Christian devotion to Mary has a long history. Moreover, devotions to the virgin mother of our Saviour have taken innumerable forms in the course of this history.
The First Council of Ephesus (431 AD) was the first council with bishops attending from the Christian East and West to define Mary as theotokos, Greek for “God-bearer.” This definition was controversial at the time. However, Ephesus I was not a council about Mary so much as it was about Christ. The Son of God, Ephesus I said, was one person of the Trinity, but in two natures, divine and human. Therefore, Mary, who bore God’s Son, not only bore a human child in whom God dwelt, but God who, through the work of the Holy Spirit, had taken our human nature.
As Ephesus I began to show by naming Mary theotokos, all our Marian titles and devotions point beyond Mary to her Son; to God’s Son, our Lord. But they also describe who we are. Mary is first among the disciples of Christ and first among the saints, but we are all called to be disciples and saints. Mary has mediated this vocation from the very beginning. In the Biblical account of the Wedding at Cana, for instance, Mary directs the servants to follow her Son’s instructions, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). We, as servants and then as friends of Christ (Jn 15:15), are thus invited to heed these words of Mary. Mary is the theotokos; in Baptism we are made theotokoi, “God-bearers,” after Mary, the mother of the God-man and our mother in faith.
For this reason, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, affirmed that “true devotion... proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love toward our mother and to the imitation of her virtues” (LG, 67).
When in the fullness of time, God sent His only Son to save the world, this Son – Jesus Christ – both man and God, was referred to by many as the new Adam. Where Adam by his disobedience sinned, and allowed evil to enter the world, Christ, by his obedience, returned mankind to God.
The new Adam required a new Eve. And her name was Mary.
Little is known about Mary except that she was a young woman from Nazareth, a faithful Jew, awaiting the promised Messiah, and that she was engaged to a carpenter named Joseph.
Who was this Mary, really? What was her role? And why are so many things said about her when the Gospels say so little?
Well, what do the Gospels say? These books were written in the midst of an already thriving Church, a community of believers who claimed that a man named Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, that He was God and that He was the promised Messiah who came to reconcile man to God. When these books were written, these believers were already dying for this fact, willing to be fed to lions and gladiators instead of denying this seemingly ordinary man.
These books say that Mary, a maiden from Nazareth, was visited by an angel who told her that she would conceive and bear a son whom she was to call Jesus (Luke 1:31). The language used by the angel indicates that this Jesus is the promised Messiah. Mary is perplexed and wonders how she can conceive without a man, to which the angel responds by saying that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will be overshadowed by the Most High. Mary, very simply, says her yes and the angel departs.
This is how the Gospel introduces the most important woman in the history of the world.
So why is Mary so important?
Simply put, Mary is the vessel chosen by God to carry the God-made-flesh, Jesus Christ, into the world. She is crucial because her yes is in a way the yes on behalf of the whole of mankind, a yes to God’s coming to redeem man. She’s also crucial because she is the guarantee both of the fact that Jesus is true man (He is born of a woman, a real woman of flesh and bone) and that He is true God (since Mary conceived without having intercourse with a man – she conceived, as the angel said she would, by the power of the Holy Spirit).
Let us look at some of the things the Church teaches about Mary and why they make sense given her role in God’s plan of salvation.
Before God took on human flesh and entered Mary’s womb, He chose to sanctify the vessel chosen for His Son. Knowing that she would say yes (a fact that in no way impinged on her freedom in saying it), God made Mary free from any stain of sin from the moment of her conception. This is what the Church calls the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was declared a dogma in 1854 by Pope Pius IX but it was always believed by the Church since the very beginning. Why this dogma has been subject to so much controversy is surprising given how much sense it makes that God, in choosing to enter the world, would prepare for His Son the most worthy woman to give birth to Him. After all, when God chose Mary to be the Mother of Jesus, He was choosing a woman to become the Mother of God! Bishop Fulton Sheen addressed the question of why the Church would feel the need to declare Mary free from all sin very beautifully by posing a question similar to this one: “if you were able to protect your mother from all sin and make her perfect, would you?” The answer seems obvious: “Of course.” “But could you?” We would have to say, “Unfortunately, no.” “Well,” he concludes, “God could and He did.” This fact of Mary’s Immaculate Conception does not mean that she did not need to be redeemed by Christ. She did. But she was redeemed in virtue of Christ’s merits before His coming and death. For God, who is outside of time, that certainly was not a terribly difficult thing to do.
