Mary and “the Woman” in Revelation 12

The earliest Church Fathers recognized while Sacred Scripture speaks to Christ being the “new Adam,” the typology of the Old Testament also points to Mary as the New Eve.  The parallels between Mary and Eve were discussed in this post.  One of the most notable is how they are both called “woman.”  When Genesis 3 records the fall of man, Eve had not yet received her name but was simply known as “the woman.”  St. John in his Gospel highlights Mary as the new Eve when he records that Jesus referred to her as “woman” both at the wedding of Cana and the foot of the cross.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they placed all of humanity under the bondage of sin.  We see an instantaneous fracturing of the relationships they have with God, each other, the world around them, and even their own bodies.  But amid outlining for them the consequences of their sin, God paused for a moment to give us hope for the future.  In Genesis 3:15 we read “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  The “seed” of the woman is a reference to Christ – it is Christ who will strike the head of Satan and defeat him on behalf of humanity, and the place this battle will reach its climax is on the cross.  But the enmity between Christ and Satan is also shared with “the woman” whose seed is Christ, and the Catholic Church has always understood “the woman” reference in this future prophecy is Mary.  Mary is the woman whose seed will defeat Satan.  God also puts enmity between Satan and Mary, unlike the relationship that evolved between Satan and Eve.

In the Genesis story of the fall of man, we saw a man and a woman, in a garden, encountering Satan, who tempted them with the fruit of a tree.  St. John prepares us for the cosmic battle that will occur between Christ and Satan over humanity that will happen at Christ’s “hour,” when he will do battle against Satan on our behalf (John 2:4,John 7:30,John 8:20,John 12:23). And when we read St. John’s account of the crucifixion, we see Christ (the fruit Luke 1:42) hanging on a tree (Acts 5:30,10:39,13:29), and the woman (Mary – John 19:26-27), in a garden (John 19:41) encountering Satan.  Satan launched an all-out attack to try to destroy Christ, and also to conquer the woman (Luke 2:35).  He failed. 

What the world of course saw was just another brutal Roman execution.  But St. John also penned for us a scene full of imagery in the Book of Revelation that gives us insight into what heaven witnessed.  I will not cite all of Revelation 12 here, but encourage you read it.  There are three main sections.  Verses 1-6 detail a “woman clothed with the sun” who gives birth to a male child who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron.”  A dragon waits to devour the child at his birth, but the child is instead caught up to the throne of God.

Verses 7-12 take us back in time to record how Satan and the fallen angels were defeated by St. Michael and the faithful angels, and then cast down from heaven to the earth. 

And then in verses 13-17 we see Satan pursuing the woman, and when the attempt to destroy her failed he was angry with the woman.  He then went off to “make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”

The Catholic Church has always identified the woman in this image who gives birth to Christ as Mary.  Wouldn’t that be the logical and most straightforward and honest interpretation of a woman who gave birth to Christ?

However, many Protestants roundly reject the most literal and straightforward interpretation of the text and deny the woman is Mary or has anything to do with her.  Some believe the image represents Israel (the twelve stars on her crown could represent the twelve tribes of Israel).  The biggest problem with this image is the “offspring” of the woman are those who bear testimony to Jesus (Revelation 12:17).  Apart from a small remnant, Israel rejected Christ as their Messiah.

Some believe the image represents the Church (the twelve stars on her crown could represent the twelve apostles, the foundation of the Church – Revelation 21:14).  The biggest problem with that representation is the Church does not give birth to Christ (Revelation 12:5).

While there is no agreement within Protestantism as to the exact meaning of the image there is often agreement on one thing – surely the woman depicted giving birth to Christ can’t possibly be Mary.  The avoidance of the most literal and straightforward interpretation seems to be part of the bias that can exist towards Mary in many Protestant circles that seek to deny or diminish her role. 

