The Catholic Concept of Mary

Franz Schubert's "Ellens
dritter Gesang," often
used as melody for the
singing of "Ave Maria,"
the Latin "Hail Mary."

Luke 1:26-55

"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death, amen."

This prayer is said millions of times every day by Catholics all over the world. It is the response of the prayer known as the "Hail Mary", the first part of which, often spoken by a lector or prayer leader, is a scriptural quotation from Luke 1:28, 42. Although its piety is sometimes lessened by familiarity and repetition, the prayer itself is a salutation and a petition to the person Catholics believe is the greatest of all saints, a young woman truly called "blessed" by all ages.

Our Muslim brothers and sisters also honor Mary. She is the only woman identified by name in the Koran. There is a "book of Maryam" (which is perhaps closer to the proper pronunciation of her Aramaic name), in the Koran, and the passage known as Sura 3, "The Amramites (Ali-'Imran)" tells a tale very like Luke 1:26-35:

The angels said, "O Mary, GOD gives you good news: a Word from Him whose name is 'The Messiah, Isa (Jesus) the son of Mary. He will be prominent in this life and in the Hereafter, and one of those closest to Me.' He will speak to the people from the crib, as well as an adult; he will be one of the righteous."

She said, "My Lord, how can I have a son, when no man has touched me?" He said, "GOD thus creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He simply says to it, 'Be,' and it is. He will teach him the Scripture, wisdom, the Torah, and the Gospel."

Many Christians who are not Catholics see this as blasphemous. Since they worship God or Jesus by praying to Him, they reason that praying to anyone else but God (or Jesus) is a violation of the First Commandment, not to have any other gods before the One True God of the Old Testament. But Catholics pray to all sorts of people, not all of them dead. Catholics believe that the saints, as well as the living, can hear the prayers of others and can pray to God for them. This belief is expressed in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, by which they (and Muslims) are encouraged to pray to God for each other. Asking Mary to pray for us is no different in principle from asking one's clergyman to pray for us, or one's relative or friend. Sometimes it's hard to approach God directly; it helps to have other, more holy, people talking to Him on our behalf. Protestants, (who, unlike me, consider themselves already guaranteed eternal salvation), ask me what I would like them to ask God for all the time. Catholics see the saints, including Mary, as being special friends of God, who are honored as such when we pray to them and acknowledge their holiness. That's why we canonize saints and have so many of them to pray to. Somewhere in the long list of people canonized by the Church are probably one or two folks with whom any of us can relate. Believing that they have already achieved salvation gives us renewed hope that we can do it too, and hope has always been regarded as a Christian virtue.

Worshipping Mary is something else again. Real Catholics don't do it. Ever! Unlike prayer, which we can say to anybody, even our personal friends or acquaintances, Catholic worship is accomplished by a special ceremony called the Mass, in which we make it very clear what the object of the exercise is. Although we have masses in honor of Mary (and of the saints, and of our departed relatives, and of certain historical events), There isn't any question in the mind of anyone paying attention that it is "God in the highest" to whom we say, "Lord God, Heavenly King, Almighty God and Father, we adore you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory." Mary isn't mentioned until the recitation of the Creed, when we note, almost in passing, that we believe that Jesus was "born of the virgin, Mary." More about that later.

We are very careful in religion classes to tell the little Catholic kids that "we worship God but we honor Mary," long before they are likely to understand what the difference in these two activities might be. But we also point out that Mary is the mother of God, and that requires a bit of explanation to folks who are more cynical than Catholic grade schoolers. The kids don't have any trouble with it. They have a pretty fair (if unsophisticated) idea of "God" at this point, and almost all of them understand "mother" pretty well. "Mother of God" doesn't bother them at all.

To approach the subject from a different angle, I saw Barbara Bush on television not too long ago. She was described as the mother of the "President of the United States, George Bush." I recalled seeing Barbara Bush back in 1990 when she was identified as the wife of the "President of the United States, George Bush." Looked like the same Barbara Bush to me, white hair, twinkly eyes, scarlet lipstick, wrinkles, everything. It occurred to me that someone who didn't know better would have wondered how she could go from being the President's wife to being his mother. We'll get back to Barbara Bush later, too.

