By Rachel Hamilton, Franciscan University
As a former skeptic myself, I certainly understand the concern over how highly Catholics exalt Mary. If you clicked on this article, you likely are brimming with questions such as:
1. How is viewing Mary as more “immaculate” and righteous than the rest of us human creatures not deifying her?
2. What are the Biblical grounds for the Catholic belief that Mary lived as righteously as Jesus did?
3. Even if God did create Mary without inclination to sin, why do Catholics esteem her for something He did?
So feel free to sit somewhere comfortable— we’re about to explore each of these questions (as well as other relevant objections) by delving into Scripture!
As you may well be aware, Catholics believe not only that Mary was conceived without sin, but also that Mary didn’t sin. This belief about Mary’s remarkable faithfulness to God can be traced as far back as the second century, between the years AD 155-184, when the early Christians, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, wrote of her obedience.
Nevertheless, it is both important and reasonable to examine the various times Scripture mentions Mary, in order to determine the validity of this idea.
What does Scripture say about Mary?
After recently studying Mary’s visit with Elizabeth very closely, I was struck by several details that had previously gone under the radar for me.
For one, the precise wording of Elizabeth’s greeting in Luke 1:42 tells us a great deal:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
1. Notice how Elizabeth describes Mary as “blessed,” which is the same term with which she describes Jesus.
2. It is also noteworthy how Elizabeth does not say, “Blessed are you among women because of the blessed fruit of your womb,” which would imply that Mary is merely privileged with blessings, due to being the mother of Jesus. Rather, this compound sentence structure signifies that as individuals, Mary and Jesus are both “blessed.”
3. Of course, it is important to examine how similar the two instances of this word are in usage; perhaps this verse describes Mary to be blessed in a lesser or different sense than Jesus. Interestingly, the original Greek text reveals that aside from the genders of these two forms of eulogeó, these two occurrences of “blessed” are completely identical in morphology. Therefore, not only are Mary and Jesus both blessed, but they are also both blessed in the same sense.
Feel free to click on any of the following questions that the analysis above may have left you wondering, and a drop down menu will reveal a response to that objection:
Could the “among women” in Luke 1:42 mean that Mary is blessed along with other women, rather than that she is the “most blessed of women”?
If this verse meant that Mary were blessed collectively with other women, then wouldn’t this include the speaker, Elizabeth, herself? After all, Elizabeth would soon be the mother of a great prophet, and like Mary, she had miraculously conceived of her son-to-be. These characteristics give Elizabeth a great deal more in common with Mary than other women. Still, Elizabeth says, “blessed are you among women.” The fourth definition of εὐλογέω (or eulogeó, the Greek word for blessed) in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon also makes it clear that “among women” in Luke 1:42 means that Mary is blessed “before all other women.”
Could “blessed” here mean “blest,” as in circumstantially fortunate?
This is a perfectly reasonable question, seeing that “blessed” is a passive participle in this verse, and it could certainly be said that Mary was bestowed with the great external blessing of being able to carry, bear, and raise God Himself. However, the context of the verse suggests that it is not the meaning of Elizabeth’s words here. For if Mary and Jesus are blessed in the same sense in this verse, then any deduced meaning of the word would need to be applicable to them both. Does it make sense to say that Jesus was “circumstantially fortunate” in becoming flesh? By no means! Jesus’ incarnation meant that He became directly susceptible to all of the suffering of our fallen world.
Then what does “blessed” mean in this verse?
If it cannot be said that both Mary and the incarnate Jesus have been blest with good external circumstances, then that leaves “internal goodness” as the remaining plausible, alternative meaning. In other words, perhaps Elizabeth’s words signify that both Mary and Jesus have been sanctified (or “set apart”) with righteous character. And if the Bible proves this theory plausible, then it is noteworthy that the words “blessed are you among women” are spoken by Elizabeth, whom Luke 1:6 describes as, “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.”
Is anyone else described this way in the Bible?
After examining a list of the times the word “blessed” occurs in the Bible, I discovered the astounding truth that Mary and Jesus are the only two individuals in the New Testament who are specifically described with the Greek root, eulogeó, (which, as a participle, literally means, “good enough to be praised or spoken well of”). The other instances in which the participle form of “eulogeó,” is used to describe a person are Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9, Luke 19:38, and John 12:13, during Jesus’ procession through zealous crowds of people in Jerusalem, who were waving palms and shouting, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” I consider it quite significant how in Luke 1:42, Elizabeth described Mary with the same word used in these other contexts!
Given that Jesus reproaches Jerusalem in Luke 13:31-35 and Matthew 23:37-39 for how they will later describe Him as “blessed,” could it be said that Elizabeth was also wrong to use this word to describe Mary?
This is highly unlikely for several reasons. For one, Luke 1:41 reveals that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when she exclaimed the words in the following verse(s), and it is blasphemous to suppose that the Holy Spirit could inspire blasphemy! Secondly, in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, He is not reprimanding them for their praise (for their words are indeed true), but rather, for the insincerity of their words. Jesus is disappointed in Jerusalem because He knows that their praise of Him is merely conditional, or dependent upon whether or not He fulfills the temporal expectations they have for the Messiah. Finally, Elizabeth’s words could not possibly be a mistake, as Mary is described as “blessed” an additional two times in the first chapter of Luke!
