"Bearer(s)" of God
© Third Millennium, LLC
By: Deacon Keith A Fournier
"Men have crowded all her glory into a single phrase: The Mother of God. No one can say anything greater of her, though he had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees." Martin Luther, From the Commentary on the Magnificat.
From antiquity, Mary has been called "Theotokos", or "God-Bearer" (Mother of God). It is a relatively recent phenomenon among some Christians, that this term has become controversial. Yet, particularly since the Protestant reformation -it has.
As we conclude, we will examine one of the most controversial aspects of Mary, the very title that has so long divided many Christians and perhaps prevented the full appreciation for the gift that she was meant to be for the whole church and for the world. That is the use of the Greek word "Theotokos" in reference to her. The word literally means, "Bearer(s) of God".
Though used as part of the popular piety of the early first millennium church, the word became a stress point in dealing with early threats to orthodoxy or maintaining authentic doctrine.
A pronouncement of an early Church Council (The Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.) still echoes as a point of division and a source of heated discussion and long festering animosity within the Christian community, particularly since the Protestant Reformation.
"... If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the "Theotokos" (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema." The Council of Ephesus, 431 AD,
I believe that this division over Mary should not continue.
First, the historical reason for the Council's insistence on the appropriateness of the use of the term reflected a well intended effort to preserve the teaching of the Christian church that Jesus was both Divine and human and that those two natures were one in Him. Not only was that teaching under an assault then but it is now. This teaching lies at the very heart of the Christian claim of the Incarnation and still must be protected as the unique distinctive of Christianity.
It is precisely this kind of challenge to the possibility that divinity and humanity can "mix" that led to the pronouncement at the Church Council in 431 A.D. The leaders of that council made it clear. Mary was "Theotokos." She is not divine. She is absolutely and fully human. However, she was the mother of Jesus Christ, the One in whom heaven touched earth, the One in whom those two natures were combined.
The reason that the early Church Council pronounced this doctrine was "Christological", meaning that it had to do with Jesus Christ. It preserved a critical teaching about Jesus Christ--that He was truly God and truly man! No one has ever claimed that Mary gave birth to His Divinity, but rather that His human and divine nature could not be separated.
We should remember that this early Church Council was confronting a threat to "orthodoxy" or correct Christian doctrine. These threats came from the same sources we find engaged in the contemporary oppositions to faith. One of the leaders of this threat was a Bishop of Constantinople named Nestorius, who insisted on calling Mary only the "Mother of "the Christ"".
The Council insisted on the use of the title (in the Greek) of "Theotokos," ("Mother of God" or "God-bearer"). This Greek term is still the favored title given to Mary by Eastern Christians who honor her in a special way in their worship of God and their practice of piety.
The action taken by the Council was also intended to reaffirm an important truth about the incarnation and its implications for every human person who is baptized into Jesus Christ. The Church knew then what she knows now. We need fully human examples. We need fully human models.
Mary is still such a model for anyone who would examine the extraordinary claim of the Christian Gospel and say "I am too human, this cannot apply to me". Back then, we were not all that different. We doubted, we made wrong choices, we were tempted. We overate, we drank too much, we engaged in the illicit use of one another and lusted after material things... we were the same as we are now and we had a hard time believing we could be any different.
Continued disagreements concerning this term through Christian history have led to a diminution in the role of Mary in many Christian circles. Subsequent reaction and counter reactions made it all very complicated. A generalized suspicion concerning this humble virgin of Nazareth led to a near rejection of her unique role in many Christian circles.
This has impeded some from grasping a deeper truth concerning the very meaning of Mary's life - her humility and deference. In so doing, perhaps it has also impeded a fuller understanding of the call to every Christian to live our lives for God as she did? Maybe this has also sometimes undermined our mission to bring "the world" to the new world, recreated in her Son?
When we fail to receive the great gift of example found in Mary and learn to pray her prayer we may be kept from obtaining our greatest desire, deep lives of prayer, the kind of fruitful prayer that is necessary for the fulfillment of our mission of redemption, the kind that bears Jesus to the world as she did.
After all, without prayer it is impossible to fully know God and we cannot proclaim or introduce others to someone we do not know. Perhaps this is part of the reason why we have been ineffective in our efforts to carry on the Christian task of evangelization.
It is time to re- examine the deeper implications of the treasure that is found in the life example and message of the little Virgin of Nazareth. Perhaps even this controversial term "Theotokos" reveals a profound truth, not only about Mary, but about each one of us who are invited into the very relationship that she had with her Son. Perhaps it is a clue to a mystery. We are also to become "God-bearers" for all those whom we encounter in our few short days under the sun.
The fourth gospel (The Gospel of John) is considered by most scripture scholars to be the most theologically profound Gospel in the New Testament begins, the one written by the "beloved disciple" named John. The Gospel of John begins with these words:
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.... AND THE WORD BECAME FLESH AND DWELT AMONG US" The Gospel of St. John 1:1,14
Probably the last gospel to be written, this Gospel contains the inspired mature reflection of the early Church. In my own tradition, this first chapter was recited at the conclusion of every liturgy for centuries. It was called the "Last Gospel". Within these pregnant words we plumb the depths of the meaning and mystery of the Incarnation.
These words, rendered in English "dwelt among us" in the biblical text, are literally rendered "He pitched His tent among us." Think about it. The God of the whole universe, who dwelt in inaccessible light, whom no man had ever seen and lived, became a real man and pitched His home among us!
God lived (lives) among us. He became one of us. He felt as we felt. He laughed, wept, belonged to a family, feared, felt abandoned and was tempted, in it all to "sin", to make the wrong choice. He did not do so.
