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What About the Virgin Mary? (A Brief Catechism About Mary)

1. Why waste your time with a Marian catechism?; Jesus is the center of the Christian faith.

Is the moon any less important or lovely because the sun is the center of our solar system? Just as the moon is beautiful (yes, and beneficial) by reflecting the sun's light, so is Mary beautiful and beneficial to us by reflecting the Light and Glory of Christ.

Also, the New Testament has more material on Mary than on any other woman. That tells me that Mary is an important figure and that I ought to take notice.

2. What was Mary called among her people, and what does the name mean?

Among the Aramaic speaking Jews of her own time she was called "Maryam," the Hebrew version of which is "Miriam." There is some debate, but many scholars connect the name to a root whose meaning is "bitter." It was not lost on the early Christians, however, that the Aramaic form of her name could be broken down to two words meaning "Lord of the Sea" (Mar = Lord, Yam = Sea) which they saw as referring to Christ the "Fish." (The letters of the Greek word for "fish" were taken by early Christians to stand for "Jesus Christ God's Son Savior")

3. How old was Mary when she gave birth to Jesus?

We cannot, of course, say for certain, but a likely conjecture is between 14 and 17 years old.

4. How literally does the Church understand the doctrine of the Virgin Birth?

The Church has always understood that when St. Luke tells us (1: 27) that the angel Gabriel came to a "parthenos" (virgin) he meant it quite literally, and that when Mary asks the angel how she will bear a son since she "knows not a man" (that is, has not had intercourse) she was telling the truth. The Holy Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, traditional Anglicans and Lutherans, as well as most conservative Protestant bodies believe the Virgin Birth to be a literal, historical fact: Jesus Christ was conceived in Mary's womb without the aid of a man and by the direct working of the Holy Spirit upon her.

There is, to be sure, a deeper theological meaning to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth in addition to the literal one. Almost everything and everyone in Scripture has a secondary, "typological" significance. In causing His Son to be conceived in an intact virgin, God was demonstrating that He was taking up His abode with men among "virgin Israel," that is, among the Righteous Remnant of His People.

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5. So, Mary has a symbolic, as well as historical, meaning as the Mother of Jesus Christ?

Absolutely! The early Fathers of the Church saw in Mary a personification, as I said, of Virgin Israel, the Righteous Remnant, out of whom was born the Messiah. Her very statement in her beautiful song of praise, the Magnificat, that "from henceforth all generations will call me blessed" recalls the promise to Abraham (and hence his people) that whoever blessed him (and them) God would bless.

To bless Mary (as did Gabriel, her cousin Elizabeth, and countless others through the ages) is to bless not only her, but also the Righteous Remnant of Israel to whom Jesus Christ came and among whom He first proclaimed the Kingdom of God.

The Church Fathers often call Mary the New Ark (i.e., of the Covenant). St. John tells us (1:14) "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." If one translates the Greek into Hebrew the word "dwelt" would be "shakhan," obviously from the same root as "Shekhinah," the Presence of God that rested upon the Holy Ark. John is saying quite forthrightly that Jesus is that Divine Presence, but no longer resting on an Ark of wood, He "pitched His tent among us" in the Womb of a living woman of flesh and blood.

6. Catholics and Orthodox call Mary ever-virgin. Isn't the Bible clear that Mary had other children?

Mary Statue, photographed by David Bennett

Does the New Testament say Mary had other children? Read carefully now. St. Matthew (13: 55) and St. Mark (6:3) do give the names of those it calls Jesus' "brothers," namely, James, Joses, Simon, and Jude. However, if you look at Matthew 27: 56 and Mark 15: 40 you will see both Evangelists tell us quite clearly that James and Joses were NOT sons of Mary or Joseph but children of a different "Mary" who is called both the Wife of Alphaeus/Cleopas AND the Virgin Mary's "sister." Now, it would have been highly unlikely in those days for two Jewish sisters to have the same first name, but obviously some close relationship is implied among all these people. It's really fairly easily solved: Alphaeus/Cleopas was the brother of St. Joseph, hence Alphaeus' wife, Mary, was the sister-in-law of the Virgin, making James, Joses, Simon, Jude, and the "sisters" to be Jesus' cousins. That the Evangelists call such cousins "brothers and sisters" isn't surprising but quite in line with Semitic thought where close kin were often called brothers/sisters.

