To those who stand outside of the Catholic Church, it is easy to mistake our devotion to Mary as idol worship. We confer upon her titles such as Queen of Heaven and Earth, Co-Redemptrix, Mother of God, and Immaculate Conception. We send prayers to her. We light candles under statues of her and kneel there. Yet in spite of the appearance, there is nothing idolatrous about what we are doing. I will explain it below to the best of my ability.
Our acknowledgement of Mary as Mother of God does not mean that we believe she came before God or that she is more powerful than God. In actuality, she earns this title because we recognize Jesus as fully God and fully man, and since she is his mother therefore she is the Mother of God. As with all of the titles we give to Mary, they are actually not primarily about honoring Mary but actually about honoring Christ by recognizing the truth of His nature.
Mary is called Queen of Heaven and Earth because, in the Jewish tradition beginning with Solomon, the mother of the King is always called Queen. It is a recognition of the Kingship of Christ that leads us to call her Queen, not a statement that puts her above God or even on an equal footing with God. She does have power granted to her by Christ, just as Bathsheba had power granted to her by Solomon, but this power is hers solely through His grace.
Mary is rightfully called co-Redemptrix but a proper understanding of the meaning of the word is important to clarify why it is a just title. The 'co' portion means working with (i.e. cooperation). The trix part is a feminine suffix telling us that it is a woman about whom we are speaking. The root word - Redemptor - means Redeemer and refers to Christ. Thus if you put the whole word together she is a woman working with the Redeemer. She does not do the Redeeming, she merely works alongside the one who does.
The title we give her of Immaculate Conception is actually based on Scripture. St. Paul tells us that "we are children, not of the slave woman but of the freeborn woman" - Galatians 5:31. The slavery he speaks of, he tells us in Romans 6:17 is slavery to sin. Thus, we as Christians are not born to a woman who was ever enslaved to sin. We were born to one who was always free. St. Paul also tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that "...by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body...". That body is the body of Christ, as we know from the passage in Galatians 3: 27 "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ".
Since we are united into Christ's body through the sacrament of Baptism, we become children of Christ's parents - Christ's Father, who is God, and Christ's mother, who is Mary. Thus it is logical to conclude that Mary was Immaculately Conceived, not because of any work that she did but because she was preserved by the mercy and grace of God from ever being enslaved to sin.
Furthermore, when the angel Gabriel greets her in Luke 1:28, the greek word used is kecharitomene. The root word, charitoo, means to grace or to favor someone. The prefix ke is a perfect tense which indicates that this is a present state resulting from a past action. The suffix, mene, is a passive participle showing that the action was done to and not by the person. In other words, the expression would properly be understood as "one who has received grace in the past and is graced presently because of it". He does not greet her as Mary, but as Kecharitomene implying that this is her proper title. It is significant that prior to God bestowing any special mission upon a person in the old Testament, He would rename them. Mary was about to become the Mother of God, and therefore He renames her to reflect her true nature.
Even more significant, though, than the greek translation of that word is the person who did the writing of the Gospel of Luke. Luke was not one of the original 12 apostles. He was a Greek convert and a disciple of Paul's, as we can deduce from reading Acts. He knew precisely what that word meant and what it implied, and he would only have used that word had this been the teaching of Paul. Paul, in turn, received his teaching straight from the mouth of Christ as we learn in 2 Cor. 2:12 when he was caught up to Heaven. Thus, you can say Paul would have gotten this information on Mary's Immaculate Conception straight from the horse's mouth.
When we offer prayers to Mary, it is understood that what we mean is we are asking Mary to take our prayers to Christ. This, too, is scriptural. When Solomon was King, people went to Bathsheba and asked her to bring their petitions to him. Furthermore, we know that Christ honors his mother because He is supremely obedient to the commandments of God and God has commanded that all children honor their fathers and mothers. Finally, we see in Revelations 5:8 that "Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints". Those in heaven continue to pray, and since Mary we know is in Heaven we can be assured that she has the power to carry prayers to Christ.
The Hail Mary, a very Catholic prayer if ever there was one, is also based on Scripture. The first line, "Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you." is from the words of the angel Gabriel in Luke 1:28. The second line, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb," is from Luke 1:43 in which Elizabeth greets the virgin Mary. The final line "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death" is our request that Mary pray for our salvation until such time as we safely reach Heaven.
The candles we light are a reminder of Christ, who is the Light of the World. It is part of our petition that Christ's light shine into the life of the person for whom we are praying. Thus, the physical action of lighting a candle is tied to the spiritual reality we wish to bring about. We kneel before the statue not because we worship the statue, or because we think the statue has special powers. We kneel because the statue is a reminder of the work of God's hands and a way of honoring what He has done for us. He has given us a mother, filled her with grace from the very moment of her conception, and set her as an example for us to learn from.
We honor Mary, not because of who she is but because of what God has done through her. She is the vessel by which God chose to bring our salvation into the world. She was the first among all of mankind to not only carry Christ within her, but to bring Christ to others (quite literally!). She is, by the administration of the sacrament of Baptism, our own mother.
If you found this helpful, please let me know. If you disagree, feel free to comment. I do approve comments as a precautionary measure. I do not mind questions nor a healthy discourse on the subject, but I follow the Pauline principal that states "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen".
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