“Here is your mother.”
The following is an introduction to Mary. I will review the four dogmas of the Catholic Church regarding Mary and seek to respond to some criticisms of Mariology in Catholic theology. Finally, I will show how Mary remains a model for Catholics.
Mary of Nazareth
About fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee, in the northern district of present-day Israel, is the city of Nazareth. At the time of Mary’s birth, around 18 BC. BC, Nazareth had no more than four hundred inhabitants. Mary’s parents (Saints Joachim and Anne) were so devout that at the age of three, Mary dedicated herself to God.
Mary was probably only twelve or thirteen when she became engaged to Joseph, a carpenter and devout Jew. This engagement would mark one of the most remarkable events in history.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we read that the angel Gabriel visits Mary and greets her with the now well-known verse, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
Although this event gives rise to the Incarnation of Christ, it is worth examining what Gabriel’s greeting means. A succinct definition of grace is that it is the presence of God. Thus, the angel recognizes that God is present in Mary. Please note that this does not suggest that Mary is God, only that God works in Mary.
Moreover, Mary is “full of grace”, full of the presence of God. And where God is present, there can be no sin. This fact leads to an important theological doctrine in Catholicism.
The Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception refers to the doctrine that Mary was born without original sin. The basis of this doctrine comes from the sense of grace. If Mary was “full of grace”, she did not suffer the privation that is sin. This absence of sin is significant since original sin is transmitted by the parents. The fact that Mary was sinless allowed her to be the perfect vessel to give birth to the Messiah. Indeed, it is Mary’s sinless nature that allows her to become the Ark of the New Covenant.
The Ark of the (Old) Covenant was a chest containing, among other things, the Ten Commandments. (See Exodus 25:22 and Numbers 10:33). The Ten Commandments were central to the law of the Old Covenant. Since Jesus is bearer of the New Covenant, it is appropriate to consider Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.
More commonly, however, Mary is known as the mother of God. It is to this title that I turn next.
Can God have a mother?
It is not the purpose of the exhibition to defend the existence of God or even that Jesus is God. However, a question arises. If God is the first eternal cause of creation, how can Mary be called the mother of God?
To deal with this subject properly, we must delve into Christology. Specifically, we need to understand the hypostatic union. Although a subject rich in itself, the hypostatic union refers to the doctrine that Jesus possessed two natures, one divine and one human. Jesus, as God, endowed himself with a human nature while retaining his divine nature.
Although Jesus exists eternally, by giving birth to Jesus, Mary is aptly called Theotokos or “God-bearer” in Greek. Theotokos is translated into Latin as Mater Dei. The English translation of Mater Dei is “mother of God”.
The Catholic Church maintains that Mary was a virgin before and after the birth of Christ. This dogma is intended to highlight the unique character of the Incarnation. Vatican II reiterated the teaching on Mary stating that the birth of Christ did not diminish Mary’s virginal integrity but sanctified her (see Lumen gentium 57).
There are two aspects of the virgin birth that I will discuss here. The first is the effect of original sin on childbirth. In Genesis 3:16, God informs Eve of the punishment for original sin: “I will intensify the pangs of your pregnancy; in pain you will bear children. Yet, if Mary is “full of grace”, she is exempt from original sin and its effects, including the pains of childbirth.
The second aspect of this dogma is the actual birth of Jesus. If Jesus’ conception was miraculous, so must Jesus’ birth. Analogously, Jesus came into the world the same way He entered the upper room after the Resurrection (See Luke 24:36). Just as Jesus entered the upper room in a remarkable way, he also enters the world.
The Mary hypothesis refers to the belief that Mary was taken body and soul to Heaven. Similar to the virgin birth, the hypothesis is based on the belief that Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin.
Since death is an effect of original sin (Romans 5:12listen)) and since Mary was preserved from sin, it is believed that Mary was raised to heaven at the end of her life. This leads to the question of whether Mary experienced death or was taken to heaven while she was alive. The consensus in Catholic theology is that she died, but not as a result of original sin. On the contrary, Mary chose death to conform to her Son. (See Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus).
Do Catholics worship Mary?
A relatively common criticism of Catholics is that they place Mary on an equal footing with God. This objection occurs primarily when prayer is confused with worship.
Worship is an act of worship due to God alone. On the other hand, prayer is a form of communication, often in the form of petition or thanksgiving. Thus, prayer can be addressed to created creatures as well as to the creator. (See Summa Theologiae (II-II, q. 103, a. 4; III, q. 25, a. 5).
The purpose of praying to Mary often involves seeking her guidance and assistance. Often too, Catholics pray to Mary to intercede with God on our behalf. (See “Raising the heart to heaven”)
A model of humanity
To be Catholic is to be a disciple of Christ. No human being has ever better illustrated this than Mary. For this reason, Mary models the paths of consecrated life. To be consecrated to God is to avoid worldly possessions, to be pure in heart, and to obey God. Mary gives us examples of each.
As evidenced by her birth in a stable, Mary’s poverty reminds us that we are only sojourners in this world.
In a world obsessed with sexuality, chastity is that virtue which makes the heart pure. Purity of heart concerns our motives. Are we prayerful and generous because we love God, or are we prayerful and generous because we want to impress others? To be Catholic is to love others with a heart pure from the corrosive effects of sin.
Finally, Mary’s obedience to God is embodied in Luke 1:38,”Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it happen to me according to your word.“To be obedient is to surrender one’s will to the will of God. Once again, Mary provides us with the example par excellence of this virtue.
Mariology is the study of the person of Mary of Nazareth in Catholic theology. The above exposition has provided a summary of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church. I also addressed the criticism that Mary is adored. Finally, I suggested that Mary provide Catholics with a model of holiness.