A Woman Clothed with the Sun

In Revelation chapter 12, John sees a mysterious vision of “a woman clothed with the sun” (Revelation 12:1). This woman gives birth to the Messiah (Revelation 12:5; cf. Psalm 2:8-9, a messianic psalm), so Catholics believe her to be Mary, the mother of Jesus. Consequently, we often see this passage as strong biblical evidence for some of our beliefs about her. Specifically, this woman is a queen (Revelation 12:1) and the mother of Jesus’ followers (Revelation 12:17), so this vision is often used to support our belief that Mary is both queen and mother of the Church.

However, things are not quite so simple. There are a few problems with this interpretation. For one, the text’s description of this woman does not seem to fit the mother of Jesus. She is said to be “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” (Revelation 12:1), and it is tough to see why Mary would be described this way. Secondly, when the woman gives birth to Jesus, she experiences labor pains (Revelation 12:2), but the Church has traditionally taught that Mary gave birth to Jesus without pain. Scripture tells us that labor pains are a consequence of original sin (Genesis 3:16), and since Mary was conceived without original sin (this is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception), she did not suffer this consequence.

As a result, the case against viewing the woman as Mary is actually quite strong; her identity is not nearly as obvious as we Catholics often to think it is. So who in fact is she? Let’s take a look at this strange vision and see if we can make some sense of it. Specifically, I want to look at all the evidence marshalled by the various sides in this debate and see if we can find an interpretation that takes it all into account and synthesizes it in a comprehensive and convincing manner.

The Old People of God

To begin, let’s look at the non-Marian understandings of this woman’s identity. First, many people believe she is a symbol of Israel, God’s people in the Old Testament, and there is actually a pretty good case to be made for this view. For one, Israel is often described in the Old Testament as a woman (for example, Isaiah 62:11), and Jesus was an Israelite, so the image of Israel giving birth to the Messiah makes sense. Moreover, the Old Testament describes Israel’s wait for the Messiah as birth pains (Micah 4:10-5:3), so even that little detail fits.

Finally, the strange imagery of the sun, moon, and stars also supports this interpretation. This symbolism comes from a story in Genesis where Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, had a dream in which the sun and moon (representing his parents) and eleven stars (representing his eleven brothers; Revelation gets twelve stars by extrapolating from this image and considering Joseph himself as a star as well) bowed down to him (Genesis 37:9-10). Now, Joseph and his brothers were the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, so this imagery fits perfectly with the identification of the woman as Israel.

The New People of God

However, there is a big problem with this view. Remember, the text also tells us that this woman is the mother of Jesus’ followers, but that seems out of place if she is Israel. Instead, some people argue, this shows that she is actually a symbol of the Church. The New Testament describes the Church as Jesus’ bride (Ephesians 5:23-32, especially verses 31-32), so it makes sense that Revelation would depict it as a woman. Moreover, since Jesus’ followers belong to the Church, it also makes sense for it to be described as our mother.

Nevertheless, there is a problem with this view as well. The Church clearly did not give birth to Jesus; if anything, it was the other way around. Consequently, this interpretation also fails.

The woman is neither Israel, the people of God from the Old Testament, nor the Church, the people of God from the New Testament, so that seems to clear the way for the traditional Catholic identification of her as Mary.

The Continuous People of God

But not so fast. There is still one more non-Marian interpretation, and this one has the strengths of the previous two while avoiding their weaknesses. Some people view her as a symbol of the one continuous people of God stretching all the way from Israel in the Old Testament to the Church in the New. We often think of Israel and the Church as two separate entities, but they’re actually not. The New Testament understands the Church to be the fulfillment and continuation of Israel, not its replacement. The first generation of Christians were all Jews, and the Gentiles (non-Jews) came later. Because of this, the Bible sees those first Christians as the true Israel, the faithful remnant of God’s people, into whom the Gentiles were incorporated. In other words, those Gentiles joined the true Israel rather than replacing it, so there is in fact one continuous people of God from the Old Testament to the New (Romans 11:17-24).

