Dear Friends in Christ,
Wish you all are having a prayerful time while we wait for the blessed Feast of Pentecost.
For the past one week, I am seeing all the newspapers, television ads, radio ads focusing on “Mother’s Day” offers. But I feel one doesn’t need a particular need to thank your mother. It is very aptly said that “God couldn’t be everywhere so he created mothers”.
Awake, o my harp, your chords, in praise of the Virgin Mary!
Lift up your voice and sing the wonderful history of this Virgin, the daughter of David, who gave birth to the Life of the world! -St. Ephraim the Syrian
In this article I would like to focus on the greatest woman in the history of humankind- St Mary- The Mother of God. And we would see what the Orthodox Church means when it calls Blessed Virgin Mary- “Mother of God” and we would, in all our humility and God willingly, try to clear the distorted view that many of our heterodox brethren have on the title of “Mother of God” that the holy Church attributes St Mary with.
Our Protestant brethren do not venerate our the Blessed Virgin Mary and some of their groups even go to the extent of likening her to the eggshell that loses its value after the chick hatches. Probably this is a reaction to the exaggerated veneration given to her by the Roman Catholic brethren.
In the Holy Scripture, when we read the Gospel According to St Luke 1:43, we see an old woman, Elizabeth, wife of a priest and pregnant with a great prophet, belittling herself before the poor young orphan girl. She said: “How did this happen to me, that my Lord’s mother should visit me?!”
While the whole world knew nothing about the annunciation to St. Mary, St. Elizabeth declared St. Mary’s motherhood of her Lord in the absence of any external sign of this divine event.
When the holy Orthodox Church gives the title of “Theotokos” or “Mother of God” to St Mary, it doesn’t mean that St Mary is above God (as many of our Protestant brethren assume) rather is to emphasize two Christological facts:
A. Jesus Christ was genuinely born of St. Mary. He was not a phantom, but took on real flesh from a real mother.
B. Jesus Christ born of St. Mary is the eternal Son of God, who has no beginning.
In the other words, Jesus Christ-the Son of God, the incarnate of holy Virgin Mary- Mother of God- was Perfect Human and Perfect Divine.
Hereon, we will have a concise study on the three major heresies against the Humanity and Divinity of Christ that rocked the early Church, and how the dogma of St. Mary’s motherhood has been developed and declared to counteract these very heresies.
Most of Gnostic systems were based on the distinction between the “ Creator God” and the supreme remote and unknowable “Divine Being”.The function of Christ was to come as the emissary of the supreme God, bringing “gnosis” (Knowledge). As a Divine Being He neither assumed a properly human body nor died. They refused to accept that the Redeemer became flesh, or was born of a woman.
One of the Gnostic forms was the ‘Docetism’, the Greek word ‘dokein’ means “to seem” or “appear to be”. The docetists believed that Jesus Christ was not a real man but seemed to be so and to have a body, but simply passed through the Virgin without being fashioned of her substance. Some of the heretical teachings of the Gnostics are as below:
Saturninus: “the Saviour was unborn, incorporeal and without form….. For to marry and bear children, he says, is of Satan”.
Valentinus (2nd century) also taught that Christ united himself with the man Jesus who “was born through Mary and not of Mary”. He passed through her as through a channel.
Marcion : Jesus did not have a human soul nor an earthly body. He was not born of Mary, but appeared suddenly in Judea with imaginary flesh, a full-grown man ready to enter immediately upon his ministry.
The Fathers of the Church, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin, St. Irenaeus warned the Christians against such doctrines. St. Ignatius wrote to the Christians of Trallia: “Stop your ears therefore when anyone speaks to you who stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David’s scion and Mary’s Son, who was really born.”
St. Ambrose also states: “The Virgin had something of her own which she transmitted; the mother did not give Him something foreign (to her), but she conferred on Him what was of her own flesh, indeed in an unusual way, but by a normal function. For the Virgin had flesh, which she conferred on the fruit.”
