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This Wonderful Title

Monday, December 28, 2015
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. fr Neil Ferguson reflects on the meaning of the title Mother of God.

The wonderful title “Theotokos” is one of the most sublime realities of the Christian faith. As Lumen Gentium says, “from ancient times the blessed Virgin has been venerated under the title of God-bearer” (§46).

Today's celebration is a day given over to contemplating the reality and the beauty of this doctrine. It is very fitting that we begin the new year by dedicating this day to Our Lady and her motherhood, and to ask for her powerful intercession that we can be faithful disciples of Christ for another year. So what does the doctrine of Mary as Theotokos involve? Basically there are two elements to the dogma. The first is that Mary is truly the mother of Jesus Christ. She gave him everything that every mother gives to every child. She is truly a mother and Jesus is truly her human child: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.” The second element is that because the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took on our human nature at the moment of conception, we can say that Mary is also truly the mother of God. She is “God-bearer”, the Theotokos, not according to the divine nature of Christ, but because of the unity of the divine-human man Jesus Christ, to whom she very definitely gave birth.

This unique role in the history of the human race is adorned with all sorts of graces. Mary was granted the privilege of being redeemed by Christ from the very moment of her own conception, so that she would be a fitting temple for the Lord. “The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his Temple.”

At the end of her earthly mission Mary was assumed, body and soul, into the glory of heaven, where she intercedes for us, and loves us both as fellow disciples, although we are still on our earthly pilgrimage. And as her children, for she loves us with a mother's tenderness. Of course, Mary was sinless all her life, and she remained a virgin the whole of her life, and even bore Jesus without any violation of her virginal state.

Catholic devotion has produced a marvellous compendium of all these doctrines in one of the best-known and best-loved prayers, the Hail Mary. In the first part of the prayer the humanity of Christ is stressed; “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” In the second part, the divinity of the Christ, and the intercessory power of Mary is stressed; “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death...” The unity of the whole prayer could be said to represent the unity of the person of Christ himself; Jesus Christ, true God and true man. We need never worry that any authentic devotion we give to Mary in any way detracts from the unique saving power and dignity of Christ for, to paraphrase St Bernard of Clairvaux, to honour the Son is to the honour the Mother, and vice-versa.

Catholic and Orthodox devotion to our Lady has produced so many beautiful hymns, prayers, liturgies and art, that they themselves seem almost evidence of the reality of these doctrines. Apart from the crucifixion the most commonly portrayed Christian image is that of the Mother and Child. One very beautiful old French prayer to Our Lady runs like this. “Blessed Mother of those whose names you can read in my heart, watch over them with every care. Make their way easy and their labours fruitful. Dry their tears if they weep; sanctify their joys; raise their courage if they weaken; restore their hope if they lose heart, their health if they be ill, truth if they err, and repentance if they fall. Amen.”

So to return to that wonderful title of Theotokos. A Latin prayer, the Sub tuum, was once thought to be a medieval production, which contained the all important phrase Mother of God, Theotokos. However, a papyrus found in Egypt around 1917 shows that the prayer is indeed a very ancient one, as is the title Theotokos, Mother of God, Dei Genitrix. The papyrus has been dated to c. 250, about 200 years before the great Council of Ephesus which officially introduced the title to the great Church.

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27|Galatians 4:4-7|Luke 2:16-21

The image used above is a detail from a chasuble in the Dominican Priory in Toulouse.


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