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Mary in the Councils
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By Deacon Keith Fournier
In 1987, Blessed John Paul II wrote his encyclical letter entitled "Mother of the Redeemer: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church." It contains a wonderful summary of the teaching of the Church on the meaning, mystery and gift of Mary in the Plan of Salvation. It proceeds through the Scripture, the Sacred Tradition, the Church Councils, and the Magisterial teachings of the Church. The Holy father wrote: "With good reason, then, at the end of this Millennium, we Christians who know that the providential plan of the Most Holy Trinity is the central reality of Revelation and of faith feel the need to emphasize the unique presence of the Mother of Christ in history, especially during these last years leading up to the year 2000.
"The Second Vatican Council prepares us for this by presenting in its teaching the Mother of God in the mystery of Christ and of the Church. If it is true, as the Council itself proclaims, that 'only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light,' then this principle must be applied in a very particular way to that exceptional "daughter of the human race," that extraordinary "woman" who became the Mother of Christ. Only in the mystery of Christ is her mystery fully made clear. Thus has the Church sought to interpret it from the very beginning: the mystery of the Incarnation has enabled her to penetrate and to make ever clearer the mystery of the Mother of the Incarnate Word.
"The Council of Ephesus (431 AD) was of decisive importance in clarifying this, for during that Council, to the great joy of Christians, the truth of the divine motherhood of Mary was solemnly confirmed as a truth of the Church's faith.
The Madonna and Child with Saints - Domenico Veneziano - 1445
Mary is the Mother of God (= TheotĂłkos), since by the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived in her virginal womb and brought into the world Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is of one being with the Father. "The Son of God...born of the Virgin Mary...has truly been made one of us," has been made man.
"Thus, through the mystery of Christ, on the horizon of the Church's faith there shines in its fullness the mystery of his Mother. In turn, 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."
The first four ecumenical Councils of the Church confirmed and defined Christian belief about the nature of God and the meaning of the Incarnation, saving life, death, ascension and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Council pronouncements concerning Mary were made in reference to defending the truths about Jesus Christ and God's plan of salvation for the entire human race. That plan included, and still includes, the Mother of God.
The Catechism, in keeping with the unbroken tradition of the Church, makes the inseparable connection or link between the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of his Mother, as did Blessed John Paul in his encyclical letter cited above. The first four Councils of the Church, which are almost universally accepted among the broader Christian community even beyond the full communion of the Catholic Church, did the same. St. Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) once affirmed "I confess that I accept and reverence the four Councils as I do the four Gospels...for they are founded on universal consent."
The Councils affirmed the core of the Christian claim about who Jesus is and thus, who we can become in Him. The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD contended with a priest of Alexandria named Arius who taught that the Word or Son of God (who "became flesh and dwelt among us" as Jesus - Jn 1:14) was not God. Misusing passages in John's Gospel (14:28) where Jesus proclaimed "the Father is greater than I" Arius denied that the Word of God, was eternal. The bishops at Nicaea considered all the texts of the Gospels (such as Jn 10:30: "I and the Father are one") under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and declared that Arius was in error. The Son or Word of God is God (see Jn 1:1) and always existed. This was memorialized in the Nicene Creed. They used a Greek word homoousios, which meant that the Word or Son is of the same "being" as God the Father. If the Father is God, so is the Son.
The struggle continued for fifty more years before the First Council of Constantinople (381 AD) reaffirmed the creed of Nicaea. This ecumenical council also felt it necessary to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the "Lord and Giver of Life" who with the Father and the Son "is worshipped and glorified" and that phrase was added to the Nicene Creed. In the fifth century there were two more councils that addressed questions about Jesus. In the early 5th century a prominent bishop, Nestorius, rejected the title "theotokos" or "God-bearer" as a proper term for Mary.
Christians had always affirmed that the mother of Jesus could rightly be called the "Mother of God" or "God-bearer" because the Gospels teach that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary. Mary's consent, her "Fiat" to the message of the Angel Gabriel (see Lk 1:26-38) was an essential element of the faith of the early Church, a model for all Christians. She was viewed as the "Second Eve" whose "Yes" untied the knot caused by Eve's "No".
A Bishop named Nestorius objected to the title of Theotokos, Mother of God or God Bearer for Mary. The Council of Ephesus met in 431AD and affirmed Mary was the "Mother of God" because she is the mother of God in his human nature which, because of the Incarnation, could not be separated from the divine nature. The Council also affirmed that Mary's exercise of her human freedom, her assent, was a significant part of the plan of salvation, giving to the Incarnate Word, Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, his true and full humanity. When God the Holy Spirit "overshadowed" Mary the child born to her was truly God, the Son or Word of God (Lk 1:30-35).
After this Council, a monk, Eutyches claimed that before Jesus took flesh in Mary but that there were two "natures" - a divine and a human nature. After the union of the two natures in Mary's womb, only one nature was left in Jesus - the divine nature. Eutyches essentially proposed that the divine nature swallowed up the humanity of Jesus. So Jesus only took on human appearance. The Cappadocian father, Gregory of Nazianzus, once proclaimed "whatever was not assumed was not healed". In that we understand the danger of the denial of the sacred humanity of Jesus. Redemption would not be complete.
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD dealt with this threat to the meaning and implications of the Incarnation of the Word of God. The creed of the Council of Chalcedon declared that Jesus Christ is one person who exists "in two natures" - a divine nature and a human nature - which are neither confused ("blended together" into a third nature) nor divided or separated. Jesus is fully God and truly and fully human. Thus, the first four ecumenical Councils defined the meaning of the most foundational belief of the Christian faith and, as a result preserved the great promise of that faith for each one of us. In these Councils, as in the Second Vatican Council, what was said about Mary ensured the continued proclamation of the fullness of the truth about Jesus Christ.
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- The Apostles' Creed
- Act of Contrition
- Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- A Guide for Confession
- Unfailing Prayer to St. Anthony
- The Divine Praises
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