Mary and the Saints
If “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (Jas 5:16), how much more so the prayers of the one who is perfected in Christ-likeness and standing before the throne of grace, face to face with God? The saints in heaven are mighty prayer warriors on our behalf.
Why do Catholics make so much of Mary?
In one word: Jesus. As the Catechism teaches: “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. … Mary’s role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ and flows directly from it.”[i] All the Marian dogmas originate, first of all, as statements illumining the real identity of Christ.[ii]
Catholics make so much of Mary because we make so much of the Divine Person she conceived, bore, nurtured, taught, raised, and proclaimed, and for whom she suffered the grief of a mother’s loss of a child. Whereas all patriarchs, prophets, kings, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, fathers, doctors, priests, and bishops bore witness to the Word, she literally bore the Word. Among creatures, she is in a class by herself, and “all generations shall call [her] blessed” (Lk 1:46). Or as the medieval Italian poet Dante put it: She is “more humble yet more exalted than any other creature.”
Since Jesus honors his mother, so do those who imitate him. Our appreciation of Mary is proportioned to our esteem for Christ. If we worship the Son, we will certainly honor the mother.
Catholics also make so much of Mary because her life is rife with lessons in discipleship. While Jesus is our Master, Mary is his model disciple.
She’s an active listener to God’s word and keeps it. As Gabriel announces that she will be with child out of wedlock, a potentially capital crime, she doesn’t hesitate or dispute. She asks a simple question designed to identify more precisely how she is to carry out the word she has just heard: “How can this be since I have no husband?”
When Mary receives the supernatural promise that her pregnancy will be the work of the Holy Spirit, she relies on that promise: “Let it be to me according to your Word” (see Lk 1:34-45). Her quick assent reveals a character honed by regular obedience in the small details of life.
Mary is a type of the ideal disciple because she receives God’s Word and Spirit in such a full way that Christ is literally and concretely formed within her. As the one who is most visibly and tangibly impregnated by the divine Word, she is also the one who most visibly and tangibly acts out our responsibility to transmit the Savior to the world. While the Holy Spirit has poured out God’s love into our hearts, the Holy Spirit has poured out God’s love into her womb. She is the one whom Jesus commends: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28).
Mary is also a model of prayer, praise, and meditation. After St. Elizabeth confirms the great things God is doing in Mary’s life, what Mary sings forth in praise and prayer we call the “Magnificat”: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior” (Lk 1:46ff). When the shepherds leave after telling her what the angels had told them about the birth of her child, she “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). Mary thus not only receives God’s word and does it; she reflects on it and prays it.
She is also a heroic model for those who suffer. She is our Lady of Sorrows, whose feast is commemorated on September 15. Simeon warned that her Son would be “set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34, 35).
Thirty years later, she stood, not swooned, at the foot of the cross, witnessing the death of her Son condemned as a common criminal. Suffering had marked her life: a problem pregnancy, no room at the inn, the flight into Egypt, a “runaway” Son stigmatized by his family as mentally unstable, and the death of this, her only Son. So much original promise, so little to show for it at the moment of crucifixion. When the centurion thrust the sword into Christ’s side, a sword had pierced her own soul, just as Simeon had predicted.
Mary is an essential part of salvation history: “[W]hen the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal 4:4-6).
We are adopted into the family of God. We celebrate the love of the Father, the mission of the Son, the gift of the Spirit, the maternal role of the woman from whom the Redeemer was born, and our own divine sonship.
Marian devotion is proportioned to our appreciation of Christ. As Venerable John Henry Newman once said: “I don’t suppose we can love our lady too much as long as we love our Lord a great deal more.” Or as Blesed John XXIII remarked: “The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son.”
[i] CCC, 487, 964.
[ii] “A mother without a home in the Church, without dignity, without gifts, would have been, as far as the defense of the Incarnation goes, no mother at all. … If she is to witness and remind the world that God became man, she must be on a high and eminent station for the purpose.” John Henry Newman, Discourses to Mixed Congregations 18, as quoted in Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, vol. II (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1985), 108.
Do Catholics worship Mary and the other saints?
No. Only the Trinity is to be worshipped as the word is commonly used in English today.
In the old wedding service of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, however, the husband would say to the wife, “With my body I thee worship.” Magistrates or other civil authorities were once addressed as “Your worship.” That’s because in earlier times, “worship” simply meant to declare someone’s or something’s proper worth.
In those days, then, to address someone as “Your worship” was simply to say “You worthy one.” Some of the older Catholic devotional literature referred to the worship of Mary or the saints in this older sense. In Catholic doctrine, however, there is always a bright, shining dividing line between latria—that is, the adoration that belongs to the uncreated Trinity alone—and dulia—the honor due to the excellence of created persons such as the saints.
