John sees Mary as a sign and icon of the Church, just as the early Fathers did. All of them thought her virginity, like Christ’s, was significant. For all ancient Christians, Mary is the model disciple whose sacrificial offering of virginity corresponds to Christ’s sacrificial (and virginal) offering, just as the disciple’s offering of the body as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” is the fitting response of worship to the Lord (Romans 12:1). She does for us something even Jesus, God though he is, cannot do: She shows us what the perfect disciple of Jesus looks like.
Mary, more than any other human being who ever lived, enjoys a relationship with Jesus that remains utterly unique—and therefore, paradoxically, profoundly important for those of us who do not share it. More than anybody, Mary models the self-donating love of the disciple in imitation of Christ. Like Abraham, she is chosen for the sake of the unchosen. For her face is, as Dante said, “the face that is most like the face of Christ’s.”
That’s more than poetry. For Jesus, we must remember, took his humanity from her. At the very level of physical appearance, it is quite likely that they strongly resembled one another. But even more profoundly, she was the disciple who spent more time in the direct presence of Jesus, loving and learning from God Incarnate more than anyone else who ever lived. And she didn’t begin her discipleship by crying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinner” (Luke 5:8), nor with the necessity of being knocked to the ground and blinded to get her attention (cf. Acts 9), but with immediate, complete, and loving submission to the will of God (Luke 1:38). In every other case, the overture of grace is received imperfectly. But in one case—Mary’s—it received a perfect welcome on behalf of the whole Church—enabled (like all sacrificial gifts) by the power of God’s grace. Mary was the disciple who loved Jesus more deeply and lived with him more closely than anyone, and the living sacrificial offering she made of her body was like nobody else’s. For Jesus himself was the living sacrifice of her body and the very fruit of her womb. When the lance pierced his heart, it pierced hers, too (cf. Luke 2:34–35). No other disciple of Jesus has ever offered more to God than she offered.
Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith “unadulterated by any doubt,” and of her undivided gift of herself to God’s will (Lumen Gentium 63; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:34-35). It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ” (St. Augustine, De virg., 3: PL 40, 398). (CCC 506)
Mary was not blessed because she gave birth. She gave birth because she was blessed: blessed to be chosen by God and more blessed still to have the pure faith to respond with an unreserved “yes” to God’s call—a pure faith she never lost or tainted, all the way through the bitterness of Golgotha or the rest of her life. It’s not just her face, but her love for God, that most resembles Christ’s.
Mary: Immaculate and Assumed into Heaven
The Church teaches that Mary was granted the grace of both Immaculate Conception and Assumption into Heaven. The Immaculate Conception does not, contrary to a common misunderstanding, refer to the conception of Jesus (that is the Virgin Birth). It refers, rather, to Mary and means that she was preserved from all sin, both original and actual, from the moment of her conception.
Both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are gracious gifts given her by God and both are gifts wherein she cooperated freely with the grace of God. More than this, both are gifts given her as signs to us in our struggle and pilgrimage toward Heaven. Mary’s preservation from all sin both original and actual was a help for her as she raised Jesus and endured the horrors of his Passion. But it is also a sign to us of the truth of our relationship with God.
One of the things we struggle with is the belief that sinfulness is the deepest truth about who we are. We are tempted to believe it of our enemies and often even more tempted to believe it of ourselves. When we sin, we say of others and ourselves that “the mask is off”—as though the image and likeness of God is the fraudulent thing about us and sin is the most fundamental truth. It’s like saying the hole is the truest part of the donut.
Mary shows us that our human nature is made by God to be wholly good and that sin, therefore, is not what constitutes our humanity but what destroys it. Mary is not less human, but most deeply human because of her preservation from sin. She stands as a sign of hope for us that we too will be as deeply saved from sin as she has always been when we reach Heaven. This is why the Church has also always preserved the Tradition of her Assumption into Heaven as the fitting and gracious reward for her lifelong fidelity to her Son. Once again, this honor, given to her by God is not simply for her sake but for ours as well. She shows us, as the icon of the Church and the model disciple, what awaits all who live their lives in fidelity to Jesus.