Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
March 12, 2001
Mary is the Mother of God
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church changed the holy day of Jan. 1 from being a commemoration of the circumcision of Jesus to the feast of Mary, the Mother of God.
From the point of view of Marian theology, this was an extremely important change. The feast of the Mother of God became the most important Marian feast on the Church calendar.
And that is how it should be. The Church teaching of the Theotokos - the Mother of God - was the first dogma related to Mary that was defined by a Church council. It was and remains the most central one.
The Church's teachings about Mary's Immaculate Conception and her Assumption, for example, are secondary to that of her divine motherhood and, we will see in later articles, they derive from that teaching.
In fact, the proclamation about the Theotokos was a statement more about Jesus than about Mary. And it is the only Marian dogma to be defined during the era when the Church was undivided - a fact significant for our own ecumenical age.
The earliest that we know of Mary being referred to as the Mother of God comes from a scrap of papyrus dated to the third century. This scrap contains a prayer known as the Sub Tuum: "We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all danger, O ever glorious and blessed Virgin."
In the fourth century, the term "Theotokos" began to be used by bishops and theologians to refute the heresy that Jesus was a disembodied spirit who only appeared to have taken on human flesh. To call Mary the Mother of God was to defend the belief that Jesus was both God and human.
In the fifth century, a new controversy arose over the unity of Jesus' person. In 428, Nestorius, the new patriarch of Constantinople, objected to the term "Theotokos." He wanted Mary called "Christotokos," the mother of Christ, not the Mother of God.
Nestorius essentially believed that there was a division in Christ's person - the Word of God was hooked on, rather than united, to the man who was born of Mary.
St. Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, objected to Nestorius' opinions. Eventually, a Church council at Ephesus in 431 upheld Mary's title as Theotokos. The council insisted that the Word of God was united in Jesus, body and soul.
The council's declaration led to joyous demonstrations in the streets of Ephesus. The townsfolk led the council fathers to their residences by torchlight and with much jubilation. More importantly, the council ushered Marian devotion into the life of the Church. It was an aspect of Church life that was to grow from that day forward.
Archbishop Joseph Raya, a contemporary Melkite rite bishop, notes the significance of the teaching of the Council of Ephesus: "Motherhood in Mary acquired an all-pervading presence of God. In her flesh there was a living and physical connection between the Creator and his creation. Heaven was joined permanently to earth and earth became heaven" (Theotokos, p. 43).
However, there is another side to Mary's motherhood of the Redeemer. For while Cyril taught that Mary is the Mother of God, he did not hold her faith in great esteem. Cyril did not believe that the faith and courage of a woman could be as great as that of the Apostles.
It was St. Augustine, a contemporary of Cyril's, who disabused the Church of this notion. Augustine taught that Mary could not have given birth to Christ in the flesh if she had not first given birth to him in her heart.
For Augustine, the most important thing about Mary was not her physical maternity, but her faith. He taught that Mary was without personal sin and that it was through her whole-hearted response to the divine plan that she became the mother of the Messiah.
Augustine's teaching led the Church to expand its understanding of Mary's divine motherhood. Not only did she give birth to Jesus in the flesh, but also she is our mother in the faith.
In next week's article, I will examine this aspect of the Church's Marian teaching - her spiritual motherhood - in greater detail.
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