Mary is one of the outstanding figures in the Bible. She is “outstanding” because of her unique role as
“Mother of God.” Unlike the mothers of other biblical figures Isaac, Moses, and Samson who are mentioned in connection
with the birth of their children but play no role in the accomplishment of their mission, Mary shared in her Son’s role
as Redeemer of mankind, especially in the dramatic final moments on Calvary.
It is true that the Gospels, except for the Infancy narratives, do not speak extensively of Mary. But it is also true
that she is featured in the most important moments in the life of Christ, namely:
His conception (see Lk 1:26-38), His birth (see Lk 2:6f),
His death on the cross (See Jn 19:25). She is also humbly present at the beginning of the Church,
praying for the coming of the Spirit and edifying the brethren with her example (see
Now, if the significance of the role of a person is measured both by the importance
of events in which one participates and by the dispositions with which one participates
in them, we can conclude that the role of Mary in the history of salvation is the most important one after that of Christ.
The greatest events of human history, in fact, are the Incarnation, the Redemption of mankind, and the beginning of the Church.
Mary participated in all of them in the fullest possible way. Her humble and faith-filled “Yes!” at Nazareth, on Calvary, and in the Upper Room, is an act whose importance ranks second only to that
The Christian community sensed the extraordinary role and holiness of Mary from the very beginning of its existence
as the four gospels attest. But it also gradually grew in its appreciation of the greatest
of Mary. Such a growth was not simply the result of human investigation. It was primarily the fruit of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is the Spirit who led the community of believers
to realize Mary’s exceptional privileges and role in the History of Salvation not only during her earthly life, but
up to the very end of time.
Two points, therefore, are to be underlined in connection with the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about in the
Church the awareness of Mary’s mission and privileges:
a) the gradualness with which such insights were acquired
and gained acceptance within the whole believing community; and
b) the guarantee of immunity of error which those insights
enjoy once they are authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium as revealed truths
to be believed by all.
The Sources of Our Knowledge About Mary
The primary and fundamental source of our knowledge about Mary is the Bible, since it contains the inspired, written Word of God.
The Bible itself, however, has to
be properly understood and explained. This is done
- within the living Tradition
of the Church, and
- under the guidance of the
Magisterium, which enjoys a special divine assistance.
All other sources of information
on Mary (theological conclusions and “private revelations”) have to be evaluated in the light of what we know
about her from the Bible, as authentically interpreted by the Church.
Mary in the Old Testament
Mary is not mentioned by name in the Old Testament for the obvious reason that when it was written, she was not yet
born. But in the O.T. we do find two prophecies concerning the mother of the Messiah.
These passages speak of the defeat of Satan (Gn 3:15) and the birth of the Messiah
of a virgin (Is 7:14)
Mary in the New Testament
Mary is mentioned by name only in the Gospels and in the book of Acts (In Gal 4:4, Paul speaks of her as the “woman”
of whom the Son of God was born.)
The list that follows gives an idea of where and in what circumstances Mary is spoken of in the New Testament.
Gospel of Matthew Gospel of Luke
1: 16 (Genealogy of Jesus)
(Message of an angel to Joseph) 1:39–56
of the Magi) 2:21–40 (Circumcision and
presentation in the Temple)
13–15 (Flight to Egypt)
2:41–52 (Lost and finding
Jesus in Jerusalem)
12:46–47 (Attempt to contact Jesus 8:19–21 (Attempt to contact Jesus
during His public life) during
His public life)
Gospel of Mark Gospel of John
3:31–35 (Attempt to
contact Jesus 2:1–11 (At the wedding of Cana)
(At the foot of the Cross)
Acts of the Apostles
disciples after Jesus’ ascension)We should notice that in all these
passages Mary is always mentioned in connection with or in reference to her Son, Jesus. Mary
exists for Jesus.
The Church’s Growth
in the Awareness of Mary’s Role in the History of Salvation
The Role of Mary in the History of Salvation During Her Earthly Life.
