Theotokos — Mother of God
Holy Mother of God: 1st January, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
We don't celebrate "The Solemnity of Mary, The Holy Mother of God" very often; only when New Year's Day falls on a Sunday. The last time was 2012. Usually on the first Sunday after Christmas we observe the feast of "The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph" — so Joseph gets a look-in. But on this special year, we focus solely on our Lord's mother, and in particular her unique role as theotokos "Mother of God."
My mother is called Mary, and she has been visiting us from New Zealand this week. Not that I have any delusions of grandeur I might add! My mother is 87 and still going strong; and she really is a bit of a saint. Her husband, my father, has dementia and it is moving to watch how patiently and lovingly she cares for his increasingly demanding needs. Seeing this, I am reminded of how she must have cared for my increasingly demanding needs, as I grew from a baby, into an infant, a child, a rebellious teenager, and then finally flew the nest. Motherhood is not an easy task, in anyone's book; but Mother of God. That task is almost unimaginable.
Many choose not to imagine it, of course, but today we are encouraged to do so. And it is an important thing to reflect on from time to time, both theologically and practically.
Firstly, let's have a quick look at the theology. The term theotokos became highly controversial in the fourth-century; in fact it led to one of the first splits in the Church. It had been used by the Church Fathers since Origen and Dionysius of Alexandria in the mid-third century. But the newly elected Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, was encouraging Christians not to use the term theotokos "Mother of God", but rather Christotokos "Mother of Christ." It may seem like splitting hairs, but the implications are huge for our understandings about Jesus.
Nestorius was concerned that describing Mary as theotokos "Mother of God" had the implication of seeing Christ's divinity as stemming from Mary, thus making her a goddess from whom God came. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, was vehemently opposed to Nestorius' teaching. Cyril argued that a description of Mary as Christotokos "Mother of Christ" split the person of Christ into two: one human and one divine. He wrote, in his third letter to Nestorius (See here...):
We worship one Son and Lord, Jesus Christ. We do not divide him into parts and separate man and God as though they were united with each other [only] through a unity of dignity and authority... [T]he holy virgin gave birth in the flesh to God united with the flesh ... for that reason we call her Theotokos... If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is, in truth, God, and therefore that the holy virgin is Theotokos (for she bore in a fleshly manner the Word from God become flesh), let him be anathema.
This became such a crucial issue for Christian doctrine, that it was put on the agenda of the third Ecumenical Council, held at Ephesus in 431, and Nestorius' teaching was anathamatised as heresy. The Church in the East, however, supported Nestorius' position and for nearly a century the Church split over this title for Mary.
So what? I can hear you say. Who cares? Well, the debate between Nestorius and Cyril was a debate about the language of devotion. It matters how we pray. We are profoundly shaped by our devotional practices, as individuals and as churches.
As Anglo-Catholics the doctrine of the Incarnation is foundational to our faith: Immanuel; God-is-with-us. This is not a nice theory, it is a truth that shapes who we are. We inherit this from the Council of Ephesus. That is why, for example, we bow (or some choose to genuflect) in the Creed, when we say: "And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man." It is why we have a special Mass with devotions to Our Lady of Walsingham once a month on Saturday morning.
In the term theotokos "Mother of God" lies a profound truth that shapes who we are. It is a deeply personal doctrine. The great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, put it so beautifully — and I'd like to end with her words (A Revelation of Love, chapter 57):
So our Lady is our mother, in whom we are all enclosed and born of her in Christ, for she who is mother of our saviour is mother of all who are saved in our saviour; and our saviour is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.