Mary, Mother of Jesus:
What Christians Believe
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There a number of Catholic teachings about Mary which many dispute, and the bases for which therefore need to be touched on. Those are:
- Mary's Immaculate Conception -- that she was born without sin
- Mary's bodily Assumption into Heaven -- that her uncorrupted body was assumed into Heaven by God
- Mary as the Mother of God and the Queen Mother of the Messiah's kingdom, and Mother of the Church
- Mary's Perpetual Virginity
Catholics don't worship Mary, but rather honor her, including through various "devotions", like the Rosary.
The New Testament mentions Mary directly about 18 times, many in passing. The references to Mary include:
- The Annunciation (Luke)
- Jesus' birth, referred to as the Infancy Narrative (Luke)
- Jesus' presentation in the Temple (Luke)
- The visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt (Matthew)
- Jesus in the Temple when he was 12 (Luke)
- The Wedding Feast at Cana (John)
- Mary at Christ's crucifixion (John)
But there is much more there than meets the eye.
Three things that need emphasis:
- The Church's teachings about Mary are rooted in the widely-held beliefs of early Christians.
- The Church's teachings about Mary correspond directly with our beliefs about Jesus.
- CCC 964 states in part: "Mary's role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it."
- And CCC 487: "What the Catholic Church believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ..."
- The early Christians' beliefs about Mary are also rooted in the Old Testament -- in Judaism. Mary is "pre-figured" in various Old Testament accounts, including in prophecies about the Messiah. As Cardinal Ratzinger -- the later Pope Benedict XVI -- wrote: "The image of Mary in the New Testament is woven entirely of Old Testament threads."
Mary as the new Eve, and her Immaculate Conception
Jesus is the new Adam:
- Romans 5:18-19: ... [J]ust as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous.
- 1 Corinthians 15: 45, 47: So, too, it is written, "the first man, Adam, became a living being, "the last Adam a life-giving spirit. ... The first man was from the earth, earthly; the second man, from heaven.
As Adam brought sin into the world through his disobedience to God, Christ brings salvation to the world through his obedience to his Father. So, then, who is the new Eve?
Let's first look at the first Eve:
- Adam and Eve were created in the image of God and in a state of moral goodness.
- Gen. 1:27-28, 31: God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply ... God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.
- Referred to only as "Woman" until after the Fall -- 11 times, and only once as "Eve".
- The Fall arises when Eve is tempted by the "serpent" and succumbs, along with Adam. God thus proclaims that the serpent thereafter will strike men's heel, and he Eve's sin is visited on all her descendants, according not only to our Bible but to ancient Jewish tradition. Sirach 25:24; 4 Ezra 7:118. This is the source of the Church's teaching about "original sin".
- Ancient Jewish texts saw in the Biblical account of the enmity between the woman and the serpent a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. 1 Enoch 62:5-7.
Mary as the new Eve -- parallels with the first Eve:
- In the Gospel of John, Mary appears only twice: at the wedding feast of Cana, and during Christ's crucifixion. John 2:1-12 and John 19:25-27. In both instances, Jesus refers to Mary not as his mother, but as "Woman". This suggests that Mary is the "woman" of Genesis whose offspring would conquer the serpent. Gen. 3:15.
- As Eve invited Adam to eat of the apple, Mary invites Jesus to perform this first sign in his ministry, by changing water into wine at the wedding feast.
- As Eve was present with Adam when they committed the first sin, Mary was present at Jesus' crucifixion when He brought salvation -- when He conquered sin and death, and thus the "serpent".
- These and other parallels between Eve and Mary, including in the Book of Revelation, were recognized by numerous early Christian writers in the 2nd through 5th centuries, including St. Justin Martyr, St. Iranaeus, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome and St. Augustine of Hippo. These writers were from all around the Christian world, and wrote in Greek, Latin and Syriac.
As Eve was created without sin, it makes sense that Mary as the new Eve would also be conceived without sin. And as Jesus as the Son of God was born without sin, it makes sense that his Mother would also be free from sin. And that is the basis of the Church's teaching regarding Mary's "Immaculate Conception" -- that, by the special grace of God, she was born free of the stain of original sin.
- It is also the basis for the Church's teaching that by that same special grace, Mary remained free from sin during her life -- "Immaculate Mary".
- Pope Pius XI proclaimed the following in 1854 as a "dogma" of the Church: 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.
