Read ~ Chapter 16: Mary Mother of God
Father Anthony Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)
The teachings contained in this chapter are based on Holy Scriptures, the Tradition of the Catholic Church [especially the First and Second Vatican Council, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Fathers of the Church (especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine)], the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (especially Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis). All Apostolic Encyclicals and Letters are found on the Vatican Website: Vatican
Beginning of the Controversy
Council of Ephesus: In 431 A.D., the council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos in Greek), to refute the teaching of the Patriarch of Constantinople (Nestorius) who wanted to proclaim Mary only as Christotokos, Mother of Christ. The Church’s answer confirmed that Christotokos is not sufficient because it leaves many loose ends; Theotokos is a much more correct, comprehensive, and accurate title for Mary.
Meaning of Theotokos: The term Theotokos is made up of two words: Theos which means ‘God’ in Greek, and the verb tikto means ‘generate’ in the full sense of the word. The verb Tikto indicates that, even though the conception happened through the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was nourished by the body of Mary and grew in her womb according to the natural laws of gestation. No magic is involved at all: the event of the Incarnation is supernatural by nature, but Jesus is truly and authentically the Son of Mary. The Son of the Father in his divinity is the one and the same Son of Mary in his humanity. God authentically invited Mary to colloborate in his plan of Incarnation and salvation. The Catechism says in this regard: “God sent forth his Son, but to prepare a body for him (Galatians 4:4 and Hebrews 10:5), he wanted the free co-operation of a creature. For this, from all eternity God chose for the mother of his Son a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee.” (CCC, 488)
Mary Mother of God (Theotokos) is in the Bible
Theotokos in the Gospel of Luke: The concept of Theotokos started with the Gospel of Luke when Mary was pregnant with Jesus and went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. When they met, Elizabeth’s son John was leaping with joy in her womb. She said to Mary, “How do I deserve that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” By calling Mary the ‘Mother of my Lord,’ St. Luke used the Greek word Kyrios for ‘Lord.’ This term is also used in The Old Testament to indicate Yahweh (the God of Israel). To hear Elizabeth calling Mary ‘The Mother of my Lord (Kyrios)’ would be the ultimate scandal for any Jew, because only the God of Israel is Kyrios. He is transcendental and his title as Kyrios can never be applied to a visible man like Jesus.
Theotokos, Mother of the Kyrios: The term Kyrios is intentionally used by Luke to confirm that the child inside the womb of Mary is Kyrios, God himself. Beyond any doubt it is the strongest expression in the the New Testament that testifies the divine maternity of Mary: Mary is the Mother of the Lord. The Church based the declaration of Mary as Mother of God (Theotokos) on Luke’s Gospel. Note that ‘divine maternity’ means a true, authentic, and a human maternity of a Divine Person, the Son.
Mary’s Motherhood of a Person
Person and nature: To approach the mystery of Mary’s divine motherhood, we need to differentiate between the concept of nature and the concept of person. Nature is a general concept that includes a multitude of persons that fall under that category. For example, when I say the word “woman”, all the women of the earth are included in this concept. Nature is a universal concept that includes many different individual entities that share that same nature. Therefore, when I say the word ‘God’ I am indicating in fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly “Mother of God” (Theotokos) Divine Nature, his essence, his substance, his being, or his entity that encompasses the Three Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Person is a nature made concrete: The term person, on the other hand, is an entity that individualizes a certain nature. So, when I say woman I indicate a nature but when I say “Mary” I am individualizing the nature of woman in that specific individual of Mary. The person is a nature made concrete and therefore it has a name. Even though “nature” is a universal concept encompassing many persons, it is still differently individualized in different persons. In other words, the term “woman” is equally applied to Mary and Theresa, yet they both still make woman’s nature concrete in a different way. So, when I say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,’ I am pointing to the different Persons within the One Divine Nature of God: They each make concrete the same Divine Nature in three different ways, namely according to their different personal properties.
