Mary's name "Mother of God" was used quite early in the life of the Church - but it was often the source of confusion and bitter dispute. The greek nomenclenture as actually Theotokos, and that name is still the favorite title of Mary for Christians within the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches. Its literal English translations include God-bearer and the one who gives birth to God. Roman Catholics and Anglicans use the title Mother of God more often than Theotokos.
The interesting thing about this particular title of Mary is that it has much more to do with Jesus than it does Mary! There were those who argued that Mary should not be called "Mother of God" because she was really only the mother of his humanity, not his divinity. But this created a serious theological problem: was Jesus one "person" with two "natures" (human and divine), or was he actually two seperate persons? The Church Fathers unanimously agreed that that Jesus was one "person", and to say otherwise would be a grave error. It was the Council of Ephesus (one of the councils of the Undivided Church that the Church of England has decreed "authoritative") that finally decreed in 431 that Mary is Theotokos because her son Jesus is one person who is both God and man, divine and human.
This is the actually statement made by the Fathers at Ephesus in AD 431:
"We confess, then, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his Godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the Virgin according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in Godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy Virgin to be the Mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her"
The twenty-fifth day of December.
In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world
from the time when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth;
the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year after the flood;
the two thousand and fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham;
the one thousand five hundred and tenth year from Moses
and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt;
the one thousand and thirty-second year from David's being anointed king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
the forty second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
in the sixth age of the world,
Jesus Christ the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary,
being made flesh.
The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
This Sunday at S Giles, in our last Sunday Gospel before Christmas, we will hear of the visitation of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are few better reflections on this momentous event than one by St Leo the Great. The excerpt which follows is from a letter he wrote (Epist. 28 ad Flavianum, 3-4: PL 54, 763-767). Not surprisingly, this same passage is used in the Office of Readings for the Solemnity of the Annunciation.
In Mary's womb, God becomes Man, by St Leo the Great
Lowliness is assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that was incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other.
He who is true God was therefore born in the complete and perfect nature of a true man, whole in his own nature, whole in ours. By our nature we mean what the Creator had fashioned in us from the beginning, and took to himself in order to restore it.
For in the Savior there was no trace of what the deceiver introduced and man, being misled, allowed to enter. It does not follow that because he submitted to sharing in our human weakness he therefore shared in our sins.
He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So he who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant, man himself.
Thus the Son of God enters this lowly world. He comes down from the throne of heaven, yet does not separate himself from the Father’s glory. He is born in a new condition, by a new birth.
He was born in a new condition, for, invisible in his own nature, he became visible in ours. Beyond our grasp, he chose to come within our grasp. Existing before time began, he began to exist at a moment in time. Lord of the universe, he hid his infinite glory and took the nature of a servant. Incapable of suffering as God, he did not refuse to be a man, capable of suffering. Immortal, he chose to be subject to the laws of death.
He who is true God is also true man. There is no falsehood in this unity as long as the lowliness of man and the pre-eminence of God coexist in mutual relationship.
As God does not change by his condescension, so man is not swallowed up by being exalted. Each nature exercises its own activity, in communion with the other. The Word does what is proper to the Word, the flesh fulfils what is proper to the flesh.
One nature is resplendent with miracles, the other falls victim to injuries. As the Word does not lose equality with the Father’s glory, so the flesh does not leave behind the nature of our race.
One and the same person - this must be said over and over again - is truly the Son of God and truly the son of man. He is God in virtue of the fact that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He is man in virtue of the fact that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
Once again this coming Sunday we have a Gospel lesson in which S John the Baptist plays a significant part. I thought I'd rework some of the thoughts from last Sunday's homily, especially for those who weren't able to make it to mass.
It is critical to note, in the description of the ministry of St. John the Baptist - and we hear this more clearly this Sunday even than last - that he was called to prepare the wilderness for the message of Christ; he was not not called to prepare the message of Christ for the Wilderness. He was called to prepare the wilderness.
It is one of the uncomfortable messages of Advent, that the Mystery of Christ is timeless and unchanging - it is the wilderness of the world, and the wilderness of our hearts that must be prepared for it - not it for us.
Too often we think our task (or even our right) as Christians, and as the Church, is to prepare the message of Christ so that it can be better accepted by ourselves, and by the wilderness of the world around us. We like to soften the edges so that its demands, its claims and its inevitable implications for our lives will be more tolerable. But I’m convinced that to think of things in this way is a grave mistake - not just because its wrong, but because thinking about the Mystery of the revelation of the Truth of Christ in this way actually moves us away from under its power to convert us, to change us, to save us, and to us bring to life.
There are those (and there always have been those, in virtually every generation) who would persuade us that the old forms of Christian belief and life are antiquated and irrelevant: we must keep up with the times. There are those who claim that a new spirit is abroad, and that we must move with it. But over each generation also hangs the words of St John the Apostle: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they be of God: because many false prophets have gone out into the world."
I said earlier that the timelessness and unchangingness of the Mystery of Christ is a reason for discomfort. It is, and there’s no getting around that fact. But thats only because of our blindness, our stubborness and our fundamental misunderstanding of ourselves. The truth is, the timelessness and the unchangableness of the Mystery of Christ is actually the source and reason for our joy at Christmas.
We rejoice in Christmas, because it shows us that amid all the confusions and uncertainties of our lives, amid all the fancies and fads of this world's gyrations, there is the fact of God's coming. There is the revelation of the mystery of God with us. This is the mystery of which we are ministers and stewards; servants of a returning Master, "Who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts."
One of the great character that comes to the fore in Advent is S John the Baptist. We'll be hearing a lot about him at Mass this Sunday at S Giles. John the Baptist's life was fueled by one burning passion – to point others to Jesus Christ and to the coming of his kingdom.
Who is John the Baptist and what is the significance of his message for our lives? S John Chrysostom famously said of the Baptist that "He so lived as though he were in heaven." He truly is one of the most remarkable characters in the whole of the New Testament - indeed of the whole of the Bible. Scripture tells us that he was filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15,41) by Christ himself, whom Mary had just conceived by the Holy Spirit.
When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth John lept in her womb as they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41). The fire of the Spirit dwelt in John and made him the forerunner of the coming Christ.
John was led by the Spirit into the wilderness prior to his ministry where he was tested and grew in the word of God. John's clothing was reminiscent of the prophet Elijah (see Kings 1:8). John broke the prophetic silence of the previous centuries when he began to speak the word of God to the people of Israel. His message was similar to the message of the Old Testament prophets who chided the people of God for their unfaithfuless and who tried to awaken true repentance in them. Among a people unconcerned with the things of God, it was his work to awaken their interest, unsettle them from their complacency, and arouse in them enough good will to recognize and receive Christ when he came.
The most powerful words spoken by the Baptist in our Gospel lesson turn our eyes once more toward the One to come among us this Christmas season:
"After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."