Mary receives hyperdulia, which means, we might say, just a whole lot more dulia. The Second Vatican Council mentions that this veneration of Mary “as it has always existed in the Church, for all its uniqueness, differs essentially from the cult of adoration, which is offered equally to the Incarnate Word and to the Father and the Holy Spirit and it is most favorable to it.”[i] God alone is to be worshipped in this latter sense.
We regularly give out Oscars, diplomas, and Olympic medals to honor excellence in film, education, and athletics. Honoring, esteeming, or venerating creatures for their achievements and character in no wise distracts us from giving to God the adoration and worship he deserves. One might even argue that the refusal to honor properly such creaturely excellences leaves a void in modern life that is filled by a cult of celebrity. Rather than honoring the bones of a martyr, we scramble to claim a slip of Princess Diana’s hair.
Catholics do not believe that God is parsimonious in sharing his glory. He made us in his image and intended his glory to be reflected through his creatures. A dubious logic argues, “If God alone is all-glorious, then no one else is glorious at all. No exaltation may be admitted for any creature, since this endangers the exclusive prerogative of God. God shares his glory with no one!”
Jesus, however, corrects this misunderstanding as he prays to his Father: “And I have given them [the disciples] the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” God’s glory rests on Jesus, and through Jesus on his followers (see Jn 17:1, 22). When this glory in God’s people is seen, others are drawn to God, not diverted from God.
The principle is not hard to understand: the glory of a King is revealed in the glory of his court. The greater the King, the greater those who surround him at court. As Thomas Howard has put it:
What king surrounds himself with warped, dwarfish, worthless creatures? The more glorious the king, the more glorious are the titles and honors he bestows. The plumes, cockades, coronets, diadems, mantles, and rosettes that deck his retinue testify to one thing alone: his own majesty and munificence. He is a very great king, to have figures of such immense dignity in his train, or even better, to have raised them to such dignity. These great lords and ladies, mantled and crowned with the highest possible honor and rank, are precisely his vassals. This glittering array is his court! All glory to him and, in him, glory and honor to these others.[ii]
I have an artist friend whose wonderful and awe-inspiring exhibitions I have often attended. Is Chuck upset when I lavish my praise on his works? Of course not! He accepts such praise as a personal honor. In the same way, we honor God when we praise his works.
Does the artist feel threatened or denigrated when we praise him for the works of his hands? Does the king suspect he is being undermined or belittled when we are caught up praising the magnificence of his court? Mary and the other saints are the artistry of God. They are courtiers in the court of the king. They deserve to be honored and venerated. And we come to know God better as we admire his glory shining through the creatures he has made and redeemed.
[i] Lumen Gentium, 66; see also Ex 20:3; Rom 1:21-25.
[ii] Thomas Howard, Evangelical Is Not Enough (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 87.
Why do Catholics call Mary the Mother of God?
A thing can sometimes be too close to be seen. Mary did not originate God as in some pagan religions. But she did “mother” him. As with all Marian questions, we should come back to the most fundamental theological question for Christians: Who is Jesus? Did he have a mother? What should she be called?
Scripture is explicit on this point. When the pregnant Mary goes to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth greets her by saying, “But who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43).
In her womb, Mary is carrying Elizabeth’s Lord, the God of Israel, the great I AM. He is nourished by Mary’s blood, food, and oxygen. In utero he listens and learns the beating of her heart and the rhythm of her breathing. Soon he will long for her lactating breasts and the sunshine of her smile. He is Son; she is mother.
It’s really very simple. Mary is truly Jesus’ mother. She had no less a maternal relationship with Jesus than our birth mothers have with us. Out of her own body’s substance she donated the genetic material that formed Jesus’ body in the womb. She was the sole human donor of his DNA. Since he did not have a human father, Mary gave him the body that the Father would eventually raise from the dead.
But a mother provides much more than our protoplasm. She also imbues us with personality and forms our first human relationship. From our mothers we learn to walk, repeat the alphabet, use eating utensils, and share our toys. From our mothers we learn the truths of the Faith, values, morals, habits, reading, writing, manners, and respect and love for others, including our mother.
We love our mothers and our mothers love us. Our mothers are woven into our lives not only biologically but psychologically, spiritually, personally, and relationally. So then:
Premise #1. Mary is the real mother of a real Son.
Premise #2. Jesus was truly God.
Conclusion: Mary is truly the mother of God.
Some theologians in the fifth century argued that the Virgin Mary gave birth only to Christ’s human nature, not his divine nature. The Church concluded at the Council of Ephesus (431), however, that a mother does not give birth to a nature, she bears a person. The Virgin Mary bore the divine Person, Jesus Christ, not just an abstract set of properties we call a “human nature.” She was indeed the Theotokos, the God-bearer, which is the favored Eastern Orthodox term Mary, affirming the fact of her divine maternity.
Sometimes people refer to Mary as a mere vessel. Vessel, yes. “Mere”? No.
