The royal doors in the icon screen in Byzantine churches traditionally include an icon of the Annunciation — that moment when the Virgin Mary accepted the angel's request for her to become the Mother of God.
This well-considered placement of the icon of the Annunciation shows that moment in history when humanity's options were forever transformed. The incarnation made it possible for the people who walked in darkness to enter through those royal doors into God's kingdom of unsurpassed light.
The church's teaching about the Virgin Mary has been much misunderstood. It has been maintained that the church has deified Mary, turned her into an idol crowding the Son of God from his throne. Some see the church as having taken the so-called feminine qualities of God and projected them onto Mary. As such, the church treats her as a goddess, an earth mother, a holdover from pagan fertility cults.
Perhaps Catholic piety has occasionally provided some basis for those assertions. But the church's teaching has sought not to glorify Mary, but to help us understand her role in the process of a salvation which comes through Jesus Christ alone. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "What the Catholic Church believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ" (no. 487).
Indeed, efforts through history to downplay Mary's role in salvation were often linked to a lack of faith in Jesus. For example, the fifth century heretic Nestorius insisted on addressing Mary as the mother of Christ, not the Mother of God (Theotokos). That insistence was linked to the Arians' denial of Christ's divinity.
Nor was Mary's acceptance of God's will akin to her saying, "OK! I'll let you use my body for nine months and yes, I will raise the child." It was something far deeper than that. There was no separation of body from spirit in Mary.
Indeed, it has been rightly said that she conceived Jesus in her soul before she received him into her womb. Her declaration to Elizabeth that "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47) testifies to her total turning over of herself to the will of God. The Mother of God heard and kept God's word in every aspect of her being.
If Mary was not a surrogate mother for Jesus, that also tells us something about Jesus. Mary was not just the mother of Jesus' body, but of his whole person. He took human flesh from her and his divine nature from the Holy Spirit. But he was not half-God and half-human. Nor was he born as a human who later became divine. Jesus was always full human and fully divine, united in one person.
When the Council of Ephesus (431) took on Nestorius and declared Mary to be the Mother of God, that was the truth it wished to defend — that Jesus is truly God and truly human.
Moreover, the church is also telling us that the second person is not just the Logos of the philosophers, but also Jesus who walked among us and was warmed by a mother's love. God is very close to us, closer than we might dare to imagine.
In terms of our salvation, Mary's motherhood enabled God's Son to become one of us so that we could be God's adopted children. "And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts" (Galatians 4:6). We thus owe an immense debt of gratitude to Mary because of what her faith has meant for us. Later, the catechism will examine this notion of Mary as the spiritual mother of the church (no. 964-975).
Ultimately, the significance of Mary as the Mother of God is that, like her, humanity is called to collaborate with God. God did not impose himself upon her; she freely chose to allow her life to be used for God's purposes.
Because Mary was free of the inclination to selfishness wrought by original sin (her immaculate conception), she was better able to let God's light be seen than are we. But we too are called to be handmaids of the Lord, to be nothing so that Christ can be everything. And to the extent that we succeed, we too deserve a place on the royal doors through which others can enter into God's marvellous light.
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