Fundamentalist Protestant incomprehension of the Catholic doctrine regarding Mary as the Mother of God is largely and essentially an incomprehension of the Incarnation itself, whereby the Word, who is God, was made flesh (John 1:1; 14). It is rooted in a failure to contemplate, with the Catholic Church, the stupendous implications of this wondrous mystery.
But to discuss this properly we shall begin with the Catholic teaching regarding grace, which is also of supreme consequence where the doctrine of Mary is concerned.
Grace, according to St. Paul, is not only the favor of God, unmerited and free; it is also the infused power of God that enables the Christian to live the justified, sanctified life “creating” us anew “unto good works”, as St. Paul says, unto keeping the commandments of Christ, apart from which we cannot hope to be saved. In Ephesians 2:8-10 St. Paul sums up the biblical and Catholic view of grace, justification, sanctification and salvation succinctly:
“For by grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves for it is the gift of God; Not of works, that no man may glory for we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God hath prepared that we should walk in them.”
According to St. Paul, then, Salvation is a free gift. All we are asked to do is to cooperate with the free gift of God, the absolutely free gift.
Contrary to the teachings of Luther and Calvin, however, one cannot embrace verses 8 and 9 alone and ignore verse 10, which prescribes good works along with faith. Grace is the free gift of God that enables us to live the Christian life. It is important to see and to believe all of what St. Paul teaches if our understanding of grace, justification, and sanctification is to be truly biblical and Pauline. As is said, text without context is pretext.
According to St. Paul, forgiveness actualizes a new life! Grace cleanses the sinner who cooperates with it, raises him above sin, and does not merely “impute” righteousness to him to disguise his sins, as Luther claimed. (See 1 Cor.6: 11; 2 Cor.5:17; Gal.6:15; Eph.4:23; 2 Pet.l:4,5 etc.)
“. . . and so death passed upon all men.” (Rom. 5: 12)
Original Sin is the loss of the sanctifying grace of God, which Adam, and we in him, lost in the fall (Romans 5). Christ would deliver us from the consequences of the fall, and undo once and for all, through His atoning, salvific death, the work of the evil one. The Law given to Moses could not save, but only point out and magnify our imperfections. But sanctifying grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Through His saving death, through His merits, grace has been restored to a fallen world, thus opening up again the Gate of Heaven. Jesus is the “new Adam,” and His Cross the new tree of life (Rom. 5; John 15). In a sense, the Cross and grace are one, as cause and effect are inseparable.
Now Mary, whom Elizabeth would address as “the mother of my Lord”, was saluted by the Angel Gabriel with a new, unprecedented name, Kecharitomene, which in the Greek means literally: You who have been and remain filled with the Divine grace, or, “full of grace”. 1 This name signified the reality and actualization of God’s action and mission in Mary.
But how could this be, since our Lord, the Author of the new dispensation of grace of the New Covenant, had not yet even been conceived in Mary’s womb? The early Church taught, in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, that Mary, who was to be the ark and tabernacle of God Himself, was born “full of sanctifying grace”- i.e., without the stain of Original Sin; redeemed in advance by the salvific death of Christ, in anticipation of it, in order to be the pure, unblemished vessel through whom God Himself would enter the world! All other human beings, according to St. Paul, were born “children of wrath” as a consequence of Original Sin.
To Mary alone was given a name indicating her exception as the elect vessel through whom God would enter the world to bring salvation. According to Apostolic Tradition handed down by the Fathers, that Vessel, the new Ark of God Himself, could not be a vessel of corruption and sin. By divine election, Mary was to be saturated with the purifying power of God- grace- as she would confer upon God His truly human nature, nourished in her womb by her own blood. When we contemplate this simple yet stupendous fact we already begin to understand the “scandal” of the Incarnation to both Jew and Greek; and we realize that Protestantism is actually an almost perfect blend of both heresies, the Judaic and rationalist. And Protestantism, of course, is the mother of modernism.
