The essential activity of the Church’s teaching office, its reason for existence, is to keep and protect the contents of divine revelation. It is only when there is a threat to the integrity and purity of the deposit of faith that she defines and exercises her Spirit-given gift of discernment. Her powers of discernment were taxed during the first few centuries because of a string of challenges to her beliefs about Christ, true God and true man. This came to a head in the early fifth Century when the Council of Ephasis (431) was called to address the question how Christ could have two natures (human and divine) and yet be a single Divine Person. To address this, the Church developed the most important Christological dogma of the Hypostatic Union. The Divine Son of God took to Himself a complete human nature and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary. Closely linked to this belief was the title given to Mary as “Mother of God.” Many worried that calling her Mother of God, or Theotokos in Greek, would imply that she was the originator His divine nature. Instead they proposed that she be called Christotokos or Mother of Christ. The Church reasoned however that a woman is never a mother of a nature, but instead a mother of a person. In this case, the Person is God and so it was proper to refer to Mary as the Mother of God. The Council declared “If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel is truly God and therefore that the holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos) (since she begot according to the flesh the Word of God made flesh), anathema sit” (Council of Ephesis, June 22, 431).
The “anathema sit” stems from the fact that referring to Mary merely as the Mother of Christ, a fundamental truth of the Incarnation is threatened. It is a perfect illustration of the principle that everything the Church believes about Mary follows from her predestined role as Mother of God. Put another way, anytime we detract from Mary, we ultimately subtract from Christ. In short, the Marian dogmas are the great protectors of Our Lord’s humanity.
The Roots of Mary’s Greatness
Everything that we say about Mary with respect to her greatness stems from her office as Mother of God. It is this Marian dogma around which all the other Marian dogmas revolve. It is like the center of a wheel in which everything we say about her connects back. For example, in declaring the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX refers to her office of Mother of God as the reason for her greatness—“And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854, emphasis added ).
Keeping in mind her office as Mother of God also helps us maintain a balanced view of Mary. When God calls, He always equips. Being called to the greatest of roles—Mary also received the greatest gifts. As St. Thomas says, all the glory and grace given to her was to make her the worthy Mother of God (ST III, q.27, a5, ad2).
God permitted man’s fall to bring about the greater good of the Incarnation. The Bad News was followed immediately by the promise of the Good News to come (Gn 3:15). This promise yoked the Redeemer with His Mother—the seed and the offspring were a package deal. In other words, it was by the same eternal decree that the Son was to take flesh, that Mary was predestined to give birth to the “Son of the Most High.” Everything we say about Mary, redounds to God and His plan to manifest His goodness—her soul always “magnifies the Lord.” To mark this predestination, the Church has always viewed Proverbs 8:22-35 as referring to Our Lady—“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made…when He prepared the Heavens was present…when He balanced the foundations of the earth, I was with Him…”
It is God who makes her worthy to be the Mother of God, but only so that she would be empowered to perfectly unite her will to His. Therefore we cannot look upon Mary simply as consenting to the use of her womb for nine months and little else. She had first conceived the Son in her soul through a perfect union with the divine will and then conceived Him in her body as St. Augustine said.
Mary’s Divine Motherhood
Mary is no mere figurehead to make Our Lord look “normal.” He was obedient to her as all children are to their parents. Unlike all parents however, she was preserved from the possibility of making an error and leading her child into sin. One can readily see why the singular grace of the Immaculate Conception flows from her calling as Mother as God. She must be infallible in her decisions and impeccable in her moral example if Our Lord was to submit to her as Mother. As an aside this is also why some theologians have posited (although the Church has not spoken definitively one way or the other) that St. Joseph too must have at some point been freed from the effects of Original Sin.
One might argue that Our Lord was not obedient to her when He was left behind in Jerusalem. But the exception proves the rule. Our Lady was quite perplexed as to why He would do such a thing because she knew Him to be obedient to her in all things. Our Lord reminds her that when His divine mission came in conflict with His natural sonship, He must always “be about His Father’s business” (Lk 2:49). Nevertheless, it was still a shock when He appeared to not obey His parents.
The Blessed Mother’s relationship with Jesus is entirely unique and is worthy of our admiration. He is truly flesh of her flesh and her flesh alone. All who are in Christ enter into a spiritual or mystical relationship with Him. Only Our Lady has a relationship based upon a consanguine relationship with Our Lord. The divine maternity imposes upon God obligations of justice upon Him which confers upon her the natural rights that accompany motherhood. In other words, she is the only one who God “owes” something to. Even if the obligation is self-imposed because of His divine plan, still it is an entirely unique relationship based upon this plan.
This is why we ultimately cannot be in Christ while simultaneously remaining indifferent towards Our Lady. He extended her motherhood from the natural Son of God to all the adopted sons of God (Jn 19:27). We cannot be sons of the Father while rejecting the one Whom He chose from all eternity to be our mother. It is why the Church closes the Octave of Christmas with the great Feast honoring her as Mother of God. As the Second Vatican Council affirmed, “Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, 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” (Lumen Gentium, 53).
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.