It was a week ago today that we celebrated the Jesus’ birth, declaring that born unto us is the Son of God. Today we continue that celebration and conclude these eight days by recognizing that he is also the son of Mary.
What exactly are we declaring as we call her Mary Holy Mother of God? Maybe one way of answering it is go back to the year 431 A.D. to the Council of Ephesus, where a theological dispute was settled. One side argued that the two natures of Christ—his divinity and his humanity—were separate, yet sort of fused together (as though with duct tape or super glue). The other side saw a problem with this thinking. If his two natures were not truly one, in what is called a ‘hypostatic union’ (such as is demonstrated when we co-mingle water with wine at the altar) then his divinity cannot truly lift up and save our humanity. But also, that would mean created matter, such as bread and wine, would not have the capability to impart divine graces upon us. And so the Council of Ephesus formally declared that his two natures formed one person, not two.
The council further declared that because Mary was mother of Jesus’, she is therefore properly understood as Mother of God. This may sound like splitting hairs over stuff that is theological mystery, but it is important to say it right, to the extent we can. Of all the titles that come from devotion that we have for her—Queen of Peace, Seat of Wisdom, Mother most amiable, morning star, mystical rose, etc.—Mother of God is the oldest.
While there is a theological basis for this celebration, there is also a very tender aspect to it as well. I suspect I’m not alone in my appreciation for images that show Mary and Jesus: the image and the reality it represents, a mother gazing lovingly at her young child[i].
Perhaps it’s tender because it speaks to our own beginnings. For nine months, hidden safe within the womb, we all had our first intimate human relationship with the woman who bore us. As we grew and developed from a single cell into a being equipped to contend with the world, we literally shared our mother’s lifeblood. Born into this world, we continued to depend primarily upon her to feed us, to nurture us, and to keep us safe[ii].
This reality that is our shared beginnings is undoubtedly a major source of our capacity to bond with one another, regardless of our skin color or national origin. Like Jesus himself, we were all given life and brought into the world by our mothers.
I believe this is what makes the image of Mary and the infant Jesus, meaningful to us. It invites us to recall with a certain awe that Jesus, our Lord, shared our common origin: He came into the world through the loving cooperation of a human mother[iii].
There’s a song, a lullaby of sorts, that speaks of this tender reality, a reality both miraculous and yet so very ordinary, the mother-child relationship that is at the very heart of today’s celebration. St. Luke tells us in today’s Gospel, that "Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart". In this lullaby, Mary treasures it and reflects upon it as she sings to and worships her infant son:
Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong. Help me be strong. Help me.
Breath of heaven, hold me together. Be forever near me, breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness. Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy[iv].
Yes, as St. Luke declares, Mary treasured this news and pondered it within her heart. As we begin this new year, with many things for which to be grateful, let us be thankful for the gift she gave us: her son, our Savior. Let us also be thankful sons and daughters of so loving a mother: Jesus’ mother, our mother. Let us rest for a moment in her tender embrace.
[i] Fr. Dan Ruff, SJ; The Priest Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor.
[iv] Mary’s Song (Breath of Heaven); Christ Eaton, Amy Grant.