“I am the mother of fair love…” (Ecclus. 24:24)
It is extremely important to remember that Christ is one Divine Person with two natures, not two persons. Thus is Mary the Mother of the one Person Who has both a divine and human nature. From a strictly biblical and theological standpoint, it is always too little to say that Mary is merely the mother of Christ’s human nature, as if the Word made Flesh were two persons, not one person with two natures. Mary is, in consequence of the Incarnation, the Mother of the whole Christ! That is the mystery and scandal of the Incarnation (1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Cor. 1:21-25). Only by lapsing into heresy can one dispute this reality, thus diminishing the Person of Christ.
Indisputably, therefore, did Mary, by the free and undeserved election of God, become the Ark, the Holy of Holies – really and truly the Theotokos (God-bearer) – in truth and simple fact (Luke 1:43).
“….. his grace in me hath not been void.” (I Cor. 15:10)
Again, Mary did not deserve this initial grace, even if she subsequently merited an increase of it by virtue of her faithful, complete cooperation with grace – by her continual “yes” to God. God’s grace is pure gift in whomsoever it is found. Likewise was St. John the Baptist sanctified in his mother’s womb before his eyes ever saw the light of day, without having to deserve it (Luke 1:15). God is free to distribute his gifts according to His own good pleasure and designs, we learn from St. Paul and all the Scriptures (Eph. 1:5 etc.). St. Thomas, with St. Paul, taught that even to cooperate with grace requires an initial drawing on the part of our Father in heaven.
Professing all this to be true, it should not be necessary also to acknowledge that Mary is not the savior. The Catholic Church would have to excommunicate anyone who suggested such a thing. Mary herself was redeemed by the sanctifying merits of the One to Whom she gave flesh in her necessarily holy womb.
God can redeem a soul in either of two ways: by raising it up after falling from grace; or by preventing it from falling. In Mary’s case it was the latter, the free gift of God. The atonement of Christ reaches forward in the New Covenant till the end of time, and it reached backwards to the children of the Old Covenant in varying degrees and ways according to the measure and good pleasure of God. Mary and St. John the Baptist – as well as St. Joseph, according to tradition – could be said to have bridged both covenants in utterly unique, never-to-be-repeated ways! But the astonishingly singular and exceptional sanctifying gift given to Mary is commensurate with, in proportion to, the utterly astonishing Event that made the gift necessary, the most stupendous Event in all of time, splitting history in half – into a “before” and “after” – namely, the Incarnation of the Son of God, whereby God Himself “became flesh” to “take away the sins of the world” (John 1:1,14; 29). The biblical and Catholic understanding of Mary’s gifts cannot be comprehended apart from the stupendous and unspeakable Gift and Mystery of the Incarnation!
With all due charity and sincerity, we can say that Protestants have long balked from the astonishing implications of the Incarnation. Indeed, contrary to what they accuse Catholics of believing, we confess that Mary is not the Savior, nor a goddess. She is our Sister, the chosen flower of our human race, the elect vessel, and our Mother.
“Behold thy mother” (John 19:27)
How is Mary our mother? Our Lady gave birth to Jesus, the Head of the Church, which St. Paul teaches is the Mystical Body of Christ. When Mary gave birth to the Son of God she also, in a very real and literal sense, gave birth to all of us, His Elect, who have been “in Him” from “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim 1:9 et al.) And if there is any further doubt, hear our Lord’s words to St. John, the beloved disciple, as he stood with Mary at the foot of the Cross. He told St. John to look upon Mary, saying: “Behold thy mother” (John 19:27). This is the same St. John who depicted this Mother in the most glorious images when he wrote the Apocalypse, the book of Revelation. Therein he depicted Mary as the quintessential type of the Church (Apoc. 12). And fittingly so, as Mary was the first disciple of our Lord.
