(Our Lady of Pluscarden taken by Eileen Clare Grant)
“Mother of God” is the most ancient Marian title. We see that Christians addressed her by this title, both in the Latin and Greek speaking Churches in the earliest eras. Before thinking about the Scriptural basis, the history, and the meaning of this title, a good place to begin is with the devotion of early Christians to Our Lady as Mother of God. The oldest known hymn to Mary, dating from around the fourth century A.D. is Sub Tuum Praesidium:
“We fly to thy protection
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions in our necessities
But deliver us always from all dangers
O Glorious and blessed Virgin”
This ancient hymn reflects, as is ever the case, the testimony of liturgy and prayer to the continuity of the Church’s faith; it expresses the same confidence which such countless numbers of Christians since have acclaimed Mary as Mother of our Saviour and turned to her in trust as our Mother too.
The doctrine has a rich scriptural basis, and yet is also taught so simply and perfectly in the Gospels. At the Annunciation, the angel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). St John tells us that the Word, the only-begotten Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). These passages set out the essence of why we address Mary as Mother of the Saviour: if we believe in the divinity of the Son, and believe that He truly became man for us, we must also believe that Mary is Mother of God.
In the Old Testament, the Church has always found rich foreshadowing of Mary’s role in salvation history, and her identity as Mother is central to this. St Irenaeus of Lyons (c.120/140 – c.200 A.D) pondered on Paul’s description of Christ as the New Adam, and developed this in his great work Against Heresies by referring to Mary as the New Eve- as Eve’s disobedience led to alienation from God, Mary obediently brought the Son into the world. The first Eve’s name means, “mother of all the living” (Gen 2:20), a title which in Mary’s case refers to her spiritual motherhood of all those who are made brothers and sisters of her Son, the New Adam.
Since the nineteenth century, inspired in part by the great era of Marian apparitions, the Church has seen a flourishing of Marian theology. Following in the footsteps of the Church Fathers, this has involved pondering on the mystery of Mary in the light of types in the Old Testament. For example, standing alongside the patriarchs, we can see the feminine line of the great Old Testament matriarchs including Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah, mothers and faithful daughters of the Covenant, whose faith in the Covenant promises prefigures and is finally fulfilled through Mary’s bearing of her Son.
The doctrine of Mary as Mother of God, or Theotokos was first proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., in the midst of controversy brought about by the Nestorian heresy. In the previous century, the Church had struggled with the Arian heresy, which denied the true divinity of Jesus Christ. Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, was a prominent proponent of one of a number of related errors which effectively, in maintaining that Christ was true God, fell into the opposite error of denying that he was really a man. Nestorius disputed Mary’s title of Theotokos, and was scandalised by the notion that God was carried in a woman’s womb, was a helpless infant, suffered and died. One can have some sympathy with the concern of Nestorius and his followers, who were keen to protect the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, and perhaps didn’t dare to contemplate the holiness and transcendence of God getting mixed up with the mess of human life – but their understanding of who Christ was became confused and splintered. Some of them went as far as to think that Jesus was an ordinary man, born of Mary, but somehow linked with the second Person of the Trinity – they suggested that Mary was the mother of the man Jesus, but not of God the Son. The Council of Ephesus refuted Nestorianism and, in proclaiming Mary as Mother of God, proclaimed that Jesus Christ is both truly God and truly man. We see from this that in hailing Mary as Theotokos, we proclaim our faith in the most fundamental beliefs of the Church about Christ- the Son’s taking on of our flesh in the womb of his Mother Mary is the hinge upon which the doctrines of the Incarnation and Redemption turn. Such an old controversy still echoes across all times. The temptations to separate the divine Godhead from the man Jesus, to see God as distant and unknowable and Jesus as merely a righteous man upon whom God’s favour rested, are perennial.
We call Mary Mother of God not only on account of the bare physiological matter of her bearing Christ in her womb. Her fiat at the Annunciation was an expression of her expectant faith in the Lord, and her attitude of trusting co-operation with His grace; she becomes Mother of her God, as Elizabeth said at the Visitation, by her faith in God’s promises. Like any authentically human parenting, the ruling aspect of her motherhood, of her Son and of each one of us, is the spiritual aspect: the faith, hope and love with which she carried Him, cared for him, raised Him, listened to Him, followed Him to the Cross, and accepted his commission to be Mother to John, and to each one of us (Jn 19:26-27). She is blessed above all and uniquely united to her son not because she bore Our Lord in her womb, but because she pre-eminently hears the will of the Father and keeps it (Lk 28:11). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out, it is above all in her obedient faith that Mary is both a model and a mother to us, as the “purest realisation of faith” (CCC 149).
Mary is both a model and a type of the Church’s motherhood. Just as she bore her Son, the perfect revelation of the Father’s love and our salvation in her womb, the Church through preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments bears his life to us now, and through the grace of the sacraments, brings us to new life in him. And Mary, as Mother of all Christians continues to bear the life of her Son’s Spirit in us by her prayers. This association between Mary and the Church is captured in the figure of the Woman of Revelation 12:1, “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” in labour with all of her children until the final coming of the Kingdom.
Written by Alison Deighan