In Revelation, Mary Embodies the Church

While it may seem obvious to a Catholic that the Woman in Chapter 12 of Revelation refers to Mary, there are reasons why some scholars see not Mary, but an image of Israel or the Church. For example, the woman’s fleeing to the wilderness to be nourished calls to mind Israel in the wilderness being nourished by the Manna (12:6); and perhaps most direct is the reference to the woman being given “two wings of the great eagle” (12:14), which calls to mind Exodus 19:4 and the description of God’s care for Israel “on eagles’ wings.”

Perhaps the best way to account for this is to see here both images at once: Mary and the Church, as the New Israel. In fact, there are a series of parallels between Revelation 12 and John 19 (John’s account of the Passion, with Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross); this is then taken to mean that both passages—John 19 and Revelation 12—are recounting in some sense the same event, the event of the Cross: one from an earthly vantage point (Jn 19) and the other from a heavenly vantage point (Rv 12).

St_John_the_Evangelist_at_Patmos_(Tobias_Verhaecht)

In both passages, we have:

The birth described in Revelation 12 may include elements of the Nativity story, but also includes the Cross as the birth that brings the People of God from the Old Covenant to the New and reconciles us back to God. We can see this by noting the psalm that identifies the birth (Rv 12:5 citing Ps 2:9). This psalm is likely a coronation psalm that was applied to the Davidic king on the day he became king—at which time the king entered into a certain role as adoptive son of God (see 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7; Ps 89:27). In other words, the birth described here in Revelation 12 is not just the Nativity, but Christ’s enthronement on the Cross.

In John 19, Jesus refers to Mary as “woman” and entrusts her to the “beloved disciple”; and the beloved disciple takes her as his own mother. Traditionally, the beloved disciple has been understood as St. John; so why call himself the “beloved disciple”? The reason is because John sees his new relationship with Mary as not just pertaining to himself, but to all Christians: he calls himself “beloved disciple” because in taking Mary as his spiritual mother he embodies all disciples. That is, in John 19 on the Cross, Mary becomes the spiritual mother not just of John, but of all Christians. So, we have here in John 19 a “dual maternity,” of sorts—Mary is mother of Jesus and of all Christians.

And similarly in Revelation 12, the woman is the mother of the Messiah (Rv 12:5) and of all Christians: after describing the Woman as mother of the Messiah, the text goes on to describe the “rest of her offspring,” namely, “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rv 12:17). So once again, we have dual maternity in Revelation 12 as well.

In terms of Mary’s relationship to the Church, it’s best to say that Mary embodies the Church; in the words of the Church Fathers, she is an “eschatological type” of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 967, 972): she has in herself what the Church will have at the end of time in glory. Mariology and Ecclesiology always go together.

So, is the Woman of Revelation 12 Mary or the Church? The Catholic answer is “yes.” And St. John calls us to see both in this one polyvalent image: Mary embodies the Church and both are rightly called our “Mother” in Christ.

How can we grow closer to Mary? For she always points us to her Son—the closer we grow to her, the closer we grow to Jesus.


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Dr. Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College, where he regularly teaches courses on Scripture and the Christian moral life. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is author of Spiritual Survival in the Modern World: Insights from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters; John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again: A Christian Philosophy of Life; and Nature and Grace: A New Approach to Thomistic Resourcement. He is a contributing author to Letter & Spirit Volume 11; Divinization: Becoming Icons of Christ through the Liturgy; 30-Second Bible: The 50 Most Meaningful Moments in the Bible; and I Choose God: Stories from Young Catholics. Andrew is also a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.

  • Arthur Pletcher

    Yet, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd…century Christians Venerated Mary as the “New Eve”! (The woman in Rev 12, well as the Woman in Genesis 3:15) Their interpretation was Catholic, because they all were 100%, and unanimously Catholic: in about 160 A.D., St. Justin Martyr wrote: “For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.’ And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him.” Iranius: Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in the second century. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus expounds the doctrine of recapitulation. He teaches that Christ embodied Adam and all his posterity in order to redeem mankind from sin. Basing his teaching on Paul’s inspired doctrine of Christ as the Last Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45), Irenaeus viewed Jesus as reversing the effects of Adam’s sin by bringing the life and righteousness that Adam lost (cf. Rom. 5:17, 18). Irenaeus saw the obvious implication. As Eve cooperated with Adam, the covenant head of humanity, so Mary cooperated with Jesus Christ, the covenant head of the new humanity. Thus Irenaeus says that Eve “by disobeying became the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so also Mary . . . was obedient and became the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race” (Against Heresies 3.22.4). Later he says of these two virgins, “Just as the human race was subject to death by a virgin, it was freed by a virgin, with the virginal disobedience balanced by virginal obedience” (ibid., 5.19.1).

  • 2chainchristian

    That was a great out look. I definitely need more of this enlightenment often.