Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Jan. 1 is much more than just New Year’s Day. New Year's Day is the octave day of Christmas on which the Church universal celebrates the Solemnity of the Holy Mother of God. The celebration was added in 1969 during the liturgical calendar’s reform.
“This date of January 1, which places the feast of Mary Mother of God in relation to the Christmas mystery is well-chosen and corresponds to the most ancient tradition,” notes Mariologist Father Manfred Hauke.
As the Holy See’s Directory of Popularity Piety explains, “The divine and virginal motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a singular salvific event: for Our Lady it was the foretaste and cause of her extraordinary glory; for us it is a source of grace and salvation because ‘through her we have received the ‘Author of life.’”
In fact, every time we pray the Hail Mary, we proclaim Mary as the Mother of God: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
Every time we use this wondrous title as we pray the Hail Mary, we sing in chorus with the third ecumenical Council of Ephesus which convened in 431 to once and for all settle and declare that Mary is truly “Mother of God.” It was the first Marian dogma.
Mariologist, professor and author Mark Miravalle put it this way: “The first and foremost revealed truth about Mary from which all her other roles and all her other honors flow is that she is the Mother of God. This dogma proclaims that the Virgin Mary is true Mother of Jesus Christ who is God the Son made man.”
Scripture attests to it. Scripture tells us explicitly in the Angel Gabriel’s words to Mary at the Annunciation. And so too with Elizabeth’s words at the Annunciation, as the Catechism reminds us, adding, “Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos).” Later, Paul in Galatians (4:4) proclaims, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…”
Why the Dogma
There would be little need to proclaim this dogma at that third ecumenical council in 431 if it weren’t for an attack by the naughty Nestorius. He would not call Mary “Mother of God” — “not primarily because of a mariological error, but because of a Christological error (an error concerning the true doctrine of Jesus),” Miravalle explains. Nestorius divided Jesus into two separate persons, one human and one divine.
When at Ephesus the Church fathers defined this dogma declaring the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the Mother of God or Theotokos (literally “God-bearer”), they were actually protecting the truth that Jesus is “one divine person with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, and that the two natures are inseparably united in the one, and only one, divine person of Jesus. We see then at Ephesus a case in point of the truth that authentic Marian doctrine will always protect and safeguard authentic doctrine about Jesus Christ.”
The council went so far as to pronounce and affirm: If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel (Christ) in truth is God and that on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos) in as much as she gave birth to the Word of God made flesh…let him be anathema.”
Not long after, Father and Doctor of the Church St. Gregory Nazianzen made no bones about it, saying: “If anyone does not believe that Holy Mary is the Mother of God, he is severed from the Godhead. If anyone should assert that He passed through the Virgin as through a channel, and was not at once divinely and humanly formed in her (divinely, because without the intervention of a man; humanly, because in accordance with the laws of gestation), he is in like manner godless.”
Saints and a Venerable Have a Say
One saint — St. John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater (On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church) — reminds us of another saint and Doctor of the Church, John Chrysostom. In the Eucharistic Prayer of [the liturgy of] St. John Chrysostom, right after the epiclesis, the community sings honoring the Mother of God: “It is truly just to proclaim you blessed, O Mother of God, who are most blessed, all pure and Mother of our God. We magnify you who are more honorable than the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim. You who, without losing your virginity, gave birth to the Word of God. You who are truly the Mother of God.”
In the same encyclical, John Paul II noted that “the dogma of the divine motherhood of Mary was for the Council of Ephesus and is for the Church like a seal upon the dogma of the Incarnation, in which the Word truly assumes human nature into the unity of his person, without cancelling out that nature.”
Venerable Fulton J. Sheen loved to write and speak much on the Blessed Mother. He has this beautiful reflection in his magnificent book appropriately titled The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God:
When Whistler painted the picture of his mother, did he not have the image of her in his mind before he ever gathered his colors on his palette? If you could have preexisted your mother (not artistically, but really), would you not have made her the most perfect woman that ever lived — one so beautiful she would have been the sweet envy of all women, and one so gentle and so merciful that all other mothers would have sought to imitate her virtues? Why, then, should we think that God would do otherwise? When Whistler was complimented on the portrait of his mother, he said, ‘You know how it is; one tries to make one’s Mummy just as nice as he can.’ When God became Man, He too, I believe, would make His Mother as nice as He could — and that would make her a perfect Mother.
She existed in the Divine Mind as an Eternal Thought before there were any mothers. She is the Mother of mothers — she is the world’s first love.
In the same book, Sheen asserts:
Any objection to calling her the ‘Mother of God’ is fundamentally an objection to the Deity of Christ. The consecrated phrase ‘Theotokos,’ ‘Mother of God,’ has ever since 432 been the touchstone of the Christian faith…As [Doctor of the Church] John of Damascus said: ‘This name contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation’…It implies a twofold generation of the Divine Word: one eternal in the bosom of the Father; the other temporal in the womb of Mary. Mary therefore did not bear a ‘mere man,’ but the ‘true God.’
There are countless insights, of course, from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church onwards who sing the praises of Mary in her title of Mother of God.
As the Catechism (509) succinctly proclaims in the proverbial nutshell, “Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God himself.”
Mother of God and Mother of Us
We must not forget Mary is both Mother of God and our mother too. Jesus gave her to us, and us to her, from the Cross. Archbishop Sheen had a wonderful way of explaining this in The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God.
If Mary were only the Mother of another man, then she could not also be our mother, because the ties of the flesh are too exclusive. Flesh allows only one mother…But Spirit allows us another mother. Since Mary is the Mother of God, then she can be the Mother of everyone whom Christ redeemed.
Here’s just a tiny taste from the sumptuous banquet of advice saints have given us over the centuries about our relationship to the Mary the Mother of God.
“Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did,” St. Maximilian Kolbe, among others, tells us.
“Let us not imagine that we obscure the glory of the Son by the great praise we lavish on the Mother; for the more she is honored, the greater is the glory of her Son. There can be no doubt that whatever we say in praise of the Mother gives equal praise to the Son,” counsels Doctor of the Church St. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
But do not disregard Mary in this title or in any of her other titles, as many saints have cautioned, including Doctor of the Church St. Bonaventure, who said, “He who neglects the service of the Blessed Virgin will die in his sins… He who does not invoke thee, O Lady, will never get to Heaven… Not only will those from whom Mary turns her countenance not be saved, but there will be no hope of their salvation… No one can be saved without the protection of Mary.”
But constantly take heart, for the Mother of God is always listening and ready to help us. As Doctor of the Church St. Robert Bellarmine counsels, “It seems unbelievable that a man should perish in whose favor Christ said to His Mother: ‘Behold thy son’, provided that he has not turned a deaf ear to the words, which Christ addressed to him: ‘Behold thy Mother.’”
And centuries earlier Father and Doctor of the Church St. Hilary of Poitiers had this wise guideline: “No matter how sinful one may have been, if he has devotion to Mary, it is impossible that he be lost."
So remember what we pray in both the Angelus and the Hail Holy Queen — “Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God. That we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.”