What Catholics Believe: The Veneration of Mary
Who Was Mary?
Mary, oftentimes referred to as the Virgin Mary or the Blessed Virgin or Mary, Mother of God, was the biological mother of Jesus Christ, who was God born of the flesh. Jesus was born through a virgin so that the prophecies of the Old Testament would be fulfilled (Isaiah 7:14). Catholics believe that Mary was born without the burden of Original Sin, so that she could be a worthy vessel for the Lord. God, being perfect and unblemished, could not possibly be sullied by being carried and birthed by a sinful being. God, as Jesus Christ, could not nurse at the breast of an imperfect woman. As such, God blessed Mary without the burden of sin. He smiled and gave His favor to her in this way. We know that Mary was born without sin because of how she is referred in the Scriptures. She is referred to by an angel in Luke 1:28-30 as "full of grace." The exact Greek word used was kekaritomene, which is translated as full of grace, but refers to a quality within a person, not a blessing upon that person. The angel, therefore, is not blessing Mary, but rather acknowledging that she had already been blessed, through her own immaculate conception, by God and that she was without sin.
Protestants like to point out that in several Scriptures, it is pointed out that no one is without sin. And this is correct, of course. Nothing in the Bible can really be argued with, can it? Well, not if you firmly believe that the Bible is the living word of God, and I happen to hold such a firm belief. So I will never contradict those Scriptures, however, the Bible itself would seem to contradict them. How can the Bible contradict itself? Well, it doesn't. When John and Paul wrote about all having sinned, they were referring to individual sin. They were not referring to the burden of Original Sin. And they were referring to us, regular folks, as well as themselves. They were not, however, referring to Jesus Christ. Correct? So if Jesus' existence contradicts those verses, obviously we must look beyond just the words on the page. We must see the meaning behind those words. Obviously Jesus isn't included in the statement that all have sinned and that there is no one without sin, and so we can safely believe that Mary as well was born without sin so that she could be a worthy vessel for the perfect being that was Jesus Christ. There is nothing in the Scriptures that contradicts this teaching, unless, of course, you want to say that Jesus himself was just as sinful as the rest of us, and I don't think anyone wants to make that statement.
Another thing Protestants like to point to to try to refute the doctrine of Mary being born without sin is her own words in Luke 1:47 when she says her "Spirit rejoices in God, my Savior." Why would Mary require a Savior if she was without sin? Well, because God did save her from sin, he just did it before she was born. So God was indeed her Savior, just as He is the savior of us all. The difference is that God saved her before birth and He saves all of us at death. And make no mistake, our salvation does come only at the moment of our death, as it is written in Phillipians 3:8-12:
"Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead."
Paul knew that salvation was something to be attained. Something to strive for your entire life, and that it was a goal to be reached at death. But the angel who visited Mary recognized that she was already full of the grace of God. She had nothing more to attain, because she had already been saved at the moment of her conception.
Veneration vs Worship
Catholics do NOT worship Mary. We worship God and God alone. Protestants often try to accuse Catholics of Mary worship or saint worship, and try to use this to defame the church and to paint us as pagans or heretics. The problem is that this claim can't be backed up once you have a clear understanding of the difference between veneration and worship. They are not the same thing. Dictionary.com defines the word venerate to mean "To hold in deep respect; revere" and "To honor in recognition of qualities of holiness, excellence, wisdom, etc." It does not mean to worship. You can venerate all sorts of different people. You can venerate your parents or teachers or your pastor or you could even venerate celebrities, and many do. However the word worship should only be used in reference to God and no one else. Many are worthy of veneration, only God is worthy of worship.
