Mary and Theology: Immaculate Conception and Annunciation

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Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, holds a special place of honor for Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and many Anglicans. Devotion to the Virgin Mary is a characteristic of Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches but is downplayed in Protestant churches which views worshiping Mary as taking away from the devotion to Jesus. For Catholics, Thomas Aquinas argued that God alone was to receive worship in the full sense (Greek, latreia), while the saints generally deserved veneration (douleia), with Mary worthy of something more than veneration and less than worship, which he termed hyperdouleia. In general this describes Mary's place within Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The two most common Catholic prayers may be the Our Father and the Hail Mary.[Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

According to the BBC: “Mary has always been a central figure in Christianity. She's always been absolutely key, right from that moment early in Luke's Gospel when she's told "Blessed are you amongst women". The interesting thing for modern scholars is that she's being reassessed because we've become much more sensitive to female characters in the biblical story and because female characters in the biblical story are often quieter than the men. In a contemporary world we want to reimagine Christian origins and involve women much more. And one of the most important women in that story is Mary, of course, and that's why it's worth hearing her voice in a fresh way. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC]

Mariology is the theological study of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It seeks to relate doctrine or dogma about Mary to other doctrines of the faith, such as those concerning Jesus and notions about redemption, intercession and grace. Christian Mariology aims to place the role of the historic Mary in the context of scripture, tradition and the teachings of the Church on Mary. In terms of social history, Mariology may be broadly defined as the study of devotion to and thinking about Mary throughout the history of Christianity. [Source: Wikipedia]

Websites and Resources: Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar ; Saints' Books Library ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America ; Lives of the Saints: ; Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library;

Evolution of Mary’s Status in the Church

Praying for the Virgin Mary’s intercession has traditionally been a big part of being a Christian, particularly Catholics but also Orthodox Christians too. The idea of Mary as intercessor is traced back Jesus’s wine from water miracle at the wedding at Cana, when, according to the Gospel of John, she tells him, “They have no wine,” prompting his first miracle. The elevation of Mary to a high position in Christianity has largely occurred without backing of the Bible. Part of Mary's appeal is her vulnerability and humanness and her adaptability to folk myth. There is something very approachable about her and she is particularly loved by the poor. [Sources: Maureen Orth, December 2015; Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Early church writers seldom mentioned Mary, though occasionally they contrasted her obedience with the disobedience of Eve. By the fourth century, however, Christian writers were asserting that Mary was not only a virgin at the time of Jesus' birth but also a virgin throughout her life (Greek, aeiparthenos, or "ever virginal"). Protestants typically deny this, asserting that those called the brothers of Jesus in the New Testament were children born to Mary after the birth of Jesus. In A.D. 431 the Council of Ephesus assigned to Mary the title Theotokos, or Mother of God. Though some Christian leaders — for example, Nestorius — objected that the term might imply that Mary gave birth to God rather than to Christ, it became universal in Roman Catholic and Orthodox contexts.

Since 431 no other woman has been as exalted as Mary. Maureen Orth wrote in National Geographic: As a universal symbol of maternal love, as well as of suffering and sacrifice, Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings. Her mantle offers both security and protection. During the Reformation (1517-1648), the idea of Mary as intercessor fell out of favor with Protestants, who advocated going straight to God in prayer. But Mary gained millions of new Catholic followers with the Spanish conquest in the New World in the early 1500s — and, more recently, in Africa as Christianity has spread there. [Source: Maureen Orth, National Geographic, December 2015]

Female Presence in Christianity

da Vinci's Virgin
Where is the feminine in the outwardly male-dominated Christianity? According to the BBC: “Any outsider walking into a Christian church could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is a very male affair - you hear a lot about God the Father and God the Son, and of course in some of the largest churches, the person who represents Christ at the altar - the priest - is also a man. Judaism and Islam are similarly male-dominated. “Where can we find those aspects of God which are really feminine - such as the nurturing, motherly side? And what does it mean for women to be worshipping a God who they think of as male, when there's no equally divine female by his side? The trouble with the Father and the Son for many women is that it sounds too much like two buddies. It's like two buddies going on a trip, or a father-son relationship from which women are excluded. |[Source: August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]

Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology and Culture at King's College in London says the Holy Trinity of Christianity, consisting of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, isn't quite as male as it may at first appear. He rold the BBC: “Christianity is particularly interesting because officially, and I'm being orthodox here, out of the Holy Trinity, the three Gods in one, only one is male. That is the incarnate son, the second version of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, because he was born a man. God the father has a male name, but we know that procreation doesn't occur in spiritual world, so the only reason that Christianity ever came to call God father is because Jesus did. [Source: Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology and Culture, King's College, London, August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]

“A number of Christian feminists in the 1980s and 90s reclassified the Holy Spirit as feminine. I'll tell you what went wrong. What went wrong was that they turned the Holy Spirit into a typical Cinderella kind of character, so you had God the Father who was the big boss, then you had the second big boss who was Jesus his son, and then you had his sister who still had to defer to the son and the father. So making the Holy Spirit feminine actually turned her into a caricature of precisely the sort of woman that feminists were trying to get away from.” |::|

Is Mary a Goddess?

