Mary, Mother of Jesus – immaculate conception and honour in worship

  • Question from ELC, United Kingdom

    I’ve been having some discussions with some Catholic friends about Mary. They argue that Mary must be sinless because Jesus would be tainted by sin if his mother was sinful. As the mother of God she must have a special status in our worship. I would have thought original sin of Mary would help answer the question, but if your first premise is that Mary MUST have been sinless (i.e. an exception) then where do you go?

    And of course, her mother must have been miraculously conceived so that no taint of sin was passed on to her so there was no taint of sin for her to pass on to Jesus and her mother’s mother must have been miraculously conceived…

    Now, that obvious hole in the argument has been addressed, let’s talk about Mary.

    Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary as official Catholic doctrine in 1854. It has had a long history in Christian folklore before that. Mary, as the ‘first believer’, was accorded a special status and many extra-Biblical stories appeared. Some Christian writers liked to style her as a ‘New Eve’, reversing the sin of the first Eve through her obedience to God. The Immaculate Conception of Mary does away with the question of ‘Original Sin’ being passed onto Jesus. Original Sin is the sin that is passed on, so the thing to note here is that Mary’s ‘sinlessness’ is about Original Sin.

    The story of the Immaculate Conception can be traced to third century ‘lost gospels’ (see previous freelance theology answers for more on that topic). Put briefly, the story goes that she was miraculously conceived when her childless aged parents, St Anna and St Joachim, were visited by an angel and promised the child they had longed for. St Anna kissed her husband and was with child.

    There is no Biblical basis for this, or for the other great Catholic doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity or her preservation from death (the Assumption). Sadly, they seem to have been the product of the very fertile imaginations of Christian storytellers. The power in the stories, however, can be seen in the way they have been absorbed into Roman Catholicism – arguably one of the oldest continuous expressions of Christianity. For example, faith in the Blessed Virgin’s virginity led St Jerome to translate Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters’ as ‘cousins’ and this translation continues today in some Catholic Bibles.

    Non-Catholics also have difficulty with the status given to Mary. She has been regarded as ‘theotokos’ (‘God-bearer’) since the Nestorian controversy in the fifth century. Technically this is incorrect, as she only bore the human incarnation of the divine Son. But the school of thought who wanted to use the term ‘theotokos’ wanted to assert the absolute divinity of Christ against various heresies around at the time that denied it. ‘God-bearer’ thus became part of orthodox Christian belief, when perhaps it should not have.

    Theotokos’ led onto the medieval depiction of Mary as the ‘Queen of Heaven’, seated at Christ’s right hand. As the person with Christ’s ear, as it were, that made her the best person to pray to as a mediator, hence the fact she is often called the ‘mediatrix’ and the common sequence of prayers ‘Ave Maria’/’Hail Mary’. This does sometimes cross over into out-and-out worship and some Catholics call her ‘co-redemptrix’ (‘co-redeemer’). However, Mary is not divine. She was human and many Christians, including many Catholics, would be unhappy with the idea of worshipping her.

    The simple fact is that the Immaculate Conception of Mary is unnecessary with regard to the question of Jesus’ sinless state. Original Sin, especially within the Catholic model following the theology of Thomas Aquinas, means that human beings cannot attain the supernatural destiny they were intended for. In more extreme examples, including Augustine and Reformed theology, Original Sin means humans are predisposed to sin, a predisposition they automatically follow.

    Obviously when the Son became incarnate, the Son’s human nature could achieve that supernatural destiny through the Son’s divine nature and any human predisposition to sin would be made irrelevant, as it would be impossible to imagine God sinning against Himself. So, Mary need not have been sinless as Original Sin could not have impacted on the Incarnate Christ anyway.

    Asserting that Mary was sinless goes beyond the Biblical accounts. It is unnecessary and, in a strange way robs her of the honour she is due as the ‘humble handmaiden of the Lord’. If she was sinless, then becoming the ‘God-bearer’ is not the inspiring tale of a young girl being willing to suffer the public disgrace of being unmarried, yet pregnant. It takes away the very humanity that Mary passed on to her son.

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