Blessed Art Thou among Women

One common complaint among Evangelicals or fundamentalists is that Catholics honor Mary “too much.” It’s a highly specialized complaint, much like the concern over Catholic “graven images” that completely overlooks the Evangelical’s own bowling trophies. After all (and I speak from experience here), Evangelicals have no problem honoring Paul. They write hundreds of books about him, talk about his greatness and genius in thousands of sermons, and generally hold him up as a shining model of Christian greatness — as they should. They rightly observe that, if not for Paul, the gospel would never have reached the Gentile world.

But there is an odd choking sensation among Evangelicals when Catholics note (with equal truth) that, without Mary, the gospel would never have reached the planet. The conversation chills under an icy cloud of fear and the sense of menace, as though the Catholic is just about to break out in a frenzy of goddess worship or seduce the Evangelical into offering milk and honey to Diana. Strange caveats and backpedalings ensue. We are suddenly informed that Mary’s “yes” to God means nothing special about her role in salvation history, and she certainly is deserving of no special mentions. We are informed that God would have chosen somebody else (as though we have full access to the inner counsels of the Divine Mind as He surveys all the infinite alternate universes of string theory).


Nobody ever feels the need to talk this way about Paul. When it comes to him, we remain in this universe, looking at what God actually did, rather than flying off to a billion other hypothetical universes to pontificate about what God surely would have done. Similarly, when we note that Mary herself declares in Luke 1:48, “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” Catholics do not feel the compulsion to declare that, since Scripture likewise speaks of Jael as blessed among women (Jgs 5:24), we can safely say that Mary is no big deal. Instead, they recognize the same principle at work as when Isaiah calls Cyrus the Lord’s “anointed” (Is 45:3-6): It doesn’t mean that Jesus Christ the Anointed One is no big deal. It means that Cyrus is a prophetic foreshadow of Jesus the Anointed one, and Jael is a prophetic foreshadow of Mary, the mother of the Anointed One, who is most blessed among women.

Why? Because Jesus Christ is God incarnate and Cyrus is not, just as Mary is the Mother of God Incarnate and Jael is not. Because, in this real universe we know about (as distinct from a million hypothetical universes that we do not even know exist), Mary freely said “yes” to giving the Lamb of God the flesh and blood by which He would achieve the redemption of the world on the cross. Because, in this real universe, she assented to saying that “yes” — not just at the conception of Christ, but day by day for 30 years until the moment she had to stand there and watch Him die the most shameful, unjust death any peasant mother has ever had to endure under a cruel regime. In short, just as we would surely honor not just a fallen soldier but his grieving parents at the soldier’s funeral, so the Catholic Church has always very sensibly paid honor to the Mother of our Captain, who died in combat with the forces of Hell and threw Himself on the grenade of sin, hell, and death to save His troops. Not to do so would be miserly and churlish.


That’s why the real question is not
, “Don’t Catholics honor Mary too much?” but rather, “Where do Evangelicalism or fundamentalism honor her ‘just enough’?” The reality, when we look at it, is that Catholics honor her as she should be honored, while one would have to search a very long time in Evangelical or fundamentalist circles to find any honor paid to her at all, and that quite grudging, timid, and filled with hesitations — a fact noted even by honest Evangelical scholars. Apart from “round yon Virgin, Mother and Child” at Christmas (a verse written by a Catholic, by the by), veneration and honor of the Blessed Virgin is almost nonexistent in Evangelical circles. It’s a bit like the teetotaler telling the normal man who likes a glass of wine at dinner that every sip is “drinking to excess.”

Certainly, Elizabeth has no such hesitation. Indeed (lest the illustration of the fallen soldier lead us toward becoming maudlin and imagining that Mary’s sorrows are the sole reason for honoring her), it should be noted that Elizabeth knows nothing of the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul when:

the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:41-42)

Elizabeth zeros in on the essential core of Marian veneration in these words. It is not that Mary is a victim, but that Mary is the blessed and chosen Mother of God. Evangelicals, quick to dismiss any honors to Mary, will typically leap from this passage to Jesus’ remark, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27) But, of course, that’s Elizabeth’s point, too: Mary is not blessed because she is giving birth; she is giving birth because she is blessed. Her faith in the word of God is so powerful that, through her, that Word is made flesh. And so she is most truly most blessed among women.

