Sweet Mother of God

Theotokos, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

A week ago it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). Two days later, I gave a lecture about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, so St Mary the Virgin, Theotokos, Genetrix Dei was inevitably on my mind, St Cyril having been instrumental in enshrining Theotokos as a title for the Mother of Our Lord.

One of the people I follow on Facebook is Roman Catholic musician John Michael Talbot. He unsurprisingly posted some images from his residence at Little Portion Hermitage commemorating the feast. Because he has a fan base from both Roman Catholics and Protestants, he had to post a request for people to stop anti-Catholic trolling his post. One person went so far as to say that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “grieves the Father’s heart” in response to John Michael’s request for people to stop slamming the Church of Rome on a page maintained by Roman Catholics (frankly, a polite request easily abided by).

Now, I am not Roman Catholic, so I do not believe in the Immaculate Conception of the BVM. Don’t worry. My current approach to differences between myself and the Church of Rome has moved from, “And this is why I’m not a Papist!” to, “Hm. Why do Roman Catholics believe this?” I am far from, “I’m agnostic on points where the 39 Articles disagree with Rome.”

So — the Immaculata. Why?

When Marian dogmas are being done right, they all have one goal: To glorify Jesus the Christ, the God Word, God the Son incarnate. It seems to many of us that they detract from His dignity, and maybe sometimes in practice they can, but that is not the formal, official intention of the Roman Church (an important point to keep in mind).

The easiest place to begin, if you ask me, is Theotokos, Genetrix Dei, Mother of God. The Greek is literally “God-bearer”. This is a title that was in common use by the year 428, and the Bishop of Constantinople, an unsympathetic fellow called Nestorius, decided that Christians shouldn’t use this title anymore, urging them instead to say Christotokos, Mother of Christ, instead.

St Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (in terms of politicking, likewise unsympathetic, but a better theologian — and abler politician) took umbrage with this and argued that the fullness of the union between divine and human that is Jesus the Christ means that we cannot separate Christ from God like that. Thus, the child born in Bethlehem and carried in the virgin’s womb was completely and utterly God. The son of Mary was also God the Son.

The title Christotokos diminishes the reality and fullness of the Incarnation.

To get back to the Immaculate Conception of the BVM, then. How does this teaching exalt Christ? Well, first it would help to know what it actually is, right? The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM is the teaching that at the point of conception, Christ cleansed her of original sin. It is not not not not NOT a virginal conception. She was conceived in the usual manner by Joachim and Anna.

I may be wrong, but I believe that part of the issue is the question of Original Sin. If Jesus Christ was like us in everything except without sin, and if original sin is transmitted from parent to child, then would Christ not also have original sin? Except usually the argument is that original sin is transmitted through the father’s seed — hence the virginal conception of Jesus.

I actually don’t know where to go from here. I don’t think it grieves the Father’s heart, but I have never grasped the logic of why it was thought necessary to have this dogma. I see Eadmer’s perspective: Potuit, decuit, fecit — it could have been, it was fitting, it happened. But here I find myself inclining towards St Bernard (as so often — and himself one with his own devotion to the BVM) that this tends towards making Christ’s redemption on the Cross unnecessary.

That said, any exaltation of Mary is done by showing the greatness of the grace of God, highlighting the greatness of Jesus her Son. So maybe that is enough?

This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary will have the Annunciation to the BVM as the Gospel reading. Think upon the BVM, what it means to call her Theotokos, God-bearer, and then bow down and worship her Son. It’s what she’d want you to do.

3 thoughts on “Sweet Mother of God

  1. I unexpected found that Timothy Ware’s book The Orthodox Church presents the Marian doctrines in a far more convincing light than any Roman Catholic argument I have seen:

    The Orthodox Church calls Mary ‘All-Holy’; it calls her ‘immaculate’ or ‘spotless’ (in Greek, achrantos); and all Orthodox are agreed in believing that Our Lady was free from actual sin. But was she also free from original sin? In other words, does Orthodoxy agree with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, according to which Mary, from the moment she was conceived by her mother St Anne, was by God’s special decree delivered from ‘all stain of original sin’? The Orthodox Church has never in fact made any formal and definitive pronouncement on the matter. In the past individual Orthodox have made statements which, if not definitely affirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, at any rate approach close to it; but since 1854 the great majority of Orthodox have rejected the doctrine, for several reasons. They feel it to be unnecessary; they feel that, at any rate as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, it implies a false understanding of original sin; they suspect the doctrine because it seems to separate Mary from the rest of the descendants of Adam, putting her in a completely different class from all the other righteous men and women of the Old Testament. From the Orthodox point of view, however, the whole question belongs to the realm of theological opinion; and if an individual Orthodox today felt impelled to believe in the Immaculate Conception, he or she could not be termed a heretic for so doing.

    But Orthodoxy, while for the most part denying the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, firmly believes in her Bodily Assumption. Like the rest of humankind, Our Lady underwent physical death, but in her case the Resurrection of the Body has been anticipated: after death her body was taken up or ‘assumed’ into heaven and her tomb was found to be empty. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives already in the Age to Come. Yet she is not thereby separated from the rest of humanity, for that same bodily glory which Mary enjoys now, all of us hope one day to share.

    Belief in the Assumption of the Mother of God is clearly and unambiguously affirmed in the hymns sung by the Church on 15 August, the Feast of the ‘Dormition’ or ‘Falling Asleep’. But Orthodoxy, unlike Rome, has never proclaimed the Assumption as a dogma, nor would it ever wish to do so. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation have been proclaimed as dogmas, for they belong to the public preaching of the Church; but the glorification of Our Lady belongs to the Church’s inner Tradition:

    It is hard to speak and not less hard to think about the mysteries which the Church keeps in the hidden depths of her inner consciousness… The Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the Apostles; while Christ was preached on the housetops, and proclaimed for all to know in an initiatory teaching addressed to the whole world, the mystery of his Mother was revealed only to those who were within the Church… It is not so much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition. Let us therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatize about the supreme glory of the Mother of God.

    • This is, indeed, easier to accept! It has been their status as dogma that has repelled me from the Marian dogmas, to be honest. I would be almost more ready to accept things that are outside the apostolic preaching so long as I were not required to do so. North American individualism, I guess

  2. Delightful post! I’m with ya. I’ve never understood the need for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. The whole thing seems to be an attempt to solve the problem of Jesus being born without original sin by making Mary born without original sin… which seems like it just pushes back the problem a generation. I don’t get it!

    At the same time, Mary is almost completely ignored in most modern Protestant traditions (at least, the ones I see more often than not). It’s as though we’re trying to “solve” the problems we perceive in Catholic dogma by overcorrecting them. The other day, I heard an Advent meditation that described Mary as “just a regular girl, like your daughter or friend.” I was thinking, “Wait, the Mother of God is ‘just a regular girl?’ Do you talk about Moses as though he were ‘just a regular guy,’ or Isaiah as though he was ‘someone that may as well have been your brother?’ Why does Mary get those descriptors then?” I can’t help but imagine making Mary seem so unremarkable goes against the majority of tradition. At minimum, Cyril would have been bummed. I have to imagine that, even though I don’t get the whole Immaculate Conception thing, Mary is worthy of more consideration than Protestants like me afford her.

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