History” is the fulfillment of God’s plan offering and bringing about the salvation of mankind. It can also
be seen as the series of interactions between God’s grace and man’s freedom
aimed at bringing about the eternal happiness of man. Man failed to respond to God’s love and it was only through
Jesus Christ that mankind was once again able to reach salvation. God associated the Mother of His Son to his redeeming work,
and she freely and generously cooperated with her Son in many ways. In fact:
- Mary is the only one who cooperated with God in giving the promised
Messiah to the world (see the gospels of St. Matthew and Luke).
- The episode at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) shows Mary’s active role in ushering the Kingdom of God, and in directing
people to obey Jesus.
- Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25 – 27) points to her exceptional participation in the redeeming sufferings of Christ.
- Her presence with the disciples after the ascension of Jesus (see Acts 1:14) shows her participation in the beginning of the Church.
In the conciliar document Lumen
Gentium, 60 we read:
role as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes the unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. The Blessed
Virgin’s salutary influence on men originates not in any inner necessity, but in the disposition of God. It flows forth
from the super-abundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from
Role of Mary in the History of Salvation in Her Glorified State
Lumen Gentium, 62 states:
This maternal role of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation
and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross. This maternity will last without interruption until the eternal
fulfillment of all the elect. For, taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this saving role, but by her manifold acts of
intercession continues to win for us fruits of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, Mary cares for the brethren of
her Son who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led to their happy fatherland. This passage emphasizes the fact that, in her
glorified state, Mary continues her role as “helper of Christ” in bringing
to completion God’s plan of salvation for all men. Such a role, though not dogmatically defined, is universally accepted
in the Catholic Church and is one of the pillars on which devotion to Mary rests.
The Church’s Growth in the Awareness of Mary’s Privileges
Mary’s Main Privileges
Mary’s privileges are fundamentally gifts from God which have been
granted her as the mother and helper of the Savior. The main ones are: her immaculate conception, her virginal and divine motherhood, her perpetual virginity, and her assumption into heaven.
The full awareness of such exceptional gifts on the part of the Christian
community was the result of a long process and sometimes even of heated controversies between the supporters of opposing views.
Mary’s divine motherhood
When the Church teaches that Mary is the “Mother of God”
she basically contends that Mary is the Mother of the Son of God. This means that the Jesus
born of Mary is one and the same person with the word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, though he possesses both divine and human
natures, is one single person: the Word (of God) made flesh (see Jn 1:14). Mary is the earthly mother of that divine person.
And since the “Word is God” (see Jn 1:1), it is perfectly legitimate
to call Mary THEOTOKOS, Mother of God. Such was the ruling of the Council of Ephesus
in 431 A.D., against heretics who held that in Jesus were both a divine and a human person, and that Mary was only the mother
of the human person in Jesus.
The title/privilege ‘Mother of God,’ therefore, does not mean that Mary gave origin to the “Word
of God.” No creature can give origin to God or His Word. It is, actually, through
the Word that all things came into being (Jn 1:3).
The truth of Mary’s divine motherhood was peacefully accepted from the very beginning of the Church, though the
attention of the believers was then obviously focused on Christ’s work of redemption. After the momentary difficulties
caused by Nestorius and his followers in the fifth century, the Church continued to call Mary ‘Theotokos’ with even greater constancy than before. We reaffirm our belief in this truth every time we recite
“Hail Mary” and other Marian prayers, like the very ancient “Sub
tuum praesidium” (under your patronage).
The fact that Mary was chosen to give a human existence and motherly love to the eternal Son of God is the highest
privilege and honor a woman could ever aspire to. It is also the foundation of all other privileges bestowed on Mary.
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity and Motherhood
This privilege includes Mary’s physical integrity before and during the birth of Jesus and her remaining a virgin even after the birth of Christ.
