In opposition to this deliberate expression of opinion by one whose right to speak with authority on the subject is indisputable, it has been asserted by opponents of Catholicism that our Lady's present place in Christendom can be traced to the Council of Ephesus as to its first beginnings.
This statement—so easy to make—is, on the very face of it, untrue, or at least a ridiculous exaggeration, inasmuch as it is out of harmony with known facts. The present position of the Blessed Virgin in Christendom depends in the main upon the primitive beliefs that she is the Mother of God, and that in the Redemption of mankind she co-operated with Christ, even as our first mother cooperated with Adam in our Fall. In the ultimate analysis all Catholic doctrine about our Lady—and consequent devotion—will be found to rest upon the foundation of these two truths.
Few things are more remarkable than the unanimity and clearness of the teaching that has come down to us from sub-Apostolic times concerning the office of Mary as the second Eve. This is categorical and admits of no development. Nor was there any hesitation at Ephesus concerning the Tradition with respect to the title of Theotokos. St. Cyril, preaching in a church dedicated to the Mother of God, found it easy to show that our Lady had been freely and generally called Theotokos by the Greek Fathers, whilst Nestorius, as we have seen, admitted without hesitation that in denying the lawfulness of that mighty word and of the truth which it enshrined, he was going counter to the teaching of all his predecessors. The thing was too clear to admit of prevarication. He was, admittedly, broaching a novelty, and was stigmatised by Catholics on this ground, if on no other, as " profane." The indignation of the Faithful against the heretic was due, I think, primarily to their traditional devotion to the Holy Mother of God, but it was also the result of their attachment to the Faith which had been handed down to them by their ancestors as a precious deposit received from the Apostles, to be guarded with fidelity and jealously "preserved inviolate and pure."
Again, long before the Council of Ephesus, representations of the Theotokos with her Child were placed over the altars of sacrifice in the Catacombs—a thing that would be impossible had she not already been held in the deepest veneration by the Faithful. Mgr. Barnes writes as follows :
"The most important [of these frescoes] is to be found in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla and is of very early date. In the centre of the composition is a figure of the Good Shepherd, with a family group on the left. On the right is the Holy Virgin, seated and holding the Infant Jesus at her breast. Before her stands an upright figure who seems to represent a prophet [without doubt Isaias], and who is pointing to a star above her head. The style of the whole is classic in character, and the date can hardly be put later than the opening years of the second century." (The Early Church in the Light of the Monuments, p. 176.)
Professor Marucchi, the greatest authority on the subject, told a friend of mine that he was inclined to believe that this fresco dates even from the first century. Certainly it was placed in the lifetime of St. John over the altar-tomb where it still may be venerated.