Kieran Fenn fms
More than statements of belief, the four Marian dogmas are four major affirmations about Mary.
They can be, and must be, made relevant to people in their present circumstances if they are to have meaning today.
Mother of God
The title ‘Mother of God’ is not found in the New Testament. It is not until Jesus is known as God, and the union of divine and human natures in the one person is recognized, that Theotokos (God bearer) is affirmed.
At the First Council of Ephesus in 431, the dogma of Mary as Mother of God was confirmed in the XII Anathematisms of St Cyril against Nestorius:
‘If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is truly God, and therefore that the blessed Virgin is truly Mother of God (Theotokos), for she bore according to the flesh him who is Word from God, let him be anathema.’
In recent times we have insisted more on the humanity of Jesus: Christianity’s great claim is faith in a God who came and lived among us as one of us – Emmanuel or God with us.
What is motherhood?
More than just a biological function, motherhood allows one’s children to live and to grow, while respecting each individual’s freedom and responsibility. It demands an attitude of attending to life in relationships, allowing fruitful growth and activity. This is something we can all, hopefully, relate to.
It is also an ideal the Church must aspire to: to listen to all her children, even to those that might not always agree with her. Good mothers know this.
Mary is not mother merely of the humanity of Jesus: she is human mother of the person who in his radical identity is ‘God from God, light from light’.
Mary and the Trinity
The gospels and the Nicene Creed speak of God as Father, the first divine person. But how does the motherhood of Mary affect our sense of the fatherhood of God?
Mary at the Annunciation receives the Son of the Father, through the overshadowing of the Spirit. For this she is honoured. The eternally begotten Son is brought forth into the world of creation, and subjected to it. ‘Born of a woman’, Jesus would know poverty, live in surrender to God, enter into the risk of living for the Kingdom of God, and suffer the consequences.
Having a human mother meant that the divine Son was not pretending to be human. He is the humanisation of the divine in the pain, darkness, and joy of human existence. In the womb of Mary, the world holds a divine reality within it; the Mother of Jesus is the Mother of God.
In giving and loving in her human maternal manner, Mary is the finest human expression of the love of the Father. She embodies a corrective to any excessive masculinisation of the divine. It is surely significant that the parental role of the Father is expressed through the love of a mother. In Hebrew, the term for the ‘mercy’ or ‘compassion’ of God is rahamim.Its original form, rehem, meant ‘the womb of a woman.’ It is hardly surprising then that our God shows mother love, and Mary expresses the love of a mother.
The history behind the dogma
Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople in the early 400s, got into trouble by pursuing a ‘two-natures’ (human and divine) Christology to an extreme, risking losing sight of their unity. Many Christians had begun to pray to Mary as Theotokos and Nestorius insisted this was wrong, for Mary was only mother of the human nature. When theologians cross popular piety, trouble breaks out.
In 451, the Council of Chalcedon declared that even after the incarnation there were two natures united in one person, so what is said of one nature applies to the other. Hence, one could indeed call Mary the Mother of God.
Pope Leo I offered a formula that incorporated Nestorius’s concern for a clear distinction between the two natures in Jesus: ‘Christ is one Person, the Divine Word, in whom two natures, human and divine, are permanently united without confusion and mixture.’ Chalcedon was to go on to say that Jesus was ‘born of the Virgin Mary … according to his humanity’.
This controversy indirectly promoted Mariology in the fifth century. The definition of theotokos was not a Marian definition, but a Christological one, intended to safeguard not the motherhood of Mary but the unity of Christ in one divine person.
But the Ephesus decision gave a major impetus to Marian devotion. The January 1 solemnity of the Mother of God was probably assigned this day because of the influence of the Byzantine Church.
The restoration of the feast to January 1 in the Roman church, owes much to Pope Paul V who, in his 1974 encyclical Marialis Cultus, wrote: ‘This celebration, assigned to January 1 in conformity with the ancient liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation.
It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the “holy Mother . . . through whom we were found worthy . . . to receive the Author of life”.’
References: Coyle, Kathleen. (1998). Mary in the Christian Tradition. Divine Word; Prevost, Jean-Pierre (1988) Mother of Jesus Novalis.
Image: Tangiwai, by Julia Lynch (Sr Mary Lawrence) from the website of Auckland’s Good Shepherd College.