Whether you’re Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant, you owe a great debt of gratitude to the Virgin Mary, because there’s a special way in which you owe your salvation to her. This claim often sounds heretical, particularly to Protestant ears, so here’s the basic reason Catholics say this:
1. Jesus Saved The World Through His Body
Virtually all Christians agree that we’re saved through the Cross of Christ, even though theologians often disagree about just how that works. We’ll leave the details of how alone for now, and just recognize that it’s through the Cross that we’re saved. But the Cross is meritorious, it is salvific, precisely because Christ died on the Cross.
So you can’t have salvation without the Cross, or the Cross without the Incarnation. Because if Jesus had never taken on a human nature, He could never have died, and we would not be saved. St. Augustine put the radical truth of the Incarnation this way:
In order to die for us – because as God he could not die – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The immortal One took on mortality that he might die for us, and by dying put to death our death. This is what the Lord did, this the gift he granted to us. The mighty one was brought low, the lowly one was slain, and after he was slain, he rose again and was exalted.
But the clearest presentation of this is from Jesus Himself, Who says in John 6:51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” So His Flesh saves us; or perhaps better, He saves us through His Flesh.
2. To Save the World in This Way, Jesus Needed a Human Mother (and a Jewish One)
God being God, He is capable of becoming man. But to become a man, He couldn’t just take on a semblance of human appearance. In such a case, He wouldn’t truly be one of us. He wouldn’t be part of the human family – He’d just look like us. That’s not enough. Instead, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,” as St. John tells us in John 1:14.
He actually became part of our family. In taking on the fullness of human nature, He redeems human nature. If He hadn’t been true man, He could hardly be the perfect God-man. And what’s more, God promised that salvation would come in a very particular way, through a Messiah raised up from the Jewish people. So to both (a) save the world and (b) fulfill His promises, Jesus needed to enter the world through a true mother, and a Jewish one. St. Paul puts it this way, “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4). If He weren’t “born of a woman,” He wouldn’t be part of our family. If He weren’t born “under the Law,” He couldn’t fulfill the Mosaic Law.
So Christ’s birth to the Virgin Mary was no mere coincidence, it wasn’t random. She is as chosen as the Mother of Christ as the Jewish people are chosen as the Chosen People. And all of human history points towards this moment, which St. Paul calls “the fullness of time.” There’s a reason that we measure time, B.C. / A.D., based on the conception and birth of Jesus to Mary. His entry into the world is the true Anno Domini, “year of Our Lord.”
So Jesus saves the world through His humanity. But He doesn’t have His humanity in virtue of His Divinity. He has His humanity in virtue of Mary’s unique cooperation. Just as His Divinity proceeds in its entirety from the Father, His humanity comes entirely from His Mother, Mary. To deny this is to deny that Jesus is fully human. What would it look like to deny this? In a book called Without Denomination: A Critique of Church Doctrines, Roy D. Perkins attempted just that:
Although Joseph is the father of Jesus, he is actually the step-father to Jesus. The Pharisees often refer to Jesus as the carpenter’s son as they do not realize that Joseph is not his blood father. Mary is not really the mother of Jesus either. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a virgin birth. There is no genetic material from Joseph or Mary in Jesus. The blood line does not come from either one of them. This is where Roman Catholicism gets things mixed up. The Catholics call Mary the mother of God. However, she is only a vessel for carrying and nurturing Jesus as an unborn child. We don’t pray to her. […] She is not holy. If Joseph and/or Mary had passed on genetic material to Jesus, the sin nature would have been passed on to Jesus, making him an imperfect sacrifice. The blood of Joseph and Mary does not run through Jesus’s veins. If their blood did flow through his veins, there would be no salvation by Jesus Christ.
Most Protestants, I hope, would recognize this as entirely heretical. To hold such a teaching is to deny “the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7). Because if Jesus doesn’t actually have a human nature, He never came into the Flesh. And if He’s not related to homo sapiens in any way, but was just an alien who used Mary’s body as a “vessel,” He’s not human, He’s not in the Flesh.
