Pope John Paul II
General Audience, November 27, 1996
1. Contemplation of the mystery of the Saviour's birth has led Christian people not only to invoke the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of Jesus, but also to recognize her as Mother of God. This truth was already confirmed and perceived as belonging to the Church's heritage of faith from the early centuries of the Christian era, until it was solemnly proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
In the first Christian community, as the disciples became more aware that Jesus is the Son of God, it became ever clearer that Mary is the Theotokos, the Mother of God. This is a title which does not appear explicitly in the Gospel texts, but in them the "Mother of Jesus" is mentioned and it is affirmed that Jesus is God (Jn 20:28; cf. 5:18; 10:30, 33). Mary is in any case presented as the Mother of Emmanuel, which means "God with us" (cf. Mt 1:22-23).
Already in the third century, as can be deduced from an ancient written witness, the Christians of Egypt addressed this prayer to Mary: "We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God: despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all evil, O glorious and blessed Virgin" (from the Liturgy of the Hours). The expression Theotokos appears explicitly for the first time in this ancient witness.
In pagan mythology, it often happened that a certain goddess would be presented as the mother of some god. For example, the supreme god, Zeus, had the goddess Rhea as his mother. This context perhaps helped Christians to use the title "Theotokos", "Mother of God", for the Mother of Jesus. It should nevertheless be noted that this title did not exist but was created by Christians to express a belief which had nothing to do with pagan mythology, belief in the virginal conception in Mary's womb of the One who had always been the eternal Word of God.
Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God
By the fourth century, the term Theotokos was frequently used in the East and West. Devotion and theology refer more and more to this term, which had by now become part of the Church's patrimony of faith.
One can therefore understand the great protest movement that arose in the fifth century when Nestorius cast doubt on the correctness of the title "Mother of God". In fact, being inclined to hold that Mary was only the mother of the man Jesus, he maintained that "Mother of Christ" was the only doctrinally correct expression. Nestorius was led to make this error by his difficulty in admitting the unity of Christ's person and by his erroneous interpretation of the distinction between the two natures—divine and human—present in him.
In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned his theses and, in affirming the subsistence of the divine and human natures in the one person of the Son, proclaimed Mary the Mother of God.
3. Now, the difficulties and objections raised by Nestorius offer us the opportunity to make several useful reflections for correctly understanding and interpreting this title. The expression Theotokos, which literally means, "she who has begotten God", can at first sight seem surprising; in fact it raises the question as to how it is possible for a human creature to give birth to God. The answer of the Church's faith is clear: Mary's divine motherhood refers only to the human begetting of the Son of God but not, however, to his divine birth. The Son of God was eternally begotten of God the Father, and is consubstantial with him. Mary, of course has no part in this eternal birth. However, the Son of God assumed our human nature 2,000 years ago and was conceived by and born of Mary.
In proclaiming Mary "Mother of God", the Church thus intends to affirm that she is the "Mother of the Incarnate Word, who is God". Her motherhood does not, therefore, extend to all the Trinity, but only to the Second Person, the Son, who, in becoming incarnate took his human nature from her.
Motherhood is a relationship of person to person: a mother is not only mother of the body or of the physical creature born of her womb, but of the person she begets. Thus having given birth, according to his human nature, to the person of Jesus, who is a divine person, Mary is the Mother of God.
Blessed Virgin's consent precedes Incarnation
4. In proclaiming Mary "Mother of God", the Church in a single phrase professes her belief regarding the Son and the Mother. This union was already seen at the Council of Ephesus; in defining Mary's divine motherhood, the Fathers intended to emphasize their belief in the divinity of Christ. Despite ancient and recent objections about the appropriateness of recognizing Mary by this title, Christians of all times, by correctly interpreting the meaning of this motherhood, have made it a privileged expression of their faith in the divinity of Christ and their love for the Blessed Virgin.
On the one hand, the Church recognizes the Theotokos as guaranteeing the reality of the Incarnation because—as St Augustine says—"if the Mother were fictitious, the flesh would also be fictitious ... and the scars of the Resurrection" (Tract. in Ev. Ioannis, 8, 6-7). On the other hand, she also contemplates with wonder and celebrates with veneration the immense greatness conferred on Mary by the One who wanted to be her Son. The expression "Mother of God" refers to the Word of God, who in the Incarnation assumed the lowliness of the human condition in order to raise man to divine sonship. But in the light of the sublime dignity conferred on the Virgin of Nazareth, this title also proclaims the nobility of woman and her loftiest vocation. God in fact treats Mary as a free and responsible person and does not bring about the Incarnation of his Son until after he has obtained her consent.
Following the example of the ancient Christians of Egypt, let the faithful entrust themselves to her who, being the Mother of God, can obtain from her divine Son the grace of deliverance from evil and of eternal salvation.
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