Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455), “Madonna of Humility”
May is Mary’s month, so it’s worth taking some time to ponder the role of Mary in God’s great plan of salvation. Catholics should be aware that our veneration of the Mother of God is one of the things most misunderstood by Protestant Christians.
There are very few Catholic titles for the Blessed Virgin Mary more likely to get Evangelical Protestants upset than Mary Co-Redemptrix or Mary Mediatrix. Immediately the Bible Christian will quote I Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and Man—the man Christ Jesus.” For them it is a done deal. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
So how do Catholics understand Mary’s participation in the redemptive work of Christ, and why does it matter? First of all, what do these words mean? “Co-Redeemer” and “Mediatrix”? The first means that the Blessed Virgin Mary shared in a real way in the redemption of the world accomplished by her Son. The second means “female mediator” and teaches that she mediates between us and Jesus. Protestants complain that this decreases the once for all unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is the Redeemer–not him and his Mother! The second directly and blatantly contradicts I Timothy 2:5 which says, “There is ONE mediator between God and Man—the man Christ Jesus.” How could it be any clearer?
The Catholic view can be explained, but it is best to start not with the Catholic doctrines of Mary Mediatrix and Co-Redeemer, but with the Catholic devotion of Mary, Mother of Sorrows. This devotion developed in the Middle Ages and it focuses on the Seven Sorrows of Mary. The Sorrows of Mary take the Christian into the meditation of the suffering that the Blessed Mother experienced as part of her role in the salvation of the world.
The seven sorrows of Mary are:
- The Prophecy of Simeon
- The Flight into Egypt
- Losing the boy Jesus in the Temple
- The Way of the Cross
- The Death of Christ
- The Deposition of Christ’s body from the cross
- Laying him in the tomb.
These seven mysteries are an outgrowth of the old man Simeon’s prophecy that a “A sword will pierce your own heart also.” (Lk. 2:35) This key verse is prophetic—revealing not just that Mary will suffer along with her son, but that this suffering will have an important and meaningful part to play in the whole redemption story.
Once we have recognized that Mary suffered with Jesus we should take a moment to try to understand the depth of that identification with her son. Remember she is linked with her son like no other Mother and her son is like no other Son. How often have we seen and experienced the deep identification between a mother and her child? The child suffers at school. Mama bear steps in for she has suffered too. The child experiences hardship and tears. The mother’s heart is broken too. Only when we understand the depth of Mary’s suffering and the depth of her unique identification with her son will we begin to understand the Catholic doctrines of Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix.
We should be clear that we are not saying that Jesus’ work of redemption on the cross was in some way insufficient. Neither is his work as mediator between God and Man inadequate. We acknowledge that his redemptive suffering on the cross was full and final and totally sufficient. We acknowledge that he is the only saving mediator between God and Man. So what do we mean with these titles for Mary?
What we mean is that she participates in the full, final, sufficient and unique work of Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world. She walks beside him and through his work she joins in that work. It is like Christ’s love and sacrifice is a fast flowing river, but Mary swims in the current of that river. Her work is dependent on his work. Her participation and co-operation could not happen without his work going before and enabling all that she does.
Therefore when we say she is a “Co redeemer” we mean that because of Christ she works with Christ for the redemption of the world. Furthermore, she is not the only one who does so. I explained how this “identifcation with Christ” is deeply woven into Scripture in my book Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate:
Human co-operation with God’s grace is a Scriptural principle. So, for example, we have Jesus’ role as High Priest; but while the New Testament shows him to be the great High Priest, it also calls us to share in that priesthood. (Rev. 1:5-6; I Peter 2:5,9.) We do this by sharing in his sufferings. (Mt. 16:24; I Pt. 4:13.) Paul calls himself a “co-worker with Christ” (I Cor. 3:9) and says part of this is that he shares in Christ’s sufferings (2 Cor. 1:5; Php. 3:10). Paul goes on to teach that this sharing in Christ’s sufferings is actually effective. It completes “what is still lacking in Christ’s afflictions” on behalf of the church. (Col. 1:24.) Paul is not saying that the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ is somehow inadequate. Instead he is teaching that the sufficient sacrifice has to be completed by being preached, accepted, and embraced by our co-operation, and that our suffering plays a mysterious part in this action. In that way the redemption of Christ is applied and brought alive in the present moment by our own co-operation in that one, full, final sacrifice. No one says we are equal to Christ, instead, by grace, our co-operation becomes a part of Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice.
By proclaiming Mary Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix we are not simply elevating Mary to the stratosphere. Instead, because she is also “Mother of the Church” we are pointing out that what she does in sharing in Christ’s redemptive work in the world is what all of us are called to do. She is the first Christian and the best and most completed Christian—therefore she show us the way to follow Christ most completely.
All Christians are therefore called to be “Mediators” because and through Christ’s one Mediation. We do this by prayer, living and making peace, being reconcilers and witnesses of the gospel. We are all called to “share in the work of redemption”. Because of what Christ did we too can offer up our sufferings and sorrows and share in that work so that they too can be part of his greater work of redemption in the world.
This action not only helps in the work of redemption but it also “redeems” the suffering. It turns the worst into the best. It takes the sorrows of our lives and joins them to the sufferings of the Lord and so turns them to gold.
This is why, in the mystery of the Church these titles are given to the Blessed Mother—so that we can see in her life what should be a reality in ours. In this way, following her example, we are able to do what Christ commanded—to take up our cross and follow him—and if we can’t do this, then he says we cannot be his disciple.