Mary generates a divine Person in a human nature: The difference between person and nature played an essential role in the theology of the early Church leading her to proclaim Mary as ‘Mother of God.’ The Person of the Son is divine, but he was acting in a human nature. The subject of Jesus Christ, the “I”, is divine even though he assumed a true human nature from Mary. The motherhood is a motherhood of a person. Mary is the mother of the Person who is conceived in her womb (we don’t say in the common language Mary is the mother of Jesus’ human nature; we say Mary is the mother of Jesus). So, in the mystery of the Incarnation, Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, as a Person. But this Person is divine: Jesus is God (the Son). Therefore, Mary is the Mother of God (of course according to His human nature not His Divine Nature). Therefore, when we say Mary is Mother of God, she is obviously the Mother of God the Son, not the Mother of the Trinity.
Mary daughter of her Son, Jesus Christ: In the order of grace, Mary was created by God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Note that all actions of God emanate from one and the same God. In the order of earthly generation, Mary gave human life to Jesus Christ, a life that has the Son as its acting subject. Therefore, Mary is ‘Mother of her Creator’ and ‘Daughter of her Son’.
Mary’s Divine Maternity necessary to understand Christ’s Incarnation
Theotokos implies the ‘Hypostatic Union’: In the amazing event of the Incarnation, the Church called the union between the Son and his human nature taken from Mary, the ‘Hypostatic Union.’ Jesus Christ is one Divine Person, not two persons, but that person is at the same time human and divine. He is God in his Divine Nature and man in his human nature. Both natures are united in the one Person of the Son. Since Mary is not only the mother of a human nature, she is also the Mother of a Person, and that person is God (the Son). Thus, we call her Mother of God, Theotokos. The catechism summarizes this teaching by saying: “In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’.” (CCC, 495) Saint Pope John Paul II asserts in this regard: ” To introduce any sort of separation between the Word and Jesus Christ is contrary to the Christian faith…Jesus is the incarnate Word – a single and indivisible person…Christ is none other then Jesus of Nazareth; he is the Word of God made man for the salvation of all.” (Redemptoris Missio, 6)
Note that, since Mary gave the Son his human nature that was not existent before the Incarnation, Jesus was only and exclusively the Son of the Father before the Incarnation. This explains why the Church believes that with the Incarnation the Son never ‘left’ the bosom of the Trinity. The Council of Friuli (796) tactfully states: ” He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed…He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both.” (DS, 619) Pope Pius IX also says: To her did the father will to give his only-begotten Son…and to give this Son in such a way that he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854)
Theotokos implies Christ’s true divinity: The Blessed Trinity has three different Divine Persons equal in divinity, majesty, and honor. But the Blessed Trinity is still one God in nature. The Father does not have one part of the divine nature, the Son one part, and the Holy Spirit one part. The Father possess the entire divine nature according to his Fatherhood. The Son possesses the entire divine nature according to his Sonship. The Holy Spirit possesses the entire divine nature according to his properties as the Holy Spirit. Every Divine Person has the entire divine nature but each according to his personal properties. We need to be careful not to divide the Divine Nature because it is One and the Same, simple, eternal, and transcendental. The Church rejects ‘tritheism’, the believe in three gods. Saint Pope John Paul Ii states: “The dogma of the divine motherhood of Mary was for the Council of Ephesus and is for the Church like a seal upon the dogma of the Incarnation, in which the Word truly assumes human nature into the unity of his person, without cancelling out that nature.” (Redemptoris Mater, 5)
Theotokos implies Christ’s true humanity: In the first few centuries of the Church many people mistakenly believed that the human nature of Christ was fake. They assumed that his humanity was just an appearance and not true flesh and that he passed through Mary, like the ray of sun passes through a window. The Church refuted these teachings, emphasizing that in the Incarnation the Son of the Father was truly, authentically and completely conceived in Mary’s womb and assumed a real human nature from her.
The human nature of Christ was exactly like ours, except sin. Jesus had a real body, a spiritual soul, an authentic free will (always subject to the divine will). When the Gospel of Luke mentions that Jesus ‘grew in wisdom’ and he ‘was obedient to them’, it expresses the human dimension of Jesus’ existence in a specific human culture: it is an authentic growing and a true obedience. Jesus was endowed with all human faculties just like all of us. The subject using these faculties, however, was divine. This mystery will be fully understood at the end of time.
