“Mary, Mary, quite contrary” is what some could call the one who is so misunderstood in her various titles: Mother of God; the Immaculate Conception, Mary Ever-Virgin and others. Far from worshipping Mary the Church highly venerates Mary as the fairest among creatures. Let’s unpack these and see where it is that Mary fits in with Catholic teaching.
Mary as Theotokos/Mother of God: Many non-Catholics want to know, “How could Mary have given birth to God – doesn’t that make her better than God?” “Mary only gave birth to Jesus’ humanity”.
Well, let’s see. In the 5th century the patriarch of Constantinople named Nestorius made the claim that there were two persons – human and divine – in the one man Jesus Christ. His followers (Nestorians) rejected the title of Mary as Theotokos (mother of God) and insisted that Mary be call Christotokos (Christ-bearer) instead. Yet Jesus is not two persons in the one man, Jesus but rather possesses two natures – fully human and fully divine at one and the same time. One was not absorbed into the other (the heresy Arianism claims that Jesus was not divine and the heresy Monophysitism says that Jesus’ humanity was fully absorbed into his divinity – like sugar in a cup of coffee).
Nestorius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. At the earlier Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 the Nicaean Creed had been promulgated. In it is the assertion is that Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”. Since this is so, then Mary must be considered the Mother of God for this declaration tells us who Jesus is. The Catholic Church does not make the claim that Mary is the Mother of God from all eternity – nor is she the mother of the Holy Spirit. She is, however, the Mother of God the Son – in time. To deny her the title of Mother of God is to deny Jesus his rightful title – true God and true man. Note: There was never a time when Jesus was not divine, but rather from the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb he took upon himself a human nature.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception: Protestants ask the question, “didn’t Mary herself admit to her need of ‘God her savior?’ Doesn’t this mean that she sinned?” Let’s look at it. Here the Greek for Savior is Swthr…Soter — which means both “deliverer” (as in to deliver from after the fact) and “preserver” (as in one who preserves from before the fact). If you fall and I help you up, I have “saved” you – after the fact. If you trip and I catch you before you fall, I have still “saved” you – but, again, before you fall.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception is not at all about her greatness, as if she did anything to merit something; rather, the doctrine is about God’s immense, singular act of mercy. At the Annunciation to Mary, she was greeted by the angel as Kecharitomene (Κεχαριτομενε). The middle part, “charitoo” means “grace”; the “ke” part in front of it means something accomplished in the past but still ongoing now. An example is someone like Danielle Steele who is a noted author (past tense in noted) but is still currently active/on-going and popular. Now add the “mene” part of the term and it refers to something done to Mary – not done of her own accord. It is all God’s work in Mary – not any grand accomplishment of her own. The emphasis must be on God’s work…his mercy. Why bestow such a grace on Mary? It was God himself who desired to become one like us and thus chose to be born like us. Mary is often referred to as the new Ark of the Covenant for in her body was the Word become flesh. In the Old Testament the Word of God (meticulously hand-written on the scrolls) was to be placed in an ark made of acacia wood which God himself commanded to “overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out” (Ex. 25:11). How much more, then, should the Word made flesh reside in an ark (womb) made out of the gold of purity and virginity? Full of grace – it is what we shall all be in heaven for “nothing impure shall enter into it” (Rev. 21:27).
And while it is indeed all about God’s generous gift of grace to Mary, it is not anything that he imposes on her. Rather, the angel Gabriel awaited Mary’s “yes” as did all of the heavenly hosts. What God found attractive about Mary to begin with was her openness to receive. In his book entitled Jesus: A Historical Portrait, (the late) Jesuit Father Daniel J. Harrington says that in the various episodes of Mary in the life of Jesus, she is described as “one who accepts the word of God and believes that it is being fulfilled in her…” (p. 54). It was Mary’s openness to God’s word and her willingness to receive it that led to her holiness and allowed her to grow in Grace. She was able to recognize that, because of God’s choice of her in her lowliness to bear His Son, she was able to proclaim, “from this day all generations will call me Blessed” (Lk 1:48) – but again…not because of any accomplishment on her part but because of God’s great mercy toward her.
The steps to holiness that we should use in order to be like Mary are three-fold: Mary first received the word of God and welcomed it into her heart (“Be it done unto me according to your word” Lk. 1:38); she then believed that word after pondering it in her heart (“Blessed are you who believed” Lk. 1:45). From there the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she conceived in her womb. Three steps – receive, believe and conceive. While we won’t conceive in our bodies in the way Mary did, we are all called – male and female – to conceive in our hearts and to bring forth Christ in our midst. It’s what each of the saints did.
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity: What many Protestants do not realize is that the three great fathers of the Protestant Reformation were firm believers in Mary’s perpetual virginity….their own followers are the ones who drifted away from their teachings. From Martin Luther (the German Reformer and best known) to Hulrych Zwingli (the Swiss reformer who preceded Luther) and Jean Cauvin (John Calvin, the French reformer who sought to find middle ground between Zwingli and Luther for they were often at odds with each other) – each insisted on the perpetual virginity of Mary. From Luther: “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin. … Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact.” From Calvin: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin”. See http://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/maryc2.htm
But didn’t Jesus have brothers and sisters according to the gospels? No. Here’s why. We know that 40 days after the birth of Jesus Mary and Joseph were required to go to the Temple to redeem Jesus according to the Law of Moses. The prayer Joseph was to recite during this rite starts with the line, “This is my firstborn son born of this woman” Since this ceremony was only for those firstborn males who opened the womb we know for certain that Mary had no other children – male or female – before Jesus. At the foot of the cross, Jesus deliberately places his mother into the care of his apostle John; if Jesus had younger siblings Jewish law would have demanded that he place his mother into their care. As far as the terms brothers and sisters, there are still plenty of cultures who live within extended families and call all cousins, nieces and nephews brothers and sisters. Luke himself used a term called circumlocution in describing Paul’s nephew as “the son of Paul’s sister” (Acts 23:16).
The Church does not worship Mary – rather, she highly esteems her…venerates. The term used for veneration of the saints is “dulia”… “hyper-dulia” for Mary while the term for worship is “latria” – a term never used to describe Mary – only God Most High. The Church invites us to be like Mary – to receive, believe, conceive and so to bearing forth Christ to a world who is thirsting for him and to ponder all these things in our hearts so that we, too, may sing our Magnificat of Praise to the thrice-holy God (Lk 1:46-55). Have you written your Magnificat yet?