The remaining verses involving Mary’s Holy Spirit-inspired encounter with her cousin reveal even more about the mother of Jesus. First of all, Luke 1:45 points out that Mary was also “blessed” because she trusted “that the Lord would fulfill His promises to her.”
Then later on, as Mary joyously proclaims a Song of Praise, (which is the longest speech of any woman in the New Testament), she states in Luke 1:48, “From now on, all generations will call (or “count”) me blessed.” A few details about this passage are noteworthy:
1. A literal translation of Elizabeth’s words in Luke 1:45 identifies Mary as “the one having believed,” signifying how Mary’s response contrasted with the responses of Zechariah, Abraham, Moses (in Exodus and in Numbers), and Sarah, who all doubted the Lord’s power to overcome the obstacles of their situations.
2. The contrast between the angel Gabriel’s response to Zechariah and his response to Mary also gives us insight into her character—it is remarkable that her faith surpassed that of a man whom Luke 1:6 tells us was, “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.”
3. Luke 1:48 states that Mary will be known as “blessed” henceforward and by all generations. (One could say that the point in this verse fits with how Catholics have referred to Mary as “the Blessed Mother” for centuries, no?)
4. In Luke 1:48, the word for “blessed” in the original Greek text (makariousin) is based on the root, makarizó, which, literally translated, means, “to count [someone] blessed.” Given that “blessedness” is a mass noun and an abstract concept, the most reasonable definition of “count” in this context is most likely Oxford’s 2.2 definition, “[to] regard or be regarded as possessing a specified quality or fulfilling a specified role.” Thus, a more accurate wording of the meaning of makarizó would be, “to consider [someone] blessed.”
5. The fact that Luke 1:48 is phrased as, “all… will [consider] me blessed,” rather than, “all will say that I have been blessed,” demonstrates that this blessedness is particularly associated with Mary’s identity. Furthermore, aside from Luke 1:48, the only instance of the Greek root makarizó in the Bible is James 5:10-11, which says, “As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. See how blessed we call those having persevered.” This could suggest that perseverance through suffering is a significant aspect of Mary’s personal quality of being blessed, (which is an idea that we will explore later in this analysis).
6. Meanwhile, the word describing Mary in Luke 1:45 is based on the Greek word makários, which occurs several times in the New Testament, namely in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Bible Hub explains that makários, literally translated, means “happy” and describes one who “obey[s] the Lord’s inbirthings of faith.” Moreover, other lexicographers have identified a distinction between mere happiness and the blessedness of makários:
“One’s blessedness rests ultimately on his love to God. Happiness can come from without, and can be dependent on circumstances; whereas, blessedness is fed by an inward fountain of joy, which no outward circumstances can seriously affect. Blessedness is therefore higher than happiness, for it consists of standing in a right relation to God.”
Thus, the fact that Luke 1:45 uses the word makários to describe Mary could signify that she characteristically responds to God’s provisions in her life with great zeal and obedience.
Nevertheless, feel free to click on any of the following objections that this study on Luke 1:43-56 may have elicited for you:
While this Scriptural passage indicates that Elizabeth and Zechariah’s words were inspired by the Holy Spirit, it never says this about Mary’s Song of Praise. So how can Mary’s words in Luke 1:48 be trusted?
As God’s messenger Gabriel clarified in Luke 1:35, the Holy Spirit would “come upon” Mary sometime after the angel appeared to her. As a result, she was carrying “The Word” inside of her as she spoke her Song of Praise. In other words, through the “fruit of her womb” that had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, Mary was already filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, to mention that Mary’s utterances were divinely inspired here would be unnecessary and even redundant. Also, if you compare Mary’s “Song of Praise” with Hannah’s “Song of Thanksgiving” in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, you’ll see that they share many striking parallels, which suggests that Mary studied the Scriptures of her Jewish faith often, and that she viewed her own life in accordance to it.
How can Catholics still insist that Mary was sinless, when Jesus explicitly repudiates the idea of his mother being blessed (makária) in Luke 11:27-28? And why do Catholics value Elizabeth’s words more than Jesus’?
It could seem that Jesus is discounting Mary’s alleged virtue here. However, this interpretation only holds true if Scripture gives evidence that Mary is not among those “who hear the word of God and keep it,” (which is a theory we will explore later on). In the meantime, note how of the few characteristics that the Bible details about Mary, there is one particularly relevant to this, which the Gospel of Luke tells us— twice:
If we read the context surrounding these verses, we see that the words Mary has “kept in her heart” include Jesus’ puzzling explanation that He must be in His father’s house, as well as the angels’ message of Good News that the shepherds had shared with her and Joseph. Furthermore, the fact that Luke 2:51 says “all these things” could indicate that Mary kept the words of Simeon’s prophesy (which had happened prior to Luke 2:51) in her heart as well.
