Mary the God-Bearer

[As Christmas draws near, I will present a couple posts on Mary as the “Birth-giver of God,” excerpted from my book, A Place Prepared by God, this first one being mainly an explanation of her dogmatic title, Theotokos.]

We now come to the moment the whole world had been waiting for since the fall of Adam and Eve, however obscurely: the manifestation of the Savior, the Son of God, as man, born of the Virgin Mary.  We all know the “Christmas story”—though perhaps with insufficient depth—so I needn’t reiterate the details of it here.  But there are certain elements of this mystery that can yield greater understanding, especially regarding the role of the Mother of God.

“Mother of God.”  The meaning of these words is where we shall begin.  That expression is a rather loose translation of the Greek Theotokos, which literally means, “she who gave birth to God.”  Some people object to the use of this designation for Mary, evidently due to a misunderstanding of (or perhaps an unwillingness to understand) the mystery.  But one can hardly be a Christian and reject this name (Theotokos), for as St. John of Damascus said in the eighth century: “This name contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation.”

This title for Our Lady was officially declared at the Ecumenical (i.e., representing the whole Christian Church) Council of Ephesus in 431, but this declaration was merely the confirmation of a tradition already long held.  This Council, however, was not primarily concerned with how properly to address Our Lady.  It was convened to resolve a Christological controversy: was Jesus Christ two persons or one?  Did the Divine Person of the Word, the Son of God, somehow become united to a human person known as Jesus in the womb of the Virgin?  Or did the Divine Person simply assume humanity to himself in and through Mary, thereby being one Divine Person with two natures, divine and human?  The latter was declared the true Christian revelation, and hence became the reason why we call Mary the Mother of God.

In The World’s First Love, Archbishop Sheen explains it as follows: “Any objection to calling [Mary] the ‘Mother of God’ is fundamentally an objection to the Deity of Christ… [The Incarnation] implies a twofold generation of the Divine Word: one eternal in the bosom of the Father, the other temporal in the womb of Mary.  Mary therefore did not bear a ‘mere man’ but the ‘true God.’  No new person came into the world when Mary opened the portals of the flesh, but the Eternal Son of God was made man.  All that came into being was a new nature, or a human nature to a Person Who existed from all eternity.  It was the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Who became flesh and dwelt amongst us.  Theanthropos, or God-Man, and Theotokos, or Mother of God, go together and fall together.”

That is how “Mother of God” is to be understood: Mary is the mother of a Divine Person who had become man in her womb—the place prepared by God for the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation.  No one says that “Mother of God” means Mother of the Holy Trinity or Mother of the Father or Mother of the Holy Spirit.  She is—quite obviously from the testimony of Scripture as well as the Christian Tradition—Mother of God the Son Incarnate, and anyone who wishes to understand can very easily do so, for there are clear and solid grounds for it.  This ought to give us reason not only to be satisfied with theological orthodoxy, but also to rejoice!  Christianity is supposed to be a religion of joy, not of endless wrangling and animosities.  When the Church resolves a dispute, let us hold it resolved and freely enter, through faith and prayerful contemplation, into the depths of the mystery that has been clarified for us.  Mary is the Mother of God!  Be happy for her and for yourself as well, for your heavenly Mother is glorified in what God has done for you in and through her.

O Mother of God, Virgin who have borne the Savior, you have overthrown the ancient curse of Eve.  For you have become the Mother of Him in whom the Father was well pleased, and have carried at your bosom God the incarnate Word… Rejoice, Living City of God the King, in which Christ has dwelled, bringing to pass our salvation.  With Gabriel we sing your praises; with the shepherds we glorify you, crying: O Mother of God, intercede for our salvation with Him who took flesh from you! (from Christmas Matins in the Byzantine Divine Office).

About Father Joseph

I am a priest and monk currently serving with the Contemplatives of St Joseph in South San Francisco, CA. I am in my 33rd year of monastic life and in my 24th as a priest.

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