Also, read John 19:25-27 (NJB): Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, "woman this is your son." Then to the disciple he said, "This is your mother." Thus, Jesus gave away his mother to the care of St. John the apostle, which would be very strange and probably even illegal had Mary had children of her own who could have cared for her.

One must also take into account the almost universal belief of Christians throughout the ages that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whom we call the God-bearer, was ever-virgin. The majority of the ancient Fathers of the Church believed Mary was ever-virgin, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Jerome. Many Reformers did as well (surprisingly to most Protestants) including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and John Wesley.

7. Doesn't Scripture say that Joseph "knew her not until she brought forth her firstborn son," implying other children?

In the Old Testament it is written that Michal had no child until the day of her death; does that mean she had one after she died? Of course not! The Evangelist, by stating that Joseph did not "know" Mary "until" she had given birth to Jesus, is simply re-emphasizing that this was a virgin birth, a birth caused by God and not man. St. Jerome, a language scholar, explained that the use of "until" is a Hebrew idiom which does not necessarily imply Mary had other children. Even John Calvin believed "firstborn" simply indicated that Mary was a virgin, and agreed with St. Jerome's assertions about the use of "until."

As for "first-born," Colossians 1: 15 calls Jesus the Firstborn of all creation in God's image. Does this mean that there is a second, third, fourth born? That would be heresy. A first-born can be the only born. The term "firstborn" also had an important meaning in Judaic religion: The firstborn was considered holy and belonging solely to God as it was written in the Torah, "The first son that opens the womb shall be holy to the Lord." The parents had to "redeem" the firstborn son with offerings and sacrifice. Firstborn also is a synonym for "preeminent" in this ancient usage.

8. Why is Mary called "Mother of God (Greek: theotokos)?" Could Mary give birth to God?

Mary was declared the "theotokos," Greek for God-Bearer, in early Christian worship, and the title was officially made doctrine at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. The term "theotokos" does not mean that Mary is somehow the mother of the Trinity, or that she existed at the beginning of time. Absolutely no informed or educated Christian believes this; it seems only those who would seek to mischaracterize catholic belief assert that we believe Mary is somehow the mother of the entire Godhead.

The history is a bit long and messy, but affirming Mary as mother of God has more to do with who Jesus is, than Mary. It has everything to do with Christ being fully God and human at the same time. Calling Mary God-Bearer simply affirms that Mary is the mother of the one person, Jesus Christ, who is both fully human and fully divine. This is all "theotokos" implies. Catholics, Orthodox, and the majority of Protestants accept the declarations of the Council of Chalcedon that call Mary "theotokos." This includes Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and many Baptists.

9. Can you provide quotes from the Protestant reformers calling Mary "mother of God" and "ever-virgin?"

Of course. Let's start with Luther:

It is an article of the Faith that Mary is the Mother of the Lord and still a virgin...Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact. The Works of Luther, by Weimar, translated by Pelikan.

In this work whereby she was made the Mother of God, so many and such great good things were given to her that no one can grasp them..." Ibid.

Calvin agreed Mary was the Mother of God and that her perpetual virginity was possible:

Elizabeth called Mary Mother of the Lord.....the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the Eternal God. The Works of Calvin, Berlin, 1863.

Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ's 'brothers' are sometimes mentioned...The inference he [Helvidius] drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband...No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words...as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called 'first-born'; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin..." Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke, sec. 39 (Geneva, 1562), vol. 2 / From Calvin's Commentaries, tr. William Pringle

Zwingli (Swiss reformer whose teachings influenced later Anabaptists, although they were more radical than he was) said similar things:

I esteem immensely the Mother of God, the ever chaste, immaculate Virgin Mary. The Works of Zwingli, Corpus Reformatorum, Berlin, 1905.

The more the honor and love Christ grows among men, the more esteem and honor for Mary grows, for she brought forth for us so great and so compassionate a Lord and Redeemer." Ibid.

