Humble Handmaid and "Mother of God"? What Catholics Believe about Mary
- Thursday, December 15, 2011
For centuries, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been a focal point of controversy and debate among Christians. Confusion particularly surrounds Catholic teachings on this favored Saint. What do Catholics mean when they call Mary “ever virgin,” the “new Eve,” and the “Mother of God”? What is the “Immaculate Conception” and does it refer to Mary or Jesus? And perhaps most importantly, do Catholics worship Mary? This article serves to explain Catholic beliefs about Mary and clear up misconceptions about her unique role in the Catholic faith.
On December 8, Catholics celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. A common mistaken belief is that this feast day celebrates Jesus' conception; however, the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. (We will celebrate the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, or “Mary's birthday,” in exactly nine months, on September 8; the Incarnation of Jesus in Mary's womb is celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas.)
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary, although conceived in the usual manner by her human parents (St. Anne and St. Joachim), was saved from the stain of original sin at the moment of conception. Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: “...the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin...”
In effect, Catholics believe Mary was the first human being to receive the effects of Jesus' saving power, only her redemption was incurred retroactively. Catholics view Gabriel’s greeting as an implicit reference to Mary's exemption from the stain of original sin. In Luke 1:28Luke 1:28Luke 1:28, the angel says, "Hail, kecharitomene, the Lord is with you.” To quote from the apologetics site Catholic Answers, “The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning 'to fill or endow with grace.' Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present.”
Mary as the New Eve
Jesus is referenced in Scripture as the new Adam (cf. Romans 5:18-21); similarly, Catholics believe that Mary is the new Eve. Eve, like Mary, was a virgin created without sin; but Eve, unlike Mary, chose to reject obedience to God. The Catholic Church teaches that through Eve's disobedience to the will of God, the world fell; through Mary's obedience, the world was redeemed. This particular Catholic title for Mary dates back to early Church fathers like St. Irenaeus, who wrote in his second-century work Against Heresies, “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”
Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant
Catholics believe God chose to save Mary from the stain of original sin in order to consecrate Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. Just as the original Ark of the Covenant contained manna from Heaven, Aaron's rod that sprouted to confirm the priesthood of the tribe of Levi, and the written Word of God (cf. Hebrews 9:4); the Ark of the New Covenant contained Jesus: the Bread of Life, the Word made flesh, who died and rose again to become our High Priest. The Catholic Church draws parallels with various scriptures in giving Mary this title, for example comparing 2 Samuel 6:2-14 with Luke 1:39-56.
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