Other than the Pope, no person rankles Protestants more than Mary, the mother of Jesus. Protestants see what looks like hysterical Marian worship in many videos of third world Catholic masses, hear Mary described as co-Redemptrix and the Queen of Heaven, and observe her being called theotokos, the very “Mother of God.” If Mary is divine, then who needs Jesus? How many Gods do these Catholics have? Just how far have they sunk into the abyss of paganism? So, what’s with Mary anyway? Why does Mary matter?
Let’s clear away some of this Protestant clutter right from the outset. First, we Catholics never worship Mary, but we do offer her the highest recognition and titles of any strictly human person, as instructed to do so directly by our Biblical texts (more about that a bit later). We accordingly venerate her, but we do not worship her.
Second, when Catholics speak of Mary as participating in redemption, they don’t mean that she is “the lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.” Only Jesus is the lamb, and no one, including Mary, is equal to Jesus. But Mary definitely participated in his redemptive act, if we conceive of that action as the whole of his incarnation all the way through to his ascension. For Mary was there and a necessary part. She was the first one who knew of the Incarnation, as Gabriel announced it would shortly happen of her. She was the one who bore him into the world of her own body. She was the one who received the honors and royal gifts of the Magi. She was the one who mothered him and loved him as a child and young man, while few others had any idea who it was that walked their streets. She was the one who prompted him toward his first miracle at that wedding in Cana. She was the one who stood by him at his trial, watched over him on the cross, and waited in Jerusalem for his predicted resurrection. Mary was accordingly a significant part of all that happened to and by Jesus. Her character and actions are therefore part of the redemption that God wrought through his Son. Notice that our actions, too, are a part of the redemption, both of ourselves, but also of our neighbors to whom we share the love of God. So, calling Mary co-redemptrix does not assert her divinity or endorse her replacing Jesus.
Third, when the ancient Church at the Council of Ephesus declared Mary theotokos, they did not mean that Mary is the cause of God, since God as omnipotent being cannot have any possible cause. So, the title of theotokos has nothing to do with God’s origin, but instead signifies the divine Person Mary bore into the world. To possess both the divine and human natures, he needed a human mother. Mary is that mother, the one who bore the divine Son; hence we call her theotokos, which means “God-bearer.” This asserts not her divinity, but her Son’s.
Let’s now turn to consider more fully the significance of Mary positively rather than just in rebuttal to Protestant mischaracterizations of her. We will begin with the Annunciation, where the Archangel Gabriel greeted her with a royal greeting, something entirely inappropriate for a mere peasant girl. One used “hail” for Caesar, implying that its use was royal. So, how can we think of Mary as royal, as the “Queen of Heaven”? If you think a bit about your understanding of the English Monarchy, you’ll notice that the living mother of a Monarch is called the Queen Mother. In the ancient eastern traditions, the Queen Mother (rather than the Queen) stood by her son and advised him on the throne. Mary is the Queen Mother because she is the mother of Jesus, and Jesus is the King of Kings. Gabriel recognized her status and honored her accordingly. The angels don’t slight Mary.
When Mary is puzzled about how she is supposed to bear the Son of God into the world when she is a virgin, Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon her so that the One born of her will be the Son of God. Jesus accordingly had no human father, for his father was God the Father, and he the only begotten Son. Notice that the virgin birth was essential to the Son’s assumption of human nature in the Incarnation. Had Jesus been born to Mary as a miraculous birth like John the Baptist was to two human parents, the natural sexual order would have produced at conception a new human soul, i.e., a new person. As such, if Jesus had had a human father, he would not have been the Eternal Son, but instead a mortal human person named Jesus. Had the eternal Son also arrived, there would have been two persons in that one body of Jesus, establishing not an Incarnation but instead a possession like what the demons occasionally do to people. For Jesus’s personhood to be solely the Eternal Son, he consequently could not have had a human father. He had to be born of a virgin.
Gabriel also revealed to Mary that her relative, Elizabeth, was miraculously pregnant, so that Mary quickly made her way to visit Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, she is overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit and prophesies, calling Mary the blessed one, for as all women are blessed when they become the givers of life, so all their motherhoods point to this one motherhood, the birth of Jesus. Elizabeth honors Mary’s choice of faith to trust what God said of her divine motherhood. Whereas our first mother, Eve, chose poorly, our second mother, Mary, chose humbly and faithfully. We thus think of Mary not just as the mother of Jesus, but also as the mother of redeemed humanity through her Son. As St. Paul explains that Jesus is the new Adam offering a new establishment of redeemed humanity, so Mary is the new Eve, the holy maternal offering of Jesus’ body and life into the world. All that we lost in Eve’s sin, we gain and will gain in Mary’s obedience.
In response to Elizabeth’s extraordinary exclamations, Mary offers her Magnificat, her prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for selecting her as God-bearer, recognizing that Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit-induced honorific, “blessed,” will apply to her henceforth, as “all ages will call me blessed.” It is for these reasons that you will most often hear us call Mary the Blessed Virgin Mary. We honor her as God honored her. To do otherwise is unthinkable hubris.
Jesus also establishes Mary’s wider motherhood, when at the cross he calls to his mother and identifies his disciple, John, as her son henceforth. The Church sees in this act that Jesus is establishing Mary not just as John’s mother but also as the mother of the whole Church, since John is a founding Apostle (and the only one at the cross). As St. Paul explains in his epistles, we have been planted into Christ through our baptisms, adopted by God as Christ’s brothers and co-heirs, permitted henceforth to call God our Father. It follows that as God is now our Father through Christ, so also Mary is now our mother through Christ. The Church thus sees that Mary takes a keen interest in the Church, both simply as mother, but also as preparing the Church for her future role as the Bride of Christ. Thus is Mary both mother of the Groom and the Bride (without it being weirdly incestuous, of course). Because of this richly widened motherhood, God has established in her a deeply nurturing human maternal power over all humanity who lovingly accept his Son. And because of the Apostolic creedal doctrine of the communion of the saints, we can confidently assert that we are permitted to approach the Queen Mother and our mother to take our prayers to her Son and advise him and intercede for us in our prayers.
But there’s even more! Do you remember when Jesus called his mother, “Woman,” at that Cana wedding? It wasn’t the only time. If we called to our mothers as “woman,” they and everyone around would think we were being disrespectful by using a mere abstract generality to describe our moms! But Jesus doesn’t disrespect his mother, so he is up to something else. Instead of an abstract generality, what Jesus is recognizing is a human archetype, seeing Mary as the exemplar of what Woman is. Where Eve failed, Mary succeeded. Mary is not only the new Mother, the new Eve, but also the true Woman. Mary is the model for what every woman ought to be. All women should seek to emulate her grace, humility, faith, and love before God.
So, does Mary matter? You bet she does!
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst 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.