This is a great interpretation because it accounts for all of the evidence put forth by proponents of the previous two views, and it combines them in a comprehensive and convincing way. By saying that the woman is essentially both the Church and Israel, it explains why she has several characteristics that fit one but not the other. In a nutshell, before Jesus is born, she’s Israel, and after His birth, she’s the Church, the continuation and fulfillment of Israel.

However, even this interpretation has a problem. If we look at the rest of this vision, we see that the other main characters in it all represent individuals. First, we have a dragon (Revelation 12:3), which represents Satan (Revelation 12:9). Next, we have a newborn baby, the woman’s son. He is not explicitly named, but the description of him in Revelation 12:5 alludes to Psalm 2:8-9, a messianic psalm, which tells us that he is Jesus. Finally, we have Michael the Archangel (Revelation 12:7), who is simply himself. Consequently, since they all represent individuals, it would seem that the woman does as well. It would be weird if they all symbolized individual people but she symbolized a whole group of people.

Granted, that is not a fatal weakness, but it is a weakness nonetheless. As a result, if we can come up with another interpretation, one that has all the strengths of the previous ones but avoids their weaknesses (specifically the last weakness I just pointed out), then we will have found what we are looking for. We will finally have a comprehensive and convincing interpretation that explains all of the evidence the text gives us. And that interpretation, I would suggest, is the one with which we started out. It’s the traditional Catholic view that the woman is Mary.

The Marian View: Mother of God, but also Model and Realization of the Church

When most people defend this view, they simply point out that the woman is Jesus’ mother and that Jesus’ mother was Mary, but that’s not all we can say about it. To understand the text in this way doesn’t entail abandoning the previous interpretations. Rather, just as the “Continuous People of God” view took into account the evidence for the previous two views and combined them in a way that retained their strengths but avoided their weaknesses, so too does the Marian view incorporate all of the previous ones and explain all of the evidence without succumbing to their weaknesses.

In Catholic theology, Mary is “the Church’s model of faith and charity” and its “exemplary realization” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 967). In other words, she’s everything the Church is supposed to be both in this life and the next. Since she was conceived without original sin and kept free from personal sin throughout her entire life (as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches), she was the perfect disciple of Christ here on earth. Furthermore, since she was assumed body and soul into heaven (as the dogma of the Assumption teaches), she has already reached the perfect state that we all hope to achieve some day. She has already attained the resurrection of the dead, so she is “the image…of the Church as it is to be perfected is (sic) the world to come” (Lumen Gentium 68).

Moreover, since Israel and the Church form a single entity, a single people of God, we can say that Mary is not the model and realization of the Church alone; rather, she is model and realization of the one continuous people of God stretching from Israel in the Old Testament to the Church in the New. In other words, not only is she everything that the Church is supposed to be (in this life and the next), but she’s also everything Israel was supposed to be. As a result, it makes perfect sense for Revelation to describe her in ways that call to mind both Israel and the Church.

Birth Pains

Before we end, there is still one final difficulty we have to overcome. Like I said before, the woman experiences labor pains when she gives birth to Jesus, but the Church has traditionally taught that Mary didn’t experience any pain in Jesus’ birth. To understand this, I would suggest that we go back to the Old Testament, the source of this image. Remember, Scripture describes Israel’s wait for the Messiah as birth pains, and since Mary was an Israelite, she also shared in her nation’s metaphorical birth pains as she awaited the coming of the Messiah with them. Consequently, we don’t need to take this image literally. Rather, it symbolizes Mary’s suffering as she waited along with the rest of her fellow Israelites for the Messiah to come.

Comprehensive Interpretation

From all this, we can see that when we take all of the evidence into account, the traditional Catholic interpretation of Revelation 12 turns out to be correct. The woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus and the model and realization of the people of God (both Israel and the Church). Consequently, since she is both a queen and the mother of Jesus’ followers, this passage provides us with strong biblical evidence for our belief that Mary is the queen and mother of the Church.