Why Are Catholics So “Into” Mary?

Aureliano Milani, Expulsion of Adam and Eve (18th c.)

Today’s post is for those Protestants who view the Church’s teachings on Mary as unnecessary and odd, rather than evil. There are a lot of you out there, and for good reason.

Let’s be honest. If you’re not Catholic, or even if you’re a Catholic who grew up without much of a focus on Mary, the Catholic devotion to Mary is hard to understand. It seems, if not idolatrous or superstitious, at least … weird. More specifically, it seems excessively devotional and sentimental, the sort of thing that might work in a culture in which men kiss each other when they meet, but which just doesn’t fit in our culture.

But Marian devotion is neither superstition nor mere emotionalism. In fact, Catholics care about Mary so much because Scripture does.

At first, that answer sounds surprising, because Mary doesn’t seem to be mentioned that often in Scripture. But that’s just on the surface. We need to dive deeper. To see what I mean, let’s consider Genesis 3:15. In the midst of cursing the serpent for his role in the Fall, God says:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

To get what’s going on here, let’s look at several dimensions of this passage.

1) What’s meant by the “Seed” of “the Woman”?

“Seed” is one of the ways that descendants are described in Scripture. But it’s measured through the man. In part, that’s because ancient cultures tended to have an inaccurate understanding of human sexuality. They understood how agriculture worked: you planted the seeds of a certain plant in soil, and if the soil was fertile, then the offspring of the original plant grew. They assumed human reproduction worked the same way, with the man providing the “seed,” and the woman providing the “soil.” Many of the terms used today (like “fertility”) are holdovers from this view. Hebrew was no exception to this: the same word, zera` meant seed, semen, and descendent, as we see in passages like Genesis 38:8-9.

The point is, we hear continually about “the seed of Abraham” (2 Chronicles 20:7), “the seed of David” (1 Kings 11:39), “the seed of Jacob” (Psalm 22:23), etc., but not the seed of a woman. There are only two exceptions to this in all of Scripture. One of those times is in Genesis 16:10, in which the angel promises Hagar that she’ll have many descendants. There, they’re referred to as her seed, because it’s specifically about her children, not Abraham’s children by his wife Sarah.

The only other time is here, in Genesis 3:15. Why?

The answer is clear enough. As the Evangelical pastor John MacArthur explains, “the unique reference in Genesis 3:15 to “her Seed” looks beyond Adam and Eve to Mary and to Christ.

Understood in this way, the passage is quite beautiful: it means that at the very moment of the Fall, God promised that the story wasn’t over yet, that Satan wouldn’t have the last laugh, and that the Virgin-Born would come and save us from our sins.

This interpretation is also the only one to explain the strange language used. Jesus doesn’t have a biological human father, so it would be inaccurate to refer to Him as “the seed of Joseph.” He’s the offspring of the Virgin Mary in a way that He’s not the offspring of anyone else. Given the Virgin Birth, it becomes clear why God should speak of “her Seed.”

2) What’s meant by “the Woman”?


Given the answer to the last question, this one is simple. If Genesis 3:15 is a promise of the Virgin Birth, then the Woman” is the Virgin Mary. You can’t have the Virgin Birth without the Virgin.

But this point is an important one for two reasons: first, because it establishes a parallel between Mary and Eve, a parallel that the early Christians grasped. They even share a title, Woman. Remember that, at the time of the Fall, Eve is still called “Woman” (Gen. 2:23), as she doesn’t get renamed Eve until Genesis 3:20, a few verses later.

But it’s important for a second reason. It means that the Virgin Mary is prophesied from the very first Book of the Bible. God is promising us (and threatening Satan) that a woman will come along who will give birth to a Son who will save us.

And note well: Scripture speaks of “the Woman,” not just “a Woman.” Too often, the Virgin Mary is treated as an unnecessary element (or at best, a replaceable part). But Scripture shows that she was part of God’s plan of salvation from the very moment of the Fall. In fact, we can say that God, who “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), chose the Virgin Mary for this role from all eternity. Genesis 3:15 is just the first time He reveals this to us, since it’s the first time we need redemption.

3) The Two Teams

Often, when Genesis 3:15 is mentioned, the debate has revolved about the second half of the verse. Since a neuter pronoun is used, the second half of the verse literally translates, “it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise its heel.” Is this a reference to Jesus? Mary? Christians? The Church? All of the above? This is an interesting debate, but it risks missing the other half of the verse, which is no less shocking.

Recall that God is addressing the serpent, Satan. He says: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That is, Our Lord depicts the battle between good and evil as a battle between Mary and Satan. Those are the two sides: you’re either with Mary, or you’re with the devil. You can be a child of Mary, or you can be a child of the devil. There’s no room to be lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16).

