Editor's note: This post is the second in a two-part series. In the first piece, Kelsey Gillespy explains the personal connection she feels with the biblical figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus – particularly as she goes through her own pregnancy.
“My grandma has a shrine to Mary in her bedroom,” my friend divulged over dinner. His maternal grandmother had been raised Catholic in a Mexican culture, and because of her Catholic roots, she worshipped Mary – or so this friend implied.
I could tell that this man, a passionate follower of Christ, loved his grandmother with a Spirit-filled heart. He simply did not understand or agree with Catholic doctrine. He shook his head slightly, lowering his fork and plunging it back into the main course. “There’s candles and everything. It’s just not right.”
Many people have long questioned the immense reverence Catholics place on Mary. Raised in St. Louis – or, as I like to call it, the second Vatican – I was spared many condemning remarks. However, my husband was born and raised in Texas, and growing up Catholic in the middle of the Southern Bible Belt didn’t treat him as pleasantly. On many occasions throughout his life, people – including friends – would tell him that he was going straight to Hell simply because he was Catholic. They would claim that Catholics are not Christians, but blasphemers. After all, how can praying to Mary not be sacrilegious?
“Mary isn’t God, Jesus is! If you pray to Mary, you slap God in the face,” they’d say.
And that’s partly true: Mary isn’t God. But, as aforementioned in my previous post, Mary is extremely special.
“But don’t Catholics pray to Mary?” you may ask. “After all, there is a prayer called the ‘Hail Mary.’”
It’s true, there is a prayer titled the "Hail Mary," and it is addressed to Jesus’s mother. But, in the prayer, we do not worship her as a goddess. We simply ask her to intercede for us – or, in other words, we ask her to pray for us.
For skeptics’ sake, let’s examine the prayer itself, just to make sure:
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.
The first sentence may seem like an extremely honor-filled greeting. It is. And, long before all of our prayers, that greeting was originally given to her word-for-word by angel Gabriel (Luke 1: 28). The second line of this prayer is also taken from scripture, when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:43). The last line is comparable to calling up a friend and saying, “Hey, Jane, will you pray for me, please?”
But Mary is a bit different than good ‘ol Jane. Not only is Mary in heaven already – in Jesus’s complete and perfect presence – she is also his mother. And, like my Irish husband will tell you, there’s a unique, impenetrable bond between a mother and her child. That is probably why “Yo Mama” jokes were so offensive on the playground in the ‘90s. And it’s also why Jesus performed his first miracle at her request (John 2: 1-12).
Mary, Jesus and some disciples are at a wedding at Cana in Galilee when suddenly, the host runs out of wine. Mary informs Jesus that the wine is gone. Jesus’s immediate response is, “What does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” But, persistently, Mary turns to the servants and commands them to do whatever Jesus tells them. So, despite his initial reluctance to perform the miracle, he obeys his mother and changes water into fine wine. Therefore, it’s pretty obvious that the mother-child bond is extremely strong.
Yet, for anyone struggling with the idea that Mary is the mother of God, I have a math equation for you. All Christians believe two things:
A = Jesus was both fully human and fully God
B = Jesus is born of Mary
Thus, if (A) Jesus is God in flesh and (B) Mary gave birth to Him, then (C) Mary must be the mother of God. It’s simple, transitive law (if A=B, and B=C, then A=C).
Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, stated, “It cannot be denied that God, in choosing and destining Mary to be the mother of his son, granted her the highest honor. Elizabeth calls Mary 'the mother of my Lord' because of the unity of the person and the two natures of Christ, was such that she could have said the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was, at the same time, the eternal God.”
Yet, people may still say, “Okay, so what if Mary is the Mother of God? You’re still adoring her as a divine figure! You’re treating her like a goddess and that’s just downright wrong.”
First of all, let me clarify that, yes, Catholics revere Mary. But we let me also clarify that we do not worship her. Around the 3rd or 4th century, a group of women called the Kalidreans taught that Mary was, in fact, a goddess. However, the Catholic Church specifically addressed this teaching as a heresy (an opinion, doctrine or practice contrary to the truth) and has remained steadfast to that decision throughout the millennia. We respect and honor Mary not because she is divine, but because of her immense humility and faithfulness.
Imagine carrying along with your normal day. Then, out of nowhere, an angel approaches you. That alone is enough to leave me shell-shocked. Now imagine the angel saying that you will be responsible for birthing and raising the Messiah. If you’re anything like me, the star-struck paralysis would vanish the instant you begin running for the hills. Perhaps a puff of dirt would linger near the angel’s nostrils, thanks to your fast-moving feet.
But instead, Mary chose to say "yes" to Gabriel. And to God – even with the imminent danger of being stoned to death for conceiving a child out of wedlock. She had no power over God, but she willingly accepted God’s extraordinary will for her life. That is worthy of reverence.
Luther, founder of the Lutheran faith, said, “In this work whereby she was made the Mother of God, so many and such good things were given her that no one can grasp them." Mary must have had some incredible graces and privileges, then.
Let’s take a look at scripture.
