Images of Mary

I was brought up in an evangelical home, and every Sunday our church service consisted of a long Bible study as the sermon. My favorites were when the pastor went through the Old Testament and pointed out the prophecies of Jesus that were fulfilled in the New Testament.

Some of the prophecies were very specific such as, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a child, and shall call his name Emmanuel,” or “Out of you Bethlehem . . . shall come one who shall be the ruler over Israel.” However, the ones I liked best were more mysterious. The pastor explained that they were “archetypes of Christ.” They were mysterious images that were fulfilled in the Gospels.

He explained that Jesus was “foreshadowed” through the various characters of the Old Testament stories. So, for example, David the shepherd king points to Jesus, the Son of David who is the Good Shepherd and the King of the Jews. Moses, who taught on the mountain and provided manna in the wilderness, points to Jesus who gave the Sermon on the Mount and gave us himself as the Bread of Heaven.

Jesus is also pictured through signs and symbols. The tabernacle and specifically the “tent of meeting” where Moses met God was fulfilled in Jesus’ body, according to St. John, who says in the first chapter of his Gospel that the Word was made flesh and “dwelt among us,” The phrase “dwelt among us” can be translated “pitched his tent among us” or “he was tabernacled among us.”

The pastor pointed out many such archetypal references to Jesus and the apostles from the Old Testament, but it was only when I became a Catholic that I realized how the Old Testament is also full of archetypal references to the Blessed Virgin Mary. If we are in conversation with Protestant Christians and they complain that we “worship Mary,” or say there is very little in the Bible about Mary, then we need to be ready with some answers.

Mary, Miriam and Moses

One of the ways we see Mary in the Old Testament is in the actions and character of the various women of faith in the Old Testament. Miriam, for instance, is the sister of Moses, and the name “Mary” is a variation of the Hebrew name Miriam. Miriam was the brave young girl who took her brother, put him in a reed basket and hid him in the shallows of the river Nile so he would not be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s soldiers (see Ex 2:1-10). In this story Moses is a type of Jesus, and baby Moses in the reed basket is a picture of the baby Jesus in the manger. Miriam carries Moses, nurtures him and keeps him safe just as Mary kept Jesus safe from Herod’s slaughter.

Finally, like Mary, she hands Moses over to the world so he can fulfill his destiny.

The stories in the Old Testament of a miraculous birth all point to Mary’s role in the Incarnation. Old Sarah who was past childbearing (see Gn 17:15-22), the mother of Samson who prayed for a son (Jgs 13:2-5), and Hannah (1 Sm 1:9-23), the mother of the prophet Samuel — all are women who conceived naturally, but through a miraculous answer to prayer. Although Mary’s conception of Jesus was of a greater order, we see her obedience and faith mirrored in the holy women of the Old Testament.

The prophecy to Eve in the Garden of Eden that she would trample the serpent’s head is a sign of Mary, the victor over evil (see Gn 4:14-15). As the second Eve, Mary’s “yes” to God counters Eve’s rebellion, and through her obedience Mary overcomes the devil.

Mary as the Warrior is pictured in the brave woman Deborah (Jgs 5), who led the Israelites in battle, while Mary as Queen is pictured in Queen Esther (Est 2) and Queen Bathsheba (1 Kgs 1), Queen Mother in the court of Solomon.

Signs and Symbols of the Virgin

Where else do we see Mary in the Old Testament? In addition to the holy women who prefigure Mary, we see the Blessed Virgin reflected in signs and symbols. The Fathers of the Church saw in the burning bush (see Ex 3) a symbol of Mary, who was touched by the Holy Spirit, but whose virginity was not consumed.

The Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition also saw the Blessed Virgin prefigured in the golden censer in the Temple (see 1 Kgs 7:50). As the censer held the red hot coal on which to burn the incense, so Mary held the fire of the Holy Spirit, and the smoke of the incense is the sweet sacrifice of Christ rising to heaven. The pot of manna in the Temple also pointed to Mary, who held within her body Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

Mary was pictured as the Gate of Jerusalem (see Jer 17:27; Mi 1:12) because she is the door through which Jesus came into the world. Also, Jerusalem is a pointer to heaven, so she is the gate through which we come to salvation. Mary is also pictured as the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was the gold-covered wooden box in which was placed the tablets of the law of Moses, the manna and the miraculous rod of the high priest Aaron (Ex 40).

The Ark of the Covenant was a sign of the Virgin Mary because she contained the Word of God, the Bread of Heaven and the Source of Life — her son Christ the Lord. That the Ark of the Covenant is a valid symbol of the Blessed Virgin is confirmed in the New Testament in Revelation 12, in which St. John has a vision of the temple of heaven and sees the Ark of the Covenant, and then he sees a “great sign . . . in heaven” (12:1, RSV), which is the woman clothed in the sun with stars around her head and the moon under her feet. This woman is the mother of the King of the nations — in other words, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mary Our Mother

The story of God’s salvation of His people is complex and beautiful. Every detail harmonizes and fits together. At the beginning we are given the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and then St. Paul teaches us that Jesus Christ is the second Adam. The first theologians in the Church understood that Mary was therefore the second Eve.

Throughout the Old Testament the prophecies of Christ the Lord come to us through individuals, signs and symbols. The prophecies of Mary His mother, the apostles and the Church, as well as the sacraments, are all hidden there. St. Augustine said, “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in the New.”

When we look more deeply into the Old Testament and study the writings of the Fathers of the Church, we can see how the mystery of God’s salvation was woven into the stories of the Jews right from the beginning. Once we gather even a little of this information we will be equipped to share our knowledge with those who attack and misunderstand our faith.  

Father Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is “Catholicism Pure and Simple.” Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.