Was Mary a Martyr?

Was the Blessed and Immaculate Mother of God a martyr? Unlike Saint Peter, she was not crucified upside down. Unlike Saint Paul, she was not decapitated. Unlike Saint Lawrence, she was not burned alive. Rather, Sacred Tradition holds that she fell asleep peacefully surrounded by the Apostles of Christ her Son. So then, it seems that Mary is not a martyr. Yet, Saint Bernard and many eminent saints and doctors of the Church have described her as the greatest martyr of the Catholic Church – “the more than martyr” to use the words of Saint Bernard.

The prophet Simeon prophecied of the Blessed Mother’s martyrdom when he said to her:

“And your own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35).

What did Simeon mean when he told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul. The Church has unanimously taught that this occurred when she looked upon her Son’s dead body on the cross, pierced withe lance of the Roman. Her motherly soul was so sorrowful, so pained, that it might be rightly said that she suffered more than any other human alive. She knew that her Son was divine, that He was sinless, that He was innocent, that He bore the sins and crimes of the world.

Saint Bernard speaks of Mary’s “martyrdom” in this moment in this way:

  The martyrdom of the Virgin is set forth both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the actual story of our Lord’s passion. The holy old man said of the infant Jesus: He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted. He went on to say to Mary: And your own heart will be pierced by a sword.

  Truly, O blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart. For only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your Son. Indeed, after your Jesus – who belongs to everyone, but is especially yours – gave up his life, the cruel spear, which was not withheld from his lifeless body, tore open his side. Clearly it did not touch his soul and could not harm him, but it did pierce your heart. For surely his soul was no longer there, but yours could not be torn away. Thus the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering.

  Or were those words, Woman, behold your Son, not more than a word to you, truly piercing your heart, cutting through to the division between soul and spirit? What an exchange! John is given to you in place of Jesus, the servant in place of the Lord, the disciple in place of the master; the son of Zebedee replaces the Son of God, a mere man replaces God himself. How could these words not pierce your most loving heart, when the mere remembrance of them breaks ours, hearts of iron and stone though they are!

  Do not be surprised, brothers, that Mary is said to be a martyr in spirit. Let him be surprised who does not remember the words of Paul, that one of the greatest crimes of the Gentiles was that they were without love. That was far from the heart of Mary; let it be far from her servants.

  Perhaps someone will say: “Had she not known before that he would not die?” Undoubtedly. “Did she not expect him to rise again at once?” Surely. “And still she grieved over her crucified Son?” Intensely. Who are you and what is the source of your wisdom that you are more surprised at the compassion of Mary than at the passion of Mary’s Son? For if he could die in body, could she not die with him in spirit? He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.

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  • Angele

    Thank you so much for this, Taylor.

    This morning at Mass, the Alleluia acclamation was, “Blessed are you, O Virgin Mary; without dying you won the martyr’s crown beneath the Cross of the Lord.”

    It really really struck me and I could think of little else. I really appreciated this post, as it’s brought further insight for deeper contemplation.

  • Randy

    Maybe I am too logical. Words mean things. If martyr means giving your life for your faith. If she did not do that then she is not a martyr. I have no problem with “more than a martyr” or “martyr in spirit”. It is clear that he is not asserting an historical fact.

  • Bender

    Maybe I am too logical. Words mean things. If martyr means giving your life for your faith.

    The word “martyr” is from the Greek word meaning “witness.”

    Mary is the first witness.  She witnessed (and witnesses) Jesus not only with her eyes and ears and with her voice, but with the entirety of her being.  She is the queen of martyrs.

    The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church and His blood, which is from her blood (bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh), is the greatest seed of all.

  • David Werling

    In her liturgy, the Church declares of Mary: “sine morte meruerunt martyrii palmam sub cruce Domini” (“without dying earned the palm of martyrdom beneath the cross of our Lord”).  This is from the Communion verse of the Mass, Stabant juxta (used on the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary), 1962 missal.

  • Joe

    The Church has not misunderstood the meaning of martyr, you have. You have grossly distorted it to that of a passive bystander. If the authors looked at it as a witness, then it is because you must undergo a trial. Even english still retains that concept.

  • Kathy

    Mary a mere bystander? passive?!  What of all the endless prayers and her pierced heart?  What of her outstanding courage, which surpassed that of most of the apostles?