The more I get to know her Mary as my Mother, the more I love her. True love of someone is based on knowledge of him or her. With that in mind, this might be a good opportunity to refresh our knowledge of the person of Mary, as recorded doctrinally in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
(Note: This article might be longer than you’d normally read on Amazing Catechists, it’s more like 4 articles in one given its subject. But it’s purpose is to collect all this information in one place.)
All four of the Marian dogmas divinely reveal something of Mary’s personhood. Each truth helps us understand her role in salvation history.
The dogmas, in the order that they were declared as truth by the Church, are: Mary as the Mother of God, Mary as a Perpetual Virgin (“ever-virgin”), Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary, body and soul, into heaven.
Growing up Catholic, I never doubted the validity of these dogmas. That is to say, until I met well-meaning Christians who just couldn’t buy what the Church was selling about Mary. In other words, I began to have my doubts about her too.
Sometimes those kinds of challenges are what we need to set us in the right direction. For me, I thought since the Church held most of these ideas for thousands of years, it might be worthy of some investigation. (And this was years before we had the Catechism in the form we have it today.) I needed to get to the truth of what was taught about Mary, the real person behind the serene-looking statue.
Mary as Mother of God
One of the first attacks made on Mary by the naysayers I encountered was that, indeed, Mary was the mother of Jesus… but certainly not the Mother of God. Little did I know that this was exactly the heresy the Church was trying to combat way back in the fifth century (431 AD) at the Council of Ephesus, when it declared Mary, the “Theotokos”, or “God-bearer”, hence, “Mother of God.”
The Council of Ephesus, while correcting this heresy, was confirming what was already revealed in the New Testament writings, which reveal Mary as the Mother of God. Luke 1: 31, 35 give us Gabriel’s words to Mary at the Annunciation:
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. [Emphasis mine.]
Other scripture passages reveal Mary as the mother of Jesus, who, we know to be the God-Man. (See Mt. 2:13, Jn. 2:1, Acts 1:14.) And St. Paul vividly describes Mary’s role in the Incarnation inGalatians 4:4:
“But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…” [Emphasis mine.]
Even before Ephesus, Tradition formulated the words of the creed that declared: “[Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”
When the Council of Ephesus decreed Mary as the Mother of God, it reaffirmed the two natures of Christ found in one Person: that Jesus is both human and divine. (Later known as the “hypostatic union.”) Anything outside of that unity makes Jesus into two persons, one human and one divine, which is heresy. So we see in this instance, how a Marian doctrine actually flows from and protects the truth about her Son!
You can read more about this in CCC 466 and 495, but it all summed up rather nicely in CCC 509:
Mary is truly “Mother of God” since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God himself.
You may recall this overarching guideline regarding “all things Mary” from CCC 487 and Part 1 of Mary in the Catechism:
What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.
The dogma about Mary’s perpetual virginity maintains that Mary was ever a virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Christ. It is often here that Mary’s critics take exception, given our modern understanding of biology and human reproduction.
A virgin before birth. The prophet Isaiah 7:14 foretold it:
“Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel.”
And the New Testament (Luke 1: 26-27) confirms it:
“The angel Gabriel was sent from God… to a virgin betrothed… and the virgin’s name was Mary.”And then there is the dialogue between Mary and the angel at the annunciation that leads to the miraculous “overshadowing” of Mary by the power of God. (Luke1:35.)
Tradition also reaffirms this in the Apostles’ Creed: “Born of the Virgin Mary.”
A virgin during the birth. CCC 499 reiterates, what the Second Vatican Council had previous taught:
The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.
Put another way, the birth of Jesus was a miraculous birth, just as his conception miraculous. The “integrity” of Mary’s sinless body was never violated by this birth. This idea was held from the time of the early Church Fathers. Later, the Council of Trent (16thcentury) used this analogy to describe Christ’s birth: The newborn Christ came forth from the womb of Mary “as rays of the sun penetrate the substance of glass without breaking or injuring it in the least.”
It also follows that Mary’s childbirth would be exempt from pain, since she was a sinless creature (see “Immaculate Conception” below), and laboring in childbirth is a result of Original Sin (Gen. 3:16).
A virgin after the birth. Many people take issue with the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, given New Testament accounts that mention the supposed “siblings” of Jesus (Cf. Mk 3:31-35; 6:3; 1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19). The Catechism replies in paragraph 500:
Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus. The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, “brothers of Jesus”, are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls “the other Mary” They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.
Then, there are the words of Jesus from the cross giving Mary into the care of John (John 19:26-27). If Jesus had siblings, especially brothers, would not Mary’s care be entrusted to them? Instead, John takes Mary in.
I admit this one was a tough one for me to fully believe, at first. I could understand that Jesus was Mary’s only son, but I was not so sure about the lack of marital relations between Joseph and Mary. Wouldn’t a holy marriage be consummated? Not necessarily, so I learned.
I admit my sensibilities, formed in part by modern culture, had trouble understanding this idea of a holy marriage without the marital act. I needed more information. And I found it, in learning the importance of mutual understanding and consent in a marriage. Our modern catechism teaches that marriage is first based on an exchange of consent, and then, only then, it may be consummated physically. (See CCC 1639-1640.) But the consent is the heart of the marriage bond, not the consummation.
