Sunday, January 01, 2012

January 1st: Solemnity of the Mother of God

15th-century Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in the care of the Redemptorist Fathers.  Notice how everything about her -- the inclination of her head, her hands, even the lines of her garments -- points to her divine Son.
According to the pre-conciliar calendar, today is the Octave of Christmas, wherein the Church honors the Circumcision of the Lord, the Holy Name of Jesus which He received at His Circumcision, and the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin.  This feast celebrates obedience: the submission of Christ to the Mosaic Law, even though it did not apply to Him, so that He might fulfill it down to the last detail.  It also commemorates the first shedding of Christ's innocent Blood for sinful man.  The Collect of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form is the same as that in the Ordinary Form -- a fact not at all obvious in the English-speaking world until we got the new English translation at the beginning of Advent.

According to the post-conciliar calendar, the Feast of the Mother of God celebrates the fact that, though a creature, Mary is nevertheless truly the Mother of her Creator.  This was defined in A.D. 431 at the Council of Ephesus, when the Church condemned the errors of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople.  Nestorius held that Jesus is really two Persons: the human Jesus and the divine Jesus.  Thus, Mary is not really the Mother of God, but only the Mother of Christ.  In his Third Letter to Nestorius, which the Council approved, St. Cyril carefully explains that Jesus is one Person with two natures, human and divine, hypostatically united.  He then discusses the implications for the motherhood of Mary:
Therefore, because the Holy Virgin bore in the flesh God who was united hypostatically with the flesh, for that reason we call her Mother of God, not as though the nature of the Word had the beginning of Its existence from the flesh (for "the Word was in the beginning and the Word was God and the Word was with God", and He made the ages and is co-eternal with the Father and craftsman of all things), but because, as we have said, He united to Himself hypostatically the human and underwent a birth according to the flesh from her womb. This was not as though He needed necessarily or for His own nature a birth in time and in the last times of this age, but in order that He might bless the beginning of our existence, in order that seeing that it was a woman that had given birth to Him united to the flesh, the curse against the whole race should thereafter cease which was consigning all our earthy bodies to death, and in order that the removal through Him of the curse, "In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children", should demonstrate the truth of the words of the prophet: "Strong death swallowed them up", and again, "God has wiped every tear away from all face". It is for this cause that we say that in His economy He blessed marriage and, when invited, went down to Cana in Galilee with His holy Apostles.
The Council confessed the following in regard to the Hypostatic Union and the Mother of God:
We confess, then, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in His godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the Virgin, according to His humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the Holy Virgin to be the Mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from His very conception united to Himself the temple he took from her. As to the evangelical and apostolic expressions about the Lord, we know that theologians treat some in common as of one person and distinguish others as of two natures, and interpret the God-befitting ones in connection with the godhead of Christ and the lowly ones with His humanity.
We can see in the story of Nestorius and the Council of Ephesus the justice of honoring Mary as the Destroyer of Heresies.  Nestorius rejected the title "Mother of God," and instead called Mary the "Mother of Christ."  This appears reasonable on its face: Jesus after all is the Christ, and Mary is His Mother; hence, she is the Mother of Christ.  But this is precisely the danger of heresy, which often contains a kernel of truth that lends plausibility.  Although the title "Mother of Christ" is true as far as it goes, it was nevertheless wrong in the mouth and from the pen of Nestorius and his followers, because it was based on a wrong understanding of the two natures of Jesus.  The Church, on the contrary, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, upheld the title "Mother of God" as justified in view of the fact that Jesus is one Person with two natures, human and divine.  From this we can see that if we are wrong about Mary, we will be wrong about Jesus.  If, on the other hand, we get it right about Mary, we get it right about Jesus.  The truth about Mary dispels heresies and leads surely to the truth about her Son.

That is definitely worth celebrating.   


  1. I read a story somewhere that when the council made its declaration, there was dancing in the streets.
    I believe the Greek term "Theotokos" and the Ukrainian word "Bohoroditsa" both mean "God-bearer" or, more simply, Mother of God.
    There is a scene in the movie "Hunt for Red October" where a high Soviet official, startled prettly badly, exclaims, "Maty Bozha!" or "Mother of God!" -- which, along with "Gospody Pomiluy!" (as one wit pointed out decades ago) is what all good communists say when they get into trouble.

  2. Bob, I've heard or read the same story about dancing in the streets, crying, "Theotokos! Theotokos!" Also that the people of Constantinople rejoiced at having their heretical bishop deposed.