Mary was chosen as the mother of God made flesh. Even if you don't acknowledge her as being without sin, that alone makes her worthy of veneration. She held the baby Jesus inside of her womb. Jesus nursed at her breast. This is a woman who is certainly worthy of great respect, and that is all veneration is. Also, Mary was venerated in Scripture by the angel of the Lord. In the passage from Luke when the angel appeared to Mary to proclaim to her the truth that she would give birth to a son and name him Jesus, the angel said to her "Hail, Full of Grace." We covered this a little already, but let's examine it a little further. In Luke 1:29, the very next verse, it says that Mary was perplexed by this greeting. Why would she have been perplexed? Well, because of two reasons. The first is because of the word "Hail." This was a greeting that, in the vernacular of the time, was used to greet someone of royalty. You would say "Hail Caesar," just as in the modern times the theme song of the President of the United States is "Hail to the Chief." Mary certainly wasn't royalty, so she would have been confused by this. She also would not have understood the Full of Grace bit, because there would have been no one to explain to her that she was, in fact, born without sin through the grace of God. If the angel of the Lord venerates Mary, should we do any less?
Mary As the Ark of the New Covenant
Every important event in the Old Testament has a counterpart in the New Testament. The Old Testament is rife with prophecies, mostly Messianic, which have parallels in the New Testament. Signs of the old covenant between God and man are revisited in order to seal the New Covenant. For instance, in the Old Testament we had the Sabbath, but in the New Testament, we have the Lord's Day. This is why we as Christians almost universally worship on Sunday instead of Saturday. The old covenant was fulfilled and even the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews declares the old covenant obsolete and that it will soon fade away (Hebrews 8:13). Now, because Jesus had come to fulfill the old covenant, He had to re-institute anything that He wanted to carry over to the new covenant. Because of this, we see many examples of things of the old covenant being fulfilled in events of the New Testament. One of these is the Ark of the New Covenant, the seal of God's promise just as the Ark of the Covenant was to the Jews of the Old Testament.
There are many parallels in the New Testament between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. For instance, both traveled to the hill country of Judea (2 Samuel 6:1-11; Luke 1:39), David, dressed in priestly vestments, danced and jumped in front of the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14) and John the Baptist, who was of priestly lineage, jumped in his mother's womb in the presence of Mary (Luke 1:41), David questions why the Ark would come to him (2 Samuel 6:9) just as Elizabeth questioned why the mother of her Lord would come to visit her (Luke 1:43), the Ark and Mary both remained in Judea for three months (2 Samuel 6:11; Luke 1:56) and the Ark and Mary both return home from Judea and eventually end up in Jerusalem where the glory of God is presented in the temple (2 Sam. 6:12 & 1 Kgs. 8:9-1; Luke 1:56; 2:21-22).
We can also see parallels between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant by the items that Holy Scripture tells us was contained inside the Ark itself. For example, the Ark of the Covenant held the stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. In essence, the Ark of the Covenant held the Word of God, just like Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, held the living Word of God inside her womb (John 1:1). The Ark of the Covenant also contained some of the Manna, the bread that fell from the sky while the Jews wandered the desert, just like Mary carried Jesus, who was the Bread of Life come down from Heaven (John 6:41), within her womb.
Throughout the Old Testament we have examples of the Jewish people showing reverence to the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, it was prohibited to even touch the Ark of the Covenant because it was so sacred. In 2 Samuel 6:1-7 there is a man named Uzzah, who we learned had touched the Ark to try and keep it from falling on the ground and yet he was still burned up by the anger of God for having committed "such and irreverent act." This story is again told in 1Chronicles 13:9-12. So we see that God himself commanded by penalty of death that His people show a great reverence to the Ark of the Covenant, is it so hard to believe that we should be so commanded to show like respect to the Ark of His New Covenant, which is the woman Mary?