- CCC 411: The Christian tradition sees in Gen. 3:15 an announcement of the "New Adam" who, because he "became obedient unto death, even death on a cross," makes amends superabundantly for the disobedience of Adam. Furthermore, many Fathers and Doctors of the Church have seen the woman announced in the Protoevangelium [The First Gospel" of Gen. 3:15] as Mary, the mother of Christ, the "new Eve". Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ's victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.
Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant -- and her Assumption into Heaven
The original Ark of the Covenant is described in the Old Testament in Exodus. God gave very specific instructions for the construction of the Ark, and a Tabernacle in which the Ark would be kept.
- The Tabernacle in which the Ark was kept was considered the dwelling place of God.
- The Ark contained the Ten Commandments on the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai -- the Law.
- The Ark also contained a bowl of the manna from the desert -- the miraculous bread from Heaven.
- And the Ark contained the high priest Aaron's miraculous staff.
- The Ark was made of acacia, which means "incorruptible wood".
- The Ark was covered with pure gold, given its absolute holiness.
- The figures of two angels were on either side of the top of the Ark.
- And it was veiled by a "blue cloth".
- Once the Ark was placed in the Tabernacle, a cloud of glory descended and covered it.
- Ultimately the Ark is taken up to Jerusalem by King David, which for ancient Jews meant that God himself had come to Jerusalem.
- Following the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, the Ark was lost.
- Jews at the time of Christ were awaiting the return of the Ark and the "glory cloud" showing God's presence.
Jesus is not only the new Adam, but also the new Moses.
- Just as Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights in the desert.
- Just as Moses fed the Israelites in the desert with miraculous bread from Heaven, Jesus feeds the multitudes with miraculous loaves of bread.
- Just as Moses established the covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus established a new covenant with the twelve apostles at the Last Supper.
- And just as Moses led the Israelites from Egypt in the Exodus, Jesus leads his people on the new Exodus which began at his Crucifixion and ends for Jesus and for us in Heaven.
- So if Jesus is the new Moses, where is the new Ark of the Covenant?
Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant
- Just as the cloud of the Lord's glory "overshadowed" the Tabernacle (Exodus), at her Annunciation the Holy Spirit "overshadows" Mary. Luke 1:35
- Just as King David went up to the hill country of Judah to bring the "ark of God" to Jerusalem (2 Samuel), Mary arose and went into the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth. Luke 1:39
- Just as King David admits his unworthiness to receive the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel), Elizabeth proclaims her unworthiness to receive Mary, "the mother of my Lord". Luke 1:43
- Just as King David leaped before the Ark when it was brought to him, John the Baptist "leaped" in Elizabeth's womb at the sound of Mary's voice. Luke 1:41
- Just as the Ark remained in the hill country for three months after King David's arrival (2 Samuel), Mary remained in the hill country in Elizabeth's house for three months. Luke 1:56
- Mary thus, as the mother of Jesus, is the new Ark of the Covenant -- the fulfillment of the old law, that is the Commandments; she holds the Word made flesh; she bears the new manna from Heaven, in the form of Christ's body and blood which we receive in the Eucharist -- the Bread of Life; and she brings us the new High Priest -- Jesus.
- Just as the Ark was made from incorruptible wood and covered in pure gold, Mary is holy, incorruptible and free from any impurity.
- Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant was recognized by early Christian writers, including St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the 4th century, and St. Jacob of Serug, in the 5th century. The Church recognizes this as well. CCC 2676.
- King David brought the Ark of the Covenant and placed it in the Tabernacle in the Temple in Jerusalem.
- This was memorialized in Psalm 132:8: "Arise, O Lord, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might."
- It thus makes sense that Jesus, as not only the new Adam and the new Moses, but also the new David, following his ascension into Heaven, would also bring Mary, as the new Ark of the Covenant and the dwelling place of God on earth, into the heavenly Temple.
- It is through Mary's body that the Word, Jesus, was made flesh and dwelt among us.
- As the original Ark was made of incorruptible wood and covered in pure gold, it makes sense that God would not permit the new Ark, Mary, to suffer bodily corruption.
- The imagery of Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant is also in the Book of Revelation.
- Although this was not officially recognized by the Church until 1950, it was taught be early Christian writers, including St. Modestus of Jerusalem in the 7th century and St. John Damascene in the 8th century.
- In 1950 Pope Pius XII proclaimed: "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, was exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things..."
- Pope Pius XII in his proclamation quoted both St. Modestus of Jerusalem, from the 7th century, and St. John Damascene, from the 8th century.
- Mary's assumption into heaven also foreshadows our own eventual resurrection. Jesus died and rose again so that all of us can be transformed by God's grace into a "temple of the Holy Spirit". 1 Cor. 6:19.
