Some time ago I was asked to write this article for the Knights of Columbus magazine. Its worth publishing again here, this week after celebrating the new Marian feast of Mary, Mother of the Church
Last summer I met a very nice heretic at the community pool.
She was a polite Presbyterian who was curious about my Catholic faith. She asked why we Catholics worship the Virgin Mary.
I explained that we did not worship Mary, but we did venerate her as the highest of all God’s creatures.
She was still alarmed at this idea, so I tried to explain further: “You see, when you really stop to think who Jesus is and who Mary is, then you’ll understand that she is totally unique. This is because Jesus Christ God’s Son took his human flesh from Mary and from no one else. Therefore, when you think about it, he looked like Mary. He was a masculine form of Mary.”
The poor woman nearly choked on her Dr Pepper. “Why no!” she protested. “That’s not true! Jesus didn’t take his human flesh from Mary!”
“What do you think happened?”
“I’m not sure.” she stammered. “I think Jesus just sort of ‘came through’ Mary.”
“So she was a conduit or a channel for him to come from heaven into the world?”
“That’s right!” she smiled brightly.
The nice Presbyterian at the pool was a heretic because she did not hold to the orthodox, historical understanding of the doctrine of the incarnation. She believed a faulty, partial truth, and that’s what a heresy is. A heresy is not a total lie. It is a firmly held half truth.
Mary Mother of God
Famous Presbyterian convert Kimberly Hahn said there were three problems that kept her from becoming Catholic: “Mary, Mary and Mary.” In order to defend the Catholic faith we have to understand it fully and clearly. Our beliefs about Mary are one of the most misunderstood aspects of Catholicism.
What we believe about Mary is linked with what we believe about Jesus Christ. That is why, in my discussion with the Presbyterian at the pool I began the discussion about Jesus and the nature of his relationship to his mother. Once that becomes clear, the other doctrines about Mary follow logically.
First of all, we state that Mary is Mother of God. This title for Mary was granted at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. It was the result of debates in the church about the true identity of Jesus Christ. To defend the full definition of Jesus as God incarnate–the second person of the Holy Trinity in human form it was necessary to affirm that Jesus was fully human while also fully divine.
Galatians 4:4 says “in the fullness of time God sent forth his son born of a woman.” It says born “of” a woman, not “through” a woman. Jesus was fully human because he took the fullness of human flesh from his mother Mary. As he did so he remained fully divine. Therefore we say that Mary is the Mother of God.
Once and Always a Virgin
The Presbyterian at the pool would agree with Catholics that Mary was a virgin when she conceived the Christ child, but she would assume that Mary went on to have more children by Saint Joseph. Catholics disagree.
To understand why the early Christians suggested that Mary never had marital relations with Joseph we must see how they understood the virtue of virginity. Virginity is more than simply a negative definition. It is more than just someone who has never experienced sexual intercourse. Instead Mary’s virginity was seen as a character trait. She was totally and completely pure. She was as innocent as a child and remained innocent as a child.
This perpetual innocence or virginity is tied up with seeing her as the second Eve. Irenaeus–a theologian from the second century in France, was one of the first to affirm that Mary was the second Eve. As such she did not fall into sin and remained as innocent as Eve. Her purity and innocence was preserved to the end of her life, and part of this is that she did not have relations with a man.
Does that mean sex is a sin? No. Sex between a man and wife is not a sin, but in this unique situation Joseph did not have relations with Mary because of her complete innocence. When you realize she retained her innocence like a child you will understand why Joseph did not touch her.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
Once the early Christians began to understand the complete and full innocence of Mary, they naturally asked why this had to be and when it began. If Mary was the second Eve she needed to face the choice to sin or not to sin.
However, that choice had to be completely free of any kind of bias. Every other human being is born with original sin, and part of this curse is the tendency to make the wrong choice. This inclination toward sin is called ‘concupiscence’. Because of concupiscence our choices are not completely free. To have a completely free choice Mary had to be free of original sin and concupiscence.
Mary must have been preserved from original sin in some way. If this was the case, when did her innocence begin? It must have begun when her life began.
When did her life begin? It began at her conception. This dogma teaches that from the moment of her conception, (which took place in the natural way between her parents Anna and Joachim) Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin.
Protestants will protest that the Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that therefore all people–Mary included–need a redeemer. Catholics agree. We say that Mary was redeemed by the sacrifice of her son on the cross, and that this happened retroactively–saving her from original sin in the same way the Old Testament saints were saved by Christ even though they had died before his coming.
The Great Assumption
Is the Assumption of Mary into heaven an assumption to far? We go on to understand that if Mary was preserved from original sin, then she did not suffer from the effects of sin. One of the effects is aging. That’s why in medieval artistic portrayals of Mary cradling the dead Jesus Mary does not look as old as she should be.
Mary’s body grew to adult proportions, but she remained in her innocent state and did not age naturally. Neither did she die or her body suffer corruption in the tomb.
Instead, when she came to the end of her earthly life she was transported body and soul into the heavenly realm. This belief does not have any clear statement in the Bible, but the ancient tradition that this is what happened was held for centuries and finally defined as a dogma in the 1950s.
Crown Her With Many Crowns
After Mary was assumed into heaven we believe that she was crowned as the Queen of Heaven. To understand fully we have to understand the role of the Queen Mother in ancient Israel.
As the King of an ancient society often had many wives, it fell to his mother to exercise the role of Queen. The Queen Mother interceded for people with the king.
At the Annunciation the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that her son would be the heir of the great King David, and that his kingdom would have no end. If Jesus is the King of the Kingdom, then that makes his mother Mary the Queen Mother.
Mary is seen as the Queen of Heaven in Revelation chapter 12 where a great sign is revealed from heaven–a woman crowned with stars with the moon beneath her feet. Her son is the one who “rules with a rod of iron.” The royal son is clearly Jesus, and so his royal mother can be none other than Mary.
The Catholic faith is not so different from the Protestant religion. We affirm what they affirm, we just don’t deny what they deny. They have what C.S.Lewis called “mere Christianity” we want “More Christianity.”
The “more” includes the fullness of the doctrines about the Virgin Mary. Catholics love the Lord Jesus, but we love his mother too. Our beliefs reveal who Mary really is–the greatest of God’s created beings. More importantly, Mary always points to her son saying, “Do what he tells you.”
Catholics love Mary because she points them to Jesus. Indeed, without Mary Jesus would never have been born. Therefore I sometimes say to people like the Presbyterian at the pool, “You could never have had Jesus without Mary, so why do you want to have Jesus without Mary?”