As regards the fact of
Mary’s virginity, the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke clearly state that she was
a virgin before she conceived Jesus, and that she conceived Jesus virginally, i.e., without having sexual relation with
a man (See Mt 1:18-24 and Lk 1:26-27, 34-35).
As for her virginal childbirth, Lk
2:7 seems to imply it, though nothing explicit is mentioned in this connection.
For several centuries, it was debated whether Mary had remained a virgin after
the birth of Jesus. Some, basing themselves on the mention of “brothers and sisters of Jesus” in the Gospels,
maintained that she did not. Others understood the term “brothers and sisters” to mean cousins or close relatives,
and therefore stood by the very old belief that Mary remained a virgin all her life. This second opinion was upheld by great
champions like St. Ambrose and St. Jerome,
and eventually became the common belief of the Church. Mary thus came to be commonly called “the Blessed Virgin.” This clear formulation of her perpetual virginity
was authoritatively put forward by the Lateran Council in 649 A.D.
Mary’s original conception of Jesus has a meaning which transcends
the fact of her physical integrity. The fundamental meaning is that the Incarnation
is totally the fruit of God’s initiative and love. Mankind, through Mary, simply cooperated with the divine initiative.
The secondary meaning of Mary’s perpetual virginity is her total consecration to God and to the mission of her
Son. Her perpetual virginity allows her to be the Mother of all men, while being a “sign” of transcendental realities
and of the Kingdom to come. In this respect, Mary is a “disciple” of her Son.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception
This Marian privilege should not be confused with Mary’s virginal
conception of Jesus.
The content of this privilege
is that Mary was preserved from original sin and its disastrous consequences since
her conception, through a preventive application to her of the saving merits of Jesus Christ. This made her the only creature perfectly redeemed, because she was redeemed in a preventive manner. Mary was granted such a unique
privilege in view of her divine motherhood.
As a consequence of her immaculate conception Mary was filled with God’s grace and love to the highest degree possible for a simple human creature. All
her faculties could respond most promptly to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in her. That is why she became the greatest
of all Saints.
The understanding and acceptance of this privilege has a long story of controversies and progressive clarifications.
Belief in Mary’s immaculate conception became widely accepted only from the 16th century on. This “privilege”
was declared a dogma of the Catholic Church in 1854 by Pius IX.
Mary’s assumption into heaven
This belief started in the East as a “pious tradition,”
according to which Mary passed away very peacefully (dominition), and on the third
day her tomb was found empty. The explanation for the absence of her body was that it had been “taken up” to heaven.
The justification for
the granting of such a privilege to her by God was seen in Mary’s unique closeness
to her Son’s mission and destiny, as well as the exceptional holiness
she had reached through her generous response to God’s love. Mary had been so similar to Jesus in her life; it was seen
fit that, after her death, she should also share in the total glorification of her Son.
belief gradually gained ground. In the 6th
century a feast in honor of Mary’s assumption was celebrated in Byzantine Empire. This eventually spread to Western
Europe. This privilege was seen as the crowning of all other gifts granted by God to Mary.
Mary’s assumption into heaven was proclaimed a dogma of the Catholic Church
in 1950 by Pius XII. The glorious fulfillment of her destiny is seen as a symbol and a foreshadowing of what God has in
store for the whole Church and each one of us (see LG, 65 and 68).
Privileges of Mary: Summary
Awareness of Begins in
Acceptance as Common belief
of the Church
or Proclaimed a Dogma by
Mary gave a human nature to God’s Son
Lk 1:32-35, 43
Council of Ephesus
Virgin and Mother
Mary remained a virgin throughout her life while being also the mother
Virginal conception and childbirth
She conceived and gave birth to Jesus without losing her virginity
First Council of Constantinople
Mary remained a virgin all her life even after the birth of Jesus
a very ancient tradition
Council of Lateran (649)
Mary was preserved from original sin in view of the merits of Christ
(she was redeemed in a preventive manner)
Mary started sharing in Christ glory in body and soul after her death
1 Cor 15:20-23
Rev 12:1, 3-14