What the church’s teachings tell us about Mary, about Jesus, and about ourselves.
A great deal of confusion surrounds the four Marian dogmas, not only concerning the meaning of Mary, but also concerning the meaning of dogma and in relation to our personal life.
Dogma does not mean the forbiddance of thought, but the conclusion — it’s what you get when you have thought something through to the end. So, for instance, when the question of just exactly who Jesus was arose in the fourth century (archangel? little-g godlet? big-G God? something else?), the church at the Council of Nicaea looked at its tradition, both written and unwritten, and stated clearly what it had always believed but never expressed with perfect clarity: that Jesus was not a creature like an archangel, but “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”
The church has done the same thing over time with various other data given to her via the written and unwritten tradition handed down by the apostles. And that tradition — the common life, common worship and common teaching of the church — concerns not simply Jesus Christ, but also the Blessed Virgin Mary. For she is one who, by her freely chosen “Yes,” gave to God the Son the human flesh by which he wrought the salvation of the world, and it is she who is the first guardian of the faith, the icon of the church and the model disciple.
Mother of God
That the incarnation of the Word made flesh binds Mary to Jesus is best seen in the story of Nestorius. He was a fifth-century bishop and theologian who disliked the fact that the Word really and truly became flesh. Zealous for the holiness and purity of God, he developed a theory that portrayed Jesus as basically two people occupying the same head. One of them was the spiritual Logos: God the Son. The other was an ordinary guy named Jesus who was more or less occupied by the Logos as gas fills a balloon.
Accordingly, Nestorius said the man Jesus took his humanity from Mary. But the Logos had nothing to do with Mary. Therefore, Nestorius forbade the immemorial practice of hailing Mary as Theotokos (meaning “God Bearer” or “Mother of God”). Instead, he insisted she be called Christotokos, or Christ Bearer.
The problem with this theory, as the church saw, is that Jesus becomes unable to save us since he’s no longer the Godman, bearing our sins to the cross and rising to give us his divine life. If Jesus does not share the divine nature, he cannot share it with us.
So, the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) reasserted the basic apostolic teaching that Jesus is true God and true man — that is, it taught 1) that Jesus had two natures (divine and human) united in one person, and 2) that Mary was the mother of that person. The math was extremely simple and biblical: Jesus is God, and Mary is Jesus’ mother. Therefore, we ought to go on doing as we have done for centuries and hail her as Theotokos.
In short, the point about the Theotokos is that the point is not about the Theotokos, but about Jesus. And indeed, that is the pattern for every Marian dogma: The thing about Mary is that the thing is never really about Mary. Every Marian dogma protects some truth crucial to understanding who Jesus is, and therefore who we are. For, as Pope St. John Paul II points out, Jesus does not just reveal the Father to us, he reveals us to ourselves.
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Many people find the perpetual virginity of Mary incredible. After all, James, Joseph (or Joses, depending on the manuscript), Simon and Judas (Jude) are consistently named as “brothers” of Jesus. But elsewhere James and Joseph are specifically called children of “the other Mary.” (Matthew 27:61) John concurs, telling us that “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.” (John 19:25) That is, James, Joseph, Jude and Simon are Jesus’ cousins, not siblings. That’s why, as the early church historian Eusebius records, James’ successor as bishop of Jerusalem was none other than “Symeon, son of Clopas.” In short, there’s no there there when it comes to evidence against Mary’s perpetual virginity.
There is, however, evidence for it.
Consider: Why does a betrothed woman like Mary marvel at the prospect that she shall have a son? (See Luke 1) She speaks, in fact, like a woman who had already decided to remain a virgin throughout her life.
Joseph, likewise, behaves like a man afraid Mary’s story is true, not like a man who doubts her. When the angel speaks to him in his dream, he does not say “Don’t suspect Mary of adultery” but “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” (Matthew 1:20) In short, the angel reminds Joseph that this task has been appointed to him by God, despite Joseph’s sense of unworthiness. This is also borne out by the fact that Jesus, in his final moments of earthly life, gives the widow Mary into John’s care — an act that makes no sense if Jesus had siblings. (John 19:26-27)
Mary’s perpetual virginity is the extension of the Virgin Birth, a “sign” (Isaiah 7:14) of God’s gracious love for her (and us) and of her (and our) total consecration to God — for Mary is, as St. Ambrose said, a “type of the church.”
