Mary. Mother of Jesus. I grew up evangelical in an area of the US that was heavily Roman Catholic. Most of my neighborhood friends were Catholic, and a large Roman Catholic church was just around the corner from our home. To be quite frank, the first things that come to my mind when I think of Catholicism are…bingo, raffles, beer drinking, and statues of Mary. Catholic churches were big on bingo and had bingo nights. They also had frequent raffles for fundraising purposes, and Catholics would go door-to-door selling the raffle tickets (and were always surprised to learn that we were not Catholic and not part of the local parish!). They also hosted beer-drinking nights and gambling casino nights. I suppose the gambling nights are no longer necessary since Indian Reservations now have casinos in that area.
One time we were playing a game in my home where you had to get someone to guess a certain word without using certain words. For example, get them to guess “cat” but without using the words meow, lion or tiger, purring, pet. Anyways, one time the word to be guessed was bingo. The person said “catholic” and the instantaneous reply was “bingo”! haha. I am honestly not trying to be flippant or insulting, but just sharing my honest childhood memories.
But Mary. Mary statues in yards were common. I remember spending the night at a Catholic friend’s house, and the family said the “Hail Mary” before the meal. When I was a young adult, my spouse and I sometimes took an unchurched child to church with us. One time after church, this child suddenly asked us, “Do Protestants worship Jesus, and do Catholics worship Mary?” We were surprised by this question and asked her to further elaborate. She said that when she attended church with us, it was all about Jesus. But with recent time spent at a Catholic friend’s house (and attending mass with them), her impression was that it was all about Mary. We had never discussed Catholic vs Protestant issues with her, so the question was not influenced by us.
Do Catholics worship Mary? Of course not. But Catholics certainly do give Mary more honor and focus than Protestants. However, Protestants can be guilty of ignoring Mary and failing to honor her – except, of course, for a little bit at Christmas time.
What do we know about Mary from the Bible? From what we can deduce from the Gospels, Mary was a regular young woman for her time that God specially chose to give birth to Jesus. Mary was a sinful human being just like each of us, and went on to have other children with Joseph. That God would utilize someone “just like us” is touching. Our God frequently uses the ordinary to accomplish his purposes! Aren’t we grateful?
Here are some Scripture references about Mary:
Luke 2:7, which is about the birth of Jesus, says that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” The use of the word firstborn would indicate that Mary had other children after Jesus. If Jesus was her one and only child, then it would not make sense to use the term firstborn.
In the birth narratives of Matthew, Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph and Mary “did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.” Note the word “until.” They did consummate their marriage, but not until after Jesus was born.
Other references in the Gospels refer to Mary as having other children and Jesus having siblings (Matthew 12:46-47, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:2-3). Some say that the term “brother” can be used to refer to cousins, or that these were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. While that is a possibility and there is some merit in that argument, when taken along with Luke 2:7 and Matthew 1:25, we should not be surprised that Mary and Joseph would have gone on to have a regular marriage that involved sexual intimacy which led to the birth of other children.
In Mary’s “magnificat” (her touching song) in Luke 1, Mary refers to God as her Savior (Luke 1:47). Only a sinner needs a savior. If a person has no sin, they do not need salvation. Later in Luke 2:24, Mary and Joseph go to the temple to offer the sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons. According to Leviticus 12:8, if a lamb could not be afforded, two doves or two young pigeons would suffice: one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. Mary offered a sin offering.
I realize that some of these verses can be interpreted in different ways, but taken together in their entirety – it seems clear that Mary was a regular person just like one of us. Should this be surprising? Throughout the Bible, we can observe many examples of God using ordinary people. As 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31 states:
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Our boast should be in God alone. The Lord Jesus Christ should be first, supreme, or preeminent in our lives. New Testament books such as Colossians and Hebrews emphasize the supremacy and superiority of Jesus Christ over all other created things or systems of worship.
Mary’s song in Luke 1, indicates the same:
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary does say that future generations would call her blessed. Indeed, she was blessed, and we should honor Mary. Yet note that Mary refers to herself as a humble servant in need of a Savior, and the song focuses on giving God the glory, respecting God’s holy name, and proclaiming what God has done.
I feel very uncomfortable with church teachings, prayers, or approaches that elevate Mary to too high of a place. I think even Mary herself, based on her song, would be disturbed by anything that diverts people away from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
[Note of clarification: I am not insinuating that all Catholics are the same, or that they all elevate Mary over Jesus. Catholics would defend that they are not elevating Mary over Jesus, even though it appears that way to some of us. And I’m also aware that the Catholic church has developed and changed some since my childhood. The official Catholic teachings on Mary remain however, and are concerning to me. I know Catholics who have a genuine relationship with God and are trusting Christ alone for salvation, while others have missed Jesus for all the other things that can get in the way (like Mary and the saints) in Catholicism. However, Protestants can get their priorities mixed up too! Living in the Bible belt, where Baptist type Christianity is cultural and pervasive, far too many Baptists have clearly missed Jesus and do not know Him.]