Through her intercession, she brought about Christ’s first public miracle at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2). She followed Him through His ministry even to the darkness of the Cross. Furthermore, it was she around whom the apostles, ten of whom had fled in that hour of darkness, gathered at Pentecost (Acts 1:12-14).
“My mother asks: I must not turn away thy face.” (3 Kings 2:20)
And Mary, as our Mother, prays for us, as she has always prayed for the disciples of her Son and Lord. Catholics have always followed the earliest Church – which Church, founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, has ever taught that the Church is one in the same Christ, and that its sons and daughters-whether in heaven or on earth-are one “in Him.” Always have Catholics seen all the Apostles, Saints, and Martyrs – indeed all who are “in Christ” – as family. Not as mere historical figures of the past, but as family; as the One Mystical Body of the Son (Eph. 4:1-4).
That is why we never cease to pray for one another. Only in this way can we understand Mary’s mediation on our behalf, which Protestants so needlessly find offensive. We pray – mediate for one another – because we are all, living or deceased, united in the Vine which is Jesus the Lord! (John 15). He is the One Mediator between God and man, who enables us, “in Him” and “through Him,” to mediate – to pray – for one another, even though He knows our needs even before we ask. All who live “in Christ” are alive in Him! Jesus said we would “never die” if we “abide in” Him. St. Paul said death has no victory and can never “separate” us from the love, which is in Christ. It can never rend in two that which is always and forever one in Him, in the Body of Christ! We are family who pray for one another as our Lord commands. And we are family for time and eternity. That is why the souls in Heaven never cease to pray and to intercede for those who are still undergoing the spiritual warfare on earth (Apoc. 5:8; 6:9,10 etc.). How could they simply forget us? The Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, shows our Lord totally concerned, as one would expect, for those still undergoing the battle on earth. How, then, could the saints, those who have overcome, be contrary to their Lord and forget those still undergoing the trial?
“Pray you for me to the Lord.” (Acts 8:24)
When a Protestant asks another to pray for him or her, it is presumably done. But why?, the Catholic might very well ask. If Christ is the “one” mediator between God and man, in the strict and exclusive sense of the Protestant interpretation, what need has anyone of another’s prayers, another’s mediation? Why wouldn’t the Protestant simply tell others just to go directly to God Himself? That would be more consistent with the Protestant credo. But “God’s ways are not our ways.” We “mediate,” we pray for others, because God commands us to do so (James 5:16). God doesn’t need our mediating for someone else; nevertheless He commands it. It is the mystery of love, rooted in and grounded upon our Lord’s own Love and Mediation. Our inferior mediation for one another does not prejudice the uniqueness of His eternal mediation; it participates in it by grace -“through Him, with Him, and in Him,” as is said in Holy Mass.
What is Christ’s unique mediatorial work? The atoning Cross, where He effects the reconciliation of God and man, by virtue of His being God and man!
“…our conversation is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20)
Thus, as Catholics, we do not simply cast off a St. Paul into the silence of death, relegating him to the past. We ask his prayers in our behalf. We are family, all, alive in Christ, Who is the Resurrection and the Life; who is the Head of the one indivisible Body, the Church! Death has no power over us. I ask St. Paul, and all the saints, to pray for me, because death cannot quench love! The radical Protestant bifurcation of the Church is one of the tragic consequences of the so-called Reformation. The Church triumphant is thereby reduced to historical memory, like branches withered from the vine and cast into oblivion. Such a notion is hardly biblical, and most certainly is a radical break with the Apostolic and early Church.2
So, of course, Catholics ask Mary, the Mother of God, to pray for us. Especially Mary, so intimate with her Son as to have, by grace, given Him life by her own heartbeat and blood in the womb!
Because Christ is “true man” as well as “true God,” He now has a real Mother for as long as He will remain “true man.” Forever!