The Virgin Mary was not some impersonal bit of necessary obstetrical equipment, a piece of medical apparatus, a vaginal conduit or gynecological pipeline so Jesus could slide down from heaven like a penny dropped down a chute. She was and is a person, a genuine mother who cooperated with the grace of God in ushering the Savior into the world. She is the only one who can say, “I donated my flesh to God. When God took on human flesh, it was my flesh he took on.”
In Hebrews 10:5 we hear Jesus speaking to the Father: “Sacrifices and offering thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me.” Just what kind of body? What kind of flesh did she donate to Jesus? Was it flesh tainted by original sin?
These questions lead us to consider Mary’s Immaculate Conception. What kind of body did God prepare for Jesus?
What is the Immaculate Conception?
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches the truth that “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.” By the grace of God, Mary also remained free of even personal sin her whole life.[i]
In that one dense sentence, Pope Pius IX teaches at least three truths about the Immaculate Conception of Mary (not to be confused with the virginal conception of Jesus):
First, Mary did need a savior (see Lk 1:47).
Second, her Savior was Jesus Christ through his work on the cross.
Third, Mary was in fact saved from sin, although in a way that’s different from the way the rest of us are saved. But her salvation remained a work of God, not a work of Mary.
Some Christians object: “How can you say she needs a savior if she never sinned?” We can be saved “from” as well as saved “out of.” She was preserved from sin, while we are delivered out of it.
Even among our acquaintances we can observe this principle. Some of our fellow Christians have been delivered from sin when they turned away from pornography, alcoholism, embezzlement, or murderous rage. Others, however, never developed a taste for these vices. By the grace of God, they have reject such sins habitually because of a virtuous upbringing or a natural self-control. They are saved from these things rather than delivered out of them.
Two illustrations adapted from medieval theologians make this point. First, a person could be saved from a disease by the healing treatment of a doctor. Yet he could also be saved from the illness by following the doctor’s advice before contracting it, thus avoiding the disease entirely. Preventive medicine is to be preferred to curative medicine.
As a second illustration, imagine two travelers strolling down a forest lane. Before them lies a camouflaged pit. The first traveler falls into the pit and is rescued by the local sheriff. The second traveler approaches the pit and, just before toppling in, the sheriff’s hand reaches out and pulls her back from the edge. Both travelers needed a savior to save them from the pit.
In Scripture, we see that those whom God selects for a mission of particular importance are sometimes sanctified—that is, set apart—from their mother’s womb, as in the case of Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Paul (see Jer 1:5; Lk 1:15, 41; Gal 1:15). Since Mary was to play an utterly unique role in salvation history, she would require a sanctification proportionate to her calling. Consequently, Mary was “saved” from original sin at the moment of her conception; that’s why Gabriel could address her as “full of grace” (Lk 1:28).
But why did Mary have to be free of original sin? It all comes back to who Jesus is.[ii]
First, God needed to take on a sin-free human nature. He willed that the Second Person of the Trinity would have a human mother and not be formed out of mother earth, as the first Adam had been. What kind of human nature would he receive from this human mother? Would it be one stained by sin? What would she contribute out of her own life to her son?
Mary donated to Jesus the untainted humanity she had received from God. Jesus derived his unsullied human nature from his mother. The Eternal Son, as Newman put it, “imbibed, he sucked up her blood and her substance into his Divine Person. He became man from her.”
When the eternal God took on human flesh, it was Mary’s flesh with which he draped himself. It was a body fit for a King.
Fr. Alfred McBride tells the story of a Catholic boy who started telling an older man—a university professor—about Mary’s special graces. The professor smiled at the boy’s enthusiasm and tried to disarm him by saying, “But there is no difference between her and my mother.” The confident boy replied, “You may think so, but let me tell you, there is an enormous difference between the sons.”
Mary’s sanctification from her mother’s womb was a necessary preparation for her maternity of Jesus. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, like all the Marian dogmas, is first of all about Jesus Christ.
Here’s a second reason why the Immaculate Conception was necessary. Before the coming of Christ, God’s holy presence traumatized those who were exposed to it. Moses, for example, had to take off his sandals to walk on holy ground. “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live,” God told Moses. The people couldn’t even touch the foot of Mount Sinai during the giving of the Law without risking death (see Ex 3:5; 19:12-13; 33:20).
As the angelic beings called seraphim covered their eyes and sang, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple and was reduced to despair: “Woe is me for I am lost [I prefer the older English translation here: “undone”]; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have see the King, the Lord of hosts” (Is 6:3, 5).
He was undone—that is, disintegrating—in the presence of the High and Holy One who inhabits eternity and whose Presence was filling the Temple. Isaiah’s lips had to be purified by a flaming coal before he could proclaim God’s holy word (see verses 6-7). Such close encounters with God led to trauma!
