Theotokos: Mary is the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church

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 in this way with extraordinary humility (1 Cor. 12:31). She shows us the pattern of our love surrendered to Love Incarnate, Jesus Christ. 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.
I am what is often called a ‘revert” to the Catholic Church in some circles. I did not become a Catholic Christian after having been a member of another Christian community. Though I was raised as a Catholic, I fell away from the practice of the ancient faith when my family all but stopped participating in the sacraments and living the faith as a central part of our life together. We were what could be called “cultural Catholics”, but the faith and the Savior had little to do with our life. My teenage search for meaning in life and hunger for the truth finally led me home to the Lord and His Church. However, the route was circuitous.
Among the places it led was to my reading of the “fathers” (early leaders) of the first centuries of the undivided Christian Church. In those ancient Christian writings, I discovered how the early Christians really viewed their participation in the Church as integral to their belonging to Jesus Christ. I also discovered how the early church worshiped and understood Christianity not as some sort of “add on” to life, but the very heart of a new way of life, now lived in Jesus Christ and with one another, by living in His Body, the Church, of which we are all members by Baptism. (1 Cor. 12) In other words, the Church was not some-thing, but Some-One.
After intensely questioning many of the teachings of the Catholic Church, in my personal journey back home to the Catholic Church, I came to understand 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 Jesus Christ, and not as much about Mary.
This declaration by a Church Council was spoken to confront and correct the growing heresies in the early Church which threatened to undermine the core proclamation of the Gospel about who Jesus Christ really was – and really is. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word Made Flesh, Jesus the Christ, was truly both God and Man. The Incarnation was – and is – absolutely 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 at that Council and came to understand what was really 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 began to make sense, in a new way.
My study of early Church history also revealed the presence of Marian piety and devotion existed in the very earliest years of the Church. It was expressed in the the extraordinary frescoes found in the catacombs and espoused with beauty and the anointing of the Holy Spirit in 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 through her example and prayer.
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 in my earlier questioning. 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 yetMY Mother.
The progression in my understanding of this aspect of my faith continued as I prayerfully reflected on the last hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry recounted in the fourth Gospel, the one written by the beloved disciple John, that this all began to unfold and become personal for me. John records, “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 in the Christian Tradition great theologians, mystics, popes and saints have all viewed John as representing you and me in that great exchange of love between Jesus and John, when the Savior spoke from the second tree, the Cross on Calvary. The last gift Jesus gave to us, before giving every drop of His Sacred Blood to set us free from sin and its consequences, was His mother. She is the mother of His eternal family. All who are baptized are now “incorporated” into Christ and become members of that family.
We now live our lives 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 – write concerning the “whole Christ”, meaning both head and body. (cf. Paul’s letters to the Colossians 1:15 -23, and the 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, we are members of His Church. He has given us His mother.
As the years unfolded I also found that many of the great influences in my Christian life, those members of that communion of saints to which we are all joined, were profoundly “Marian”. Francis of Assissi, Bernard of Clairvaux, the early church fathers, St Jose Maria Escriva all the way up to my champion, Saint John Paul II, all had a deep love and devotion to Mary as Mother. Then, the grace was given to me to see the beauty of this last gift from the cross and receive her as my own. 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.
The Catholic 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)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also explains, “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  the Mother of God. The word in Greek is “Theotokos“, which means bearer or mother of God. 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 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’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. Again, 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! (See, the exposition on grace in the Catholic Catechsim, CCC 1996-2003).
It is a privation, a lack, and can lead 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, in an act of simple faith, we can also miss the insight it can bring to understanding our own mission as a Christian disciple on mission. Every Christian is called 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 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.
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 evangelist 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 followed 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.
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 of life for us as well, if we choose to make it our own. 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 new way of living. All of this was in a continued response to an original invitation of love, a gift, initiated by a loving God.
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 in this way with extraordinary humility (1 Cor. 12:31).
Mary now shows us the pattern of our own love surrendered to Love Incarnate, Jesus the Christ. 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 the new creation, recreated in Jesus Christ. 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.
The 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. ( 1 Cor. 13)
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 “incarnated” in and through each of us so that He can be given to others. We become “God Bearers.”
We can 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 to experience His saving presence. When we begin to touch and grasp this profound insight we will 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, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, her Savior and ours.
In the Annunciation, the Spirit of God hovered 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 imagery speaks to us of the deeper mysteries of the Christian 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).
The encounter 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 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”. 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)
Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) wrote that “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 Catholic Catechism explains that “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).
Mary, my mother.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

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  1. Obviously a most sincere devotee…however,…sincerity not based on truth in the end is dangerous (John 4:24)
    Somewhat short on actual scriptural support…but not on conjecture…dogma does not necessarily equate to truth. I believe much dogma has evolved through eisegesis rather than exegesis. Reading into scripture has resulted in many heresies.
    Example; “John, behold your mother” – interesting that Paul, Peter, Jude and John did not explain that this means Mary is the “mother” of the church and Christians. If it is claimed that John meant this in Revelation 12:17, then it would have been an add-on nearly 60 years after the church was born – so for 60 years Christians would have missed out on this glorious truth.
    And noteworthy that the writer did not include Pope Francis as one who “had a deep love and devotion to Mary as Mother.”
    I suggest that proclamations of the church councils and the majesterium are not “God-breathed scripture” as per 2 Timothy 3:16.
    It is most striking that (apart from miss-applying parts of Revelation) Catholic scholars still do not clearly explain where the New Testament clearly teaches their doctrines, such as Mary and the saints praying for us (Paul always refers to LIVING Christians praying for each other). Using 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 to justify purgatory overlooks the fact that Paul is referring to “the day” – hardly a state/place of ongoing purgation up and to the final judgement. And if Maccabees is the main source, then why didn’t Peter, Paul, etc refer to this “scripture”?
    Hoping to have answers suggested…
    Sincerely yours…

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