Mary the Mother of God

(Solemnity, January 1)

For years the Church calendar celebrated the octave of Christmas as the feast of Our Lord’s ritual circumcision according to Jewish law (Lk 2:21). After Vatican II had devoted special praise to Our Lady under the title “Mother of God”, Pope Paul VI authorized those who were revising the liturgy to change the name of the January 1 feast to “the Solemnity of the Mother of God”.

The Council itself expressed joy that not only the Roman Church but the Eastern Church separated from Rome continue to honor Mary by the title “Mother of God”. The Greek Orthodox use the word “Theotokos” to express the title: (this Greek word means “She who gave birth to God.”)

It must be pointed out, of course, that “Mother of God” does not mean “Mother of the Blessed Trinity”. What it does mean is that the person to whom Mary gave birth was truly the son of God and second person of the Trinity, who assumed a human nature in Mary’s womb. As St. John says, Jesus is “the Word… made flesh”.

We are dealing here with a divine mystery that we cannot ever fully understand, so even today some people misunderstand the meaning of “Mother of God”. Just a few years ago, for instance, a Rochester diocesan Catholic, in a letter to the Catholic Courier, said she could accept the title “Mother of Christ”, of Jesus, but not “Mother of God”. Most of us, I think, have a correct grasp of what the title means.

If, to the pleasure of the Fathers of Vatican II, most of the Eastern Churches staunchly call Mary “God’s Mother”, there was unfortunately one Eastern Church that long refused to use the title, and broke away from the universal Church on that basis. This was the Nestorian Church, today more commonly called the “Assyrian Church”.

Its members are called Nestorians because they followed the theology of Nestorius, a fifth-century Patriarch of Constantinople. Although Nestorius agreed with the definition of the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) that, as the Creed says, Jesus is “one in being (consubstantial) with the Father”, he warned his faithful against calling Mary the “Mother of God”.

This was because he tended to think of Jesus as having not only two natures, the divine and the human, but ALMOST as having two persons, the divine and the human, so that (in his thinking) Mary could be called the mother of Christ, but not the mother of God. It was the same mistake as noted above.

But the term “Mother of God”, in its correct meaning, had become early widespread.

An ecumenical council was therefore held at Ephesus, Asia Minor, in 431 to clarify the issue raised by Nestorius. The result was a joint declaration that it is correct to call Mary the “Mother of God”, for God the Son is “consubstantial with the Father in his divinity and consubstantial with us in his humanity.” Nestorius was hence condemned to exile, and a large following of his Christian devotees from Syria and Persia broke off unity with the rest, and thenceforth refused to call Mary “Theotokos”.

In the Middle Ages this Nestorian Church, strongly missionary, spread Christianity southeast into India and east into China. But when, in the 14th century, the Mongols under Timor Leng swept across Asia, they decimated the Nestorian Christians.

After that, the Nestorians remained a small denomination dwelling in and around Iraq, although a fair number came to the United States. Meanwhile a group of them reunited with Rome, and are called the “Chaldean Catholics”. They have their own Catholic patriarch, and one diocese in the U.S., with 55,000 members.

All along, the Nestorians had been more confused than heretical in their beliefs about Jesus’ two natures and his Mother’s right to the title “Mother of God”.

A great, if not widely recognized, event of the year 1994, proved that their beliefs were basically correct. On November 11, 1994, Pope John Paul II and the “Assyrian” Patriarch Dinkha IV (who resides in the U.S.) signed a pact agreeing that he to whom Mary gave birth was “the Son of God himself”, so Mary is his Mother.

This does not mean instant reunion of the 400,000 “Assyrians” with the Catholic Church. It is, however, a happy beginning.

How gratifying to know that on January 1, 1995, Catholic, Orthodox, and Assyrian alike, after 1,500 years, could at length agree in calling Mary “the Mother of God”.

--Father Robert F McNamara