Mary as Mother of God
The providential bond between Jesus and Mary
It is reported that St. Teresa of Calcutta was once asked why Catholics place such great importance on Mary. She replied: “It’s very simple: No Mary, no Jesus.” St. Paul tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). The Incarnation of the divine Word is at the center of salvation history, and the Word became flesh “of the Virgin Mary” (ex Maria virgine). Just as we can never separate our faith from its historical link to ancient Israel, so we can never separate our faith from Mary.
In a homily given on April 24, 1970, at the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria in Cagliari, Sardinia, Pope Blessed Paul VI stated: “If we want to be Christian, we must also be Marian, that is we must recognize the essential, vital, providential bond which unites Our Lady to Jesus and which opens to us the way that leads us to him.” Jesus, as the Incarnate Word, can never be separated from Mary.
Theotokos — God-Bearer
This providential bond between Mary and Jesus was taught very clearly at the Second Vatican Council.
The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world, is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer. Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to him by a close and indissoluble bond (arcto et indissolubili vinculo unita), she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit (see Lumen Gentium, No. 53).
Pope Francis on Mary
On Oct. 9, Pope Francis celebrated Mass for the Marian Jubilee as part of the festivities for the Holy Year of Mercy. Here is an excerpt from his homily:
“The heart of Mary, more than any other, is a humble heart, capable of accepting God’s gifts. In order to become man, God chose precisely her, a simple young woman of Nazareth, who did not dwell in the palaces of power and wealth, who did not do extraordinary things. Let us ask ourselves if we are prepared to accept God’s gifts, or prefer instead to shut ourselves up within our forms of material security, intellectual security, the security of our plans ….
“The Mother of God, together with Joseph her spouse, knew what it was to live far from home. She, too was long a foreigner in Egypt, far from her relatives and friends. Yet her faith was able to overcome the difficulties. Let us cling to this simple faith of the Holy Mother of God; let us ask her that we may always come back to Jesus and express our thanks for the many benefits we have received from his mercy.”
This close and indissoluble bond between Mary and Jesus is unique because only Mary can be honored with the title Theotokos — God-bearer, or Mother of God. The word Theotokos literally means “one bearing God to give birth” or “one pregnant with God.” No one except Mary can claim to be the Mother of Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God.
As the Mother of the Word Incarnate, Mary is also “the mother of the members of Christ” who serves the Church as “her type and her excellent exemplar in faith and charity” (Lumen Gentium, No. 53). As our “most beloved Mother” (Lumen Gentium, No. 53), Mary provides the supreme example of faith in her Son. In his Jan. 1, 2015, homily for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Pope Francis taught:
“The Blessed Virgin is the woman of faith who made room for God in her heart and in her plans; she is the believer capable of perceiving in the gift of her Son the coming of that ‘fullness of time’ (Gal 4:4) in which God, by choosing the humble path of human existence, entered personally into the history of salvation. That is why Jesus cannot be understood without his Mother.”
Jesus can never be understood without his Mother because he entered into human history through her. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) recognized that God, in his omnipotent power, could have restored human nature in many different ways. The Incarnation, however, was the most fitting and most meaningful way for God to redeem the human race and manifest his love (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 457-460).
Mary’s Role in Salvation
As the Mother of the Word Incarnate, Mary plays a central role in salvation history. When she said “yes” to the invitation to be Jesus’ Mother (see Lk 1:38), Mary spoke in the name of all of Israel awaiting the coming of the Messiah. As the “New Eve,” she also spoke in the name of the whole human race when she agreed to receive the Word of God, the Savior, in her womb. In his 1896 encyclical, Fidentem Piumque Animum, Pope Leo XIII notes that Mary gave her consent “in the name of the whole human race,” and “offered to mankind, hastening toward eternal ruin, a Savior” (No. 3). Pope Leo XIII teaches that no other human “can even be imagined who has ever contributed or ever will contribute so much toward reconciling man with God” (No. 3).
Mary’s “close and indissoluble bond” to Jesus is rooted in her unique dignity as the Mother of God. Because she is a human being, Mary is the supreme example of human nature elevated by grace. Dante speaks of Mary as she “who did so ennoble human nature that its Creator did not disdain to become its creature” (Paradiso, 33:4-6). In his 1988 apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope St. John Paul II teaches that Mary embodies the finality of human existence realized “in the supernatural elevation to union with God in Jesus Christ which determines the ultimate finality of the existence of every person both on earth and in eternity” (No. 4). Mary, therefore, “is the representative and the archetype of the whole human race: She represents the humanity which belongs to all human beings, both men and woman” (No. 2). Jesus, as God, is the source of grace. Mary, as “full of grace,” shows how human beings can come “to share in the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). Mary also is a mediatrix of the grace merited by her divine Son. Vatican II teaches that, because Mary cooperated in a “singular way … in the work of the Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls,” she is “our mother in the order of grace” (Lumen Gentium, No. 61).
Honoring Mary in the Liturgy
The solemnity of Mary as the Mother of God, celebrated on Jan. 1, is the celebration of the doctrine solemnly taught at the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the Word “united flesh to himself from his mother’s womb and is said to have undergone begetting in the flesh in order to take to himself flesh of his own” (Denzinger-H, No. 251). Mary, therefore, is truly, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, “not certainly because the nature of the Word or his divinity had the origin of its being from the holy Virgin, but because from her was generated his holy body, animated by a rational soul, a body hypostatically united to the Word; and thus it is said that [the Word] was begotten according to the flesh” (Denzinger-H, No. 251).
The solemnity of Mary as Mother of God highlights her “close and indissoluble bond” with Jesus in the history of salvation. After the solemn definition of Mary as Theotokos or birth-giver of God at Ephesus in 431, a solemn feast celebrating Mary as Mother of God began in the East. In the Byzantine Church, it was (and still is) celebrated on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas as the “Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos.” [Synaxis is a liturgical gathering or assembly]. By the fifth century, the West celebrated the feast in Rome on the Sunday before Christmas, though it was celebrated in Spain on Dec. 18 and in France on Jan. 18. In the Middle Ages, Jan. 1 became the feast of Jesus’ circumcision. In 1751, Pope Benedict XIV established the feast of Mary’s divine maternity for the first Sunday of May for Portugal and other counties. In 1914, the feast was moved to Oct. 11. In 1931, to commemorate the 15th centenary of the Council of Ephesus of 431, the feast was extended to the entire Latin rite. In the liturgical reform of 1970, Pope Paul VI moved the feast back to the Octave of Christmas as it was originally celebrated in Rome. Its date was fixed for Jan. 1, and it was elevated to the highest liturgical rank of a solemnity.
The decision of Pope Paul VI to move the celebration of Mary’s divine maternity to the Octave of Christmas was a way to emphasize “the essential, vital, providential bond” that unites Mary to Jesus. The solemnity of Mary as Mother of God reminds us that we cannot understand Jesus without his Mother. The Incarnation took place through Mary’s free cooperation with God’s providential plan, which is why Mary is united to Christ “by a close and indissoluble bond” (Lumen Gentium, No. 53). In his “Treatise on True Devotion to Mary,” St. Louis de Montfort (d. 1716) exclaims: “Lord, you are always with Mary, and Mary is always with you” (No. 63). Mary, though, is not only united to Jesus, she is also united to us as our “most beloved mother” (Lumen Gentium, No. 53) and “our Mother in the order of grace” (No. 61).
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now.
In honoring Mary as the Mother of God, we give glory to God who humbled himself to share our humanity, becoming incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D., is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He is former president of the Mariological Society of America.