The precise title ‘Mother of God’ dates back to the fourth century, when Mary was declared God’s mother – ‘God-bearer’ or ‘Theotokos’ in Greek – at the ecumenical council of Ephesus. This declaration rejected the position of the patriarch Nestorius, who claimed that Mary was only the mother of the man Jesus. No, said the Church, she is more. As the person of Jesus was formed in her womb, she is also the Mother of God. So today’s feast has a venerable history.
Christmas emphasizes the human nature of Jesus, born eight days ago. Christians believe that the divine person of Jesus had a human nature which was shaped by the humanity of his mother Mary, not only by giving him birth, but also by nurturing him. Today’s feast is also that of the circumcision of the baby Jesus, an act which made him one with the Jewish people, and a ceremony in which he received a Jewish name. ‘Jesus’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew ‘Joshua,’ or ‘Yeshua’. It means ‘God saves’. Thus in many ways, this feast focuses on the God who is with us in all our frail and imperfect humanity.
In many religions, the symbol of the divine mother is a powerful one. It denotes fecundity and the promise of abundance. It also denotes efficacy and the power of intercession on behalf of supplicants. Mary is not a primitive goddess, however. She is an ordinary woman like ourselves, but because of God’s favour and grace, she was raised uniquely to become the mother of his Son.
It is God’s love which ennobles and graces us, so that our human nature can become the source of grace and the channel of our salvation. Mary’s privilege can become ours as well. That is the promise of the Incarnation.