On January 1st we celebrate the Feast of Mary the Mother of God. This is one of the most beautiful feasts of the liturgical calendar, but for our Protestant brothers in Christ, also one of the most contentious.
Although their arguments are many, I find that Protestant arguments with the Feast of Mary Mother of God can be summarized as two-fold: firstly, how can a human, Mary of Nazareth, be considered the mother of God our Creator? and secondly, if Catholics are Christian, isn’t it blasphemous to set aside a day to worship someone other than Jesus Christ?
The first question, where Mary’s ability to be the Mother of God, as in her ability to take part in the conception of and give birth to God was dealt with at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The council decreed that Mary is Theotokos – literally, The One who gives birth to God, but it’s much easier to say Mother of God – since her son, Jesus, is in one person both human and divine, man and God. This doctrine of Christ’s divine and human natures residing in one flesh can be found most eloquently stated at the beginning of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-3, 14)
From John’s Gospel we can come to understand that God the Creator from Genesis, The Word, took on human form, becoming human flesh; and thus in Christ Jesus we have both the divine and human dwelling within the same being. With the Nativity being one of the first biblical stories most Christians learn, any Christian, regardless of denomination, will tell you that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary – in other words, Mary is the Mother of Jesus. If, as Christians, we are to deny that Mary is the Mother of God, since Christ is both man and God, wouldn’t this also be a denial of Christ’s divinity.
As far as Mary’s ability to conceive God within her womb, we need only look to words spoken by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
Again, if we deny that Mary carried and gave birth to God – Theotokos/Mother of God – then we are denying Christ’s very own divinity.
With regards to the second question of why Catholic’s would set aside a day to worship Mary instead of Jesus (or other saints for that matter) shows an understanding of Catholicism and the Mass that is quite erroneous. Although a treatment of how Catholics worship God through the Mass would be much too long for this blog, I will try to briefly expound upon how Catholics look to the saints, and to Mary the Mother of God in particular, for guidance and help in their quest to become one with the Creator.
Time and again we hear of Protestants calling Catholics Mary Worshippers based primarily on the recitation of the Hail Mary. I find this amusing since so many Protestants who base their faith on Sola Scriptura (solely on scripture, and usually a very literal interpretation) cannot see that the first half of the prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed are you among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
is based directly on the Gospel of Luke 1:26-31,42:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
Followed by her cousin, Elizabeth’s exhortation: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
By reciting these lines, Catholics are merely repeating the Lord’s message to Mary as it was presented by the angel Gabriel. Many times when I murmur this prayer, it's in reverent awe that our Creator God would have the confidence to use the lowliness of humanity in his plans for salvation. I look to Mary, frightened in the angel’s presence, and in wonderment of her courageous Yes to God, I wonder at what plan God has in store for me, and if I would have the same courage as a scared young girl did over 2,000 years ago.
In his quintessential Confessions, St. Augustine so wisely teaches us to pray: God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. As Christians we are on a journey to reunite our hearts with the Lord, and like on most journeys, we’ll tend to get lost from time to time, so we need to ask directions. Really, who better is there to ask for directions to find Christ from, than his mother, Mary? This is exactly what we do in the second half of the Hail Mary:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
We acknowledge that we are sinners, and that we need all the help we can get on our journey towards God, so we ask Mary to pray for us, much the same way would ask a friend to pray for us during difficult times. If the prayers of a living friend (also a sinner) are helpful, then just imagine the power of Mary, the Mother of God’s prayers. And if we listen hard enough, she answers them quite succinctly:
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
These words, spoken by Mary at the wedding at Cana, could have been spoken as much for us today as they were for the servants at the wedding who provided the jars of water that allowed Christ to perform his first miracle.
If we too do whatever he tells us, then Christ can also work miracles with what we provide him. I’m sure it won’t be easy, as neither was finding 120 to 180 gallons of water on the spot in a desert country; but like the wine that was drawn from the 6 stone jars, I’m sure the quality of the product will be beyond our imagination.
Finally, I find the beauty in the celebration of the feast of Mary Mother of God, in the sheer simplicity that Mary understood her roll, and ours, is to continually point towards the Father through her Son. Whether it was saying yes to God’s will at the Annunciation, or directing others to do Christ’s will at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary continually shows us what it means to offer yourself in total worship to God.
I think this can be summed up with one line from the gospel reading for this great feast day:
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
We need to be more like Mary, treasuring the Word of God through scripture and revelation, pondering them in our hearts to better understand his will for us.