John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of the Methodists (later became the Methodist Church) wrote this in a letter to a Roman Catholic, explaining the beliefs Anglicans and Roman Catholics share:

I believe... he [Jesus Christ] was born of the blessed Virgin, who, as well after as she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin. "Letter to a Roman Catholic."

10. Zwingli used the word "immaculate" concerning Mary. Does this refer to the Immaculate Conception?

Mary Statue among autumn flowers, photographed by David Bennett

The Catholic Church teaches that Mary, who is "full of grace," and heralded as "the new Eve" by the Church Fathers, was without Original (and consequently actual) sin from the moment of her conception. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a belief specific to the Catholic Church, although many Eastern Church Fathers believed in it. Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception dogma in 1854, after a lively debate among Catholic theologians. However, it is not accepted by the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox (Copts, Armenians, et al), most Anglicans, or any Protestant group. Nonetheless, the concept of Mary being conceived immaculately is first clearly articulated by Eastern Church Fathers, beginning in the Syrian Church, around the 4th century. The Syrian Christians even likely celebrated a feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, after Monophysitism overtook Syria, the feast gradually fell out of use.

Having said that, however, it must be pointed out that the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox do call Mary the "all-blameless" and "all-holy." The Orthodox believe that Mary was born with a "tendency toward sin," just like any other descendant of Adam and Eve, and that at the Annunciation, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, Mary was completely sanctified. Thus while she may not have always quite understood everything Jesus was saying and doing, she did not commit any actual, willful sins. I have heard nearly the same idea expressed by many Anglicans and even by some Lutherans, both clergy and laity. Part of the division over the Immaculate Conception is that Eastern Christians do not conceive of Original Sin in the same way Western Christians do, as an inheritable condition. Thus, for many Easterners, there is no theological need for Mary to be born immaculately for her to be sinless. Some Orthodox theologians have even suggested the Orthodox would believe in the Immaculate Conception if they believed in the Western definition of Original Sin. Orthodox and Catholics seem to be getting at the same "mystery" that is Mary's role as Mother of God and her spotlessness as bearer of Christ. They disagree as to when it happened. Perhaps this recognition is a starting point for future unity on this matter? The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.

One point to remember here is that, whether one holds to the Catholic dogma or the Orthodox doctrine, the cause of Mary's sinlessness (or all-blamelessness) is Christ. And whether she was totally sanctified from sin at her conception or sometime later, all agree that her holiness comes from Jesus Christ, not herself.

11. Was Mary Assumed Into Heaven? Is That in the Bible?

The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and many Anglicans, teach that Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul. The Assumption was made dogma in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, but belief in the Assumption is much more ancient. Eastern Christians (including many Catholics) tend to believe that Mary fell asleep (died) before being taken to heaven. The Eastern Churches call this the Dormition of Mary. The Church Fathers relay stories of Mary's tomb being empty when the Apostles opened it up. Western Catholics conceive of Mary being assumed while still alive. What is the purpose of Mary's assumption? The Catholic Catechism states:

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians (CCC 966).

In other words, Mary's assumption is not necessarily about elevating the person of Mary, as it is a preview and symbol of our own future resurrection. However, special people are often taken to heaven in special ways. The Bible tells us Elijah was assumed into heaven. Moses was thought to be taken into heaven in a special manner, mentioned in the apocryphal Assumption of Moses, a work quoted in the New Testament Letter of Jude.

In answer to the second part of the question, the Assumption is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. However, in Revelation we read of a "woman clothed with the sun," thought to be Mary in ancient Christian Scriptural interpretation. If this interpretation is true, then St. John attests to Mary's presence in heaven, body and soul. We must remember that neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians hold to the Reformation tradition of sola scriptura, i.e. that all doctrine must be proved by Scripture alone. Catholics and Orthodox (and the early Church) see no contradiction between the two, and recognize that truth unfolds through Holy Tradition. Thus something hinted at in Scripture, like the Assumption of Mary, is more fully demonstrated by Tradition. The Catholic Church and Eastern Churches celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on August 15.

