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,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?
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.
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.Mother of All Christians
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)
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.)