Mother of God
When Mary conceived Jesus Christ, she became His Mother. Because Jesus was fully God and fully man, however, Mary also became the Mother of God. This fact was contested in the fifth century by a group led by Nestorius who saw Jesus as being a kind of mixture of a human person and a divine person – so two personhoods combined. He claimed therefore that Mary could only be calledChristotokos (Christ-bearer), not Theotokos (God-bearer). The Church responded at the Council of Ephesus in 431 affirming that Mary was in fact the Mother of God because Jesus was one Person with two natures – human and divine, and since Mary was the Mother of the Person of Jesus, who happened to be both God and Man, she was in fact the Mother of God just as much she was the Mother of Jesus the Man. This does not mean that she somehow preceded God or that she gave birth to the divine essence, but because God chose her to be the Mother of His Son and because His Son is God, the second person of the Trinity, she deserves (not by her merits, but purely as a gift) to be called the Mother of God.
The Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin her whole life, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. This again is a controversial teaching in some circles but it is a very important one. It safeguards the divinity of Christ. If Mary conceived and gave birth without having intercourse with a man, this means that the child she conceived was conceived by God’s power. Jesus Christ is the only human being that did not have a biological father – a fact that proves His divinity. Again, this teaching makes sense. If God wanted to send His Son as Redeemer, He chose a vessel that would reflect the truth of who Jesus is. And what better way to do this than to choose a woman who would give birth to Jesus without losing her virginity. The fact of Mary’s virginity also fulfills the ancient prophesy of Isaiah that a virgin would conceive a son and name Him Emmanuel (God-with-us).
There are some who oppose this teaching by citing passages from Scriptures that speak about Jesus’ brothers and sisters (CCC 500). In the cultural context in which the Gospels were written, the terms brother and sister were often used to indicate any close relatives such as cousins and second cousins.
Mother of the Church
Mary’s perpetual virginity also points to the fact that her motherhood is universal. She was a virgin and a mother – Her gift of self was completely and entirely to God, but also entirely to Christ’s Church, His Body. On the cross, as He was dying, Jesus gave His Mother to his disciple John and He gave John to Mary. This was not only to make sure that His Mother had a place to stay when He died; it appointed Mary as the Mother of His followers, and even more universally as the Mother of the entire Church.
Assumed into Heaven
The final doctrine about Mary is her Assumption. The reasonableness of this doctrine is tied to the Immaculate Conception. If God wanted a creature free of all sin to bear His Son, then likewise it makes sense that He chose to protect her from the corruption of death. Thus, Pope Pius XII in 1950 dogmatically pronounced what the Church believed since its beginning – that Mary "having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Pius XII in his papal encyclical Munificentissimus Deus). Mary was the first human creature to share in the victory of Christ’s Resurrection and to experience in her own life the resurrection of the body which all Christians (and indeed all people) will experience when Christ comes to judge the world. The Church has not pronounced whether Mary died and was immediately assumed or whether she fell asleep and was taken up without experiencing death (which is what the Eastern Churches believe). There are arguments for both sides (if she died, she would have been more closely united to Christ in His death but then again, God may have chosen to preserve her from the harrowing experience of death). At any rate, the important thing is that God chose to preserve Mary from the decay of her body and to give her (as a foreshadowing and promise to the rest of us) the rewards of Christ’s victory before His second coming.
To someone who is not familiar with the person of Mary, all of these doctrines may seem a little much. Why does the Church make such an effort to exalt a humble woman from Nazareth by titles such as “Mother of God,” “Immaculate,” “ever-Virgin,” “full of grace,” “spotless,” etc.? Is it not presumptuous? Would she herself have wanted it? The answer is actually simpler than it seems at first. God wanted her to be the Mother of Jesus , His Son, Our Saviour and God, and it was God who made her immaculate, God who gave her her virtues, God who preserved her virginity, and God who assumed her into heaven. If anything, Mary herself would say that all her attributes say more about God’s incredible love than they do about her merit. It is true that she responded to the graces she was given with total openness and joy, but it was God Himself who chose to make her so perfect, so beautiful, so sinless. In the end, Mary shows us the love of God towards mankind. She is the example of holiness, the prototype of the human person redeemed in Christ, and the promise of God’s incredible gift to all of humanity: the gift of forgiveness, redemption, sanctification, and final glory. After Christ, God’s promise and unceasing love to humans is most clear in Mary. He gave so much to Mary so that we would forever be confident in His faithfulness, loyalty, presence, and generosity towards us.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
One of the most famous and revered apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary came to an indigenous man named Juan Diego in December, 1531. Born into the Aztec servant class, Juan Diego was a convert to Christianity who lived in Cuautitlán, a small village about 25 kilometers north of present day Mexico City.
