SOLEMNITY OF MARY, MOTHER OF GOD
– RICHARD P. McBRIEN-
The Blessed Virgin Mary is the greatest of the Church’s saints, and “Mother of God” (Gk. Theotokos; Lat. Deipara) is the highest of her titles. It is the basis for every other title and dignity accorded to her. Although she was the Mother of God from the moment she conceived Jesus in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26–38), her motherhood of God was not formally recognized by the Church until the first half of the fifth century, in response to a theological controversy.
Nestorius (d. ca. 451), the patriarch of Constantinople, argued that there are two whole and distinct natures in Christ, one human and one divine, each having its own “personal” manifestation. Nestorius and his supporters wanted to emphasize that the Son of God really took on our humanity. He became one of us in the flesh. It was Jesus, not the Second Person of the Trinity, who nursed at his mother’s breast and who later suffered on the cross. According to Nestorius, Mary was the mother of the human person Jesus, and not of the Son of God.
A crisis erupted when, in his preaching, Nestorius publicly denied to Mary the title “Mother of God” (Theotokos), calling her instead the mother of Christ (Christotokos). A general council convened at Ephesus to address the issue. The council condemned Nestorius’s views and affirmed that Mary was not only the mother of Christ in his human nature, but also of Christ as a divine Person. Therefore, Mary could indeed be proclaimed as the Mother of God.
After Ephesus, Marian feasts began to multiply and churches were dedicated to her in all major cities. By the middle of the seventh century, four separate Marian feasts were observed in Rome: the Annunciation [March 25], the Purifi cation [February 2], the Assumption [August 15], and the Nativity of Mary [September 8]. The growth of Marian piety was accelerated in the nineteenth century with the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854. During the same century, a spate of Marian apparitions were reported: at La Salette and Lourdes (in France) and in many other places. Various devotional customs developed, including the living Rosary, May processions with the crowning of a Marian statue, and the wearing of the Miraculous Medal and the scapular. The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) brought about a major change in Marian devotion by grounding it more firmly in the Bible and the liturgy of the Church and in situating Mary herself in the context of the mystery of the Church, as the first among the redeemed, as the disciple par excellence.
Formerly the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (stillcelebrated as such by the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches), January 1 has been devoted liturgically toMary, the Mother of God, since 1970, following the revision of the General Roman Calendar in 1969.