In the days of King David in ancient Israel, during the procession of the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, the temple worker Uzzah instinctively reached out to steady this holiest object of Israel when it appeared as though it might tip over. But God struck him dead, because the people were not to “touch the holy things, lest they die” (Nm 4:15; 2 Sm 6:6).
Jesus Christ is that Holy One of all eternity. As the angel Gabriel announced to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:35).
If Isaiah disintegrated in the presence of the Holy One; if Uzzah was struck dead for touching the holy Ark of the Covenant; then how long would Mary have lasted if this Holy One of all eternity had taken up residence in a sin-stained womb? She wouldn’t merely have expired; she’d have evaporated.
So Mary becomes a hinge figure in the history of holiness. She is the one in whom the holy God of Israel dwelt more intimately than he ever did in any tabernacle, temple or ark. If the Mosaic tabernacle in which God would dwell had to be made perfect, “according to the pattern in heaven” (see Ex 25:9, 40; 39:32, 42, 43), how much more so Mary, the tabernacle of the Incarnate Word?
Because of her Immaculate Conception, she was able to act as a “step-down transformer,” so to speak, reducing the trauma of our encounter with perfect holiness. When the God of Moses, Uzzah, and Isaiah touched down on the earth, Mary’s womb was where he landed, and there was overcome the distance and alienation that had separated us from the Holy One.
We were now his friends. He could walk among us and we could touch him. His Holy Spirit could indwell us. We could eat his holy Food in the Eucharist. We no longer had to approach God with trepidation as though he were thundering from Mount Sinai; we could boldly approach the throne of grace with “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:18-24; see also 4:16).
As one who has received redemption in its fullness, Mary models the grace available to all of us. Mary does not differ from us because she possessed these gifts of grace. We also possess them. She simply had them from the beginning of her conception, while we receive them in baptism and justification.
Christ offers to all of us the same holiness, purity, and liberation from sin that Mary enjoyed. For this reason, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception should motivate us to “go and sin no more” (see Jn 8:11).
[i] Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (Apostolic Constitution on the Immaculate Conception), December 8, 1854; see also CCC, 490-93.
[ii] Perhaps the greatest historian of doctrine in the twentieth century was the Lutheran, now Eastern Orthodox, scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, who has written: “In its fundamental motifs the development of the Christian picture of Mary and the eventual emergence of a Christian doctrine of Mary must be seen in the context of the development of devotion to Christ and, of course, of the development of the doctrine of Christ. For it mattered a great deal for Christology whether or not one had the right to call Mary Theotokos. … It was a way of speaking about Christ at least as much as a way of speaking about Mary.” Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 241-42.
If Mary remained a virgin, then who are the men the Scripture calls “the brothers of the Lord”?
The Church has always accepted and taught that Mary remained a virgin throughout her entire life. As Pope Martin I proclaimed at the Lateran Council in 649: “She conceived without seed, of the Holy Spirit … and without injury brought him forth … and after his birth preserved her virginity inviolate.” All but one of the Church Fathers; all the ancient Catholic and Orthodox creeds; and even the chief Protestant reformers, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, taught that she remained a virgin and was properly called “Ever-Virgin.”
Throughout Christian history she is “the Virgin Mary,” not “the once-and-former virgin, Mary.” As Scott Hahn has put it: “Indeed, Mary’s identity is incomplete without the word ‘virgin.’… Virginity is not merely a characteristic of her personality, or a description of her biological state. Virginity is so much a part of her that it has become like a name. When literature or songs refer to ‘the Virgin’ of ‘the Blessed Virgin,’ it can mean only one person: Mary.”[i]
Occasionally, a heretic in the early Church would argue that Mary could not have been a perpetual virgin since the New Testament refers to the “brothers and sisters of the Lord.”[ii] If these passages were the only relevant texts, then we could probably retire the question by conceding that Jesus had blood siblings. But there are many other important passages, and even the above texts aren’t as straightforward as they appear on first reading.
Since in Hebrew there is no specific word for “cousin,” the word for “brother” is quite elastic and commonly refers to cousins or other kinsmen. The same Greek word used in these passages for “brother” is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to refer to relatives other than blood brothers (see Gn 14:16; 29:15; Lv 10:4; 1 Chr 23:22). To complicate matters further, some of these “brothers of the Lord” are named, and we find them to be the sons of another Mary (see Mt 13:55; 27:56; Mk 6:3; 15:40). These latter references in Scripture suggest that these “brothers” were indeed relatives of Jesus other than siblings.
Sometimes people think that since Jesus is called Mary’s “firstborn,” a “second-born” or “third-born” necessarily followed (see Lk 2:7). This is a false assumption. “Firstborn” in biblical culture was a legal term that referred to the child who first “opened the womb” and who then had the preeminent right of inheritance.
