THE WOMAN CLOTHED WITH THE SUN
"A great sign," thus the Apostle St. John describes a vision divinely sent him, appears in the heavens: "A woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars upon her head" (Apoc. xii., 1).
Everyone knows that this woman signified the Virgin Mary, the stainless one who brought forth our Head." - Pope St. Pius X, Ad Diem illum Laetissimum
By Fr. Raymond Taouk
God destined from all eternity that Mary would be the Mother of all the just which we witness from the very beginning of Scripture (Genesis 3:15), it was also prophesied by Isaias (7:14), and finally affirmed by Christ as He gave His mother to St. John (John 19:26-27) in order that she may be our mother also.
Mary, whom all generations "shall call blessed." (Luke 1:48) is acknowledge by Catholics as the queen of Heaven. What more graphic image can be given to us than that which we have in the twelfth Chapter of the Apocalypse. As Christians we acknowledge Christ as the king of heaven (Matt. 19:23-24).
The Sacred Scriptures specifically refer to Mary as the mother of Christ over 25 times. We must note "The mother of the ruling monarch is known as the Queen Mother," (World Book Encyclopedia 2000) So we see that "Queen Mother" refers to the mother (Mary) of a reigning monarch (The Divine King, Jesus Christ). Sacred Scriptures points out that in Ancient Israel or Judah the mother of the designated heir enjoyed a special status. Nathan enlisted Bathsheba rather than Solomon in his plan to have Solomon confirmed as king (1 Kings 1:11-40). The Queen mother was an official position in Israel and Judah. Great care was taken in preserving the names of the queen mothers (1 Kings 14:21; 15:2,13; 22:42; 2 Kings 8:26).
Henry Newman wrote: "It is to the point to inquire, whether the popular astonishment, excited by our belief in the blessed Virgin's present dignity, does not arise from the circumstance that the bulk of men, engaged in matters of the world, have never calmly considered her historical position in the gospels, so as rightly to realize what that position imports . . . I shall take what perhaps you may think a very bold step, - I shall find the doctrine of our Lady's present exaltation in Scripture". I mean to find it in the vision of the Woman and Child in the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse . ." (Mary and the second Eve by John Henry Newman, Tan Books, Pg. 16)
This is what we shall endeavour to do in putting forward a clarification on the twelfth Chapter of the apocalypse whereby it may be made clear that therein we may behold the Blessed Virgin Mary our spotless mother with her Child. A sight, which has been the delight of so many Catholic artists throughout the centuries.
The book of the Apocalypse poses a major difficulty for non-Catholics since when dealing with the book of the Apocalypse they often fail to keep in mind that many of the terms used are symbolic as for example it is clear that the dragon (Apoc 12: 4) is satan yet in this dragon is also embodied all the Children of the Devil (John 8:44 - what we might term the kingdom of Satan). St. Thomas states that "Prophecies are sometimes uttered about things which existed at the time in question but are not uttered primarily with reference to them but in so far as they are a figure of things to come, therefore the Holy Ghost has provided that when such prophecies are uttered some details should be inserted which go beyond the actual thing done so that our mind may raised to the thing signified"
Although it is true to say that the book of Apocalypse contains a revelation, which had its first hand meaning to the early Christians yet it also has a meaning for the Christians of today.
The woman, like, the male child and the devil refers to two things. One is symbolic and the other Literal, literal because the male child who is to have eternal reign is Christ the king, and his mother was Mary, and the dragon refers to Satan. The symbolic meaning of woman is that of the Old Testament Church whose prophets and saints had endured much to prepare the way for the Messiahs. Although the woman of the apocalypse designates a definite person, the Blessed Virgin Mary, this person embodies in her self a collectivity. Just as the male child represents at the same time the historical Christ and the Mystical Christ (the Church) so the woman signifies, first the personal Mother of Christ, and then the people of God as realized in the Church. This double sense is easily understood of Mary, who is the Mother of both the individual Christ and of His mystical body (the Church). What I would maintain is this that "the Holy Apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image, unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary, who was exalted on high and the object of veneration to all the faithful. No one doubts that the "man-child" spoken of is an allusion to our Lord; why then is not "the Woman" an allusion to his mother?" (John Henry Cardinal Newman). While the devil symbolizing evil in general (as he seems to behind everything.), is nevertheless a real individual.