Mary’s virginity bespeaks both God’s initiating power in salvation and the purity of her consecration to him. It shows that salvation is God’s idea, not ours, and that this is due not to human desserts, but to God’s love that saves us despite our sinfulness. Moreover, it testifies to something else: Mary’s welcome of that grace (which was, itself, the fruit of grace). As the icon of the church, she embodies the complete love and stainless beauty of the bride of Christ just as he embodies the complete self-offering of the bridegroom. The virginity of Mary, as the prophet Isaiah said, is the sign that in our Lord Emmanuel, God is with us.
The Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception means that “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus)
The seeds of the teaching are already present in Luke 1:28, which records the greeting of the angel Gabriel to our Lady: “Kaire, Kecharitomene!” (“Hail, Grace-Filled One!”). Many ask, “How can it be that Mary is without sin?” But the very same fathers of the church who insist most strongly that we are afflicted with original sin (including Augustine, who coined the term) likewise take it for granted that Mary is without sin, that she is “immaculate,” “all holy,” “spotless” and without any minutest stain.
Essentially, what the church arrived at was the understanding that Jesus saves from sin in two ways, just as a doctor save from sickness in two ways: cure and prevention. Mary was prevented from contracting original sin in the moment of her conception by a singular act of grace through Christ. In her we see not the absence of Christ’s saving grace but its fullest expression.
Hence, she is “full of grace” and praises “God my saviour.” (Luke 1:47)
Paradoxically, the cry “But Mary has to be a sinner or she’s not human!” leads to the point of the dogma. For when we pass from saying “Sin is normal” (which is what the doctrine of original sin teaches) to saying “Sin is natural” we make a deep and fundamental error. For God is the author of nature, and he does not create sin. (See James 1:13-14) So original sin, while normal, does not constitute our nature but instead corrupts it.
The whole point of Christ’s salvation is to repair and glorify our damaged human nature. In preserving Mary from all sin, God has given us a sort of miniature figurine of the church and, in turn, of the completely saved human person. In this we see the dignity of our origins as creatures who come from love, are redeemed completely by love, live by love and are destined to love.
It would be wonderful to be able to say that the 19th century understood all this and heeded it once the dogma was formulated in 1854. But it was, tragically, not to be — necessitating the most recent Marian dogma.
Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption in 1950 this way: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” (Munificentissimus Deus)
What evidence is there for the Assumption?
To begin with, we have Revelation 12, which already takes for granted the image of Mary as a cosmic heavenly figure by roughly A.D. 90 (“a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”). In addition, there is a curious lack of relics for Mary in the early church, alone out of all the New Testament figures. This is telling given that her relics would be prized most of all. Were the Assumption a later myth, those relics would already have been in circulation.
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, assumed into heaven, turns up in tomb art as far away as Spain as early as 312, indicating it was already a long-settled matter by the time it crossed the Mediterranean. In 373, St. Ephraim records a tradition that the Virgin was assumed — and nobody rebukes this as an unheard-of novelty, because it is already universally taken for granted. And when the Eastern church
promulgates the feast of the Dormition in the fourth century, there is simply no controversy. That’s the surest evidence the tradition was already ancient: When you are looking at a feast you are seeing the tip of an iceberg whose bulk is nothing other than the common belief of all normal Christians at the time.
So why did the pope define this commonly accepted point of faith as dogma in 1950? Developments of doctrine are commonly responses to challenges from the culture. The mid-20th century screamed that our destiny was the oven, mass grave, concentration camp, gas chamber, trench, frozen Siberian waste, anonymity of the cubicle, anonymous production line, dereliction of the nursing home, or obituary dumpster.
But as the Immaculate Conception affirms the dignity of our origins, so the Assumption is the sign of our destiny. Mary shows not only how to follow Christ, but the reward awaiting those who do. God wills to grant us, as he has already granted her, the ecstatic glory of complete union — body, soul and spirit — with himself in eternity.