The first thing Catholics teach their kids is that God made the world, and God is the creator of heaven and earth and of all things. These are actually the first and second answers to the questions in the Baltimore Catechism, from which most senior Catholics learned their religion. The first is, "Who made the world?" The second is "Who is God?" But these questions contain a serious flaw, which is why the answer to the question "Who is God" is actually what God is! Catholics believe that God is not a "who;" God is a "what." What I am is a thing, a human being, a bipedal, almost hairless, meat eating ape, a hominid of the species "sapiens." Likewise, the Catholic concept of God is a thing, a being ("the creator of heaven and earth and of all things") so sublime that it transcends all creation. Chinese culture, and the Chinese religion known as Taoism, identify this being as "the Tao," which is why Chinese people sometimes use the phrase "The God." The catechism corrects itself in question 13, which asks, "What is God?" the answer to which is "God is a spirit infinitely perfect." Who I am is, of course, John Lindorfer. The question of "who" God is is addressed later on in the Catechism, in response to question 23, "How many Persons are there in God?" The answer is "In God there are three Divine Persons, really distinct, and equal in all things - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" This is where the kids get confused.

The idea of three distinct Persons (or Personalities, if you prefer) is known as the doctrine of the Trinity. Catholics admit that they really don't understand it. Even the Pope has trouble with it. This is why it is known as a mystery. Catholics don't have to understand it, they just have to believe that it is true. Most of them don't understand gas refrigerators or automatic transmissions, either, but they still believe in them. Belief requires intellectual assent, not understanding, at least for Catholics. The doctrine of the Trinity says that God (a single what) consists of three distinct Persons (three whos).

Note that this asserts that there is only one, count 'em, one, God.

Now, we didn't get this idea from sniffing incense or drinking altar wine. The doctrine of the Trinity comes straight from the mouth of Jesus, as reported by the evangelists in the Bible. Jesus talked about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (We used to use the word "Ghost" instead of "Spirit," but this scares some little kids.) as if there were three Gods. But Jesus was a Jew who believed in one, count 'em, one, God, as Catholics and Muslims do, so there has to be some way of reconciling this apparent contradiction.

The doctrine of the Trinity is it. There is only one, count 'em, one God. This one God has three, count 'em, three Personalities, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Ghost). These are the three names we give to the (one) God. We sometimes find single human beings with multiple personalities (with a unique name at least temporarily assigned to each), which we regard as an unhealthy condition requiring psychological treatment, because healthy individual human beings have (or are widely believed to have) one individual personality each. But God has three of them, and this is logically the normal condition for (a healthy) God.

The choice of names for these three Persons is based on Scripture. Jesus talks about "the Father" in a manner that clearly identifies the Lord God Yahweh (Jehovah). The Catholic doctrine of the divinity of Jesus (below) suggests "Son" as the appropriate name, while Jesus himself talked about the "Holy Spirit" (literally "sanctified breath") that strongly suggests (but, unfortunately, does not prove) that he was talking about God again. But names are just labels, human artifacts used to identify something without describing it. Not unlike "CB handles" for unseen communicators. We could just as well have named the three Persons (or Personalities, if that feels more comfortable) "Pop, Sonny and Gracie." or perhaps "Larry, Curly and Moe." The Catholic Church, and most of the rest of Christianity, is probably stuck with "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" for the foreseeable future.

Some Catholics spend their whole lives trying to better understand this idea. They point out that since divine activities involve the thing (God), what the Father does the Son does and the Holy spirit also does. This skates pretty close to the edge, because it suggests (incorrectly) that the Father is the Son is the Holy Spirit, which is not Catholic teaching at all. However, it is Catholic teaching that the Father is (the one) God, the Son is (the one) God and the Holy Spirit is (the one) God. No wonder the kids are confused!

Regardless of the confusion, we maintain that there is only one, count 'em, one, God. Those who believe that God is a single who have different names for Him, such as "Jehovah" or "Allah" (a name which means, literally, "one God" in Arabic, the language in which the Koran is written), but Catholics have three names for God because we believe that names pertain to individual persons, of which God is three (even though there is only one, count 'em, one, God.) But since no Catholic really understands all this, we are encouraged to pray either to an individual Person ("our Father, who art in heaven," "Jesus help me," "Come, Holy Spirit, come") or to the one Supreme Being ("dear God"), whichever makes us more comfortable.

