The biblical view of Mary is that she has been specially set apart by God in the order of grace. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, was one of the first to affirm this when she proclaimed Mary’s blessedness upon her visitation:
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, 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! (Luke 1:41-42)
During and after Advent, it is prime time for us to get reacquainted with the mother of our Lord and reflect on some of the reasons why she is considered “blessed among women.” One reason that the Virgin Mary is set apart from all other women is because of the weight of her “yes” to God’s plan—and because of God’s “yes” to her. Following her consent to bear the Christ child in her womb, her flesh was united with the body of Christ in the most literal sense. No other woman will ever experience this kind of union with Christ, this mother-with-child communion. Clearly, by this fact alone, Mary is blessed among women.
To steal a phrase from Einstein: God does not play dice. Mary was not randomly endowed with her maternal role. Rather, from all of eternity, she was chosen by God for the task. She was favored by God to bear him, to raise him, to laugh with him—to suffer with him. The apologetic point here can be deceivingly simple: If God has honored Mary so singularly, shouldn’t we? If we are to reverence the mothers of our friends and relatives, shouldn’t we reverence the mother of our Lord?
And Mary is also our spiritual mother, because of her co-operative role in bringing into this world the Savior who would make it possible for man to be “born again.” The fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it this way:
In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace. (Lumen Gentium, 61)
This spiritual motherhood is hinted at in John’s Gospel when Jesus speaks the words “Woman, behold your son” to Mary, who stands at the foot of the cross with John. “Behold your mother,” he then says to the beloved disciple (19:26-27). And as our Lord speaks these words in a literal sense to Mary and John, he speaks them in a spiritual sense to the Church throughout the ages. Thus St. Augustine would affirm:
That one woman is both mother and virgin, not in spirit only but even in body. In spirit she is mother, not of our head, who is our Savior himself—of whom all, even she herself, are rightly called children of the bridegroom—but plainly she is the mother of us who are his members. (Holy Virginity, 6:6)
She can be the Mother of the Church because, as the Church’s Sacred Tradition holds, from the first moment of her existence Mary was endowed by God with perfect sanctity. In 1854 Pope Pius IX declared in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus:
We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God.
Pope Pius IX’s dogmatic declaration was not a nineteenth-century invention pulled out of a hat. Its purpose was to affirm in an official and formal way, as all ex cathedra statements do, a long-existing tradition passed down since the age of the Apostles.
Now, it is true that Saint Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans that “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23). But on a closer reading, the reference here emerges as to personal sin—that is, sin which is done rather than inherited. (Original sin is dealt with two chapters later in Paul’s epistle.) So then, have all sinned? In general, yes. But there are exceptions—beginning with Jesus himself!
We can count other examples, too, like infants and the severely disabled, who lack the sufficient degrees of knowledge and consent which are required to count as a “personal” offense against God. And there are other biblical exceptions. Indeed, Mary is not the first woman in the Scriptures to be conceived without sin: think of Eve, the mother of humanity, who was created free of sin—but eventually fell by disobedience. Unlike Eve, Mary did not fall.
Steeped in the writings of the early Church Fathers and drawing from their reflections on Mary, St. John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, fittingly called the mother of Jesus “the daughter of Eve unfallen.” Indeed, the earliest Church Fathers hinted at Mary’s sinlessness in their writings when they alluded to Mary, implicitly and explicitly, as the second or new Eve. St. Irenaeus, for example, writes in the second century that “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith” (Against Heresies, 3:22:24).
The later Church Fathers conveyed the blessedness of Mary even more explicitly. Consider the words of St. Ephrem in the fourth century:
You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these? (Nisibene Hymns 27:8)
Even Martin Luther believed that Mary had received special graces from God, professing these words in a 1527 sermon:
It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul. (On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God)
Of course, this recognition began with the biblically unique greeting of the angel Gabriel: “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28). He greeted Mary with a title—and an angel never speaks anything but exactly what God wants him to speak. This explains why Mary in all her humility “was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29).
If an archangel of God greets Mary with such reverence, should we not also? Most of us already do. But a small reminder never hurts. Aside from meditating on Sacred Scripture, then, one of the best ways we can reflect on the life of the Blessed Virgin is to return to the writings of the early Christians. They were the closest in time to Mary and the disciples (indeed some of them were disciples of the disciples) and although their writings were not inspired, they serve as a kind of historical and theological extension of the New Testament, providing for us further context and commentary.
At the very least we should remember, as St. Ambrose did in his commentary on holy virginity, that Mary’s life “is like a mirror reflecting the face of chastity and the form of virtue.” We have ample reason to believe that Mary is a perfect model of obedience and humility, and so we can do no better than to reflect on her life, though but for the grace of God she would have been conceived in sin and unfit to be Christ’s mother and ours. Nobody has understood our dependence on God’s grace greater than she whose sweet voice proclaimed in the home of Elizabeth:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:47-48)