Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mary, Mother of God

As we begin the first part of this series on Marian dogmas, it is well that we consider again their importance. Many people, thinking that honouring Mary detracts from the worship of Jesus, will go to an opposite extreme, and affirm that Mary was no one special--that God could have chosen anyone; that Mary was just an instrument, a vessel, for Jesus to be born. But this is not borne out by the Scriptures themselves, which tell us, first, that Mary was uniquely addressed by the Angel at the Annunciation. To no other person did an angel ever give such an exalted greeting. Of no other person did God ask permission to enact His plan. Mary herself, a few verses later, would prophesy that all generations would call her blessed, not treat her as a nearly anonymous "instrument", one among any other that God could have chosen. Neither did Mary's role end with Jesus' birth, but, more than simply a "vessel", she was a mother, raising her Son with tender care. She was there to prompt His first miracle, and there to suffer with Him at the foot of the Cross. She was there praying with the Apostles for the sending of the Holy Spirit, and finally, she is portrayed as our Heavenly Mother in the book of Revelation. Surely this brief survey suffices to show that Mary is more than just a mere vessel whose importance was over once God was "done" with her.

The Importance of Marian Dogmas
Dr. Scott Hahn, in his book, Hail, Holy Queen, says this about the necessity of the Church in preserving, protecting, and defending its teachings on Mary:

Without the dogmas, Mary becomes unreal: a random female body from Nazareth, insignificant in her individuality, incidental to the gospel's narrative. And when Mary becomes unreal, so does the incarnation of God, which depended upon Mary's consent; so does the suffering flesh of Christ, which He took from His mother; so does the Christian's status as a child of God, which depends upon our sharing in the household and family of Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of Mary. (p. 93)
Mary was unique, specially created and chosen by God to bear Jesus Christ our Redeemer into the world. It does Him no favours to minimise and undermine His Mother, but just the opposite. And so the Church continues to hold her up as the epitome of God's creation--as His masterpiece. And it protects this view especially in its Dogmas concerning her.

The Mother of God
The first of the four Marian Dogmas in the Church is one which, to my mind, should seem to be the least controversial. However, I'm consistently surprised at how often it gets controverted, even among those who are orthodox Christians. The problem, of course, is not so much with the teaching itself, but with a misunderstanding of that teaching--which is so often the case when it comes to the Catholic Church. To quote the late Archbishop Sheen again, "There are not 100 people in America who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church."

Responding to Common Objections
So what does it mean when a Catholic refers to Mary as "The Mother of God"? Does it imply, as is often alleged, that we believe that Mary is superior to God, or that she somehow originated Him, or even that she herself is considered to be some sort of a goddess? Certainly not! Yet these are the common objections to the title that I most often hear from various people. But the title refers to none of those things. It really is, on the other hand, a matter of simple common sense.

Simply, that common sense runs as such: We believe that Jesus Christ is God, the Son, the second person of the Trinity. He was born and became a man by the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who bore Him in her womb, gave birth to Him, and raised Him as His Mother, and He her Son. Thus, if Jesus is God, and Mary is Jesus' Mother, then Mary is the Mother of God.

The History of the Teaching
Something so straightforward hardly merits the controversy that often surrounds it now, nor does it seem to merit the controversy that surrounded it in the time that it was first officially promulgated. In the early Church, though, understanding Christ's identity wasn't always so cut and dried. In fact, pretty much all of the early heresies that the Church had to battle had to deal in some way, shape or form with who Jesus Christ is. Opinions varied between "Just a Man" to "A Man who was 'adopted' by God and made divine" to "God who pretended to be a Man while on earth" to the truth, "Fully God and Fully Man." Questions got even more complicated than that, wondering whether Jesus had two natures in one person, or just the one nature. Did He have both a divine will and a human will, or just the divine will? In fact, any obscure and seemingly irrelevant question sorting out how God could become a Man so as to save us from sin was thought of, hashed out, viewed from every possible angle to determine the rational truth of it, and finally promulgated as doctrine. And while many of these questions appear at first glance to be simply strange and esoteric question with no practical relevance, the Fathers of the Church realised that an erroneous view of who Jesus Christ is, even in some small matter as many of these seemed to be, if carried to its logical extension, could lead to grave error.

So it is, that in the earliest centuries, pious Catholic believers began referring to Jesus Mother, Mary, in their devotion to her, as the Mother of God, or, in the Greek language which many spoke at the time, Theotokos, which literally means, "God-bearer." The earliest prayer to Mary, which comes to us from the third century, but probably originates even earlier, says,
We fly to thy patronage,
O holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but from all dangers
deliver us always,
O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.
However, a group of believers, known as the Nestorians, named after a fellow named Nestorius (though whether he himself originated the idea is uncertain), objected to the title of Theotokos, worrying, as I mentioned above that many still do, that it meant that Mary somehow originated God, and further asserting that Mary did not, in fact, bear and give birth to Christ's divine nature, but only to His human nature. Thus, one should correctly refer to Mary as Christotokos, or Christ-bearer. This caused much concern and distress in the Early Church, affecting not only people's devotion to the Blessed Mother, but also greatly concerned another aspect of her Son. Was He true God and True Man in Mary's womb? Or did His divinity come later, at His baptism, perhaps? Are the two natures of Christ, bound up in one Person, so distinct and separate that Mary could give birth to one, but not the other?

