NOTE: When we begin to talk about Mary in Catholic tradition we must first begin by understanding that every belief or teaching we hold about her is so and has been pronounced because of who her son was/is. In other words, every Marian teaching is, at its heart, a Christological teaching. Apart from her vocation as the Mother of God and of our Savior, Mary would have no significant meaning for our faith. It is because of her vocation and role in our own story of salvation that we reverence her. To worship Mary would be a sin and a heresy but to fail to reverence Mary would also be a sin in the Catholic view.
With that in mind, let us consider some of what Catholics believe about Mary:
A. Mary, Mother of our Savior and Mother of us All
The first assertion that Mary is the mother of our savior is something that no Christian would object to. This is clearly outlined in scripture. However, there are many who object to the 2nd assertion that Mary is also our mother even though this is also revealed in scripture. Consider Romans 8:15-17. Paul tells us that it is the Holy Spirit, the “spirit of adoption” that allows us to call God “Abba father” and to count ourselves as children of God and coheirs with Christ (our elder brother). If all that is true, then we not only share the same father (God) but also the same mother Mary. This is a consequence of adoption. See also Galatians 4:5-7 where Paul reminds us that we are no longer slaves but adopted children or Ephesians 1:5 which says the same. The fact that early Christians understood this idea of Mary as our common mother is clear from a number of writings reflecting on John 19:26-27. Jesus looks down from the cross and sees “his beloved disciple” and his mother Mary and says “behold your mother” / “behold your son”. Early believers considered it significant that John’s proper name was not used there but instead the term “beloved disciple” was used because they said this was the moment where that adoption was completed. Anyone who counts themselves a disciple of Jesus receives his mother as their own. And what do the Ten Commandments teach us? Honor your father and your mother. Catholics believe we are called to honor both our earthly parents and our spiritual ones.
B. Mary, Mother of God
This next assertion raises even more objections from some Christian circles. The argument goes something like this: If Mary were the mother of God this would seem to imply that God was created and that Mary was, in fact, God and therefore, it sounds like the Church has gone too far. What is the problem is that objection sounds like the same one raised by Arians in the early centuries but for different reasons. Arians believed Jesus was God’s greatest creature and prophet but not God because there was only one God (we agree) but if Jesus was also divine as Yahweh was divine then it would seem that there were two gods. “Not so” said the early Church but before they could begin to solidify their teaching on the Trinity they first had to insist that Jesus was in fact divine. One way they made their point was to announce, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD that Mary was the Mother of God. This announcement had less to do with honoring Mary and more to do with affirming Jesus’ divinity…that he was God the 2nd person of the Trinity…And if Jesus was God and Mary was the mother of Jesus then by the law of substitution and pure logic, Mary was the mother of God.
C. Mary, Mother of the Church
In 1st Corinthians, Paul described the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. Metaphorically, it only makes sense then that Mary would also be seen as mother of the Church, the Body of Christ in the same way that she gave birth to Christ in the flesh. We refer back to John 19:26-27 and the early understanding of Mary as mother of all the faithful. But there is another sense in which Mary is a type of the Church. Her vocation was not only to give birth to Jesus but to pass on the faith to him, nurture him and see him strengthened to later take on his public ministry. Jesus was formed in her womb and she continued to form him spiritually after he was born. She still has the same vocation for the younger, adopted siblings of Jesus (us)…to help form us as other Christs for the world. Her final words in the Bible are “Do as he tells you to do”. She acts as a role model in this goal as the first Christian and evangelist, etc. As went Mary’s life so goes the life of the Church. The Church plays the same motherly role Mary played and it is why she is considered a type of the Church and why the Church is always referred to in the feminine. The Church gives birth to us (baptism), feeds and nurtures us (the Eucharist and catechetical teaching) and strengthens us (Confirmation).
D. Mary”s Unique Relationship to the Trinity and Mary as Image of Zion
No human being or creature (including the angels) has a more intimate relationship to the Trinity than Mary. As a sinless and faithful Jew she was a unique daughter to the Father / Yahweh. She was mother to the Son. And she was spouse of the Holy Spirit, conceiving by the Holy Spirit’s power. Mary was present at Pentecost but own personal Pentecost took place at the Annunciation. For this reason, in the Old Testament, Mary is the unique embodiment of Zion who is always described as either daughter or bride and always in feminine terms. This continues to be true in the New Testament, for that matter, since the new Church is also described as the spotless bride. Therefore Mary is a sign of hope and first fruits, second only to her Son, in showing the faithful what awaits those who remain true to the end.
