During my days as a Southern Baptist, my opinion of Mary, the Blessed Virgin, was the same as every other Protestant.
I saw her as just another character in the Bible, one who was given a particular task, and when God was finished with her, she faded into the background with the rest of the crowd. She lived her life as a normal woman, giving herself fully to her husband Joseph, and birthing other, less divine, children.
And I also remember thinking that Catholics gave Mary way too much credit, putting her in a place that was a little too close to God’s throne. I can’t honestly recall if I ever actually believed that Catholics “worshipped” Mary — although I’m sure I’d been told at some point — but I certainly never understood why Catholics considered her to be a big deal.
Looking back on those ignorant times, I am filled with both shame and confusion. I often wonder why my past views on Mary never struck me as odd since Mary gave birth to God in the flesh. I never once stopped to think, “How could she go on to live life as a normal woman after that?”
Of course now I know that she didn’t.
Since establishing my Mackerel Snapper blogsite, I’ve held off writing about Mary. I wanted to make sure I gave her proper justice with my words, but at the same time, I needed to be in a place where I felt I understood more of the mystery surrounding the Blessed Mother.
One thing I’ve come to understand clearly — more clearly that I ever have — is that Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, was far from just another woman.
She was chosen by God almighty, long before He spoke this world into existence, long before the fall of Adam and Eve, long before she gave birth to Christ, to rise above all of humanity, to be the immaculate vessel through which God would enter our world. She dedicated, not just her womb, but her entire life and all that she was, to the glory of the Father.
And it all starts with her immaculate conception. Immaculate literally meaning “without stain.” In other words, perfect. Many of us hear the words “immaculate conception” and think of the circumstances surrounding the conception of Jesus. But actually, the term applies to Mary, and the circumstances surrounding her conception in the womb of her mother, who we Catholics know as Anne. Her father we know as Joachim.
What we know about Mary’s early life, including the names of her parents and her immaculate birth, are from handed-down Tradition and the Protoevangelium of James, or the Infancy Gospel of James which is dated to roughly the 2nd Century. During this time, the early Christian’s hungered for more information about the young Christ and Mary, therefore a number of texts surfaced to satisfy this hunger, hence the title ‘protoevangelium’–proto meaning first or primitive, and Evangelium meaning “The Gospel.”
Now, this book is not included in the canonical gospels and is widely considered to be apocryphal, meaning that its writings are of uncertain or dubious origin. This, however, doesn’t discredit the work. While the Church rejects the book as more fiction than truth, it does not reject the truth and tradition that inspired it and that had been passed down through the apostles.
Apologist Mark Shea puts it perfectly:
The source of the doctrine is the fact that Mary was perpetually a virgin and the whole Church remembered this fact, beginning with the apostles. The Protoevangelium of James reflects the existence of this tradition and incorporates it into a legend about Mary, but it does not originate the tradition. You might as well say that “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is the source of our belief that Abraham Lincoln existed and was President. No. “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is, like the Protoevangelium, a fictional tale which refers to a tradition which precedes it. –Clear Thinking About the Protoevangelium of James
Of course, if we truly think about the task that God chose Mary to do, we do not need meticulously documented evidence that she was without sin. Simple reason can lead us to that conclusion.
When we Catholics say the Hail Mary, we refer to her as “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” You can’t be in any Catholic Church for long without hearing or seeing the word “holy.” It is used so much that we may take it for granted, forgetting what the word implies. It has a deeply significant meaning, especially in the Rosary prayer. Holy literally means “set apart.” Something that is holy has been dedicated or consecrated to God for a purpose. It is sacred. In the days of the Old Testament, the temple housed certain items that were considered holy because of their specific purpose.
In his book Reasons to Believe, Dr. Scott Hahn writes about this in correlation to Mary saying:
The golden vessels of the Jerusalem Temple were set apart for use in worship. You could not take home the holy lamp stands, for example, and use them to light your dining room…These things were set apart for a divine purpose. That is the meaning of their holiness.
Reasons to Believe. Ch 7. “Saints Alive”
Much in the way that holy objects were set apart, so was Mary. She was not called to be a prophet, nor a priest, nor a teacher. She was born immaculate, without sin, so that she could house God in her womb and bring our Savior into this world.
And she remained Holy — “set apart” — for all time.
That is why Catholics hold to the truth that Mary was not only immaculately conceived, but was Ever-Virgin for the rest of her life. This I will discuss in the next post of this series.