Mary, Mother of God
by Father William Saunders
I was visiting an inner-city Church one day and in the vestibule some graffiti was
written on the wall which said, "Catholics, God has no mother," obviously
referring to Mary's title as "Mother of God." How does one respond to such an
objection? -- A reader in Springfield
As Catholics, we firmly believe in the incarnation of our Lord: Mary conceived by the
power of the Holy Spirit. (Lk 1:26-38 and Mt 1:18-25) Through her, Jesus Christ--second
person of the Holy Trinity, one-in-being (consubstantial) with the Father, and true God
from true God--entered this world, taking on human flesh and a human soul. Jesus is true
God and true man. In His person are united both a divine nature and a human nature.
Mary did not create the divine person of Jesus, who existed with the Father from all
eternity. "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)" (CCC, No. 495). As St. John wrote, "The Word became
flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory: The glory of an only Son
coming from the Father filled with enduring love" (Jn 1:14).
For this reason, sometime in the early history of the Church, our Blessed Mother was
given the title "Mother of God." St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), for example,
composed in his Eucharistic Prayer for the Mass an anthem in honor of her: "It is
truly just to proclaim you blessed, O Mother of God, who are most blessed, all pure and
Mother of our God. We magnify you who are more honorable than the Cherubim and
incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim. You who, without losing your virginity, gave
birth to the Word of God. You who are truly the Mother of God."
However, objection to the title "Mother of God" arose in the fifth century,
due to confusion concerning the mystery of the incarnation. Nestorius, Bishop of
Constantinople (428-431), incited a major controversy. He stated that Mary gave birth to
Jesus Christ, a regular human person, period. To this human person was united the person
of the Word of God (the divine Jesus). This union of two persons--the human Christ and the
divine Word-- was "sublime and unique" but merely accidental. The divine person
dwelt in the human person "as in a temple." Following his own reasoning,
Nestorius asserted that the human Jesus died on the cross, not the divine Jesus. As such,
Mary is not "Mother of God," but simply "Mother of Christ"--the human
Jesus. Sound confusing? It is, but the result is the splitting of Christ into two persons
and the denial of the incarnation.
St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 440) refuted Nestorius, asserting, "It was not
that an ordinary man was born first of the Holy Virgin, on whom afterwards the Word
descended; what we say is that, being united with the flesh from the womb, (the Word) has
undergone birth in the flesh, making the birth in the flesh His own..." This
statement affirms the belief asserted in the first paragraph.
On June 22, 431, the Council of Ephesus convened to settle this argument. The Council
declared, "If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel is truly God and therefore
that the holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos) (since she begot according to
the flesh the Word of God made flesh), anathema sit." Therefore, the Council
officially recognized that Jesus is one person, with two natures--human and divine--united
in a true union. Second, Ephesus affirmed that our Blessed Mother can rightfully be called
the Mother of God. Mary is not Mother of God, the Father, or Mother of God, the Holy
Spirit; rather, she is Mother of God, the Son--Jesus Christ. The Council of Ephesus
declared Nestorius a heretic, and the Emperor Theodosius ordered him deposed and exiled.
(Interestingly, a small Nestorian Church still exists in Iraq, Iran and Syria.)
The incarnation is indeed a profound mystery. The Church uses very precise--albeit
philosophical--language to prevent confusion and error. Nevertheless, as we celebrate
Christmas, we must ponder this great mystery of how our divine Savior entered this world,
taking on our human flesh, to free us from sin. We must also ponder and emulate the great
example of our Blessed Mother, who said, "I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done
unto me according to Thy word." May we turn to her always as our own Mother,
pleading, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our
Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of
Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.
This article appeared in the December 22, 1994 issue of The Arlington Catholic
Electronic text (c) Copyright EWTN 1996. All rights reserved.