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Mother Mary (Virgin Mary)

Mother Mary (Virgin Mary)


Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, has been accorded a special place of devotion especially in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The New Testament records that she was the cousin of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and that she was betrothed and, later, married to Joseph. After giving birth to Jesus in a stable at Bethlehem, where she had gone with Joseph to register for a government census, Mary returned to Nazareth to live quietly and humbly with her family (Luke 2:1-20). At his crucifixion Jesus asked his beloved disciple, John, to look after his mother. Little is known about Mary after this, although Acts 1:14, the last reference to her in the New Testament, places her among the disciples.

The New Testament states that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit and thus without losing her virginity (Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). Despite biblical references to Jesus' "brothers," the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity appeared in the early church. Saint Athanasius used the term "ever virgin" to refer to Mary, and this view was apparently accepted by the Fathers of the Church from the 5th century on. It was formally established as a doctrine at the church's Lateran Council in 649. Although the Virgin Birth is a tenet of virtually all Christian churches, modern biblical criticism has questioned the authenticity of the accounts in Matthew and Luke. The doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is taught principally by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Marian teachings received considerable impetus at the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), both of which upheld the title theotokos ("God-bearer," or Mother of God) as descriptive of Mary. The doctrine of Mary's bodily assumption into heaven can be traced to apocryphal documents dating from the 4th century, but this doctrine was not officially formulated and defined for Roman Catholics until 1950 (see Assumption of Mary). The doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception was a matter of dispute throughout the Middle Ages. In 1854, however, Pope Pius IX declared that Mary was freed from original sin by a special act of grace the moment she was conceived in the womb of Saint Anne. (Tradition names Saint Anne and Saint Joachim as Mary's parents.)

Pope Pius XII strongly promoted Marian piety during his reign (1939-58). Because Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary is deserving of the "highest veneration," the church observes 17 Marian festivals each year, 5 of which are major: Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8; Purification, Feb. 2; Annunciation, Mar. 25; Assumption, Aug. 15; and Birth, Sept. 8. The Rosary contains 50 Ave Marias ("hail Marys"), and devotion to the "immaculate heart" of Mary is popular in some circles.

Protestant bodies have always reacted strongly against excessive devotion to Mary. In recent years, however, Protestant, Anglican, and Roman Catholic scholars have held discussions in which substantive agreements regarding the place of Mary in Christian theology and practice have been reached. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) included a chapter on Mary in the Constitution of the Church that emphasizes Mary's complete dependence on her Son.