Andrew Walker of King's College, London told the BBC: “The devotion pilgrims show to Mary the Mother is very similar to the devotion of Hindus to their Mother Goddess Amman, or the worship of the Mother of the Earth by those who've revived Goddess spirituality in the West. But Mary is definitely not a goddess, nor part of the Holy Trinity.. [Source:, August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]

According to the BBC: “Many people, Protestants particularly, object to the figure that Mary has become. She is seen almost as a goddess figure, possibly derived from the fact that many Pagans became Christians in the early centuries of the church and they believed in goddesses, so Mary became to them the goddess. Many people would say that was something that went wrong with Christianity. There's nothing about Mary being a goddess in the New Testament. “Jesus is God and human so therefore Mary is simply human. Christian theology has always maintained that she was a human being and not God, but nevertheless, she was a human being in a very important and intimate place in the story of Jesus.

Greco-Roman goddess Diana

“There have been many images of Mary through the centuries. Some have derived from the Bible, such as the image from the book of Revelation showing Mary with a crown of 12 stars. She represents the early church with the 12 tribes of Israel represented by the stars. There have been images of Madonna and child; Mary seated in a chair with the child on her lap. Some of these images look very similar to images that we know about from some of the pagan goddesses at the time. |::|

“Isis, for example, was seated in such a chair with the infant Horus on her lap in the same way. When Christianity was spreading across the Empire, it's clear that it deliberately took images from the pagan world in which it lived and into which it spread and used those images. Old holy wells and shrines were turned into Christian shrines. In Egypt a shrine of Isis was deliberately and self-consciously re-created as a shrine of Mary.

“One of the important cities for Mary was Ephesus, where the goddess Diana was worshipped. It's not surprising that Mary drew upon the imagery associated with the goddesses, because that was the imagery the people knew. In the same way, we have imagery of Christ with a triumphant crowd looking like an emperor. |::|

“But if Mary isn't a goddess, there is still great argument about precisely what she does. Catholic theologians argue over just how important her role is in helping her son, Jesus Christ, redeem the faithful from their sins. And there are campaigners who want Mary to become a much more powerful figure than she already is. They want the Pope to make an infallible statement "That the Virgin Mary is a co-redeemer with Jesus and co-operates fully with her son in the redemption of humanity." This is highly controversial because it would amount to giving Mary a status similar to the members of the Trinity.

Jaroslav Pelikan wrote: The question is easier to ask than it is to answer, and it is easier to avoid than it is to ask at all. But ask it we must: Would there have been such anti-Semitism, would there have been so many pogroms, would there have been an Auschwitz, if every Christian church and every Christian home had focused its devotion on images of Mary not only as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven but also as the Jewish maiden and the New Miriam, and on icons of Christ not only as the Cosmic Christ but also as Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David, come to ransom a captive Israel and a captive humanity? [Source:Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries”, Yale University Press 1997 pp. 9-23, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Immaculate Conception — About Mary’s Not Jesus’s Birth

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary, the mother of Christ, was conceived without sin and her conception was thus immaculate. Mary's mother was St. Anne. Mary's sinless conception is the reason why Catholics refer to Mary as "full of grace". The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated by Catholics on December 8th each year. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

According to the BBC: “ There are two mistakes that people often make about the Immaculate Conception: 1) Many people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the "virgin birth"; the belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin. They are not the same thing. 2) A less common mistake is to think that the Immaculate Conception means that Mary was conceived without sexual intercourse. In fact Mary had ordinary human parents who conceived her in the usual manner.” |::|

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: One of the biggest mix-ups in popular theology is the idea that the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are both terms that describe the birth of Jesus. The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a 19th century Catholic teaching that actually refers to the teaching that Mary herself was conceived without sin. Vuong told the Daily Beast that, “Some scholars have tried to find support for the Immaculate Conception in the Protoevangelium of James, since Mary is conceived in a miraculous fashion, but it would be anachronistic to make a direct link to the 1854 Doctrine.” It would be an even bigger mistake to use the term to refer to the birth of Jesus. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 21, 2019]

The BBC says: “The immaculate conception of Mary has no historical basis at all. This is something that was invented by later Christians to extend the idea of her holiness. The purity, the perpetual virginity, all of those kind of themes end up with Mary (as well as Jesus) having to be conceived immaculately. One of the difficulties that many people today have with the virgin birth is not so much historical, the idea that it couldn't happen, but theological; the idea that it must have happened in order for Jesus not to have had any sin.

