The Annunciation. Copy after Antonella da Messina (ca. 1430-1479). Antonello da Saliba (ca.1466-1535) / Cameraphoto Arte, Venice / Art Resource, NY
Last summer, I met a very nice heretic at the community pool. A polite Presbyterian who was curious about my Catholic faith, she asked why Catholics worship the Virgin Mary. I explained that we do not worship Mary, but that we do venerate her as the most humble and exalted 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,” I said. “This is because Jesus Christ, God’s Son, took his human flesh from Mary and from no one else. Therefore, he looked like Mary. He was, in a sense, 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.
Although it may sound harsh to call this nice Presbyterian at the pool a heretic, she simply did not hold the orthodox, historical understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation. She believed a faulty, partial truth, and that’s precisely what a heresy is. A heresy is not a total lie. It is a firmly held half-truth.
MARY, MOTHER OF GOD
Presbyterian convert and author Kimberly Hahn once said that 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 the Blessed Virgin Mary are among 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 conversation with the woman 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, we state that Mary is Mother of God or Theotokos (“God-bearer”). This title, given to Mary at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431, was the result of debates in the Church about the true identity of Jesus Christ. To defend the understanding 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 and also fully divine.
St. Paul states, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman …” (Gal 4:4). Notice that he says born “of” a woman, not “through” a woman. The person of Jesus was fully human because he received his fleshly existence from his mother “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed. At the same time, 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 that Mary was a virgin when she conceived the Christ child, but she would likely assume that Mary went on to have more children with St. Joseph. Catholic tradition says otherwise.
To understand why the early Christians believed that Mary never had marital relations with Joseph, we must first see how they understood the virtue of virginity.
Virginity is more than never experiencing sexual intercourse. Instead, Mary’s virginity is a total purity linked to her complete “yes” to God’s will. This positive understanding of virginity explains why Church Fathers refer to Mary as the “new Eve,” just as Jesus is the “new Adam.” Mary’s “yes” reverses Eve’s “no.” Receiving a unique virginal fruitfulness, Mary gave birth to the Son of God and became the true “mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20).
This does not mean that sexual intimacy between a man and wife is sinful. But in the unique case of the Holy Family, Joseph completely respected Mary’s virginity.
Finally, people sometimes object by pointing out Scriptural references to Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” (cf. Mk 3:31-35; 6:3). Yet, these instances can also refer to close relatives, rather than siblings; this is how they have historically been understood.
LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING
Once the early Christians began to understand Mary’s purity, they naturally asked when this began. If Mary was the new Eve, she needed to face the choice to sin or not to sin, completely free of any kind of bias.
However, human beings are born with original sin, and part of this curse is the tendency to make the wrong choice. Because of this inclination toward sin, known as concupiscence, our free will is subject to selfish attachments and desires. To have a completely free choice, Mary had to be free of concupiscence and preserved from original sin in some way. Echoing the angel’s greeting, sacred tradition has recognized Mary as “full of grace.”
When did her graced existence begin? It must have begun when her life began. This dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches that from the moment of Mary’s conception, which took place in the natural way between her parents Anne and Joachim, she was uniquely preserved from the stain of original sin.
Protestants will object that all people Mary included fall short of the glory of God and need a redeemer (cf. Rom 3:23). Catholics agree. The dogma states that Mary was redeemed by the sacrifice of her Son on the cross, saved retroactively from original sin “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.” In a similar way, the Old Testament saints were saved by Christ even though they died before his coming.
THE GREAT ASSUMPTION
Some people claim the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a false assumption of the Catholic Church. However, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption body and soul into heaven is an ancient belief that is related to the other beliefs we hold about Our Lady.
If Mary was preserved from original sin, then, like Christ, she experienced that purity and power in her whole being. Our bodies and souls are an integrated whole, and Mary experienced this unity in an incomparable way. At the end of her earthly life, by a special grace, both her body and soul were taken up into heaven.
The Scriptures teach that our bodies will one day be resurrected through the power of Christ’s resurrection. Mary’s glorious Assumption is a glorious glimpse of our final destiny in Christ. Because of sin, our bodies will decay and return to dust, but at the final resurrection we will share in the glories that Mary experienced when her earthly journey was complete.
CROWN HER WITH MANY CROWNS
The Church teaches that after Mary’s Assumption, she was crowned as the Queen of Heaven. To appreciate this fully, we have to understand the role of the queen mother in ancient Israel. In ancient society, the role of queen fell not to a king’s wife but to his mother, who interceded on behalf of the people.
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, then that makes his mother, Mary, the queen mother.
In the Book of Revelation we read: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, … and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1). She gives birth to a child “destined to rule all the nations” who “was caught up to God and his throne” (12:5). The royal son is clearly Jesus, and so his royal mother can be none other than Mary.
Catholics and Protestants are not so different from one another. We Catholics affirm what they affirm; we just don’t deny what they deny. Whereas they have what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” we want “more Christianity” that is, the fullness of Christianity.
This “more” includes the fullness of the doctrines about the Virgin Mary. Catholics love 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: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).
Catholics love Mary because she points them to Jesus. Indeed, without Mary, Jesus would not 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?”
FATHER DWIGHT LONGENECKER is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C., where he is a member of Msgr. Andrew K. Gwynn Council 1668. His latest book is The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty (Thomas Nelson, 2014) and his website is dwightlongenecker.com