As we move away from these controversies with certain Protestants and look closer to home, we find another dynamic at work. Even within the Catholic communion, the Church is often complained of as “dominated by men.” To converts from an Evangelical background filled with jitters about Mary, this is often hilarious. For what often hits one in the face is not the masculinity but the femininity of the Church. In other words, so much of the Church’s prayer, life, and practice is contemplative, Marian, inward, body-centered, and Eucharistic; while so much of the rest of non-Catholic (especially American Evangelical) Christianity is aggressive, word-centered, mission-oriented, and focuses on getting a job done. Both the masculine and feminine approaches to the faith are good and biblical, but it should be noted that the feminine way is particularly rooted in the Church’s reverence for Mary who is “blessed among women.”

Mary is, in the end, called “blessed” not merely because of her suffering, nor merely because she did this or said that. Indeed, Scripture does not contain an Acts of Mary because it is precisely her part in the economy of salvation not so much to do as to be. Her characteristic posture is contemplative: She “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). Her characteristic gesture is to refer us to her Son: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Her sole literary legacy is a hymn of praise that magnifies God, not herself.

That does not make her a wallflower or a cipher. It makes her the most fully saved human being who ever lived — saved completely from sin not by the desperate rescue from the pit that the rest of us have experienced, but by being kept from the pit in the first place by the grace of her Son. This, in turn, makes her the freest creature God ever made, not an automata. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17), and Mary’s blessedness consists precisely of the fact that she is named Kecharitomene, full of the grace and power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:28).

This curiously quiet and hidden place in the Kingdom of God, so far from the very public and dramatic trials and tribulations of the apostles with their Indiana Jones adventures and globe-trotting ways, is why Mary’s enormous powers — what Pope John Paul II calls “other and great powers” than those of the apostles — is often overlooked. Her power in the life of the Church is like air pressure or sunlight or gravity: You don’t think about it. It’s always there, in the background, the power of the entire prayer life of the Church, quietly interceding for the noisier and more visible members, calm and relentless as a river, seemingly weak, but able in the long run to grind the Himalayas down to dust. And all in the peace of Christ, whom she loved from her very heart from the first moment of her creation and will be praising and loving when the last atoms of this passing world are gone. Blessed, truly, is she among women.

Mark P. Shea

By

Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Bob

    “Blessed are you among women….and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” The second “blessed” could not have happened without the first “blessed”. The woman that was to carry, develop, and protect the Son of God, the Word incarnate, in her womb for nine months, feed Him with her milk after birth, nurture Him, had to be one pure and without the blemish of sin. Not only through the words and proper understanding of Scripture, but simple logic and reasoning brings us to this conclusion. With any mother and son, we see the special bond between them. Imagine the incredible bond and love between Mary and Jesus. This is why we honor Mary, our Mother. She will help bring us to her Son. Great article, Mark.

  • Deacon Ed

    Jesus had two natures – one human and the other divine. His human nature issued from Mary. And, if I recall correctly, it was Irenaus who taught that what was not assumed could not be redeemed. Our human nature was redeemed through Mary, in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary is blessed for her role in our salvation, not by anything but by the freely given grace of God.

    What would the Evangelicals says about this bit of salvation theology?

  • Austin

    When I was in the military, I ran into a lot of Evangelicals from the deep south. Many of them had some strange ideas about Catholics, and “idol worship.” Some of them seemed to think that we actually “worship statues.” I would try to explain that statues were merely “visual aides” to help people grasp abstract ideas, that the statues in and of themselves were nothing, but it was difficult to get traction with many of them.

    Yes I would also get the buiness of “why do you worship Mary, she is not God.” When I would respond about how we don’t “worship” Her, we honor her and ask Her to intercede for us, I would get blank stares. It’s difficult to argue theology, especially after you have had a few beers, and if the other party suspects that you are some sort of closet Satanist, it is impossible.

