Mary the God-bearer

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The final days of Advent are upon us  Our readings and prayers focus less on the final coming of Jesus in glory; our attention is instead drawn to His coming in humility in a Bethlehem manger.

Our Old Testament reading from the prophet Micah speaks of “the time when she who is to give birth has borne” (Mi 5:1-4a).  Our second reading from Hebrews speaks of “when Christ came into the world” (Heb 10:5-10).  Finally, in our gospel, we encounter a Mary who is pregnant — as indeed the whole world is pregnant with the expectation of the coming Messiah. (Lk 1:39-45).

We meet Mary through the eyes of her cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.  Last week we reflected on how John the Baptist points out the Messiah.  The first person he gives that message to is his own mother, by leaping in her womb as Jesus draws near.

Elizabeth understands the significance of the message.  Her greeting to Mary from this gospel passage gives us the familiar words of the second half of the Hail Mary prayer.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:42-45).

Elizabeth’s words to Mary tell us volumes about the important and unique role that Mary plays in our faith, and in our lives as Catholics.  Non-Catholic Christians may sometimes accuse us of honoring Mary “too much,” but the Church honors Mary in the same way (and for the same reason) that Elizabeth honors her.  Look again at her words to Mary.

Blessed are you among women.  Why?  She gives us two reasons.  The second reason Elizabeth gives is because Mary believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.  Mary had faith in God even when what God promised seemed impossible by human standards.  Mary stands as a model for all Christians to trust in God and have faith in His promise.

But the first and most important reason Mary is called “blessed” is because blessed is the fruit of her womb.  Mary is most blessed among women — indeed, all generations will call her blessed (Lk 1:48) — because she is the mother of my Lord.  In other words, Elizabeth’s words of praise are only partly directed toward Mary and her faith.  They are mainly directed at the One being borne in her womb.

This is the key to unlocking all the Church’s teachings about Mary.  Everything the Church teaches about Mary is really about Christ.  Elizabeth’s addressing Mary as “Mother of my Lord,” is a prime example.  In the Eastern Church, the Blessed Mother is addressed by the Greek title Theotokos, which is literally translated “God bearer.”  In English we say “Mother of God.”  The appropriateness of this title was once a matter of debate in the Catholic Church (as it continues to be debated today between Protestants and Catholics).

As early as the second century we find writings of the Church Fathers referring to Mary as the Theotokos.  But in the early fifth century a monk named Nestor (for whom the Nestorian heresy is named) denied that Mary could be called the Mother of God.  He argued that she could only be called the “Mother of Jesus” or the “Mother of Christ.”  His argument was that God preexisted Mary and so Mary could not be God’s mother.

Nestor could make this argument only by drawing a sharp distinction between the humanity of Jesus and His divinity.  He espoused a theology wherein Jesus existed as two persons, one human and one divine.  Mary gave birth to the human person Jesus, he argued, not the divine Second Person of the Trinity.

The Catholic Church responded definitively to the Nestorian heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, by asserting that the two natures of Christ, human and divine, are united in one Person.  Mary should rightly be called the Mother of God because the Person to whom she gave birth was God.  In other words, this teaching about Mary is actually about Jesus and His divinity.

From the Council of Ephesus:

“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” (Formula of Union [A.D. 431]).

The fruit of Mary’s womb is Emmanuel, God-with-us.  Elizabeth is right in calling Mary the mother of her Lord.  She is the mother of the Lord of all of us, the one who has come to do the will of God (Heb 10:9), to reconcile sinners to the Father and thereby save a fallen world.

Jesus Christ still comes to us this day for the same purpose through His Body, the Church, which continues to carry out the Father’s will by offering reconciliation.  Remembering that Advent is a penitential season, let us resolve to make a good confession (if you have not done so already), and accept that gift that our Savior wishes to bestow upon us — the gift of forgiveness.  Christmas is a time of gift-giving, so let us not neglect this most important gift of all.  Let us be like John the Baptist, and leap for joy at His coming.