Regardless, these verses show that Mary often reflected on the “things” (i.e. “words” or “matters”) that she heard. Interestingly, the Gospel very rarely provides a glimpse into an individual’s interior life, and few times it does, it most commonly reveals individuals to have dismay, fear, or amazement, rather than devout sentiments like these.
However, it should be addressed that some translations say that Mary “treasured up these things,” rather than that she “kept” them. Both interpretations are based on the Greek word dietērei, which the Lexicon study (at the bottom of Bible Hub’s page for Luke 2:51) defines as, “to keep safe, hold fast. From dia and tereo; to watch thoroughly, i.e. to observe strictly.” So it would seem plausible from these verses that Mary fulfills the “blessed” behavior that Jesus identifies in Luke 11:28 of “observing the Word of God.”
Furthermore, another time the Bible mentions one “treasuring” God’s word in his or her heart is Psalm 119:11: “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I might not sin against You,” which could suggest that Mary treasured God’s word in her heart for the same purpose! (Click here to see the Cross References for Psalm 119:11, which list two verses about Mary and three verses about avoiding sin.)
Finally, as Catholics, we certainly do not value Elizabeth’s words more than Jesus’— we just believe that rather than contradicting the Holy Spirit’s words about Mary, (which, in a sense, would involve the Trinity dividing against itself), Jesus is emphasizing a particular quality of His mother (aside from her role in nursing Jesus and giving Him birth) that especially makes her blessed. As Augustine of Hippo wrote in De virginitate, #3:
“Mary is more blessed in receiving the faith of Christ, than in conceiving the flesh of Christ.”
Just because the Bible calls Mary “blessed” a few times, it doesn’t mean she never sinned. After all, in Matthew 16:17, Jesus describes His disciple Simon Peter as “blessed” (makários), and Simon Peter was unquestionably a sinner—Jesus says to him only a few verses later in Matthew 16:23, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s!”
This is a very astute point— through several instances, Scripture shows that Simon Peter did not always demonstrate the “blessed” conduct of “obeying the Lord’s inbirthings of faith.” However, in order to ascertain whether or not Mary is more blessed than Simon Peter, we must explore her other various appearances in the Bible.
When Mary and Joseph brought the eight-day-old Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, the prophet Simeon told Mary in Luke 2:34-35:
“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Notice how Simeon says that Mary’s soul will be pierced through the revealing of the thoughts of many hearts. If Mary sinned, then wouldn’t she be well aware of her own faults? If Mary sinned, then wouldn’t knowing that her beloved son was “pierced for [her own] transgressions” pierce her soul more than anything? Therefore, it is interesting that Simeon mentions revealed thoughts, but says nothing about Mary herself bearing responsibility for how Jesus would suffer.
Nevertheless, you can find and click on any objections that you may have:
Jesus seems to disapprove of His mother in Luke 2:49 for not expecting Him to be in the temple.
When Jesus asks his mother why she and Joseph were looking for Him in Luke 2:49, He is not saying they were wrong to do so! Rather, He is explaining from His divine perspective that during His life, He will always prioritize his sonship with His Father in Heaven over His sonship on Earth. No matter how virtuous Mary and Joseph could have been, they would still be human beings with finite understanding, needing the insight of their son in order to grasp the intricacies of the Father’s plan.
In case you haven’t noticed the parallel, the three days Jesus went “missing” in Jerusalem is symbolic of the three days He would lay in the tomb between His Passion and Resurrection. Thus, by reflecting often on her son’s words here, Mary prepared herself for the much greater sorrow she would suffer, strengthening herself to believe through it all, that any loss of her son is only a temporary woe for a greater purpose.
Jesus definitely upbraids Mary in John 2:4.
While Jesus may have questioned His mother’s concern, notice how He still does what she asks (or rather, implies to ask, since all the Bible records her saying to Jesus is, “They have no wine”). If Mary’s implied request went against the Will of the Father, would Jesus have implemented it? Definitely not—Jesus would never act against the Will of the Father! Therefore, Jesus’ fulfillment of His mother’s desires here shows that her desires were not immoral and were perhaps, even pleasing to God.
In Matthew 12:47-50, and Mark 3:31-35, and Luke 8:19-21, Jesus practically disowns His mother, favoring those who “do the Will of His Father” in place of her and the rest of His biological family. Doesn’t this prove that she was a sinful woman?
