Mary, Mother of God
Sunday January 1, 2006 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier
Reading I (Numbers 6:22-27) Reading II (Galatians 4:4-7)
Gospel (St. Luke 2:16-21)
Today we celebrate a feast which we as Catholics tend to take for granted: Mary, the Mother of God. It is something that we pray hundreds of times every week, because, of course, that is how the second half of the “Hail Mary” begins–Holy Mary, Mother of God. It is something that we just simply take for granted and perhaps do not even think about. And it is something we probably would assume that most other Christians take for granted. That, however, is not true. Those who are truly orthodox will believe in this teaching. However, there are some who call themselves orthodox Christians who do not believe in this, and most of the non-Catholics who call themselves Christian (that is, the Protestants) do not believe that Mary is the Mother of God either. So we need to ask ourselves: What exactly is this feast about and why is it so important?
Back in the year 431 at the Council of Ephesus, the Fathers of the Church were called together to deal with a particular heresy that was picking up a lot of steam at that time. That heresy was called Nestorianism. Now the Church had already condemned several other heresies regarding the person of Jesus. The Church had already condemned the idea that Jesus was just a human person like us. The Church also had condemned the idea that Jesus is merely God. He is the Second Person of the Trinity but He is also human, and so then the question was: How does that work? Nestorius suggested that perhaps Jesus was a divine person–which He is from all eternity the Second Person of the Trinity; therefore, because He is a divine person, He has to have a divine nature–but then Nestorius went wrong because he suggested that Jesus is also a human person with a human nature.
The problem is that we can only be one person; you cannot be two. That is the problem Nestorius had. He could not deal with the idea that God would actually become man in the womb of the Virgin. He could not accept that the person to whom Mary gave birth was God. So he suggested that Mary gave birth to a human person, just like all other moms do, but not to a divine person. Depending upon which form of Christianity one wants to embrace these days, some will accept what we would call “adoptionism,” which is another heresy condemned by the Church, that is, Jesus was such a wonderful guy that God adopted him as His own son and made him God. It does not work. In other words, Mary gave birth to somebody just like us, and then he became God at some point along the line. There are other heresies that suggest Jesus did not take a human body to Himself. Some heresies suggest that He only looked like a human body, but there really was not one. Obviously, that does not follow either. There are other heresies that suggest Jesus did not take a human soul to Himself. That also has been condemned. The truth of the matter as the Church teaches it is that Jesus Christ is a divine person who has both a divine and a human nature, one person with two natures. He is not both a divine person and a human person.
The way the Church was able to make this eminently clear was to declare that Mary is the Mother of God. In other words, if the person to whom Mary gave birth is God then she is the Mother of God. Now she is not the Mother of God in the way of suggesting that somehow God began to exist in her womb. God exists from all eternity; He did not begin in Our Lady’s womb. All of us, of course, begin at the moment of conception; that was not the case for Jesus. His human nature began in the womb of His mother; His divine nature, however, is eternal. That, again, is something that becomes a point of confusion for some because when we think about the beginning of a human being, we naturally think that it is somebody who did not exist and then began to exist. Of course, every mother gives birth to a child who did not exist before the child was conceived within her, but that is different with Jesus. The person whom Our Lady conceived in her womb is eternal; He is God; He is the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity from all eternity; and He took our human nature to Himself in the womb of the Blessed Mother. Therefore, the person to whom Mary gave birth is truly God.
But because He had a human nature just like ours, He is also man. But, again, we need to be careful of the distinction. He is not a human person. He is a human being, but He is not a human person. If He were a human person and a divine person, He would be a perfect schizophrenic. Jesus was not. He is one person with two natures. Having two natures means that He has two minds and two wills. You must understand that your brain is not your mind. Your brain is merely the physical organ that allows what happens in your mind to be able to be expressed physically. Your mind and your will are faculties of your soul. Jesus had a human soul; therefore, He had a human mind and He had a human will. Jesus also, of course, is God, and God is a person (three persons to be exact); therefore, being a person, that means God also has a mind and a will. So Jesus has a divine mind and a divine will. He has a human mind and a human will. They did not interfere with one another. There was no problem within Himself as to the operation. He could operate on two different levels, on both a human level and a divine level, but with the unity of only one person. That is the point we need to understand.
The question about Our Lady’s Divine Maternity was not so much an understanding of Our Lady as it was of Our Lord, because the question back in the early centuries was “Who is Jesus Christ?” and the easiest way and the most clear way that the Fathers of the Church could make absolutely certain in an infallible statement was to say that Mary is the Mother of God. Now the people of Ephesus understood exactly what that meant. Even though the Fathers of the Church were looking at the question of “Who is Jesus,” the popular devotion of the people who loved Our Lady was so much–remember, Our Lady lived in Ephesus with Saint John, so the people of Ephesus had a profound love for our Blessed Lady–that after this declaration was made by the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus, the people of the Church in Ephesus took to the streets and they paraded, chanting Theotokos, Theotokos, which means “the God-bearer,” “the Mother of God.” It was that particular point that the people understood, the greatest privilege that Our Lady had. In fact, it was precisely so she could be the Mother of God that every other privilege was given to her. That is why she was conceived without Original Sin. That is why the extraordinary graces were given to her so that she never sinned once in her entire life. It was for this reason that God gave to her the profound holiness from the first moment of her conception, and such a profound love that all of the saints and all of the angels combined do not love God as much as our Blessed Lady does.
So when we think about this feast and we think about the fact that we so take it for granted, we need to put it into its proper context and realize that there was a day when it was not taken for granted. If you poll most people who today would call themselves Christian, you will also find that this truth is not taken for granted. It is something that is one of the most beautiful things humanity can ever imagine, that God would become man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that one of us, a human person, would give birth to God so that we could be saved. That is what Our Lady has done. We recognize, then, that without her fiat (that is, when she said to the angel, Let it be done to me according to thy word), without her approval, and without her acceptance of God’s invitation, there would be no salvation because there would be no Savior, there would be no Church, there would be no sacraments. We would not have Our Lord if it were not for His mother. And so we are completely indebted to Our Lady, not only now but for all eternity we will be in her debt, and we will be so grateful forever that Our Lady was willing to say “yes” to something that on the natural level sounds so ludicrous and so completely impossible that we cannot even begin to conceive the idea, that God would become man in the womb of a human woman. Yet that is precisely what happened, and that is what we celebrate today as we honor our Blessed Lady with her greatest privilege of all: to be the worthy Mother of God.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.