Mother of God, Mother of Men Part 1. By Father Hilary, O.F.M.CAP

Very early in the book of Genesis we are told that Adam called his wife’s name Eve because she was the mother of all the living. We might suspect a divine irony in those words of the Holy Spirit because before ever Eve became a mother she had sinned and led Adam into that sin which had death for its wages and so she merited rather to be called the mother of all the dead. Eve had to suffer for her sin. With dismay she heard the divine judgment of banishment and pain and woe; but even as the dread sentence of God’s justice fell upon her ears there came with it a promise which cheered Adam and herself and gave joy and hope to the many generations which followed them until that promise became a blessed reality in the fulness of time. To the infernal serpent the Lord God said: ‘I will put enmities between thee and the woman and thy seed and her seed.’ In these words of the Lord is presaged another Woman whose enmity with the devil will be as absolute as the enmity of her Seed, the Divine Word made Man, a woman who will be associated with the Redeemer in crushing the head of the serpent. The Son of God became man ‘that He might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say the devil.’ Thus from the very dawn of revelation the Woman and her Child are placed together by God Himself.


It took long centuries for God to prepare mankind for the fulfilment of this promise. But when the fulness of time was come the bountiful Lord admirably made good His word. Then, as St. Paul writes to the Galatians, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. From the beginning and before all ages He had chosen the Woman who was to be His Mother. To her predestination the Church applies in a spiritual sense, intended by the Holy Ghost, words which primarily apply to the eternal generation of the divine Word. ‘I was set up from eternity and of old, before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet and I was already conceived. . . . When he prepared the heavens I was present. . . . I was with him forming all things.” The one chosen was the humblest maiden of all the people of God, the lowliest of all the children of men. Whilst nearly all young Israelite maidens laid up in their heart the hope that they might perhaps be the woman of promise, the Virgin whose name was Mary never dreamt of such an honour for herself. One day as Mary, the virgin of Nazareth, the comely daughter of Joachim and Anne, poured out her soul in prayer in her lowly home, the Archangel Gabriel was sent to her by God with a breath-taking message. Being come in to her he said: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.’ The humility of the prudent virgin took fright at this unusual greeting. The Greek word translated ‘full of grace’ is used instead of Mary’s proper name and it means one endowed permanently with grace or favour. Little wonder that Mary was troubled at his word and kept wondering what this greeting might mean. Her trouble was set at rest by the heavenly messenger who said to her: ‘Fear not, Mary, for thou has found grace with God.’ Then he went on to unfold to her the divine plan of redemption.
‘Behold, thou shalt conceive in the womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father, and he shall rule over the house of David forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.’ These words left no doubt in Mary’s mind that she was being offered the motherhood of the Messiah, nay more, the motherhood of God. But again she wonders, not doubting the power of God as Zachary did, and she asked: ‘ How can this be done for I know not man?’ These words, as Catholic tradition holds, point to the fact that Mary had vowed her virginity to God even though she had entered into marriage with Joseph. Once more the archangel set her mind at rest by explaining to her the admirable design of the Creator: ‘ The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee and therefore the Holy One that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’ What a marvellous plan! The whole human race had fallen in Adam, its head; all mankind is to be redeemed by the new Adam, the true Head of the race. Eve cooperated with Adam in the downfall of man; the new Eve was chosen by God to co-operate with the new Adam in the restoration of the race. So is she the true Mother of all the living. She plays an essential role in the working out of the redemption, and she is the only human person who does. She was predestined and chosen in the same decree of divine providence as her Son. To minimize or overlook Mary’s part is to reject the Incarnation as God willed it and falsify God’s design. It is just as important to believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary as to believe that He was conceived of the Holy Ghost as the Creeds remind us. The early Fathers of the Church pay eloquent to Mary’s role as the Second Eve through whose co-operation the world was redeemed.