12. All of this makes me think, but, why do you pray to Mary? Isn't that worshiping her?

I'll let the early Father and Bishop, Epiphanius of Salamis (4th Century) answer: "Let Mary be held in honor, but let the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit alone be worshiped; let no one worship Mary" (Panarion 3.2:7). And yet, this early bishop has no trouble asking the intercession of the Mother of God.

If I come to you and ask you to pray for me, am I worshipping you? Paul asked the recipients of his epistles to pray for him; was he "worshipping" them by that request?

13. But I am alive, as was Paul's audience. Mary is dead.

So far you have been asking the theoretical questions, now let me ask you a question: Do you believe that what Jesus said is true? If you say yes, hear him now:

I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. (St. John 11: 25-26, RSV)

"Shall never die." That means that everyone who has "lived and believed" in Jesus from then until now is what? Alive! For as Jesus told the Sadducees, "God is not a God of the dead but of the living, for all live unto Him" (Luke 20:38 KJV). This includes Mary, the One who was the God-bearer.

14. But that still doesn't mean she hears us when we ask her prayers.

That has never seemed problematic to me. The saints who have left this earth are outside time and are "in God" who is present to everything and everyone in all times and all places all at once. The author of Hebrews in fact tells us "...we are surrounded by a so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1, RSV), that is, surrounded by the martyrs and saints. The Church has always taken this quite literally. HOW this can be so is beyond my ken or feeble ability to explain, but if I accept the Word of God, I must accept that it is so. That the earliest Christians believed the saints could be asked for their prayers is beyond question. We have found at Christian grave sites from as far back as the first century itself, graffiti on tombs that say things like, "Aufidia, little daughter now with the Lord, pray for us," or "Matrona, dear wife, you are with Christ, remember me in your prayers!"

Granted, sometimes there have been excesses when people have gotten carried away and asked more of the saints (including Mary) than just their prayers, going against actual Church teaching on the saints. Neither Mary nor the other saints (nor God for that matter) are "holy vending machines" at our whim. This is why many Protestants (even those who confess belief in the communion of saints in the Nicene Creed) will not directly ask the prayers of the saints. However, many ignore the saints altogether (rather like tossing Baby out with the bathwater, if you ask me), but others like Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians will commemorate the saints, either on one day a year (All Saints' Day) or on a specific memorial day for a certain saint. In which case the prayer used is often something like this: "O God, we thank and praise you for St. such-and-such, for his/her life and witness. Grant us to follow his/her example etc." The liturgy of the Lutheran Church (surely the MOST Protestant of all!) even asks God to unite the prayers of the congregation with the prayers of God's people of all times and places. When you come right down to it and in spite of some nitpicking amongst the various churches, doesn't it all boil down to the same thing - that when we pray, worship, and intercede, we are not alone but are surrounded by the Cloud of Witnesses, are united with those that came before, who are still our brothers and sisters in Christ?

If you cannot, as yet, directly ask Mary to pray with and for you, at least thank the Father for her, for her openness to say "Yes!" to the angel, for her standing by the cross of her Son, for her being there in prayer with the Apostles on Pentecost, for her life and witness. You might even ask God to join your prayers and praises to hers and to those of all the saints of Heaven and earth, reminding yourself that you are not alone, but belong to a Great Choir of prayer and adoration.

15. This has been helpful. I don't understand it all, but I'm rethinking some things.

I hope I have helped. For me, as a Catholic, praying with Mary draws me nearer to Him whom she bore, my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If Jesus is my King, then His Mother is the Queen Mother and surely is due honor for that alone, but more than that, I believe (as the Church has taught me) that Mary is also our Mother. When Jesus, from the cross gave Mary to St. John..."Son, behold your Mother," he was giving her to all of us. And what good mother does not love to pray for her children?

I would like to end with this ancient prayer in honor of Mary:

Rejoice of God-bearing Virgin, Mary full of grace! The Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the Fruit of your womb: For you have given birth to the Savior of our souls!

Truly it is right to bless you, O God-bearer, for you are most blessed, most pure, and the Mother of our God. O higher than the cherubim! More glorious than the seraphim! Without corruption, you gave birth to God the Word: True God-bearer, we magnify you! +Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: both now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

Written by David Morrison; Minor Contributions: David Bennett

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