Why I Believe that Mary is the Mother of God, Mother of the Church and Our Mother
I am what is often called a ‘revert” to the Catholic Church. Though raised as a Catholic, I fell away from the practice of the ancient faith when my family all but stopped participating in the sacraments. We were “cultural Catholics” but the faith and the Savior had little to do with our life. My teenage search for meaning in life and the truth finally led me home to the Lord and His Church. However, the route was circuitous.
Among the places it led was my reading of the “fathers” (early leaders) of the first centuries of the Church. In ancient Christian writings I discovered how the early Christians viewed their participation in the Church as integral to their belonging to Jesus Christ.
The Church is fundamentally relational.
After intensely questioning of many of the teachings of the Catholic Church in my journey home to the Church I came to see that the pronouncement of the early Church Council of Ephesus (431 AD) that Mary is “Theo-tokos”, Greek for Mother of God, was a profoundly Christological declaration – it speaks about Christ.
It was spoken to confront and correct growing heresies in the Church which undermined the core proclamation of the Gospel about who Jesus is. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word Made Flesh, Jesus the Christ, was truly both God and Man. The Incarnation was central to the Christian claim. The One whom Mary bore was and is truly God and truly man.
I studied the historic background of the proclamation and came to understand what was truly at stake. When I read this simple proclamation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church years later, “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.”(CCC #487) it all made sense.
My study of early Church history revealed the presence of Marian piety and devotion, from the extraordinary frescoes in the catacombs to the reflections of the early church fathers on the significance of her role in salvation history and her continued role in the life of the Church.
As my knowledge of the lives of the saints, and their prayer lives increased, I had to decide whether all of their writings about Mary reflected some kind of “bad theology” or, perhaps, I had missed something. Fortunately, I arrived at the proper conclusion.
But, even after all that, Mary was still to me the Mother of the Lord. I could accept in concept that she was a mother to the Church, but not yet “my Mother”.
The progression continued. It was only as I prayerfully reflected on the last hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry recounted in the fourth Gospel, the one attributed to the beloved disciple John, that this all began to unfold and become personal for me.
“When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother’” (John 19: 26-27).
Throughout the Church’s rich history and Tradition great theologians, mystics, popes and saints have all viewed John as representing you and me. The last gift Jesus gave before giving every drop of His Sacred Blood was His mother.
We who are baptized are now “incorporated” into Christ. We live our lives now in His Body. (1 Cor. 12) The Head and the Body are eternally joined in a communion of love. St. Augustine – and countless Saints both East and West – writes concerning the “whole Christ” as both head and body. (cf. Colossians 1:15 -23, Ephesians 4:15,16).
Everything Jesus has He has given to His Church. That includes His Mother. She is also the Mother of His Mystical Body, His Church and we are members of that family which He has formed called the Church.
As the years unfolded I found that every one of the great influences in my Christian life from that communion of saints to which we are all joined was profoundly “Marian”. Francis of Assissi, Bernard of Clairvaux, the early fathers, St Jose Maria Escriva all the way up to my champion, Blessed John Paul II, all had a deep love and devotion to Mary as Mother. I began to pray Blessed John Paul’s prayer of consecration, “Totus Tuus” and made it my own.
Then, the grace was given. This little Virgin from Nazareth whose “yes” brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven went from being the mother and a mother to – “my mother.”
Our Catechism reminds us “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ. “God sent forth his Son”, but to prepare a body for him, he wanted the free co-operation of a creature. For this, from all eternity God chose for the mother of his Son a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee, “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk. 1:26,27).(CCC#487, 488)
So, LET US REFLECT ON THE MOTHER OF GOD as Mother of the Church and our Mother
“Called in the Gospels “the mother of Jesus”, Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as “the mother of my Lord”. In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly “Mother of God” (Theotokos), (CCC, 495,496; Council of Ephesus, 431 AD).
From antiquity, Mary has been called “Theotokos”, or “God-Bearer” (Mother of God). The word in Greek is “Theotokos”. The term was used as part of the popular piety of the early first millennium church. It is used throughout the Eastern Church’s Liturgy, both Orthodox and Catholic. It lies at the heart of the Latin Rite’s deep Marian piety and devotion. This title was a response to early threats to ‘orthodoxy’, the preservation of authentic Christian teaching.
A pronouncement of an early Church Council, The Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., insisted “If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the “Theotokos” (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema.” (The Council of Ephesus, 431 AD)
The Council’s insistence on the use of the title reflected an effort to preserve the teaching of the Church that Jesus was both Divine and human, that the two natures were united in His One Person. Not only was that teaching under an assault then, it is under an assault now, and failing to “get it right” has extraordinary implications.
The reason that the early Church Council pronounced this doctrine was “Christological”, meaning that it had to do with Jesus Christ. One of the threats was from an interpretation of the teachings of a Bishop of Constantinople named Nestorius.
