Mary, Mother of God

Author: Colin B. Donovan, STL
Mary, Mother of God

In a lasting vestige of anti-Catholic prejudice, a concerted effort to discredit the Church is being made today by some non-Catholic Christians who continue to propagate the falsehood that Catholics worship Mary OR that the devotion to the Blessed Mother is a continuation of  devotion to the various mother goddesses of the ancient pagan pantheons. These charges can legitimately be called prejudices because they proceed from a prejudgment (made in advance based on preconceived ideas about what Catholics believe) and efforts to enlighten and convince with facts usually fall on deaf ears. However, it is necessary for Catholics to be forewarned about these on-going polemically, "prayer warfare" and "prophetic acts" (such as the smashing of a statue on Brazilian TV), so as not to be scandalized about their Catholic faith by such attacks.

Mother of God

One such claim is that calling Mary the Mother of God is a manifestation of the apostasy of Catholicism, which has returned to pagan mother goddess worship. This title, bestowed by the Council of Ephesus in 431, is seen as proof of Catholic apostasy from the Gospel. The historical facts underlying the Council do not dissuade those captured by this prejudice about the Church and its love of Mary, however, they clearly show the Church's intention to protect the doctrine of Christ's divinity and sacred humanity, the Incarnation, as well as give the proper due to she who fully cooperated in it by her Fiat (let it be done).

The fourth and fifth centuries, the first ones of Christian emancipation from persecution, were centuries of consolidating the truth about God and Christ. The Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (361) defined the basic teachings of Christianity in the Creed which goes by their name (and which is obligatory at Sunday Mass), against those who in one manner or another denied the unity of God, and the Divinity of the Son ("one in substance with the Father") and of the Holy Spirit ("who proceeds from the Father and the Son"). It also asserted the true humanity of Christ "born of the Virgin Mary," thus protecting the Incarnation of the Word, the Word-made-flesh, from the assault of heretics like Arius. Jesus Christ was indeed the Eternal Son, a Divine Person, who united in Himself both a Divine and human nature.

However, some of those who remained in the Church after Nicea-Constantinople sought to mitigate the full force of these teachings by various equivocations. In 428 Archbishop Nestorius, the newly elected Patriarch of Constantinople, began to teach that Mary was indeed the Mother of Christ but was not the Mother of God, a title freely used in the Church. Although attempting to remain faithful to the Creed, that is professing belief in Christ's true Divinity and true humanity, Nestorius' writings, however, suggested that in Christ there was more of a moral unity of two persons, the Word and Jesus. In addition to the rebellion of the clergy and people, Nestorius had to contend with the attacks of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who finally submitted both Nestorius' writings and his own defenses   to Pope St. Celestine, who condemned Nestorius as a heretic.

Nestorius was only emboldened, teaching that Jesus was merely the temple of the Word, and if Mary is the Mother of God she has been made a goddess. His contemptuous remarks included, "a mother cannot bear a son older than herself." Both the Pope and Nestorius were desirous of a Council and so one was called in Ephesus in June of 431. However, Nestorius and his followers did not come, despite several summons, and after seven sessions to consider the matter the teaching of Nestorius, and some other heretics such as Pelagius, were condemned. Here is what the Council decreed:

111a   For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and made flesh, nor yet that it was changed into the whole man (composed) of soul and body but rather (we say) that the Word, in an ineffable and inconceivable manner, having hypostatically united to Himself flesh animated by a rational soul, became Man and was called the Son of Man, not according to the will alone or by the assumption of a person alone, and that the different natures were brought together in a real union, but that out of both in one Christ and Son, not because the distinction of natures was destroyed by the union, but rather because the divine nature and the human nature formed one Lord and Christ and Son for us, through a marvelous and mystical concurrence in unity. . . . For it was no ordinary man who was first born of the Holy Virgin and upon whom the Word afterwards descended; but being united from the womb itself He is said to have undergone flesh birth, claiming as His own the birth of His own flesh. Thus [the holy Fathers] did not hesitate to speak of the holy Virgin as the Theotokos (Mother of God). [Denzinger paragraph 111a]

113    Canon. 1.  If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the Word of God become flesh by birth), let him be anathema (condemned, i.e. excommunicated).

114    Can. 2. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God the Father was united to a body by hypostasis [union in a single Person] and that one is Christ with his own body, the same one evidently both God and man, let him be anathema.

115    Can. 3. If anyone in the one Christ divides the subsistences [divine and human natures] after the union, connecting them by a junction only according to worth, that is to say absolute sway or power, and not rather by a joining according to physical union [union in the one Christ], let him be anathema.

116    Can. 4. If anyone portions out to two persons, that is to say subsistences, the words in the Gospels and the apostolic writings, whether said about Christ by the saints, or by Him concerning Himself, and attributes some as it to a man specially understood beside the Word of God, others as befitting God alone, to the Word of God the Father, let him be anathema.

117    Can. 5. If anyone ventures to say that Christ is a man inspired by God, and not rather that He is truly God, as a son by nature, as the Word was made flesh and has shared similarly with us in blood and flesh, let him be anathema.

118    Can. 6. If anyone ventures to say that God or the Lord is the Word of Christ from God the Father and does not rather confess the same as at once both God and man, since the Word was made flesh according to the Scriptures, let him be anathema.

119    Can. 7. If anyone says that Jesus as man was assisted by the Word of God, and that the glory of the Only-begotten was applied as to another existing beside Him, let him be anathema.

