Saturday, December 30, 2017

Not Flattery but Theology

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God 2018

Today is the culmination of the Octave of Christmas, the eight-days celebration of the feast that started on Christmas Eve. We keep this Octave Day as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. What a beginning to the year it is, to begin with Mary as mother. In other words, we don't let Christmas end without looking explicitly at the role of Mary, the indispensable part she played in the Incarnation and thus in our whole religion. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God': we say this whenever we say the Hail Mary. We say it so often that we can easily forget what a strong, startling, even shocking, phrase it is. How can Mary, or any mortal woman for that matter, be literally the Mother of God? Well, both Protestants and Muslims would vehemently object to this, albeit for different reasons. It is not just preposterous as it is incredulous, but also downright blasphemous. God has no beginning, or as the Muslims put it, “God has not begotten and is not begotten.” As far as they are concerned, it is impossible for a human woman to be Mother of God. And even if Protestants agree that Jesus is indeed the son of Mary as well as being the son of God, they would refuse to accord to her that august title that seems to place her above God Himself. It sounds more pagan than Christian.

But no: it is the Christian and Catholic faith that Mary is Mother of God; so it is necessary to understand it properly. Our Eastern brethren prefers the Greek term theotokos to that of Mother God, which means: ‘God-bearer’, because the one she bears is God. This title had been given her in popular devotion from the second century onwards, and it was confirmed by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 as a sure way of asserting the full divinity of her Son.

When we say ‘Mother of God’, therefore, we are not saying that Mary is the origin of the Godhead. God has no beginning. In this sense, it is true that God does not have parents.  But when we use the title ‘Mother of God,’ we are saying that the one whom Mary bore is God: God-made-man, the eternal Word of the Father uniting Himself to our life so that we can share in His. We believe that the One 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. The title is first saying something about the Son, rather than about the Mother. It affirms the Divinity of Christ. It compresses into one word all that is spelt out in the Nativity stories we hear, in the carols we sing and the cribs where we worship, in all that we ponder and contemplate, during the Christmas season.

At the same time ‘Mother of God’ is also saying something about Mary. It is from her that Jesus received His humanity, just as we all do from our mothers. No other human being could be so close to God as she, for no other human being could claim such intimate connexion to the level of biology and physiology. Therefore, our veneration of Mary is not misplaced because Mary lies at the heart of the Christian mystery, especially at the heart of the two fundamental mysteries of our salvation – His Incarnation and His death and resurrection. If Our Lord did not receive His humanity from her, then Christmas would be a lie and the resurrection would be a fairy tale. And like all true human mothers, her relationship with her Son is permanent. Our mothers never cease to be our mothers even though we may have emerged from under their nurturing care, and they do not cease to be our mothers even when they have passed on. Likewise, Mary, the Holy Theotokos, is eternally the mother of the Man who died and rose again, who now rests in the bosom of the Father, and draws us to Himself in His Body.

In these matters, our words often falter, but art can still be far more eloquent. The many depictions of the Madonna and child and of the Holy Theotokos in the East, leads to a visual contemplation of what we had been considering with mere theological concepts. These visual depictions of Our Lady demonstrate to us that we do not have to turn away from Jesus in order to see his Mother. The woman and the child forms a composite picture. One would not be complete without the other. The Mother always points us back to her Son. The way of Mary is the way to Jesus Christ. Mary is contemplating Jesus, perhaps, or indicating Him with her hand – as in the kind of Greek icon which is called hodegitria: literally ‘pointing the way’ or in the West, Our Lady of the Way. In St John's Gospel, our Lord calls Himself ‘The Way’, so there is an interesting and deliberate ambiguity here. Mary points the way by pointing to the Way that is Jesus Himself, who is our Way to the Father and also our Way of life.  Far from being a distracting alternative to Christ, devotion to Mary attaches us more firmly to Her Son.

But when we contemplate these forms of art of the Madonna and the child, it is also suggested to us that Mary encircles in her arms not just her own Son Jesus, but all those who are destined to have life in Him, the whole human race. As the New Eve she is truly Mother of all the Living, and so, is Mother of each one of us. Small wonder that she is also called ‘Mother of the Church’ by Venerable Pope Paul VI. The affinity between this Mother and her Child will lead to an extraordinary commerce between them. Between Mary and Jesus an exchange is taking place so deep that its significance is endless.  As Blessed Isaac of Stella once said in a sermon, “In the inspired scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the virgin mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary, and what is said in a particular sense of the virgin mother Mary is rightly understood in a general sense of the virgin mother, the Church. When either is spoken of, the meaning can be understood of both, almost without qualification.”

At the human, biological level Mary is our precious link to the incarnate Son of God. In the order of grace, something our biological nature could not give us of itself, she is our mother. Christians have found many ways of saying this, beginning of course with meditating and experiencing the words said by Jesus while on the cross. St John provides us with this poignant picture of Jesus from the cross saying to His mother, ‘Woman, this is your son’ and then to the beloved disciple, as in completing this exchange and connexion, ‘This is your mother’. Mary is given as our mother to reverse the consequences of what happened through our primordial mother, Eve, or in Latin, ‘Eva.’ One delightful word-play in Latin thought of ‘Ave’ as in ‘Ave Maria’, the angelic greeting to Mary, is precisely the reversal of the name ‘Eva’.

And so today, we celebrate the fact that Mary is Mother of God. This title is not simply an honorific, a piece of flattery; but one of our most profound confession of faith – the child born of Mary is God, and so she who bore Him is truly deserving, through no personal merit on her part, to the most esteemed title ever granted to one of our race, ‘Mother of God.’ The honour paid to her is an honour paid to all of us. This truth is at once so outrageous, and yet so essential to our faith and to our salvation, that to deny it would be to render our faith bottomless and without foundation. And because of His mother, God saved us in Jesus as one of us: God came to share our human nature so that through His flesh and blood we might share His divine life, and He shared our human nature by entering into our human world through a human mother.  May this truth shine forth as a beacon to carry us into this New Year and into every year, until we meet our Lord face to face. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

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