If we start to get uptight about all this, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints says that we can always ask someone who understands it better to pray for us. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death, amen." There's that "Mother of God" thing again!

As an aid to understanding all this a little better, I am going to refer back to my engineering and administrative education and make use of a schematic diagram. A schematic diagram is an aid to understanding the nature of something, like a television receiver or a multistage turbine engine. They are fundamentally different from pictures, sketches or photographs because they usually don't look remotely like the thing represented. Schematic diagrams of computer programs are sometimes called flow charts, and those of relationships between groups of people are sometimes called organizational charts. Regardless of what they are called, they are simplified graphics that help to understand something without attempting to look like it.

What I propose to do is create a schematic diagram of God.

(The first time I tried this, I was in first grade. I told my teacher, Sister Clare Marie, that I was drawing a picture of God. She said that nobody knew what God looked like. I replied that they would when I was finished.)

All the schematic diagrams I am familiar with are two dimensional, and can be printed out if one has enough paper. In constructing a schematic diagram of God, however, I find that two dimensions are not enough, even though the diagram is fairly simple, and I have to use at least three, which means that the schematic diagram of God cannot be printed on paper. However, a three-dimensional schematic diagram of God can be constructed from a two-dimensional cutout, which is shown on the right. If you click on the picture, you will get a bigger version which you can print, cut apart and put together. To do this, print the big graphics on heavy paper, cut along the heavy lines to get the triangly thing and the little picture of Jesus. Then fold the triangly thing along the lighter lines to make a pyramid, and tape the edges together. Try to be neat, this is God you're dealing with. I'll wait.

You folks who feel that all this violates the biblical prohibition against making graven images can skip this part, and follow along in the text. (I don't think it does, because "graven" means 'carved," and this one is printed, but there are folks who don't see a difference. Different strokes, I guess.)

When you've finished, you should have one, count 'em, one, pyramid. If you have more than one, you haven't followed directions. You should be able to lay it down so that it looks something like the diagram on the left. This is the Old Testament God, the same one worshipped by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, and numerous primitive isolated societies. Like them, you can name it whatever you want. "God" seems appropriate for North Americans like me.

GodGod the FatherGod the SonGod The Holy SpiritJesus

Now, without making another one, turn the pyramid so that the "God" side is down. You should be able to orient it so that it looks pretty much the same, except that it now says "Father" on the side nearest you. Turning it 120 degrees around the vertical axis will expose the name "Son," while turning it a further 120 degrees will reveal "Holy Spirit." We'll get to the "aka Jesus" part in a moment. The whole point here is that there is one, count 'em, one, pyramid which looks like the one, count 'em, one, "God," "Father," "Son" or "Holy Spirit," depending on how we look at it. But it's the same God. Whatever face we pray to (of the real God, not our schematic diagram), we are praying to the same God. Different whos, same what.

There is another thing left in the cutout, that is the picture of Jesus. Carefully cut it out or use another picture of Jesus about the same size if you want. What you are doing here is celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation. Catholics have a special feast day, the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th, which commemorates the visit of the angel Gabriel and the conception of Jesus, but you can consider it Christmas (the birth of Jesus nine months later) if you want. The idea here is that Jesus is a human being, like us, a creature, having a definite beginning, before which he did not exist at all as a human except in the plan of Almighty God. Mary is his mother. Who his father is constitutes one of the disagreements of Christianity and Islam. Some people claim it was Joseph. Muslims claim Jesus [Isa] didn't have any father. Catholics disagree. They claim his father was (is) God. That's why we call him "Son of God." Let's not get hung up on this right now.

Now take the picture of Jesus and use some really strong glue to permanently paste it to the face of your pyramid that says "Son (aka Jesus)." Use really, really strong glue. What this glue is going to do is form what Catholics call the hypostatic union by which one thing (God) and another thing (a man called Jesus) are united by one Person (or Personality, if you prefer). Thus the (one) Person we call the Son (or Jesus) is actually two things, a (specific) man and (the one and only) God. One who, two whats.

Don't blame me for this, folks. Jesus' followers had trouble with it, too. Even Jesus found it hard to explain. Human languages simply don't accommodate a person who is simultaneously two things. Read John 10:30-38.