  • Devin Rose

    Great points Mark. I especially like the mention of Evangelicals honoring St. Paul so much.

    I’m in frequent dialogue with self-proclaimed “Calvinists” and have been struck by how much they honor/venerate him. They have big button/logos on their sites that proclaim “I’m a Calvinist!” and talk about him and his teachings constantly. To the outside observer, their devotion to Calvin doesn’t look too different from Catholic devotion to Mary.

  • Ken

    Excellent piece, Mark.

    I’ve often wondered if Protestants use an online “find” feature with keywords “Mary” and “mother” to delete all biblical references before going back to Sola Scriptura.

  • Nick Palmer

    Mark, this is a fitting piece in your serial on the “Hail Mary.” Well done!

    November’s ‘First Things’ contained a “statement of Evangelicals and Catholics together” titled “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life.” It is an attempt to reconcile the two views, with perspectives from each.

    I found it, however, lacking. Okay, I’m an RC, but the Evangelical’s argument, as I read it, was fundamentally: “some Catholics take things too far and treat their devotion to Mary inappropriately. So, we don’t like it.” While my characterization may be insufficiently nuanced, on several readings, it isn’t too far off. This just misses the boat. “Some people take X too far, so X is wrong/bad (where X = any number of things — Marian devotion, wine, food, sex, video games, hand washing).” Not convincing.

    Mark, you seemed to hit at the crux of the issue. Church teaching, sacred scripture, and reason all converge — Hail Mary!

  • georgie-ann

    inspired,…

    “none are so blind as those who don’t see,”…i guess we should pity them, as they are missing so much,…

    plus, it leads to an awful lack of appreciation for very many subtle things feminine & female,…

    i got very tired of being “explained away” as a female, by these “know it all” Protestants, who seem to think that the Gospel according “themselves” is ALL you have to know,…the rest is only your “imagination,”…just ask them,…they’ll tell you “everything you need to know,”…and meanwhile, listen & learn nothing,…

  • Bob

    Like nick, I am a big fan of First Things Magazine, and there was a very good letter to the editor on “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in February’s edition from a Rev. Raymond Suriani. Father Corapi once said, if you were Jesus, wouldn’t you make yourself a mother free of sin so that she would not be a target of Satan? Excuse the “cut and paste”:

    In commenting on the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Evangelical authors of

  • Philip

    Shouldn’t an article on this topic have something to say about the Immaculate Conception? That, surely, is what Protestants find most objectionable about Rome’s Mariology

  • Mark P. Shea

    It certainly *could* have. But my purpose was not to provide a full-blown apologia for the Immaculate Conception (I do that in volume II of Mary, Mother of the Son.

    Rather my purpose was to focus in on something different: the radical discomfort Evangelicals typically have over the slightest *mention* of Mary. It isn’t just the Immaculate Conception that’s the problems. It’s almost everything about her. My point is that there’s something wrong with that, whatever you make of the Immaculate Conception. It’s a prejudice that keeps Evangelicals from thinking clearly and, of course, predisposes them to radical fears about the IC.

  • Bob

    Mark’s right. It seems to me that even when Mariology is explained from both a Scriptural and a Traditional respect, Evangelicals let it slide off and fall back on their original objections, basically only agreeing with Catholics that Mary had a pretty important part in Jesus’ birth. there’s almost a Mary “toned deftness” being exhibited.

  • Bill Sr.

    Do you recall the story of Helen Keller? She appeared to be unable to see, hear, or communicate with anyone. At first thought one would wonder why God had created this child and put her into such a situation. Yet when we marvel at her life

  • Melinda MT

    should we have for our Lord? The kind Mary had for her Son – That came to me as I was reading your piece, Mark – so thank you!!! – the kind of all consuming love has for one’s children – that we would give our lives for them if needed…its the kind of obvious thing that one misses but once understood, bursts onto the scene like a flash of brilliant light – and into the heart like an arrow….
    God Bless you
    Melinda

  • Katy

    When Mary said “Yes” to God’s will, she brought the Gospel into the world. When we say “Yes” we also bring the Gospel into the world. What is so hard to grasp about that?

