On The Virgin Mary

Jan Provoost Madonna and Child Madonna and Child, a visual reminder
of Mary's role as Theotokos

The Dogmas of Mary--Virgin Birth and Mother of God

Our Lord’s Mother, Mary, is honored with many titles. She is Saint Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Blessed Mother, our Lady (mainly in the Western Church), the New Eve, and the Queen of Heaven and of the Saints, Apostles, Martyrs, and so forth. According to the defini­tion of the third Ecumenical Council she is the Theotokos, which in the Western Church is usually translated as Mother of God and may literally be translated as God-bearer. Popular devotion, drawing on bib­lical typology, gives her still other titles, such as Ark of the Covenant, Mirror of Justice, Rose Without Thorns, and the Woman Clothed in the Sun and Stars.

Two dogmas concerning our Lady are biblically-founded and are part of the Church’s central proclamation of the Faith. The first is popu­larly called the Virgin Birth, though it more accurately is the dogma of our Lord’s Virginal Conception. That is, our Lord was miraculously conceived of a Virgin mother without natural human father (see St. Matthew 1:18-23; St. Luke 1:26-35).

The dogma of the Theotokos, defined at the Council of Ephesus, as explained in section IV of this chapter, flows from the biblical data as a necessary conclusion from the facts of our Lord’s unity of Person and of Mary’s maternity.

Important Beliefs--Perpetual Virginity and the Assumption

Other beliefs and doctrines concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary have a lesser status, because they are not so clearly rooted in Scripture or so directly related to the central facts of the Incarnation and the Person of our Lord. The Perpetual Virginity, however, was held virtu­ally universally from the fifth century on, and even most magisterial Reformation figures believed it, though not as a dogma. The doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity implies that New Testament references to our Lord’s brothers and sisters concern either half siblings (the chil­dren of Joseph by an earlier marriage) or cousins or similar close rela­tives (who often are called ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ in Scripture).

The Perpetual Virginity has conciliar and patristic support. Mary is called ‘Ever-Virgin’ by many Fathers and by such conciliar authorities as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II (in the Sentence and Capitula of the Council), and by the Synod in Trullo of 692 (Canon 1). According to the very influential Tome of Saint Leo Mary’s childbearing of our Lord itself was painless and left her virginity intact: ‘who bore him as she had conceived him, without loss of virginity’.

This idea is also maintained by the Synod in Trullo (Canon LXXIX). The Perpetual Virginity is frequently referred to in the liturgies of the East and West, and so it has an ecumenical consensus. It also has authorized liturgical expression in the Anglican Catholic Church. Thus the Perpetual Virginity is at least a pious and godly opinion. Whether the anathema of Constantinople II refers to rejection of the Perpetual Virginity itself directly is doubtful, since the Perpetual Virginity seems to be mentioned more by the way in the course of the Council’s reaffirmation of central Christological teachings. Nevertheless, it does not seem safe to reject this ecumenical belief.

Apart from the fact of our Lord’s Virginal Conception, the earliest post-biblical Christian writers on our Lady dwelt upon her identity as the New or Second Eve. This idea extends Saint Paul’s reflections upon Christ as the new Adam, and it draws on data in Saint John’s Gospel (particularly 2:1-11 and 19:26-7, in the light of John’s Genesis theme) and in Revelation 12. Mary as the new Eve is the new ‘moth­er of all living’ (Genesis 3:20), whose Son and Seed bruises the head of Satan and sin by way of fulfilling the prophecy in Genesis 3:15 (the protoevangelium or First Gospel). Our Lord entrusts his Beloved Disciple to the maternal care of his mother, who is therefore the Mother of the Church.

While Protestants and Catholics sometimes have debated as to whether the woman in Revelation 12 is Mary or the Church, the distinction is false. Mary in Johannine thought is a figure for and type of the Church, and likewise the Church has a Marian quality. Revelation 12 concerns both the Church and Mary, with the Church represented by a figure who manifestly mirrors Mary. It is unfortunate if debate about our Lady divides Christians, when her roles as the new Eve and Mother of the Church not only can be uni­versally accepted by Christians, but also are the most ancient, impor­tant, and fruitful for Christian faith and meditation.

This theme of Mary as the new Eve finds striking expression in a Marian hymn by the Non-Juring Anglican bishop, Thomas Ken (1637- 1711):

As Eve when she her fontal sin reviewed,
Wept for herself and all she should include,
Blest Mary with man’s Saviour in embrace
Joyed for herself and for all human race.

