The Miraculous Medal is a little catechism that teaches us about Mary. The design was revealed in an apparition to St. Catherine Laboure, a novice at the time, in 1830. It was originally called the Medal of the Immaculate Conception, but due to the many miraculous favors that have been granted to those who wear it devoutly, the faithful soon began to call it “The Miraculous Medal.”
What about the symbols on the medal itself? There are, first of all, some references to the doctrine of the Co-redemption. This teaching refers to the cooperative role Our Lady had in the redemption achieved by Jesus. This cooperation was achieved in a manner that was subordinate to and dependent upon Jesus, but was nevertheless real. The merits of Jesus are completely sufficient for the Redemption, but God chose to honor His Mother by allowing a mere creature to help with this work. The cooperation of Mary in the Redemption had two high-points: the moment of the Incarnation, and the Passion of Christ.
Jesus redeemed us by consenting to suffer and die with his Body. This Body, however, was received by the Son in the Incarnation, through the consent of the Virgin Mother: Ecce ancilla Domine, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum; “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This is the greatest work of God: God becoming man, without ceasing to be God. It took place, however, through the knowing, willing consent of Mary. At that moment the Redemption began, and likewise the Co-redemption. On this point, Bl. Mother Teresa famously pointed out, “Of course Mary is the Co-redemptrix. She gave Jesus his Body, and Jesus redeemed us with his Body.”
The other climax of the Co-redemption is at Calvary. Here, Mary suffers at the foot of the Cross in an inexplicable union with her Son. Like Abraham, she interiorly consents to the sacrifice, docile to the will of God- but no angel intervenes. She prayerfully attends to this sacrifice, and offers her own Heart in union with her Son. St. Bonaventure writes, “All the wounds which were scattered over the Body of Jesus were united in the heart of Mary, to torment her in the Passion of her Son.”
There are three symbols on the medal which clearly point to the Co-redemption. On the obverse side, Our Lady is crushing the head of the Serpent. This naturally reminds us of the protoevangelium (the “first gospel”), Genesis 3:15. Here, God promises a redeemer- the seed of a woman. This “seed,” it is told, will crush the head of the Serpent. By extension we may say the woman crushes him as well, since she is at “enmity” with him and bears the Son who brings about his defeat.
St. Maximilian Kolbe writes, “The conflict with Hell cannot be maintained by men, even the most clever. The Immaculata alone has from God the promise of victory over Satan. She seeks souls that will consecrate themselves entirely to her, that will become in her hands forceful instruments for the defeat of Satan and the spread of God’s kingdom.” And St. Pius X said, “Let the storm rage and the sky darken – not for that shall we be dismayed. If we trust as we should in Mary, we shall recognize in her the Virgin Most Powerful ‘who with virginal foot did crush the head of the serpent’”.
On the reverse side there are two more symbols of the Co-redemption. The most prominent of these is an M, placed under a horizontal bar and a cross. This represents Mary at the foot of the cross- the bar is believed to refer to the earth in which the cross was planted.
Below is another symbol likewise referring to the Co-redemption. This is the Immaculate Heart of Mary, pierced with a sword (Luke 2:35), and the Sacred Heart of Jesus surrounded by a crown of thorns. The image illustrates the alliance of these two hearts, working out our salvation together. It likewise means that both of these hearts should be venerated together, and that honoring one honors the other. St. John Eudes writes:
“Although the Heat of Jesus is distinct from that of Mary, and infinitely surpasses it in excellence and holiness, nevertheless, God has so closely united these two hearts, that we may say with truth, that they are but one heart. Add to this that Jesus so lives and reigns in Mary, that he is the soul of her soul, the spirit of her spirit, the heart of her heart, so much so, that we might well say that Jesus is enshrined in the Heart of Mary so completely, that in honoring and glorifying her Heart, we honor and glorify Jesus Christ Himself.
The honoring of Mary does not (and cannot) compromise the worship owed to her divine Son, since we treat union with God and His glory as the ultimate end of our acts. As St. Louis de Montfort writes, “we honour her simply and solely to honour Him all the more perfectly. We go to her only as a way leading to the goal we seek- Jesus, her Son.”
Therefore, as St. Bernard puts it, “Let us not imagine that we obscure the glory of the Son by the great praise we lavish on the Mother; for the more she is honored, the greater is the glory of her Son.” The Miraculous Medal corresponds especially well to the admonition given by little Bl. Jacinta: “Tell everybody that the Heart of Jesus wants the Immaculate Heart of Mary to be venerated at His side.”
Other doctrines are also contained on the Miraculous Medal. Starting with the first modern Marian apparition (Our Lady of Guadelupe) in the 16th century, each apparition has focused on two key themes: the Immaculate Conception and the spiritual maternity of Our Lady. The apparition of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal is no exception. On the obverse side of the medal are the words, “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.”
