Mary in Christian Tradition

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Mary in the Apocryphal Writings
Stories of Her Early Life: 2nd Century

Popular Christian stories about Christ, Mary and the apostles originating in Syria, Palestine and Egypt from the mid-2nd century, greatly influenced the way ordinary Christians imagined Mary’s life. These stories, attempting to supply details omitted in the Gospels, went beyond and sometimes contrary to the indications of the Scriptures. They have inspired art, liturgy and Christian devotion to Mary over the centuries.

“The Gospel of James,” one of these stories written about 150 A.D., portrays the childhood of Mary in this way:

“When Mary was one year old, Joachim made a great feast and invited the priests and scribes, and the whole people of Israel assembled.

“And Joachim brought the child to the priests, and they blessed her saying, ‘O God of our fathers, bless this child and give her a name renowned for ever among all generations.’

“And all the people said: ‘So be it, so be it. Amen . . . ‘

Mary’s Death and Assumption into Heaven

Stories from the 5th century (or perhaps earlier) recount Mary’s later life, her death and assumption into heaven — events unreported by the four Gospels.

The legends describe Jesus appearing to Mary in the house on Mount Sion in Jerusalem where she lived after Pentecost. Her Son tells her she is soon to die. From all parts of the world the apostles gather to bid her farewell:

“Stretching out his hands, the Lord received her holy soul. And when her soul departed, the place was filled with a sweet smell and bright light.

“And a voice from heaven proclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women.’

“Peter and John, Paul and Thomas, ran to embrace her feet and receive her holiness; and the twelve apostles laid her holy body on a bier and bore it forth. (Ps. John: The Dormition of Mary, 4th century)

“Instructed by Jesus, Peter and the other apostles took her body to be buried in a new tomb near Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, where miracles of healing accompanied her burial.

“Three days later, angels took her body to heaven.”

By the year 600, a feast called the Dormition of Mary, honoring her death and assumption into heaven, was celebrated in Jerusalem and in the churches of the East. Some centuries later it would pass into the Western churches known as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

One of the first churches in Christendom dedicated to Mary was built over her tomb near Gethsemane around 400 A.D. Today, a church still marks this site in Jerusalem.

In the 7th century, Theothekno, bishop of Palestine, preached a homily on the feast of Mary’s Assumption, August 15:

“Rejoice with the Mother of God,
with angels and saints,
and celebrate this great feast:
the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

“On earth she was a fruitful virgin,
in heaven she intercedes for all;
through this blessed woman,
the Spirit’s gifts still flow upon us,
and her words teach gentle wisdom.

“At her assent the earth blossomed;
she sought good things for the poor.
Now in heaven her care is undiminished,
near her Son she seeks the good of us all.”

“And the child became three years old, and Joachim said: ‘Call the virgin daughters of the Hebrews and let them accompany the child to the temple of the Lord with lamps burning in their hands.’

“And they went up to the temple of the Lord.

“And the priests received her and kissed her and blessed her, saying: ‘The Lord has magnified your name among all generations; in you the Lord will show redemption to the children of Israel.’

“And he sat her on the third step of the altar. And the Lord gave her grace and she danced with her feet and all the house of the Lord loved her.

“And her parents returned home marveling and praising the Lord because their child did not turn back.

“And Mary was in the temple of the Lord to be nurtured like a dove; and she received food from the hand of an angel.”

The story proceeds to give details of Mary’s marriage to Joseph, who is portrayed as an old widower with his own children. It relates new wonders and signs that accompanied the birth of Jesus in a cave. The account, by presenting Mary as a sheltered virgin absorbed in the service of God in the temple, sought to defend the Christian doctrine of the virginal conception. Unfortunately, it pictures her removed from the ordinary, uneventful village life that Scripture suggests was hers.

By the 5th century, a church honoring Mary’s birthplace and home, suggested by this apocryphal story, was built close by the Temple site in Jerusalem. The Church of St. Ann, the mother of Mary, stands on that place today.

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