Two thousand years ago, Mary had a baby. We can relate a few historical facts about both mother and child, but very few. Then there is the theologizing about Jesus and Mary that has taken place over the centuries—lots of words and ideas. Add to that the sentimental and devotional practices that surround both, and we have what very possibly could be a truly confusing mess. As the king in The King and I stated so well, “’tis a puzzlement.”
Mary Always Points to Jesus
In his apostolic exhortation Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Paul VI speaks of the singular dignity of Mary as being “Mother of the Son of God, and therefore beloved daughter of the Father and Temple of the Holy Spirit” (p. 46). In this, she is “far greater than any other creature on earth or in heaven.” And yet, Mary herself claims her own nothingness in her Magnificat: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Mary’s greatness lies in her willingness to continue to bring Jesus to the world. She doesn't draw attention to herself, but to him. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ” (487).
With these principles in mind, let’s look at a few of our beliefs and see what they tell us.
Mary as mediator. The Scriptures tell us that God chooses to shower his many gifts upon us through the mediation of others. We see this most clearly in the scriptural statements that Moses and the prophets mediated God’s word; and that the angels were often God’s messengers. We also see it clearly in creation, in the sacraments, and in the fact that our parents and teachers were highly instrumental in our coming to know Jesus. In his first letter to Timothy, Saint Paul says that Jesus is the “one mediator” between God and us. Jesus is the one in the sense of primary, not the exclusive, mediator (I Tm 2:5). That is why, in the next few verses of that same letter, Paul urges us to pray for others. Prayer is a form of mediation. We are all mediators in our own way, but Christ is the mediator in whose role he allows us to share.
It stands to reason that Mary, the perfect disciple, would be a major mediator of her son’s gifts. The gifts are given by Jesus through Mary. We see this exemplified when Mary went to visit Elizabeth. It is Mary’s son, whom she carries in her womb and makes present to Elizabeth, who causes John the Baptist to leap for joy and Elizabeth to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Mary mediates their coming together, but it is Jesus who brings the gift of joy and the Spirit (cf. Lk 1:39-45). So the doctrine of Mary as mediator not only speaks of Mary’s loving care for us, her children, but also of the generosity of her son, Jesus, in sharing his role and gifts with us.
Mary as mother. One of Mary’s titles is Theotokos (God-bearer), which is often translated “Mother of God.” This is a doctrinal statement that Mary is the one who gave human birth (and human nature) to God the Son. Thus, we speak of her divine motherhood, not meaning that she existed before God and gave birth to the Trinity, but that she was the one who gave human birth to God the Son in time.
In saying her “yes” to God through the angel Gabriel, Mary consented to this role and thus conceived her child. But this doctrine of Mary’s motherhood was not the result of independent thinking about Mary. It emerged while various councils discussed the natures of Jesus and tried to clarify what it means to say that he is both human and divine. In effect, the doctrine speaks to the reality of Jesus as the God-man by emphasizing the role that Mary played in giving him human birth. Thus, Theotokos speaks of our understanding of Jesus and Mary’s involvement in his becoming human.
We also believe that Mary is our mother. This belief implies not only an awareness of the Incarnation—God sharing in our human nature and, thus, being our fellow human being—but also an appreciation of what Jesus did from the cross as he was dying. Saint John tells us that seeing his mother along with the disciple whom Jesus loved (presumably Saint John himself) Jesus said; “Woman, behold your Son. Then he said to the disciple, Behold your mother” (Jn 26-27).
Jesus was seeing to it that his mother would be taken care of after his death, but there was a great deal more at stake here. By this statement, Jesus emptied himself of that very intimate relationship between himself and his mother, which he had known and relished all his life. In one last gesture of love, Jesus gave up his exclusive relationship with Mary and shared her with us. Jesus gave his mother to be our mother. Thus, calling Mary our mother not only speaks of Mary’s maternal love for each of us, but also of Jesus’ total self-sacrifice on our behalf.
Mary as the new Eve. Here we have an example of what might be called theology by analogy. It’s a technique often used by the early Church preachers and writers. Saint Irenaeus, for example, used it to communicate a truth about Mary and Jesus by contrasting their behavior with those who are considered historical figures in the Bible, Adam and Eve.
But, as we know, some aspects of an analogy do not follow logically (otherwise we would have an identity instead of an analogy). So the identification of Mary with Eve—and of Jesus with Adam—is not a perfect fit. For instance, Eve is seen as the physical mother of all mankind; Mary is our mother because she gave birth to Jesus, our brother, and was given to us by Jesus on the cross.
But Saint Irenaeus used this analogy to speak of how one virgin corrected the activity of another, how Mary’s faithful obedience counteracted Eve’s unfaithful disobedience. His thinking was based on Saint Paul’s statements in Rom 5:19 and I Cor 15:45 in which Saint Paul compared Jesus with Adam (cf. Against Heresies). Here we have a doctrine about Mary that clearly flows from our understanding of Jesus.
When we look at the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, we add yet another connection to our doctrines about Mary—the Church (us). These two doctrines are a little different from the previous ones in that they are not found directly in the Scriptures, but flow logically from what we find there.
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX formally confirmed the faith of the people of God in Mary’s Immaculate Conception and defined as a doctrine the fact that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." Simply stated, this means that the disorder that we know as original sin never was a part of Mary and, as a result, she remained sinless her whole life. This, of course, did not mean that she was preserved from the effects of original sin for we know that she endured great suffering in her life.
It’s important to note that Pope Pius IX stated that it was “by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race” that this gift was granted to Mary. Mary did not earn it or deserve it, but it was granted to her as gift. It was God’s way of preparing her for her life’s mission as mother of Jesus, his Son. As the great Franciscan doctor John Duns Scotus argued: Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit (it was possible, it was fitting, therefore God did it).
This doctrine not only says a great deal about Jesus and his role as savior of the human race, but also about what the Church teaches concerning the Sacrament of Baptism. The gift given to Mary is similar to the gift given to each of us at Baptism—the ability to overcome sin. While we may not be as successful in avoiding sin as was Mary, nevertheless she is our hope and our model as baptized Christians.
The notion of Mary being assumed into heaven body and soul—defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950—is a long-standing belief among the faithful dating back to the early centuries of the Church. It emphasizes the close relationship of Jesus with his mother in the life to come as well as here on earth, for death is not the end of love relationships, but their purification.
This glorified state, in which Mary presently participates to the full, will be ours after the resurrection of the dead. In this, Mary models what the Church desires and hopes to be.
Marian doctrine can seem a little dry and esoteric when wrapped in theological and historical terms. But it speaks about a very practical reality—the love of a mother and her divine son and their love for us. Perhaps we find ourselves lost in all that theological talk, but I hope this look helps us see the human being beneath that talk and discover the simple mother who is always leading us to her son and a profound model of what it means to be church.