“Early Christians like Augustine tended to think that Adam's original sin was passed on in the act of sex and that therefore in order for Jesus to be holy and sinless it was necessary for him not to have been born from parents who had had sex. Theologically people now have more problems with the Virgin Birth than they would have done in the past. In the past it was almost necessary to have a virgin birth in order to get Jesus out of this rather sticky difficulty of having been born with ordinary human parents who'd had sex. |::|

Catholic and Protestant Views on the Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception

According to the BBC: Mary received God's grace from the first moment of her existence, and was totally and completely redeemed by this grace. Because she was redeemed, Mary spent her whole existence in a perfect relationship with God. God did this so that Mary would be worthy to be the mother of God. Pope Pius X said in 1904: “to the Christian intelligence the idea is unthinkable that the flesh of Christ, holy, stainless, innocent, was formed in the womb of Mary of a flesh which had ever, if only for the briefest moment, contracted any stain.” [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“Mary received this redeeming grace not because of any merits of her own, but because God freely gave her the gift of his love. Christians believe that God's redeeming grace is available to all believers: those who accept the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception regard Mary as the perfect example of the redeeming action of God's grace, and believe that Mary was only able to receive this grace because Christ would later redeem all humanity through his death on the cross. |::|

“Chosen in advance to be the Mother of the incarnate Word, Mary is at the same time the first-fruits of his redeeming action. The grace of Christ the Redeemer acted in her in anticipation, preserving her from original sin and from any contagion of guilt. This is an ancient teaching, but it remains controversial to some Protestants because it is not explicitly referred to in the Bible. Early Protestant thinkers were more devoted to Mary than some of their successors. Martin Luther, for example, was a firm believer in the Immaculate Conception. He said his sermon “On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God”: “The infusion of Mary's soul was effected without original sin...From the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.”

“A 2005 report by Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians found common ground for this belief when it stated that: “In view of her vocation to be the mother of the Holy One (Luke 1:35), we can affirm together that Christ's redeeming work reached 'back in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to the teaching of Scripture, and can only be understood in the light of Scripture. Roman Catholics can recognize in this what is affirmed by the dogma - namely 'preserved from all stain of original sin' and 'from the first moment of her conception.' |::|

“The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed as infallible by Pope Pius IX in the bull (formal proclamation) Ineffabilis Deus in 1854, and thus is an important article of faith for Roman Catholics. Before proclaiming the doctrine the Pope took steps to see whether the Church as a whole agreed by asking 603 bishops whether he should proclaim the Immaculate Conception; 546 (90%) said that he should. Bernadette's vision at Lourdes in 1858, where Mary revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception, put the stamp of God's approval on the doctrine. |::|

Pope Pius IX in his Ineffabilis Deus (1854) said: “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.”

Virgin Birth

Mary is said to have been a virgin when Jesus was born. In his book “What the Gospels Meant”, the writer and thinker Gary Wills said it “is not gynecological or obstetric teaching, but a theological one.” The historical Jesus scholar Raymond Brown said, Matthew and Luke “regarded the virginal conception as historical, but the modern intensity about historicity was not theirs.”

According to the BBC: ““In the New Testament, many of the women characters are either so holy and pure that it's unrealistic, or they're prostitutes. And Mary falls into the category of being holy and pure and absolutely without sin; and she carries on in that trajectory right through the tradition so that she gets more and more holy and her virginity is stressed more and more and her holiness throughout her whole life is stressed, so that she too becomes sinless. She is assumed into heaven rather than having to die, she herself gets born of an immaculate conception; so you get a development in the idea of the perpetual virginity, because she's begun a journey to becoming ever more holy, ever more pure which in the end can only end up with those concepts of perpetual virginity. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“The virgin birth is a very powerful story which explains the theological truth that Jesus is the son of God - not just the son of God from his resurrection or from his baptism, as perhaps the gospel of Mark might suggest, but the son of God from the moment of his conception. |To what extent it's historical is much more difficult to analyse. One of the difficulties is that we hear nothing at all of a virgin birth tradition, until late in the first century. Only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were probably written in the 80s or 90s of the first century, is there a mention of the virgin birth. |::|


The conception of Jesus and the virgin birth is addressed the The Annunciation, which describes the conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Annunciation holiday is celebrated nine months before Christmas on March 25. The Annunciation (“Announcement”) marks the announcement by an angel that Mary will become pregnant and give birth to Jesus. According to the Bible, Mary became mysteriously pregnant while a virgin betrothed to Joseph, who considered divorcing her.