“Firstborn” thus referred to legal status, not numerical placement in a list. In fact, in some cases, a second-born became the firstborn because the original firstborn had lost the right of inheritance. Being called “firstborn” implied nothing about future offspring. Indeed, one ancient Greek tomb inscription for a mother who died during childbirth read: “In the pain of delivering my firstborn child destiny ended my life.” I think it fair to assume in this case that there was no “second-born.”
Some argue that Matthew believed that Mary and Joseph inevitably had sexual relations after the birth of Jesus (see Mt 1:18, 25). But there is nothing in the original language of these passages that forces us to believe that what hadn’t happened up to the point of Jesus’ birth, necessarily happened afterwards. In other words, Joseph and Mary’s abstinence from sexual relations didn’t require “correction” after the birth of Jesus.
Furthermore, if Matthew believed this, then how did the early Church, familiar with these texts, ever develop the notion of Mary’s perpetual virginity? This tradition is difficult to explain if these references were ever understood to mean Joseph and Mary had normal nuptial relations. Also, if these passages are so clear, why didn’t the chief Protestant reformers see them as a rejection of Mary’s ongoing virginity?[iii]
On the other hand, many passages and circumstances favor the perpetual virginity of Mary. For instance:
- No one is ever described as a son or daughter of Mary other than Jesus. This is fitting if he is the only Son of a widow, but odd if he is just one of many children. Why so many references to “brothers and sisters of the Lord” but none to the “children of Mary?” (Mk 6:3).
- If Mary and Joseph had other children, where are they in the story of Jesus’ being found in the temple? It reads most naturally as though Jesus were an only child (Lk 2:41-52).
- If Mary had other biological offspring, why did Jesus, as he hung dying on the cross, violate Jewish custom and entrust his mother into the keeping of John, the Beloved Disciple? (see Jn 19:26ff). The next oldest sibling should have assumed responsibility for their mother.
- Moreover, belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity appeared very early in the Church. Indeed, James, the “brother of the Lord,” was bishop of Jerusalem and could have debunked the belief simply by stepping forward and announcing that he was a uterine child of Mary. Yet the early Church with almost no exceptions universally held to Mary’s perpetual virginity. How did such a belief grow up while the memory of the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus was very much alive?
- To the angel Gabriel’s announcement that Mary would conceive a son, she posed a strange question: “How shall this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:27-34). If Mary had planned on having normal marital relations with Joseph, the question would have been out of place. She would have enjoyed the marriage bed with her husband, and nature would have taken its course.
In all likelihood, she would have eventually conceived a son. Such a development certainly wouldn’t have been unusual. But apparently that wasn’t a part of her imagined future. Behind her question is the assumption that though she would soon be married, she wasn’t planning on bearing children.
Whether she had vowed virginity from an early age or whether Joseph was marrying her more as a ward than a wife, we don’t know. But she didn’t expect to conceive a child and was surprised at the angel’s announcement.
Mary’s perpetual virginity cannot be understood apart from her being the Mother of God. Again, the Marian dogmas all begin with a reflection on the identity and significance of Jesus. To carry and give birth to the Son of God must have been the supreme fulfillment of her reproductive capacities.
Wasn’t this the purpose for which she was “woman”? As someone has said, “We love all the babies of the world. We adore only one.”Any future children would have been anticlimactic. Just think: If your first child is God, how do you think of number two?
Also consider what later siblings would have gone through. Younger children usually accuse the firstborn of acting like a deity: “Who do you think you are, God?” Well, yes, in this case, they would have been right. Imagine growing up with God as your older brother! I suppose you could argue that Jesus had to be an only child if only to spare later siblings serious self-concept problems.
So who were the “brothers of the Lord”? We don’t know with a certainty. Like so many others on the pages of Scripture, their identity is not firmly established.
Throughout Christian history, the vast majority of believers have known they weren’t the biological offspring of Mary. Apart from that conviction, however, the question is open. A few seem to be the sons of a different Mary not necessarily related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. St. Epiphanius believed they were the sons of Joseph by a former marriage. St. Jerome taught that they were the cousins of Jesus through a sister of Mary.
What is more important than resolving all the exegetical details, however, is to remember that we may be called to renounce some of the good things of this world for the sake of the gospel. At the annunciation, Mary said yes to a life of sacrificial love that cost her some of the natural goods of married life. No other woman had ever received the request to mother God in human flesh.
Nevertheless, like Mary, we too are birthing Christ into the world (see Gal 4:19) since Christ in us is “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Thus we offer him to the world by sharing the good news of the gospel, in acts of mercy and justice, and in renouncing our life in order that his life will abound and grow within us.
As St. Paul wrote: “[You are] my children, for whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you! (Gal 4:19; see also Rom 8:29; Eph 4:13-15; Col 1:27). Mary’s perpetual virginity stands as a beacon of how intimately we can bear and know God when we are willing to say yes to whatever he asks.