Mary’s Motherhood protects the Church against heresies
Against Adoptionism: When we call Mary ‘Mother of God,’ we eliminate several erroneous teachings rising at the beginning of the Church. One of them is Adoptionism. In the first centuries of the Church, Adoptionism taught that Jesus Christ was a wonderful man, but he was adopted by God as his Son at the time of his baptism. When Jesus received the Holy Spirit at baptism, argues Adoptionism, he was adopted by God to be some kind of ‘superman.’ Even though Adoptionism admits that Jesus became superior to and above all creatures, it still denied that Jesus is ontologically divine. Of course, the Church rejected Adoptionism because the center of the Church’s faith is the divinity of Jesus Christ: he is God the Son. By believing Mary is Theotokos, “Mother of God,” the Church confirms the divinity of Christ.
Against Docetism: Another erroneous teaching that came up at the beginning of the Church is Docetism. Docetism denied that Jesus Christ was fully human. It taught when God came down he wasn’t formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary according to the laws of gestation. Docetism believed that Jesus’ flesh is only a fake and apparent flesh, and Jesus did not suffer in the full sense of the word. The term Theotokos implies that Mary’s Motherhood is true, real and authentic. The verb tikto (to generate) confirms the authentic conception (even though supernatural), growth, and birth of Jesus in the womb of Mary. If the suffering of Jesus Christ was fake, the Gospels would be nothing but a lie. Jesus’ suffering for the salvation of humanity is real; his death on the cross is real; his historical resurrection from the dead to redeem humanity is real and true. Jesus’ human soul was truly separated from his body at the moment of his death. They were reunited when he rose from the dead.
Against Gnosticism: The theology behind the term ‘Mother of God’ rejects Gnosticism that reduces Christ to a myth. Gnosticism, from the beginning of the Church (still exists today in many circles), rejects the human dimension of salvation and of the Church. The Fathers of the Church have always emphasized the importance of the Oikonomia (the economy) of salvation. Economy of salvation points to the way God wanted to save us. Instead of becoming man, could God have extended his hand down from heaven to save us? Yes and no. Yes, because nothing is impossible for God; no, because he did not choose that way to save us. If God the Son Himself decided to become man in the womb of the Virgin Mary using it as an instrument of our salvation, who are we to choose another way? If God decided to honor the human nature by making that nature his own, who are we to eliminate the human dimension of salvation?
Describing the activity of Jesus in the historical context of the Jewish and world history and according to Luke’s Gospel, Pope Benedict VI says: “We are not meant to regard Jesus’ activity as taking place in some sort of mythical ‘anytime,’ which can mean always or never. It is precisely datable historical event having the full weight that real historical happenings have; like them, too, it happens once only; it is contemporary with all times, but not in the way that a timeless myth would be.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 11)
Every heresy is based on a misunderstanding of the Incarnation: Every heresy from the beginning of the Church until today is caused by a misunderstanding of the theology of Incarnation. These heresies always eliminated the cooperation between the divine dimension and the human dimension in salvation economy.
The Church is human and divine just like Her founder Jesus Christ. When you look at Jesus you see a man, but that man is God. When you look at the water of baptism, you see water, but that water grants the grace of the Blessed Trinity. You look at the Eucharist and you see bread, but that bread is the Body of Christ. Every single element in the Church has always two parallel dimensions: human and divine. The human element is being used as a channel for the divine element. Because we are human, God functions in our human life by using human elements as he is conferring His divine grace. The entire life and spirituality of the Catholic Church is based on Word became flesh.’ The Letter of St. John calls ‘anti-christ’ those who deny that Christ came in the flesh.
The implications of Mary being Mother of God
The theology of ‘Mother of God’ sheds light on many different aspects of our Catholic Faith.
By proclaiming Mary Theotokos, we imply that Jesus Christ is God without leaving any room for diminishing his divinity. The council of Nicea in 325 A.D. confirmed the divinity of Christ against Arius. If we call Mary only ‘Mother of Christ (Christotokos)’ like patriarch Nestorius did and stop right there, we leave space for denying his divinity. Of course, Mary is the Mother of Christ, but this expression does not have the same theological implications that the title Theotokos has. Arianism and Adoptionism are not acceptable.
- By proclaiming Mary Theotokos, we imply that Jesus is not a ‘superman’. He is truly human. The verb ‘tikto’ contained in the expression Theotokos indicated that Jesus grew and was born according to the natural laws of gestation. His authentic Incarnation is a true movement from above and not just a fake appearence in a human flesh. Vatican II says in this regard: “The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother, so that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life.” (LG, 56). Docetism is not acceptable.
