3. Veneration of Mary and Mary’s Immaculate Conception and perfect obedience to Christ. There is so much to say about Mary from the Bible. Many books have been written on the subject, despite the fact that many Protestants seem to think that the Bible is almost silent on Mary. In fact, the verses that speak of Mary speak volumes, and one thing that many converts to Catholicism have said is: how could I have missed the Bible’s many riches on Mary as a Protestant?
My purpose here will not be to convince you of everything, as Catholic beliefs about Mary usually take some time for Protestants to wrap their minds around. I’ll begin by offering a few introductory remarks:
(a) Mary is God’s handiwork. The things that are so wonderful about Mary are not Mary’s doing! They are about God’s work in Mary. So, Protestants should be careful in denying Marian doctrines, because in doing so, they might be inadvertently subtracting from God’s glory by not recognizing the amazing things he accomplished in and through Mary…things that were foreshadowed as early as the first book of the Bible.
(b) Marian doctrines are most important in how they protect very important doctrines about Christ. In other words, to deny almost anything the Catholic Church teaches about Mary is to actually dance at the edge of Christiological heresy (or even to pass into it!). Mary was indeed human and infinitely less that God, but the things God did for and through Mary have a lot to do with who Jesus Christ is: the incarnate second person of the Trinity. So, again, caution is in order.
That being said, the first question is easy to answer. Where does the Bible speak about venerating Mary? Well, Mary herself, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, proclaims that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). God himself honors Mary above all other humans by choosing her to bear the savior of the world in her womb. (As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ, and we do so in honoring those whom he honors, most especially His mother!) Jesus, from the cross, makes Mary the mother of John and everyone else whom God has called to be brothers and sisters in Christ. As good Christians, we honor our mother and father, and this includes honoring our spiritual mother, Mary. God did it first by greeting her with an angel and declaring her “kecharitomene” (Luke 1:28), a term that St. Jerome first translated as “full of grace.” Other translations say “highly favored one,” which again speaks to God’s own veneration of Mary. However, both translations fail to capture the richness of the name that God addresses Mary with through the angel Gabriele. “Kecharitomene,” based on the root “charis” (grace), is only found this one place in scripture, and it denotes a kind of unending preservation by the grace of God. Thus, “full of grace.” “Kecharitomene” not only points to God’s special protection of Mary by his grace, but in using this term to address Mary, God is saying something about Mary’s very nature, which God has seen fit to fill with his grace into the past and into the future.
Now, none of this is to say that Mary didn’t need a savior. Every human being after the fall of Adam and Eve needed/needs a savior. Only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross can anyone, including Mary, be saved. However, God can save us in two different ways: he can forgive us our sins after we commit them, or he can protect us by his grace from ever having committed them in the first place. Just think of all the sins you didn’t (I pray) commit today: murder, theft, adultery, etc. Because you are a Christian, by God’s grace, you probably do not sin in ways that you otherwise might. All praise and glory be to God for this. In Mary’s case, he simply saved her from all sins, including original sin, before any of these sins could stain the person who Jesus loved most particularly from all eternity.
Mary’s sinlessness is due not to Mary’s power, but rather to God’s power and grace, which she was in constant submission to (by God’s grace). Her “fiat” (be it done unto me according to thy will) was not only a temporary yes to God, but actually was born of a life of faithfulness, a life of being God’s “handmaid”. And all of this was due to God’s grace and is for His glory. Thus, when Jesus responds to the person that says “blessed is the womb that bare thee,” Jesus actually heightens the honor of Mary by saying, “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:27–28). Mary kept that Word, quite literally in Her womb and in her life, more deeply than any human in human history. Jesus is intensifying Mary’s blessedness, not knocking it!
There are other doctrines about Mary that we could talk about from the Bible (Mary as the New Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Mother of God, Mediatrix, etc.) but I think it better to move on for now. I'd be more than happy to help you think through these ideas about Mary, all of which are firmly rooted in Scripture and in the Christian's family's knowledge of God passed down to us from the apostles.