This refers to the Immaculate Conception- that privilege whereby Mary is “full of grace,” (Luke 1:28) in the words of St. Gabriel. Her spiritual maternity, which refers to her mediating grace to us, her children, is acknowledged when we say, “pray for us who have recourse to you.” She is a mother in the order of grace, as Jesus taught when he said to St. John the Apostle, “Son, behold your Mother” (John 19:26).
Mary’s spiritual motherhood toward us is best understood by referring to the divine motherhood she has in relation to Jesus. What is true of Jesus’ physical presence is also true of His spiritual presence in the Mystical Body, the Church (by analogy). The Apostles’ Creed says Our Lord was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
Jesus is always conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary- including when He is “born” into a human heart through sanctifying grace. One might look at it this way: Jesus, who has acquired all of our graces, came into the world through Mary. Hence, all of our graces have come through Mary.
The Blessed Virgin was related to the Incarnation, not in a remote fashion (like St. Ann), but immediately and voluntarily. We could say that “The Word became Marianized”- Our Lord received His humanity from the Blessed Mother, and redeemed us with that humanity. At Calvary itself, Our Lady’s union with Jesus was likewise immediate and voluntary.
This treatment of the redemption, however, deals only with the acquisition of graces- the act of objective redemption. What about the distribution of graces to individual souls? Is Mary involved in this as well? “God does not change His ways,” as St. Louis de Montfort puts it. God the Son came to us the first time through Mary. He continues to come to us through Mary. Could we expect anything different? With the exception of the Holy Trinity, there has never been a union between persons as profound as that between Jesus and Mary.
St. Bernadette, the young seer at Lourdes, says it well. Someone asked her, “Would you rather see the Virgin Mary, or receive Holy Communion?” After some thought, she replied, “What a strange question! Jesus and Mary always go together.”
There is hardly anything more important than to have recourse to Mary. St. Maximilian Kolbe noted that, “Prayer is powerful beyond limits when we turn to the Immaculate, who is queen even of God’s heart.” In a famous sermon, St. Bernard delivered this edifying discourse on Our Lady, well worth meditating on piece by piece:
“In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name depart from your lips, never suffer it to leave your heart. And that you may obtain the assistance of her prayer, neglect not to walk in her footsteps. With her for guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.”
Mary’s spiritual motherhood is also symbolized by the central image on the medal, in which Our Lady stands on top of the globe, with rays emanating from her hands. These rays stand for the graces which flow to the world from Jesus, through Mary. In the apparition of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, the rays were coming from rings on Mary’s fingers. There were some rings, however, which were not emitting any rays. St. Catherine asked why this was, and Our Lady replied, “These are the graces for which nobody asks.”
There are two more symbols on the medal. On the reverse side, there are 12 stars, referring to the stars which crown Our Lady in the book of Revelation (Rev 12:1). This symbolizes her Queenship, which is intimately related to her spiritual and divine maternity, as well as her Immaculate Conception.
St. Francis Anthony Lucera (an 18th century Franciscan friar), reflecting on the Immaculate Conception, wrote of the primacy it gives Our Lady in creation: “Her appearance on earth was like the first immaculate ray of light…the sun, the moon, the stars, all of nature, the whole visible and invisible world bowed at Her feet as She walked the earth: ‘How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O Daughter of the Prince!’(Song of Songs 7:2)”.
The final image is found on the obverse side, on which the year “1830” is engraved. This, of course, is the year of the apparition. What is its significance, however? The answer is uncertain, but the opinion I favor is that it signifies the beginning of the Age of Mary. From 1830 onward, there have been a large number of approved Marian apparitions, and they have taken place on every continent. There has been many extraordinarily Marian saints: St. Maximilian, St. Pio, Bl. Mother Teresa and Bl. John Paul II are the most obvious examples. This period has also seen many Marian popes.
What is the point of this Age of Mary? Centuries ago, many saints spoke of such an age eventually arriving. In this time, the greatest saints will live and will combat the many terrible evils of their age. As the world becomes more turbulent and hostile, the saints God raises up will be more heroic than ever. At its climax, the Age of Mary will see the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart, when most of the world will finally be converted. It will be a time of peace for the world, and holiness for its inhabitants. This is the time St. Louis de Montfort yearned for when he said, “When will souls breathe Mary as the body breathes air?” There is no definitive proof that this is the meaning of “1830” on the medal, but I hold it tentatively as a pious opinion.
When I was a friar, my favorite parts of the habit were the Miraculous Medal, worn over the heart, and the Holy Rosary. Every friar valued the Miraculous Medal immensely (knowledgable as we were, in the thought of St. Maximilian Kolbe), and was eager to give them to as many people as possible. These medals are “bullets” in the battle for souls.