    My mother, raised a Baptist but educated at a Catholic college, always said, “Protestants just don’t know what to do with Mary.”

  • Nick Palmer

    Exactly right, Katy.

    All God asks of us is to answer as his Blessed Mother did: “Yes.” So simple and humble, yet such a stumbling block to so many of us.

    Mary’s “YES” echoes through time challenging all to turn back to God.

  • George

    Thanks Mr. Shea for another wonderful article on Our Lady. Some fathers, can’t name which, linked the words of Our Lord to His mother at Cana: “What is this to me and to thee? My hour has not yet come” as a question about “the hour.” Not that Our Lord was ignorant of what Mary would ask, for He knew all things, even as man. Can we say that Mary delayed “the hour” when Jesus had begun His public ministry at twelve in the temple? Or, was part of His ministry to be “subject” to His parents for eighteen more years as a greater lessen of the unfathomable “humility” of the Son of God made man. “Do whatever he tells you” was the mother’s painful way of saying ‘indeed your hour is now come.’

    The Vulgate translation of Genesis 3:15 is even more clear on the Immaculate Conception. “She shall crush thy head and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” Her “heel” would never be under the power of the devil. He would lie in wait for the crushing from the one creature whom he had no power over. The parallelism of the verses loses its relation of ‘she and thou, the cursed one’ when you translate the Hebrew as masculine in the second part. Saint Jerome had the Hebrew, and Syrian texts before him. He was a master of the language, the greatest in the Latin world. He would know, from the rabbis themselves who taught him, that the Hebrew pronoun in this text needed a masculine. Why this tampered with after over sixteen hundred years baffles me.

    There is a very scholarly study on this, proving the better accuracy of the Vulgate translation,in a book called “The Woman of Genesis” by Thomas Mary Sennott.

  • Bill Sr

    Mark your mentioning that Mary was the first Christian is something that hit me years ago as I was in the process of converting.
    That she was the very first to “give her life to Christ and his mission on earth” can not be denied.
    Those first 30 “formative” years of their “relationship” and the intertwining of their lives and understanding seems to escape rational thinking and reality for many otherwise devoted bible quoting Christians who want and seek a deep appreciation of the word made flesh.
    I ask these, would you exchange any degree of meaningful knowledge of the Lord in scripture for a single day in his life and presence? Case Closed.

  • Latin People

    From Bob:
    It is rendered as follows in the Revised Standard Version:

  • George

    Thank you Latin People. All I can say is that the Vulgate Latin as given to the Church by Saint Jerome, at Pope Damasus’ behest, has “ipsa” (she) in the second couplet of this text. This is the Vulgate that was approved as the official Latin canon of the Bible at the Council of Trent. Almost all Latin fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, and others referred to this verse as “she” shall crush thy head. Eastern fathers used the nueter or the masculine. As Cornelius a Lapide points out in his exhaustive commentary, all three pronouns present an orthodox meaning. But a Lapide was before Trent. One Hebrew poet of the second century, Philo, without giving the text any Messianic interpretation rendered the verse in the feminine, i.e. Eve shall crush the serpent (after converting, I suppose) He pointed out that the poetic structure of Hebrew parallelisms demanded a feminine in the second couplet to match the first. So A is to B would remain A is to B. Her “heel” meaning her “seed” repentant mankind. That was Philo. Moses Maimonides, in the 12th century, also renders it feminine “she.” Since the Hebrew of the Old Testament only was written with consonants and the vowels were known by memory, tradition would supply what vowels applied, which determined the gender of the consonant only pronoun. All very interesting. I might mention, too, that the Greek Septuagint has “autos,” which is masculine “he.” Jerome certainly knew that, but he still rendered it ipsa, based, no doubt, on what the rabbis, of the fourth century, told him, were the correct vowels. All this proves that we ought to accept the Church’s pronouncement on it at Trent, which, although not de fide (for the canon, yes, not the Vulgate) still gave the Vulgate its high seal of authority. So, too, the Douay scholars, who were brilliant linguists for sure, render the second couplet “she” and “her” heel.

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