“Theotokos derives from the Greek terms: Theos / ‘God’; and tiktein / ‘to give birth’. Mary is the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God” (What is the meaning of Mary’s title: Theotokos?). In English we tend to refer to this Dogma as “Mary the Mother of God.” Both formulations of this teaching are profitable for us and we will visit each briefly.
Here is a brief articulation of the teaching:
Called in the Gospels “the mother of Jesus,” Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). In fact, the One whom 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. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly “Mother of God” (Theotokos). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 495)
So let’s apply the Marian Principle as I articulated in my previous post:
Principle 1: Is It True?
Is it true to call Mary the Mother of God or Theotokos? Yes. No one would deny that she is the mother of Jesus and as it is an orthodox confession of faith to say that Jesus is one person comprised of a fully human nature and fully divine nature, then, by virtue of how people give birth to persons and not natures, we can call her the Mother of God. This shouldn’t cause confusion about her “predating” the Holy Trinity because birth is inherently tied to material existence and there is no way a material reality can predate God, so no she didn’t birth the Trinity.
Nor do we need to fear calling her the Mother of God because a pagan goddess or two might have shared that title. First:
there are radical differences between the myths about divine births to pagan goddesses (e.g. Isis, mother of Horus) and the gospel accounts of Jesus’ incarnation in Mary. For example, the Gospels portray Jesus as conceived by Mary in Spirit while pagan myths portray the conception of gods in passion and removed from the mysterious destiny of the Incarnation.” (What is the meaning of Mary’s title: Theotokos?)
Second, are we willing to follow that line of thought to the point of denying Christ His title, Son of God, because it was attributed to some Roman Emperors, including Augustus and his son, Tiberius, who was ruling at the time of Christ? I doubt it.
Principle 2: What Does It Tell Us About Mary?
There are two things I take away from this about Mary.
One, she was elected for the high honor of sharing her humanity and her flesh with the Second Person of the Trinity. She was much more than a divinely appointed incubator. Instead she was entrusted with an exalted role, motherhood.
Two, by virtue of her maternal role, it implies that as I enter into a familial relationship with the person of Christ, as His adopted brother, I also am adopted, not only by His divine Father, but also His human mother. She is by virtue of her Son, the mother of all believers.
Principle 3: What Does It Tell Us About God and Humanity?
First, it tells me that God wants to enter into and redeem every part of our messy and seemingly inconsequential lives. God didn’t just choose to show up on the scene as an adult ready to take the world by storm. Instead, He invades the world by entering into the most vulnerable and powerless stages. He entered into the womb of an unwed woman in the ancient Middle East. If this doesn’t showcase a desire to enter humbly, vulnerably, and scandalously into our world, I don’t know what does. When I was first coming back to my faith, I found myself more drawn to the scandal of the Incarnation than the scandal of the Cross. Obviously the two are forever linked, bound across space and time by the One who transcends both, but calling Mary the Mother of God draws our attention to the lengths which our God will go in order to encounter us on our level.
Second, it tells me that motherhood is not just a convenient (or inconvenient if you ask some) propagation of our species, but is a divinely elected honor. This isn’t to say women who aren’t mothers are without value, rather it celebrates an often under-appreciated vocation. The sacrifice of His body on the Cross for the life of the world is somehow inseparable from the sacrifice of their bodies that all of our mothers have made to give us life, including Jesus’ mother. An author, Elizabeth Wirth, writes of her own difficult pregnancy and post-partum experience and ends the brief article with these words,
So I held [my son] close those sleepless nights when I thought I couldn’t give one more ounce. When I thought I would collapse, I looked into his face and whispered, “This is my body – broken for you.” (Faith at the Edge 14)
Third, I’ve also heard Theotokos defined as “God Bearer.” Whether that is a loose or accurate translation, I’m unsure, but it speaks to the reality of Mary’s call to bear Christ into the world, and now our call to do the same. We receive Christ into our very bodies, as Mary did. Then we must carry Him out into the world. This is not just an individual call, but a call for the entire Church. The Church is supposed to be another Theotokos in every age.
Finally, this dogma informs our view of mission. There are some who are called to go out and radically change the face of the world in a couple years. They are called to set the world on fire around them and sometimes are even called to die as a martyr. But surrender to the Lord and zeal for His mission doesn’t always have to look like that. Mary, who offered her attitude of, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), shows us a different form of mission. Her mission is one of long-term commitment and nurturing. She has the call to care for and raise her unborn child – to instruct Him, care for Him, and love Him. All of this nurturing does not culminate in her being martyred, but watching her calling, her Son, die upon a cross. Some of us are called to be the martyrs and some of us are called to raise them up. Mary, shows us that diversity and this diversity needs to shape how we as a people and a church approach mission and ministry.