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Understanding Christmas Through Mary

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Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God-January 1

My Dear Friends in Christ,

With many of the Christmas trees waiting to be or already having been picked up curbside, we may be tempted to think that the Christmas Season has come and gone and that with today’s feast we move on in the drama of salvation. However, this is merely indicative of a shift in the secular culture, fitting the “holiday season” between the celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas (Day), and not reflective of the traditional celebration of the Church. Instead, the Church has traditionally celebrated a Christmas Season, that begins with the celebration of Mass on Christmas Eve and which includes the celebration of the Christmas Octave; within which are celebrated the feasts of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28th), the Holy Family (Dec 30th), and the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God (today). The Christmas Season will then continue on with the celebration of Epiphany, and conclude with the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism. 

Today, therefore, concludes the celebration of the Octave of Christmas, and properly speaking, marks the midway point of the celebration of the Incarnation that began on Christmas Eve and that will not conclude until with the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism. We might find it strange, then, that the Church places the Solemnity of the Motherhood of Mary at the center point of the Christmas Season. After all, aren’t we celebrating the birth of Christ? The answer is, absolutely. Far from distracting from the celebration of Christ’s birth, today’s celebration in a very unique and clear way reminds us of just whose birth we are celebrating.

The first thing to say with regard to today’s Solemnity and the Marian doctrine it celebrates, i.e., Mary as Theotokos, is that every single Marian doctrine held by the Church ultimately says something about Christ, Who Christ is and how we relate to God through, with, and in Christ. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to understand just what we are celebrating today and how this celebration is central to the drama of salvation. After all, if we were simply celebrating the fact that Mary was indeed a mother, there would be nothing remarkable or controversial about it; neither would it be cause for it being liturgically situated as the culminating celebration of the Octave of Christmas and place at the very center of the Christmas Season. It therefore becomes readily discernible that to celebrate the motherhood of Mary is the celebration of no ordinary motherhood (not to discount the beauty or import of ordinary motherhood), but something far more theologically mysterious and significant. That is, today’s solemnity is a celebration of Mary as the Mother of God or Theotokos, the Greek for God-bearer.

For over two thousand years now people have tried to discount or outright deny Mary the title of Theotokos in two main ways. The first is to outright deny Mary the title Theotokos. This is what we see in the second century work of a Greek philosopher and vocal opponent of Christianity named Celsus, who wrote that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Panthera in an attempt to discredit the rival sect (Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.32). Later, in the midst of the Christological controversies of the early Church, Nestorius would deny Mary the title of Theotokos and instead refer to her as Christotokos (i.e., Christ-bearer), in a mistakenly crafted attempt to protect the impassibility of God. Come down to the twentieth century and we find theologians like Paul Tillich, who writes off the idea of Mary being the Mother of God as legendary and even goes so far as to say that such a belief is quasi-heretical (Theology of Culture, Ch. 5.5).

The second main way to deny Mary the title of Theotokos is to say something more directly about Christ. This is what we see, for example in the Gnostic heresy that was prevalent in the early Church. This heresy taught that Jesus was completely human, but that at some point, the aeon Christ from the realm of the Pleroma let Jesus in on the secret knowledge (gnosis) that physical life was evil and separation from the body was salvation. Another early denial of the divinity of Christ came to be known as the Adoptionist heresy. Adoptionists taught that Christ was born as a normal human being but at some point, e.g., His baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit of God filled Christ with such a unique intensity that He was made a son of God, bestowing upon Him the ability to perform wondrous deeds including performing miracles.

