With the possible exception of the papacy, there is no other aspect of Catholic theology that attracts as much attention as our understanding of Mary and her role. We believe she is our Blessed Mother and along with all the saints continually intercede for us. Most Catholics have a special devotion to Our Lady. There are also specific Marian dogmas of the faith that are often challenged by Protestants to be contrary to Sacred Scripture. Our devotion to Mary is quite often viewed as being “over the top” and tantamount to idolatry.
Sadly, Catholic teaching is often misrepresented by those who make those claims, but often their followers don’t realize this. Even correctly understood however, the Catholic doctrines about Mary and her role are foreign to many other Christian groups. Over the next many posts, I will look in depth at how Catholics understand Mary, why as Catholics we have such a great devotion to this woman of faith, why we believe she is the model disciple and most importantly how she always points us to her son Jesus.
Ron Rhodes gives an example of the way many other Christian groups view Mary in his book “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” (an anti-Catholic work). At the heart of his objection seems to be a lack of understanding that Catholics believe not just Mary, but all Christians have a role in the salvation of others. Do we not pray for the salvation of others, especially those we love? Do we believe our prayers can make a difference in this regard? If so, didn’t we in some way contribute to the salvation of that person? Don’t parents participate in the salvation of their children when they teach them the faith? Don’t those who evangelize have an impact on the salvation of others? Did St. Paul not say “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22)? The catechism refers to it this way – “God is the first cause who operates in and through secondary causes” (CCC308). While there is no salvation without Christ, we are all called to participate in his saving work.
Depending upon our scope of influence, some Christians may participate in the salvation of only a few. Others may have a much broader reach. As Catholics we believe Mary had a unique role in this regard, for she was the woman God chose to bring Jesus into the world. In this way, she participated in the salvation of all of us. We think that is significant. But Rhodes writes “I realize that many Catholics will respond that they agree that Jesus is the primary Mediator, and that Mary’s role is secondary. My point is that Mary has no role whatsoever other than being the divinely chosen human instrument through whom the divine Messiah and Redeemer would be born into the world. Once that was accomplished, the biblical record assigns no further role to Mary, and she is hence not even mentioned in the Epistles.”
From the Catholic perspective it’s a bit of an oxymoron to think Mary has no role “other than being the divinely chosen human instrument through whom the divine Messiah and Redeemer would be born into the world.” Isn’t being chosen to be the singular person in the world to become the mother of the divine Messiah and Redeemer more than just a small role in the scheme of things? Did not her “yes” have a direct contribution to the salvation of us all?
Rhodes’ choice of the word “instrument” instead of “mother” is telling. Others have gone so far as to say Mary was “only an incubator.” The role of motherhood is not merely to be an “instrument” or an “incubator” to physically bring a child into the world and Mary’s role as mother should not be diminished in this way. Scripture never refers to Mary as the “instrument” God chose to bring Jesus into the world – it refers to her as his mother. More than 25 times. Mary becomes the most important mother in the history of the world because she delivers Jesus to us. It would seem Rhodes chooses the word “instrument” instead of her Scriptural designation of “mother” in order to try to diminish her role. In doing so, he diminishes the role of motherhood for all. As does his claim that once the birth of Christ was accomplished, she had no additional role to play as though Christ in his human nature, who was like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:15) had no need of a mother.
Rhodes claims Mary is not mentioned in the Epistles and this can perhaps be seen as true (although St. Paul does note Jesus was “born of a woman” in Galatians 4:4). But to say that once she gave birth to Jesus the Bible assigns no further role to Mary is not true. While the stories within Scripture about her are few, the ones we do see are quite powerful and give us deep insight into this woman of great faith. From her intercessory role at the wedding of Cana (the onset of Christ’s ministry) to her fidelity to Jesus at the foot of the cross (the culmination), she is always faithful to her son and his mission.
Consider for example when the angel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation to tell her she had been chosen to become the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). We had just seen a passage where an angel appeared to Zechariah the priest. We’re told Zechariah was fearful when he saw the angel (Luke 1:12). When John the apostle saw an angel, he fell at his feet and in error began to worship (Revelation 19:9-10, 22:8). The Gentile Cornelius stared in terror at the angel who appeared to him (Acts 10:3-4). Mary though does not seem to experience any fear or even surprise when Gabriel appears to her. But she is “greatly troubled” by the words the angel proclaims – “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” The meaning of these words was not lost on her and caused her to consider the implication.
And they should have. These words are not commonly used in Scripture. No one else in the New Testament received a divine proclamation that the Lord is with them. And as she would reach back into her Jewish history, she would recognize associated with this greeting, the recipient was being called by God to be entrusted with a monumental mission upon which the fate of Israel would rest. Jacob was told this in Genesis 28:15 and he was to become the father of the nation of Israel. Moses heard those words in Exodus 3:12 when God called him to free the Israelites and lead them to the Promised Land. Joshua heard those words in Joshua 1:5 when he was called by God to fulfill Moses’ mission. Gideon (Judges 6:12), David (2 Samuel 7:9) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:8) also heard those words at the onset of their mission. In these words, Mary would recognize that something tremendous was about to be asked of her that would require a total giving of self and a willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the mission entrusted to her. Even though some may disagree with the specific teachings about Mary professed by the Catholic Church, it is always quite surprising to me that any would try to diminish her role, what she was willing to endure, or her contribution to God’s plan in Christ’s mission to save us.
Quite often people are looking for a “proof-text” that will support or deny the Marian dogmas of the Church. It is true most Marian dogmas are not explicitly defined in Scripture. However, that is also true of some of the primary Christological doctrines such as the Trinity or the Hypostatic union. Rather they are the result of the Church reflecting and growing to deeper understanding over time, and often as the result of heresies that began to take root and grow that had to be countered. Also, it is important to remember as Catholics we do not advocate sola-Scriptura but also recognize the validity of Sacred Tradition.
But while the Marian dogmas are not explicitly defined in Scripture they are most certainly reflected there. We especially recognize this truth from St. Augustine – “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” When we review the Marian texts of the New Testament considering the Hebrew Scriptures, they are illumined by the Old Testament figures and types and provide great insight into these New Testament passages and the Catholic understanding of Mary. My next post will begin to explore these Old Testament typologies of Mary.