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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Catholicism 101: What's the Deal with Mary?

I'm hoping this blog not only explores spirituality from one Catholic's perspective but can also inform the mostly non-Catholic audience of Wheaton residents, other Christians, and adherents to other religions or no religion who find their way to these pages. Part of doing that is starting this "Catholicism 101" series, which should be pretty self-explanatory. I'm writing these simply because people have asked me enough.

I would like to note, though, that I will be attempting to keep the tone fairly conversational. I'm not a theologian and this isn't a research paper. While I hope to draw on much better resources than myself, I plan on writing these as if you had just asked me the question while we were at coffee.  It's an informal introduction, which means less work for me and hopefully a more accessible form for most. So...let's talk about Mary

The way I think of Mary is as a completely unique figure in the Bible. She stands apart. Growing up evangelical, I used to list her right alongside any other famous biblical figure: Jacob, Samson, Ruth, Noah, etc. She was interesting in her own right but nothing special. Just a woman.

Even when I became Catholic, though I had something of a Marian vision before my conversion, I still was pretty uncomfortable with the emphasis on Mary. I couldn't understand it, let alone relate to it.

But eventually I picked up a book by Scott Hahn called, Hail, Holy Queen. Hahn does a good job of simply explaining a lot of Catholic beliefs even if his conclusions seem to make significant jumps at times.

If you know anything about Christ you probably know that he existed before everything else. And he was part of a plan conceived long before his birth in 1st century Palestine. "Typology" refers to the study of "types", literal people, things, and events in the Bible that foreshadowed and pointed toward an antitype, Christ himself. We see types of Christ in Moses the deliverer, Isaac who was (almost) the spotless sacrifice, the lamb's blood at Passover, etc. Most of us have heard these often enough.

Adam is another one. Christ is even called the "New Adam" because while sin and death entered the world through Adam, salvation and eternal life entered creation through the New Adam - Christ.

Catholics see Mary in a similar light when it comes to types and foreshadowing. We believe she was such a crucial part to God's plan that God chose her specifically, before she was even born, to be the "mother of God." This is the immaculate conception - Mary's conception without sin in her mother's womb and not Christ's conception. A lot of people mix up the meaning of that term. It's for Mary. We'll come back to that.

There are types for Mary too. We see this in figures like Sarah, Hannah, and Esther. Sarah miraculously conceives of a son (who is blamelessly offered as a sacrifice, remember?). Hannah again conceives miraculously and gives her son back to God. And Esther intercedes with the king on behalf of her people just as Catholics believe Mary intercedes for us with Christ the King, on our behalf. That belief didn't come from wishful thinking; it came from exegesis and Scripture.

And like Christ as the New Adam, Mary is considered the "New Eve". Salvation and the gift of eternal life (read "Christ") entered the world, literally, through her, and so it's a much more elevated picture of Mary than merely another woman in the Bible.

The Ark of the Covenant was a symbol of God's presence with his people, Israel. Inside of it was contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the priestly rod of Aaron, and manna from Heaven. We could describe these contents also as the Word of God, the symbol of the high priest, and life-giving bread. The Word, High Priest, and the Bread of Life. It's easy to see how these are types of Christ.

But wasn't the ark itself holy? And didn't it too have great significance? If it did not derive significance from what it held, it would merely have been 'some box' and there would have been no effort to dress it up or beautify it, let alone describe it for us in the Old Testament. The ark itself is actually a type for the antitype of Mary. Mary herself, therefore is thought to be exceptionally holy and kept without sin (immaculate conception) by God's grace in order that she might carry and bring forth Jesus, just as the ark was holy because of its contents.

Some other quick things on Mary. Catholics call her the Queen of Heaven. This is modeled on the "queen mother" in the Old Testament. Bathsheba and Solomon are the types here for Mary and Christ. She intercedes with the king on behalf of others.

Catholics believe that not only was she conceived without sin but she remained perpetually a virgin. They believe Christ was her only child ever and because she was free from sin, she did not suffer the wages of sin - death. This is the Assumption. We believe Mary was assumed into heaven. Those references to "brothers and sisters" of Christ or to James as "the brother of Christ" are actually mistranslations of, I believe, the Greek adelphos, which does mean sibling but is used elsewhere in Scripture to mean "cousin." And if Christ had siblings, Catholics hold, why did he entrust Mary to John when he was dying and said, "behold your mother"?

Catholics believe Jesus gave us all his mother with these words. We honor her and never worship her. She's the New Eve, foreshadowed in the Old Testament and even mentioned in Revelation. The theotokos, Queen of Heaven, Our Lady, and our supreme intercessor before the throne of God. We are all brothers and sisters of Christ in faith. And so we're all sons and daughters of Mary in the same way.

