Theotokos: The Mother of God

Orthodox Catholic teaching has held together the mystery of “one person/two natures” from the beginning.

Andrei Rublev, “The Nativity,” 1405
Andrei Rublev, “The Nativity,” 1405 (photo: Public Domain)

As a Catholic feast day, Jan. 1 has historically brought various strands together. For a long time, it was called the “Circumcision of the Lord” because, on the octave day of Christmas and in accordance with Jewish law (Genesis 17:12; Luke 2:21) Jesus was circumcised. From the time of Abraham forward, circumcision was the sign of inclusion in God’s Covenant with Israel. 

Starting on Jan. 1, 1968, Pope St. Paul VI also designated Jan. 1 as “World Day of Peace,” eventually even introducing an optional Votive Mass for the observance.

What the Church has not observed on Jan. 1 is the beginning of the civil new year. The ecclesiastical new year begins on the First Sunday of Advent (i.e., Nov. 28, 2021), when the Church year returns to the beginning of the life of Christ by marking preparation for his birth. Historically, the civil new year began on various days, including March 25 (the Solemnity of the Annunciation, marking Jesus’ conception and nine months before Christmas). While many European countries switched to Jan. 1 in the 16th century, Britain and the 13 colonies kept the Marian-focused New Year correlated to Jesus’ conception until 1752.

Since the Roman Calendar Reform of 1969, the Church observes Jan. 1 as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. This is not, however, an observance pulled out of whole cloth. Honoring Mary as the Mother of God on Jan. 1 is, in fact, the earliest celebration of this date in the Roman Church. 

Speaking of Mary as Theotokos, the “Bearer” or “Mother of God,” is not just simply a nice way of stating the obvious. The title was tied up with the early Church’s Christological disputes.

Nestorius was a fifth-century heretic. He rejected the title “Theotokos” because of his underlying (and deficient) Christology. Orthodox Catholic theology teaches that Jesus Christ is one person, who has two natures, Divine and human. Jesus is completely God and completely man by virtue of two, complete natures. But Jesus is not two people. Jesus is one person. 

Nestorius rejected that teaching. According to him, Mary is “Mother of Jesus” the man, but not “Mother of God.” 

But Nestorius’ position is schizophrenic, truly a “split person-ality.” It would turn Jesus into two persons, one divine, one human. The early heretics who held these various positions basically adopted positions akin to the ancient Gnostics who, regarding the body as evil, sought to escape it. The almost universal common thread running through the early heresies in Christianity was an effort to deny some aspect of Jesus’ humanity, making that humanity in some way incomplete or inoperative. Put simply, all those visions founder on the clear teaching of Scripture that Jesus was “a man like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 2:17).

Because Mary’s Boy Child is truly one Person, “true God and true man” as the Council of Chalcedon would later teach, the Person to whom Mary gave birth was both fully human and fully divine. And because he is both, she is “Mother of God.”

“Nature” is, after all, something of an abstract concept. Because we all have human “nature,” we share common characteristics of humanity, e.g., being subject to space and time, being flesh and spirit and, since the Fall, being weakened as a result of sin. But we do not encounter abstract “natures” running down the street. We only meet real persons with human natures (because there are no nature-less persons). So why would we think Mary gave birth to an abstraction?

If Jesus is not true God, he cannot save us. He’s a wise teacher, a gentle model, and maybe an all-round-nice-guy, but he’s not God and, if he’s not, he’s as impotent as every other human being to save us. 

If Jesus is not true man, he cannot save us. He may be the Almighty God, but he cannot stand in for, represent, or do anything in our name. God’s relation to us would be wholly extrinsic. But God wants us involved in the work of our Redemption.

Either the person Jesus is “true God and true man” — and Mary is the Mother of that person, or Christmas was a lie.

Now, orthodox Catholic teaching has held together the mystery of “one person/two natures” from the beginning. That is why, already at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, the Council Fathers called Our Lady what we celebrate today: “Theotokos, Mother of God.”

These are not just ancient debates. What we say about Christology also expresses what we believe about human anthropology, who we are. Our modern culture is increasingly dividing the human person from human nature, reducing our natural — which is an integral part of our humanity—to something thought to be “subpersonal,” instrumental, subject to manipulation. Catholic theology resists this because what our quasi-Gnostic mentality calls “subpersonal” is actually quite personal, and since persons should be loved and not used, attacks on human nature are hardly “loving.” They are attacks on the human person, integrally considered. St. John Paul II worked tirelessly to emphasize that truth.

Today’s feast is represented in the 15th-century icon, “The Nativity,” prayed by Andrei Rublev. I say “prayed” because, in the Orthodox tradition, sacred images of icons are not “painted,” “made” or “created.” They are “prayed,” trusting that God’s inspiration guide the earthly hand. Rublev prayed this icon for the Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow.

Like medieval Western art, icons do not adhere to the simple canons of space and time that “realistic art” does. Because an icon speaks of spiritual realities, its depictions gather multiple symbols, concepts, and events together to express the spiritual truth the icon represents. Icons are, after all, a glimpse at heavenly realities, and our human understanding of heaven is limited. Because it is a glimpse of heaven, this is typically why icons are golden and limited to spiritual realities, without added “extras” like landscapes or temporal scenes. 

In this icon, the “Theotokos,” the Mother of God, is front and center. She is the largest person in this icon, on her birthing bed. Her Son, wrapped in swaddling clothes, is in the adjacent manger, animals closest to him, angels above him. The manger is in a cave, symbolizing the darkness of human sinfulness that, in entering this world, Jesus comes to save us from. The shepherds approach on the right, passing by a plant that Orthodox commentators say is a “Jesse Tree,” affirming Jesus’ Davidic lineage. In the upper left, the Three Wise Men are also approaching. Help and assistance is also found on the right: in the upper right, angels adore and wait to minister, in the lower right, Orthodox commentators say are human midwives. Where that notion would come from, given the abandonment of Mary and Joseph in overbooked Bethlehem, I cannot say. Furthermore, since tradition holds that Mary’s giving birth was painless (since pain in childbirth is presented in Scripture (Genesis 3:16) as part of the punishment of sin, i.e., that nature and even one’s body rebels against and resists the person), one further wonders where this Orthodox notion may have come from. In the bottom left is Joseph, somewhat isolated since his role is that of foster father, not father. Again, some Orthodox commentators say that the figure adjacent to him is a devil, tempting his pride about his limited role in these events.

Rublev is honored by art historians for being the start of a new and distinctive style into Russian icons, one softer and less severe, particularly in color. Perhaps his best-known icon in the Western world is the “Icon of the Holy Trinity,” in which the Three Persons are represented by the three angels mentioned (Genesis 18:1-13) as visitors in Abraham’s tent who promise that, within a year, Sara and Abraham would have a son. 

Holy Mother Church calls her sons and daughters at this beginning of the new year to honor the Mother of God — who is also our Mother (see John 19:27). The Redemption of humanity began with Mary, who agreed to be Mother of God. There is no better person for good beginnings …