Mary and the Early Church

“La Pentecôte” (The Pentecost) by Jean II Restout


There are many unknowns about Mary’s life during the public ministry of Christ and especially after His death and resurrection. We know that she was present at the Cross, that John the Apostle took her into his home, and that she was present in the Upper Room during the time of the prayer preceding Pentecost. But other than that, answers about her life remain the subject of mystical experiences and local tradition, left to our prayer. Perhaps this is exactly what she wanted. Her last recorded words are “Do whatever He tells you,” and then she steps out of the spotlight and becomes a contemplative.

Did Mary go to Ephesus with John? Did her life end there? The people of Ephesus say yes, but the people of Jerusalem won’t respond quietly to this assertion! They will take you to their Church of the Dormition, near the site of the Upper Room. Both Ephesus and Jerusalem claim to be the place where Mary spent the last quiet years of her life. Who is right? Perhaps we will never know this side of heaven.

The Catholics of Jerusalem will convincingly ask you why Mary would want to leave the city where her Son suffered, died, and rose from the dead? Why would she leave the place of those memories? Yet she was most closely united to Her Son not through the memories in places but through the Eucharist. Wherever John celebrated Mass, she was united to Jesus not just through memories of her mind but in the re-presentation of those memories. When John obeyed Christ’s command to “do this in memory of Me,” he brought the flesh and blood that Mary gave Jesus back to her under the appearance of bread and wine.

As I prayed in the Church of the Dormition last summer, I continued to mull over the cloud of unknowing that surrounds the last years of Mary’s life. We were so close to the site of the Upper Room, my thoughts went back not just to the Last Supper but to that first novena of prayer of the early Church. We know from the account in Acts that “the mother of Jesus” was with them during that time.

Mary, mother of Jesus, was present at the birth of His Mystical Body, the Church. And it’s only natural that she would continue to mother that Church. These followers of Christ would have been like sons to her. She would have seen them mature and grow in grace. She would have seen them betray her Son but also receive His mercy. Jesus loved those first followers with His human, Sacred Heart. And there’s no doubt in my mind She would have loved them too.

We know that the Apostles spread out after Pentecost, speaking of what they had seen and heard and telling people of The Way. But in Acts 15, we see that they have gathered back to Jerusalem for the Council of Jerusalem. These Apostles, our first bishops, have come together to make a crucial decision for this new religion. They don’t have Jesus with them bodily. He apparently has left them. This is up to them.

Ultimately, Jesus has put the future of His Church into the hands of these men. The same men who have failed Him. And while they are still capable of failure, now they have been strengthened through the Holy Spirit. They are the same human instruments, but over the last two decades have responded to the grace and have been transformed. He has not left them.

Perhaps Mary had been in Ephesus with John, but now returns with him to Jerusalem. And perhaps she witnesses the leadership of Peter, James, and the others. She sees that her adopted sons have grown up. She sees that the Church is in capable hands.

She is their earthly link to Jesus Christ. She is the spouse of the Holy Spirit and has been interceding for this Mystical Body of Christ. But now it is time. Now it is time to leave them. Now it is time to be reunited with her Son. Perhaps that is why the Church of the Dormition, the falling asleep of Mary, is so close to the Upper Room. The Mother of the Church returns to the place of its birth, Jerusalem, to bid it farewell.

This year, we celebrate a new feast day on the Monday after Pentecost – a day to honor Mary under the title of Mother of the Church. As titles of the Blessed Mother go, it is a relatively new title, officially given to her by Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council.

Mary, Mother of Jesus, is also Mother of His Mystical Body, the Church. She is our Mother, given to us on the Cross by Christ. She is model for holiness, and she has gone, body and soul, where we hope to go. While the Church on this earth is still being perfected, Mary, Mother of the Church, waits for us to join her.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where Mary left this earth. What matters is where she is today. She mothered the early Church on earth, and she continues to mother the Church today from heaven. We turn to her daily, asking her to bring us closer and closer to her Son.

Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us!


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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