Some of his followers insisted on calling Mary only the “Mother of ‘the Christ'”. The Council insisted on the use of the title (in the Greek) “Theotokos,” (“Mother of God” or “God-bearer”) to reaffirm the central truth of what occurred in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This has profound implications for you and for me. Gregory of Nazianzus – “What He has not assumed He has not Healed.”
Rejection of the truth revealed in this beautiful title of Mary has also led to a diminution in the understanding and role of Mary, impeding some Christians from grasping a deeper truth concerning the meaning of Mary’s life – her Fiat, her “Yes” to God’s Will. That is who we are becoming as we cooperate with grace! (Grace CCC 1996-2003).
It is a privation, leading to a reduced understanding of the call to every Christian to live our lives for God as Mary did. It has undermined our mission to bring the world to the new world, recreated in her Son, the Church which is His Body on earth and a seed of the Kingdom which is to come. The Church, of which we are members through baptism, continues His redemptive mission until he returns.
When we fail to receive the gift of Mary as Mother we can also miss the call of every Christian to bear Jesus for the world as she did. That is why we should re-examine the deeper implications of the treasure that is found in the life example and message of the little Virgin of Nazareth.
This wonderful title, Mary, the Mother of God, “Theotokos”, reveals a profound truth not only about Mary, but about each one of us. We are now invited into the very relationship that she had with her Son. We can become “God-bearers” and bring Him to all those whom we encounter in our few short days under the sun.
Like many holy men and women throughout Church history, Blessed John Paul II had a deep devotion to Mary. His Marian prayer of consecration has been taken up by many as their own, Totus Tuus ego sum et omnia mea tua sunt. Accipio Te in mea omnia. (I am all yours -and all I have is yours. I welcome you into all my affairs and concerns.) It is adapted from the Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary of St. Louis de Montfort’s Way.
In the undivided Church, East and West, for the first 1,000 years, devotion to and love of Mary was a shining light of the profound prayers, reflections and writings of the Christian Church. When one probes the lives of Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairveaux, Therese of Liseux, the late Theresa of Calcutta and so many others within the western Christian tradition. In the East it was even more pronounced as is evident in their Liturgy.
Jesus called her “Mother” and he entrusted her, as one of his last and greatest gifts to his beloved disciple and to the entire Church with these tender words of entrustment in the Gospel of John: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26, 27).
Mary was there at the Incarnation, Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of God Incarnate. She was there throughout the often called “hidden years” in Nazareth. In the life of the Redeemer, every word and every act was redemptive, revealing as it does the very life of God, the mystery of heaven touching earth, and the deeper purpose of our own lives. She was there in those moments whose impact is timeless. They are still as filled with the invitation of grace today as they were when they first occurred.
She was there on the great day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. She was there as the first evangelizer and disciple who gave the first Christian testimony to her cousin, Elizabeth, and won the first convert “in utero” in the person of John the Baptist. This event, traditionally called “The Visitation,” is recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke l: 39-45).
This encounter immediately follows the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:6-38) and is one of the fruits of her humble obedient response. That response was not a onetime reaction. It was the fruit of a life of surrender and stretched forward to characterize her whole life on this earth and her participation in the eternal communion of Saints. The Prayer of Mary is more about being than doing. It is about surrendered love to God.
Her “Fiat” (Latin, let it be done) in response to the visitation from the messenger of heaven, the angel, provides a pattern of prayer and a way to live for us. It immediately issues forth in the fruit of her praise, her “Magnificat.” She said “Yes” to the invitation to love and she humbled herself. She confronted her own fears and she entered into a way of living. All of this was in continued response to an original invitation of love, a gift, initiated by a loving God.
It reveals the meaning of life for all men and women. God is not an “add on” to our life. Rather, He is its source and its summit. There is a way, a pattern that all men and women are invited into – not just once, but daily. It reveals the path to authentic peace and is the portal of the mystery of meaning itself.
It is what Christian Scripture calls the “more excellent way,” the way of love. Mary understood and walked this way with extraordinary humility (1 Cor. 12:31). She shows us the pattern of love surrendered to Love.
Is it any wonder that the early Christians painted her image in the catacombs during their moments of fear, persecution and doubt? They found great inspiration from this little woman of great faith. In her “yes” they came to understand that ordinary people can change human history. They were inspired to add their own “yes”, their own “fiat” to hers.
Justin Martyr and many other early Christian apologists found in her “fiat”, her obedient “yes” to the angel, the undoing of the “no-I will not serve” given by the first woman Eve. They called Mary “The Second Eve”, the mother of a new creation. In her womb was carried the One whom Scripture calls the “New Adam”, he was born from her as the first born of a new race of men and women who would find a new birth through His life, death and Resurrection.