Mary was chosen, but she also freely chose. In His courtesy towards man God asked her consent, to be given on behalf of all mankind, to the espousals of human nature by the divine Word. From all eternity of course God knew that she would fall in with His designs; but yet her consent was free and richly meritorious. Not a moment did she hesitate as soon as the divine plan had been explained to her, but made that perfect reply ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.’ This was the word for which heaven, earth and hell waited breathlessly. If Mary consented heaven would have a new queen, earth would be redeemed, hell would be finally defeated. Mary’s words were the most perfect answer to God’s invitation. By them God got His way absolutely in the soul of Mary. Her Fiat meant a new creation in grace for mankind; her Ecce ancilla Domini was the echo of the words of her divine Son who at that very instant had become man in her womb: Ecce venio; ‘Behold I come to do thy will, O God.’ Mary’s submission to the divine will of the Father was as absolute as that of Jesus. And so it was immensely meritorious. From her reading of the prophets, especially Isaias, she knew that in consenting to be the Mother of the Messiah she was to share in His sorrows, that she was to become the Mother of Sorrows and the Queen of Martyrs. Theologians teach that Mary’s grace was vastly increased at the moment of the Annunciation because of her perfect conformity to the will of God as well as because the divine Word then took up His abode in her.


No sooner was the Blessed Virgin’s consent given than the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The Messiah so long expected and desired was our Emmanuel; the Incarnation was a fact, man’s redemption had begun. At that blessed moment Mary became in literal truth the Mother of God. This is a fundamental dogma of our Catholic faith and indeed a touchstone of orthodox belief in the Incarnation of the divine Word. It was solemnly defined at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431 against the insidious heresy of Nestorius. This Patriarch of Constantinople objected to Mary’s title Mother of God and contended that she should be styled only Mother of Christ. His error was a complete misunderstanding of the hypostatic Union of the divine with the human nature in the one Person of the Word. Nestorius held that there were two persons in Christ, the one human, the other divine. Mary was, in his view, only the Mother of the human person and therefore could not be styled Mother of God. This heresy struck at the very foundations of the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Redemption. The true teaching is that there is no human person in Christ but only the divine which subsists in two natures. We do not claim that Mary is the Mother of the divinity which exists from all eternity, but she is the Mother of the divine Person. St. Leo the Great wrote that just as the mother of an ordinary human being is the mother of the whole being, not merely of the body, although she begets only the body, so Mary is truly the mother of the divine Person of the Word. Nestorius found a doughty opponent in St. Cyril of Alexandria who pointed out that the term Theotokos was consecrated among the Fathers and doctors of the Church from early times and had even been used by Julian the Apostate. Cyril’s teaching was defined by the Council of Ephesus amid the plaudits of the Christian people who accompanied the Fathers of the Council to their lodgings with lighted torches. The Christian consciousness of the faithful realized that a basic dogma had been vindicated. The definition of the Council was couched in these words: If anybody does not confess that Emmanuel is truly God, and that the holy Virgin is therefore “Theotokos” (Mother of God), since she brought forth according to the flesh the Word of God who became flesh, let him be anathema.’ The Person of the Word, the term of Mary’s motherhood, is identical with that of the fatherhood of the First Person of the Blessed Trinity. To Jesus Christ the eternal Father and Mary could both say with perfect truth: ‘ Thou art my beloved on, this day have I begotten thee.’
It is true that in Sacred Scripture Mary is not called in so many words ‘ Mother of God,’ but Scripture is not the sole rule of faith. The New Testament, however, frequently calls her the Mother of Jesus, and surely according to the Gospels and Epistles Jesus is God. The archangel declared that Mary’s child would be called the Son of the Most High. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Ghost, greeted Mary as the Mother of my Lord. St. Gregory Nazianzen writes that anyone who does not believe Mary to be the Mother of God is far from God. Luther himself, in one of his more lucid moments, could write: ‘All Mary’s glory is implied in calling her the Mother of God. And nobody can proclaim anything greater about her than that.’ St. Thomas Aquinas, the prince of Theologians, speaks of her dignity as all but infinite. Jesus Christ is essentially Son of God and Son of Mary, Son of God by His eternal generation by the Father, Son of Man by His conception in the fulness of time in the chaste womb of the Virgin Mary. Thus Mary can he said to enter the hypostatic order, or, as some of the Fathers of the Church put it, to border on the confines of the divinity.
Perhaps we have grown too used to the title ‘Mother of God,’ and, as the poet says, use lessens marvel. But when we reflect on it we realize at least dimly the all but infinite dignity bestowed by God upon a child of Adam’s race. The Man-God was her very own child, bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh, yet He was also God, the Word who eternally proceeds from the Father, who with the Father breathes forth the Holy Ghost. To what dizzy heights does not this lead our minds. But contemplate it how we will Mary’s dignity remains a sublime mystery the contemplation of which will rejoice our souls eternally, The title Theotokos is a summary of the whole mystery of the Incarnation, a touchstone of orthodoxy. To deny her that title is to make shipwreck of the faith. St. John Damascene wrote: ‘The word Theotokos implies the whole mystery of the Incarnation, for if she who conceived and brought forth is Mother of God, then surely He who is born of her is God. But He is also fully man.’


