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How We Honor Jesus Through Mary

St. Louis Marie de Montfort, one of the giants in the history of Marian devotion, wrote: “We never give more honor to Jesus than when we honor his Mother, and we honor her simply and solely to honor him all the more perfectly. We go to her only as a way leading to the goal we seek—Jesus, her Son.”

Catholics think in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or,” since the latter entails making unnecessary and false dichotomies. This is also the Hebrew and biblical outlook. There is a tendency in many forms of Protestant thinking to pit one thing against another when it is not logically or biblically necessary.

The Bible often uses “both/and” terms. As one example of many, consider the notion of “co-laboring with God.” A well-known example is Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Here we find that the same thing is said to be done simultaneously by both man and God—but enabled through God’s grace. (See also 1 Corinthians 15:10, 58; and 1 Thessalonians 2:13).

For many Protestants, honor of anyone other than God is regarded as detracting from his honor and therefore is idolatry. Catholics recognize distinctions between adoration and veneration and also follow the notion of worshipping God through his creation. Thus, St. Paul writes: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).

Analogously, we can say, “Jesus’ eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things—in this instance the person, Mary—that have been made.” That’s both/and thinking.

St. Louis saying, “We never give more honor” does not imply that it is the highest or only form of honoring Christ; only that no other form could give more honor. Technically, one could also say, in line with the quotation above, that “we never give more honor to Christ than simply do what he says.” They could both be on the highest level. And indeed they are! Moreover, the saint makes the following equation: “We honor her simply and solely to honor him.”

The biblical motif of imitating holy people as models or examples is similar to veneration:

  • 1 Corinthians 4:15-16: For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
  • Philippians 3:17: Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us (cf. 4:9).
  • Hebrews 6:11-12: And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (cf. 13:7; 1 Tim 4:12; 2 Tim 3:10-14; James 5:10-11; 1 Pet. 3:1-2; 5:2-3).

St. Paul makes it clear more than once that imitating him is in complete harmony with the notion of imitating Christ, whom Paul is imitating (it’s both things at once):

  • Ephesians 5:1: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:1: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7: And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedo’nia and in Acha’ia (cf. 2:9-14).

By analogy, it is altogether proper to venerate and honor saints, who have more perfectly attained God’s likeness:

  • 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
  • 1 John 3:2: Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (cf. Matt. 22:30; 1 Cor. 13:9-12; Phil. 3:21; Heb. 11:40; Rev. 21:27; 22:14).

Hence, the “heroes of the faith” (Hebrews 11) are to be highly regarded, and the biblical writers also command us to honor all sorts of people: all men (Rom. 12:10, 1 Cor. 12:23-26, 1 Pet. 2:17); the emperor (1 Pet. 2:17); government authorities (Rom. 13:6-7); fathers and mothers (Ex. 20:12, Deut. 5:16, Eph. 6:2); widows (1 Tim. 5:3); elders, preachers, and teachers in the Church (1 Tim 5:17); and wives (1 Pet. 3:7, cf. Gen. 30:20).

There are many more examples in the Bible of veneration of both men and angels (often as direct representatives of God):

  • Genesis 18:1-4, 22: And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself [shachah] to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.” . . .” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the LORD.
  • Joshua 5:13-14 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man stood before him with his drawn sword in his hand; and Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and worshipped [shachah], and said to him, “What does my lord bid his servant?”

A “man” is equated with God also in Genesis 32:24 and 32:30. The angel of the Lord is sometimes referred to as God himself, but not always; and is venerated. So, for example:

Judges 13:17-22: And Mano’ah said to the angel of the LORD, “What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?” And the angel of the LORD said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” So Mano’ah took the kid with the cereal offering, and offered it upon the rock to the LORD, to him who works wonders. And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar while Mano’ah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground. The angel of the LORD appeared no more to Mano’ah and to his wife. Then Mano’ah knew that he was the angel of the LORD. And Mano’ah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God” (cf. 6:12-16, 20-23).

This passage is remarkable in that it goes back and forth between God (13:19, 22) and the angel of the Lord (or of God) as His direct representative (13:17-18, 20-21, and, in the larger passage, 13:3, 6, 9, 13). It couldn’t be any more “both/and” in outlook. The angel is honored (v. 17), they fall on their faces to worship (v. 20), and at length the angel is equated with God as his visible manifestation (v. 22). But the difference between the angel and God is highlighted by the angel being described as a “man of God” (13:6, 8) and “the man” (13:10-11).

The angel of the Lord is also equated with God (theophany) in Genesis 31:11-13 and Judges 2:1, but differentiated from God as well, as a representative: (2 Sam. 24:16; 1 Kings 19:6-7; 2 Kings 19:35; Dan. 3:25, 28; 6:23; Zech. 1:8-14).