St. Ambrose speaking on the Blessed Virgin Mary as a type of the Church states: "It was fitting that Mary should be espoused and yet a virgin, because she is the type of the Church which is spotless and yet married. For virginally she has conceived us in the spirit, and a virgin without pangs she has given us birth." - In Luke, II, n. 7.
Further this "Woman clothed with the sun, and with moon under her feet" has traditionally been interpreted by numerous Church Fathers and saints as being the Most Blessed Virgin Mary for example St. Augustine (Tract. De Symbolo ad Catechumenos, Lib. IV, Cap. I; cap. I;) St. Bernard (Sermo Super Signum magnum, no. 3.), St. Epiphanius (Adv. Haeres. 78, 11.), etc.
The early Church Fathers didn't hesitate to see in the Ark of the Covenant a symbol of Mary: "O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O Covenant, clothed with purity instead of Gold ! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides' - St. Athanasius, Homily of the Papyrus of Turin, 71:216.
Yet for the sake of clarity and brevity we shall set forth in explaining to our reader both the predjudes against this interpretation while giving a refutation to these objections.
"A great sign appeared in heaven" Apoc 12:1
St. John witness a great sign, the sign of the woman, long before this the "sign" of a Woman was proclaimed by Isaiah (Isaias 7:14) the prophet. The Vision of this "Woman" in fact begins towards the end of the previous Chapter (Apoc 11:19) in which St. John begins to speak of the Ark of the Covenant, which had not been seen for centuries a thing which the Old Testament Church held in great regard as it signified the presence of God with His people. Yet instead of mentioning more St. John continues on only to speak of the "Woman" (Apoc 12:1) which might seem to confuse the reader while in reality all St. John goes on to do is to get more graphical about this Ark as this "Woman" is the Ark of Covenant of the New Law which was sealed in the blood of Christ (Eph 2:13). Hence it is only fitting that in the introduction of the next Chapter St. John should begin to speak of the great beauty of the Ark of the Covenant (Mary).
The Ark of the Old Covenant was the holding place for the Ten Commandments, which was the word of God. St. John refers to Christ as the Word of God (John 1:14) as well and yet Mary carried not merely the word of God as on a stone tablet but God Incarnate, the very source of Life and wisdom, and so we may affirm her to be the true Ark of the Covenant of the Law of grace. This is the title we give to the Blessed Virgin in the well known litany of Loreto. St. Bernard does not hesitate to declare that "Mary is the Ark of God" for "towards her turn the men who have gone before us, we who are now living, those who are to follow us, our children's children, and their descendants. . . . Go, then, have recourse to Mary." - On the Feast of Pentecost," Sermon II, ch.4, PL 183; "On the Assumption," PL 183:429; GM 243
To understand how Mary is truly symbolized as the ark of the Covenant in the New Testament we just have to read the Scriptures as we can note similarity to the words of David before the Ark of the Covenant and the wife of Zachary as we read "David feared the Lord that day and said, "How can the ark of the LORD come to me?" (2 Samuel 6:9) in Contrast to...and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, . . . . And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41-43 see also Exodus 40:34-35 / Luke 1:35). Thus from this we can see that St John conveys the woman as standing out, just as the angel Gabriel had proclaimed to "Hail full of Grace".
St. John depicts the "Woman" as being clothed with the "Sun"; we may affirm without hesitation that this sun is given to us to mean that she is clothed with the brightness of Christ who is often referred to as having the brightness of the Sun (Apoc 1:16). No other woman like the Blessed Virgin Mary, was so full of the abundance of Christ's grace as the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:28).
St. John continues to tell us that he saw the Most Holy Mother of God travailing in a mysterious childbirth. "What birth was it?" Says St. Pius X, 'Surely it was the birth of us who, still in exile, are yet to be generated to the perfect charity of God, and to eternal happiness. And the birth pains show the love and desire with which the Virgin from heaven above watches over us, and strives with unwearying prayer to bring about the fulfillment of the number of the elect" (Pope St. Pius X, Ad Diem illum Laetissimum). For no doubt as St. Gregory of Nyssa says so well; "Of Him then His mother's burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy."- Homily on the Nativity (AD 388)
We can further note that to be in the pains of birth doesn't always mean literal birth pain in scripture as we read that St. Paul tell the Galatians (4:19) that he "will be in the pain of Birth until Christ be formed" in them (see also Romans 8:22). However this verse from the Apocalypse is almost a quote from Isaiah as we read: Isa 66:7-8: "Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child. Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children" (see also Micheas 5:3).