The Son of God was Mary’s Son too. He had for her all the tender affection which a good son bestows upon his mother. He chose her before all ages and, in the words of liturgy made her a fitting dwelling-place for the godhead. Now when God loves He gives—love is the gift of self. He gave to His Mother with a truly divine profusion. The fulness of grace was hers from the first moment of her conception, and grace, as we know is the life of God shared by the creature. Mary, it is true, had need of redemption because she was a child of Adam. The Church has defined that Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a singular privilege of grace bestowed on her in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race. Her redemption therefore was unique. All others are redeemed by being freed from original sin which they have contracted in their conception. She was redeemed by being preserved from original sin by the infusion of sanctifying grace in the very instant of her conception. In her Magnificat she sang ‘He that is mighty hath done great things to me and holy is His name.’ So did God prepare for himself a worthy mother, untouched by sin, full of divine life, never for an instant in the power of the infernal serpent which deceived Eve. Mary’s fulness of grace and immunity from sin imply that she was free also from the harmful consequences of sin. That is why Christians style her Mater Amabilis, Mother most lovable, since it is sin and its consequences that mar the lovableness of a human being. We are all attracted by the innocence of a child; something of the divine seems to shine out from those candid eyes; and yet that child has been touched at least by original sin. What then must be the lovableness and attractiveness of Mary, more innocent than any child? Sinlessness is but the negative aspect of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The positive aspect is her fulness of grace which made her God’s masterpiece, the most beautiful soul ever created by God if we except the soul of her divine Son to which hers was most like. The infused virtues were hers in the highest degree; the gifts of the Holy Ghost were poured out in profusion upon her. Her soul was as a lyre responsive to the slightest touch of the divine Musician. Like her Son she lived entirely for God. Not only was Mary more richly endowed with grace and the virtues than any other creature; she corresponded most perfectly with every grace received and so grew more pleasing to God at every instant.


The beauty of her soul irradiated her body. She was specially chosen by God to be the only earthly parent of the most beauteous of the sons of men. The likeness between the mother and Child must have been very striking, and so Mary was in body the most comely of women. Hence she is at once the inspiration and the despair of every great artist. He conceives an ideal of lovely womanhood and tries to express it on canvas, in stone or in bronze, but he fails. No human artist could perfectly imitate the masterpiece of the divine Artist. What painter or sculptor could limn the beauty of her features, express the loveliness of those eyes, the windows of a soul where all is purity and grace? Surely the divine Artist must have contemplated with complacency this masterpiece of His creation.


Because Mary was His Mother, because God had dwelt in her body, and because too she was immaculate, her Son anticipated in her regard the general resurrection of bodies at the end of the world. Her comely body was not permitted to suffer the corruption of the tomb; her heart of flesh, the symbol of her interior life of love for God and man, was not destined to crumble into dust. When her earthly pilgrimage was ended she was assumed body and soul into heaven. Such had ever been the belief of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, and this belief was solemnly defined by Pope Pius XII on the feast of All Saints 1950. Later the same Pope proclaimed her universal Queenship. She reigns in heaven on the right hand of her divine Son, Queen of heaven and of earth, Queen of angels and of men. There her lovely hands and eyes are ever raised to the face of Jesus in supplication for her earthly children. She has been well styled Omnipotentia supplex almighty in her prayer.


Mary is a mother, but could God’s Mother lack the special splendour which virginity confers on body and soul? No, in this respect too God wrought a miracle for His Mother, conferring on her together the two naturally incompatible perfections of motherhood and virginity. ‘Unheard of privilege,’ writes St. Augustine, ‘but a fitting one. A virgin could have no child but God, God could have only a virgin for His Mother.’ Mary was a virgin before giving birth to Jesus; she remained a virgin in His actual birth and ever after. This is one of the most treasured doctrines of the Church regarding Our Lady. It was prophesised in the Old Testament by Isaias to whose prophecy the archangel obviously referred when he brought the good tidings to the humble virgin of Nazareth. The vindications of this privilege of Mary written by the Fathers of the Church against its deniers still vibrate with holy indignation.