In Luke the angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary, greeting her with the often recited, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” According to Luke 1:30-35, 38: "And the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall give the him name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.'"

"And Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I have no husband?' And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the son of God'...And Mary said, 'Behold, I am a handmaiden of the Lord, let it be me according to your word."

In Matthew an unnamed angel brings news to Joseph. In Matthew 1:20-21: "an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.'"

Mary Didn’t Die but She Did Visit Hell

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians maintain that rather than dying Mary either fell asleep (known as the “dormition”) or ascended (her “assumption”) into heaven. But despite not dying herself, there are a number of different ancient texts that describe Mary descending into hell. There she gets to witness the tortures and torments of those who lied, stole from the poor, committed adultery, and so forth. The earliest of these is the Book of Mary's Repose (Liber Requiei Marieae), which might have been written as early as the second or third centuries A.D. In the stories about her descent to hell, Mary is distressed by the agonies suffered by the damned and tries to intercede for them in order to alleviate their suffering. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 21, 2019]

We have other, similar stories about the Apostles undertaking descents to hell, but there’s something distinctive about Mary. Dr. Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Dayton, told The Daily Beast “Mary's special identity as Jesus' mother seems to play a role” in these stories. “Her requests not only carry more weight because she is a mother, but in some of the medieval apocalypses she even offers to suffer herself alongside the damned. This is significant because no male apostle makes this offer.” Mary’s not just doing the same kind of thing as the apostles, Henning said, she is imitating the actions and role of Jesus himself.

Assumption of Mary

According to the BBC: Roman Catholics believe the doctrine of the Assumption, which teaches that at the end of her life, Mary, the mother of Christ, was taken body and soul (i.e. both physically and spiritually) into heaven to live with her son (Jesus Christ) for ever. Human beings have to wait until the end of time for their bodily resurrection, but Mary's body was able to go straight to heaven because her soul hadn't been tainted by original sin. [Source: July 21, 2011, BBC |::|]

“This is an ancient teaching, first found in the 5th century, but it remains controversial to Protestants because it is not explicitly referred to in the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church bases the doctrine on other valid authority. A report in 2005 by Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians found common ground (but not common authority) for belief in the Assumption: ...we can affirm together the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture and that it can, indeed, only be understood in the light of Scripture. Roman Catholics can recognize that this teaching about Mary is contained in the dogma. [Source: 2005 report by Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians] |::|

“The doctrine of the Assumption was proclaimed as infallible by Pope Pius XII on All Saints Day 1950 in the bull (formal proclamation) Munificentissimus Deus. We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. — Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 1950 |::|

“This made it an important article of faith for Roman Catholics. This was only the second time that a Pope had proclaimed a doctrine to be infallible. The first was the Immaculate Conception, another doctrine that concerns Mary. The Pope justified the Assumption not on Biblical authority but largely on: 1) the "universal consensus of the Church"; 2) the theological "suitability" of the doctrine.

Universal Consensus, Theological Suitability and the Assumption

According to the BBC: “The "universal consensus of the Church" means that what the Church as a whole teaches and believes must be treated as a revealed and thus indisputable truth. The Church can only reach such a consensus through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit cannot be wrong. [Source: July 21, 2011, BBC |::|]

“This doesn't mean that Church doctrine cannot change - theologians use the idea of dogmatic progression, by which human ideas, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, slowly develop towards the real truth. Once the real truth is established, the "universal consensus" of the Church then confirms it as an eternal truth. |::|

Assumption of Mary

“Before proclaiming the doctrine Pope Pius XII made sure that there was really was a consensus in the Church. In 1946 he wrote to all the Roman Catholic bishops to ask them a) whether they thought the Assumption should become Catholic dogma, and b) whether the priests and the laity agreed with them. 99% of the bishops said yes. |::|

According to the BBC: “The other main argument for the Assumption was that it fitted well with other Catholic teaching, and would reinforce believers' faith that they too would eventually go to heaven. The Assumption was also clearly in harmony with other Catholic ideas about Mary: 1) Her immaculate conception; 2) Her perpetual virginity; 3) Being the mother of God. Theologians argued that the Mother of God could not be separated from God, and so must have been taken up to be with him in heaven. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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