This helps remind us once more of what Pope St. Pius X points out, name that "The Child is not found without Mary, His Mother. If, then, it is impossible to separate what God has united, it is also certain that you cannot find Jesus except with Mary and through Mary. (Pius X: "Ad Diem Illum Laetissim.).
St. John then goes on to say that this Child was going to be devoured by the devil (Apoc 12:4), indeed this took place as the moment Christ was born, as we see that that Herod the Great commanded all male children in Bethlehem to be put to death (Matt 2:16) as he endeavored to bring about the death of the promised messiah. Yet if the male Child is Jesus why does St. John say he shall rule with and Iron Scepter? In actual fact, this contradictory imagery is placed throughout the book of revelations. We read in Apoc 19:5 "out of his mouth came a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations" we also read in Apoc 5:5 that Jesus is regarded as a Lion and yet his depicted as a slain lamb. We read also in St. Luke's gospel (12:51) that Christ says, " Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No I tell you but division?" For the Jewish Christians this was merely a quote from Psalms 2:9. Why the contradictory imagery then? Christ words to his apostles furnish us with a clear answer "Do not think that I came to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword" Matt 10:34 St. John then goes on to proclaim that the Child was snatched up to heaven. If we read the verse it dose not say that Christ is a Child when he is taken up to heaven, but rather He is constantly referred to as the woman's Child and so with this in mind, Christ was indeed taken up to heaven 40 days after his resurrection (Acts 1:9). This idea of Christ being snatched to his throne is also proclaimed to the Apostles by the angel in Acts 1:11 who says " This same Jesus who was taken from you into heaven..."
After the woman's Child is taken up His throne "the woman fled into the wilderness" yet is commonly objected "When did Mary flee into the wilderness for 1,260 years? When was she ever given eagle's wings? The days here are often said to be referring to the period of time of 42 months. However how does it fit in with Mary being the Woman? The answer is that this forty-two months is the same period of Time that the Neroian persecution of the Christians lasted, this is a historical fact attested to by many of the early Christian and ever Jewish historians such as Josephus. During this time it may be said that the Christians were strengthen by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and by great example she had given while amongst them for Mary is indeed "a refuge so secure and a help so trusty against all dangers that we have nothing to fear or to despair of under her guidance, her patronage, her protection (Pius IX. in the Bull Ineffabilis). "Such was Mary," very pertinently points out St. Ambrose, "that her life is an example for all" (De Virginib. L. ii., c. ii.). Further since the figure of women or Mary may also be taken for the Church as a whole it can be clearly seen as God's protection of the Church as whole throughout the time of persecution (Cf. Job 39:6, 51:3). In this regard Pope Boniface affirms that: “This is she of whom the Holy Scriptures sing: the woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown of twelve stars. This is she who bore in her chase womb the Creator of Heaven and Earth. She alone crushes all heresies. She stands before the King who reigns in light, pleading for the Christian people as their bold advocate and most vigilant intercessor.” – Superni Benignitas, Nov. 9, 1390.
We read in Exod 19:4 "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself." These wings represent the divine assistance of God, as it was God who assisted Mary and remained with her and all who sort His aid through her intercession. The woman being taken away "for a time, and times, and half a time", may refer to be a literary device showing the woman's exemption from all diabolic influence so that she remains unconquered by Satan in every way . For indeed “we behold her (the Blessed Virgin Mary) taken up from this valley of tears into the heavenly Jerusalem, amid choirs of Angels. And we honour her, glorified above all the Saints, crowned with stars by her Divine Son and seated at His side the sovereign Queen of the universe.” Pope Leo XIII – Iucunda Semper Expectatione September 8, 1894
As the devil continues to pursue the woman we read that he pours out water like a flood (by the word "flood" St. John indicates the strength or the might of the waters) after the woman and yet the earth opened its mouth to swallow the water. The waters here referrers to many people as we read in Apocalypse 17:15 that waters refers to "peoples and nations" which have always sought to destroy the Church (See also Isaias 8:8, Ezechiel 29:3).
