Sunday: January 1, 2017–– Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Numbers 6:22–27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4–7 / Luke 2:16–21
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church
The Church teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Catholics grow up with Mary as a key figure in the life of the Church. That is good.... but it's not so good if there is little understanding of why and how Mary is so important. On the other end of the continuum, though, are many Evangelical Christians, who think––as I once did––that Catholics worship Mary. This means that, other than a brief cameo role at Christmas, Mary is at best ignored and, sadly, even demeaned in order (it is thought) to “correct” the Catholic error. I know this is true because it was part of my journey. One of the biggest hurdles separating most Evangelical Christians from Catholic Faith is the person and place of Mary.
This first Marian dogma goes back to 431 A.D and the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, which raised the question of whether Mary is rightly called theotokos. That’s a Greek word meaning "bearer of God.” One popular teacher, Nestorius, did not want to give Mary the title theotokos, preferring to call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ" because he separated the divinity and humanity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus said that this destroyed Jesus as one undivided person. Nestorius' teaching was declared heretical and Mary was formally given the title theotokos, “God-bearer”, as the orthodox way to describe Mary.
This title was not meant to exalt Mary so much as to assert the unity of divinity and humanity in her Son. When properly understood, all the Marian dogmas are about Jesus. We use God-bearer language for the mother of Jesus to confess who Jesus really is: the beloved Son of the Father, born of a woman (Gal 4:4), and thus God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16). Yet implicit in this is indeed a great honor for Mary. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Mary says (in the Magnificat): all generations will call me blessed. There was a point where I truly “saw” that for the first time, and with it was a shocking realization: the Christian tradition that had formed me had not taught me to call Mary “blessed.” It was a hard pill for me to swallow when it first dawned on me that it was the Catholic tradition which has fulfilled this prophecy of Mary recorded by Luke.
One of the objections from my past was the argument that Mary does not have prominence in the New Testament––that she has little role in Acts and is hardly mentioned in the Epistles. This point of view ignores the implication of Luke’s early chapters. Where did the details of those chapters come from if not from Mary herself? There is one vignette after another that can only be known because Luke, in composing his Gospel, sat at the feet of Mary and––inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so––recorded her “ponderings” so that we have their fruit today as Scripture.
If we take that as a premise, we then have in Mary a very important figure who is a source of authority for the earliest part of the “Jesus story”. She has stored these memories in her heart and she is highly revered. After she was taken to heaven and the Church was facing great persecution, there was an emphasis on the memory of the holy people who had first formed the Church. From the beginning Mary was uniquely remembered as the virgin in whom the Holy Spirit conceived our incarnate Lord. This was part of the Apostolic Tradition that guided the Council of Ephesus.
The declaration that Mary was the theotokos, the Mother of God, does not imply Mary’s divinity; again, it was primarily about Christ’s humanity. Jesus took his human flesh from his mother. The Church teaches clearly, and has always taught, that Mary is not divine. She is human, a creature, just like us, created by God. When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted so that Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11) and Mary becomes our mother. Then we are all one in Christ in his mystical Body. This Body, of course (as Paul explicitly teaches), has different parts, different roles, and different gifts. Not everyone does the same thing. Mary has a special role: She is Mother, because she is literally the mother of Jesus’ physical body, and as we are joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit as his mystical Body she comes our Mother, too. Jesus, on the cross, explicitly gave his mother to his disciple (and implicitly to the Church). So everything about Mary is connected to the communion of saints, of which we are a part––and of which she is the preeminent member (everything in Catholic Faith interfaces, as a seamless garment). As Catholic piety began to develop and grow, Mary’s role as an intercessor became important as early as the early second century.
Yet this was another cause for concern in my former tradition. How can Mary not be ascribed divine omnipresence if she is constantly able to hear millions of individual prayers all around the world? Then a wonderful analogy came to me: Facebook. It is possible to have a friend on Facebook who has thousands of other friends. That friend can have all other friends tell him their fears and woes. How? Through the internet. I do not mean this to be disrespectful in the least, but the internet functions something like the Holy Spirit. The internet is everywhere. The internet can deliver messages seemingly at the speed of light. A FB friend does not have that power by himself, but it is available. So with prayer, the “vehicle” is always God. We can only pray in and through the Holy Spirit, but because every Christian is a partaker of the Spirit and because physical death does not cut the bond all Christians have in the Spirit, there is a communion of saints, and at the pinnacle of all saints is Holy Mary, the Mother of God. No other human being has greater intimacy with Jesus than Mary. She is is a powerful intercessor. In the Spirit, we can ask for her to pray for us just as we ask for the prayers of our dearest living friend.
Yet there is a caution here. Even as we honor Mary with the title Mother of God and seek her motherly aid, we need to remember than Mary is not the source of holiness, or love, or mercy. Those things come first from God; God’s people have those qualities derivatively as gifts of grace. Let’s not think that is Mary more merciful than Jesus.
But among all the people of God––among all the saints, no one has greater fulness of grace than Mary. She is first in the Church. She is first among the saints. She alone gave flesh to the eternal Word, and in so doing became the very Mother of God. In that grace, and from the very words of Jesus on the cross––Behold your mother, she is our mother, too. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.