Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.

Uneasy with the Mother of Our Lord

St. Mary (a purposefully papist picture)

For those interested in medieval drama, check out my thoughts on the Chester Cycle.

My mother organises a youth musical and drama group associated with her church.  One year, she decided to try and shake things up a little, to move away from Dennis and Nan Allan and songs by Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W Smith, and to try out something medieval.  So she thought they might enjoy “The Second Shepherds’ Pageant” of Wakefield as found in the Everyman edition Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays.  At the time, this group included a number of Baptists — a God-fearing people who are also suspicious of all scent of Popery.

As I understand it, they were not chiefly uneasy with the silly plot-line about Mak casting spells on the shepherds and stealing a sheep and then pretending it was his child, but, rather, with the Blessed Virgin.  I am dumbfounded by this fact, for here are the references to the Mother of Our Lord:

“They prophesied by clergy — that in a virgin / should he light and lie, to sloken our sin” (ll. 676-677)

“Hail, maker, as I mean, [born] of a maiden so mild!” (l. 711)

“Farewell, lady, so fair to behold, / with thy child on thy knee.” (ll. 746-747)

The Virgin herself has this one line to the Shepherds:

The Father of heaven, God omnipotent, / That set all on seven, his Son has he sent. / My name could he neven, and light ere he went. / I conceived him full even through might, as he meant; / And now is he born. / He keep you from woe! — / I shall pray him so. / Tell forth as ye go, / And min on this morn.

There is nothing in this play that is not simply what the Bible teaches. Jesus was born of a virgin, the power of God conceived Him in her.  I suppose the Bible says nothing of whether she be fair or no, yet that is but a small matter.

Protestants need to wake up and realise that the unconscious anti-Marian stance is unbiblical and unwarranted.  The Mother of Our Lord belongs in any discussion of the Incarnation, and she ought to have a central role in any retelling — artistic, dramatic, narrative — of the Nativity.  Furthermore, she belongs in a good number of the Gospel stories, from the Wedding at Cana to the Crucifixion, and probably the Empty Tomb as well.  She is a figure in the life of Christ, and one upon whom the favour of the Lord rests.

If we push St. Mary to the fringes of our understanding of the life of God while He was incarnate, then we fail at coming near a complete understanding of that Incarnate Life.  Given that the Incarnation is God’s most powerful revelation of Himself unto us, to fail at understanding Jesus’ life in any way, we are failing to understand God, Who He Is, and What He Does.