Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mary, our Church's Theology

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

Today’s feast is like an icon, a sacred work of art which acts as a portal to pierce the veil of mystery and open us to the horizon of invisible world of the Divine. What is this icon I speak of? The most common Catholic symbol in the world, besides the crucifix, is the juxtaposition of the Son with the Mother; it is the icon of the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, or in Western art, the Madonna and her Child. We see a 3D rendition of this icon in the traditional Christmas crèche, the manger scene. Kneeling close to the manger of Jesus, which stands at the centre of the whole crèche scene, is his mother, who gazes upon her child with loving tenderness of a mother and also the adoration of a devotee. This simply captures her whole heart’s desire. No wonder the Church closes each night prayer with an anthem to her where we make this supplication, “Show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

To accuse Mary of being a distraction is to totally miss the mark when it comes to the Church’s teachings and especially the dogmas concerning Mary. The four Marian dogmas of the Church, two ancient (the Ever Virgin and the Mother of God) and two modern (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption), are essentially Christological as well as Christo-centric. The first two points to the nature of Christ and highlights his divinity, whereas the second two demonstrates in a concrete way his mission, the salvation of all humanity, already prefigured in his mother.

When speaking of Mary’s motherhood, Scripture constantly stresses two fundamental acts, or moments, which correspond to what common human experience considers essential for a real and full maternity to take place – to conceive and to give birth. We see these two moments in the angelic annunciation, “Behold”, the angel said to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” (Luke 1:31); and also in prophecy of Isaiah, “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son” (Isa 7:14). These two moments, often amalgamated into one single act of birthing, are easily discernible and differentiated today with advances (or some would say regression) in medical science: for instance, a woman can give birth to a child who is not her biological offspring but through artificial insemination. The title Mother of God (Dei Genitrix), used by the Latin Church, places more emphasis on the first of the two moments, the conception; whereas the title Theotokos, used by our Eastern cousins, places greater emphasis on the second, to the giving birth. In fact, the word ‘Theotokos’ literally translated means "The One who bore God" or "the God bearer.” The first moment, the conception, is common to both the father and the mother, while the second, the giving birth, belongs exclusively to the mother.

These ancient titles, whether it is the Mother of God (Dei Genetrix) or the God-bearer (the Holy Theotokos) expresses one of the greatest mysteries and paradoxes in Christianity. It is a title that has filled the liturgy of the Church with wonder and the subject of theological discourse. Because of it, Mary is not just an object of devotion in Christianity but also an object of theology, and that means that she is part of the discourse on God himself. To contemplate this title of Mary, would be to contemplate three important truths of our Catholic faith, Jesus, God and Mary herself.

First, the title ‘Mother of God’ speaks to us of Jesus. The title the Church uses to honour Mary’s name is testimony of the Church’s most central belief – that Jesus is both human and divine. If Mary is not the Mother of God, then either Christ is not God (and that is the denial of his divinity – the Arian heresy) or Mary is not his Mother (the denial of his humanity – the Docetist heresy). Finally, the title ‘Mother of God’ attests that Jesus is both God and man in the same person. This was the reason for which the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus adopted this august title for our Lady. It expresses the deep unity between God and man realised in Jesus and how God bound himself to man and united man to himself in the most profound unity that exists – the unity of the person.

Secondly, the title ‘Mother of God’ also speaks to us of God. In other words, it not only a Mariological or Christological title, but also a theological one. Mary’s divine motherhood attests to the humility of God, a God who not only condescended to take on our human condition, but a God who took on a mother and placed himself in her care. This is a powerful reminder that we, in our hubris, need not built pyramids or towers to reach the heavens to search for God. This is because God has already come down by silently entering the womb of a mortal woman. By entering into our mortal condition, God sanctified and deified our lives, injured by original sin. God became man in order that men may become gods.

The title ‘mother’ is not like any other title that can be given to a person without, however, affecting the very being of the person. To become a mother, a woman goes through a series of experiences that leave their mark forever and modify not only her physical appearance and physiological condition, but her very awareness of herself. It is one of those things that takes place once and forever. For instance, at my ordination, I began to grasp the profound meaning of the simple catechesis of Catholic doctrine I received when I was young, “once a priest, a priest forever,’ because of the character that ordination impresses on my soul. This is even more true of a woman: once a mother, a mother forever. In this case the character is not the invisible mark left by the event on the soul; it is a creature a child destined to live eternally beside its mother and to proclaim her such. Therefore, the title “Mother of God” is eternal and irreversible because irreversible is the incarnation of the Word.

And so as the world celebrates the beginning of a New Year and many start it off with a whole list of resolutions, let us as Christians echo the prayer of St Augustine as we make our own list of resolutions for this Year of Faith: “His Mother carried him in her womb, may we carry him in our hearts; the Virgin became pregnant with the Incarnation of Christ, may our hearts become pregnant with faith in Christ; she brought forth the Saviour, may our souls bring forth salvation and praise. May our souls be not sterile, but fertile for God.”

In fitting tribute to Mary, Mother of God, the Holy Theotokos, I close with the lyrics of this hymn that shows the profound connection between Mary and her son Jesus.

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the stem, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple's Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven's Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother's Son
By all things blest while endless ages run. Amen.

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