To attend Mass and receive the sacraments Juan had to walk to a neighboring town, bypassing the hill of Tepeyac along the way. One day, he heard singing from atop the hill and decided to investigate. When he reached the top he saw a beautiful Lady who identified herself as the “perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary – the Mother of God,” and instructed him to build a church there with the help of the local bishop. Juan quickly went to the house of Bishop Zumárraga and explained what he had seen and heard. After being rebuked offhandedly he returned to the hilltop where again he found the Lady and again she commissioned him to the bishop. This time the bishop demanded a sign.
Juan had planned to return to Tepeyac when he discovered that his ailing uncle was on the verge of death. Seeking a priest, he threw on his tilma (a cloak made from plant fibers commonly worn by Aztec peasants) and set out from his village. As he passed Tepeyac, Juan encountered the Lady once again who pronounced that his uncle was cured and that he should return to the top of the hill to receive a sign. Astonished, Juan climbed the hill and found a magnificent array of flowers, which he gathered in his tilma and brought to Bishop Zumárraga. The flowers, out of season and some not even indigenous to Mexico, poured onto the floor as an image of the Lady Juan had seen began to appear on his tilma. This incredible apparition was seen by all who were present, and the bishop ordered the construction of a chapel on the hill of Tepeyac to enshrine the garment.
Millions of Aztecs were converted to Christianity within a few years of those events on December 12, 1531. Today, nearly five-hundred years later, that image can still be seen on Juan’s tilma in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. No scientific explanations have been found for the original image, the physical integrity of the tilma itself (which should have naturally decomposed many centuries ago), or the flowers which Juan brought to the bishop.
On July 31, 2002, Pope John Paul II visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and proclaimed Juan Diego a saint – the first indigenous saint of the Americas. Quoting the Mexican bishops, JPII stated that, “The Guadalupe Event meant the beginning of evangelization with a vitality that surpassed all expectations. Christ’s message, through his Mother, took up the central elements of the indigenous culture, purified them and gave them the definitive sense of salvation.” (Homily of John Paul II, Mexico City, July 31, 2002) The power and depth of that event, encountered in the image of Our Lady, continues to inspire millions of devotions and pilgrimages each year.
Note: Throughout the tradition, Bishops, theologians, Popes and Councils have expressed concern for the possibility of overemphasizing Marian devotion to the point of worship. Lumen Gentiumsays, “Theologians and preachers of the word of God are urged to be careful to refrain as much from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the Mother of God...” and “Let the faithful remember that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory feeling, nor in an empty credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to recognize the excellence of the Mother of God…” (LG 67)
Pray the Rosary - Firm in the Faith with Mary 1
What do you think the Rosary is? What have "they" told you? Do you think it’s cool to see a superstar with a gold rosary around her neck? A Brazilian soccer player with his rosary – probably a little simpler, but still sometimes flying in the wind?
Or maybe your only direct contact with the Rosary is your grandmother repeating over and over prayers you´re supposed to know too.
Let´s start by thinking about what the Rosary isn´t:
It´s not Catholic idolatry of Mary
It´s not dry regurgitating of dead words
It´s not complicated
It´s not just for old people. It´s not even just for Catholics. It´s for everyone. It´s for all Christians
Pray the Rosary - Firm in the Faith with Mary 2
Now maybe you´ll be surprised at what it is!
It's a biblical-based prayer that is primarily about Jesus and directed to him!
It´s a way to 'pray the Gospel' as Blessed John Paul II taught.
It´s the School of Mary, as John Paul II said:
It´s a school of Meditation and Contemplation
It’s a way that Mary, Jesus´ Mother (i.e., the human being who knows Jesus best) can teach you to pray and help you grow closer to Jesus, to be like him, to love him and love like him
The Heart of the Rosary is the Meditation on 'The Mysteries', the series of biblical events – really the whole life and message of Jesus – that we reflect on as we repeat the Hail Mary's of the Rosary.
The Rosary is really the fruit of a long evolution, guided by the Holy Spirit through Mary. It´s history shows how it is truly a way of biblical prayer, bringing together lots of tried and true elements of faith and prayer. Find out more!
Praying the Rosary is a very powerful form of prayer because it is a way to pray the word of God.
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