“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).
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
8 September 2017
Today we celebrate in the Church the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The life of the Church throughout history bears the mark of devotion to Theotokos, the Mother of God, whose fiat—her “yes” to the salvific plan of God the Father—brought the Savior and Redeemer of humankind into the world. The birth of the sweet Virgin is of special significance because it marks the beginning of her earthly life of holiness, lived out in preparation for that sacred and singularly unique day on which she would conceive the incarnate Son of God in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many holy women of the Old Covenant prepared for Mary who, in the fullness of time, bore the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. “After a long period of waiting the times are fulfilled in [Mary], the exalted Daughter of Sion, and the new plan of salvation is established” (LG 55; CCC 489).
Although our non-Catholic, Protestant Christian brethren often suggest that the Church places too much emphasis on the Virgin Mary, and some incorrectly believe Catholics worship her, it is through Mary that God the Father chose to bring the fullness of grace and truth into the world by deigning his incarnate Son to be born from her virgin womb. It is Mary who, by her faith, hope and charity, cooperated in “the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls” (CCC 968). It is Mary, therefore, who stands forever as the maternal mother in the order of grace, as the New Eve who, by her obedience, untied the knot bound from the former Eve’s disobedience, as the Church Fathers frequently taught.
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): The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother, so that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life. (LG 56; CCC 488)
As an exemplary member of the Church, Mary is also, by virtue of her complete cooperation with the divine impulses of the Holy Spirit, a living type of the Church who adores the Word made flesh and responds in fidelity to Christ’s every wish in carrying out his mission of salvation:
By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity. Thus she is a preeminent and . . . wholly unique member of the Church; indeed, she is the exemplary realization (typus) of the Church. (CCC 967)
It is clear that what the Church believes about Christ and the Virgin Mary are inseparable. What Catholics believe about Christ governs what they believe about Mary; what they believe about Mary reflects back on and illumines the Church’s Christology. If our theology concerning Mary (Mariology) is in error, so too will our Christology suffer the same. That is why, for example, the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) was of such great importance in giving its formal decree against Nestorius, insisting Mary is rightly to be honored as Theotokos (God-bearer). The erroneous theology of Nestorius, perhaps so somewhat unintentionally due to ignorance and careless definition of terms, suggested that Christ was split into two persons: the human person of Christ in whom God dwelt as in a temple, and the divine Person of the eternal Word. Nestorius insisted it was inappropriate to give to Mary the title of Theotokos, as Mother of God; she should be referred to as Christotokos (Christ-bearer, or Mother of Christ), according to him. However, if Mary gave birth to a mere man in whom God dwelt, then she did not give birth to the eternal, divine Word who assumed an individual human nature to himself, which places the entire doctrine of salvation in Christ at risk, since it is not possible for a mere man to redeem humankind collectively by offering a perfect sacrifice to God the Father.
Another source of misunderstanding among non-Catholics and/or Protestants is occasionally found in the title Theotokos, or Mother of God. Namely, some think that Catholics believe Mary gave birth to God the Father, or that the divinity of God finds its origin from her creaturely womb. If this notion is extended, it would mean that God had his origin in time, that he would, therefore, be finite and created, which cannot be God at all. The Virgin Mary did not give birth to the divinity of God as its origin but rather gave birth to the divine and human Person of Jesus Christ. Mary is the origin of the human flesh of Christ. That she is Theotokos affirms that the eternal, uncreated, divine Word (Logos) was made flesh in her womb; that the Son of God became incarnate, assuming an individual human nature to himself from within her body. That Mary is Theotokos confirms that Jesus of Nazareth is true God and true man; perfectly God and perfectly human.
One last common objection, briefly mentioned above, is that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary. This, too, is an unfortunate misunderstanding and completely false. Catholics worship the Triune God alone. When Catholics pray to Mary, they are using the word “pray” in the sense of “to entreat” or “to ask.” Catholics pray to Mary to form a relationship with the Mother of God and to seek her intercession before her divine, incarnate Son on their behalf. The honor properly given to Mary is termed Hyperdulia, a Medieval Latin word, which refers to the highest veneration given to Mary as the holiest of all creatures. This is contrasted with Latria, which refers to the adoration given to God alone. The term Dulia refers to the veneration and respect given to canonized saints in heaven other than the Virgin Mary. Again, the Church professes that Christ is the Son of God incarnate born of a woman; therefore, he is to be worshipped. But the woman who gave birth to the Son is a creature, a human woman—albeit a singularity unique, important, and perfectly holy one, whose burning faith, hope, and charity serve as an exemplary model for all Christians.
The circumstances surrounding the Council of Ephesus make clear that what we believe about Mary affects what we believe about Christ. To de-value Mary is to de-value the incarnate Son of God, the divine and human Redeemer of humankind.
Let us all meditate on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and, in so doing, enter more deeply into a relationship of intimate communion with her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
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Photo Credit: Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.