That same Redeemer now resides within, and lives through, all those who respond to the invitation of Love like she did. Mary’s choice, her response to the invitation of a God who always respects human freedom, is a singularly extraordinary event in all of human history. However, it is meant to be much more. It is an invitation to each one of us to explore our own personal histories and to write them anew in Him by exercising our own freedom by choosing the more excellent way.
Mary shows us the way to surrender to God’s loving invitations in our daily lives; a path, to living a life of surrendered love. When we embrace it , It allows Love Incarnate, the Savior whom Mary bore to be, in a real sense, to be “incarnated” in and through each of us so that He can be given to others. We become “God Bearers.”
We become the tent and the ark within which that same God takes up His residence, comes to dwell, in our age – which is so desperately needs His saving presence. When we begin to touch and grasp this profound insight we not only find ourselves transformed but learn how to become the vehicles through which Love is incarnated for all those around us. He comes to dwell in all men and women who say “Yes” to Him. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14:23)
Mary shows us how to participate in the ongoing incarnation of God’s Love for the sake of world; to live redemptively, participating in the ongoing redemptive work of her Son and our Savior Jesus Christ.
We are called to bear God to an age in need. In living this kind of surrendered life we are transformed and participate in the mediation of God’s love to others. The ongoing creative and redemptive work of God’s love continues through us. That is, if we learn to respond the same way Mary did: “Behold the servant of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy word.”
In the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke we read of the encounter between the Angel Gabriel and Mary: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”And the angel said to her in reply, “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.
“And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:26 – 38).
The imagery surrounding this encounter speaks to us of the deeper mysteries of the faith. This overshadowing is connected, through its symbolic language, to the creation account when the Spirit hovered over the waters (Gen 1:2). It also calls to mind the creation of Adam, the first man, who was fashioned out of clay. The Lord breathed the breath of life into him and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7).
In the Annunciation, the Spirit of God hovers over this chosen woman whom the early fathers called the Second Eve, whose “yes” undid the “No” of the first Eve. In Jesus, the Incarnate Word, the new creation begins. He is the New Adam (See, e.g. 1 Cor. 15: 45- 49) in whom and through whom creation begins again, through the Holy Spirit.
The encounter also calls to mind the cloud of glory which covered the mountain when God gave Moses the Law on Sinai (Exodus 24). Here the cloud overshadows the one through whom the New Law of Love, the Incarnate Word, would be born for the sake of the world. The cloud also covered the Tent of Meeting (Ex 40), and no one was able to enter because the glory of God filled the tabernacle and Mary is the living tabernacle, the Ark of the new covenant, the dwelling place of God Incarnate, the new temple.
Throughout God’s relationship with Israel He promises to espouse His people to himself (See, e.g. Hosea 2:19). This language of spousal love, of nuptiality, is also present in this overshadowing by the Holy Spirit.
She becomes the Spouse of the Spirit and her “Fiat” becomes the model for all who bear the name “Christian”. In fact the language of nuptiality continues throughout the New Testament wherein the Church is the bride of Christ and the final book of the Bible, the Revelation, depicts the wedding feast of the Lamb.(See, e.g. Rev. 19:7-9)
One of the early Church Fathers, the great Cappadocian, Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the fourth century, tells us “What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the Godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for we “no longer know Christ according to the flesh’, but he dwells in us spiritually and the Father takes up his abode with him, the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each one of us.” (On Virginity)
The beloved disciple John tells us of the last gift that Jesus gave to all of us before He surrendered His life for the redemption of the world. That gift was His Mother: “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26,27).
From the earliest centuries of the Church this gift of a mother has been reflected upon in some of the most beautiful writings in the Christian tradition. Jesus gave us His Mother. The Church is fundamentally a relational reality. Through Baptism we now live our lives in the Lord by living in His Body, the Church, through which he continues his redemptive mission. For most of us, much of that life is lived within the smallest cell of the Body of Christ, the “domestic church” of the Christian family.
The Catholic Catechism tells us: Since the Virgin Mary’s role in the mystery of Christ and the Spirit has been treated; it is fitting now to consider her place in the mystery of the Church. “The Virgin Mary is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and of the redeemer. She is ‘clearly the mother of the members of Christ’ since she has by her charity joined in bringing about the birth of believers in the Church, who are members of its head.” “Mary, Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church” (CCC 963).
Thus, Mary is also the mother of the domestic church. She was – and is – a real mother. Understanding this is truly important if we hope to respond to the universal call to holiness. It is in our ordinary lives that we encounter the Lord and it is there where we grow into His Image. That is what holiness is all about. We never really leave the Church. We leave the building where the Liturgy is offered, but we live in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
And, yes, we have a Mother in this eternal family, the Mother of the Lord Jesus.