[i] Scott Hahn, Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 103.
[ii] Mt 12:46ff; 13:55; 27:56; Mk 3:21; 6:3; 15:40; Lk 8:19; Jn 7:5; Acts 1:14; 12:17; 15:13; 1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19.
[iii] David Wright recognizes “the long established universal belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, which was endorsed by all the Reformers virtually without qualification.” David F. Wright, Chosen By God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 123. Calvin, in commenting on Mathew 1:25, considers those who would challenge the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity on the basis of that verse “contentious troublemakers … [who] foolishly and falsely inferred from the words of the Evangelist, what happened after the birth of Christ.” John Calvin, Commentaries on a Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1, ed., David W. and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. A.W. Morrison (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980), 70.
Why do Catholics believe Mary didn’t die?
We don’t know whether or not Mary passed through death. Eastern Christians tend to say that she did. Western Christians tends to say she didn’t. Both East and West teach, however, that she was taken bodily into heaven.
This event is called the Assumption of Mary and is not to be confused with the Ascension of Jesus. Unlike Jesus, who ascended to heaven by his own divine strength, Mary was lifted up by the muscle of Christ’s resurrection power.
What is the basis for this dogma? Sacred Tradition calls Christ the Last Adam and identifies Mary as the New Eve.[i] The first Eve was to be the mother of all the living. Her rebellious partnership with Adam, however, led them to become the parents of death, not life.
In contrast, by obeying God, Mary conceived, bore, and parented the Last Adam, the Living One, Christ Jesus. In short, the first “Woman” bore sinners, the second “Woman” bore the Savior (see Gn 2:23; 3:20; Jn 2:4; 19:26; Rv 12:1-4ff).
Eve disobeyed the Word of God and delivered destruction upon us. Mary obeyed the Word of God and transmitted Life into the world. Had Eve made the choice of Mary, she would have never died. Mary, the New Eve who is supernaturally prepared to be the mother of the life-giving One, is not forced to pass through death.
The human race has begun anew in the Last Adam and the New Eve. Who would deny that Mary was as fully endowed as Eve? There is no great leap to infer that she, who was to co-operate in the redemption of the world, chooses with as muchresult and power as she who co-operated in the world’s ruin.
The generosity of Christ’s resurrection flowed first to the mother from whom he had literally drawn his physical body. Cosmas Vestitor, a Byzantine homilist of the mid-eighth century, noted that for Christ and Mary “there was the same burial and the same translation to immortality, since the flesh of the Mother and of the Son is one and the same flesh.” Jesus doesn’t sit enthroned in heaven, pointing at Mary and saying, “She used to be my mother.” She remains his mother. The flesh he raised was her flesh.
The early homilies on the Assumption of Mary stress this ongoing palpable intimacy and indestructible bond between mother and Son.[ii] Germanus, the seventh-century patriarch of Constantinople, imagines Jesus saying this to Mary at the time of her Assumption: “It is time to take you to be with me, you, my mother. … And so where I am, you shall be also, Mother, inseparable in her inseparable Son.”
Love craves union with the beloved, and Mary was not to be left behind. “What son would not bring his mother to life,” asked St. Francis de Sales, “and would not bring her into paradise after her death if he could?”
Even though Christians had been celebrating the Feast of the Assumption on August 15 since at least the sixth century, the Dogma of the Assumption wasn’t formally defined until November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII wrote: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”[iii]
Although the Assumption of Mary is a singular privilege, Scripture does display many unusual departures from this world by those who walked especially close with God. Consider that Enoch, Elijah, Lazarus, and those who came out of the tomb at Christ’s resurrection were all received bodily into heaven before the general resurrection (see Gn 5:24; Heb 11:5; 2 Kgs 2:1,11; Mt 27:50-53). Further, those who are alive on earth at Christ’s return will be “caught up” to him bodily (1 Thes 4:15-17).
Can we suppose that these believers should be so favored, but not God’s own mother? As Newman put it: “Had she not a claim on the love of her Son to have what any others had? Was she not nearer to him than the greatest of the saints before her? And is it conceivable that the law of the grave should admit of relaxation in their case, and not in hers? Therefore, we confidently say that our Lord, having preserved her from sin and the consequences of sin by His Passion, lost no time in pouring out the full merits of that Passion upon her body as well as her soul.”[iv]
While the earliest documented stories of Mary’s passing are severely tainted with legendary and extravagant details, they are too numerous to be written off as total fictions. They are too widespread to be simply the work of one group or to have originated in one particular theological setting. For all their shortcomings, they presuppose and bear witness to a historical reality that is further established by a telling omission: while two cities claim Mary’s empty tomb, nobody claims her bones.
Very early on Christians venerated the saints and martyrs. Cities even competed to be recognized as their burial places. But surprisingly, no city ever claimed the bones of Mary. While claims abound for the relics of other old holies, we have no evidence that her bodily remains or cremains were ever venerated. Why? She had been translated to heaven. Nothing was left behind.
