Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mary, Mother of God ("Theotókos")

Because of the sad and time-consuming controversies in the Anglican world, and the apparent cooling of ecumenical dialogue, much of the work of ARCIC-II has gone unnoticed at the grass-roots level. This is particularly true of the final Agreed Statement of ARCIC-II published in 2005, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.

The document looks at Mary, firstly in Scripture, secondly in the early traditions of the Church before our divisions, thirdly in the specifically Anglican tradition of the last five hundred years, and it then explores the question of the “Marian dogmas.” ARCIC-II was concerned to break down old stereotypes. This is the reason for the emphasis in the document on salvation being “by grace alone.” In fact, the Agreed Statement relies heavily on an understanding of “prevenient grace” that is to be found in both traditions:

“The holiness which is our end in Christ (cf. 1 John 3:2-3) was seen, by unmerited grace, in Mary, who is the prototype of the hope of grace for humankind as a whole” (paragraph 59).


“Mary’s ‘Amen’ to God’s ‘Yes’ in Christ to her is thus both unique and a model for every disciple and for the life of the Church” (paragraph 64).

For me, one of the passages in the document that deserves widespread attention for both its thoroughness and brevity is that which deals with Mary as "Theotókos", "God-bearer" or "Mother of God."

As we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I share it with you (AND recommend that you read and reflect on the whole document, which can be found online HERE).

Christ and Mary in the Ancient Common Tradition

31. In the early Church, reflection on Mary served to interpret and safeguard the apostolic Tradition centred on Jesus Christ. Patristic testimony to Mary as 'God-bearer' (Theotókos) emerged from reflection on Scripture and the celebration of Christian feasts, but its development was due chiefly to the early Christological controversies. In the crucible of these controversies of the first five centuries, and their resolution in successive Ecumenical Councils, reflection on Mary's role in the Incarnation was integral to the articulation of orthodox faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

32. In defence of Christ's true humanity, and against Docetism, the early Church emphasized Jesus' birth from Mary. He did not just 'appear' to be human; he did not descend from heaven in a 'heavenly body', nor when he was born did he simply 'pass through' his mother. Rather, Mary gave birth to her son of her own substance. For Ignatius of Antioch (†c.110) and Tertullian (†c.225), Jesus is fully human, because 'truly born' of Mary. In the words of the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), "he was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man." The definition of Chalcedon (451), reaffirming this creed, attests that Christ is "consubstantial with the Father according to the divinity and consubstantial with us according to the humanity." The Athanasian Creed confesses yet more concretely that he is "man, of the substance of his Mother." This Anglicans and Roman Catholics together affirm.

33. In defence of his true divinity, the early Church emphasized Mary's virginal conception of Jesus Christ. According to the Fathers, his conception by the Holy Spirit testifies to Christ's divine origin and divine identity. The One born of Mary is the eternal Son of God. Eastern and Western Fathers - such as Justin (†c.150), Irenaeus (†c.202), Athanasius (†373), and Ambrose (†397) - expounded this New Testament teaching in terms of Genesis 3 (Mary is the antitype of 'virgin Eve') and Isaiah 7:14 (she fulfils the prophet's vision and gives birth to "God with us"). They appealed to the virginal conception to defend both the Lord's divinity and Mary's honour. As the Apostles' Creed confesses: Jesus Christ was "conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." This Anglicans and Roman Catholics together affirm.

34. Mary's title Theotókos was formally invoked to safeguard the orthodox doctrine of the unity of Christ's person. This title had been in use in churches under the influence of Alexandria at least from the time of the Arian controversy. Since Jesus Christ is "true God from true God", as the Council of Nicaea (325) declared, these churches concluded that his mother, Mary, can rightly be called the 'God-bearer'. Churches under the influence of Antioch, however, conscious of the threat Apollinarianism posed to belief in the full humanity of Christ, did not immediately adopt this title. The debate between Cyril of Alexandria (†444) and Nestorius (†455), patriarch of Constantinople, who was formed in the Antiochene school, revealed that the real issue in the question of Mary's title was the unity of Christ's person. The ensuing Council of Ephesus (431) used Theotókos (literally 'God-bearer'; in Latin, Deipara) to affirm the oneness of Christ's person by identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word incarnate.[6] The rule of faith on this matter takes more precise expression in the definition of Chalcedon: "One and the same Son ... was begotten from the Father before the ages as to the divinity and in the latter days for us and our salvation was born as to the humanity from Mary the Virgin Theotókos." In receiving the Council of Ephesus and the definition of Chalcedon, Anglicans and Roman Catholics together confess Mary as Theotókos.

