“My soul is glorifying the Lord and my spirit rejoicing in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:46). With this antiphon Our Blessed Mother herself began an everlasting hymn of praise to the Majesty of God for the wondrous mystery of divine motherhood which God had worked in her. Each succeeding generation has added its voice to the chorus according to Mary’s prophecy, to glorify the divine goodness “whose mercy is from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). In making Mary His Mother, God has poured forth on her all the treasures which His loving omnipotence could confer on a person who is not God Himself. Because Mary is God’s Mother, she stands next to her divine Son, at the summit of creation, above the angels and saints, having within her the very fullness of divine grace and purity and holiness. As Pius XII wrote in his encyclical Fulgens Corona, “A higher office than this (the divine motherhood) does not seem possible; since it requires the greatest dignity and sanctity after Christ, it demands the fullest perfection of divine grace and a soul free from every sin. Indeed, all the privileges and graces with which her soul and her life were endowed in so extraordinary a manner and measure, seem to flow from this sublime vocation of Mother of God, as from a pure and hidden source.” (1)
The divine motherhood is not only Mary’s greatest privilege, but it is the key to the understanding of all her other privileges. Not only does this truth hold the primacy in Mariology, but it is so intimately connected with the whole economy of salvation in Christ that for the past 1500 years the recognition of Mary as Mother of God has been a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. For if Mary is not truly the Mother of God, then her Son, Christ Our Redeemer, is not true God as well as true man; moreover, His salvific work for the Redemption of mankind would be nothing more than vapid imaginings of a restoration that had never taken place.
In one brief article it is obviously impossible to treat adequately of this great privilege of Mary which seems to exploit the very omnipotence of God Himself. (2) We shall limit ourselves here to the following points: 1. the revealed fact of the divine motherhood in Scripture, Tradition, and history: 2. an attempt at delineating the essence of the divine motherhood; 3. some reflections on the relationship of Mary’s motherhood to her other privileges.
I. The Fact of Divine Motherhood
For Mary to be the Mother of God, two things are necessary: first, that she be really the Mother of Jesus; and second, that this Jesus whom she bore be really God. If both these conditions are fulfilled, Mary is truly the Mother of God.
Hence we must try to understand what exactly is meant when it is said that Mary is a real mother and then why it must follow that, if Mary’s child is God, Mary is truly the Mother of God.
Every man who comes into the world has a mother who has conceived him, carried him in her womb, and brought him forth. A woman is prepared for motherhood from the very beginning of her life by the feminine structure of her body. On coming to puberty she develops within herself maternal ova designed to issue in children of her womb when fertilized by the male sperm. This fertilization disposes the ovum in such a way that it calls for the creation and infusion of a rational soul on the part of God. In the very instant that the soul is infused and a new being essentially like herself is formed in her womb, a woman is said to conceive or generate a child. A tiny globular embryo at first, the child is nourished in her womb from her bloodstream and develops there in the course of nine months into a recognizable human baby. Then the mother brings him forth into the world.
No woman can be said to be a mother in the proper sense of the word unless she has generated a child. Generation requires, first of all, that the offspring be a living subsistent being. (3) For what is generated is a being existing completely in itself, not in another, as, for example, a part exists in a whole. It would be wrong, therefore, to say that a woman who conceives a child generates his body or his soul or his nature; these are only parts of her child. She generates the whole child, the being which exists completely in itself. That is why your mother is the mother of you, not the mother of your nature or your body or your soul. (4)
Second, generation requires that the offspring be of the same nature as the parent. This point is too obvious to dwell upon; for God the Father generates God the Son; human parents generate human children, doves generate doves, giraffes generate giraffes.
Third, part of the very substance of the parent must pass into the substance of the child, so that the child is really from the substance of the parent; otherwise there is no real generation, no real fatherhood or motherhood. Hence adopting a child can never bring about real parenthood. Or suppose that God should create out of nothing a child’s body as well as his soul and lodge it in the womb of a woman in such a way that the child would develop there and be delivered by way of natural birth, even then the woman would not really generate the child and thus be its true mother; it would not be from her own flesh that the child had originated. It may seem useless to emphasize this rather obvious point, but it has been misunderstood in the past.
Fourth, the child must originate from that part of the parent which has the specific design and function of bringing about the same kind of nature in the offspring. If God should form an infant from the heart of a woman or from any part of her body other; than from her maternal ova, she could not be truly said to generate the child and to be its mother. The child must originate from the seed or ova of the parent; otherwise there is no true generation. (5) We do not say that Adam generated Eve, that he was the father of Eve; for although Eve originated from Adam’s flesh, she did not come from his seed.
Unless all these elements of generation are verified in the production of her child, no woman can be properly said to be a mother.
Mary the Mother of Jesus
It is astonishing with what clarity the Scriptures speak of Mary as a genuine mother. From the beginning of God’s revelation of the promised Redeemer, it was clear that He would have a real mother. He would be the “seed of a woman” (Gen. 3:15), a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the seed of David according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3; Acts 2:30), a shoot that would spring from the root of Jesse (Isa. 11:1), the fruit of a virginal womb (Isa. 7:14). By the power of the Most High and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1: 18-25; Lk. 1:35), Mary would conceive Jesus as her own Son (Lk. 1:31), and bring Him forth (Lk. 2:7; Mt. 1:16). From her He was made (Gal. 4:4), the fruit of her womb (Lk. 1:42). She gave Him His name and brought Him up as her Son (Lk. 2), a man in all things like the rest of men, except sin (Hebr. 4:15).
Difficulty begins to arise only when we try to understand how the Mother of Jesus is truly the Mother of God. We know from Scripture and Tradition that Jesus, the Son of Mary, is the only-begotten Son of God. He has a human nature which He received from His Mother, and He is therefore man like ourselves. But He is not a human person. He is a divine Person who is also man, who subsists not only in the divine nature which He receives in eternity from the Eternal Father, but also in the human nature He has received in time from His human mother. Mary, therefore, in generating her Son, did not generate a human person. Does, then, the mere fact that she gave a human nature to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity give us the right to say that she generated that divine Person, that she is truly the Mother of God?
We have seen that the object of generation, the being which is generated, is not just a part of the offspring, but the whole being existing completely in itself at the term of generation. If the offspring has an intellectual nature, as is the case in all human generation, then it is a person. Hence a woman’s motherhood always refers to the person of her child. What she mothers, what she generates or conceives, is a person. (6)
The very way in which we speak about a mother makes this truth clear to us. We say, for example, that St. Monica was the mother of St. Augustine. St. Augustine is a person. We ask: “Who is your mother?” or “Whose mother is she?” Who and Whose refer only to persons. Thus we see that our very manner of speaking about a mother and her child indicates that the relationship of mother to child is one of person to person; in other words, what a woman mothers is a person.
It is true, however, that a mother is not the cause of the soul or the personality of her child except in so far as she provides the matter disposed in such a way that it requires the creation of the soul of her child immediately by God. But even though a mother is not the total cause of her child, even though what she gives him by her own proper activity is not his soul nor his personality but only the flesh of his human nature, nevertheless she is truly his mother, the mother of the person of her child.
Although what she gives of her own is only part of her child, she is mother of the whole child.
If Mary did for Jesus everything that any human mother does for her child, then Mary is as much the mother of the person of Jesus as any other woman is the mother of her child. The fact that Jesus had no human father does not make Mary any less His mother. The essential difference between purely human motherhood and divine motherhood is not that Mary did something more or something different in the conception of her child. It is simply this: Mary’s Child is a divine Person, whereas the child of an ordinary mother is a human person.
We know that only God can create the soul of a child and make soul and body as one human nature exist completely in itself; in other words, God alone makes the human nature exist as a human person. Personality is the term of human generation as a gift from God, rather than as produced by human generation. (7) Hence human motherhood is not in the least interfered with or compromised, if God creates the soul in the flesh provided by maternal activity in such a way that the human nature produced does not exist completely in itself as a human person, but is assumed by a divine Person. If instead of giving human personality as the term of maternal activity, God gives the divine Person of His own Son to be clothed with a woman’s flesh, then far from interfering with her motherhood, this action of God raises it to “an almost infinite dignity.” (8) For such a mother bears the most perfect Son that can possibly be born. The divine motherhood leads us right into the heart of the Christian mystery: the unfathomable truth that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man, in whom the human nature received from His human mother and the divine nature received from His eternal Father are united in the one Person of the Son of God. Unless Jesus is true man, Mary cannot be a true mother. Unless the Child Jesus born of Mary is a divine Person and God Himself, Mary cannot be called the Mother of God.
The Scriptures on Divine Motherhood
Although the Scriptures do not explicitly call Mary the Mother of God, the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation speaks of the Child Mary is to conceive as the “Son of the Most High,” “the Son of God” (Lk. 1:32, 35). Elizabeth salutes Mary as the Mother of her Lord (Lk. 1:43). Although Lord (Kyrios) is employed in the New Testament for man as well as for God, in the present context it seems more certain that the Holy Spirit revealed the mystery of the Incarnation to Elizabeth in full. When she asks why should “the mother of My Lord come to me?” Elizabeth speaks of the same Lord of whom Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:47). (9) It is beyond the scope of this essay to expound the testimony of Scripture regarding the divinity of Mary’s Son. Still, because this truth is at the very foundation of the divine motherhood, it may be well to recall the precious prologue of St. John’s gospel in which he trumpets forth the divinity of Jesus Christ. The Word is God, he says (Jn. 1:1). God the Word was made flesh (1:14). God the Word-made-flesh is Jesus Christ, of whom John the Baptist gave testimony (1:15-17). Jesus Christ is Mary’s Son.
In the Synoptics we read that when Jesus was on trial for His life before the Sanhedrin, He professed under oath (Mt. 26:63, 64) that He was the Christ, the Son of God, and was charged guilty of death for blasphemy (Mk. 14:64), a charge having no meaning unless His claim meant equality with God Himself. Moreover, at least three times Jesus is explicitly called God by the Apostles. Recall the profession of faith on the part of doubting Thomas, as Jesus shows him the wound in His side: “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28). St. John in his first epistle is direct and explicit about the divinity of Christ:
We know also that the Son of God is come, and has given us understanding to know Him who is true: and we are in Him who is true—in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and life eternal (1 Jn. 5:20).
Furthermore, St. Paul not only says that “God sent His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), that Jesus was “in the form of God” (i.e., by nature God) and regarded Himself “equal to God” (Phil. 2:6), but speaks of “Christ in the flesh, who exalted about all things is God blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5). (10)
Therefore, even though Mary is never explicitly called the Mother of God in Scripture, she is explicitly called the Mother of the Lord, the Mother of Jesus; and her Son Jesus, whom she conceived, is explicitly called God. Mary is the Mother of God.
History and Tradition
The history of the Church’s teaching is to a great extent the history of her combat with error. Her infallible authority to interpret the deposit of faith and guard it from error leads the Church to define more and more precisely her own teaching. So it has been with the doctrine of Mary’s divine motherhood.
In the very early ages of Christianity belief in Mary’s divine motherhood found its expression in the creed attributed to the Apostles. According to the form in use at the time of Hippolytus (c. 215), the catechumens were asked: (11)
Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. . . .
St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and martyr who died shortly after the close of the first century, and who was probably a disciple of the Apostles themselves, is an eloquent witness to the early teaching of the Church. In his letter to the Ephesians he says: (12)
God our Lord Jesus Christ was born in the womb by Mary, according to the dispensation of God, from the seed of David, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As Mary can be the Mother of God only if she is truly the mother of Jesus and if her son Jesus is truly God, distorted views of the Word’s Incarnation logically involve a denial of the divine motherhood. The basic errors about the Incarnation are two: 1. Jesus, the Son of God, did not really become flesh, at least not flesh of our flesh, and hence cannot be said to have had a mother in any real sense; 2. the man, Jesus, who was born of Mary was only a human person, not the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Therefore we can trace the history of the Church’s teaching on Mary’s divine motherhood by studying the Church’s reaction to each of these two heretical tendencies.
The first great menace to the doctrine of the divine motherhood was Gnosticism. (13) While to the Jews it appeared blasphemous for any man to call himself the Son of God, the stumbling block for the Gnostics was rather that any god and savior of mankind should become incarnate by taking to himself real human flesh from a woman. To them the flesh was an evil thing, coming from an absolute source of all evil; the body was to be despised, abhorred, even annihilated. While the concern of true Christianity was the redemption and restoration of the flesh through the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of a divine Person, the main doctrine of Gnosticism was redemption from the flesh by a process of purification and deliverance from the flesh through knowledge (gnosis).
Basic in nearly every form of Gnosticism was a fundamental dualism between matter and spirit; it was impossible for any good god or savior of mankind to become enfleshed or to be born of the human substance of a woman. One form in which the Gnostic mind expressed itself was called Docetism—from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to seem,” “to appear,” “to make believe.” These “make-believers” as Ignatius of Antioch called them, taught that Christ’s body was but a phantom, that “the Savior was unborn, incorporeal and without form . . . a man only in appearance.” (14)
Valentinus taught that although Christ had a real body, it was not a material body like our own, but a celestial body, which came down from heaven into this world by merely passing through Mary’s body, as through a channel. Marcion went so far in his effort to obliterate any recollection of Christ’s human descent from David through Mary, that he not only discarded the Old Testament completely but even rewrote the New Testament according to his own Gnostic views. In Marcion’s gospel, Christ appears as a full-grown man without any human parents. Marcion turns the words of Christ, “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?” into a proof that Christ had no mother whatsoever.
St. Ignatius of Antioch about the year 110 is already warning the Christians of Trallia against such doctrine: (15)
Stop your ears therefore when anyone speaks to you who stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David’s scion and Mary’s Son, who was really born and ate and drank, was really persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really crucified and died. . . .
But if, as some atheists, that is, unbelievers, say His suffering was but a make-believe—when in reality, they themselves are make-believers—why then am I in chains? Why do I even pray that I may fight wild beasts? In vain, then, do I die! My testimony after all is but a lie about the Lord!
Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, all vigorous opponents of Gnosticism in the West, not only used expressions which equivalently affirm Mary’s divine motherhood, but testified explicitly to the basic truths handed down in Scripture and Tradition upon which Mary’s divine motherhood is founded. (16) Here we shall be content merely to present a significant text from St. Irenaeus, who abounds in statements covering the fact of the divine motherhood and founds his teaching solidly on the Scriptures and apostolic Tradition: (17)
That He (Christ) is Himself in His own right, unlike all men who have ever lived, God and Lord, King Eternal, and Incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets, apostles, and by the Spirit Himself, may be seen by all who have arrived even at a small portion of the truth. The Scriptures would not have given this testimony about him, if like others He had been a mere man. That He had in Himself, unlike all others, that pre-eminent birth which is from the Most High Father, and also underwent that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin—both these facts the divine Scriptures testify about Him; also that He was a man without comeliness and subject to suffering.
Closely related to Gnosticism was the doctrine of the Manichaeans. (18) Under its founder, Mani, Manichaeanism spread rapidly in the West and even claimed for a time the great Augustine who was later to become its most vigorous opponent. According to Faustus, the protagonist of the Manichaeans against Augustine, Jesus was the “Son of God,” but in no sense was He the child of Mary. With telling inconsistency, as Augustine pointed out, Faustus taught that the virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ was not Mary, but the earth itself. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the earth conceived and fashioned the mortal Jesus, who later became the Son of God at the time of his baptism. (19)
Although St. Augustine never used the expression “Mother of God” in his writings against the Manichaeans, he does call Mary God’s Mother (genitrici suae) in his sermons, and sets Mary’s “conception of her Creator” in sharp contrast with Elizabeth’s conce