Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is said that Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego starting December 9, requesting that a church be built. The bishop who was petitioned requested a miraculous sign before approving a church. Mary promised that she would deliver the sign on December 11. You might have noticed by now that we are celebrating this feast on December 12. Turns out Juan Diego got distracted. Continue reading “Life’s Distractions”→
“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.
As God was drawing me back into my faith, I definitely struggled with Mary to some extent. I didn’t struggle with her in the way that one might struggle with the existence of God, but I just struggled with why the Church had any formal teachings on Mary in the first place. I have a better understanding now, but I doubt I’m the only one that has wrestled with Mary and the relevance of Marian doctrines as a Catholic Christian or Non-Catholic Christian.
My struggle with the teachings regarding Mary were just that, they were struggles. I wasn’t piling up objection after objection against Marian dogma, like some sort of theological version of Starship troopers. Really, I just chalked them up as unnecessary, but not inherently false, additions to the faith. The sort of things that you just acquire over the course of 2000 years, kind of like Ireland and River Dance.
Discussions with my wife though made it clear that Catholic Marian Doctrine was a big deal in many people’s eyes. With some research, prayer, intentional reading of Scripture, and an open mind I came to a very intellectual assent to the Church’s teachings on Mary. Eventually, Bess too joined me in that regard. But if doctrines were to remain solely in our heads and never penetrate our hearts than we would be idiots for allowing doctrine to be a source of division.
What I wish to share in these posts concerning Mary are the ways that the intellectual assent has reached my heart. There are numerous people, far smarter than I am, who have well developed pieces on apologetics regarding Mary. I have no intention of reinventing the wheel in that regard. I do wish to share my own personal heart knowledge though, something that I believe only I can contribute.
The Marian Priniciple
As we progress through the four Marian Dogma’s, two Marian Prayers, and a handful of Marian titles I will constantly be referring back to what I’m calling the Marian Principle. The principle is this: Every doctrine and dogma regarding the Blessed Mother is taught because intellectually it is believed to be true (that should be a given). More to the point, it is taught with the force of doctrine or dogma because it:
Respects Mary by upholding that which is true about her, our Mother by virtue of the Gospel
Most importantly, every teaching that is defended as doctrine or dogma ultimately teaches us more about ourselves and God than Mary. We would do well to learn their lessons.
The burden that I believe these posts will shoulder is the second point. Like the Great Eagles that carried Sam and Frodo out of the volcanic chaos of Mt. Doom, I wish to help carry the underlying truths being proposed by Marian Doctrine. I hope to bear them out away from the smoke, haze, and fiery projectiles of apologetic debate and misrepresentation. So that at the right time, they may be examined for the ways in which they ring true, not only in the face of reason and debate, but also in the face of faith, practicality, and virtue.
But isn’t it just confusing?
Before I begin looking at each individual teaching I want to address one common objection. “True or not, aren’t these doctrines confusing? Couldn’t they be misleading or cause a believer to unintentionally stumble?”
Can we showcase that well intentioned Catholics have, likely due to poor catechesis, taken Marian devotion too far? Sure. But does that mean that we should correct our catechesis or throw out doctrine? I know which one I would choose.
Now someone might insist that “Confusion can still occur so we should do away with these doctrines. It is just misleading to many people who don’t understand theology, soteriology and anthropology to call Mary the Mother of God, etc.”
To this I would respond that all theology has inherent elements of confusion. We are finite beings wrestling with understanding the revelation of our infinite God and constantly struggling to describe the infinite in our finite language. Confusion free theology is not only impractical, I would argue it is impossible. Hasn’t the Dogma of the Trinity been too confusing for people to the point that they either fell into Tri-theism or Modalism? Or the doctrine that Christ is fully human and fully divine had to be clarified because out of the confusion Arianism and Docetism emerged. Or, and this is specifically directed toward my Protestant brothers and sisters, would you be willing to abandon the cry of Sola Fide because people confuse it as an excuse to live immorally and abandon the pursuit of a life of virtue?
Jesus’ practice of using parables sets a strange example for us if truth is to be abandoned for the sake of avoiding confusion. No, the confusion that results from our finite minds encountering the mind of God, His plan, and His workings is a worthy risk in the pursuit of truth. The pursuit of the Truth. The pursuit of Christ.
And if the truths surrounding His mother shed more light on Him, His plan, and how we all fit into that; then bring on the Marian Doctrines. My mother lives only to draw me closer to her Son.