Whom did the seer of Revelation see in heaven at the end of the first century? “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery… she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne” (Rv 12:1-4ff).
While the Apocalypse is highly symbolic and this maternal figure may personify Israel or the Church, yet it is inconceivable that first-century readers wouldn’t also have recognized here Mary, the mother of the Messiah. This is why the Church has for centuries read this passage in the Mass on the Feast of the Assumption.
Christ loved his mother. He gave her a special share in his mysteries, as one would expect of a good Son. With her DNA, God prepared Christ’s body in her womb.
How apt that she, who obediently donated her physical substance to the formation of Christ’s body, should now be held up as a demonstration of the bodily glory awaiting all Christ’s partners who lovingly bear him as the Word of redemption to the whole world. We will share his lot at the end of time and, fittingly, his mother has already anticipated our future glory.
[i] See CCC, 411, 489, 726, 2618, 2853 as well as John Henry Newman, Mary, the Second Eve (Rockford, Ill.: TAN, 1991).
[ii] John Saward has pointed out that in the homilies of John of Damascus (c. 675-c. 749) on the Assumption “that just as the title Theotokos, God-bearer, is primarily Christological in reference and protects right belief in the Incarnation, so the implications of the same title constitute the foundation of belief in the Assumption; the Assumption too has an essential Christological reference, teaches us something about the person of Christ. John Saward, “The Assumption,” in Alberic Stacpoole, ed., Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue (Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1982), 111.
[iii] Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Dei (The Most Bountiful God); see also Lumen Gentium, 59; CCC, 966.
[iv] John Henry Newman, Meditations and Devotions (Harrison, New York: Roman Catholic Books, n.d. [orig. 1893], 141-42.
Why pray to Mary and the other saints?
During the Easter Vigil liturgy the Church prays the Litany of the Saints, in which we ask the company of heaven to pray for us. The cantor intones, for example, “St. Augustine,” and the congregation chants back, “Pray for us.”
This litany swings back and forth for so long that you can imagine that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” and that we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:1, 22-23). The whole family of God in heaven and on earth is gathered for worship together.
Then the direction of the litany shifts as we address God and Christ. We no longer chant, “Pray for us,” but rather, “Hear our prayer.”
The difference is striking. We ask the saints in heaven to pray for us. We ask the Lord to hear our prayer.
Imprecision here generates needless controversy. Catholics are sometimes careless and non-Catholics are sometimes suspicious. Misunderstandings abound because for many non-Catholics, prayer is the highest form of worship. For Catholics, on the other hand, sacrifice is the highest form of worship.
St. Epiphanius, for instance, condemned a fourth-century sect called the Collyridians who offered little sacrificial cakes to the Blessed Virgin Mary and then ate them. They were heretical, not for asking Mary to pray for them, but for sacrificing to her. Although all worship is prayer, not all prayer is worship. Prayers to the saints are no more a form of worship than is asking the saints on earth to pray for us.
Some people have more intercessory clout than others. Jeremiah, long after the death of Moses and Samuel, heard the Lord say: “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people” (Jer 15:1; see also Ex 32:11-14:30; Nm 14:13-23; Dt 9:18-20, 25-29; 1 Sm 7:5-9; 12:19-25; Ps 99:6-8). Judas Maccabeus saw a vision of two holy deceased men, the high priest Onias and the prophet Jeremiah, “fervently praying for his people and their holy city” (2 Mac 15:11-16). In the New Testament we find that those in heaven are offering up golden bowls of incense in which are the “prayers of the saints” on earth (Rv 5:8; 6:9; 8:3-4; see also Tob 12:12).
Throughout Scripture, believers are commanded to pray for one another (see Rom 15:30; Eph 6:18; Col 1:3; 4:3; 1 Thes 1:11; 5:23; Heb 13:18). Most of us pray for the friends who ask. Would our prayers for them cease if we were to die and go to heaven?
If “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (Jas 5:16), how much more so the prayers of the one who is perfected in Christ-likeness and standing before the throne of grace, face to face with God? The saints in heaven are mighty prayer warriors on our behalf.
Still the question: Why do we need to pray to Mary or the saints? Why not go to God directly? Didn’t St. Paul write: “For … there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tm 2:5)?
Of course this is true. Sin has created a huge gulf between God and man. Man could not bridge that gulf. God himself took on human nature and crossed that divide.
St. Therese can’t do that. St. Paul can’t do that. But since Christ has done it, those who are united with him share in his work of mediation.