Now our schematic diagram of God is permanently connected (if you have followed instructions and used really, really strong glue) to the little picture of a man named Jesus of Nazareth who is also the Person of the Trinity known as the Son. Because this Person is actually two separate beings, he can do separate things simultaneously. He can die (as a man) and he cannot die (as God). He can know everything (being, of course, God) and simultaneously not know things (having a limited human mind). He can be at once eternal and unchangeable (God) and, over time, (as humans do) advance in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

Some Christians who have trouble explaining it this way don't have much trouble with the simpler idea that Jesus is God, which is OK by me. We would thus agree that Jesus' teaching is God's teaching. Jesus' laws are God's laws. Jesus' disciples were God's disciples. (Stay with me, now; it gets tricky!) Jesus' church is God's church (Stay with me, now!); Jesus' birth was God's birth; Jesus' body was God's body, and, finally, Jesus' mother is God's mother.

I claim that Mary is God's mother because once you are someone's mother, you don't stop. You are that person's mother forever, and that person we are talking about is Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son. The one Person who is simultaneously two things. I warned you it was tricky!

(Of course, if one rejects our concept of the Trinity, the proposition doesn't stand up, either. There are Christians who believe that Jesus was man but not God, or vice versa, or that he was only partially man and partially God, or that the Trinity is actually three separate beings, or that Jesus was an alien from outer space. None of these positions is compatible with the concept of "Holy Mary, Mother of God," and Catholics reject all of them.)

(An additional controversy is based on current understanding of reproductive biology, which is so new that the Catholic Church has not yet been called upon to define its concept of "mother." Islam claims that Jesus had no father, that he was created directly by God. This appears to assert that Mary was at best what we would call a "surrogate mother," that Jesus had no common DNA with Mary. If compelled, the Catholic Church would probably define that Jesus' maternal DNA came from Mary, in the regular way, and his paternal DNA was created directly by God. Whether the Muslims would find this repugnant is a matter for Muslim scholars, but fortunately the matter hasn't come up yet. Whatever "mother" means with respect to Jesus, Catholics claim Mary is it.)

Notice that I did not claim that Mary is (or was) God, or that Mary is divine, or that we should worship her, or that Mary is connected by or to God in any extraordinary way. The way she is connected with God is in fact very ordinary indeed. She's His mom. Even little kids understand that idea.

Getting back to Barbara Bush, who was the mother of the President, the fact that she used to be the wife of the President and was later his mother isn't all that hard to understand. Her husband used to be the President. Then he wasn't, but her son was. Who you are the mother of depends on who your son is. And if your son is God, you are the mother of God. It's that simple.

Catholics believe other things about Mary that are at odds with the beliefs of some other Christians. These beliefs are based on what we think we know about the beliefs of early Christians, but we admit that biblical evidence is sketchy. We believe, for example, that the Lord was with Mary because she was blessed in that, like Jesus, she never committed a sin. We believe that, as a special divine gift, she alone, of all human beings (except Jesus) was without sin from the first moment of her existence, when she was just a tiny embryo inside her mother's belly. We call this the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and note that God knew what her decision would be fourteen years or so later, when she had to make it. Notice that this has to do with Mary's conception, not that of Jesus, and has nothing to do with the process or manner in which Mary (or Jesus) was conceived. Incidentally, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church in the western hemisphere.

(The term "Immaculate Conception" is used by some Protestants for what Catholics call the "Incarnation," the conception of Jesus. The way it was explained to me is that it means (to Protestants) that Jesus was conceived "immaculately," that is, without Mary committing a sin, or losing her virginity. This confuses Catholics, because we don't see human conception or loss of virginity as necessarily involving sin, as some Protestants do. Of course, it would have if Mary had conceived a baby by a man other than Joseph, because she was legally married to him, even though the marriage was not yet ratified. Joseph came to this conclusion and planned to terminate their formal relationship privately to avoid indicting her for a capital crime. But we believe Jesus was the Son of God, as Protestants claim (but not necessarily as they believe), so the absence of sin involving the conception of Jesus is only a small part of the complete and absolute sinless of Mary which, incidentally, is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Bible except by a hint in Luke 1:48. Scripture does say that the Lord was with Mary and that she was blessed, which is hard to understand other than that Mary was "holy." Catholics believe that, unlike all of us, who were conceived with the Sin of Adam, which we call "original sin," Mary was created holy, that is "immaculate," and stayed that way throughout her lifetime.)

