There are two dialogues in the Gospels that sectarians use to slight the honor of the Blessed Virgin, a thing all the more serious inasmuch as the words are utterances of Jesus Himself. They are the episode Our Lord’s Mother and brethren awaiting Him outside the house where He is preaching, and the occasion of the enthusiastic woman exclaiming “blessed is the womb that bore thee!” (Matt. 12:46-50, with the parallel passage, Mk. 3:31-35; and Luke 11:27-28). For the honor of the Virgin, let us look at these passages to get at their real meaning and trounce underfoot the heretical insult to the most holy Mother of God.
“As he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him. And one said unto him: Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking thee. But he answering him that told him, said: Who is my mother, and who are my brethren? And stretching forth his hand towards his disciples, he said: Behold my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matt. 12:46-50)
(Our present subject is not Mary’s perpetual virginity, which some assert this passage contradicts [“thy brethren”]; for that, see “Mary Ever Virgin,” which treats the subject at length.)
Certain Protestant polemicists interpret the above italicized words of Our Lord as a refutation of Our Lady’s exulted place in Catholic doctrine and practice. They hold that she’s no more special than any believer, any disciple of Jesus. This wrongheaded interpretation will even lead the erring to say, as I have been told, “I am just as good as Mary.”
Mary and some of Jesus’ other kin (cousins) were outside the house. Some of these may have been among those relations of Our Lord who did not believe in Him (“For neither did his brethren believe in him.” — John 7:5), or who thought Him mentally unstable (“He is become mad.” — Mk 3:21). Whether or not such unbelieving persons were in this party, and whether or not their purpose was to keep the Master from preaching any longer in the house that had become so crowded, there is no reason to assert that Mary shared their evil opinions or their reprehensible purpose. In fact, had they such a base motive in coming to see Christ preach, taking along the innocent Virgin to give them a noble appearance would have been the crafty thing to do.
Be that as it may, the main issue here is that Jesus asks “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?” He then replies by motioning toward his auditors, saying, “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.” His point would seem twofold: 1) Jesus is preaching now and ought not to be disturbed with a family visit (something Mary would be the first to understand!); 2) further, Christ goes on to show that those who believe in Him constitute His spiritual family, a lesson that makes perfect sense in light of the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.
The Word Incarnate was certainly not denying that Mary was His Mother, for that would contradict the manifold references to her as such in the Bible. Nor was He contradicting that she was singularly “blessed” and uniquely “full of grace,” which facts are also taught in Holy Writ.
A footnote in the Challoner version of the Bible explains the passage thus: “This was not spoken by way of slighting his mother, but to shew that we are never to suffer ourselves to be taken from the service of God, by any inordinate affection to our earthly parents: and that which our Lord chiefly regarded in his mother, was her doing the will of his Father in heaven. It may also further allude to the reprobation of the Jews, his carnal kindred, and the election of the Gentiles.”
That Mary was one who does the will of the Father is amply shown in every passage of Scripture where she is mentioned, from the Annunciation — “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word (Luke 1:38) — to her enduring fidelity at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25).
Mary was both Christ’s true biological mother, and His mother in the spiritual sense that her Son speaks of in this passage (“whosoever shall do the will of my Father… is my mother…). St. Augustine testifies to this truth: “Also His mother is every pious soul, doing the will of His Father with most fruitful charity toward those whom it is bringing forth, until He Himself be formed in them. Mary, therefore, doing the will of God, is corporeally only the mother of Christ, but spiritually she is both His sister and mother. And on this account, that one female, not only in the Spirit, but also in the flesh, is both a mother and a virgin.” Later, the African doctor adds that Mary is “clearly the mother of His members, which we are. For she cooperated by charity so that faithful ones should be born in the Church, who are members of that Head; but in the flesh, she is the mother of the Head Himself” (On Holy Virginity, ch. 3).
We ought to apply the passage to ourselves, by the “tropological sense” of Scripture, to see if we deserve to be counted worthy of being called Christ’s brother, sister, mother. St. Gregory the Great (hom. 8 in Evang.) said that he who is Christ’s brother or sister by believing can become his mother by preaching, because preaching is what brings forth Jesus in the heart of the believer. This heroic Pope of the seventh century also points to the example of St. Felicity (Felicitas), the second-century Christian matron, who saw her seven sons martyred before she herself died a martyr. St. Felicity begot Christ in each of her sons, and, as St. Augustine said, she herself won a new victory in each one of them. In the traditional Roman rite, this passage under discussion, Mt. 12:46-50, happens to be the Gospel reading for the Mass of her feast day (July 10).
The second passage I will consider more briefly. It is Luke 11:27-28: “And it came to pass, as he spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd, lifting up her voice, said to him: Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck. But he said: Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.” Here, a similar attempt is made by the votaries of heresy to detract from the Virgin’s greatness. Many Protestants will claim that this passage puts Mary “in her place,” showing that there is nothing particularly special about her that we should honor her. However, the very opposite is being affirmed. Rather than being told that Mary is not to be venerated, we are being told how truly venerable she is. The same evangelist who records in this passage that they are blessed who “hear the word of God, and keep it” also tells us that Our Lady did just that: “But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) Also: “And his mother kept all these words in her heart.” (Luke 2:51).
St. Augustine showed that these words of the Gospel explain the Blessed Virgin’s greatness: “The near relationship of mother would not have profited Mary, had she not happily conceived Christ in her heart as well as in her womb. Mary therefore was more blessed in receiving faith in Christ than in conceiving the flesh of Christ.”
(On this subject, see also Mark Alessio’s Jesus and Mary, the Perfect Harmony.)