Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Off to Church again . . . Mary, Θεοτόκος, Mother of God

HAPPY NEW YEAR, everyone! This morning I’m off to Mass with a lot to pray about, and also a lot of family and friends to hold up to the Father in Jesus' great Sacrifice of Love. 

In addition to being New Year’s Day, the 1st of January is for us the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Some Protestant brothers and sisters balk at this particular title of our Lady, until they discover that it was given to her by the early Church primarily as a way of safeguarding the truth about Jesus being both human and divine, God in human flesh.

There had been strange ideas floating around, in particular that Mary was the mother of a human baby who somehow became joined to God. This undermined the Biblical understanding of Jesus as ONE person with two natures. Some people even taught that the divine nature of Jesus didn’t come upon him until his baptism!

In contrast to these theories, the Church has always understood from the Scriptures that the divine and human natures of Jesus were united in his one person from the moment of of his conception, and that therefore the Baby to whom Mary gave birth was fully divine as well as fully human. God and man are perfectly joined in him. To emphasis this, the ancient Church called Mary “Mother of God” (“Theotokos” or “God-bearer”). 

As early as 500 AD there is evidence of the Eastern Church celebrating a “Day of the Theotokos” just before or just after Christmas. This eventually became a feast of our Lady on 26th December among the Byzantines, and 16th January among the Copts. By the 7th century the Western Church celebrated the octave day of Christmas with a strong emphasis on Mary, but this eventually gave way to the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. It was in the eighteenth century that the Portuguese Church began to celebrate Mary’s “divine maternity”, on the first Sunday in May. The custom spread to other countries, and the feast - which came to be observed on 11th October – was mandated throughout the West in 1931.

It was Pope Paul VI, following the Second Vatican Council, who restored the Christmas Octave day to its Marian emphasis, though the theme of the Lord’s circumcision remains as well, so that we celebrate Jesus, truly God and truly man, as our only Saviour, who was born under the law that he might fulfill it, and who would shed his blood for our salvation.


Even during his Anglican years, John Henry Newman remarked that the popular exhibitions of devotion that so scandalized the English Protestant visitor to the continent, even with corruptions of  “excess” or “superstition”, were preferable to the arid indifference of the English laity and clergy.  After all, as Newman puts it, these devotions to Our Lady derived from the real (versus notional) idea that she was the Mother of God.

Later in his life, towards the end of his famous “Letter to Dr. Pusey” (p. 86) Newman wrote what I have heard called the most brilliant paragraph in all his work:

“And did not the All-wise know the human heart 
when He took to Himself a Mother?  
Did He not anticipate our emotion 
at the sight of such an exaltation 
in one so simple and so lowly?  
If He had not meant her to exert 
that wonderful influence in His Church, 
which she has in the event exerted, 
I will use a bold word, 
He it is who has perverted us.  
If she is not to attract our homage, 
why did He make her solitary in her greatness 
amid His vast creation?  
If it be idolatry in us to let our affections respond to our faith, 
He would not have made her what she is, 
or He would not have told us that He had so made her; 
but, far from this, 
He has sent His Prophet to announce to us, 
‘A Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, 
and they shall call His name Emmanuel,’ 
and we have the same warrant for hailing her as God’s Mother, 
as we have for adoring Him as God.”


God of peace, 
whose providence guides the changing seasons of every year 
and of all our lives: 
in the fulness of time, you fashioned in the Virgin Mother Mary 
a dwelling place for your Word made flesh among us. 
Bless with the joy of your Holy Spirit 
the first day of this new year, 
that through all the days allotted to us, 
we may, like Mary, rejoice in grace and embrace your will. 
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(From Benedictine Daily Prayer,
Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota)


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