In Luke 1:27-28, the Angel Gabriel visits Mary. However, he doesn’t just say, “Hey Mary, what’s up?” He uses the word "hail," a term used for royalty. The honor of this greeting is amplified by the fact that he is not a mortal being, but an angel. And Jewish people believed angels to be more powerful than humans because they are always in the presence of God. So, for an angel to greet a human with the word “Hail” should mean something to the Jewish reader. And to us.
Then he says that she is “full of grace.” In Greek, the word is “kecharitomene,” which is a term meaning “full of grace from the very beginning and at the very moment.” So, Mary was full of grace from the very beginning and was about to be given more grace by becoming the mother of God.
To reiterate and support the importance of this moment, let’s remember that “Hail” is a term used to address royalty. Thus, Angel Gabriel is recognizing her as such – the Queen Mother. The Queen of Heaven.
In the Old Testament, 1 Kings 2:19-20 reiterates (or rather, prefigures) the immense importance given to queenly mothers. In these verses, Bathsheba goes to King Solomon to speak to him about a certain issue. The king rises to meet her, bows, then takes a seat on his throne. She sits down on his right, which immediately indicates her significance. She then admits to having a request and the king replies, “Make your request, my mother, for I will not refuse you.”
King Solomon was the son of King David. King David is king of the Jews. Jesus – addressed as the Son of David (Mark 10:46-47) – therefore becomes the king of humanity and fulfills the Davidic promise that David’s house will reign forever (2 Samuel 7). The story of Solomon and Bathsheba prefigures Christ the King ruling with Mary at his right side. Similarly, it also prefigures Jesus saying to Mary, “Ask and I will not refuse you.” Which is exactly what happened at the wedding in Cana.
But how can a regular Joe (or Josephine in this case) give birth to a spotless lamb if she herself is stained with sin? Well, Catholics believe that Mary was conceived without sin. And, since Catholics like to give fancy names to everything, this freedom from original sin is called the Immaculate Conception. Luther adds, “The infusion of Mary’s soul was affected without original sin. From the first moment she began to live, she was free from all sin." Again, that concept of “kecharitomene” comes into play – she was full of grace from the very beginning. Mary is a perfect creature, but a creature nonetheless. After all, if God is going to put His son inside of a woman, it seems reasonable that He will want that woman to be pretty perfect.
Reviewing text from the Hebrew scriptures, it’s clear that God is very particular when it comes to instructions on His covenant. Exodus 25:10-15 provides a quick taste of all the detail that He put into creating the Ark of the Covenant. This Ark is not the same flood-conquering boat that Noah builds. It is a wooden chest that houses the Law (the 10 Commandments), manna and Aaron’s wooden, bud-blooming rod.
The intricately defined detail of the tabernacle was no coincidence. God specifically designed the house for a purpose. Inside, it housed the holiest things that represented God: the Law (the Word), manna (the Bread of Life), and Aaron’s rod (the power of God).
All of which were personified and encapsulated by Jesus.
John 1:1 refers to Jesus as “the Word.” Jesus refers to himself as the “living Bread” and the “Bread of Life” in John 6. Plus, the miracles he performed demonstrated the power of God. Not to mention, Jesus also claims to be the New Covenant, which means he must have had a new ark.
But Jesus was a living, breathing person, so the Ark of the New Covenant couldn’t merely be a wooden box. Instead, Mary became the Ark of the New Covenant. She was the tabernacle for Jesus.
Many Old Testament passages about the Ark parallel with Mary:
- 2 Samuel 6:3 portrays the voyage of the Ark through hill country; Mary also travels through hill country during her Visitation to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39).
- David proclaims, “Who am I that my Lord should be before me?”; upon Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth says something similar: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should appear before me?”
- The Ark stayed for three months; Mary stayed with Elizabeth for 3 months.
- When the Ark appeared, David jumped for joy; and, during Mary’s Visitation, the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb (John the Baptist) also jumped for joy.
So, besides the pretty woodwork on the side of the box, what made the “old ark” so special? The place containing the ark was considered “the holy of holies.” Nobody was allowed into it except for the high priest. 2 Samuel 6:6-7 tells the story of a man who gets struck dead simply because he touches it. The high priest, however, was allowed to go inside this holy place and offer the prayers of the people (aka intercessions).
And that’s exactly what we do with Mary.
This is why we believe that Mary is born free of original sin. She is made perfect with extreme precision and purpose. God went through such great detail to make sure the Ark was perfect and holy – wouldn’t He also make sure the womb that held His son was perfect in every way?
“Well,” you might be saying, “if Mary is perfect and sinless, then she wouldn’t need a savior.” Again, I beg to differ. Even Mary herself claimed she needed a savior (Luke 1:47). After all, she is a creature – a created being, a human – just like you and me. She simply received her salvation at a different time than we did.
For example, let’s say you are walking down the road and you fall into a well. You desperately scramble for a way out, but there is none. Then, Jesus reaches down into the well and pulls you to safety. He saved you.
Now, let’s say Mary is walking down that same path. Yet, right before she reaches the edge of the well, Jesus warns Mary and gently guides her around it. He saved her, too. She was simply saved a bit earlier than the rest of us.
So, candles or no candles, our prayers to Mary are a bit different than some people think. Mary – the Queen of Heaven and Mother of God – sits eternally at the right hand of Jesus, interceding on our behalf. And maybe because of our prayers and her persistence, Jesus will continue to change us from water into the finest wine.