“Behold I lay in Sion a stumbling-stone and a rock of scandal.”(Rom 9:33)
Let us face the question squarely:
Does the Incarnation scandalize us? Jesus is God and man! The unthinkable has happened! God now has, by virtue of what the theologians call the Hypostatic Union, 3 a real Mother whose beating heart and infused blood formed His Sacred Heart and Most Precious Blood which was “poured out for us.” This is food for contemplation forever. And already the Roman Catholic Church has been contemplating this Mystery for 2,000 years!
Catholics do not worship the Mother as though she is some kind of a goddess. That would be heresy! We ardently ask her prayers. And if we are to “love one another,” as our Lord commanded, will we not love that poor, young, Jewish girl, who, 2,000 years ago, in the most profound and exemplary humility, said “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me, according to thy word”? 4 If we show special respect for venerable kings and potentates, will we not especially venerate Mary, the Mother of God (Luke 1:43)? She has never ceased to love us. And she has never ceased to bring us closer to Him Whom she consented to bring into the world. Her relationship to the Son, by virtue of that Hypostatic Union, places her on the very frontier of Divinity while remaining but a creature!
Mary is, indeed, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Holy Scripture teaches that no man could even look upon God and live. Yet our Lord abased Himself to become man through the flesh and womb of a virgin girl, who, by sanctifying grace alone, is the lily of our race, an icon of grace.
The divinity and ineffable purity of God burns up sin with the fire of His Holiness. Is it any wonder that Mary, having received the Word of the divine messenger, prostrated herself and sang to all creation: “My soul doth magnify the Lord! . . . For He Who is Mighty hath done great things to me.”?
“I shall see the blood and shall pass over you.” (Exod. 12:13)
Behold the mystery! The Precious Blood of Jesus, shed for our sins, was derived from and nourished by the little heart beating in the breast of a humble young virgin. Is it any wonder that the prophecy of Our Lady’s Magnificat – that “all generations” would call her “Blessed” – has been fulfilled in every age and every land? Nor can any wonder that, till our Lord comes again, the Church will always pray: “Hail! Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” — Stephen Hand
1. Cf. footnote in the New Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday, 1985 [We do not recommend this Bible -Ed.]; Cf. Also John Paul II’s Encyclical on Mary, Mother of the Redeemer. The Protestant King James Version, an English Reformation translation, translates this name identically to the Catholic translations. In Holy Scripture personal names convey the essence and meanings of persons; thus “Abraham”, means “Father of a multitude” etc. A name in the Bible is more like a verb form than a mere noun.
2. No serious historian questions the fact that even the ancient paintings of the catacombs reveal a persecuted church intimately bound in Charity with the heavenly Church Triumphant. “Burial inscriptions in the Roman Catacombs and graffiti in the underground recesses of St. Peter’s suggest that, from the second or early third century, Mary was considered a protectress of the dead and their kindly mediatress with Christ; she was honored with Christ and St. Peter. The frescoes in the catacombs of St Priscilla, particularly rich in representation of our Lady, confirm this view. Claims are made for a church in early times as far from Rome as Glastonbury.” Theotokos, Michael Glazier, Inc. Wilmington Delaware Rvd. 2d. 1986 p. 49 “Archeology”.
3. “By the Hypostatic Union is meant that the eternal Son of God, in His Incarnation, assumed human nature, and united it to Himself in personal unity; in other words, that in the one divine person of Jesus Christ, the two natures, the divine nature and the human nature, ever distinct in themselves, became inseparably and eternally united.” The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, Edward Healy Thompson, M.A. TAN Publishers, 1980.
4. It was this “yes” of Mary, which made the Fathers, as early as the second century, contrast her obedience to Eve’s disobedience and call Mary “the New Eve,” giving her a positive, salvific role in the history of salvation, subordinate only to Christ. [See St. Irenaeus’ statement of this on pg. 25 of this issue, and Saint Ephrem’s on pg. 27. -Ed.]
Photos: The Religious Art of Franco Zeffirelli from the 1977 series, Jesus of Nazareth