Mary as Queen Mother of Jesus' Kingdom, and the Mother of God
In ancient Israel, the Queen was not the wife of the King, but instead was the King's mother.
- For example, King David's wife Bathsheba, following David's death and the ascension of their son Solomon to the throne, sat on her own throne to the immediate right of Solomon. 1 Kings 2:19-20
- The "Queen Mother" is also referred to in Jeremiah 13:18 and Psalm 45:6-9. She reigned along with the King, and wore a crown.
- In the Book of Kings, in the genealogical introductions to the reigns of the Davidic kings, almost every one is preceded by the name of his royal "mother".
- The Queen shares in the King's authority, and is second in authority only to the King.
- One of the roles of the Queen is to intercede with the King on behalf of those who appeal to her. 1 Kings 2:13-14 (Adonijay, one of David's sons, asks Bathsheba to intercede for him with King Solomon).
- There are a number of prophecies in the Old Testament that refer to the mother of the Messiah, the future king of Israel, and thus implicitly the "Queen Mother". Isaiah 7:10-14; Micah 5:2-3
Mary is the Queen Mother of Jesus' Kingdom
- Jesus, the Messiah, is the successor of King David. Luke 1:30-33: Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
- Mary, therefore, from the standpoint of ancient Jewish tradition reflected in the Old Testament, is the Queen mother of Jesus' Kingdom.
The Church has long referred to Mary as the Mother of God. But a more direct translation of the Greek (Theotokos) would be "God-Bearer".
- Early Christian writers referred to her in this way, including St. Athanasius and St. Gregory of Nazianzen, both in the 4th century.
- St. Athanasius is well regarded by not only Catholic but also Orthodox and Protestant scholars as one of the early defenders of Christ's divinity.
- She was formally proclaimed as the "Mother of God" in the Council of Ephesus in the 5th century. CCC 495.
- 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."
- This does not mean that she is greater than Jesus, or equal with God the Father, or that she is divine. She is a human creature, and the earthly mother of the Son of God who became a man.
- Although the New Testament does not itself refer to Mary as the Mother of God, she is referred to by Elizabeth as "the mother of my Lord". Luke 1:43. And in Matthew 1:23, Mary is referred to as the virgin who will "bear" the child who is "God with us" -- that is, she is the God-Bearer.
- This, in turn, was the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of a woman who would bear a child named "God with us". Isaiah 7:10-14
As Mary is the Queen Mother of the Kingdom of God, the Church believes it is proper to honor her, in ways which are sometimes referred to variously as devotions and veneration.
The Church also believes that it is proper to pray to Mary to ask her to intercede with her son, Jesus, on our behalf, as was the case with the Queen Mother in ancient Israel.
- There are many references by early Christian writers to seeking the intercession of Mary.
- Lumen Gentium ("Light of the Nations), Second Vatican Council, Sec. 62: "... [Mary] ... by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation... Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix."
- LG Sec. 60: "Mary's function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin's salutary influence on men ... flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it."
- Pope Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, Sec. 15: "We believe that the Holy Mother of God, the new Eve, the Mother of the Church, continues in heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ..."
- But honoring Mary and seeking her intercession do not mean worshiping her. That would amount to idolatry, and was one of the heresies condemned by the early Church. St. Epiphanius, 4th century.
- CCC 971 (citing LG 66, and Pope Paul VI Marialus Cultus): "The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to worship." The Church rightly honors "the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title 'Mother of God,' to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. This very special devotion ... differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit..."
Mary as Ever-Virgin
For most of the history of Christianity, Christians have believed that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, but that she remained a virgin her entire life, while married to Joseph.
- St. Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the 2nd century acknowledged that Jesus was "truly born of a virgin..."
The New Testament clearly affirms Mary's virginity:
In the Gospel account of the Annunciation -- when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, she is described as being a virgin. Luke 1:26-34
- In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.
But the account in Luke suggests even more than that.
- Gabriel tells Mary that "... you will conceive in your womb and bear a son..."
- That, of course, should not come as a surprise to Mary, as she is betrothed to Joseph, which according to Jewish law meant she was legally married to him. Deuteronomy 22:25-27. A Jewish marriage, however, was not consummated until the wedding celebration, when the groom would bring his bride into his home.
- Mary responds in a very interesting way: She says "How can this be, since I do not know man?" That doesn't make sense, as the assumption would be that she would know her husband in the future. So the angel's prediction of her future motherhood should come as no surprise.
