James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.
Now His Mother and brethren came to Him; and they could not get to Him because of the crowd. And it was told Him, "Thy Mother and Thy brethren are standing outside, wishing to see Thee." But He answered and said to them, "My mother and My brethren are they who hear the Word of God, and act upon it." (Luke 8: 19-21)
(The author deems it unnecessary to repeat here what he has already said, in his fourth Lecture, concerning the proper understanding of the words "brethren," "brother" and "sister" in reference to Our Lord, Our Lady and other Biblical personages—i.e., that they often refer to other near relations, such as cousins, nephews and nieces, etc. Cf. Issue No. 172—response to the arguments against Our Lady's Perpetual Virginity.)
This is one of those sayings of our Divine Savior, of which I spoke to you in my first Lecture, and of which such frequent use is made in modern days, as an occasion, if not for abuse, yet certainly for disparagement of our Blessed Lady, and reproach of Catholics for unduly exalting Her. In earlier ages of the Church, when the Mystery of the Incarnation, in its very essence, was the one object of heretical attack, sayings of this kind were used for a somewhat different purpose. Men "having no thorough knowledge of Holy Scripture," as Epiphanius justly says, "but choosing to follow after the truth merely according to their own private judgment," fancied that they could gather from this and a few similar texts, a distinct denial, on the part of Christ Himself, of the reality of His Human Nature and Nativity.
Thus the heresiarch Manes (after whom Manichaeism is named) in his controversy with St. Archelaus in the third century argues after this fashion. "God forbid," he says, "that I should believe that Christ Jesus my Lord was born of a woman, as other children are born, since He Himself testifies concerning Himself, that He came down from the bosom of the Father." He then quotes two or three more texts to the same effect, and continues, that if his opponent knows the truth better than Christ Himself, and will insist upon our believing that He was really born of the Virgin Mary, there is an end of Christianity altogether. "There was once indeed," Manes proceeds, "a man in the Gospel who dared to believe the same thing as you do, Archelaus, and who therefore dared to say to Jesus on a certain occasion, 'Thy Mother and Thy brethren stand without,' but Jesus would not have it, and rebuked him, saying, 'Who are My Mother, or who are My brethren?' and He pointed out that those who did His will were His mother and brethren. If then you choose to say that Mary was His Mother, it is at your own peril, and see what comes of it. It follows as a certain consequence that He had also brothers by Her. Tell me then, were these brothers begotten by Joseph, or by the same Holy Ghost Who begot Christ? If you say the latter then, we have more Christs than one. If you say that they were not begotten by the Holy Ghost, and yet maintain that He had brothers, then we must conclude that after the Holy Ghost and after Gabriel, the most chaste and spotless Virgin became the wife of Joseph. But if it is monstrous and absurd to suppose that She ever lived as the wife of Joseph, whence had He any brothers? Will you dare to accuse Her of adultery? Or, if every supposition of this kind is wholly out of place when speaking of the spotless Virgin, how else will you account for them? If then you are driven to acknowledge that He had no brothers, how can you prove that Mary was His Mother, since the same authority speaks of one and of the other, saying, 'Behold Thy Mother and Thy brethren'? I know indeed that this man dared to speak of both, but no one can be a higher authority upon this subject than He Who Himself showed us who were His real Mother and brethren, and Who would not suffer Himself even to be called the Son of David (Matt. 22: 45)."
It will have been painful to some amongst you, perhaps, to listen to the language of this heretic, so "ruthlessly logical" in his mode of handling the words of one particular text; at the same time, it is very instructive, as well in what he dares to say, as in what he assumes nobody would dare to say; and it may prove a useful warning to some as to the abyss of error into which the Protestant principle of Biblical interpretation may lead. I will venture, therefore, to continue my quotation from his argument upon this question a little longer.
