Mary, the Mother of God

Note: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died in the middle of the night, yesterday. Please pray for the eternal repose of his soul.  The Catholic Thing will be offering some commentary on the life and work of a great man and great priest tomorrow. – Robert Royal 

In 431, the Council of Ephesus proclaimed that Mary is the Mother of God – Theotokos – the name by which we honor her today.  The Council did so in order to clarify an important point, because Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, had argued that it was inappropriate to call Mary the Mother of God since God cannot be born.

Controversy, of course, followed. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, sprang into action and vehemently opposed Nestorius.  Cyril recognized that to deny that Mary is the Mother of God is to deny the Incarnation.  For Cyril, if Mary, through the power of the Holy Spirit, conceived in her womb the divine Son of God, then the child to whom she gave birth was the Son of God, and so Mary is, indeed, the “Mother of God.”  Therefore, at the Council of Ephesus, the Council Fathers approved Cyril’s Second Letter to Nestorius as the true and authentic expression of the faith.

Cyril wrote that Mary is rightly called the Mother of God “not because the Word’s nature, his Godhead, originated from the holy virgin but because his holy body, endowed with life and reason, was born from her and the Word was ‘born’ in flesh because it was united to his body hypostatically.”  Humanity was substantially united to the person of the Son such that the Son, in an ineffable manner, actually came to exist as a man – therefore, Jesus, the Father’s Son, was truly born of Mary.

Cyril became the hero of the Council of Ephesus.  He was the defender of Mary’s supreme title – Theotokos.  He was the guardian of the Incarnation – that the Son of God did assume our humanity and so became man.  He jubilantly returned to Alexandria knowing that he was the victor at the Council of Ephesus.

But that is not the whole truth!  Cyril may have been the superstar at the Council. But he was not the supreme proclaimer that Mary is the Mother of God.  He was not the unparalleled guardian of the Incarnation.  No, those accolades belong to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, a woman who, obviously, was not even present at the Council, which met centuries after she lived.

“When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’” (Lk. 1:41-43).

Elizabeth declares Mary blessed among women.  Why? Because the fruit of her womb is blessed.  For these reasons, Elizabeth is granted an exceptional privilege.  The mother of her “Lord” has come to visit her.  Mary is the mother of Elizabeth’s “Lord;” she is the Mother of Elizabeth’s “God.” Thus, Mary is blessed among women, for the fruit of her womb is none other than the Son of God – Mary is Theotokos!


Long before Cyril of Alexandria, long before the Council of Ephesus, Elizabeth, the elderly wife of Zechariah, is the first to proclaim the marvelous mystery of the Incarnation, for she is the first to declare that Mary is the Mother of God.

In so professing Mary’s divine motherhood, Elizabeth was declaring that the Son of God truly existed as man in Mary’s womb.  Elizabeth is the unnoticed and unsung hero at the Council of Ephesus.  Although the Council endorsed Cyril’s letter as an authentic expression of the faith, what the Council was actually doing was acknowledging the truth of Elizabeth’s proclamation some four-hundred years earlier.

On this, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, how, then, are we to respond to Elizabeth’s profession of faith?  Here we must look to the babe in her womb.  We, too, are to leap for joy!

Today, Catholics are to leap for joy, for today many of us receive Jesus, the incarnate Son of Mary, in the Eucharist.  We eat the risen Body and drink the risen Blood of Jesus.  Jesus will abide in us and we will abide in Jesus, and in so doing, we will be in fuller communion with Jesus than even when he dwelt in Mary’s womb.  We become one with Jesus!  Upon receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, we are to leap for joy – at the very least, in heart and mind.

Ultimately, Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son, became man in Mary’s womb so that he might come to dwell in us in the Eucharist.  He came down from Heaven and became man so that he might take us up into Heaven in, with, and through him.

By being eucharistically conjoined to the risen Jesus, we enter into the heavenly presence of our Father in communion with the Holy Spirit.  We are taken up into the very divine life of the Trinity.

Moreover, the Eucharist is a foretaste of Heaven here on earth, and so is an anticipation of the heavenly Eucharistic banquet.  When Jesus comes in glory at the end of time, we will leap up from our graves.  He will take us into the presence of his heavenly Father, and there, filled with the Holy Spirit, we, like the Spirit-filled babe in Elizabeth’s womb, we will leap forever and sing for joy, along with Mary, the Mother of God.


*Image: The Virgin and Child Embracing by Sassoferrato (Giovanni Battista Salvi), 1660-85 [The National Gallery, London]

Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, a prolific writer and one of the most prominent living theologians, is a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. His newest book is the third volume of Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Gospel of John: The Book of Glory and the Passion and Resurrection Narratives.