A major highlight of any pilgrimage to Rome must be a visit to the basilica of St Mary Major. This ancient and beautiful church is a magnificent testimony in mosaic, marble and bronze to Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin. It was built by Pope Sixtus III to commemorate the recently concluded Council of Ephesus of 431, at which Our Lady was granted the title ‘Mother of God’ by dogmatic definition, and it has been renovated and embellished during successive pontificates down the centuries. Amongst other treasures it possesses the Manger in which Our Lord was lain in Bethlehem.
Thanks for the formal and definitive recognition of Our Lady’s title ‘Mother of God’ must go in large part to a Syrian monk by the name of Nestorius, a favourite of the Emperor Theodosius II who pulled strings to have his protégé made Archbishop of Constantinople, the most important See after Rome itself. Nestorius’s learning and legendary eloquence, and his extraordinary charisma, made him one of the most sought after spiritual gurus of his era. He was the type of intellectual and ecclesiastical celebrity who, had he been alive today, would have been the ultimate doyen of the Kensington housewives’ weekday coffee morning scene.
He was also a heretic. Deigning to allow Our Lady the title Christotokos (Birth Giver of the Christ), he adamantly refused to allow Her the title ‘Birth Giver of God’. Mercifully, Rome refused to meet heresy halfway, even when the heresiarch concerned happened to be the mighty bishop of the richest city in Christendom and in cahoots with the secular powers. After a good deal of acrimony and invective during the proceedings of the Council, the Blessed Virgin’s title Theotokos, ‘Mother of God,’ was splendidly defined with utmost solemnity. Nestorius was condemned, deposed, and despatched to a monastery, where he refused to recant his anathematised opinions to the end of his days.
To give credit where it is due, Nestorius had a point. It is undeniable that, while receiving His body and His human nature from His virgin Mother, the Christ Child received His divine nature directly from God. But no mother gives birth to a mere nature. Every mother gives birth to a person. And the Blessed Virgin, like every mother, also gave birth to a person. Within that person there were two natures, human and divine. But as far as being a person goes, Christ is divine. He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, Who at a recorded moment in history took on our human flesh and was born in a stable in Bethlehem, where potentates from the East fell on their knees in adoration in recognition of His divinity.
What’s in a name? When we are talking about Mary the Mother of God, there is an awful lot in the name. The title Theotokos safeguards the doctrine of the Divinity of Our Lord, and our salvation depends on the truth that He was and is God as well as man. Yes, when He was on the Cross, it was in His humanity that He suffered and died. But it was a divine person Who endured that Passion, and this is what gives His Sacrifice the infinite value and power needed to save us. In the Gospel of St John, Our Lord says “I have called you friends”. (Jn 15.15) Certainly it is through human speech that He communicates these words to human ears, but it is a divine person Who is speaking. And this invitation from God to man to divine friendship is a crowning glory of our Christian Faith. What other religion can make such an audacious boast as that?
And so we treasure the title Theotokos, and we delight to honour Our Lady as the Mother of God. The Eternal Word became flesh in Her womb. His flesh is taken from Her flesh. Thanks to the fiat She gave to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, She gave birth to God the Son made man, and so we are able to be saved from our sins. Father Faber expressed our Christian joy in this mystery most sublimely in his Carol ‘Like the Dawning of the Morning’, which he addresses directly to the Blessed Virgin and which can be found in all eight verses in any respectable Catholic hymn book:
And what wonders have been in thee
All the day and all the night,
While the angels fell before thee,
To adore the Light of Light.
While the glory of the Father
hath been in thee as a home,
And the sceptre of creation
Hath been wielded in thy womb.
We have left behind us a year during which there has been a great deal of darkness, and much uncertainty and anxiety about the future. As we enter 2019, let us put fear aside and entrust ourselves, our loved ones and this whole world to the protection and the intercession of the Blessed Mother of God. May She bring us, and this world around us, to the Light of Light Whom She presented to the Magi in Bethlehem.
Fr Julian Large