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Part 5: Mary is the Mother of God
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 11, 2015)
The following is the fifth part of our Mary 101 series.
The early Christians usually referred to Mary in their writings in one of two ways. First, they simply called her "The Virgin" (a reference to the miracle of the virginal conception of Jesus Christ in her womb, and also to Mary's lifelong virginity), and second, they called her "The Mother of God."
In his book Introduction to Mary, Catholic theologian Dr. Mark Miravalle clearly explains for us what this second title means:
Mary is the Mother of Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore Mary is Mother of God. Since Jesus is truly the Son of God, and Mary is repeatedly referred to in Scripture as the "Mother of Jesus" (Mt 2:13; Jn 2:1; Acts 1:14, etc.), then Mary must be the true Mother of God made man.
St. Paul also witnesses to the Divine Maternity when he states in his letter to the Galatians: "When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman" (Gal 4:4). (Miravalle, Introduction to Mary, pp. 52-53)
We need to be clear that the early Christians never claimed that Mary was the Mother of the Son of God in heaven, before he came to earth — that would be impossible! Mary is a creature, and a creature cannot bring into existence a divine Person in heaven. After all, the divine Son of God exists eternally, whereas Mary only came into existence at her own conception and birth in the first century B.C. By calling her "The Mother of God," the early Christians simply meant to say that she was the Mother of the divine Son of God in his human form — the Mother of God incarnate ("incarnate" comes from the Latin "incarnatus," which means "in the flesh").
Two key scripture passages that the early Fathers frequently cited in defense of this title for Mary were Isaiah 7:14 and Luke 1:43. Isaiah's prophetic promises of the coming of Christ include this familiar one: "Behold, a young woman [or virgin] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" [meaning, "God with us"]. In other words, the Messiah was to be born of a woman, and yet he would be in truth "God" dwelling in our midst. Then in Luke 1:43, when St. Elizabeth hears the greeting of her kinswoman Mary, she exclaims with joy: "And why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" Saint Luke clearly intends his Jewish-Christian readers to catch the reference here in Elizabeth's words to the story of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, when David also exclaimed with fear and joy: "How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?" (see 2 Sam 6:9ff). In short, St. Elizabeth is referring to Mary as a new "Ark" of the Lord; her body is the ark, and within her womb she carries the Lord himself. Mary is therefore the Mother of our divine Lord, of "God with us" in human form.
Again, Dr. Miravalle explains:
What precisely does Mary give to Jesus in her act of motherhood? First of all, Mary did not give Jesus his divine nature [that is, His divine attributes such as infinite power, knowledge, and love], nor did Mary give Jesus his divine personhood. Both of these divine aspects of Jesus Christ existed from all eternity. However, "when in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman" (Gal 4:4), Mary gave to Jesus a human nature identical to her own. (Miravalle, p. 55)
On the other hand, it would not be true to say that Mary was the Mother only of Christ's human nature, because no one can give birth to something vague and abstract like "human nature." Mothers do not give birth to "human nature" or human "attributes" in the abstract, but to persons with a human nature. In other words, a real, flesh-and-blood "human nature" always has to belong to someone; it has to be "someone's" human nature that is born. In this case, the "someone" was the divine Person of the Son of God: it was the divine Son himself, in his human nature, that was present in Mary's womb, and that was born in Bethlehem. That is why we can say that Mary was the Mother of God: because the Son of God received his human flesh from her and was born from her as a fully human being.
This is the wonder of the Incarnation: God the Father loved us so much that he sent his only Son into the world to be one of us, to share our human condition and human limitations, and to walk with us through all the joys and sorrows of a real human life. And just like us, his human journey began in the womb of an earthly mother.
The Witness of the Early Church Fathers
Blessed John Henry Newman tells us that Christian writers in the early Church never ceased to wonder at this mystery that the divine Son came down from heaven and humbled himself to be born of a virgin. While the reader may not recognize the names of all the saints and early Church Fathers that Newman mentions, the sheer number of them, and the fact that they come from all over the ancient Christian world, is certainly a sign that this consensus among the greatest teachers of early Christianity was a work of the Holy Spirit. He wrote:
Christians were accustomed from the first to call the Blessed Virgin "the Mother of God," because they saw that it was impossible to deny her this title without denying St. John's words, "The Word" (that is, God the Son) "was made flesh."...
The title Theotokos [in Greek; God-bearer], as ascribed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, begins with ecclesiastical writers of a date hardly later than that at which we read of her as the Second Eve. It first occurs in the works of Origen (185-254), but he, witnessing for Egypt and Palestine, witnesses also that it was in use before his time. ...
In the fourth [century, St.] Athanasius ... uses it many times with emphasis, [as does St.] Cyril of Palestine, [St.] Gregory of Nyssa and [St.] Gregory Nazianzen of Cappadocia. ... The emperor Constantine, in his speech before the assembled bishops of Nicea [in 325 A.D.], uses the still more explicit title of the "Virgin Mother of God;" which is also used by [St.] Vincent ... in the south of France, and then by [Pope] St. Leo.
So much for the term; it would be tedious to produce the passages of authors who, using or not using [the title], convey the idea. "Our God was carried in the womb of Mary," says St. Ignatius, who was martyred in A.D. 106. "The Word of God," says [St.] Hippolytus, "was carried in that Virgin frame." "The Maker of all," says Amphilochius, "is born of a Virgin"... "God dwelt in the womb," says [St.] Proclus.... "He is made in thee," says [St.] Augustine, "who made thee." (John Henry Newman, The Mystical Rose. Princeton: Scepter, 1996 edition, pp. 98, and 25-27).
In fact, the early Christians believed that this title for Mary, "Mother of God," was a summary of the whole mystery of the Incarnation. As a result, they defined it as a doctrine of the faith at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. They declared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be "The Mother of God" (in Greek, Theotokos), ratifying the teachings of St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria at the time, who had written: "Emmanuel [Jesus Christ] in truth is God, and on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God in as much as she gave birth to the Word of God made flesh."
Follow along with our Mary 101 series..
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.