While it is true that Jesus identifies “anyone who does the Will of [His] Father in Heaven” to be His family, Jesus’ statement once again does not necessarily exclude His mother. Given that Jesus indicates that His disciples fit His description here, we can only reasonably conclude that Mary does not do the Will of Jesus’ Father if the Bible shows her to be more disobedient than Jesus’ disciples. Do the Scriptures show more or fewer examples of Mary living according to the blessed “inbirthings of faith” compared to the disciples? Let’s determine this, using the Beatitudes (or whom Jesus describes as blessed) as our framework:
Matthew 5:3-10: How Obedient is Mary Compared to the Disciples?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus’ closest companions during His ministry often struggled to humbly deny themselves and recognize their spiritual destitution without God. For instance, Peter initially refused to allow himself to be vulnerably humbled before God by letting Jesus wash his feet (John 13:8), and James and John of Zebedee requested the two seats next to Jesus at His heavenly throne (Mark 10:35-45). And almost immediately after Jesus told His disciples that one of them would betray Him, rather than ruminating on the ways in which they each could be more faithful to Jesus, they all had the audacity to debate which among them was the greatest (Luke 22:20-24). Meanwhile, throughout the entirety of Scripture, we never see Mary exalting herself. To the contrary, the Bible gives a concrete example of Mary recognizing that “The Mighty One” had done great things for her and of her giving Him all the credit for her profound role in His plan (Luke 1:49). Moreover, she never regarded herself as anything more than God’s servant (Luke 1:38 and 1:48), and she understood the need for God in her life (Luke 1:47).
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Speaking of mourning, Paul wrote in Romans 12:15 that Jesus’ message encourages us to “mourn with those who mourn,” yet all of the twelve disciples—except John of Zebedee—abandoned Jesus during the anguish of His Crucifixion instead of sharing in His sorrow. Also, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ closest friends, Peter and James & John of Zebedee, fell asleep several times, leaving Jesus to mournfully pray all alone. (Mark 14:32-42). On the other hand, Mary chose to be present with Jesus during His Crucifixion (John 19:25-26), in order to console her son and show Him how much she cared, despite how witnessing it “pierced her soul” (Luke 2:35).
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” Meekness can be defined as resoluteness through trials, grounded in one’s humble submission to the Lord. The Gospels show that while Peter had good intentions, he also had quite an inflated opinion of his own spiritual strength and reliability (kind of like the second son in the Parable of the Two Sons). For instance, Peter conceitedly declared that he would be the only apostle not to abandon Jesus at His Passion (Matthew 26:33) and even went as far as to say that he would lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37), when in reality, he ended up proving that He had overestimated the extent of his own devotion.
In contrast, when the angel Gabriel told Mary about her astounding role in God’s plan, she humbly responded with, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word,” and every appearance of Mary in the Gospels shows her following through with that intent to be a servant of His word, even through great suffering.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they shall be filled.” When Jesus told His disciples that He would “suffer many things at the hands of the elders and be killed,” Peter tried to discourage Jesus from accepting His primary Messianic task: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). This is why Jesus chastised Peter with, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:33). Meanwhile, at the Wedding at Cana, Scripture shows Mary telling the attendants, “Do whatever He tells you,” about Jesus (John 2:5). How many people in the Gospel said something this earnest about Jesus? How often do parents say something like this about their own children? If anything, Mary’s words here demonstrate that she trusted in her son’s authority as God incarnate and also deeply valued the Will of the Father, (which she understood that no one knew better than Jesus).
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” Although the Bible seldom reveals any instances of wrongs committed against the disciples or Mary (aside from when all of the other apostles were resentful towards James and John of Zebedee for requesting the seats next to Jesus’ heavenly throne), Greek lexicon shows that in addition to forgiving others, being “merciful” encompasses many meanings in this context, including being compassionate towards others. Now, the Bible gives a few examples of the disciples not acting in compassion—particularly, when they tried to keep the children from “bothering” Jesus (Mark 10:13-14 and Matthew 19:1-14) after Jesus had told them in Matthew 18:1-5 that children are the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven! The disciples also told Jesus to send the crowd of five thousand people away to find their own food, after they had already seen Him perform many miracles at that point.
Mary, on the other hand, sympathized with the couple at Cana enough to bring their predicament to Jesus’ attention (John 2:3). Plus, since the angel Gabriel had informed Mary that her relative was six months pregnant, it is plausible that a key reason she “went with haste” to the city of Judah was because she was eager to aid Elizabeth in her pregnancy. No one told Mary to journey to visit Elizabeth— she did it on her own accord.
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” There is actually no Scriptural evidence against this verse being applicable to Mary or the disciples. To the contrary, many of Peter’s words demonstrated that he recognized Who Jesus was and that he piously looked to Him for guidance. And as we found earlier, the Gospel mentions twice (Luke 2:19 and Luke 2:51) that Mary kept in her heart all of the moments she encountered God’s Words, and she often contemplated their meaning and significance to her calling so that she would respond faithfully.
“Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called the children of God.” Verses 3-11 of John 18 show that when the officers from the chief priests and Pharisees came to arrest Jesus, Peter lashed out at them with a sword and cut off the ear of the servant Malchus, in spite of previous warnings from Jesus to not interfere. Thus, not only is Peter’s violence in Gethsemane a Scriptural example of Peter failing to “turn the other cheek” and be a peacemaker, but through his act of belligerence here, he also failed to submit to God’s Will that Jesus had clearly established beforehand.
