Feast of Mary, Mother of God, had wild origins

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December 29, 2014

The beginning of each new year is marked in Catholic churches around the world as the feast of Mary, the holy mother of God.

While this feast is generally a quiet one, its peacefulness betrays the excitement that surrounded the declaration of the Council of Ephesus in 431 that Mary is mother of God, Theotokos.

The movement that led to that declaration might be seen as having begun with the Edict of Milan in 313 which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and brought an end to the era of persecution of the Christian faith.

Shortly after the edict, the Church had to confront the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Christ. The Council of Nicaea in 325 condemned the Arian belief system and unequivocally affirmed that Christ was both divine and human.

That orthodox belief combined with the Church's new-found respectability in the empire led to Christ being portrayed more and more as Pantocrator, the almighty One who rules the earth.

Again, this is an orthodox belief, but one that in those times led to Christ being depicted as the divine equivalent of the Roman emperor – omnipotent and removed from the concerns of ordinary people.

Meanwhile, large numbers of people were joining the Church. They sought a spirituality to accompany their belief system, but all they found was a highly exalted Christ and the strict ascetical practices of the desert monks.

It is not surprising that many turned to Jesus' mother to help them overcome diseases and the trials of daily life. Mary in effect was enlisted to replace the gods and goddesses of the old religion. This wasn't endorsed by the Church, but nevertheless it took place in the common person's Christianity.

One upshot of the Council of Ephesus' declaration that Christ was one person, both divine and human, was that his mother should be revered as the Mother of God.

One upshot of the Council of Ephesus' declaration that Christ was one person, both divine and human, was that his mother should be revered as the Mother of God.

As well, the Arian heresy persisted, despite official disapproval. Some in the Church responded by emphasizing Christ's divinity at the expense of his humanity.

One was the monk Nestorius who was named bishop of Constantinople in 428. Today, it is debated as to whether Nestorius himself was actually guilty of the Nestorian heresy – the belief that there was a lack of unity in Christ's human and divine natures.

Nevertheless, he did insist that Mary be referred to as Christotokos, not Theotokos. It was, in his mind, blasphemous to refer to any human person as the mother of God.

When one of his priests, Proclus, delivered a homily in 429 extolling Mary with a veritable feast of resplendent images, including calling her Theotokos, the issue was engaged.


In those days, people took their religion much more seriously than we do today. Violence erupted among the rival factions in Constantinople with street fights between those who adhered to Mary as Theotokos and those who maintained she was the mere Christotokos.

The sad irony is that the theological controversy was not at all about Mary; it was about the nature of Christ.

The most noted theologian of the day was St. Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt. Cyril was a great theologian, but he was also a cunning Church politician, known for scheming against and undermining his ecclesiastical opponents.

Cyril insisted on the unity of Christ, that he was both divine and human in one person. If Mary was the mother of the Saviour, she could only be known as the mother of God.


With street fighting going on in the capital city, the Emperor Theodosius intervened, and, acting on Nestorius' advice, called for a Church council to be held in Ephesus to sort out the theological issues.

Ephesus was not a neutral site. It was the city in which Mary was believed to have spent her last years and where the people had a strong attachment to her.

With the council set to begin at Pentecost 431, Nestorius and his followers as well as Cyril and his followers arrived at Easter to carry out their propaganda battles in order to win the theological war.

Cyril was far more skilled in these matters than was the former monk Nestorius and set about offering inducements and even bribes to win people, especially those well placed in the imperial court, over to his side. He also came equipped with a papal condemnation of Nestorius and the authority to preside over the council.

Nestorius was hoping for support from the Syriac bishops, and the council was delayed another two weeks when they didn't arrive on time.

When they finally did arrive, led by John of Antioch, they held their own council which excommunicated Cyril and the bishop of Ephesus.

Representatives from Rome then made their appearance, and Cyril's council met again in their presence. The Roman dignitaries upheld Cyril's council, condemned Nestorius and excommunicated John of Antioch.

The council's declaration was so one-sided as to overstate its main conclusion – that Christ was both fully human and fully divine, one person, not two. As a result, Cyril and John of Antioch got together a couple of years later to smooth out the declaration and lift the excommunications.


Nevertheless, at Ephesus, Mary was declared to be Theotokos, Nestorius was deposed as bishop, and the people of the city went wild with joy, parading through the streets by torchlight and chanting, "Praised be the Theotokos! Long live Cyril!" Proclus soon became the new bishop of Constantinople.

If the council straightened out theological niceties about Jesus, it was Jesus' mother who rose in the hearts of the people. Devotion to Mary surged in the Eastern part of the empire. Marian historian Miri Rubin wrote that the new Marian preaching was at times "overwrought," but surely "exciting and uplifting."

This shift in Church thinking and practice was not a one-time thing that eventually faded away. Marian devotion in the Church has surely evolved from the fifth century, but the Council of Ephesus put its stamp of approval on Mary as the mother of God, making Mary and her title a permanent part of Church doctrine and life.


On a less happy note, the Council of Ephesus led to a schism that has still not been overcome. It was politics as much as dogma, which led to the split.

After the council, some churches such as the East Syriacs, who did not send bishops to the council, opted for the Nestorian view, putting themselves on the side of a heresy.

For centuries, the Nestorian Church flourished with millions of adherents and evangelized as far east as China. Due to severe persecution, it shrank in numbers and today is just a tiny rump.