Prayer to Mary and Intercession
Another doctrine Protestants use to try and invalidate the Catholic church, and to try and paint us as pagans and idolators, is the practice of praying to the Saints, Mary in particular. Protestants often cite 1 Timothy 2:5, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" as a refutation of the idea of praying to God through anyone other than Jesus Christ. After all, Christ is the one and only mediator between God and man, right? The difference here is that we don't pray to Mary or the Saints to ask them for anything. We simply ask them to petition God on our behalf. Have you ever asked a pastor or friend or family member to pray for you? You ever post on Facebook that you're having a rough time and need prayers? If you have, then I ask, what is the difference? How is asking a Saint to pray for you any different than asking a friend to pray for you? Well, it is a little different. James 5:16 tells us that the prayers of the righteous can accomplish much. So I ask you, who is more righteous than those who are already in full communion with the Lord in Heaven? And if you are sitting there thinking to yourself, "Well, I've never asked anyone else to pray on my behalf because Jesus is the only mediator between man and God," well, good for you. You're not a hypocrite. However, you are still wrong. We already saw in James 5 where James taught that Christians should confess their sins to each other and to pray for each other, 1 Timothy 2:1-4 also tells us that praying for others, even complete strangers, is good and pleasing to God. So, while there is one mediator between God and man, and that mediator is Jesus Christ, we are also commanded to pray for each other and to confess our sins to each other.
Of course now, the fundamentalists out there are crying foul at my arguments. Asking a friend or a pastor to pray on your behalf is different than asking for the intercession of a Saint, because we are commanded not to speak to the dead, right? But are we really? The Scripture in question is Deuteronomy 18: 10-12, which speaks of not being a psychic or sorcerer or medium or necromancer. It should be noted, however, that necromancy refers to the conjuring of the dead, like through a séance, not simply talking to the dead. Do you ever talk to a loved one who has gone to their reward? Delivering flowers to Grandma's grave and telling her about little Johnny and how big he's getting and how well he's doing in school and what not? Of course you have. Lots of people speak to their loved ones in this manner, and I don't think anyone would acquaint this with necromancy, right? So then how is praying to Grandma, and make no mistake, you are praying when you do this, any different than praying to Mary or to the Saints? Surely you don't worship Grandma, do you? And neither do Catholics worship Mary and the Saints. It should also be noted, and I know this is going to raise a few eyebrows and I will write more on this in another article, that Deuteronomy is in the Old Testament. It has been rendered obsolete by the new covenant set up by Jesus Christ when He fulfilled the law on the cross. But since praying to Saints isn't the same as conjuring them, that point is a little moot.
Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ without knowing the touch of a man. I think that much is incontestable, correct? Well, what most Protestants don't see as incontestable, in fact I think some of them don't even know is a thing, is the idea that Mary also died without knowing the touch of a man. Now, this is a somewhat controversial doctrine, and I can completely understand why. When I first heard this notion, in my early 20s because I wasn't raised Catholic I am a converted Protestant, the notion was wildly unbelievable to me. I mean, the Bible talks about Jesus' brothers, right? James and John were His brothers, weren't they? He had brothers, so how could Mary have died a virgin? I thought like most people thought. Mary and Joseph were engaged when Mary became pregnant with Jesus as a virgin, but after Jesus' birth they were married and would presumably have lived normally as man and wife, and of course they would have had other children, and these were the brothers the Bible spoke of. The problem is, this theory just isn't Biblical. And I'm going to explain why.
In the book of Luke, when the angel of the Lord appeared to announce to Mary the birth of Jesus (the exact passage is quoted above), the angel greeted her and told her of the good news that should would give birth to a son. Mary was confused by this. She asked, "How can this be? I know not man." Now, think about that for a moment. She said "I know not man." This is vaguely important when you really think about it. This is a woman who was married. She wasn't engaged, as we think of it today, she was married to Joseph. In Jewish tradition, you would get married, but you would wait a period of time before your co-habitation began. This was what it meant to be betrothed. She wasn't promised to be married to Joseph, they were married. Their period of co-habitation just hadn't begun yet. So if she had planned to live a normal married life with Joseph, her reaction to this news would have been fundamentally different. She didn't say "I haven't known man yet," she said she didn't know man. Had she planned to eventually come to know Joseph, in the Biblical sense, she would have thought that the angel was prophesying to her what was going to happen after she went to live with Joseph. No, Mary's reaction is pretty clear that she had no intention of living a traditional married life. And this was fairly common for women of faith back then. Just as nun's today choose celibacy, there were Jewish women then who chose to stay chaste. They chose to serve God and not a husband. So Mary's reaction to the angel would seem to suggest that she had taken a vow of celibacy.