So I suspect that most Protestants would recognize that Perkins is right about St. Joseph not being the true father of Jesus, but wrong about Mary. Perkins is right that Joseph’s blood doesn’t flow through Jesus’s veins. But Mary’s blood does. But few Protestants stop and realize what a profound statement this is.
If Jesus takes a true human nature from Mary, then Mary provides Him with the very tool that He uses to save the world. If you envision Christ’s humanity as the arrow that the Divine Archer uses to pierce the heart of Satan, it’s the Virgin Mary who hands Him the arrow. What other human being, in all of human history before or since, has done anything remotely comparable?
3. Mary’s Cooperation with the Divine Plan was Free and Intentional
You might be tempted to compare Mary’s role in salvation history (which is to say, Mary’s role in our salvation) to that of her ancestors. If Mary’s honored for her unique role in giving Jesus His Humanity, why not honor all of her (and therefore His) ancestors? To that I would say that there’s a reason that Jesus’ sacred genealogy is traced along two lines in Scripture (Mt. 1:2-17; Lk. 3:23-38), and a reason that St. Matthew refers to his Gospel as the “book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1). But Mary’s role is distinct and greater than any of her ancestors, just as her role is distinct and greater than Pilate’s, or any of the Apostles, etc.
Mary enables the Incarnation and the salvation of the world (unlike Pilate and the Apostles), and she does so knowingly and freely (unlike any of her ancestors). The Virgin Mary alone gives Jesus something that He doesn’t already have: a human nature, and its accompanying mortality. And as we see from Luke 1, she does so intentionally and consciously, freely consenting to the plan of God (Luke 1:26-33):
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
In other words, the angel Gabriel actually lays out for Mary that her Son is to be the long-awaited Messiah. He goes on to explain to her that this will happen via a Virgin Birth (Lk. 1:34-35), and offers as proof the miraculous pregnancy of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth (Lk. 1:36-37). Mary then responds to the angel by freeing consenting to this plan, proclaiming, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38).
Mary’s response matters. In the Greco-Roman pantheon, there were several divine rapists. For example, the twin brothers Amphion and Zethus (the mythical founders of the city of Thebes, somewhat equivalent to Remus and Romulus) were the sons of Antiope, who was raped by Zeus, the “father God” (known to the Romans as Jupiter, from Zeu Pater or “Father Zeus”). St. Luke is showing us that God’s Fatherhood isn’t like Jupiter’s. The Virgin Mary remains a Virgin, and yet freely becomes a mother.
And note that she does so in full view of the fact that saying yes to the angel Gabriel means ushering the Messiah in to save His People. And so we can say with St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who said way back in 180 A.D., “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”
So it is that every one of us, if we are truly saved, owes our salvation to the Virgin Mary, because it was through her free cooperation in the Divine plan that Jesus received His human nature through which He saved the world.
Some Protestants, despite agreeing with everything I’ve said so far, will be tempted to say, “So what? God could have done it a different way.” This response strikes me as theologically bizarre. We would never dream of saying (for example) “so what if the Second Person of the Trinity took on a human nature and died for my sins? Presumably, the Third Person of the Trinity could have done it instead.” Nor we would even say “I’m not going to honor that soldier who saved his comrades by throwing himself on a grenade. If he hadn’t have done it, someone else probably would have.” But for some reason, when it comes to the Virgin Mary’s contribution to salvation, the greatest played by a human being in all of history, we get fed these strange counter-factuals.
If you’re tempted to that way of thinking, I would point you once more to St. Paul’s description in Galatians 4:4, which says that all of this happened “in the fullness of time.” None of this was random. God could have had a different Chosen People, but He chose the Jews in His perfect wisdom. And He could have chosen a different woman to be the Mother of His Son, but in His wisdom He chose the Virgin Mary. We should honor that choice by honoring the woman who freely cooperated with God’s plan to save us.