When, in 431 AD, the Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as Mother of God (Theotokos), it was interested more in defending the truth about Christ than in the secondary, but happy, side-effect of promoting the veneration of Mary.
“Mother of God” is a litmus test for orthodox thinking about Christ. Whichever way we turn, “Mother of God” saves us from heresy. To any claim that Jesus is a mere man, albeit perhaps especially influenced or inhabited by God, we proclaim: “Mother of God”. If anyone claims that Christ is not fully human, not really one of us and born into our race, we cry out, “Mother of God”.
As St John Damascene taught, “If she who gave birth is Mother of God, then He who was born of her is definitely God and also definitely man” (De fide orthodoxa lib. 3).
A common objection to this doctrine is that Mary contributes nothing towards Christ’s divinity and, furthermore, the Son she gives birth to, as the Eternal Son of the Father, pre-exists her. Can a son come before his mother? But this would be to misunderstand what we are saying when we say “Mother of God”. She did not give him His divine nature, of course; that comes from the Father. Rather, Mary does what every other human mother does: she furnishes the humanity of her child.
Of course, the soul of any child comes directly from God, not from the child’s mother. But like your mother and my mother, Mary is the true source of the humanity of her child by her limited but essential material contribution. Furthermore, mothers give birth to persons (to William or John or Helen) and not natures, and the person born of Mary in the stable at Bethlehem was God, and that makes her truly the Mother of God.
From this divine motherhood, all her other privileges flow. By her immaculate conception she is free from all stain of Original Sin and even from minor personal sin for the sake of her mission to be the Mother of God. She conceives without the help of a man so that, having no earthly father, the one born of her would appear more clearly as the Only-Begotten of the Father. It is as His true mother and in conformity with the commandment to honour your father and mother (Ex 20:12) that the Son honours Mary in the Assumption. Her divine maternity is the beginning of her singular cooperation with God in the salvation of mankind: and this makes her mother to all of us, in the order of grace.
Mary’s free consent, her fiat, to Gabriel’s invitation is an integral part of her divine maternity. We might even say that were motherhood merely imposed upon her, she would be physiologically the mother of one who is God, but not truly Mother of God. It is an office embraced, nor merely conferred; and certainly not imposed.
This reminds us that, while Mary’s motherly union with Christ by flesh and blood is quite stupendous, even more wonderful was her spiritual union with Him. St Augustine says that she first conceived Christ in her heart by faith before conceiving Him in her womb (Discourses, 215, 4). There never was a creature that loved God more than Mary; it was out of this unique love that Mary was able, at the Annunciation, to consent to become the Mother of God.
Mary is the first disciple of her Son, and our model. Of course, we cannot imitate Mary in her physical motherhood, but we can and ought to imitate her spiritual maternity. Jesus tells us that anyone who does “the will of God” (Mark 3:34) becomes His mother. We too are called to become a theotokos (a God-bearer), of sorts. We have our own fiats to utter by which “our hearts become pregnant with faith in Christ” (Augustine, Sermon 189, 3). And like Mary’s second act as mother, we have our own visitation to make. Pregnant with Christ, we bring Him to others, and even bring Him to birth in others.
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