He proceeds thus: "St. Peter the Apostle, the most eminent of all the disciples, was able to recognize Who Jesus really was, and when each one was setting forth the opinion he had formed about Him, this Apostle said, 'Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God,' whereupon straightway Jesus blessed him, saying that His Heavenly Father had revealed it to him. Mark the contrast, then, between these two answers which Jesus made. To the man who said, 'Thy Mother and Thy brethren stand without,' He answered, 'Who is My Mother and My brethren?' But to him who said, 'Thou art Christ,' He forthwith gave a blessing and a reward. If then you choose to maintain that He was born of Mary, you make both Him and Peter to lie; but if Peter spoke the truth, then without doubt the other man spoke falsely."
We are told that when the speaker had ended this sophistical harangue, there was a commotion among the people, for his words seemed to have a great show of reason, and they thought that the Catholic Bishop would have nothing to say in reply. But when the noise had subsided, St. Archelaus began to answer his opponent, point by point. I must content myself with giving you a brief summary of his argument, which came in substance to this—that both St. Peter and the man who made the announcement about His Mother, received from Jesus a fitting answer to the question he had put or the statement he had made. "As long as anyone is a child," he said, "he thinks as a child, he understands as a child; but when he has become a perfect man, those things which belong to a child will be put away; that is to say, whilst a man is stretching forth towards those things which are before, he will forget those which are behind him. Hence it was that, at a moment when Jesus was teaching and healing mankind, and all His hearers were intent on these matters, the message of that person who spoke about His Mother and His brethren was most inopportune.
"For tell me this. Supposing that Mary was His Mother, would you have Him leave those whom He was healing and teaching, to go and converse with Her? Had He not Himself denounced and condemned such conduct? Would not you have straightway made it the subject of a charge against Him, had He so acted? For when He chose twelve sinful men and made them His Apostles, He bade them forsake father and mother that they might be made worthy of Himself, that so the memory of their parents might never at any future time bend their firmness from the straight path of duty. And again, when someone offered to follow Him but asked first to go and bury His father, Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their dead.' Observe then how carefully my Lord Jesus Christ builds up the disciples in all things necessary for them, and how He utters sacred words to each one who approaches Him according to their respective merits. Thus on the present occasion, when a man speaks to Him inopportunely about His Mother, He does not choose to neglect that which had been laid upon Him by His Father on account of His Mother's presence. And that you may see more clearly the truth of what I say, remember what happened to St. Peter some time after he had received that blessing of which you spoke. When Jesus had told him that it was necessary for the Son of Man to go up to Jerusalem and to be slain, and to rise again on the third day, Peter said, 'Lord, be it far from Thee, this shall not be unto Thee.' Then Jesus answered and said, 'Go behind me, Satan, for thou savorest not the things that are of God, but thou savorest the things that are of men.'
"Now, you have maintained that the man who spoke to Jesus about His Mother and brethren was rebuked by Him, but that Peter almost secured ever-lasting bliss by his confession, 'Thou art the Son of the Living God.' Yet see now, how on the contrary, Jesus prefers the one before the other, giving the one a mild and gentle answer, but to Peter, in spite of the blessing he had lately received, addressing no kind word of forgiveness, because he had not taken heed to the nature of what he was saying. The mistake of His Mother's messenger was corrected by a reasonable reply; but Peter's slowness of heart to understand was condemned by a very sharp rebuke. Whence you ought to perceive how the Lord Jesus takes notice of the opportuneness of each question that is put to Him, and shapes His answer accordingly. It remains then, that if we would understand His sayings, we must always take into account the circumstances under which they were spoken; the place, the time, the persons, the subject matter, and its bearing upon the salvation of those who come to Him." (St. Archelaus, Bishop of Caschae in Mesopotamia, 278 A.D. Dispute with Manes ‡ xlix. I have not attempted a strictly literal translation of the original text, but only an abridgment. No new idea has been introduced.)
