Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Loftiest Title

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

A week after Christmas, most shopping malls are already over the hype that led up to that celebration. But our own Christian celebration of Christmas, however, has not ended. Though, it is the shortest liturgical season in our Church’s calendar, the Church does not hesitate to pull out all the stops to surprise and entice us with a slew of celebrations. While the world celebrates the threshold of a new year, the Church invites us to pause to consider one of the major implications of Christmas and the Incarnation: the woman who gave birth to Emmanuel – God with us. The Mass of today salutes her who in her womb bore the King of heaven and earth, the Creator of the world, the Son of the Eternal Father, the Sun of Justice. By virtue of her relationship to Jesus Christ, the Church honours her with the loftiest title possible for any human person, “Mother of God.”

How can it be, that a human being, the Blessed Virgin Mary, becomes the Mother of God?  Why would the Church, or to be more precise, the Holy Spirit inspire both St Luke to record the event of the Visitation and St Elizabeth to utter these words, ‘Mother of my Lord’? The easy answer is: God willed it so, He willed to be born of a woman. But here comes the technical answer: We hail Mary with such a lofty title in virtue of her role in the plan of salvation which Saint Paul so beautifully summarised: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman… so that we might receive adoption as sons.” To acclaim Mary as the Mother of God is to acclaim Jesus Christ as the Son of God, God made man. The title of Mary is actually Christological. To deny one would be to deny the other.

Objection to this lofty title is not something new or which arose from the Protestant Reformation. In fact, objection to the title "Mother of God" arose as  early as the fifth century, due to confusion concerning the mystery of the Incarnation. Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople, was the major inciter of this controversy. He argued that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, a regular human person, period. To this human person was united the person of the Word of God (the divine Jesus). This union of two persons, the human Christ and the divine Word, was "sublime and unique" but merely accidental. The divine person dwelt in the human person "as in a temple;" a kind of divine ‘possession.’ Following his own reasoning, Nestorius asserted that the human Jesus died on the cross, not the divine Jesus. As such, Mary is not "Mother of God," but simply "Mother of Christ"--the human Jesus. Sound confusing? It is, but the result is the splitting of Christ into two persons and the denial of the Incarnation.

The matter was finally settled in the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. The Council condemned Nestorius and officially declared the faith of the Church as this: that Jesus is one person, with two natures--human and divine, united in a true union. He has a divine nature from all eternity and in time taking a human nature from Mary. Second, the Council affirmed that our Blessed Mother can rightfully be called the Mother of God. Mary is not Mother of God, the Father, or Mother of God, the Holy Spirit; rather, she is Mother of God, the Son, Jesus Christ. The Council therefore came to this conclusion by virtue of this simple syllogism:  Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore, “Mary is the Mother of God.” Thus Mary was accorded this grand title not for reasons of sentiment or piety, but as a bulwark against heresy and a safeguard for the Truth of the Incarnation. Mary protects both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Today, when the divine motherhood of Mary is being challenged, we need to recognise that more than her dignity is at stake – it is our belief in the Incarnation and in the divinity of Christ that is potentially at risk.

The Church rejoices that the human role in the divine plan is pivotal. The Son of God comes to earth, appears in order to redeem the world, He becomes human to incorporate man into His divine vocation, but humanity takes part in this. If it is understood that Christ’s “co-nature” with us is as a human being and not some phantom or bodiless apparition, that He is one of us and forever united to us through His humanity, then devotion to Mary also becomes understandable, for she is the one who gave Him His human nature. She is the one through whom Christ can call Himself “The Son of Man” without ceasing to be the Son of God.

Having considered the theological controversy of this title, there is another subtler problem which the Church has to address in defending the titles of Mary. The Church, more than ever, has to justify the need for such honorifics and titles, in a culture that treats these things with suspicion and disdain as they are deemed offensive to both the virtue of humility and the egalitarian ideals of democracy. Our Archbishop Emeritus has often been the target of slanderous speculations that he covets titles of honour conferred by the government on public personages. Let’s set the record straight. The lofty title of Tan Sri, the highest honour to be accorded to a civilian citizen, is actually accorded to him in his capacity of being a visible face of the Catholic Church in Malaysia. In conferring such a title on the primate of the Church in Malaysia, it is actually the Church which is being recognised and honoured.

Those who generally criticise titles being conferred either on the living or the saints may really be labouring under a deeper hatred for authority. Wishing to rule themselves, to free themselves from the Sovereign authority of Christ even as some of them refuse to refer to Him as "Lord," they desire the extinction of all distinctions – between God and man, between the hierarchical church and the lay faithful. To accomplish this, at least in the "theological" sphere, it was necessary to create a "flat" deity, a one-dimensional "god" to whom all creation was little more than a huge, bland "soup" - a mixture of beings with no strata, no hierarchy, no authority, no royalty and, ultimately, no virtue. With no superiors, no Saints and no degree of spiritual excellence, with the disappearance of distinction and hierarchy, we finally also witness the vanishing of humility and obedience. In an accurate and filial understanding of Christianity, the proper veneration of the Blessed Virgin by way of the reverence shown to her glorious titles, is one of the most elegant examples of acknowledging the order superimposed by God on His Creation. The recognition of these titles places us in a balanced, proper relationship with the Sacred, by allowing us to exercise humility while still being able to enjoy our dignity as the Adopted Sons and Daughters of God.

Finally, whenever we offer fitting praise to Mary through Her glorious titles, we imitate the Blessed Trinity in a very concrete way. According to the gospels, each Divine Person of the Trinity has bestowed a particular title of honour on the Blessed Virgin. God the Father, through His messenger Gabriel, gives her the title "Full of Grace." God the Son, addressing the Beloved Disciple from the Cross, publicly recognises her title of "Mother", "Behold your mother". And, again, God the Holy Spirit, through her cousin Elizabeth, enshrines forever her title of "Theotokos", Mother of God. If such is the honour paid directly to our Blessed Mother by God, how can we even dare to suggest that our own poor human praises can ever be either sufficient or over-abundant? And so at the beginning of a New Year, we join our voices to Christians of every age as we lovingly invoke her titles and seek her intercession, “Pray for us O Holy Mother of God … that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.