There is also a failure to recognize that of the three images in the text, two are most certainly literal persons, not a representative of something else.  All would agree the child who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron” is most certainly Christ (Revelation 12:5, Psalm 2:9).  The text itself identifies for us the dragon is Satan (Revelation 12:9).  The denial that the third person, the woman who gives birth to Christ is not literally Mary again seems to be rooted more in bias than a clear reading of the text.  And this view fails to look back at Genesis where a man and woman encounter Satan resulting in the fall of humanity, and the promise made that a woman and her “seed” will have enmity with Satan, and the “seed” of the woman will do battle with Satan on our behalf.

Because as Catholics we identify the woman as Mary however does not mean she cannot also be an image that represents a group.  This would not be a foreign concept in Scripture.  Adam for example represents all of humanity (Romans 5:19).  In Psalm 44:4, Jacob represents all of Israel.  In St. John’s Gospel, he refers to himself throughout as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” which allows us to see John as an image for all of those who follow Christ. 

So which group does she represent?  I think the reason there is a conflict of understanding among Protestants whether the image represents Israel or the Church is because when they fail to recognize the image is primarily Mary, they have no way to tie the two together.  Both Israel and the Church are represented by the image, and what woman in history is better qualified to represent both?  Mary came forth from Israel to fulfill the promises made to them and gave birth to the Messiah.  And by her fiat (Luke 1:38) she became the first to bear witness to Christ.  She is the hinge between the Old and New Covenants.  If we fail to see the woman as Mary, we don’t have a way to understand the single image as a representation of both Israel and the Church.

So when we read in verse 5 the woman gave birth to the child who is Jesus, we certainly recognize this to be literally Mary, as well as a representation of Israel whose nation brought forth the Messiah.  When we see in verse 17 after Satan failed to conquer the woman, he “went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” — we certainly recognize the woman to be Mary, and those who bear testimony to Jesus represent the Church. 

And in what way are all those who bear witness to Jesus the “offspring” of Mary?  John 19:26-27 records Jesus’ words from the cross – “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’  Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’  And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” 

The significance of this passage should not be lost on us.  Do we really think it’s only about making sure Mary’s physical needs are met when Jesus is gone?  That arrangement could have been made in private and well ahead of his death, not an afterthought at the last moments of his life.  Rather, those words are for the benefit of us all, which is why they are recorded for us.  When John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” he becomes an image for all Christians.  And the very last instruction Jesus gives before he dies is for Mary to behold us as her children, and for us to behold her as our mother.  The woman in Revelation is described as both the mother of Christ and as having a special motherly relationship with all of Christ’s faithful followers.  That woman is Mary.

Another image that can cause much discussion are the two references to the woman being taken into the wilderness to escape Satan.  The first is a reference after the child is born and taken to the throne of God and we read “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.”  (Revelation 12:6).  The second is after Satan is thrown to the earth and pursues the woman and we read “But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”  (Revelation 12:14).  In both references we can again see a tie to Israel, the Church, and Mary.  We know after Christ was born Joseph took “Mary and the child” to Egypt to escape Satan working through Herod (Matthew 2:13-18).  The reference to the woman being given “the two wings of the great eagle” that she might fly into the wilderness takes us back to Israel’s flight into the wilderness after their liberation from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 19:4).  Eusebius recorded in his work on church history that the Church took flight before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction the temple. 

There is yet another reason in the text the image of the woman should be understood to be Mary.  When we move back to Revelation Chapter 11, we see the vision began in verse 19, the last verse of that chapter.  Keep in mind chapter and verse numbers are not part of the original Biblical texts but were added later to support study and readability.  But when we look at that verse as written to proceed the beginning of Chapter 12, we see this:

“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.  And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars;”

At the time St. John wrote the book of Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant had been lost for centuries.  That it appeared in the heavenly temple, and then is followed by the appearance of “the woman clothed with the sun” is not a coincidence and ties those two images together.  In my next post I’ll explore why the “Ark of the Covenant” is another Old Testament typology of Mary. 

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