While the Catechism does not go into detail on this exact point of Mary and Joseph’s marriage, I offer this helpful explanation from Dr. Mark Miravalle’s Introduction to Mary, reflecting on their marital union:
Finally, some would argue that if the marriage between Mary and Joseph was never consummated, then it would not have been a true marriage or would have been unnatural. However, the essence of the marriage bond between husband and wife is their complete and unconditional gift of self and union of the heart, of which the physical union is a concrete sign. If for a good and holy reason husband and wife should choose to refrain from relations, either for a time or permanently (under exceptional circumstances), this would not invalidate a marriage or affect its true bond, which is rooted not in the physical but in the spiritual union of the spouses.
There are numerous examples in Scripture where God asks married couples to renounce [or abstain from] relations.
[See Ex 19:15; 1 Sam 21:15; 1 Cor 7:5.]
These scriptural examples show that when men and women are near what God has sanctified, it can be also appropriate for them to respond by giving themselves directly and undividedly to God. If in these cases it was fitting that men and women should remain abstinent, it can hardly be surprising that present before the great miracle of the Incarnation, Mary and Joseph chose to remain permanently virginal as well.
CCC 506 alludes to Mary’s faith and undivided heart here:
Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith unadulterated by any doubt, and of her undivided gift of herself to God’s will. It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: [St. Augustine taught:] “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ.”
The Immaculate Conception
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was finally promulgated in 1854… but the seeds of it are found much earlier in a careful reading of scripture. When the Angel addresses Mary at the Annunciation, he does not address her by her name. Instead, he uses the title “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” This title might as well be her name, for it describes Mary’s true nature; her person is full of grace. Notice that she is addressed as “full of grace”, even before the Angel announces that she will be asked to be the Mother of God.
Know anyone that fits that description? Nope. She’s the only one. The rest of humanity is fallen.
Mary’s detractors what to know what makes her so special? If she is human, she should be subject to all the pitfalls of humanity, and just as sinful are the rest of us, right? Not quite. There’s more to Mary’s story, and it takes a very careful reading for Scripture to parse it out. Not to mention 2000 years of biblical interpretation and theological reflection.
What’s sooooo special about Mary is her Immaculate Conception. And it means this: Mary was redeemed by the merits of her Son Jesus at Calvary – who is God – at her conception, so she never received a fallen nature. The nature she received was like that of Eve’s before the Fall. And recall, that after the fall, the Immaculate Conception is implied, theologians say, in this verse from Genesis 3:15, that speaks of a woman to come:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
This is why we have references to Mary as the “new Eve.” And why St. Jerome (4th century) taught this about Mary: “Death through Eve, life through Mary.” CCC 508 states:
From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace”, Mary is the most excellent fruit of redemption: from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.
Mary, we might say, is the first person redeemed, by an application of the grace of Christ’s victory over sin and death on the Cross. And her sinless, loving heart, allowed her the perfect response to God’s call on her life: “Yes!”
Blessed Duns Scotus (d. 1308) called it “preservative redemption.” Preservative redemption addressed this question of Mary’s redemption taking place before her Son was even born. Huh? The short of it is this: God, the Creator of time, is also Lord over time, and can work outside of time. And God can apply his graces throughout history (time) as He deems fit. Therefore, God, in his divine plan of salvation, willed that Mary would be saved first, in her humanity, by the application of the graces won on the Cross for humanity by her Son, Jesus… providing a perfectly pure temple for the Holy Spirit to later “overshadow” and allow the Son of God to take on flesh in a sinless womb.
Whew! Got all that?
This is what the Catechism says in CCC 491 and 492:
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.The splendor of an entirely unique holiness by which Mary is enriched from the first instant of her conception comes wholly from Christ: she is redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son. The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places and chose her in Christ before the foundation of theworld, to be holy and blameless before him in love.
(If you are still reading this far, especially after trying to understand the depth of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption is almost easy to understand!)
We start back to Genesis 3:15 (above) where the enmity between the woman and the serpent represents the past (Eve) and the future (Mary) who will share in the victory of her Son over the Devil.
As we know, the effects of Original Sin were sin and death. Jesus, by his Cross and Resurrection has set us free from both. And by his merits, we see this perfected in the person of Mary. First, her Immaculate Conception shows how Jesus conquered sin, and by his grace, preserved her from Original Sin. Second, we see how Mary’s Assumption, is a particular grace awarded to Mary, so she, who is sinless, does not undergo bodily corruption at the end of her earthly life.
The Assumption of Mary is a natural consequence of the Immaculate Conception. And, it is a unique privilege that the Son affords his Mother.
CCC 966 teaches:
Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.Finally, Mary’s assumption serves as an eschatological sign (pointing to things to come in the afterlife)… she reminds us of the perfected Church we will become in heaven, as she is an icon of the Church both now and in the future.
CCC 972 states:
The Mother of Jesus, in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise she shines forth on earth until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God.
Mariology (the study of Mary) is a discreet field of study within theology. There is so much more that could be said on all these dogma. Today’s lesson is but a taste.
But I pray that you will come to love Mary in a deeper way, as you see just how intimately her life is bound to the life and grace of her Son, Jesus. Mary has no power in and of herself, save what comes to through Jesus. By way of a final analogy… if Jesus is the sun, Mary is the moon… always reflecting Him!
©2009 Patricia W. Gohn