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The Woman Clothed with the Sun

Question: I believe that the woman quoted in Revelation chapter 12 is Mary, the Queen of Heaven. “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered” (Revelation 12:1, 2).

Answer: Pope Pius XII used this passage as evidence for the dogma of the Assumption. He wrote: “The scholastic Doctors have recognized the Assumption of the Virgin Mother of God as something signified, not only in various figures of the Old Testament, but also in that woman clothed with the sun whom John the Apostle contemplated on the Island of Patmos” (Munificentissimus Deus).

This interpretation presents a major theological difficulty to Roman Catholicism, for the Church teaches that Mary was immaculate from conception, that is, without original sin. Now we know that pain, suffering and death came into the world because of Adam’s sin, and being his offspring, we share in the consequences of the fall. In particular, the Bible describes the pain of childbirth as a result of original sin: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).

If Mary was free from original sin, she would not have suffered during the birth of her Son. Pope Alexander III stated explicitly that Mary had given birth to Christ without pain: “Mary conceived without detriment to her virginity, gave birth to her Son without pain, and departed hence without being subject to corruption.” [1]

However, the woman in Revelation 12 was in great distress: she “cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.” Since the pain of childbirth results from original sin, the woman of Revelation 12 could not be immaculate and without sin.

Personally, I am not convinced that the woman is a description of Mary; more likely it is a figure of God’s people, in conflict with our enemy, the Devil. This agrees with the interpretation of the early Church Fathers.

“Now, concerning the tribulation of the persecution which is to fall upon the Church from the adversary, John also speaks thus: “And I saw a great and wondrous sign in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun ...By the woman then clothed with the sun, he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father’s word, whose brightness is above the sun. And by the “moon under her feet” he referred to her being adorned” (Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist).

“The woman clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown of twelve stars upon her head, and travailing in her pains, is the ancient Church of fathers, and prophets, and saints, and apostles, which had the groans and torments of its longing until it saw that Christ, the fruit of its people according to the flesh long promised to it, had taken flesh out of the selfsame people” (Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse).

A Roman Catholic Bible commentary concurs:

“Most of the ancient commentators identified her with the Church; in the Middle Ages it was widely held that she represented Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Modern exegetes have generally adopted the older interpretation, with certain modifications. In recent years several Catholics have championed the Marian interpretation. Numerous contextual details, however, are ill-suited to such an explanation. For example, we are scarcely to think that Mary endured the worst of the pains of childbirth (v. 2), that she was pursued into the desert after the birth of her child (vv. 6, 13ff.), or, finally, that she was persecuted through her other children (v. 17). The emphasis on the persecution of the woman is really appropriate only if she represents the Church, which is presented throughout the book as oppressed by the forces of evil, yet protected by God. Furthermore, the image of a woman is common in ancient Oriental secular literature as well as in the Bible (e.g., Is 50:1; Jer 50:12) as a symbol for a people, a nation, or a city. It is fitting, then, to see in this woman the People of God, the true Israel of the OT and NT.” [2]

Finally, let me point out that the Scriptures never call Mary the “Queen of Heaven.” That was the title of a pagan false deity, probably the Canaanite goddess Astarte. The prophet Jeremiah was commanded to speak out the Lord’s disapproval of Israel’s worship of the “Queen of Heaven” (7:18; 44:17-19). Should we dishonour the blessed mother of our Lord by attributing to her the title of a despicable pagan goddess?

[1] Virgin Wholly Marvelous, Peter Brookby, ed., The Ravengate Press, 1981. [back]

[2] D’Argon J-L. “The Apocalypse.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1969). [back]

© Dr Joseph Mizzi