Once again, unfortunately, we can track this sort of thinking all the way down to the modern period and to the present day. For example, Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote that Jesus was simply a perfected member of the human family whose relationship with God was more intense due to a heightened God-consciousness and feeling of utter dependency upon God (The Christian Faith, 94.2). Analogously, Immanuel Kant conceived of Christ as a moral exemplar par excellence (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, 54-57), whose life had exemplified for us the right way to live at the heart of all religion. Accordingly, he found the idea that Christ was supernaturally begotten to be a distraction, writing that such an idea “can in no way benefit us practically, inasmuch as the archetype which we find embodied in this manifestation must, after all, be sought in ourselves…The elevation of such a holy person above all the frailties of human nature would rather, so far as we can see, hinder the adoption of the idea of such a person for our imitation”(ibid., 57). Unfortunately, for Kant, these shortsighted lines simply echo another much earlier heresy. Kant was not the first to posit that the human family was simply in need of a perfect moral exemplar that we could reliably imitate in order to get us out of our desperate situation. The Pelagians had done so over a millennia earlier. At that time it was St. Augustine of Hippo who corrected the error. In response to the Pelagian theory that the salvific nature of the life of Christ is found in his moral exemplarity, Augustine retorted:

if the reason Adam was put first was that he was the first to sin, as if by way of example, not of origin, why at such an enormous distance, after such a long drawn out stretch of time, is Christ required against Adam?  If all sinners are related to Adam simply because he was the first sinner, then all the just should have been related to Abel, because he was the first just man; why is Christ required? (Sermon 294.15).

In other words, if all we needed was a good moral exemplar in order to be saved, why is Christ necessary? Any good moral exemplar will do.

I discuss all of these heretical positions not just as a simple intellectual history lesson, but because these seemingly arcane and outdated theories are very much present today. You may not hear the person sitting next to you in the pew self-profess to be an Adoptionist, Gnostic, Nestorian, Schleiermachian or Kantian with regards to their Christological beliefs. But, if a 2020 survey conducted by Legonier Ministries is a reliable indication, you have just a little bit better than a 1 in 2 (57%) chance of learning that the person next to you believes that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.”

What classical deniers like the Adoptionists and Nestorius and modern deniers such as Schleiermacher, Kant, Tillich, and perhaps the person sitting next to you in the pew, who are all ostensibly supporters of Christianity fail to understand, and which Celsus as an adversary understood very well, is that if you deny that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, all subsequent claims of Christianity are invalidated. This is precisely why it is most fitting that the Solemnity of Mary the Theotokos serves as the apex of the Octave of Christmas and is situated right at the very center of the Christmas Season. Mary gives birth to the God-man, who alone is our Savior.

Up and down the centuries the great champions of the Christian faith have asserted that only God, Who once created the human family out of love and sustains them in love every moment of their existence is capable of re-creating the human family through love, i.e., of bringing them salvation. This central truth of Christianity is precisely what the doctrine of the Theotokos safeguards. For this reason, asserting the unique role Mary plays in the salvation of the human family was readily understood to be imperative to the Christian paradigm by Church Fathers well before the Nestorian controversy which led to the official proclamation of the doctrine of the Theotokos. For example, in his refutation of the Gnostics, St. Irenaeus found it necessary to emphasize Mary’s importance in God’s economy of salvation. He writes “those, therefore, who allege that He (i.e., the Son of God) took nothing from the Virgin do greatly err…For if He did not receive the substance of flesh from a human being, He neither was made man nor the Son of Man; and if He was not made what we were, He did no great thing in what He suffered and endured” (Against Heresies, Bk. 3.22.1). Here, Irenaeus teaches us that understanding Mary as Theotokos is integral to our belief in the working of our salvation through Jesus Christ. Because of this, Irenaeus speaks of Mary as the new Eve; the new mother of humanity having given birth to Jesus, who, because He marks a new beginning for the human family is paralleled with Adam in the same fashion as in Paul’s work (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:45).