In contrast, during Christ’s passion, Mary never once tried to combat the unjust persecution her son was facing. Rather, as a living example of the spirit of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:24, she took up the cross of watching her son suffer and followed Him through Calvary, all whilst denying herself of the maternal urge to defend her child and/or lay down her life in place of His. She resisted these natural desires as a mother for the sake of His persecutors, whose chaotic hatred and selfishness was consequently fatal to Him. What mother could bear to helplessly submit to her son enduring such an agonizing fate, while never once giving into fight or flight mode? Quite simply, only a mother who values all creatures’ eternal good above all natural desires, only a mother who genuinely embodies her own instructions, “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). Ultimately, Mary cooperated with this devastating reality of God’s Will because she charitably prioritized His desire that “all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) and trusted in the peace that would be brought to humanity through His sacrifice.
“Blessed are they which are persecuted… falsely because of me.” When it occurred to Peter that his own association with Jesus could lead to people coming after him, he gave into cowardice, insisting three times that he did not know Jesus. In other words, Peter denied the truth of what God had called him to, in order to dodge potential persecution. Meanwhile, as this scene from The Nativity Story film suggests, Mary probably suffered a lot of judgment from others for becoming noticeably pregnant during the erusin (or betrothal) stage of her marriage. However, while she was well aware that she may have to suffer others’ calumniation and suspicions of her as a result of this miracle, Mary still accepted God’s calling for her and consented that she endure any possible tribulations entailed with it.
Therefore, Scripture shows Mary to be the most consistently blessed of all those who were closest to Christ. She and Jesus are the only two people in the New Testament who exemplify every one of the Beatitudes without once “violating” any of them!
Nevertheless, perhaps you may find your remaining objections below:
It was not Mary who allowed Jesus to do what He did, but rather, He Himself says that He willingly lays His life down. This is why He tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan” for attempting to dissuade Him. Would He not have said the same to His mother if she tried to intervene? Perhaps more lovingly, but the answer would have been the same.
True; Jesus most likely would have rebuked Mary if she tried to intervene, but what is significant is that she never did, though that would have been a completely natural reaction. Instead, Mary chose to completely continue to cooperate with God’s plan, even when it pierced her soul. Jesus did not reproach her during His Passion as He did with the weeping women of Jerusalem, which demonstrates that even though witnessing His anguish probably pained Mary far more than it pained those other women, she accepted God’s Will during the Passion to a greater level than the other people who were present to console Jesus.
Would Jesus have regarded Mary as “mother” when He saw her at the foot of the cross, if she had not cooperated with the Will of His Father in Heaven? Most likely not. Thus, John 19:27 shows that Mary and John had proven themselves obedient to the Father’s Will, especially in their meek faithfulness to Jesus during the greatest of trials. Furthermore, the fact that Scripture gives no examples of Mary straying from the Father’s Will up to that point (as it does for John, as shown in the analysis on the Beatitudes above), could suggest that Mary even more consistently fulfilled the standard set by Jesus in Matthew 12:49 than John did.
While the Bible may not give any specific examples of Mary sinning, it also barely addresses the 30 years between Jesus’ presentation in Jerusalem and when He began His public ministry. Mary could have sinned at some point during those 30 years!
This is a good point. The Bible often gives us examples of individuals’ mistakes and shortcomings, so that we may learn from them. However, given this characteristic of the Bible, it would certainly be a missed opportunity for Scripture to leave out any instances of Mary and Joseph faultfully “missing the mark” in their parenthood! After all, the challenges of parenting are rarely presented in the Bible as it is, and their son Jesus—as the ultimate moral authority to ever walk on the face of the Earth, would certainly have invaluable lessons to offer. (As I mentioned earlier, however, no one sinned in Luke 2:41-50; Jesus’ parents were simply humans with a finite perspective, needing the divine perspective of their son in order to understand the complexities of God’s plan.)
Additionally, Luke 2:51-52 provides a brief summary of these hidden 30 years, saying, “And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” The use of the word, “continued” in the NASB translation implies that Jesus had lived in subjection to His parents leading up to His Passover experience at age twelve, and also that He persisted in that obedience throughout His adolescence and early adulthood. However, do you think Jesus would have continuously adhered to His parents’ desires and expectations if any such expectations had been contrary to His Father’s Will? Certainly not— Jesus made it very clear when they found Him in the temple that He would prioritize His divine sonship! Therefore, the mention of Jesus’ subjugation to Mary and Joseph in this verse signifies that His obedience to His earthly parents must have been extremely compatible with His obedience to His Heavenly Father.
The “sinlessness” of Mary is at odds with Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Job 15:15-16, and 1 Kings 8:46.
As Christians, we all can identify an undebatable exception to the sinful nature attributed to all of humanity in these passages, and that exception is the New Adam—Jesus Himself! How can we say that these are universal truths that apply to every single human person, if there is already one exception? Nevertheless, we know that every human in the Old Testament was certainly guilty of sin, for such is why they needed a Savior! Jesus had not become flesh on Earth at that point, so He was not yet a living exception to the words in 1 Kings 8:46: “There is no man who does not sin” nor to the words in Ecclesiastes 7:20: “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Therefore, the two aforementioned verses universally applied only to everyone who had lived so far, (or those before the Messianic era).