The most striking evidence for the truly unique position of Mary for me though is her response to God's plan. She simply says, "Let it be done unto me according to your word." Who among us could say this, ever? Who could so humbly and simply accept God's plan to make us a social outcast? To accept something our religious language never even prepared us to understand, let alone handle such as a virgin birth of God himself? Utterly incomprehensible. Her response isn't just amazing, it's unique. And I don't think anyone else could have done it.

You don't have to believe all of this, of course. But Catholics, Orthodox, and some other Christians do, and it's wise to be sensitive to it. All of this is not to say there aren't critiques even from me on the ways in which Mary has been thought of and used. But you've got the basics now, and that's the point.


  1. I appreciate this post, because the veneration of Mary is one of the biggest misconceptions about the Catholic church among protestants. I remember as an 8-year-old kid arguing with my Sunday school teacher about whether or not Catholics worship Mary (the teacher was convinced that they do).

    I still have a couple of problems though, and you didn't really address any of them here, so I wonder if I might inquire further.

    1) Where is the exegetical evidence that Mary makes intercession? I am very curious about this. The intercession of saints has always made me uncomfortable because I believe that Christ's position as intercessor must be unique in order to be effective. If any old Saint can intercede to the Father, then what is the point of Christ?

    2) In the same way, calling Mary a perpetual virgin and/or sinless diminishes the miracle of Christ's blamelessness. His lack of sin was not an inherent quality, but was a choice he made, and was able to make because of his divinity. It is what made him the perfect sacrifice. At the risk of sounding blasphemous... if Mary were without sin, why not crucify her? And there's another insidious implication there—if Mary's perpetual virginity is the main tenet of her sinlessness, doesn't that make marital sex a sin?

    3) Saying that Mary has ruling power as "Queen" again diminishes the authority of Christ. Calling her the "Queen of Heaven" makes it seem like she is part of the Godhead (even though I know Catholics don't believe that). Sure, she might have ascended into heaven. We know Elijah did too, but he isn't some kind of demigod because of it. And he didn't have to be sinless in order to do so.

    I don't mean to say that Mary isn't remarkable. Indeed, she is. And while I love the comparisons you made to other Old Testament stories, I think it's risky to use those as "proofs." Yeah, the Ark of the Covenant was a beautiful box. But there's a reason that God allowed it to disappear: because He has a new covenant now, one that can't be housed in an ark (or a sacristy, or a cathedral, etc. no matter how much we beautify them).

    Giving Mary a status that theologically conflates her with Christ is in many ways very troubling to me.

    1. 1) "Where is the exegetical evidence that Mary makes intercession?" Again, the Christian tradition is always looking for types (because they are purposefully present) and for many layers of meaning in any given passage. The short answer is intercession itself is found in multiple stories and in Maccabees in the (Catholic) Bible. Mary's intercession specifically is found in the Wedding at Cana, Esther, and Bathsheba with Solomon. These are all seen as pointing toward Mary. Her queenship is assumed based on her role as "New Eve" necessarily alongside the New Adam - Christ. This is attested in the ancient church by St. Iranaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, St. Justin Martyr, and on up through the ages by people from Augustine to Aquinas.

      2) Mary being sinless - Again, partly based off of the *necessary* holiness and purity of the Ark of the Covenant. Theologically, it's based off of the belief that Christ was not only sinless because he chose to reject sin throughout his life but that he was fully human in all respects except for the nature of original sin. This Christ did not possess and couldn't since God could not possess a sinful nature. It's reasoned that Mary necessarily had to be free from sin as well so that it was not passed on to her child, Jesus. And if she was kept by grace from having original sin to pass on, then she couldn't have any other human children or they would be sinless as well, thus perpetual virginity. Catholics don't believe this makes marital sex a sin, though it's hard to deny that connotation in our history.

      3) Catholics look to the Old Testament model of queenship, which was the Queen Mother (see Solomon). Because of multiple wives, the queen was often the mother of the king rather than a spouse. It's different than our medieval notions of queenship as on more of an equal footing with the king. And it's removed further still from modern notions of king and queen needing to be equal in authority and gender equality. If she was theologically equal to Christ, then that is a problem. But acknowledging her role as unique, necessary, and making a way for the salvation of the world is entirely acceptable to the Christian palate. I'll quote Iranaeus on Eve and the New Eve (Mary), "thus as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin."

  2. This is a much more thoughtful and cogent response than I've ever encountered before... thanks for taking the time to explicate this so gracefully.

    1. Awesome - I hope it helps give a better understanding of Mary and the Catholic view specifically but I don't assume it's absolutely persuasive. Thanks for being the brave one and saying, "Hey, I still don't buy it."