The Bible, in summary, is quite clear: there is an occasional use of angels or men as direct representatives of God, and they are “worshipped” (i.e., venerated) only insofar as they represent God as a visual image or object through whom God is working and communicating. But (also perfectly in line with Catholic beliefs) veneration is also strictly separated from the adoration due to God alone:

  • Acts 10:25-26: When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”
  • Romans 1:25: [T]hey exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
  • Colossians 2:18: Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels.
  • Revelation 22:8-9: I, John, am he who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

Everything has to be considered together, as a whole. It is the outright prohibition of all veneration and honor of creatures that is a grossly unbiblical notion.

Moreover, “worship” is used in a wider (literary) sense of showing reverence or obeisance to men of authority (in this instance, a king), in 1 Chronicles 29:20: “And David said to all the congregation, Now bless the LORD your God. And all the congregation blessed the LORD God of their fathers, and bowed down their heads, and worshipped [shachah] the LORD, and the king” (KJV). RSV has: “worshiped the LORD, and did obeisance to the king,” but it is one Hebrew word applied to both.

The Bible tells us to “honor all men”—so we think that the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was God, is worthy of great honor: above all other creatures. And, as shown above, the ultimate and primary aim in honoring and venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary is to worship, honor and adore her Son.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), the famous English convert from Anglicanism, fully understood the qualms and fears of Anglicans and other Protestants when it came to Marian veneration. In fact, he expressed reservations on several occasions (after he became a Catholic), regarding some types of “excessive” devotional expression, even implying that they were not suited for Englishmen.

Yet he possessed a robust devotion to Mary, and some of the utterances in his personal letters directly relate to our present topic:

And so far from the teaching of the Church concerning the Blessed Virgin being a burden, it seems to me the greatest of privileges and honors to be admitted into the very family of God. So we think on earth, when great people ask us into their most intimate circle. This it is, and nothing short of it, to be allowed to hold intercourse with Mary and Joseph; and, so far from its hindering our communion with out Lord, and our faith in Him, it is all that we should have had without it, and so much more over and above. As He comes near us in His Sacrament of love, so does He bring us near to Him by giving us an introduction (as I may say) to His Mother. In speaking to her, we are honouring Him; as He likes to be petitioned by His chosen ones, so does He especially love the petitions which she offers Him; and in asking her to intercede for us, we are pleasing both her and Him. (Letters and Diaries, vol. 22; To Lady Chatterton, 29 March 1866)

Newman understood the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints even before he formally entered the Catholic Church (in October 1845):

Man is formed for society, for sympathy. God is his happiness, but as the sun’s light comes to us reflected & refracted, so God’s saints are the means under which His glory comes to us (Letters and Diaries, vol. 10; Reflections from an Advent Retreat at Littlemore, 21 Dec. 1843).

Twenty-two years later, in another personal letter, Newman addressed the constant charge that Catholics were engaging in idolatrous practices in their veneration of and devotions to saints:

Before a person is a judge whether our devotions to the Blessed Virgin and the saints are idolatrous or not, he must place himself in the position towards them in which, as a matter of faith, we hold ourselves to be. . . . Now consider the honors paid to monarchs on earth—men kneel to them, bow to their empty throne, pay them the most profound homage, use almost the language of slaves in addressing them, and dare not approach them without a ceremonial. Much more reverently ought the saints to be treated by us, in proportion as heaven is higher than earth—yet I do not think we observe that proportion—our language towards our Lady and the saints is not so much above that which is used towards great personages on earth, as immortal blessedness is above temporal power.

Or take the words used to express human love—they are almost idolatrous—in some cases they are so—i.e., in the spirit in which they are uttered—yet I should be very unwilling to allow that the general body of lovers were idolators. Why is it that we are so little jealous of human love, yet suddenly so shocked if we find Catholics transported by affection towards the saints? Any unconcerned person will feel inclined sometimes to laugh at the terms of endearment used by parties who are attached to each other, and will easily be led to say that they are in very bad taste—such exhibitions are sometimes made when private letters turn up in courts of law, yet no sensible person will doubt on the one hand their reality as confessions of feeling, on the other their exemption from any fair imputation of being idolatrous. I have not yet touched upon the incommunicable relation of the Blessed Virgin to our Lord, as His Mother (Letters and Diaries, vol. 22; To Edward Berdoe, 2 Oct. 1865).

At the same time—just as the Bible does—he is careful to draw a sharp distinction between the veneration/honor of creatures and the adoration/worship of God: “God is to be worship[ed] with an honor of his own, infinitely distinct from any honor we give his creatures, even Mary, the first of them” (Letters and Diaries, vol. 16; To Mrs. Catherine Froude, 2 Jan. 1855).

Thus, while Catholics fully agree in making these crucial distinctions, we also believe that in venerating the saints we are honoring and worshipping God. Praising the painter’s masterpiece is praising him. And who better to venerate and honor (among creatures) than the blessed Virgin Mary: the Mother of God the Son, Jesus, who is presented in the Bible partaking of great glory indeed, in heaven (Rev 12:1-6)?

And if someone objects that God shares his glory with no one, this is also untrue—in fact, massively unbiblical (see John 17:22; Rom. 2:10, 5:2, 9:23; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:14, 5:1; 2 Pet 1:3).

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