“Theotokos” is the special title under which Mary, the Mother of Jesus, have been venerated since the earliest days of the Church. Today, New Year’s Day, we celebrate her under this title, in the most recent major feast of Mary in the Church’s calendar, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, established only in 1970. Theotokos is a Greek word meaning “God-Bearer.” Usually translated “Mother of God,” it actually means a lot more. It was first defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 to mean that in the person of Jesus Christ, his humanity and divinity are inseparable. Jesus cannot be split up unto tow parts, one divine and the pother human. The means that Mary cannot be simply the mother of the human Jesus without being also, in a genuine sense, the Mother of God.
This has sometimes been misunderstood, both by some Catholics and by enemies of Catholic faith, as elevating her to some kind of “goddess” status. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is not “mother” in the same sense that God the Father eternally begets God the Son, in our understanding of the One God as Trinity. She is Mother of God only insofar as Jesus, her Son, is truly both God and Human.
If Jesus were only a very special human, sort of “Superman” with divine qualities, Mary would indeed have had reason to be a proud Jewish mama, but nothing more. When push comes to shove, I that’s what a lot of Christians believe, largely because both God and human is concept that it’s impossible to wrap our minds around. An early 4th-century priest in Alexandria named Arius popularized this notion, and it was a very attractive way of thinking about who and what Jesus was. However, many smart and holy people said, “Hey, wait a minute. This doesn’t really square with what the Gospels say.” Arianism got rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. But it persisted, especially in the West for another couple of hundred years, with even a lot of bishops and rulers falling for it.
The other side of Arianism, more attractive to the super-devout, was called Monophysitism, which held just the opposite: Jesus was really God appearing in human form, just like a lot of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses did. This would be very easy to understand especially by newly converted pagans. But the implications are that God is at best showing off and at worst a puppeteer playing games with us. Mary would be nothing more than the mother of a mask.
Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, thought he had the answer in proposing that humanity and divinity were kind of joined at the hip in Jesus Christ, distinct but existing side-by-side. Nestorian dualism had a slogan that Mary was the Mother of Christ (Christotokos) but could not be called Mother of God. Again right-thinking (i.e., orthodox) theologians said, “not quite.” If all that can be said is that divinity and humanity are sort of put together, but not inseparable, sin as alienation from God is not truly destroyed, but merely covered over.
The bottom-line message of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ not only paid the price of sin (however different theologies might conceive that) but more fundamentally bridges the gap between God and humanity that sin creates. The problem is that we cannot be brought into union with God if the “bridge” (Christ) is not truly anchored on both sides. In bringing Jesus Christ into the world, she is bringing the whole Christ – God human inseparable.
Authentic Catholic faith does not and never has worshipped Mary as divine. While certainly possessing a special relationship with her Divine Son (“do whatever he tells you” – Jn 2:5) and with the Church (“Behold your mother . . . behold your son” Jn 19:26-27), her closeness to God through Jesus only gives her a special place as intercessor, not as one who exercises the power proper to God alone. Even her own song, quoted in St. Luke, “for all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:48 ), affirms the rightness of her place in Christian devotion. Unfortunately, popular sentiment can too often been seen as venturing dangerously close to crossing that line.
While traces of devotion to Mary can be found as early as the second century, the fourth-century development of our understanding of who and what Jesus is became the foundation of the Church’s tradition of devotion to Mary. We can come to know Mary only through Jesus, just as we can receive Jesus only through Mary, the Theotokos – Godbearer.
Coming around full circle, the earliest title of Mary, Mother of God, has found its ultimate expression in the latest title of Mary, Mother of the Church, which was emphasized in the document Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”), the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council. If Mary is the Mother of the Whole Christ, including his divinity incarnate in his humanity, she is also the Mother of the Whole Christ, his Body extended through space and time.
As Mother of the Whole Christ, and therefore of the Church, she is also our Mother.
What a wonderful way to start the year!
See more on the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God at my Banquet of the Word, here.