May has long been considered a month devoted to Mary. As such, it is a fitting time to explore the four main Marian doctrines promulgated by the Church: Mary as Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, and Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.
Mary as Mother of God
In 431, the Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be the Mother of God (Theotokos). This was proclaimed to confirm Jesus’ dual nature as both human and divine. This tradition is based on the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, when the angel tells Mary “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Mary responded with her willingness to take on the task. “Let it be done to me according to your word.” The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches the following: “Called in the Gospels ‘the mother of Jesus,’ Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as ‘the mother of my Lord.’ In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos)” (495).
Pope John Paul II both confirmed and expanded that teaching in his 1987 encyclical, “Redemptoris Mater.” He understands Mary’s motherhood as also being one of faith. Not only was she the physical mother of Jesus, but she was also the first believer, the mother of the Church. “Mary as Mother became the first ‘disciple’ of her Son, the first to whom he seemed to say: ‘Follow me,’ even before he addressed this call to the Apostles or to anyone else” (RM 20).
The Immaculate Conception
The Doctrine of Mary as the Immaculate Conception was officially promulgated by the Church by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854. He wrote, “From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so lover her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.”
This declaration was confirmation of a long-standing tradition in the Church. In the time of St. Augustine (354-430), the Holy Virgin was already considered free from sin. In 1546, the Council of Trent confirmed this teaching when they declared that all men (and women) were born with original sin, but they exempted Mary from that designation.
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
The Doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is perhaps the one that garners the most debate. While most, if not all, Christians accept that Jesus was born of a virgin mother, what happened after that birth is not so easily agreed upon. After all, the Biblical record seems to imply that Jesus had brothers and sisters. The Catholic position on this has always been that the terms used for brothers and sisters did not mean an exclusive relationship as we take those terms to mean today — being born of the same mother and father. Rather, in Hebrew at that time, there were no terms for cousin, nephew, or uncle. The terms simply meant relatives or “brethren.” The individuals referred to could have been Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage or cousins.
The earliest record of Mary’s perpetual virginity goes back to 120 AD in the “Protoevangelium of James”. This is a noncanonical work whose main purpose was to illustrate that Mary was a consecrated virgin. It was written early enough in the Christian tradition, however, that had Mary had other children, that fact still would have been remembered and the document would have been deemed worthless. Jason Evert, writing in “This Rock,” states that “consecrated virginity was not common among first century Jews, but it did exist. According to some early Christian documents, such as the Protoevangelium of James (written around A.D. 120), Mary was a consecrated virgin. As such, when she reached puberty, her monthly cycle would render her ceremonially unclean and thus unable to dwell in the temple without defiling it under the Mosaic Law. At this time, she would be entrusted to a male guardian. However, since it was forbidden for a man to live with a woman he was not married or related to, the virgin would be wed to the guardian, and they would have no marital relations.”
The Assumption of Mary into Heaven
The Doctrine of the Assumption of Mary proclaims that at the end of her earthly life, Mary was brought up to heaven body and soul. It was declared by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950 and, like the Immaculate Conception, was a formal declaration of a belief that had long been held by the faithful. Pope Pius XII states that “So then, the great Mother of God, so mysteriously united to Jesus Christ from all eternity by the same decree of predestination, immaculately conceived, an intact virgin throughout her divine motherhood, a noble associate of our Redeemer as he defeated sin and its consequences, received, as it were, the final crowning privilege of being preserved from the corruption of the grave and, following her Son in his victory over death, was brought, body and soul, to the highest glory of heaven, to shine as Queen at the right hand of that same Son, the immortal King of Ages.”
While nowhere in scripture does it state that Mary was taken up to heaven body and soul, there are scriptural references that are used to support it. Genesis 3:15 which puts “the woman” in direct opposition to the devil is used to show that she conquered death. “Other passages include Revelation 12:1, in which Mary’s coronation implies her bodily assumption, and 1 Corinthians 15:23 and Matthew 27:52-53, which support the possibility of a bodily assumption. And lastly there is Psalm 132:8, which provides: Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified. Mary is the new ark of the covenant (cf. Rev. 11:19-12:1), who physically bore the presence of God in her womb (cf. Lk. 1:42) before bearing Christ to the world” (Faith Facts, 1999).
One of the earliest proponents of the tradition of the Assumption was St. John Damascene (675-749), one of the last of the Fathers of the Church. He wrote that “It was right that she who had kept her virginity unimpaired through the process of giving birth should have kept her body without decay through death. It was right that she who had given her Creator, as a child, a place at her breast should be given a place in the dwelling-place of her God. It was right that the bride espoused by the Father should dwell in the heavenly bridal chamber. It was right that she who had gazed on her Son on the cross, her heart pierced at that moment by the sword of sorrow that she had escaped at his birth, should now gaze on him seated with his Father. It was right that the Mother of God should possess what belongs to her only and to be honored by every creature as the God’s Mother and handmaid.“ Already in the sixth century, there were liturgical feasts dedicated to Mary.
In Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II reaffirms that tradition, “Preserved free from all guilt of original sin, the Immaculate Virgin was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory upon the completion of her earthly sojourn.” In heaven, she continues to serve, sharing in the kingdom of the Son (RM 41).