In our celebration of the Solemnity of the Mother of God, we declare Mary as Theotokos – the “God-Bearer.” It is not so much for Mary’s sake that we proclaim this, but to protect the identity of Christ. Here’s how we defend it.
Jesus is both human and divine. As such, he has two will – one human, and one divine – that are constantly in communication with one another. In the study of Christ, this is called, Communicatio Idiomatum – the “communication of properties.” Although Christ has two wills, the divine will always work through the human will.
If it seems we are talking about two persons, that is incorrect. There is only one person. A person is an identity. When we ask Christ, “who are you,” we are asking his identity. The correct answer is he is the Second Person of the Trinity. A person also has a nature. When we ask Christ, “what are you?” the correct answer is that he is human, and he is divine. So Jesus is one person, the Second Person of the Trinity, but who has two natures. How can we say that?
Because of the communication idiomatum, whatever we say of one of the natures is true for the whole of Christ. For example, since Jesus has a human nature, we say he is fully human. Since Jesus also has a divine nature, we say he is fully divine. This is how we can say Jesus is both fully human, and fully divine at the same time. Since Mary is the mother of Jesus who is fully divine, we say she is the Mother of God.
Nestorius was the poster child of those who will not accept calling Mary under this title because they think it is tantamount to making her a goddess. Today others don’t subscribe to this title because they think it means Mary came before God. But they are missing the point, and we will get to that in a bit.
Many theories were put forward to quash the title Mother of God. Nestorius even put together the idea that in Jesus there were two persons: one human, and one divine. That’s absurd because that’s like having a split personality. There are even iterations of this idea today. For example, some think the Second Person of the Trinity became human, and in so doing lost his divinity and became only human in Jesus. There is an opposite idea that claims the Second Person of the Trinity only took human form and pretended to be human. So he pretended to suffer and be crucified during the Passion? No, no, no! Once again: there is one person, the Second Person of the Trinity, who assumed humanity without losing his divinity.
You can see how the Church had to hammer out the true identity of Christ by knocking down heresies, one of which was to call Mary, “Mother of Christ” but not, “Mother of God.” This, they claim, is because Mary did not give Christ his divinity. Therefore, she is just the mother of Christ’s humanity. But that is to misunderstand motherhood. Mothers DO NOT give birth to natures or component parts!
When a child is conceived, a father and mother contribute to the body, but it is God who provides the spirit so that the body is given life. But when the child is born, we don’t say that the mother is the mother only to the body of the child. No, a mother is a mother to her child – body, spirit, and nature. That is because mothers do not give birth to component parts but to whole persons. Regardless of who contributed the parts or the natures, she is mother of the person to whom she gave birth. In the same way, Mary did not give birth to the human nature of Jesus, but to the whole person – body, soul, human nature, and divine nature.
Here is the point that heretics miss: the title “Mother of God” is not so much a statement about Mary’s identity but of her son’s. It does not elevate Mary to goddess status. It is not meant to indicate she came before God. The title, in its sheer simplicity, states what it is we believe – that Jesus is God.
Another title we give Mary is “Destroyer of Heresies.” We can see why. The title attributed to her, “Mother of God,” safeguards our idea of her son’s humanity and divinity. Even as a title, she defends the identity of her son. What a mother!
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Joby finished Theology courses from the University of Notre Dame. He is a contributing writer at www.catholic365.com, and teaches in the De La Salle College of St. Benilde where he engages students in conversations about religion, pop-culture, and food.
Did you ever wonder how Mary is the Help of Christians or a Vessel of Honor?
Mary's titles express how the Church presents her, but some are obscured by language and culture. The book A Sky Full of Stars, explains all her titles in the litany so we get to meet Mary face to face.
Bishop Socrates Villegas says, "A Sky Full of Stars must be an obligatory reference material for religion teachers and seminarians. It helps the reader to see the Virgin Mary within the perspective of sound biblical theology and solid Catholic tradition... [and is] also easy to understand."