This is an interesting and valuable specimen of ancient Catholic and—what I will venture to call—Protestant commentary upon our text. The Catholic commentary has always remained the same, so that it would be easy to bring together a multitude of passages from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church in all ages, containing the same general interpretation of our Savior's words as that suggested by St. Archelaus; and in fact, anything that we shall say upon the text ourselves will only develop in greater detail his ideas and argument. But the Protestant commentary has varied very materially in the course of ages. We have seen how the early heretics sought by means of it to destroy men's belief in the human nativity of Christ. I do not suppose that in modern times it has been ever so used. But in the sixteenth century the more violent and extravagant of the Protestant "reformers" built upon it a charge against our Blessed Lady of "rudeness, pride, arrogance, ambition and blasphemy," and concluded that for these grievous sins She was rebuked and put to open shame by Her Son (See Brentius in Canis. de BMV lib. iv, c. 19). The same error in a milder form will probably be found in most Protestant commentaries of more modern times. I observe that one which enjoyed considerable popularity (Henry and Scott) runs in this wise: "Jesus' mother and brethren stood without, when they should have been standing within, desiring to hear Him. Frequently those who are the nearest to the means of knowledge and grace are most negligent." If this remark is intended to apply to our Blessed Lady as well as to the "brethren," the writer would seem to have forgotten the express and repeated testimony of St. Luke as to Her diligence in hearing and treasuring all the words that fell from Her Son or concerned Him. Presently the writer goes further, and says: "They not only would not hear Jesus themselves, but they interrupted others that heard Him gladly." We need not quote more, but we will proceed at once to follow the excellent rule laid down by St. Archelaus, and examine as closely as we can all the circumstances of the incident, that so we may gain a truer insight into the meaning of Jesus' words.
Two of the Evangelists indeed, St. Matthew (12: 46-50) and St. Luke, only record that Jesus' Mother and brethren stood without and were anxious to speak to Him, but could not come to Him for the crowd who were sitting around Him, and that under these circumstances one of the bystanders made known their desire to Jesus. St. Mark (3: 31), however, adds that they themselves sent Him a message, announcing their presence and inviting Him to come and speak to them. It is of course upon this invitation of our Blessed Lady that Protestants seek to ground their charge against Her of rudeness, pride and ambition; but Holy Scripture having observed an absolute silence upon the motives of Her conduct, it is as open to Catholic interpreters to suggest motives of love and piety, as it has been to Protestants to invent others that are dishonorable. We know from the fourth Evangelist (John 7: 5) that at a later period of Our Lord's ministry, His "brethren" did not believe in Him, though they pressed Him to make a more public manifestation of Himself, and to perform His miracles in Jerusalem rather than in the more obscure towns of Galilee; and it would be quite natural and in harmony with all that we read and believe about our Blessed Lady, to suppose that She had brought these "brethren" on this particular occasion that they might hear Our Lord's discourses, and hearing might believe. Seeing how eagerly He was followed by the multitude, and how unintermittingly He gave Himself to their service, "having not so much as time to eat" (Mark 6: 31; John 4: 6, 31-34), they might have wished to avail themselves of their natural relationship as a pretext for obtaining Him some rest and refreshment from His labors. In a word, it is possible to conceive of a variety of circumstances which may have caused Mary quite naturally and innocently to desire to speak with Jesus, nor is it necessary, in the silence of Scripture, that we should insist on one conjecture as to these circumstances in preference to another. What Scripture has recorded, and what it concerns us to consider, is the answer which Jesus gave to the message He received.
And here too, before we consider the words themselves, it is obvious to remark that we cannot argue from any harshness of character which they may seem to have when read in a book, that they were really spoken with harshness or were understood, at the time they were spoken, to convey any rebuke. We have seen how when He was reclaimed by His Mother after the three days' loss in the Temple at Jerusalem, He spoke words which seemed to censure Her interference, and yet He obeyed the summons and was subject to Her for twenty years. Again, on the occasion of the miracle at Cana of Galilee, an apparent refusal in words was immediately followed by a compliance with the request in fact, and there is nothing to show but that the very same thing may have happened here also. We are quite at liberty to imagine, if we like, that Our Lord, after uttering the words which the Evangelists have recorded, rose up and proceeded to grant His Mother the interview She had asked for; there would be nothing at all strange in such a supposition; on the contrary, it is more possible than not; but it is not certain. All that we are told is that He answered the interruption in these words, "Who is My Mother and My brethren? And then looking round about on them who sat about Him, He saith, Behold My mother and My brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of God, he is My brother, and My sister, and mother."
