“A few months before I was received into the Catholic Church, my family experienced a crisis. I was in high school when my mother told me she had been diagnosed with a large tumor in her abdomen. She didn’t know how much longer she had to live, and my dad wasn’t in the best position to take care of me and my siblings.
I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, so I told my mom, “I need to just go to Church to process all of this.” She had the left the Church a long time before, but understood it was important to me, so she nodded in approval. I gave her a hug, told her I loved her, and started walking to the church.
As I knelt in that dark, empty church, my hands were clasped tight and my eyes watched the candles by the altar flicker. I just kept asking God for everything to be okay. Then I saw a statue of Mary. I took a deep breath and prayed:
“Hail Mary Full of grace the Lord is with you, blessed are you among woman and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Devotion to Mary was the last hurdle I faced coming into the Catholic Church. At first, I feared that Catholics went overboard when it came to Mary and turned her into a rival goddess who took away glory from Christ. But the more I read Scripture the more I saw that Mary didn’t take people away from Christ, she led people to him.
Mater Dei: The Mother of God
The most important title the Church gives to Mary is also the one that explains why Mary matters so much to Catholics—theotokos. This Greek word means “God-bearer,” but it is usually translated into English as “the Mother of God.” Mary is praised above all of God’s other creatures because she has the most intimate relationship with God. She gave birth to God, nursed God, taught him about life, followed him throughout his ministry, and was at the foot of the cross when Jesus, the God-man, died.
At this point some people might say, “Mary didn’t give birth to God, she gave birth to Jesus.” Yes, but is Jesus God? Calling Mary the Mother of God doesn’t mean that she created the Trinity or that Mary existed before God existed. Being a mother means conceiving and giving birth to a person. God is a Trinity of three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One of those persons, the Son, became man and had a mother (Gal. 4:4). It logically follows that this woman, or Mary, is the Mother of God.
Mothers don’t give birth to “natures” or “humanity,” they give birth to persons. The person Mary gave birth to was the divine second person of the Trinity, God the Son, Whom she and Joseph named Jesus. Even Protestants understand that Mary should be praised in this way. Timothy George says, “Evangelicals can and should join the church catholic in celebrating the Virgin Mary as the mother of God, the God-bearer.” Martin Luther eloquently said, “Men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God.”
Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption
The Immaculate Conception does not refer to Jesus’ miraculous virginal conception in Mary’s womb.
Instead, the term means that Mary herself was conceived without the stain of original sin.
The normal means to be freed from original sin is through baptism, but God is free to give His grace to whomever He chooses. He knew from all eternity that Mary would say yes to being the mother of His Son, so when she was conceived, God gave Mary an abundant gift of grace. In Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel says to Mary “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” The Greek word that is translated “full of grace” refers to having grace as an enduring, complete quality of a person.
But doesn’t the Bible say all people have sinned (Rom 3:10)? If that’s true, then how could Mary have been immaculately conceived?
First, that passage refers to the truth that both Jews and non-Jews are sinners and need Christ. In Romans 9:11, Paul says that before Isaac and Esau were born they had done neither good nor bad. Millions of human beings die in infancy, long before they reach the age of moral accountability, and thus have never committed a personal sin.
But aren’t all humans born with original sin? No, because Jesus was human and he was born without original sin. If we say that Jesus is the exception because He is God, or the new Adam Whose obedience undid the crime of the first Adam, then we have room for another exception: Mary, the Mother of God and the “new Eve,” whose obedience to God undid the curse brought about by the old Eve. In the second century, St. Irenaeus said, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith”
Finally, God demonstrated His surpassing love for His mother by taking her body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. In the Old Testament, God assumed, or took, the prophet Elijah’s body and soul into heaven before he died (2 Kings 2:11). The Church teaches that Mary was also assumed into heaven, and Revelation 12:1 describes a woman in heaven clothed with the sun who gives birth to the Messiah. She appears right after a vision of the Ark of the Covenant, which carried God’s word written on stone tablets. It would be fitting if this woman were Mary, for she is the Ark of the New Covenant, who carried within her body the word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ.
“All Generations Will Call Me Blessed”
As I knelt in that darkened church and prayed the Hail Mary over and over again, I more clearly saw that Catholics weren’t turning Mary into a God. The reason Mary is “full of grace,” “blessed,” “Holy,” and the “Mother of God” is because her son is Jesus Christ. (It’s amazing that, for the rest of time, God the Son will not only have a human face and body, but will bear a physical resemblance to a human woman who lived around 2,000 years ago.) The only thing Catholics were “guilty of” was recognizing the awesome role Mary played in the history of humanity. In Luke 1:48, Mary herself says “all generations will call me blessed; for the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is His name.”
Speaking of awesome mothers, a few weeks after my mom told me about her diagnosis she was released from the hospital. I was nervous until she gave me the news: the tumor was benign. It ended up being the size of a basketball, but it was benign. I prayed to God, “Thank you for letting me have my mom for a little longer,” and to His mother I prayed, “Please lead me and my whole family closer to your son, Jesus Christ.””