Now, what about those verses from Romans 3, such as “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”?
The crux of the argument hinges on the word “all.” Is Paul here offering a proof text saying that every single human being absolutely sins with absolutely no exceptions? Of course not. Jesus didn’t sin. Babies don’t sin. People with severe mental handicaps do not sin. Even though it is true that most humans being do sin, that does not mean that the word “all” can only be understood in absolute terms. If so, Paul would be wrong, whether or not Mary sinned or not.
Rather, the word “all” also has a common figurative sense. If I said “all the town showed up to see the Phillies play,” you would take this word in context to mean that the game was very full, and that many many people came out for the game.
So, the word “all” is open to literal or figurative interpretation.
Further, if you read this verse in context, the first thing you’ll want to do is study how this citation of the psalms fits into the argument Paul is making in Romans. Obviously, Paul is not talking about Mary here. His argument, rather, is against those Jews who were trying to “work their way to heaven,” performing human works (apart from faith or grace) to try to merit heaven…by “obligating” God to grant them eternal life for their human works of the law. Paul reprimands them appropriately: “the wages of sin is death.” In Romans 3, where the “all have sinned" quote comes from, Paul is making a comparison between those who try to obligate God to grant them heaven by using the “works of the law” (as opposed to good works wrought by God’s grace by those living a life of faith). Those who place themselves under the law end up being condemned by the law, because those works are the works of sin and of wretchedness. Since these works of the law are being performed outside of a faith relationship, says Paul, they place the people who perform them in the category of “no one righteous, no not one,” for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So, Paul is using these verses to paint in broad strokes the two categories: those that try to work their way to heaven by trying to obligate God through “works of the law,” versus those who gain righteousness through a faith relationship with Christ. Now, here’s what is critical to note: in using these verses from the Psalms to define these categories (Psalms 5, 10, 14, 53, 59, 140), Paul would have been calling to mind the categories set forth by the very Psalms he was citing! (The Psalms were for the Jews what the Star-spangled Banner is for Americans. If I cite “Oh, say can you see?” you immediately call to mind the entire words, assumptions, history, and national pride of the entire song. Similarly, when Paul cites “all have sinned,” he calls to mind the entire Psalm, and all of its meaning and significance, for his Jewish audience. And, what categories do these Psalms Paul is citing lay out? The Psalms clearly define and contrast two groups: those who are unrighteous and out of God’s friendship…AND THOSE THAT ARE RIGHTEOUS (Psalm 5:8-12, 10:12-15, 14:5-7, 53:5-6, 59:9-13, 140:12-13)! In other words, Paul isn’t denying that some people (Christians, and even faithful Jews like Abraham, who is exhibit A when the New Testament talks about justification) can actually live righteously. He is simply arguing that the only way to do so is to live a life of faithful obedience to God. Thus, Christians in friendship with God no longer fall under the “there is no one righteous, no not one” category, because they have been saved through faith by God’s grace. God’s grace changes their lives and gives them the power to live righteously, not by performing human works under the law, but rather by performing works of grace…truly good works that our empowered 100% by Jesus working through us. These are the only good works that can merit heaven, because they are Jesus’s works, not our own. And this is EXACTLY the way the Catholic Church discusses good works:
2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.
2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. the fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
2009 Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God's gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us "co-heirs" with Christ and worthy of obtaining "the promised inheritance of eternal life."60 The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.61 "Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due.... Our merits are God's gifts."62
Back to Mary: Catholics simply understand that Mary lived, by God’s grace, in a state of friendship with God for her entire existence (just like the original Eve should have done but failed to do). Therefore, it would be an error to think that Mary would have ever fit into the “all have sinned” category that Paul is mapping out in Romans. In fact, Paul’s point in all of those citations of the Psalms and all of Romans is that there exists another category (“those who are righteous through faith in Jesus Christ”), and it is this category that Mary fit into for her entire existence. And, we pray, you and I are in this same category through our own faith relationships with Jesus Christ! That is why Mary is the model Christian. May we be, like her, “handmaids of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) and may we follow her constant advice: “do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).