I need not say that these words were not really an answer sent to His Mother and brethren, but rather a lesson of instruction addressed to those "who sat about Him;" nor can it be necessary to point out to anyone who is familiar with the Gospels, how common a thing it was with our Blessed Lord to direct His answers not so much to the questions that had been put forward, as to the inward thoughts and motives of those who put them; how sometimes He set aside the question altogether as though he had not heard it, yet proceeded to make it the occasion of imparting some general lesson which it suggested. This is precisely what He does now. Whilst engaged in teaching, His attention has been called to His Mother and brethren according to the flesh; and perhaps some of those who stood by may have been watching to see whether or not He would interrupt the discharge of His office as a prophet and messenger from God to listen to the claims of flesh and blood and mere natural relationship. For it had been noted as the special excellence of the tribe of Levi, God's ministers under the Old Law, that "he had said to his father and to his mother, I do not know you, and to his brethren, I know you not, and their own children they have not known" (Deut. 32: 9). It was the characteristic also of Melchisedech, the priest of the Most High God and a singular type of that new order of Priesthood to which Christ Himself belonged and which He purposed to establish upon the earth, that he was "without father, without mother, without genealogy" (Heb. 7: 3); and it was not fitting that Christ should even seem to be in anything inferior to His type. Moreover, He was to set an example to all who should come after Him, and in especial manner to those who were to be made in any way partakers in His own sacred office, to carry on the work He had begun; those of whom He had said, "As My Father hath sent Me, even so do I send you." And there was no lesson more important for them to learn, and none perhaps more difficult to practice, than that God's honor and service must ever be preferred before considerations of flesh and blood; that the disciples of Christ, and especially His priests, must be ready to forsake "house and brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, for His sake" (Matt. 19: 29), everything (in a word) that might stand in the way of their undivided service of God, because "no man being a soldier of God, entangleth himself with secular business, that he may please Him to whom He hath engaged himself" (2 Tim. 2: 4).
These reflections serve not only to explain the words of our Blessed Lord on this particular occasion, but also throw great light on the obscurity in which our Dear Lady is enveloped during the whole period of His public ministry. As St. Augustine says, "Being a Divine Teacher, He sets aside His Mother's name which had been announced to Him, and which was in a manner personal, private, and peculiar to Himself, as though it were something earthly when compared with His Heavenly relationship" (Epist. 38 ad Laetum). And in the same way during His whole ministry, He as it were neglects Her and shows no consciousness of Her existence, that He might act as He would have His own disciples to act, that so, when their turn came, they too might not be afraid or ashamed to act in like manner, for "he that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me" (Matt. 10: 37). We do not even know whether She followed Him, as other pious women did, during His travels from one place to another, whilst He preached the Word of God and healed the infirmities of men. Her name is not mentioned by St. Luke; he only tells us of "certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary who is called Magdalen, out of whom seven devils were gone forth, and Joanna the wife of Chusa, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who ministered unto Him of their substance" (Luke 7: 2, 3). In this silence of Holy Scripture, it is not surprising that merely human writers have been divided in opinion. We shall not repeat the arguments of either side, or try to balance the degree of probability which belongs to each, but merely content ourselves with stating what is certain, viz., that after having been present at one of the very earliest acts of Her Son's public ministry in Cana of Galilee, She went down with Him and His brethren and His disciples to Capharnaum, but that they did not remain there many days (John 2: 12); that She sought to speak with Him on the occasion mentioned in the text, and that She was present at the closing scene of all on Mount Calvary.
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