the “sign” at Cana.
- Lesson Three: The Ark of the New Covenant
- To see how Mary’s visit to Elizabeth parallels David’s bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.
- To understand how the book of Revelation uses the startling image of the rediscovered Ark of the Covenant to introduce a vision of the Mother of Christ.
- To understand why the New Testament writers see Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.
- Lesson Four: Mother Crowned in Glory
- To see the importance of the Queen Mother in the Davidic kingdom of the Old Testament.
- To understand the duties and privileges that came with the position of Queen Mother.
- To see how Mary fills the position of Queen Mother in the kingdom of Christ.
- Lesson Five: The All-Holy Mother of God
- To understand the relationship between Catholic teaching about Mary and the Scriptural portrayal of Mary.
- To understand the biblical foundations of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
- To appreciate how Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception flows from the New Testament portrait of Mary as the “New Eve”