The Celebration of Mary in the Ancient Common Traditions

35. In the early centuries, communion in Christ included a strong sense of the living presence of the saints as an integral part of the spiritual experience of the churches (Hebrews 12:1,22-24; Revelation 6:9-11; 7; 8:3-4). Within the 'cloud of witnesses', the Lord's mother came to be seen to have a special place. Themes developed from Scripture and in devotional reflection reveal a deep awareness of Mary's role in the redemption of humanity. Such themes include Mary as Eve's counterpart and as a type of the Church. The response of Christian people, reflecting on these themes, found devotional expression in both private and public prayer.

36. Exegetes delighted in drawing feminine imagery from the Scriptures to contemplate the significance both of the Church and Mary. Fathers as early as Justin Martyr (†c.150) and Irenaeus (†c.202), reflecting on texts like Genesis 3 and Luke 1:26-38, developed, alongside the antithesis of Adam/New Adam, that of Eve/New Eve. Just as Eve is associated with Adam in bringing about our defeat, so Mary is associated with her Son in the conquest of the ancient enemy (cf. Genesis 3:15, vide supra footnote 4): 'virgin' Eve's disobedience results in death; the virgin Mary's obedience opens the way to salvation. The New Eve shares in the New Adam's victory over sin and death.

37. The Fathers presented Mary the Virgin Mother as a model of holiness for consecrated virgins, and increasingly taught that she had remained 'Ever-Virgin'.[7] In their reflection, virginity was understood not only as physical integrity, but as an interior disposition of openness, obedience, and single-hearted fidelity to Christ which models Christian discipleship and issues in spiritual fruitfulness.

38. In this patristic understanding, Mary's virginity was closely related to her sanctity. Although some early exegetes thought that Mary was not wholly without sin,[8] Augustine (†430) witnessed to contemporary reluctance to speak of any sin in her.

We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred on her who had the merit to conceive and bear him who undoubtedly had no sin. (De natura et gratia 36.42).

Other Fathers from West and East, appealing to the angelic salutation (Luke 1:28) and Mary's response (Luke 1:38), support the view that Mary was filled with grace from her origin in anticipation of her unique vocation as Mother of the Lord. By the fifth century they hail her as a new creation: blameless, spotless, "holy in body and soul" (Theodotus of Ancyra, Homily 6,11: †before 446). By the sixth century, the title panaghia ('all-holy') can be found in the East.

39. Following the Christological debates at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, devotion to Mary flourished. When the patriarch of Antioch refused Mary the title of Theotókos, Emperor Leo I (457-474) commanded the patriarch of Constantinople to insert this title into the eucharistic prayer throughout the East. By the sixth century, commemoration of Mary as 'God-bearer' had become universal in the eucharistic prayers of East and West (with the exception of the Assyrian Church of the East). Texts and images celebrating Mary's holiness were multiplied in liturgical poetry and songs, such as the Akathist, a hymn probably written soon after Chalcedon and still sung in the Eastern church. A tradition of praying with and praising Mary was thus gradually established. This has been associated since the fourth century, especially in the East, with asking for her protection.[9]

40. After the Council of Ephesus, churches began to be dedicated to Mary and feasts in her honour began to be celebrated on particular days in these churches. Prompted by popular piety and gradually adopted by local churches, feasts celebrating Mary's conception (December 8/9), birth (September 8), presentation (November 21), and dormition (August 15) mirrored the liturgical commemorations of events in the life of the Lord. They drew both on the canonical Scriptures and also on apocryphal accounts of Mary's early life and her 'falling asleep'. A feast of the conception of Mary can be dated in the East to the late seventh century, and was introduced into the Western church through southern England in the early eleventh century. It drew on popular devotion expressed in the second-century Protoevangelium of James, and paralleled the dominical feast of the Annunciation and the existing feast of the conception of John the Baptist. The feast of Mary's 'falling asleep' dates from the end of the sixth century, but was influenced by legendary narratives of the end of Mary's life already widely in circulation. In the West, the most influential of them are the Transitus Mariae. In the East the feast was known as the 'dormition', which implied her death but did not exclude her being taken into heaven. In the West the term used was 'assumption',which emphasized her being taken into heaven but did not exclude the possibility of her dying. Belief in her assumption was grounded in the promise of the resurrection of the dead and the recognition of Mary's dignity as Theotókos and 'Ever Virgin', coupled with the conviction that she who had borne Life should be associated to her Son's victory over death, and with the glorification of his Body, the Church.


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