There is another very important bit of Scripture to back up the claim that Mary was a celibate woman, even after she began living with Joseph. You see, it was prophesied that this would be the case. Much of the prophesies of the Old Testament foretold of the coming Messiah, correct? So then what would one take from Ezekiel 44:2 when Ezekiel writes of a vision given to him "Then He brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces the east; and it was shut. 2The LORD said to me, "This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut. 3"As for the prince, he shall sit in it as prince to eat bread before the LORD; he shall enter by way of the porch of the gate and shall go out by the same way"? It is pretty obvious that God was speaking of the gate by which He would come into the world. And that gate was Mary. He entered through that gate, and no other man shall ever enter into it. It's pretty convincing.
So then what of these brothers? Well, Catholics hold a few different beliefs, and the Church has no official position on the matter of His so-called brothers. Some believe that the original Greek word can be used to mean any close relative and that these brothers were actually cousins, not brothers. There is another belief, and it is the belief I personally happen to prescribe to, and that is the belief that these brothers were actually step-brothers. You see, if we are to believe that Mary was celibate, then we must also recognize that Jewish tradition had provided for these women to marry a man, usually a widower, who would be able to provide for her. It is entirely possible that Joseph was a widower and that Jesus' brothers, who many Protestants think of as younger brothers, were actually His older brothers who had been Joseph's children from his previous marriage.
There is one more thing that makes it pretty important that Mary was celibate. Why did God choose a virgin to begin with as the mother of Jesus? He wanted the birth of Christ to be an obvious miracle, right? And if he had chosen a woman who not only hadn't known a man, but had pledged to never know man, it would hold a lot more weight. Otherwise people might just think that Mary and Joseph had coupled before they were permitted by law.
The Assumption of Mary
The final disputed Marian Doctrine we will look at is that the Mary did not die, but was instead assumed into Heaven while she was still alive. This is somewhat controversial, but why? In 2 Kings 2:9-11 we see that Elijah was taken to Heaven on a fiery chariot and in a whirlwind. If it had already been demonstrated that such a feat was possible and that God was willing to grant such favor to someone, why is it so hard for anyone to believe that God would grant this blessing to Mary, the mother of his only begotten son? It is entirely possible that Enoch was also assumed into Heaven in Genesis 5:24, though this is less obvious than it is in the case of Elijah. So we have concrete incident of God bringing someone to Heaven who had not died, and possibly a second. Why wouldn't He do this for the mother of His own son? Unfortunately the Assumption of Mary is not recorded in Scripture. I wish it was, but there are a lot of things I wish were recorded in Scripture and aren't, like the idea of the Trinity, which most Protestants adhere to. But there is plenty of Scriptural evidence for the idea of someone being assumed into Heaven, I personally don't find it at all hard to believe that God would have taken Mary and not forced her to see death.
As you can see, there is plenty of Scriptural evidence to support the veneration of Mary, that is, the holding her in very high esteem. No one is saying that she is divine or on the same level of God. That is not the teaching, nor has it ever been the teaching, of the Catholic church. If you notice my use of pronouns throughout this paper, any time I am referring to God or Jesus the pronouns are capitalized (He, Him), but every time I am referring to Mary or to any other human being, the pronouns are not capitalized. Mary is on the same level as any other supremely righteous person. Mother Theresa of Calcutta was an incredibly righteous person, and she is absolutely deserving of the respect do anyone who has kept the commandments of God and who has shown love and compassion to her fellow man until the end of her life. Mother Theresa should be venerated, but she is not God. Neither is Mary, and it has never been the teaching of the Catholic church that she was.