Also, at the time of the Old Testament, no one yet had been impacted by Jesus’ redemptive grace, so in line with Proverbs 20:9, it was impossible then for anyone to be able to say the words: “I have made my heart clean, I am cleansed of my sin.” However, if Proverbs 20:9 and 1 John 1:7 are read in harmony with one another, it could be concluded that no one can be righteous or cleansed of sin without Jesus—Catholicism holds that this is indeed true and applies to Mary as well, as it is only by His redemptive sacrifice that she was endowed with grace, without which she would not have been able to resist sin. As far as Job 15:15-16, this verse does not make an absolute statement about humanity, but an if-then statement, and Biblical scholars have regarded these statements of Eliphaz as peculiar and questionable. Besides, God Himself particularly rebukes Eliphaz in verse 7 of the epilogue because he “and [his] two friends… [had] not spoken the truth about [Him],” which indicates that Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad were incorrect in many of their claims.
Do Romans 3:10-12 and Romans 3:23 not make it perfectly clear that no human creature can be sinless or perfectly virtuous?
Romans 3:10-12 references Psalm 14, saying that there is no one righteous, no one who seeks God. It is noteworthy, however, that prior to these three verses, Paul states that humanity as a whole, whether Jew or Gentile, is alike in being under the power of sin. Would this apply to those spared of an inclination towards sin? Think of grace as a seed. Through the merits of the Christ’s sacrifice, the Immaculate Conception not only would have bestowed Mary with the seed of grace at the moment of her existence, but it also would have purified the soil of Mary’s heart from the snaring rocks and thorns of inclination to sin. Thus, Mary’s capacity for virtue came solely from God, so she could not live righteously without Him. However, whether her seed bore any fruit was still dependent upon her dedication towards cultivating it.
With the wording, “all have sinned,” Romans 3:23 could lead to the conclusion that all human creatures— without exception— have failed to fully dedicate themselves towards cultivating the seeds of grace. However, does it cohere with the rest of the Bible to conclude that “all” necessarily means every individual/kind, without exception? For instance, “all” in Romans 3:23 has exactly the same morphology as “all” (or “pantes” in the original Greek) in Matthew 26:56, which says, “then all the disciples left Him and fled.” If all inherently means “every individual without exception,” then that means Matthew 26:56 contradicts Matthew 26:58 and John 18:15-16, which tell us that two of the disciples— Peter and John— followed Jesus to His trial after “all” the disciples had fled, as well as John 19:26, which tells us that John stood near Jesus at the foot of the cross.
Moreover, if “every one of… without exception” is essential to the definition of “all,” then both Romans 3:9-12 and Romans 3:23 contradict Luke 1:6, which says that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the LORD blamelessly.” In other words, if verses 9-12 and 23 of Romans 3 necessarily mean that every human being—without exception— is unrighteous and has sinned, then that means, contrary to Luke 1:6, that none of humanity has blamelessly observed every one— without exception— of the LORD’s commandments and ordinances.
With the knowledge that the Bible is the coherent Word of God, we must conclude from Luke 1:6 and Matthew 26:56 that when Scripture uses the word “all,” it is possible for it to be making a general statement that applies collectively to the majority of a group, allowing for some exceptions among individual persons or instances within the group. Since the meaning of “all” can allow for exceptions, and Romans 3:9 indicates that the chapter refers to those “under the power of sin,” it does not necessarily contradict Romans 3 to believe that Mary consistently lived in blameless cooperation with the grace of being spared from sin nature.
Lizzie Reezay, who converted to Catholicism after growing up Protestant for 23 years, asserts that the idea of both Mary and Jesus being exceptions to Romans 3:23 may have been so obvious to the early Church that Paul didn’t even see a need to specify that. For instance, she points out that in the year 411, Augustine of Hippo wrote the book, Punishment and the Forgiveness of Sins, in which he stated, “There are no exceptions: everyone has sinned.” Then in the year 415, in Chapter 42 of his later work, On Nature and Grace, Reezay explains:
“[Augustine] offers the exception that everyone but Mary has sinned. Did he change his mind in those four years? No! He was a Catholic bishop; he agreed with all Church teaching— in 411 and [in] 415. It’s just everyone knew Mary was sinless, and so you didn’t even need to always mention it.”
The “sinlessness” of Mary directly contradicts 1 John 1:8, 10.