That’s what Genesis 3:15 is saying. To be sure, it’s saying a lot more than that: for example, about the ultimate triumph of Christ over Satan. But it’s hard to get around the fact that the enmity between the serpent and the woman is a foreshadowing of the fight between Satan and Mary, a fight that continues between his offspring and hers until the Last Judgment. Given this, the reasons for the Catholic devotion to Mary should be clear. It’s not about excessive emotionalism, but understanding the spiritual battleground.

4) Why Mary’s Team?

Domenico Beccafumi, Fall of the Rebel Angels (1530)

Everything up to this point has been, in my view, pretty straightforward exegesis. Even Protestants like MacArthur admit that Genesis 3:15 is about the Virgin Birth, and no Christian can claim ignorance of who that Virgin is. But when we ask why God should description the battle as the serpent against the Woman (instead of the serpent against the Seed of the Woman, as we might expect), we are speculating a bit.

But it’s worth asking, because it might sound that Genesis 3:15 is raising Mary to the level of God. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Scripture continually shows Satan being defeated by created beings. For example, in a passage heavily reminiscent of Genesis 3,  Revelation 12 describes the fall of Satan in this way (Revelation 12:8-9, 13):

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. […] And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child.

So once again Scripture speaks of how Satan, the serpent, is at war against the woman [the Mother of Christ, the “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5)]. A few verses later, after he fails to corrupt the Mother of Christ, he goes after us (Revelation 12:17): “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” In other words, the devil is at war with those of us on Mary’s team.

So we see the devil fighting (and losing) first against St. Michael, against the Mother of Christ, and against Christians. But why does Christ choose to defeat Satan by proxy? I suspect it’s that God doesn’t treat Satan as a worthy adversary, because he’s not. It’s the heresy of dualism to treat God and Satan as equally-powerful opposing forces. They’re not. This is the very heart of the matter. Satan’s arrogance is encapsulated in his claim: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). But despite his fiercest efforts, Satan will never succeed in making himself like the Most High. God’s decision to repeatedly defeat Satan via created beings like the Virgin Mary makes this fact abundantly clear.

Conclusion

Of course, this is in no way an exhaustive examination of the Scriptural references to Mary. But I think it does enough to show why Mary is so central to Catholic spirituality: Scripture presents her as part of the plan of redemption from the very moment that redemption is needed, and depicts the choice between good and evil as a choice to be a child of Mary or a child of the devil. Given this, go be a child of Mary!

13 Comments

  1. If Mary praying at the foot of the Cross was good enough for Jesus at the hour of His death, He clearly didn’t tell Her to stop or to go away, then that’s good enough for me to ask for the same at the hour of my own death. (What else do you think Any mother, before or since, would be doing if they were forced to helplessly watch their son being tortured to death?!?)

    Likewise, if is okay for a Freakin’ ANGEL OF GOD ALMIGHTY to Venerate/Honor (not worship.) Mary by referring to her as “Full of Grace”, Luke 1:28, then I think it’s okay for me to refer to her in the same manner.

    If you’re not Catholic, or even if you’re a Catholic who grew up without much of a focus on Mary, the Catholic devotion to Mary is hard to understand. It seems, if not idolatrous or superstitious, at least … weird.

    Not to this Catholic convert. If anything, Mary was one of the easiest things “to get” about the Church. Maybe I’m an aberration or something, but I just didn’t see any problem with anything the Church said about Mary. If you trust the Church when she says that Jesus walked out of that tomb 2000 years ago, which is very hard to wrap one’s mind around, why wouldn’t you also trust that same Church when it says something equally strange about that man’s mother? If Jesus really is the Son of God, then yes, it makes sense that he could Assume his own Mother into Heaven and that he did. Why wouldn’t he?

    It seems very strange to me that some people believe one seemingly impossible thing (The Resurrection of Jesus) from one source (The Church) that happened to be written down in Sacred Scripture, (There was really no reason to write down about the Resurrection to be honest, it could have ended up as 100% oral tradition.) but then totally discount something else that’s just as seemingly impossible (The Assumption of Mary) that wasn’t written down (But could have easily been written down) but it has a long historical tradition of belief (“La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción” was one of Christopher Columbus’ ships) that comes from the exact same source…

    1. Matthew RobinsonSeptember 13, 2014 at 12:31 PM
      Stephen is described as “full of grace” in Acts 6:8. Do you venerate him as you do with Mary?

      We do venerate him. He is the first martyr and a Saint of the Catholic Church in good standing. However, he did not bring Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Spirit, into this world. Mary is the Mother of God and as such, holds a special place, the highest place, of honor amongst the Saints.

  2. God bless you, Mr. Heschmeyer! Thank you so much for posting this today, on the optional memorial day of the Most Holy Name of Mary!