In a similar fashion, when Nestorius denied that Mary was Theotokos and instead said she was Christotokos, affirming that she was the bearer of the one who would become united to the Son of God under the title Christ, St. Cyril of Alexandria forcefully refuted such a claim writing that the Church calls “the holy Virgin theotokos, not because the nature of the Logos or the deity took the start of its existence in the holy Virgin but because the holy body, which was born of her, possessed as it was of a rational soul, and to which the Logos was hypostatically united, is said to have had a fleshly birth” (Second Letter to Nestorius). Notice please what is and what is not being said here. It is not being said that Godhead takes its origin from Mary, for God simply is from all of eternity (see Ex 3:14). What is being said, however, is that the human nature assumed by the Son of God by way of Mary was, because conceived by the Holy Spirit, from the very first moment of its existence personally or hypostatically united with the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. Therefore, she can and must properly be called Theotokos, the Mother of God.

Mary being upheld as Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD both affirmed the teaching of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that Christ was homoousious (consubstantial) with the Father and thus Divine and held the door open for the Council of Chalcedon to define the Hypostatic Union, the central Christological doctrine of the Church, twenty years later in 451 AD.  Then, with respect to Christ, the Fathers of Chalcedon following the lead of St. Leo the Great taught that there cannot be understood to be any separation or division between the human and divine natures in Christ but instead a perfect unity of the two, unmixed and unconfused. Situated within the flow of history in this way it becomes clear that the claim of Mary as Theotokos is at its very core a claim about who Jesus Christ is, and how it is that the celebration of Mary’s motherhood magnifies, and in no sense rivals, the celebration of the birth of Christ. Put very simply, celebrating Mary as Theotokos makes the Incarnation of the Son of God real for us. It therefore prevents us from falling prey to the type of thought we have seen expressed by many thinkers up and down the centuries, ideas that would deny the human family the gift of salvation, so wonderfully offered to us by the love of God made flesh in His only begotten Son. As St. Paul reminds us today in our second reading from his letter to the Galatians, it is precisely because God sent His Son to be born of a woman that we are afforded the grace of becoming adopted children of God by the gift of His Spirit. Consequently, we are no longer held captive by the power of sin and death, but by being united to the life of the Son of God Incarnate, we too become children of God, and if children “then also heir[s]” to the Heavenly Kingdom (Gal 4:4-7).

My friends, at bottom what we celebrate today is the mystery of our salvation which begins with the Incarnation, an event that took place within Mary by virtue of her fiat. Therefore, today, with this solemnity we are asked to imitate Mary. As we have made our way through this first half of the Christmas Season, alongside her we have heard what the Angel Gabriel said to her at the Annunciation, seen the events that took place surrounding the birth of her Son, and contemplated all of these things within our hearts (cf. Luke 1:34 & 2:19). In all of this we have been confronted by the mystery of our salvation, having had the message proclaimed to us that the Son of God has indeed become the Son of Man, taking everything that is ours to Himself through His Blessed Mother and ours, Mary, in order that we might receive everything that is His. Having been so confronted, we are left with two decisions to make:  Will we believe that this is true? And, will we allow that mystery to take place within our own lives just as Mary did?

We will never be the Theotokos in the exact same way Mary is; in His merciful providence God has given that mysterious honor to only one human person. However, by the “yes” of that one person, we have been given the opportunity to live united with God. Accordingly, we are called to strive to live that union gifted to us through Mary so intensely that we, as St. Paul once did, can rightfully say: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). In doing this we imitate Mary’s motherhood in an analogous fashion. Thus, the ramifications of our decision likewise carry an analogous weight of importance to that of Mary’s fiat. For it will decide not only our own salvation, but the ability of God to work the salvation of the world through us, members of the Body of His Son, the Church. In this we find a final lesson made clear by the proclamation of Mary as Theotokos, for God not only wishes our salvation, but in His great mercy desires to share the dignity of such great work with us. Through the Mother of His Son, God has proposed, will you make my Son known and present to the nations? Will you live so that my love can bring peace, healing, and salvation to a broken world? As they once did at the Annunciation, the angels stand, holding their breath (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 36). Will you echo Mary’s yes?

Your servant in Christ,