E. Mary, The Immaculate Conception
The Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception states that, through a unique grace, Mary was conceived “full of grace”, without original sin and that this grace allowed her to live a sinless life. We believe that Jesus was sinless because of his nature (He was God) and Mary was sinless because of God’s grace which makes her unlike any other Christian ever to live. However, this grace of the Immaculate Conception has more to do with who God is than who Mary is. We believe that when God calls a person to a particular vocation he also provides them with the grace to succeed faithfully in that calling. A priest is given the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders to live out that vocation. A married person is given the grace of the sacrament of Matrimony to live out that vocation, etc. No one can ever say “God, you set me up for failure!” Our failures are our own. Mary was given the most difficult and important vocation ever received by a human…to be the Mother of God. For that reason, she was also given the greatest grace to live that vocation out and Catholics believe that she succeeded as the “single solitary boast” of humanity. This teaching comes from Catholic tradition but there are a number of hints in sacred scripture that point to this teaching as well…
1. The Proto-Gospel / Genesis 3:15 – God speaks judgment against the serpent after The Fall, saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head while you strike at his heel.” The word translated “enmity” in English Bibles in Hebrew means “complete opposition to”. In other words, this “woman” mentioned cannot be Eve because Eve sinned /cooperated with the serpent who is Satan. Even committing one sin in life would disqualify a person from this job description of complete enmity. Mary the Immaculate Conception is the fulfillment of this prophecy because she never sinned and her “offspring”, who also has complete enmity with the serpent, is Jesus.
2. The Annunciation / Luke 1:28 – When the archangel Gabriel greets Mary at the Annunciation, he does not say “Hail Mary, full of grace” as our famous Catholic prayer might suggest. He actually greets her with, “Hail FULL OF GRACE” using the term “full of grace” not as a descriptor but as a proper name. A better translation might be “overflowing with grace” or “a super-abundance of grace”. Sin results when we reject God’s grace and causes us to fall short but Mary the Immaculate Conception was, is, and has always been “full of grace”.
3. Marian Typology
F. More on The Annunciation and the Visitation…
Because of God’s grace Mary was able to respond with her Fiat…”May it be done to me according to your word”. In this event she became the first Christian…the first human to hear the Good News. And how did she respond to this news…By becoming the first Christian evangelist/missionary as well. She carried the Good News to her cousin Elizabeth. Here she prays the famous Magnificat prayer under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The name comes from the first line of that inspired prayer (Luke 1:46) “My soul proclaims/magnifies the greatness of the Lord”. This well describes her life and vocation. She also says in 1:48 that “All generations will call me blessed”. We are part of that “all generations” prophecy so as Catholics and other Christians honor Mary, we are a living fulfillment of that prophecy.
G. The Dormition and Assumption of Mary and her Crowning as Queen of Heaven and Earth
As a direct result of her Immaculate Conception and sinless life and her vocation as Mother of Jesus, Mary’s last days on earth were as unique as her first ones. Scripture tells us that “the wages of sin are death” (Romans 6:23) but if Mary was preserved from sin by God’s grace, then it was not necessary for her to die. Also, we believe as Catholics in the resurrection of the dead just as Jesus was raised on Easter. We hold that death is the temporary separation of body and soul but that in the end there will be a new heavens and a new earth and our bodies will be raised again in glorified form. For us, we will have to wait until the end of time for this to occur but Mary did not have to wait. We believe, as a special honor bestowed on her by God, that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven and that the body that carried our divine Savior within her for nine months of pregnancy should not know decay. Finally, we view Mary as queen because her son is “king of kings and lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). If he is king of the universe, then according to the tradition of King David, the Jews and Middle Eastern culture in general, Mary is Queen of the universe. This was the case because ancient kings always had many wives but only one mother. And this is just another way in which Jesus fulfilled the commandments …”honor thy father and thy MOTHER”. And in the book of Revelation (ch. 12) we receive confirmation of this when we hear of the appearance of “the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”.