    The one thing that I would add is something that I read in Father Robert Barron’s book Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master. It’s not a direct quote but it basically said that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (which, of course, couldn’t have happened without Mary’s consent, nor her body) shows that God is not in competition with us, it’s only we who are in competition with Him when we sin. This also leads to the conclusion that what makes idolatry sinful has nothing to do with creation being evil and everything to do with its being inferior to its Creator–that is, that idolatry is when we put something created at the top of the hierarchy in our hearts instead of the God Who created it. But because God is not in competition with us, He only creates good things, and evil only comes when we abuse our free will (and angels cannot repent, so that Satan and the demons are the closest thing to “pure evil” that exist–but even they didn’t start out so, they’re that way by choice).

    Thank you for giving me other words in which to put it!

    @Rob: God bless you, and welcome to the Church!

  3. A Protestant reader pointed out that John MacArthur isn’t exactly a theologian, so his exegesis of Genesis 3:15 isn’t likely to carry a lot of weight. That’s a fair point, so allow me to share Martin Luther’s interpretation of Genesis 3:15, in which he also viewed it as prophetic of Mary and Jesus:

    “Women gave birth to children up to the flood and afterwards up to Mary, but their seed could not have truly been called the seed of woman. Rather it was the seed of man. That which is born out of Mary, however, was conceived by the Holy Ghost and is truly Mary’s seed. Thus other promises that God gave to Abraham and David testify, according to which Christ is called Abraham’s and David’s son. [….]

    Now I come to the text again. This promise is, as you heard, at the same time very clear and dark. God said generally “seed of the woman” with which he would make all women suspicious to the devil and torment him with eternal worry and anxiety. For this reason it is a strange synecdoche. “Seed of the woman,” he says. This sounds as if it were said in common of every woman, and yet God speaks only about one, namely about the seed of Mary, who is a mother apart from union with a man. The first part, “I will place enmity between you and the woman,” sounds as if it were said in common of all women; for God wanted to make Satan suspicious of all women. On the other hand, he wanted to leave and show the pious a certain hope that they would be expecting their salvation and redemption from all child-bearing women until this one, who would be the one to give birth. Thus this passage says “between her seed” very individually about the seed, which is only born from Mary, who was from the stem of Judah and engaged to Joseph.”

    I.X.,

    Joe

  4. I wonder what the ‘seed’ of the Serpent is, if we are analyzing the text so literally? Might these be demons? Or, maybe the multitudes of humans who are acting under the serpents influence?

    1. Both demons and the humans who are influenced by the serpent.

      Matthew 13:38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; 39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. 40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.

      2 Corinthians 11:13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.

      Revelation 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

    2. De Maria,

      It seems that Genesis, by title a book concerned with the Beginning, has a particular association with “Revelations” which is a book concerned with ‘the end’. With the story of Eve, we encounter the ‘serpent’, a created being portrayed as conversing with Eve. An by observation of currently living serpents, we know that such common reptiles and amphibians do not have the power of human speech, much less of human learning. So, it seems reasonable to me to interpret the serpent in Genesis in somewhat the same way as we interpret the ‘Great Dragon’ that we find in the Book of Revelations. Moreover, we also know that Satan is a fallen angel, and so, he must be different from the reptiles,snakes, etc.. that we commonly see today. Maybe, as an angel, he revealed himself under this form? But was not actually a physical reptile?

      And I’ve read that it was taught by St. Augustine that the Book of Revelations MUST be interpreted in a symbolic way. Do you think Genesis should be interpreted in a like manner…something mostly symbolic but still true? That the events happened, but are explained in a way similar to the way that Jesus taught in his parables, even as the one you quote above?

      I know that Origen and Augustine were proponents of at least partial symbolic interpretation. I’m just curious if there is any current or modern exegesis on Genesis and Revelations that might shed light on these Books?

    3. There is a great deal. My favorite on the book of Revelations is Dr. Scott Hahn’s, “The Lamb’s Supper, Mass as heaven on earth”. It explains how the book of Revelations is really a mystical exposition of the Mass.

      I also like Scott Hahn’s exegesis of the book of Genesis. I don’t remember the book in which he talks about it but his website certainly will have the subject matter.

  5. In addition to Genesis 3:15, there are countless other passages in the Old Testament that can be reasonably interpreted as referring to Mary. Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales identifies burning bush in Exodus as a prophesy of Mary, in that she bore the Christ without being consumed (i.e., losing her virginity). Almost the whole of Sirach, Chapter 24, is traditionally thought to refer to Mary. I’ve read commentaries on The Song of Songs that link that entire book to Mary.

    But like I said, they’re countless. No need to try to list them all…

  6. Last night before putting them to bed I read my children a book written from the perspective of the donkey that bore our Savior during His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The whole book was about the little donkey and his expectations of meeting Jesus (for, you see, his great-great-grandfather had carried Mary into Bethlehem three decades prior). This book was published by a Protestant publishing house; it quoted the NIV. I thought to myself, if Protestants can make books written about donkeys and their role in salvation history, why do they have such an aversion to the Theotokos?! I even wonder if there are Protestant children’s books that would even dare to consider the life of Jesus through the eyes of His mother?

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