Why do we call Mary ‘Mother of God’?

Q: Why does the Catholic Church call Mary the “Mother of God”? Do you think the church will ever change the title to “Mother of Jesus”?

A: There are times when the church formalizes a new way of referencing Mary. Just this year, Pope Francis formalized the title “Mary, Mother of the Church.” Such formalizations are meant to deepen and clarify our understanding of faith. Proclamations of titles are usually not made if they would lead to ambiguous or shallower understandings of faith. 

Many ecumenical councils were convened specifically to resolve such ambiguity, especially in regard to Jesus and Mary.

The title “Mary, Mother of God” is a good example of how the bishops convened in an ecumenical council function under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to articulate and proclaim correct faith. Let’s look at some of the historical and theological controversies that led to this great clarification at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

The title “Mother of God” was not created at the council. It had already been used by Christians (for example, in the Syrian Liturgy of Addai and Mari and the Anaphora of St. James) to refer to the Blessed Mother as the one in whom and from whom the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became flesh and dwelt among us. (see John 1:14)

However, there were some in the early church who did not think it was right to use this title. They believed that Mary was only the mother of the human nature of Jesus and not of the divine nature. Therefore, they would only refer to Mary as the Mother of Christ (Christotokos), but not as the Mother of God (Theotokos). An early leader of the church in Constantinople named Nestorius was a promoter of this teaching, and so those who advocated this position were called Nestorians. They claimed that Mary could only be referred to as the Mother of Jesus. So, while the title “Mother of Jesus” can be used when properly understood, its erroneous use by the Nestorians renders it a potentially less-clear designation for the Blessed Mother.

The bishops who met at the Council of Ephesus affirmed the inseparable unity of the divine and human natures of Christ from the moment of Jesus’ conception, and that because of the divine nature present in the unborn child Jesus, Mary could rightfully and correctly be called Theotokos, which literally means “God Bearer” but which is more commonly translated as “Mother of God.” (To be clear, the council fathers were not implying that Mary was the source of Jesus’ divine nature — that would be a misunderstanding.)

The Theotokos question was really more about Jesus — specifically, the inseparability of his divine and human natures from the moment of conception — than about Mary. This is an important principle to remember: Any authentic study of Mary (or Mariology) is necessarily connected to the study of Jesus (or Christology). Mary exists in relationship to Jesus and must always be understood in the context of that relationship.

The Catholic Church celebrates this great clarification of faith every year on January 1 with the solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, which is a holy day of obligation.

There were other early Christian groups who taught similar false understandings about the divine and human natures of Jesus. For example, the Adoptionists believed that Jesus was “adopted” as the Son of God the Father at some point in his life, and so “became” God but was not so from the moment of his conception. The Arians believed the Son of God was created at some point such that the Son was not equal to the Father. The Docetists believed that Jesus was a pure spirit and did not have a human body. Obviously, all these misunderstandings of Jesus would lead to misunderstandings of Mary as well.

An ancient hymn by St. Ephrem declares, “By power from Him, Mary’s womb became able to bear the One who bears all.” As we enter more deeply into this Christmas time, we might pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to help us grasp more fully the wonderful gift of God in Jesus and to always honor Mary because of her relationship to our Lord. We should also pray that, like Mary, we too will always find our true identity in our relationship to Jesus, the eternal Word who became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - December 2018

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.