Mary maligned?

A woman is said to have cried out to Christ ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts which nursed you!’ It’s the kind of sentimental piety we can all do without, and in his reply Christ points beyond it: ‘More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (Luke 11:27f) Not surprisingly, some people have seen here an implicit rebuke of the Church’s devotion to the Virgin. But perhaps there is another way of understanding this exchange.

It is reported in St Luke’s Gospel, which is the one among the four that narrates the annunciation to the Virgin. This is described in a way that suggests that Mary both heard the word of God and kept it: her response to hearing the tidings of Gabriel is ‘Let it be to me according to your word.'(Luke 1:26-33). From its early days, the Church has played the disobedience of Eve off against the obedience here displayed by Mary: ‘while the former was seduced into disobeying God, the latter was persuaded to obey God…just as the human race was bound to death because of a virgin, so it was set free from death by a Virgin, since the disobedience of one virgin was counterbalanced by a Virgin’s obedience.’ (Irenaeus) Her conduct exemplifies that of those Christ calls blessed.

So perhaps Christ, no less than the unnamed woman, has the Virgin in mind when he speaks; what separates them is that they see her blessedness as arising from different things. And it may be significant that each of them uses the word ‘blessed’, for the word picks up references to the Theotokos earlier in St Luke’s narrative. He has Elisabeth say of her, ‘Blessed is she who believed’ (1:45), and, more powerfully, he reports Mary herself as saying ‘henceforth all generations will call me blessed’ (1:48).  Her prediction is fulfilled in the practice of the Church.