By proclaiming Mary Theotokos, we imply the ‘hypostatic union’ according to which the Person of the Son was the acting subject in a true human nature taken from Mary. Gnosticism and Ebionism are not acceptable. Pope Benedict summarizes this by saying: “The doctrine of faith must be firmly believed which proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, and he alone, is the Son and the Word of the Father. The Word, which ‘was in the beginning with God’ (Jn 1:2) is the same as he who ‘became flesh’ (Jn 1:14). In Jesus, ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt 16:16), ‘the whole fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form’ (Col 2:9). He is the ‘only begotten Son of the Father, who is in the bosom of the Father’ (Jn 1:18), his ‘beloved Son, in whom we have redemption… In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, on earth and in the heavens, making peace by the blood of his Cross’.” (Dominus Iesus, 10)
By proclaiming Mary Theotokos, we understand that Christ used his human nature from her as an instrument of salvation. His humanity that was ‘added’ to the Trinity after his Ascension is the guarantee for our humanity to have access to God again, after the door of paradise was shut down as a result of original sin. This nature was taken from Mary and we will acknowledge this forever.
By proclaiming Mary Theotokos and acknowledging the human dimension of our redemption, we open the door to understand the existence of the sacraments: they are possible because they extend the instrumentality of Jesus’ humanity in the Church for our redemption.
- By proclaiming Mary Theotokos, we declare her Mother of life in opposition to Eve, who brought death into the world. Vatican II teaches: “The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother, so that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life.” (LG, 56)
- By proclaiming Mary Theotokos, we protect the faith of the Catholic Church in the Most Blessed Trinity. Confessing Mary as Mother of God (the Son), implies the distinction of the Three Divine Persons within the Oneness of Divinity. She is the Mother of God (the Son), guaranteeing his Person being different from the Father and the Holy Spirit. At the same time, ‘Mother of God’ implies that the Son is God by nature which is the basis for the Trinitarian Faith: the Son is distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit and yet, he is One God by nature.
- Reference: watch the series on Mary Mother of God in Catholicism
Mary Mother of the Church
Mary’s motherhood start with Jesus’ historical mission: The Church has always placed Mary Mother of God in parallel to her being also Mother of the Church. Since the Church is the body of Christ and Mary is the Mother of Christ, then logically Mary is the Mother of the body of Christ, the Church. Her interaction with Jesus at Cana is the beginning of her maternal care toward human beings and prepares for her motherhood in the order of grace. Those who are brothers and sisters of Jesus are those who listen to the Word of God and believes it. This aplies to Mary more then anyone because she is the first to hear Elizabeth who, filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaims: “Blessed is she who believed that what was told her by the Lord will be fulfilled.”
Mary’s motherhood in the order of grace is confirmed at the foot of the Cross: The role of Mary as the mother of humanity in the order of grace was revealed during the earthly mission of Christ. It was, however, confirmed at the feet of the cross when Jesus assigned her as the ‘Mother’ to St. John. St. John represents the Church of all generations and the humanity of all time since the plan of God is universal and all encompassing. St. Pope John Paul II emphasizes: “One can say that if Mary’s motherhood of the human race had already been outlined, now it is clearly stated and established. It emerges from the definitive accomplishment of the Redeemer’s Paschal Mystery.” (Redemptoris Mater, 23)
Mary generated Jesus as our redeemer and brother; Mary will continue to generate the brothers of Jesus in the order of grace. Vatican II and the Catechism summarizes this theology by saying: ” Jesus is Mary’s only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save: ‘The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formation she co-operates with a mother’s love’.” (CCC, 501 and LG, 63)
St. Pope John Paul II draws a parallel between the motherhood of Mary towards Christ and her motherhood toward the Church. The Incarnation finds its natural extension in space and time in the Church: If Mary is authentically the Mother of Christ, she is also Mother of the Church. The Pope confirms that Vatican Ii logically “places this truth about the Church as the Body of Christ (according to the teaching of the Pauline Letters) in close proximity to the truth that the Son of God ‘through the power of the Holy Spirit was born of the Virgin Mary.’ The reality of the Incarnation finds a sort of extension in the mystery of the Church-the Body of Christ.” (Redemptoris Mater, 5)