Lesson Five: The All-Holy Mother of God

by David Scott

Lesson Goals

  1. To understand the relationship between Catholic teaching about Mary and the Scriptural portrayal of Mary.
  2. To understand the biblical foundations of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
  3. To appreciate how Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception flows from the New Testament portrait of Mary as the “New Eve”

Lesson Outline

I. The Truth About Mary

A. Councils and the Bible

Throughout this course, we’ve been looking at the truths about Mary revealed in Sacred Scripture. We’ve been looking closely at what Scripture has to say about Mary, and – just as important – how Scripture says it.

Since the very beginnings of the Church, the biblical portrait of Mary has been studied and prayed over by popes, bishops, theologians, and saints.

And Mary – who she was, and what role she played in God’s plan for the salvation of the world – was an important topic of discussion and debate in the early Church councils, which were official meetings of bishops under the authority of the pope.

In these councils – such as the Council of Ephesus (in the year 431), the Second Council of Constantinople (553) – we see the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interpreting the same Scriptures we have been studying in this course.

The Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures concerning Mary has continued down through the centuries.

The result has been a series of dogmas and doctrines about Mary, all based on the truths revealed in the Scripture texts we’ve been looking at in this course.

In this lesson and in the next, we will take a closer look at these dogmas and doctrines, examining how they are based upon and deepen our appreciation of the biblical portrait of Mary.

B. Dogmas and the Bible

Before we do that, however, we should say a word about the meaning and purpose of dogma and doctrine in Catholic teaching.

Doctrine and dogma are the revealed teachings of Jesus as defined by the Church, which has been entrusted with the Holy Spirit of Jesus to protect it from error and to guide it into all the truth (see John 14:2616:12-1520:21-22Acts 2:1-4).

For our purposes here it’s important to keep in mind that doctrine and dogma represent the Church’s definitive interpretation of Scripture, under the guidance of the Spirit.

In the New Testament, the Greek word dogma is used to refer to the “legal claims” of the divine law revealed in the Old Testament scriptures (see Ephesians 2:15). It is also used to refer to the “decisions” reached by the first Church council, held in Jerusalem (see Acts 16:4).

The Council of Jerusalem met to make a definitive interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures regarding the treatment of non-Jews who convert to Christianity (see Acts 15), a decision in which the apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 15:28).

In the same way, the Church’s doctrines about Mary – about her Immaculate Conception, her status as the “ever-Virgin Mother of God,” and her “Assumption” into heaven as “Queen of all things” – represent a definitive interpretation of the whole of Scripture as it relates to Mary’s role in God’s plan for our salvation.

And, as we’ll see, each of these doctrines is based on the biblical portraits we’ve already studied:

  • Mary as the new “Eve”
  • Mary as the new “Ark of the Covenant”
  • Mary as the new “Queen Mother”

II. Mary and the First Gospel

The dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception states that Jesus’ mother, alone among the billions born since the beginning of the world, was conceived without inheriting the curse of Adam and Eve’s original sin. In God’s plan, and by His grace, she was kept free from sin in order to become the all-holy Mother of God, as she was declared by the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Pope Pius IX declared the dogma on December 8, 1854, in a document entitled Ineffabilis Deus (“The Ineffable God”)

He noted the long history of the Church’s belief that Mary was unstained by original sin – expressed especially in the writings of popes and in the Church’s prayers and worship.

And he noted that this belief was ultimately founded on centuries of preaching and teaching on three passages that we have looked at in great detail in earlier lessons – the “first Gospel” in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3:15), the annunciation (see Luke 1:26-38), and the vision of the “woman” in the Bible’s last book (see Revelation 12).

As we’ve seen in earlier lessons, these passages give us the biblical portrait of Mary as a “new Eve.”

In the dogma of the Immaculate Conception we see the Church peering deeper into the mystery of God’s plan.

Recall that in Lesson 2 we saw how the biblical account of God’s punishment of Adam and Eve contained a proto-evangelium (“first gospel”) – an inaugural announcement of the salvation that would come from a “woman” and her “offspring.”

In this first gospel, God himself promised that there would be perpetual enmity between this woman and the serpent, and this enmity would culminate in the crushing of the serpent’s head by the woman’s “offspring” (see Genesis 3:15).

A. Original Sin, Original Enmity

What does this have to do with Mary’s Immaculate Conception? To answer means taking a closer look at the “first gospel.”

First, the scene in Genesis depicts punishment for “original sin.” That sin was caused by the temptation of the serpent, who is revealed elsewhere in Scripture to be the devil (seeRevelation 12:2,9).