The Arians denied that Jesus, the Son of Mary, is the Uncreated Son of God, and is one with the Father in the divine essence. They deny Christ’s divinity and subsequently St. Mary’s motherhood to God.
In his encyclical letter to the bishops (c. 319), Pope Alexanderos announces the deposition of Arius and made the first indisputable use of the title Theotokos: “After this we know of the resurrection of the dead, the first fruit of which was our Lord Jesus Christ who in very deed, and not in appearance merely carried a body born of Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos)”.St. Athanasius stresses that Christ is born of the Father but took His humanity from “the unploughed earth”, ‘ever-virgin and Theotokos’ .
St. Ambrose of Milan, wrote against the Arians:
“Come, Redeemer of the nations, show forth the birth of the Virgin.
Let all the world marvel, such a birth befitted God!”
It was on April 10, A.D. 428, that Nestorius, a priest of Antioch and disciple of Theodore was consecrated Bishop of Constantinople. He used the term Christokos (mother of Christ) for St. Mary, and not Theotokos. The battle lines were clearly drawn when one of his priests Anastasius, whom he took with him from Antioch, preached before him in December 428, saying:
“Let no one call Mary “Theotokos”, for Mary was but a woman, and it is impossible that God should be born of a woman”.
This teaching Nestorius publicly approved, and he himself preached a course of sermons in which he drew a plain distinction between the man Jesus, born of Mary, and the Son of God Who dwelt in him. According to Nestorius, there were two distinct persons in Christ, the Son of Mary and the Son of God, who were united not hypostatically but only morally.
Hence Nestorius taught that- Christ should be called not God, but “God-bearer” (Theoporon), in much the same way as the saints can be called, because of the divine grace given to them. Subsequently, Mary was not the mother of God, but the man Jesus in whom the God-head dwelt.
This teaching came to the notice of the then Patriarch of Alexandria- St. Cyril. St. Cyril sent two letters to Nestorius in which he explains the nature of Christ, as the Incarnate Son of God, one Person and declared St. Mary’s right to be called “Theotokos”.
In his second letter to Nestorius, St Cyril writes: “Nor was He first born of the Holy Virgin as an ordinary man, in such a way that the Word only afterwards descended upon Him; rather He was united (with flesh) in the womb itself…. For this reason the (Holy Fathers) confidently called the Holy Virgin “Theotokos”; not meaning that the nature of the Word or His Godhead received its beginning from the Holy Virgin, but that, inasmuch as His rationally animated body, to which the Word was personally united, was born of her, He is said to have been born after the flesh.I have thus written to you out of the love which I have in Christ, and I beseech you as a brother and “charge you before Christ and the elected angels”, thus to think and teach with us, that the peace of the churches may be preserved and the bond of unanimity and love between the priests of God may remain unbroken”.
In June 22, 431 the Third Ecumenical Council was held at Ephesus, over which St. Cyril presided. Nestorius was deposed and excommunicated, St. Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius was read, his twelve anathemas were confirmed, the Christological doctrine of Nestorius condemned and the title “Theotokos” solemnly recognized.
The holy Orthodox Church never places anyone above the Triune God and so when it affirms the name “Theotokos” to Blessed Virgin Mary, it reiterates its founding faith- The Son of God- Jesus Christ, who became incarnate of the holy Virgin Mary- and that He was Perfect Human and Perfect Divine.
On this Mother’s Day, the Fathers of the Church ask you to become like St Mary- wherein Christ ought to grow in your motherly hearts.
“When the soul then begins to turn to Christ, she is addressed as “Mary”; that is, she receives the name of the woman who bore Christ in her womb; for she has become a soul who, in a spiritual sense, gives birth to Christ”-St. Ambrose
May the prayers of the holy Theotokos help us to grow Christ in our hearts.
Wishing you all a wonderful Happy Mother’s Day!
Your friend in Christ,
Rev Fr. Tadros Yacoub Malaty, St Mary in the Orthodox Concept, Page 33-48