So it was that Pope Celestine I convoked the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 to discuss the issue. The Pope was a firm defender of the title Theotokos, and was strongly supported by St. Cyril of Alexandria, who was a prominent theologian in that time. He argued that a mother does not give birth to a "nature", but to a whole person. Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, and since He is a Divine Person, it follows that while Mary did not "originate" Him, she certainly did bear Him and mothered Him.

Hahn again writes,
History tells us that when Pope Celestine convoked the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) in order to settle the "Mother of God" controversy, Christians thronged the city, awaiting word of the bishops' decision. When the bishops read the council's proclamation that Mary was indeed the Mother of God, the people gave way to their joy and celebrated by carrying the bishops (all two hundred of them!) aloft through the streets in a torchlit procession.
Think, for a moment, about the intensity of the affection that those believers felt for the Blessed Virgin Mary--to sojourn to the city of the council, to wait outdoors for the bishops' decree, then to spend the night in celebration, all because this woman had received her due honor. They would not act this way out of love for an academic argument. Nor would they celebrate the triumph of a metaphor. I daresay they would not make the perilous journey to Ephesus for the sake of any other mother: only for their own. For their own mother was also the Mother of God. (ibid. p. 101)
Mother of All Christians
This points us to the second marvellous truth contained in the Dogma of Mary, the Mother of God--that just as she is His Mother, so is she our Mother as well. For we have been adopted, through Christ, to be sons and daughters of God, younger siblings of Christ Himself! St. Paul wrote to that very Church in Ephesus,
Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Thus He chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before Him in love, marking us out for Himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was His purpose and good pleasure, to the praise and glory of His grace, His free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through His Blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins (Eph 1:3-7).
One of those spiritual blessings of heaven with which Christ has blessed us, was the gift of His own Mother, given to us as He shed that very Blood for the forgiveness of our sins, when He said to her, "Woman, behold your son," and to the Beloved Disciple, who stands for each one of us, "Son, behold your Mother" (cf. John 19:25-27). Let us do as John did, and take Our Mother, the Mother of God, into our own home.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)


Andrew said...

Jesus was fully God and fully man from the moment of conception... it seems only logical and fair to say that it was truly God who Mary bore, and whose mother she became. To contest that she is the Mother of God, when thus understood, makes no sense.

I may not agree with every conclusion made in this post, but the premise is one that I do not contest.

Gregory said...

I'm curious, Andrew, which conclusions do I draw with which you do not agree? Perhaps we can address them.

Andrew said...

The first quote by Hahn makes some assumptions, which I would like to address first by saying that not being a member of the Catholic Church, and not having the "Marian Dogmas" to guide me, so to speak, all of the things he said should ring true about the way I view Mary... but they don't.

1. Whether I even know she exists or not, does not change the fact that Mary was real, although this may not be the point he's making.
2. Being one individual out of many doesn't make anyone insignificant or incidental to God, nor should it to me. I certainly still agree that Mary, having agreed to bear our Lord, is integral to the gospel.
3. The rest of his quote is based on those assumptions, and without their power behind it, the rest of the quote no longer applies, as it's prefaced with, "And when Mary becomes unreal".

The next thing that struck me was the prayer to Mary, but that's neither your conclusion, nor extrapolation, it's merely a statement of history. I think other times or places may suffice to address praying to the saints and/or Mary.

In Hahn's second quote, he argues that the intense affection the believers felt was for Mary, where one could easily argue that the intense affection was held rather for the person of God in Jesus, and the recognition of who he was from birth. This is not an academic argument or a metaphor, this is God in the flesh, our Saviour and Redeemer. It's very easy for Hahn, or anyone else, to recount history and then make an assumption that doesn't necessarily follow, I could do it myself. People do it all the time in courtrooms. Let me give a theoretical example:

The other day I saw a long line of people waiting at a bus stop. The bus was late, and when it arrived and Driver Joe opened the door, the people all gave a resounding cheer and began boarding.
Think for a moment, about the intensity of the affection that those people felt for the Blessed Bus Driver Joe - to wait for so long at the bus stop knowing he was coming, and to cheer so heartily at his arrival - only Driver Joe could be the reason for them to celebrate.

That wasn't meant to be a perfect analogy to Mary in ANY way, but merely to show how even though something seems to be the only possible explanation to one person, they could be interpreting history according to their bias.

The only conclusion actually drawn by you that I'm questioning, and again, it may be the official party line and not just your conclusion, is that John stands for each one of us in Jesus' words in John 19, and again I point to the bus driver analogy in saying that coming to that conclusion is by no means cut and dried... the very fact that John took her into his home suggests that this was a very literal command to John, rather than a figurative one for all the ages to come for all believers.

Sorry to give you so much to chew on, but it's only really a very few points, and it covered basically everything I have questions about in the entire article...

Gregory said...

Hey Andrew, thanks for the insightful comments.