The waters pouring forth from the mouth of the devil explains the constant persecution that the Church of God shall receive from her numerous enemies who throughout every generation seek to conquer her. We also note that the waters pour forth from his " mouth" that is, the water from his mouth is, a representation of all the lies and heresies that he (the devil) introduces in order that Christ's Kingdom may not endure. For He (the Devil) is a liar and the Father of lies. Nevertheless we know that "the Virgin Mother of God has destroyed all heresies throughout the world" (Pope Pius IX, Quanta Cura) since by her powerful intersession God has always raised up faithful witness of the Truth. For this reason does the Church attribute metaphorically the following verse to the blessed Virgin Mary: "Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array? - Canticle of Canticles 6: 9
The earth swallowing up the water may be also seen as the Blessed Virgin Mary who "allows herself to be entered by all, shows herself most clement towards all, and takes under her pitying care all our necessities with a most ample affection" (St. Bernard, Sermo de duodecim praerogativis B.V.M in Verbis Apocalyp.)
The concluding words of St. John that the dragon " went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ". Who are the the seed of the Woman? We maintain that the answer should be more than evident as it is Mary's Spiritual Children since it is she who is the Mother of Our Head (Jesus Christ) and hence our mother also. Further we read in Genesis when God is passing Judgment on the devil he says: "I shall put enmity between you and the Woman, and between your seed and Her seed; she shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Gen. 3.15)," ("her seed" / "her offspring" battle the devil). We know that this refers to Mary, as it would be understandable for God to mention the serpent's seed. But the seed of the Woman? The word seed is often is often only used in reference to the seed of the Man. It may be noted that the word Speramatos (seed) offspring can have two meanings in Scripture one is literal and the other Symbolic as we see this in Galatians 3:29 where St. Paul he says that the Gentiles who have faith are of the Seed of Abraham"
The Greek Old Testament translates this as spermatos, which is the term for seed but what is it doing in connection with the woman? The woman's seed? Nowhere else in the Old Testament do you ever come across an expression like that. It's always the man's seed, the husband's seed, and the father's seed. The woman's seed? Yes, God's going to elevate that "woman" and give to her a seed (Jesus Christ our redeemer) through which the serpent's head will be crushed.
Cardinal Newman points clearly that "the only passage where the Serpent is directly identified with evil spirit (the Devil himself) occurs in the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse; now it is observable that the recognition when made is found in the course of a vision of a "woman clothed with sun and the moon under her feet" thus two Women are brought into contrast with each other. . . . . . .If then there is reason for thinking that this mystery at the close of Scripture record answers to the mystery in the beginning of it, and that "the woman" mentioned in both passages is one and the same, then she can be none other than St. Mary, thus introduced prophetically to our notice immediately on the transgression of Eve" - An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Christian Classics Inc. 1968, Pg. 416
St. Irenaus (a disciple of St. Polycarp who had been a disciple of St. John the Evangelist) points out that Mary is the New Eve from brought us the salvation of Christ by her obedience as he affirms that "Even as Eve, having become disobedient, was made the cause of death both to herself and to the entire human race, so also did Mary, by being obedient, become the cause of salvation both to herself and to the whole human race. And therefore, as the human race was made subject to death by a virgin, so is it saved by a virgin." - Against Heresies, Bk. III:22, v.19; PG 7:959
The scriptures in numerous passages refer to Mary as "Woman" (John 2:4, 19:26) perhaps to best convey to us that she is the "woman" promised in Genesis (3:15). As we see from the words of the Protogospel, the victory of the woman's Son will not take place without a hard struggle, a struggle that is to extend through the whole of salvation history. The "enmity," foretold at the in Genesis (the first book of Scripture), is only confirmed in the Apocalypse (the last book of Scripture).
Hence let us turn with confidence to our Mother Mary, we who are the true Children of "the woman", that woman who is enamored from above whose light radiates to the four corners of the globe that under her mantle of Protection we may stand firm against the onslaught of the enemy in this universal apostasy from God that we obtain the grace to fight valiantly in defence of the faith and ultimately for the salvation of our souls.
Our Lady Queen of Angels - Pray for us!