... and so on

As can be seen, all of the decisions of this great Council, of which the title Mother of God was only the pricipitating issue, protect and defend this truth: Jesus Christ was NOT a mere man on whom the Word descended in some way or to whom the Word was united but distinct, rather He was the Divine eternal Person of the Word, who in time assumed a human nature of Mary, but  remained the Word, the One Christ, 2nd Person of the Trinity, uniting in Himself His Divine Nature and His Incarnate Human Nature.

In all, twelve canons defend and put outside Christian faith various propositions attacking the union of Christ's two natures in His One Divine Person. In a single brief statement the Council declares that Mary gave birth NOT to a mere man, human nature, but to a Divine Person who assumed our manhood. She is properly, then, the human Mother in time of God the Word,  and not just the Mother of Christ, a title any good new ager of our day could accept. By calling Mary the Mother of God, the Catholic Church establishes herself alone in the West, together with the Orthodox who separated from us in the 11th century, as doctrinally incapable of renouncing the union of the two natures in the one Person of the Eternal Word.


Is there a Scriptural Basis?

The Scriptural basis of the unity of God, the eternity of the Word and the Incarnation is actually sufficient in itself to arrive at the conclusion that Mary is the Mother of God. God gave us reason and guided by the Holy Spirit the Church comes to an ever deeper penetration of the profound depths of Divine Revelation (Jn 16:13), which being the Word of God cannot be exhausted by a bare-bones literal reading - "if it isn't explicitly in Scripture then it is revealed." By this logic most  prophetic matters referring to Christ in the Old Testament could be dismissed because they were hidden in types and presented as shadows. Thus the simple logic of the Church is that if Scripture reveals that Mary is the Mother of the Word-made-Flesh, and the Word-made-flesh is God, then Mary is the Mother of God (the Word), not from eternity of course, but beginning in time and for eternity. To say only that Mary is the Mother of Jesus or only the Mother of Christ, is to subscribe unwittingly to the doctrines of heretics who denied the unity of the Christ's Divine and Human Natures.

But is it in Scripture? Yes, in addition to the above way we find that God reveals to the heart of Elizabeth the truth about the Incarnation, God-made-flesh. When Mary arrives to assist her in her pregnancy with St. John the Baptist, on seeing the Blessed Mother St. Elizabeth declares,

"blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, how is it that the Mother of the Lord (mater tou kyrios) comes to me" (Lk 1:42-43).

In both the first half and the second half of this inspired address mother and child are inseparably united. In the first, Mary and the fruit of her womb, Jesus, are praised. In the second the unity of their relationship is revealed, as well as the unity of Christ. Mary is not merely the mother of Jesus the Messiah, somehow conceived, but the mother of the Lord. The text preserves the Greek, kyrios, although the language that would have been spoken was Aramaic. Among the Jews the name of God was not spoken, but a substitution was made to preserve respect. By convention when translating Hebrew and its sister language Aramaic into Greek, such as in the Greek Old Testament   (Septuagint) used to evangelize Greek-speaking Jews and gentiles, the word substituted for God's name was Kyrios, which we translate as Lord. This was in lieu of I AM, Christ's use of which for Himself would later scandalized the Jews. Elizabeth would never have been so bold, however, instead calling the fruit of Mary's womb, the Lord, with all the meaning which the Jews attributed to it and which the Catholic Church continues to understand of the Word-made-flesh in Mary's womb.

Queen of Heaven

Much is made of the title Queen of Heaven by those who attack Catholicism and Marian devotion. The allusion is always to the pagan pantheons and to the mother of the gods, often mother in a very carnal sense of other pagan deities. The Canaanite worship of the "Queen of Heaven" condemned by the prophets is mentioned, as is the worship of Diana of the Ephesians, devotion to whom was exceeding popular before the Gospel arrived among the pagans. It is said  that Catholicism at the Council of Ephesus restored this pagan devotion under the cover of devotion to Mary. The history of that Council given above shows the absurdity, and the intellectual dishonesty, of that claim! One might as well claim with respect to Jesus that Christians worship a mere man, since to arrive at this conclusion the Church's teaching must be ripped from its context and distorted to fit a preconceived judgement.

What then does it mean for Mary to be the Queen of Heaven? In the Old Testament monarchy the Queen of the Davidic Kingdom was the Queen Mother. The Kings, for reasons of state and human weakness, had many wives, none of whom fittingly could be called Queen. That honor was reserved for the mother of the King, whose authority far surpassed the many "queens" married to the king. We see this is the role Bathsheba played with respect to King Solomon and the occasions when the Queen Mother acted as regent on behalf of juvenile successors to the throne.

The role of the Queen Mother, therefore, is a prophetic type of the Kingdom role of Mary, just as the role of the Davidic King is a prophetic type of the Kingdom role of Jesus. Jesus inherited the Kingdom promised to David, who was told that one of his descendants would rule forever. The angel Gabriel revealed this fact to Mary at her Annunciation,

Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." (Luke 1:31-33)

Aside from the prophetic types present in the Kingdom of Judah, there is also the text of Psalm 45, which when speaking of the Kingdom of God also speaks of its Queen.

[6]  Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. [7] Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows. [8] All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad. [9] Kings' daughters were among thy honourable women: upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir. [10] Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father's house; [11] So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him. (Psalm 45:6-11, KJV)

That Kingdom ruled by God is the same as the Kingdom ruled eternally by the Son of David. It is not an earthly kingdom, though it is present on earth in the Church, but a heavenly kingdom, the Kingdom of God. The Queen of that Kingdom is the Blessed Virgin Mary,  the Mother of the Lord God Jesus Christ.

Solemnity of the Incarnation
Year of the Father, 1999