This sin is inherited by every human being as Eve became “the mother of all the living” (seeGenesis 3:20). And as a result of this sin, humans are under the power of death (seeWisdom 2:24; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). This is one of the reasons that Jesus said of the Devil, “He was a murderer from the beginning” (see John 8:44Hebrews 2:14).

In punishment, God promised there would be “enmity” between the “woman” and the serpent, and between their offspring.

“Enmity” means mutual hatred.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated “enmity” implies a mortal rivalry, a hatred which causes each party to desire the death of the other (see Numbers 35:21Ezekiel 25:1535:5).

The word is used only to describe rivalries between persons or nations. It isn’t ever used to describe a hatred between a person and an animal.

This suggests that this passage of Genesis is meant to be read symbolically. In other words: although the text depicts God literally promising to put enmity between a snake and a woman, symbolically the text speaks of enmity between whom or what the snake “stands for” and whom or what the woman “stands for.”

Indeed, this is how the Church’s earliest saints and theologians interpreted the passage, beginning in the pages of the New Testament (see Romans 16:20; Revelation 12).

Note that it is God who establishes the enmity (“I will put enmity”). This is no natural aversion. This is a divinely created opposition, one that God has established for all time.

B. Offspring and Death

Note also that this enmity is “two-fold” – between the serpent and the woman, and between the serpent’s offspring and the offspring of the woman.

The Hebrew word translated “offspring” is literally, “seed.”

It refers to the seeds of plants (see Genesis 1:1112:29Leviticus 26:16). It also refers to the children of individuals (see Genesis 4:2515:32 Samuel 7:12) and to a person’s descendants or to the race of a people (see Genesis 12:713:15Isaiah 14:2057:3).

Occasionally, the word is used in a “moral” sense, as when the psalmist speaks of “the posterity of the wicked” (see Psalm 37:28) and the prophet Isaiah speaks of an “evil race, corrupt children” (see Isaiah 1:4).

Finally, God promises that the woman’s seed will “strike” or crush the head of the serpent.

To crush the head of a serpent is to kill it. So what we have here is the promise of the serpent’s death under the foot of the seed of a woman, that is under the foot of the woman’s child.

C. From Scripture to Dogma

From a close reading, we can see how the Church – beginning in the New Testament – has long seen this text as supporting a belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

First, it forsees a new “woman,” a new Eve, and her “seed,” Jesus. As we’ve seen in earlier lessons, this passage is the source of the description of Mary as “woman” in John’s Gospel (see John 2:419:26).

This woman and her child were the focus of Christian expectations for a messiah, as Paul says: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman . . .” (seeGalatians 4:4)

Also as we’ve noted in earlier lessons, the dramatic conflict between “the woman” and the “serpent” in the Bible’s last book are heavily influenced by the proto-evangelium (Revelation 12).This, also as we’ve noted, is where we get the interpretation of the serpent in Eden as Satan (see Revelation 12:9).

In Revelation, we’re shown that the woman’s offspring is both Jesus (see Revelation 12:5) and “those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus” (see Revelation 12:17).

Finally, the proto-evangeliumenvisions the defeat of Satan by the woman’s seed. Paul alludes to this when he writes: “the God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet” (see Romans 16:20).

How does this interpretation foresee “the woman” (Mary) being born without original sin?

It is true Scripture teaches that all men and women have been conceived “in sin” (seePsalm 51:7). Paul wrote that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve and, as a result, “all sinned” and “condemnation came upon all” (see Romans 5:12,18).

But the proto-evangeliumseems to envision at least two people – the woman and her offspring – who will not be conceived under the rule of the serpent and the consequences of the serpent’s deceit.

Recall what the text says – the enmity is “put” by God, and that enmity is a mortal rivalry – an absolute hostility, a struggle to the death.

If Mary was conceived with original sin, there couldn’t be the perpetual enmity promised by God himself between the seed of the woman and the serpent. To the contrary, if Mary was conceived with original sin, the serpent would be victorious, subjecting the woman to his power. If this were the case, God’s promise would prove to be untrue.

But this clearly is not what God intended in putting enmity between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s. Rather, it appears that Mary, the woman promised in the beginning, must be born outside of Satan’s power in order to fulfill God’s promise of absolute enmity.

That’s how Pope Pius XII interpreted this Scripture in Fulgens Corona (“The Radiant Crown”), written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the dogma’s declaration (seeno. 7). This interpretation was also affirmed by Pope John Paul II (see “Mary’s Enmity Towards Satan Was Absolute”).