First, let's look at Dr. Hahn's first quote.

1.To my mind, he's not saying that not having or believing the doctrines makes Mary "unreal" in the sense of fictional, or that she didn't exist. I think, if I understood him correctly, that he means that it makes her, as he continues, "anonymous". She becomes less of a real person to us.

Christianity, being an historical religion, is rooted in history, in real events, places, and people. Detractors of Christianity seem, always first and foremost, to try to debunk the historicity of the Gospels or of the Bible, and thus demonstrate that Christianity isn't true.

I think Hahn is making a similar, if reversed, point. Not that an "anonymous" Mary makes Christianity untrue, but that it definitely becomes less tangible.

2. Being one individual out of many isn't quite what Hahn is saying. Nor is he saying that that one would be insignificant to God, but rather to us. And while, perhaps, it shouldn't make her such, our human psyches are such that it does, whether we mean it to or not.

It's similar to movie-making. You have your primary characters and your extras. I remember working with a guy who would do extra work. He talked about one time he had a scene in a bar where he bumps into the star actress (I can't remember who it was). He was all excited about the scene, but in the end it was cut from the movie. That's the sort of insignificance that comes in the mind of the reader who doesn't really know a particular character. But Jesus' Mother can't really be such a character, because she is the Mother of God. Historically, she had a major role to play--I would argue, with the Church, that that role was second only to Jesus' own, and the greatest role any human being will ever be asked to play! If the person playing the greatest role in history is reduced to anonymity, "extra"-status, then that role itself becomes just as insignificant--just bumping into someone in a crowded bar.

Perhaps Hahn is overstating the case a bit in his zeal, but I don't think it's by much.

3. I would argue with this directly, by appealing to the hundreds of comments in the Intro to Marian Dogmas article--namely the refrain that Mary is no one special, that God didn't need Mary to bring Jesus into the world. The fact is, that our salvation was dependent squarely upon God asking Mary's permission to bear His Son and to mother Him. If, in fact, her consent was not required, then God saved Humanity in spite of ourselves.

Moreover, if Mary didn't matter, then Hahn's conclusions are correct--Christ's own body is just as anonymous, just as "unreal". Books like "The Pagan Christ" have been written on just such premises. But Christ is an historical figure because He was literally born of a real person, about whom we know real and tangible things that distinguish her from anyone else--and these things are enshrined in the Marian dogmas.

Gregory said...

The Sub Tuum Praesidia prayer was quoted in this context not to advocate specifically for prayers to Mary or the saints, but to demonstrate the antiquity of Marian devotion and the belief that she is, in fact, the "Mother of God". If you want to read my thoughts on prayers to the saints and Mary, I would suggest checking out Contacting the Dead and Praying to Saints, a discussion I was a part of at the Drew Marshall Forum (which got me banned for defending the Catholic faith).

Why do I point out the antiquity of Marian doctrines? Precisely because we believe that the faith of the Church was handed down from the Apostles--that we don't believe anything that they didn't believe, though through centuries of pondering its truth, we may have a deeper understanding of these truths than those of the earliest believers.

As such, if a belief held by the Church today is not testified to in the early centuries of Christianity, it is suspect. Demonstrating the earliness of various beliefs and practices (such as praying to saints and calling Mary, "Mother of God", demonstrates the continuity of the faith from the time of Christ to now. It definitely undercuts the common claim of many Protestants that the Catholic Church, as such, did not exist until the Emperor Constantine's conversion, and the "corruption" of Christianity undertaken when he convened the 1st Council of Nicaea. I'm not saying that you yourself claim such a thing, Andrew. But at the same time, I'm not writing these posts specifically for you, and so I'm trying to cover all the bases.

As far as my second quotation of Hahn, your analogy is fair as far as it goes. But I would point out two things: That the intense affection that people felt for the person of God in Jesus is not in conflict with their affection for Mary. The second is that Scott Hahn's sketch of that account is brief and not exhaustive of the events. One of the interesting tidbits which he omits, for whatever reason, was that when the Bishops decided on the question, and the people paraded them aloft through the streets, they were chanting all that time, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us sinners!" which is where we get the second half of the Hail Mary prayer. This part of the account can be found in Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D's book, "Why Do Catholics Do That?" on p. 99. From this part of the account, it does follow that the people were very much in love with Mary. It was, after all, their intense love for Jesus that prompted their intense love for Mary.

As for my conclusion of John 19, this is the traditional understanding as stated by many of the Early Church Fathers. That John literally took Mary into his home and cared for her does not negate that this event has a typological meaning for all Christians. In fact, to bolster the conclusion that we are all sons and daughters of Mary, St. John himself wrote in Revelation 12:17, that the Dragon, when he could no longer attack the Woman, he "went away to make war on the rest of her children". John clarifies who these children are, saying they are the ones "who obey God's commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus." So the woman's other offspring are Christians. We are her offspring. So who is the woman? According to the first verses of chapter 12, it is she who gives birth to the Messiah. Well, that's Mary. So what John alludes to in the nineteenth chapter of his Gospel, he makes explicit in the twelfth chapter of his Revelation.

I hope that helps :)
God bless