- Note that Mary does not say "I have not known a man", nor "I will not know a man." She says "I do not know man." Her statement is akin to saying "I do not smoke", which means I don't smoke now and I will not be smoking in the future. Her statement can thus be read as meaning that she'd taken a vow of virginity.
- This seems strange to us in our modern world. But it was not strange in the ancient Jewish world. Married Jewish women, as well as single and widowed women, in fact took vows of abstinence. Numbers Chapter 30. For a married woman, her husband had to consent to it, or at least not object. And the vow was perpetually binding.
- There also are multiple ancient Jewish references outside of the Bible to Jewish men and women taking vows of sexual abstinence, including in the writings of Josephus and of Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century, and in the Jewish Mishnah, from around the 2nd century. There were various sects where men and women would take such vows, including the Essenes (which John the Baptist may have been a member of) and the Therpeautae.
- But what about this language in Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 1:20-21, 24-25): ... [B]ehold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." ... When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.
- But the Greek word for "until" has a slightly different meaning than the English word. It means "for a period", and carries no implication as to what happens after that period. Both Protestant and Catholic scholars agree about this, one Protestant scholar in fact describing it as "indisputable".
- The reason Matthew included this statement is to make it abundantly clear that Joseph was not Jesus' biological father.
- What is also clear, although easily missed, about Matthew's account is that Joseph and Mary did not consummate their marriage on their wedding night, as any typical Jewish couple would have. This again suggests is that Mary had taken a vow of abstinence, and Joseph her husband had accepted it.
- Perhaps Joseph, realized that Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant, and thus wanted to respect her body as the dwelling place of God. The original Ark was so holy that a Levite could not even touch it (2 Samuel 6:6). And the Temple in Jerusalem was so holy that even priests had to abstain from sexual relations before entering (Exodus 19:15, 1 Samuel 21:4).
CCC 499: "The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity ..."
CCC 509, citing St. Augustine: "Mary ‘remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to Him, a virgin in carrying Him, a virgin in nursing Him at her breast, always a virgin'."
There are multiple references in the Bible to "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus. But they do not mean what they may suggest.
- There are references in the Gospels of both Mark and Matthew to James and Joses (or Joseph) as "brothers" of Jesus, and as "sons" of "Mary", which Protestant scholars point to as evidence that Mary did not remain a virgin. Mark 6:1-3, Mark 15:37-41, Matt. 13:55, Matt. 27:55-61
But, as the saying goes, something there is lost in the translation.
- First, the Greek word for "brothers" -- adelphoi -- is used in the Old Testament to describe close relatives -- what we would describe in English both as "brothers" and as "cousins". Genesis 31:36-37; 1 Chronicles 23:21-22
Second, James and Joses are described elsewhere in the gospels of Mark and Matthew as sons of a different Mary, referred to at times as "the other Mary".
Third, in John's Gospel, in his account of the crucifixion, John writes that "standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene."
John uses the Greek word for "sister" -- adelphe -- which corresponds to the Greek word for brother, and which also can refer to a biological sister and to a cousin.
It's highly unlikely that two biological sisters would have been given the same name by their parents.
Thus, this reference very likely is to a close relative, such as a cousin.
And Mark's and Matthew's references to the "other Mary", the mother of James and Joses, thus is very likely a reference to Mary the wife of Clopas, and further evidence that James and Joses are Jesus' cousins.
Fourth, there are references in early Christian historical writings, to James and Simon, sons of Clopas, as being the first bishops of Jerusalem. Heggesippus, 2nd century.
Fifth, shortly before his death on the Cross, Jesus said to his mother, Mary, and to the "disciple whom he loved": "Woman, behold your son!" and then to the disciple: "Behold, you mother. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home." If Mary had other sons, biological brothers of Jesus, it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have entrusted his mother, Mary, to anyone other than his own brother.
In an ancient Jewish context, one was obliged to care for your aging parents. To fail to do so was a serious sin, which Jesus described as a capital offense. Mark 7:9-13
There are numerous references by early Christian writers to Mary's perpetual virginity. St. Origen, in the 3rd century; St. Athanasius, in the 4th century; St. John Chrysostom, in the 4th century; St. Basil of Caesarea, in the 4th century; St. Jerome, in the 4th century; and St. Augustine, in the 5th century.
- These are writers from all around the ancient Christian world, writing in both Latin and Greek.
- The acknowledgement of Mary's perpetual virginity was almost universal with the ancient Church.
- Mary thus was given the title "Ever-Virgin" (Greek Aeiparthenos) by the Council of Constantinople in the 6th century.
We hope you enjoy this article, Mary, Mother of Jesus: What Christians Believe. Have a blessed day! +