The Immaculate Conception is celebrated as a solemn feast day on December 8th. A short sermon about it, suitable for children is:

"Today we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which means that Mary was always holy, even before she was born. The word 'immaculate' means 'without any spot or stain' and the word 'conception' means 'from the very beginning.' We became holy by being baptized, but Mary didn't need to be baptized, because she was always holy. That's why we call her 'Holy Mary.'"
We Catholics also believe that Mary was physically assumed into heaven, so that there are now no mortal remains of her on earth. This is celebrated as the solemn Feast of the Assumption, August 15th. Whether or not she died first is up for grabs. You can believe either way and still be a good Catholic.

Catholics maintain that Mary was always a virgin, which is why we sometimes call her the Virgin Mary. This belief seems to have been implicit in the early Church, but found renewed emphasis from St. Augustine, who, after his conversion, regarded any sexual activity between anybody as at least potentially sinful. Catholic clergy, who are not supposed to have sex at all, find Mary's perpetual virginity a validation of their own vows of celibacy. I don't know why Mary remained a virgin, and I don't think it makes any difference.

Many Protestants point out Mark 6:3 ("'Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him.") and Matthew 12:47 ("Someone told him, 'Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you.'"). I often find reference to "Jesus' four brothers and at least two sisters" in Protestant discussions. It suggests that Joseph and Mary had several children, or that Joseph had children from a previous marriage, or that Mary had a second husband, but Catholics note that the words "brothers" and "sisters" require all these people to have the same mother and father as Jesus, which either makes all of them (including Jesus) children of God, or none of them (including Jesus). Gabriel mentioned only one, Jesus. If Joseph had children older than Jesus, where were they when the family went to Bethlehem, Egypt and Jerusalem? If they had a different parent than Jesus, why are they called his "brothers and sisters" when they were at most halfbrothers and halfsisters?

Jesus himself seems to set the record straight in Matthew 12:48-50, "But he said in reply to the one who told him, 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.'"

Catholics believe that the words "brothers" and "sisters" imply a close, but not familial relationship, much like the Brothers (and Sisters) of the Sacred Heart or the Band of Brothers on HBO or the "brothers and sisters" in the "'hood." The "brothers" could well have been apostles (the names match), and the sisters may have been what we might call "Jesus groupies," like Mary Magdeline. In any case, we recognize that protesting Catholic doctrine is what Protestantism is all about, and we agree, in kindness and mutual respect, to disagree with our Protestant brothers and sisters on this matter.

We realize, of course, that while being the mother of God does not make Mary equal to (or greater than) God, it is nevertheless a very, very good thing for a human woman to be. There is ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was a respectful and loving son, and it doesn't seem to us that he would have changed that much after his resurrection. Respectful Jewish boys of his time listened to their mothers, and we have little doubt that if we ask Mary to intercede with her son for us, he is probably going to give it serious consideration, just as he did at the Cana wedding reception.

There are other considerations, too. For Jesus to have been born a human being and to have saved mankind by his sacrifice on the cross in the first place, he needed a human mother. Mary was it. The message of the angel Gabriel is ample evidence that, in spite of what previous spiritual gifts Mary may have been given, her cooperation in our salvation was the result of her personal dedication to being a submitter to the will of God. In a unique way, therefore, Mary is the singular means by which the salvation of the entire human race was accomplished. "Mary bore in her womb the God of love so that we could bear in our hearts the love of God." Not bad for a probably illiterate, grubby teenaged peasant girl from an unimportant village in a rural backwater of an occupied territory in a pagan empire.

From time to time, the Catholic Church finds it appropriate to remind us of Mary's preeminence in the Communion of Saints. The very first day of the new year, January 1st, is celebrated by Catholics as the Feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. One of the most recent and comprehensive Church publications on the subject is the encyclical Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer) by Pope John Paul II, who considered himself one of her champions. Unfortunately, the cult of Mary has reinforced the image of the Queen of Heaven, clothed in blue and snowy white silk splendor, attended by angels and wearing a crown of glory.

But such an image may be a gross injustice. Mary achieved greatness by being humble, by doing her duty as she saw it, being a Submitter to the Will of God as a lowly handmaiden of the Lord.

Perhaps the highest praise we fellow mortals can give her is to simply call her what she is:

"Holy Mary, Mother of God."

John Lindorfer