Also, as Paul noted, for the sake of our salvation, God caused grace to overflow, and caused Jesus “who did not know sin” to reign over the power of sin and death (seeRomans 5:20; 2 Cor 5:21). If the woman’s seed, Jesus, was not to know sin, how could His mother?

III. Hailing Mary

A. Full of Grace

The annunciation scene in Luke’s Gospel, in which the angel Gabriel greets Mary by the title “full of grace,” is also cited as a biblical foundation for the Immaculate Conception.

We discussed the annunciation scene in detail in our first lesson.

Here we want to focus on the angel’s greeting: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (see Luke 1:28).

This is a greeting found nowhere else in Scripture. Kecharitomene, the word translated “favored one,” or “full of grace” is extremely rare, used only in the annunciation text and in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

In each case, the verb is used to indicate an action that causes some effect in the object of the verb.

Paul speaks of how God “granted” or bestowed His grace upon us in Jesus (see Ephesians 1:6-7). In this instance, Paul uses the word to describe how God’s grace causes a transformation in us – forgiving our sins, making us His adopted sons and daughters.

In the same way, the use of kecharitomene in the angel’s address implies that Mary has been favored by the bestowal of God’s grace.

Some Church fathers and scholars believe that the sense of the term would best be translated as “made full of grace” or “transformed by grace.” The sense is that Mary has already been “graced” and is now and will be in the future, filled with grace.

Another thing to note about the angel’s greeting – she is not hailed as Mary, but as “full of grace.” No other person is addressed this way by an angel in Scripture. It’s almost as if “Full of Grace” is Mary’s name.

Throughout Scripture, when God gives a person a new name it indicates that person’s true place in God’s plan of salvation.

Abram’s name is changed to “Abraham,” signaling his role as designating him to be the “father of a host of nations” (see Genesis 17:5). Simon is called “Peter,” because he will be the rock upon which Christ founds His Church (see Matthew 16:18).

And, by the command of God, Mary is called “full of grace.” In this name, her destiny is revealed. From before the foundation of the world, she was chosen to be sinless mother of His only-begotten Son.

This is how Pope John Paul II interpreted this Scripture in the homily he preached on the 150th anniversary of the dogma. Full of grace, he said, “is the name that God, through His messenger, chose to use to describe the Virgin. This is how He had always seen and thought of her, ab aeterno (from all eternity).”

B. From Bible to Liturgy

All these scriptural images of Mary are brought together in the liturgy for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The Entrance Antiphon for the Mass, puts the words of the prophet Isaiah in the mouth of Mary: “My soul rejoices in my God, for He has clothed me in the garment of salvation . . . like a bride adorned with her jewels” (see Isaiah 61:10).

The Opening Prayer explains the great mystery of the Immaculate Conception in God’s plan for the world’s salvation – “Father, you prepared the Virgin Mary to be the worthy mother of Your Son. You let her share beforehand in the salvation Christ would bring by His death, and kept her sinless from the first moment of her conception.”

The First Reading for the feast is the story of Adam and Eve’s sin and the proto-evangelium (see Genesis 3:9-15,20). The Second Reading is drawn from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, including the same verse we discussed earlier – the only other place in the New Testament where the Greek word kecharitomene is used (see Ephesians 1:3-611-12).

Paul’s words were originally addressed to every believer in Christ. Read in the Liturgy, they apply first and foremost to Mary – who is to be the forerunner of every Christian. “Before the foundation of the world,” she was chosen “to be holy and without blemish” by the “grace that God granted” her in the Beloved, Jesus. The grace given to Mary in her mother’s womb, is to be the destiny of all who believe in her Son and are baptized.

The reading reminds us, too, that Mary was “destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of His will.” In other words, God’s will, expressed in the First Reading, is accomplished in Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her bearing of Christ.

This is reinforced by the Gospel reading for the feast – the annunciation (see Luke 1:26-38).

Finally, the special Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for the feast is another summary of the biblical testimony to Mary’s Immaculate Conception, revealing Mary to be a sign of the Church and “a promise of its perfection.”

IV. Study Questions

  1. What is dogma? What is the relationship between dogma and Scripture?
  2. What are the three “biblical portraits” that form the foundations of Catholic dogmas and doctrines concerning Mary.
  3. Why is Genesis 3:15 known as the “first gospel”? What does God promise concerning the serpent and the woman?
  4. How does the “first gospel” form part of the biblical foundation of the Immaculate Conception dogma?
  5. What does the Greek word kecharitomene mean? How does the biblical story of the annunciation form part of the biblical foundation of the Immaculate Conception dogma?