As the first letter of John was written in approximately AD 95–110, Mary would have been at least 107 years old at the time. Given her age and her social class, she was most likely not still living on Earth when it was written, so there is an extremely low probability that she was among John’s intended audience. Furthermore, when you take verses 8-10 in context with the rest of the chapter, it becomes clear that this passage of John’s letter specifically addresses those who have neither fully committed their lives to Jesus (verses 5-6), nor recognized their need of Him (verses 7-10). Does anything that the Bible tells us about Mary give us a reason to believe that she did not commit her life to Jesus, or that she was in denial of her need for Him? As we have determined earlier, there is no evidence of this in Scripture, but an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary! In the beautiful words of Nick Hardesty:
“This passage has in mind those people living in darkness, people who have not experienced the saving work of Christ and who think that they don’t need Him… But Mary is not among those who walk in darkness and deny that they need Christ. Her spirit rejoices in God her Savior! (cf. Luke 1:47) She has already experienced His grace in her life (Luke 1:28), and handed herself over to His Will (cf. Luke 1:38).”
Moreover, John is particularly warning people of the dangers of refusing to humbly submit themselves in dependence on God. If I believe that someone else (such as Mary) was innocent of sin, this does nothing to hinder my repentance (1 John 1:7), my ability to humble myself (1 John 1:10), or my own receptivity of His cleansing mercy (1 John 1:9). Rather, it compels me even more; how much further can God work through me if I strive to love Him as much as His mother did? Therefore, rather than discouraging people from seeing those among the Church Triumphant as having lived a virtuous, blameless life, this epistle is discouraging the Church Militant from denying their own individual faults while they are still battling sin.
The Final Objection
As one of my Protestant interlocutors so beautifully put it, Mary is a “shining example of the complete surrendering of oneself to the will of God, and she should be honored and called blessed for that.” Indeed, Mary’s example of unwavering obedience and trust in God is the primary reason why we as Catholics so highly honor her. And as can be seen above, all of her words and actions in Scripture give us no reason to doubt the idea that she was the most virtuous human creature to ever live. However, as we concluded in the Immaculate Conception article, God is ultimately to credit for bestowing upon Mary the grace with which she so obediently cooperated. Had He not “endowed her with grace,” Mary would neither have been able to resist sin, nor to respond as faithfully as she had.
Thus, one naturally may wonder:
If God spared Mary from inclination towards sin, then how would her lifelong resistance towards sin be praiseworthy? After all, a freedom from original sin and concupiscence would give Mary a certain advantage that the rest of us don’t have.
This is a question that I myself wrestled with for many years. My qualms with it did not begin to gradually resolve until I was twenty years old, and a speaker at a women’s retreat revealed a momentous and foundational Catholic teaching:
Mary and Eve were alike in their lack of inclination towards sin, but Mary is “blessed” because of how she responded (in comparison to Eve).
Whoa. Suddenly the pieces began to fall together.
As one of my friends who excels in analogies once explained, those of us with sin nature (the majority of humans, as descendants of Adam and Eve) experience temptation like an alluring advertisement on the side of the computer screen that somehow eerily detects exactly the kind of products we are drawn to. On the other hand, those created or born without sin nature (like Adam & Eve before the Fall, Jesus, and Mary) experience temptation as more of a telemarketer call; they are more conscious/wary of temptation and thus, must deliberately consent towards considering the ideas being posed to them, in order to be won over. In other words, since Adam, Eve, Jesus, and Mary were not drawn towards sin as automatically as we are, Satan had another wall to break through in order to reach them.
Therefore, Eve’s openness to the serpent’s words of deception did not happen as instantly or easily as it would have for us, her fallen descendants. Rather, she deliberately consented towards surrendering her guard of skepticism and towards entertaining the idea that the forbidden fruit was something “good, pleasing, and desirable” (Genesis 3:6) that God was withholding from her and Adam. The conjunction “when” at the beginning of this verse’s first sentence signifies that Eve did not originally view the fruit in this alluring way as we would have, but that she chose to open the door of her mind, inviting the serpent’s words inside to infect her worldview and ultimately, deceive her.
Thus, in spite of having been originally created free of inclination towards sin as Mary was, Adam and Eve let their “trust in [their] Creator die in [their] heart[s] and, abusing [their] freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC, 397). Moreover, when you compare the circumstances of Mary’s life with that of Adam and Eve’s, the fact that she continually chose to cooperate with grace becomes even more significant:
Adam & Eve vs Mary: Opportunities For Temptation
One tree was the only single pursuit that Adam and Eve could falsely choose over God’s Will. Aside from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, every part of God’s magnificent creation was at Adam and Eve’s disposal, and any of their natural desires and possible responses to the rest of the garden would be in free cooperation with God. Meanwhile, prioritizing God’s Will would put a lot at stake for Mary, (as it often required her to relinquish her natural desire that her son be safe and well), and living in a fallen world subjected her to the human tension between pleasing others and pleasing God.
Adam & Eve vs Mary: Life Conditions
In Eden, the two ancestors of humanity had dominion over every living creature, each of which lived in perfect harmony with them and with God. They were surrounded by an abundance of trees, (which according to Genesis 2:9, were all “pleasant to the sight and good for food,” making them no less alluring than The Tree of Knowledge) and rivers full of gold, bdellium, and onyx stone, so surrounded by beauty and abundance, they were able provide for themselves without much difficulty at all.
