In the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:35).
Some sufferers from Mariaphobic Response Syndrome look at this and say, “Notice that it is Jesus, not Mary, whom the angel calls ‘holy.’ But Catholics, with their misplaced emphasis, instead pray, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God.’ In their ignorance of Scripture, they do not realize that God alone is holy!”
The problem with this sort of statement is that it nicely illustrates Josh Billings’s old saying, “It ain’t what folks know that’s the problem. It’s what they know that ain’t so.” The notion that God alone is holy is one of those things that people know (at least when fretting about “holy Mary”) that ain’t so.
To be sure, both Catholic and biblical language sometimes seems to suggest that God alone is holy. For instance, in the Gloria we are taught to pray, “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.” But this does not mean the same thing as, “You alone are holy.” It means, “You alone are God, the Holy One.” How do we know? Because Scripture is quite emphatic that there are lots of things and people that are “holy to the Lord.” So, for instance, Israel is commanded to keep the Sabbath holy. They themselves are called “holy to the Lord” in Deuteronomy 7:6. And the sundry paraphernalia of their worship — the temple vessels, altars, offerings, and priestly garments, for instance, are likewise called holy.
That’s because to be holy does not mean “to be God” but “to be set apart.” It is, like many sacred things, related to an ordinary human tendency and then exalted by grace. In this case, it is the tendency to set things apart that are sacred to us. So we don’t use a wedding dress to wrap a fish in, or toss our late father’s watch in the trash even though it’s broken, or turn the carefully preserved bedroom of our deceased child into a sewing room. We hallow all sorts of things, places, people, dates, and times. And God does it, too, when He set apart certain people, places, times, and things to reveal Himself to us. That’s why He says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lv 11:44).
It is telling that this command comes from a book that is primarily concerned not with moral theology but with prescriptions for cultic rituals. Israel’s conflation of moral precepts and ritual rules reflects a very common phenomenon in antiquity: the tendency to blur the lines (or, more precisely, not to have yet created the lines) between things that would subsequently get teased apart. So, for instance, just as pagan thinkers like the Magi will not have clear category distinctions between what we will later call “magic” and “science” and “religion,” so the book of Leviticus will likewise not have sharp distinctions between what we now call “ritual impurity” and “moral impurity.” It takes the “ick” we feel at violating certain cultural taboos and uses it as a way of communicating the “ick” we should feel at sinning. The ancient Israelite saw no sharp distinction between eating pork and, say, raping a young girl. Both were regarded as acts that “defile.” But what “defile” meant had not yet been ironed out in the earliest parts of the Old Testament.
Similarly, when things (or people) are called “holy” in remote antiquity, the moral implications of this are not worked out too clearly. What is emphasized is that the person has been set apart by God for a particular purpose. But it does not necessarily follow that the one set apart is a particularly saintly person (the story of Samson is illustrative of this), and it may even be that the one set apart turns out to be a scoundrel. This, for instance, is what governs the odd behavior (by modern standards) of David when he is pursued by the paranoid Saul. David has a number of chances to kill his enemy fair and square but refuses to do so. Why? Because, as he puts it, “I would not harm the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sm 26:23). The holiness of Saul is due not to his saintly goodness but to the fact that he was ritually set apart for the service of God, and David feels himself bound to honor that despite Saul’s murderous campaign against him.
Eventually, though, the connection of the idea of holiness with that of a heart or spirit set apart for the service of God inexorably wins ground as the Jewish tradition gives birth to the Christian tradition. In Mary, we see an absolute identification of the two. When she gives birth to Jesus, there is no question that she is “set apart” for the most utterly unique task to which God has ever called a human being. But there is also no question in the Catholic tradition that she who was summoned to that task was made utterly worthy to accomplish it in every way. She is “conceived without sin” herself and is granted the singular gift of being the most saved person who ever lived. She is, in her person, the New Wineskin into whom the New Wine is first poured.
Mary is ultimately holy for the same reason that every saint is holy: because the Holy Spirit is upon her. The coming of the Holy Spirit upon Mary in the conception of Jesus was not the first time the Spirit had come upon her. Mary was graced with the help of her Son’s Spirit long before her Son took flesh in her womb. It was He who preserved her from sin from conception onward. But make no mistake: It was His grace that did it, not some goodness of her own that did not owe to the help of God. Mary was readied by grace to be holy. Her holiness made her open to further grace. This is the pattern of the Christian life still. Grace enables us to respond to God, and our response to God opens us to more grace. Mary herself went from grace to grace, not merely conceiving and bearing the Word Incarnate but pondering His life in her heart, going with Him to agony of the cross, rejoicing at His resurrection, welcoming His Spirit yet again at Pentecost, and finally following Him to Heaven in her glorious assumption — the very first person to fully enjoy what we who believe in Him will all one day enjoy in the resurrection.
This is why the early Church dubs her Theotokos, or “Mother of God.” It does not mean, despite some incredible claims to the contrary by certain anti-Catholics, that Catholics think Mary is the Creator of God (duh!). It means that the person she gave birth to is not an ordinary man who was “adopted” or temporarily “possessed” by the Logos or Second Person of the Trinity: two persons, one human and one divine, occupying a single head. Rather, it means He is fully God and fully Man, Son of God and Son of Mary: one person with two natures. Mary did not give birth to some abstraction. She gave birth to a person who is God. Because she did, we have been saved. That is why we honor her and call her “Holy Mary.” She was set apart, as no other mortal has ever been, by the Holy One who chooses the vessels He will honor according to His own purposes. Holy Mary has been more highly honored than any other creature, and it is only fitting that we acknowledge that fact, just as we acknowledge the many other lesser creatures whom God has likewise exalted by his grace.