Because He was fully divine, He was able to overcome the consequences of our own sin and restore us to a new relationship with God. Because He was fully human He showed us the way and has given us all we need to follow that same path. How? First, He not only "paid the penalty" for our wrong choices and satisfied the debt of justice caused by our sin, but He has, through His life, death and Resurrection, enabled us now to live in a new way, to have a new relationship with God!
The author of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ, the High priest and tells us: "... we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet was without sin." Hebrews 4:15
This humanity of Jesus was and is no threat to His divinity. There is an "asymmetry" to this profound truth. It is not "either/or" but "both/and." Jesus "gets it." In Him, God became fully human without losing His divinity. He was both fully human and fully divine
Here is the real problem: we don't get it!
This Incarnation of Jesus Christ reveals the very essence of Christianity and contains within it the destiny of every member of the human race who will choose Him. This claim has been challenged throughout the two thousand year history of Christianity. It has withstood the threat of heretics and helped to overcome the fears of broken and wounded men and women in every age.
The Incarnation tells us that each one of us is invited into eternity. We are called into a process of conversion, transformation, transfiguration; all leading to what the early church had the audacity to call being "deified" or "divinized". Though these are still terms that are used in Eastern Christianity, they have fallen out of use as theological terms in the West.
The word "theotokos" emphasizes the true humanity of Jesus as well as His divinity. He was born of a real, human mother. The word became flesh within her. That Word en-fleshed was literally born through her. It also emphasizes the humanity of Mary. She had that baby as every woman bears a son.
It is not only a sad fact of our history as Christians that this title has become a source of our divisions, it is also sad that we sometimes think that Mary's pregnancy and delivery was any different than every woman. She was every woman, only given fully over to God!
Fortunately, the language of "anathema" is being replaced these days with authentic efforts geared toward reconciliation between Christians. It is so unfortunate that this very expression "God-bearer" has become such a point of division in the family of the Christian Church.
I am convinced that the one person who is probably most upset about it all is Mary. This humble Virgin of Nazareth called no attention to herself. She always pointed to her Son. She still does!
However, the truth protected by this early Church Council is important for all who still desire to understand the Christian faith and live the spiritual life. When we translate the Greek term "theotokos" as "bearer of God", (a perfectly legitimate and semantically accurate rendering of the term) we discover something that is a great treasure. It reveals the deeper meaning of the prayer of Mary.
The prayer of Mary is a way of life. It is a way of living, loving, responding, giving and bearing God for others. All of us are called to "bear" God. We make his love present in our lives by our "fiat".
The process of "bearing" Christ is to be symbolically repeated in and through each one of us. When we pray the "Prayer of Mary" we open ourselves up to becoming a place where the Word continually becomes flesh. We become the kind of people through whom God's love can be born anew every day. He pitches His tent.
This mystery concerning Mary is also the mystery of the meaning and mission of the Church. In fact, the very comparison of the two reveals an ancient Christian parallelism. From antiquity the Church was viewed as a "mother" bringing Christ into the world. In my own tradition as a Catholic Christian, as well as in Orthodox Christianity, the Church is still called "mother". The early Christian Fathers were the first to draw the parallel between the maternity of Mary and the maternity of the Church.
Her response to the messenger from God, her receptivity, her humility, her obedience, her servants' heart... were all seen as a "type" of the proper response of every follower of her Son, Jesus. This way of surrendered love is intended to be the way of the whole Church which is the "seed" of the "kingdom." The Church is to be to the world a "seed" of what it is to become when the fullness of redemption is complete! (See e.g. Romans 8)
My wonderful wife has an extraordinarily green thumb. She has transformed the grounds of every home in which we have lived over all these years together. I grow more fascinated by the process as the hairs on my head gray.
Within those seeds is contained the entire genetic structure of the beauty that will be the plant fully grown. She has known that for a long time. Women seem to be able to grasp the mystery at a deeper level. Maybe that is why the apostle Paul reminds us that: "When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:4)
Mary's response of bringing forth of the Word Incarnate through her "Fiat", her "Yes" was understood in ancient Christian sources as a "type" of the mission of every baptized Christian and of the entire Church. Orthodox and Eastern Catholic iconography rarely portrays Mary alone. She is always "bringing forth" Christ.
For those who can grasp it -and who choose to live it - the prayer of Mary opens up the meaning of the Christian vocation and the meaning of life itself. The seed is the word that is planted within each of us. We are all to become the seed that is planted within the world.
The "Magnificat" of Mary was more than a one time song. It was the framework for a life-song, a canticle, a way and a dance of love with the Lord; whom she loved and who invited her -and each of us- into an eternal relationship.
May this prayer now become our life-song, our canticle and our dance? For the world still longs for the fullness of love that we are all called to bear. Mary had God "to herself". Yet, she gave Him away. God is love. She gave love away.
After all, that is Mary's way. Let us resolve to make it our way as well.
Rev. Mr. Keith A Fournier, the founder and president of "Common Good", is a constitutional lawyer. He is a pro-life and pro-family lobbyist. He was the first Executive Director of the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice). He also served as an advisor to the presidential campaign of Steve Forbes. Fournier holds a Bachelors degree (B.A.) from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Philosophy and Theology, a Masters Degree (M.T.S.) in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Pittsburgh and an Honorary Doctor of Laws (L.L.D.) from St. Thomas University. Fournier is the author of seven books on issues concerning life, faith, evangelization, ecumenism, family, political participation, public policy and cultural issues. He is a features editor for Catholic Online and the Co-Director of "Your Catholic Voice"
http://www.commongoodonline.com VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Founder, President, 757 546-9580
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