In contrast, Mary’s social status was about as far from “dominion over other creatures” as one could be. Not only was Mary’s society oppressed by the Romans and dominated by the self-righteous, pretentious chief priests, but she also had to wrestle with the knowledge that the earthly king of the Judeans sought to have her own child killed. She grew up and raised Jesus in among the lower class in Nazareth, one of the most disparaged villages in Israel, so providing for Jesus’ human needs required more toilsome labor of her and Joseph than of most people suffering the repercussions of the Fall.
Adam & Eve vs Mary: Interpersonal Life
Adam and Eve shared a congenial union and mutual enamourment as partners, as well as the joy of God’s ever-abiding companionship and guidance. Meanwhile, Joseph’s complete lack of any appearances beyond Matthew 2 and Luke 3 signify that Mary lost her husband sometime before or soon after Jesus left home to begin His ministry, which means that Mary was left with no close companions who understood her son’s identity or her unique situation.
Imagine Mary’s delight when her son returned home to preach and share His divine mission with their community! And imagine how devastated and isolated she felt when her neighbors (and even her own kinfolk) only regarded Jesus with scorn, ragingly spurning the truth of who He was. Finally, although Mary was informed by God’s messengers that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she— unlike Adam and Eve— received little to no instructions or guidance from Him on what her calling required of her. Yet, the Gospel shows her listening very intently to any words pertaining to her son or spoken by Him (in order to understand what she must do to live as a handmaid of the Lord) and responding to the hardships she faced with unwavering trust and obedience. I assert that if Mary had sinned before her son’s Passion, then it would have been impossible for her to be faced with her greatest trial of watching her son being nailed to a tree and yet respond as meekly as she did.
Why Do Catholics Refer to Mary as the New Eve?
Regardless of how Mary shared Adam and Eve’s advantageous freedom from sin nature, the Bible truly shows us a significant difference between Mary’s life and the life of Adam and Eve before the Fall: Mary, in the midst of many obstacles along the way, persevered in her compliance to God’s Will, even when it involved her son being nailed to a tree. On the other hand, Adam and Eve, in the midst of paradise, chose defiance towards God’s Will, despite how it involved total freedom— with the singular exception of one tree. Furthermore, Adam and Eve proved themselves to be ungrateful toward the supreme extent of authority God had given them, by deliberately seeking to be like God but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God,” while Mary embraced her calling with humble gratitude, for His glory. As Ephrem the Syrian wrote in the fourth century:
“Mary and Eve, two people without guilt, two simple people, were identical. Later, however, one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life.”
This is why we Catholics describe Mary as “The New Eve.” As Paul points out in 1 Timothy 2:14 that women ought to submit to men because Eve was deceived by the temptation of the serpent (instead of heeding Adam’s words), then how fitting would it be if the New Eve was a woman whom Scripture indicates to have striven to understand any words pertaining to the New Adam, in order to avoid giving into temptation? Would it not be so suitable for the New Eve to be a woman whose every action in the Bible corresponds to what the New Adam identifies to be the Will of the Father? Indeed, in light of 1 Timothy 2:14, if the New Eve was a woman who had said, “Do whatever He tells you” about the New Adam, instead of trying to lead her fellow “servants” (of the Lord) to go astray, then everything would just come full circle!
Therefore, we Catholics venerate Mary primarily because her consistently faithful example in the Bible shows us (her fellow creatures) how to humbly and joyfully cooperate with the graces God has bestowed on us. Most importantly, through imitating her example of unwavering trust and zealous servitude to the Lord, we are led closer to Jesus, as we grow in the resolve to take up our crosses and follow Him.
Let us pray:
Scriptural Litany of Jesus’ Mother
Optional Response for each line: “…as Your mother did.”
Jesus, please show me how to cooperate with grace (Luke 1:30),
as Your mother did.
May I regard myself as a servant of the LORD (Luke 1:38 & 1:48)…
May I believe that God will fulfill His promises (Luke 1:45)…
May I magnify the LORD in my soul (Luke 1:46)…
Jesus, may my spirit rejoice in You, our Savior (Luke 1:47)…
May I obey Your “inbirthings of faith” (Luke 1:48)…
May I recognize the great things You have done for me (Luke 1:49)…
May I marvel at what others have spoken about You (Luke 2:18 & 2:33)…
May I treasure up Your Word in my heart (Luke 2:19 & 2:51)…
May I do all things according to the Law of the LORD (Luke 2:39)…
May I search earnestly for You… (Luke 2:45 and 2:48).
May I marvel at Your answers (Luke 2:47)…
May I do whatever You tell me to (John 2:5)…
May I hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28)…
May I do the Will of Your Heavenly Father (Matthew 12:50, Luke 18:21)…
May I join You in Your sufferings at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25)…
May I join other believers in constant prayer (Acts 1:14)…
Please help me to persevere in the face of suffering (James 5:10-11)…
May I ponder how I can love You more each day (Luke 2:51)…
May I humbly dedicate my life to You (Luke 1:38)…
Edited by: GraceAnne Sullivan