Catholics love Mary. It is one of the things that make us distinct. We celebrate her with rich devotions, profess our faith in beautiful Marian doctrines, and glory in her powerful intercession. But in our faith and devotion one article stands above all else – that Mary is the Mother of God. She gave birth to Jesus, the God-man. Marian dogma is perhaps the most misunderstood part of our Catholic faith. To grasp Mary’s divine maternity is the best way to understand and explain the whole mystery of Mary.
Mary has been revered under the title Mother of God (Greek theotokos) for a very long time. We find the title in the prayers of the Church in Alexandria in the 250s. The theology underlying this title is even more ancient. Scripture clearly affirms the both divinity of Jesus and his birth of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s role in the incarnation is affirmed in the most ancient creeds of the Church. The title – Mother of God – was finally affirmed as dogma at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The whole mystery of redemption is tied up in that title.
The title “Mother of God” or theotokos is, above all, a confession about the true nature of Christ. In the fifth century, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, denied that Mary could be truly “The Mother of God.” He confessed that she was “Mother of Christ,” but did not see how we can credit her with divine maternity. But the Council of Ephesus (and later, the Council of Chalcedon, 451) understood that our redemption is essentially connected to Mary’s divine maternity. In Christ, the divine and the human are truly joined. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Colossians 1:19-20)
Because Jesus is both God and Man, St. Paul likened him to a New Adam (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). In him the human race is restored. What we lost in Adam, we regain in Christ: namely, a share in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4) Furthermore, the parallel with Adam led the Church fathers to consider Mary’s role in this equation. If Jesus is the New Adam, they confessed, then surely Mary is the New Eve. At the annunciation, she said “Yes” to God, whereas Eve said, “No.”
Mary’s role as The New Eve is also connected to her virginal conception. The first Eve was physically the mother of the human race. But Mary’s role was to bring forth, in Christ, those born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13) Also, unlike the first Eve, the New Eve was totally consecrated to the will of God. (“Be it done to me according to thy word!”) Thus, her perpetual virginity is a sign of that total consecration. This is the more excellent way of discipleship that both Jesus and Saint Paul commend (Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7).
Because Mary is the Mother of the God-Man, she is also the Mother of the Church. In a mystical sense, Christ’s body is the Church. (Colossians 1:24). What we say of one, we can say (in a mystical way) of the other. When Saul of Tarsus was persecuting the Church, Christ said to him, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) For this reason, we can truly celebrate Mary as our Mother.
When we contemplate the divine maternity of Mary, we are led to consider the incredible dignity of her position. Only one person in the entire history of the human race can claim to be the Mother of God. In view of this dignity, in view of her role as the second Eve, as mother of the Church, as the maternal progenitor of a new race of spiritual men, and the most perfect exemplar of that race – it is more than fitting that Mary participate in our redemption in the most eminent way. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. The Blessed Virgin was sanctified from the very moment of her conception. Hence, we confess her Immaculate Conception.
January 1 is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. As you might suppose, it is my favorite Marian feast. Many years ago, I was struggling with the decision to become a Catholic. Like many non-Catholics, the Marian dogmas were initially a stumbling block to me. But as I began to contemplate Mary’s divine maternity – something which Protestants have also traditionally confessed – I realized the incredible dignity of the Blessed Virgin. Moreover, I began to see how the Marian dogmas fit together with the Church’s doctrine of salvation. In the end, the Blessed Virgin became not an obstacle to my Catholic faith, but a delightful motive. I, too, wanted her as my mother. Happy Feast Day!