                                  --Her Virgin Eyes saw God Incarnate Born

Another ancient and devout belief concerning our Lady holds that at the time of her passing from this life she was taken up into heavenly glory. In the Roman Catholic Church this belief since 1950 has taken the form of the dogma of the Assumption, which holds that Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory and so is buried nowhere on earth. While Eastern Orthodox Christians believe virtually the same thing, they are not inclined to be quite so precise in their termi­nology and definition. The Western feast of the Assumption on August 15th in the East is called the feast of the Dormition or Falling-Asleep (Koimesis) of the Theotokos. It would be very difficult to find an Anglican Catholic who does not believe that our Lady is in heavenly glory. Bishop Ken, again, gives Anglican expression to this belief:

Novogorod Dormition In the East, the Assumption is known as The Dormtion, or 'falling asleep.'

Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,
Next to his throne her Son his Mother placed;
And here below, now she’s of heaven possest,
All generations are to call her blest.

Most Anglicans probably also believe that it does not matter very much, as Archbishop John-Charles Vockler once put it, whether Mary got to heaven ‘by the express or the local’: that she is glorified there is the important matter. In any case Roman Catholic precision in doc­trinal definition sometimes tends to be excessive, and the elevation of a precisely defined Assumption to dogmatic status seems unnecessary. The Assumption first appears in orthodox Christian writers late in the sixth century. Earlier references to it come in apocryphal writings of little or no independent authority.

The positive theological value of belief in the glorification of our Lady into heaven is the assurance it offers Christians that what our Lord achieved at his Ascension – namely the glorification of human nature – is a possibility also for us. The glorification of our Lord’s humanity seems inevitable, given the union of that humanity with his divinity. But that a human being such as Mary, who is not God but merely human, can be glorified gives hope to all Christians. Mary in this respect also is a figure and prototype for the Christian and the Church.

A Subject of Debate--The Immaculate Conception 

A more widely debated belief, which also now is dogmatically held by the Roman Catholic Church, is the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception, defined for Roman Catholics in 1854, is a belief concerning, not our Lord’s conception by his mother, but rather Mary’s own conception by her mother. This belief holds that in virtue of our Lord’s own merits foreseen, and because of her future role as our Lord’s mother, God suppressed in Mary at the first instant of her being and conception all spot and stain of original sin. In effect God gave to Mary at the instant of her conception what he gives to all Christians by baptism. However, in our Lady this victory over original sin was combined with such grace that she continued free from actu­al, personal sin.

The ideas that Mary was spotless or sinless in terms of personal sin and was filled with special grace enjoy wide conciliar and patristic authority and an ecumenical consensus. However, the Immaculate Conception is not held generally in the Eastern Church and was explicitly rejected by the greatest medieval theologians in the West, including Saints Bernard, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure. Therefore the Roman Catholic version of the Immaculate Conception does not have ecumenical status. While Anglican Catholics are free to believe in the Immaculate Conception as a pious and devout opinion, it is neither a dogma nor a doctrine of our Church. The special preservation of Mary from sin in virtue of her role in the Incarnation, however, seems eminently fitting and godly.

Once again in this matter Mary is chiefly significant as a type and fig­ure of the Christian. As God gives us the blessings of forgiveness of sin and newness of life, so this work of grace is abundantly and deeply realized in our Lord’s Mother as the Mother of all those who rise to the new life of grace through the merits and mediation of Christ.

Anglican Shrine at Walsingham The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham has been an important holy site since the Middle Ages.

Intercessor, not Mediator

Belief both in Mary’s intercession for the Church and for Christians and also in the appropriateness of requesting such intercession, is ecu­menical and universal among Catholic and Orthodox Christians.  From these beliefs and from Mary’s high place in the history of salvation according to the gospels come the var­ious Marian devotions such as the Rosary, the Marian seasonal antiphons, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Marian shrines, whether in humble homes and parishes or in great centers of pilgrim­age such as Walsingham, Lourdes, and Czestochowa.

It is, of course, essential that Marian devotion always remain anchored in devotion to our Lord. Our Lady’s place in the Incarnation and in the order of sal­vation as new Eve and as type of the Church ensure that all genera­tions shall call her blessed, as she herself prophesied most truly.

Recent Roman Catholic proposals that our Lady be called the ‘medi­atrix of all grace’ or ‘co-mediatrix of all grace’ are most unfortunate. These proposals introduce division, disquiet, and novelty of expression where tradition, antiquity, and ecumenical consensus should govern. It is possible that such expressions can with effort be interpreted in an orthodox and catholic sense: all Christians in a way are mediators of grace for others when we make for them prayers and intercessions that are pleasing unto God. This is true, no doubt, of our Lord’s Mother in a particularly strong sense. However, this element of truth adds noth­ing to the idea of the intercession of the saints and of our Lady except novel language that is ambitious of unorthodox and dangerous misin­terpretation.