There is only one Shepherd, but there are many who shepherd Christ’s flock (see Jn 10:14-16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pt 5:2). There is only one High Priest, but we all share in the universal priesthood of believers (see Heb 4:14ff; 5:6; 6:20; 7:3ff; 1 Pt 2:5-9). There is only one Judge, but at the end of time we will judge angels (see Jas 4:12; 2 Tm 4:1ff; 1 Cor 6:2,3; Rv 20:4).
In the same passage where St. Paul speaks of only “one mediator,” he also commands “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tm 2:1-2). Even though Jesus is our intercessor, we are commanded to participate in his intercession.
But imagine that the next time you ask a spiritual and prayerful friend to pray for you, he turns to you, stricken with horror, and rebukes you, saying, “Why ask me to pray for you? Go to God directly. I’m no mediator. Don’t you know there is only one mediator between God and man, the man, Christ Jesus?” It’s just not what you expect from a family member, is it?
Catholics don’t believe in a “wall of separation” between heaven and earth. It’s more of a permeable membrane. For the believing Christian, death is not some kind of meat cleaver that cuts off the relationship between Christians on the earth and those in heaven.
Christ is the vine; we are the branches (see Jn 15:1-8). Whether in heaven or on the earth, the believers remain the branches and are connected to one another through Christ who is the vine. Death doesn’t divide us (see Rom 8:35-39). We remain “one body” (1 Cor 12:20) alive in Christ Jesus, and thus we still support one another in prayer.
One of the great virtues of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions is that they keep alive our sense of the invisible universe. It’s hard to believe in realities that aren’t immediately present to us. Honoring the saints, asking them to pray with us, and celebrating their festivals help to remind us that we are not alone in this universe.
Catholics often give the wrong impression about the communion of the saints. I’m reminded of a story about a little boy who wanted a bicycle. His parents didn’t have much discretionary income, so they told him to pray: “You need to pray to Jesus about it, and maybe a bike will come.”
He prayed but got no bike. So he asked his parents again. “Keep praying,” they said. The pattern continued through Christmas, his birthday, and other holidays, but still no bike. Finally in desperation, the kid marched into his bedroom, grabbed the statue of Mary off the top of his dresser, wrapped it in a towel, stuffed it in the bottom drawer of his dresser, and said: “All right, Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again, get me that bicycle!”
Mary doesn’t engage in maternal blackmail. She’s not the last resort if we don’t get our way with God. It’s wrong to imagine that Jesus is indifferent, and so maybe I can get his mother to answer me.
We solicit the prayers of those “friends of God” in heaven in the same spirit that we ask our brothers and sisters, “the friends of God,” on the earth to pray for us. God is the ultimate recipient of all prayer. St. Thomas Aquinas made an important distinction:
Prayer is offered to a person in two ways: first, to be fulfilled by him, and secondly, to be obtained through him. In the first way, we offer prayer to God alone, since all our prayers ought to be directed to the acquisition of grace and glory, which God alone gives, according to Psalm 83:12, “Grace and glory he bestows.” But in the second way we pray to the saints [that is, [“holy ones”], whether angels or human, not that God may know our petitions through them, but that our prayers may be effective through their prayers and merits.
How can Mary and the other saints hear all those prayers?
Years ago someone calculated that Mary would have to “listen to 46,296 petitions at one and the same time, simultaneously, every second of time from one end of the year to the other.” And that was just the Rosary traffic. The one who calculated the number wanted to reduce to absurdity the ancient practice of invoking the saints. Only God could hear so much at once, he argued. Therefore, Catholics must really think Mary and the other saints are deities.
In response, we should note first that Mary and the other saints, of course, are not omniscient deities. Nevertheless, they do share something with God: they are outside of time. Being outside of time, it takes no time for them to hear these prayers.
Furthermore, there are a finite number of people on the earth, and thus a finite number of prayers are being sent skyward. Omniscience is not required—just an expanded range of human abilities. This is, of course, what God has promised: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). We also should think of the resurrected Christ’s ability to appear where he willed without passing through doors (John 20:19).
Second, we should note that our oneness in Christ forms the medium of our communication with those in heaven. He is the vine; we are the branches in heaven and on earth. We are one body animated by Christ who is the infinite, personal God in heaven and on earth.
Since he wills for the members of his body to communicate with one another, he guarantees the means by which they do so. The eye communicates properly with the brain and the hand communicates adequately with the itchy nose. This is part of the “communion of saints,” and it extends from heaven to earth (see Jn 15:1-8; 1 Cor 12:12-26).
Third, Scripture is clear that those in heaven are somehow aware of the needs of those on the earth. The angels in heaven rejoice over the repentance of one sinner (Lk 15:7-10); the elders and angels in heaven offer up the prayers of the saints on earth (Rv 5:8; 8:3); those under the altar know that the time of their vindication has not yet come on the earth (Rv 6:10).
While I’m not sure how the divine prayer switchboard works, I do know that those in heaven are united with us in Christ and are not subject to the same limitations of space and time that we are. They have a way of networking we know not of.