Today, on the 12th of September, the Roman Church celebrates the Feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was instituted in 1684 by Pope Innocent XI to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The collect for this feast goes as follows:
Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that through the protection of the most holy Virgin Mary, Your faithful people who delight in her name may, by her loving intercession, be delivered from all evils on earth and be found worthy to attain everlasting happiness in heaven. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.
What is the meaning of the name “Mary”? Historically, it most probably comes from Hebrew Maryam, which in Hebrew itself has undergone change to Miryam (short a in a closed syllable has been reduced to i) and the Biblical character best known to us under this name is, of course, Miriam, the sister of Moses. In Aramaic, however, the name remained in its original form: Maryam. And it is in this form that it made it into the Greek text of the Gospels, where we find it transcribed as Μαριάμ, although only in the Nominative case, because in other cases the final -μ is dropped to make room for inflectional endings (e.g. Genitive Μαρίας). And here the etymological Odyssey really takes off the ground.
To be fair, there is no certain etymology of the name of Mary. It has been suggested that it has very ancient Egyptian origins in the word mr signifying ‘love’, but it’s still difficult to determine what would be the meaning of the other –m (or –ym for that matter) attached to the root. As with many things whose origins are clouded by their antiquity, Maryam has become open for various interpretations. Already the Jewish tradition ascribes to the name of Miriam various meanings correlated to her role in the story of Exodus. Her name is connected to the root mar which means ‘bitterness’, since the Hebrews were enslaved to a bitter toil in the service of the Egyptians; or to mar meaning ‘a drop of water’ due to her relationship to Moses’ being placed in a basket on the Nile, or due to her singing praises of the Lord in consequence of His deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea; or to Hebrew meri ‘rebellion’, since she rebelled against Moses in the desert. So we can see that there exists already a long tradition of symbolic interpretation of the name.
With Mary, the mother of Jesus, the search for meaning reaches a new level. E.g. there are some attempts at seeking the Hebrew etymology of the name by analyzing it as mar-yam, i.e. ‘a drop of the sea’. It was rendered in Latin as stilla maris and by copyist’s error turned into the well-known Marian title Stella Maris – ‘The Star of the Sea’, which fitted nicely with Mary’s role as a guide to God, helping the faithful to orient themselves to God among the storms of life. However, as I mentioned, in Greek and subsequently in Latin the name was rendered in the form of Maria, without the final –m, and as it was ‘read’ back into Aramaic, it has been related to the root mry ‘to lord over, to dominate’ from which the Aramaic-Syriac title of Jesus – Marya’ ‘the Lord’ – is derived. So, accordingly, Mary became understood as meaning Lady or Mistress, which already had entered Christian imagination as she was the mother of the Lord (Luke 1:43), a preeminently royal figure. By the way, it is possible that the name Maryam was already thought of as meaning Lady in the times of Jesus, since we encounter a similar one, namely Marta’ (known best to us in the English form of Martha), signifying exactly that: Lady or Mistress. The two names could have been considered as similar in sound and meaning, and both seem to be popular in the 1st century Palestine (this popularity even has been epitomized in the evangelical sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany).
When the name of Mary enters the Latin Church tradition, it also receives a new theological interpretation. As some of you may know, mare means in Latin ‘sea’ and maria is the word’s plural form – ‘seas’. And so, St. Louis de Montfort writes (True Devotion to Mary, 23):
God the Father made an assemblage of all the waters, and He named it the sea (mare). He has made an assemblage of all His graces, and He has called it Mary (Maria).
There are still many more interpretations of Mary’s name more or less reflecting theological insights of the authors contemplating the person of the Virgin. But why do these authors even bother to elaborate on this topic, especially that often they suggest several meanings of the name at once?
This is really simple. There is an ancient notion that a name somehow encapsulates the significance of the person bearing it, it summarizes the person’s character, role, fame, achievement, calling etc. So when various authors try to explain the name of Mary, they really try to say something theologically true about her. Therefore we shouldn’t dismiss their explanations despite their lack of etymological accuracy, because it’s not the point. The point is to meditate upon the mission that the Mother of God has been entrusted with, to reflect on who she is before God and before us. To be aware of these various interpretations of her name can be a great aid to a focused and fruitful prayer, such as Ave Maria. Whenever you call upon her name, you realize that you are invoking a person, whose significance is all that the spiritual masters have said about her name.
She is the handmaid of the Lord, who became a servant, but who through His humility earned for the human nature the share in His own divine glory (Philippians 2:5-11). As Jesus Christ is the Lord to the glory of God the Father, so Mary is the first to share in His glory – she is confessed as the Lady to the glory of Jesus Christ, because she is His masterpiece. Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother!