I sing of a maiden
That is makeles;
King of all kings
To her Son she ches.
He came all so still
To His Mother’s bowr,
As dew in April
That falleth on the flower.
Mother and maiden
Was never none but she;
Well may such a lady
Godes Mother be. (1)
Our blessed Lady is a matchless mystery, both as mother and maiden. Though in herself a creature and therefore finite, her divine motherhood is infinite in its dignity. (2) Not even the highest of angelic intellects can encompass the full truth of the Woman who gave birth to God. And as maiden, too, Mary is a mystery without peer. “Mother and maiden was never none but she.” Two realities that nowhere coincide in nature meet, by supernatural power, in her lowly and lovely person. Our Lady receives the office of divine motherhood, yet does not forfeit the state of holy maidenhood: she conceives as a virgin, gives birth as a virgin, and remains a virgin for ever, her whole life long. (3) The Catholic can only bow the knees of his mind before such a profusion of wonders: “Most glorious and beyond our understanding are all thy mysteries, O Theotokos: for with the seal of thy virginity unbroken, thou hast become in full reality a mother, giving birth to the true God.” (4)
This article will sing of the Maiden that is matchless. I shall try to come to her in faith, as her Son came to her in the flesh, with the quietness of reverence, “all so still,” and without the clamor of curiosity. My goal is to let the splendor of truth shine forth from the Mother of Fairest Love. Most of the article will, therefore, be a simple and peaceful meditation on our Lady’s divine motherhood…. However, in places, in the very cause of reverence, a more martial note will be struck. The saints prefer to sing in praise of God’s Mother, but sometimes they are obliged to argue in her defense.
Then Mary’s troubadours become her knights, for this is an apologetic that concerns nothing less than the honor of Heaven’s Queen. Those who admire the Church’s Doctors for the clarity of their understanding of Mary and the warmth of their love for her cannot fail to be stirred by the just anger with which they fight against her foes. Thus, when St Thomas Aquinas addresses the error of Helvidius, who “presumed to say that Joseph had carnal knowledge of the Mother of Christ after she had given birth,” he forsakes his habitual placidity and declaims with the chivalrous zeal of his crusader cousins that this error is “indubitably detestable.” (5)
The name “Mother of God” is the greatest of our Lady’s titles, and the office it denotes is the reason for all her other privileges. According to St John Damascene, Theotokos “sums up the whole mystery of the economy. If she who gave birth is Mother of God, then He who was born of her is definitely God and also definitely man. . . . This (name) signifies the one hypostasis and the two natures and the two births of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” (6) To call Mary “Mother of God” is to declare that Jesus is true God and true man in one person begotten eternally in His Divinity of God the Father and born in time in His humanity of the Virgin Mother. (7)
When we say that our Lady is Theotokos, we mean that she furnished the sacred humanity of our Lord with everything that every other mother gives to the fruit of her womb. In fact, she did even more, because, as Virgin Mother, she was His only physical link with the race of Adam. It is on His Mother’s side alone that the sons of men are kinsmen of the Son of God, flesh of His flesh. As St Leo says, Mary is the woman who supplies Him with His bodily substance (corporeae ministra substantiae). (8) The eternal Word did not bring His body down from Heaven, as some heretics thought, nor did He make it out of the dust of the earth, as He did in the case of Adam. No, “it was taken from the Virgin Mother and fashioned from her most pure blood. . . . (T)his is all that is required for the notion of mother. Thus the Blessed Virgin is truly the Mother of Christ.” (9)
The name “Mother of God” also affirms the true Divinity of Christ. The person whom our Lady conceived and bore is a Divine Person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, not, of course, according to His divine nature, but according to the human nature that He assumed. The word Theotokos is not found in Scripture, but the truth it signifies is nothing less than the apostolic proclamation. (10) The whole New Testament teaches us that Jesus Christ is “the true God” (cf 1 Jn 5:20). Now the sacred authors also tell us that the Blessed Virgin is the Mother of Jesus Christ (cf Mt 1:18). “Therefore, it follows of necessity from the words of Scripture that (the Blessed Virgin) is Mother of God.” (11) This is the truth implicit in St Elizabeth’s description of our Lady as “Mother of my Lord” (cf Lk 1:43), for St Elizabeth’s Lord is God.
Strictly speaking, it is only the body that the Son of God takes from our Lady. His rational soul, like that of every other man, is not taken from her or from anyone else, but is instead created immediately by God and infused into the body at the moment of conception, the complete human nature in the same instant being assumed. The Nestorians argued from this premise that Mary should not be called “Mother of God,” because she is only the mother of the flesh of Christ. St Cyril of Alexandria replied as follows: “Although mothers produce only the body, they are nonetheless said to bring into the world the whole living being composed of soul and body, not just one of its parts.” (12) St Thomas quotes St Cyril and develops his reasoning. (13) The gist of the argument is as follows. My mother is the woman who supplies the matter for my conception. True, it is God alone who creates the form, the rational soul, but that does not make my mother just the “mother of my matter”—though, if I were Bertie Wooster, I might affectionately dub her “my old flesh and blood.” She is the mother of the person I am, the one who has both body and soul. It is persons who are born, just as it is persons who give birth. Mothers are mothers of persons, not of natures or bits of natures. The same is true of our Lord and our Lady. Mary gives Jesus what every mother gives her child: He is conceived of her blood, made flesh of her flesh, and on that basis a person-to-person relation, a mother—son relationship, is established. But the person to whom our Lady relates as mother is a Divine Person, God the Son.
Therefore, she is rightly and properly called “Mother of God.” (14) Our blessed Lady is the Mother of the Divine Person of God the Son, not of His divine nature. “We must therefore say that the Blessed Virgin is called the Mother of God, not because she is the Mother of the divinity, but because she is the Mother, according to the humanity, of the Person who has divinity and humanity.” (15)
The Catholic believer can never take the title Theotokos for granted. If, as the Fathers insist, it contains within itself a complete confession of faith in Christ, then those who refuse or are reluctant to employ it cut themselves adrift from historical Christianity. It is a striking fact that, while the original leaders of the Protestant revolt continued to use the name “Mother of God,” their heirs and successors have shown it either open embarrassment or thinly suppressed contempt. Surveying the widespread departure from Christological orthodoxy among the Protestants of the nineteenth century, Matthias Scheeben made this telling observation:
No one need fear that the honor of God and Christ will be infringed by stressing Mary’s divine motherhood. But great danger threatens the honor of Christ, where His Mother is not gladly and loudly proclaimed Mother of God. As the Nestorians opposed this title because they did not acknowledge Christ as true God, so Protestantism has slowly lost the full knowledge of the divinity of Christ because it has refused to Mary the honor due to the Mother of God, supposedly for the sake of God and Christ. (16)
Newman in the same period held the same view: “The Church and Satan agreed together in this, that Son and Mother went together; and the experiences of three centuries has confirmed their testimony, for Catholics who have honored the Mother, still worship the Son, while Protestants, who now have ceased to confess the Son, began then by scoffing at the Mother.” (17)
The Gift of Motherhood
Motherhood is the privilege of the creature. Motherly love, like every other creaturely perfection, has its efficient and exemplary cause in God, in the whole Trinity, and as such may be appropriated to particular persons. However… there is no really existing relation of motherhood within the Godhead: none of the Divine Persons relates to any of the others as mother to child or child to mother. Motherhood belongs entirely on the side of the creature—indeed, it is the most beautiful expression of what it is to be a creature, for the fruitfulness of motherhood is the outcome of that receptivity of womanhood which is analogous to the dependence of every creature upon God. Motherhood, in the person of the Mother of God, is thus mankind’s sweetest gift to God. Only in His human nature does He know a mother’s love. The Byzantine liturgy expresses this great truth in one of its most exquisite hymns:
What shall we offer thee, O Christ, who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by thee offers thee thanks. The angels offer thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer thee a Virgin Mother. (18)
Mother in Faith
Our Lady is a mother to God not only with her body in all its parts but with her soul in all its faculties. Her connection with her Son by flesh and blood is a stupendous glory, but more glorious still is her communion with Him by the faith that perfects her intellect and by the hope and charity that perfect her will. Our Lord Himself points to this spiritual center of the divine motherhood when a woman praises the womb that bore Him and the paps that gave Him suck: “Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it” (cf Lk 11:28). Above and before all others, the Blessed Virgin hears the Word of God and keeps it: “Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (cf Lk 2:19). As St Augustine and St Leo say, she conceived the Word in her mind by faith before conceiving Him in her womb. (19) Indeed, “the motherly relation would have had no profit for Mary, had she not borne Christ more gladly in her heart than in her flesh.” (20) Blessed, then, is she who believed (cf Lk 1:45).
God does not impose motherhood on Mary. He wants her to give Him His flesh not only from the substance of her body but through the surrender of her faith. “The Fathers rightly see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely co-operating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience.” (21) With “her whole human and feminine person,” (22) our Lady welcomes the Son of God into human nature; she offers Him, consciously and freely, the shelter of her womb and the comfort of her breast. As we saw above, the Virgin’s