The first and foremost revealed truth about the Virgin Mary from which all her other roles and all her other honors flow, is her providential role as the Mother of God. This dogma proclaims that the Virgin Mary is true Mother of Jesus Christ, who is God the Son made man. The dogma of Mary’s Divine Motherhood, as it is commonly referred to, was solemnly defined at the third ecumenical council of Ephesus (431 A.D.).
Mary’s role as the Mother of God is revealed in Sacred Scripture. At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel declares to Mary: “Behold, you shall conceive in your womb and shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… therefore, the holy one who shall be born of you shall be called Son of God” (Lk 1:31; Lk 1:35).
The angelic message which originates from the Heavenly Father himself attests that Mary becomes the true Mother of Jesus and secondly, that Jesus is the true Son of God. From these words of the angel, we can derive the following simple theological syllogism: Mary is Mother of Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore, Mary is Mother of God. Since Jesus is truly God the Son, and Mary is repeatedly referred to in Scripture as the “Mother of Jesus” (cf. Mt 2:13, 2:20; Jn 2:1, 3; Acts 1:14, etc.), then Mary must be the true Mother of God made man.
St. Paul also witnesses to the Divine Maternity when he states in his letter to the Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).
In Tradition, we find the truth of Mary’s Divine Motherhood attested to in the Apostles’ Creed. This ancient and great formula of the essential doctrinal beliefs of the early Church professes faith in “Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
From the papal and conciliar authority of the Church, we have the historic Marian event of the third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. Ecumenical councils are those general assemblies of bishops who, with the authority and confirmation of the pope and guided by the Holy Spirit, teach and define doctrine as found in divine revelation, which are subsequently binding on the universal Church (hence, the name ecumenical or general council).
The Council of Ephesus solemnly declared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the Mother of God or “Theotokos”—literally the “God-bearer.” The Council approved the teaching of St. Cyril of Alexandria who, against the errors of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, declared:
If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel (Christ) in truth is God and that on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos) in as much as she gave birth to the Word of God made flesh…let him be anathema. (1)
Nestorius refused to call Mary “Mother of God” not primarily because of a Mariological error, but because of a Christological error concerning the nature and personhood of Jesus Christ.
Nestorius erroneously referred to the Lord Jesus as being of two separate persons, one divine and one human, instead of the true and necessary doctrine which was to become known as the “Hypostatic Union“: that Jesus Christ is one divine person, with both a divine and a human nature. (2) When Nestorius refused to call Mary the “Theotokos” or God-bearer, but only the “Christotokos” or mother of the human nature of Christ, it revealed his Christological error which denied the profound Hypostatic Union of both the divine and human nature in the one divine person of the Lord. The Ephesus definition about the Blessed Virgin actually protects the doctrinal orthodoxy regarding Jesus Christ.
We see then at Ephesus a case in point of the ongoing historical experience that authentic doctrine about Mary will always protect and safeguard the authentic doctrine about Jesus Christ. Several times in the early Church, when there was a statement about Our Lord Jesus which lacked clarity concerning its nature or ramifications, it was applied to the Mother of Jesus, whereby it then became clear that the Christological statement was incompatible with authentic Catholic teaching as passed on in Apostolic Tradition. As in the early life of Jesus, so too, in the early life of the Church, the Mother protects the truth and the love of the Son.
The Nature of Motherhood
To have an accurate understanding of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of God, we must first have a clear understanding of the nature of motherhood itself. How do we define motherhood?
Motherhood is the act of a woman giving to her offspring the identical type of nature that she herself has. This gift of nature is given through the process of conception, gestation or growth, and birth. The fruit of this process of maternal generation is the entire child, the son or daughter, and not only the physical body.
For example, we rightly say that Sarah is the “mother” of Isaac, that is, mother of the complete person, not just of Isaac’s body. This is a true statement, even though we know that Sarah did not give Isaac his soul which is created and infused directly by God. Motherhood then refers to the gift of the same nature, with the fruit of motherhood always including the entire person.
In this same way we rightly identify Mary as the “Mother of God.” What precisely does Mary give to Jesus in her act of motherhood? First of all, Mary did not give Jesus his divine nature, nor did Mary give Jesus his divine personhood. Both of these divine aspects of Jesus Christ existed from all eternity. However, “when in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4), Mary gave Jesus a human nature identical to her own. Since the human nature of Jesus is inseparably united to his divine nature in the one person of Christin his wondrous Hypostatic Union, we correctly say that Mary gave birth to a Son who is truly God and truly man. In sum, Mary fulfils the conditions of motherhood by giving to her offspring, Jesus, a nature identical to her own, an immaculate human nature. And since the child she bore possesses a divine nature, she is truly “Mother of God.” (3)
Jesus is therefore both “Son of God” and “Son of Mary.” Jesus is Son of the Father, since his divine nature and person was generated (not made) by the Father from all eternity. Jesus is Son of Mary, since his human nature was given to him by Mary, his earthly Mother.
The truth of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Divine Motherhood and its corresponding dignity are found in these words of the Second Vatican Council:
She is endowed with the high office and dignity of the Mother of the Son of God, and therefore she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth (Lumen Gentium, No. 53).
This article was excerpted from Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion.
(1) Council of Ephesus, DS 113.
(2) Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, 451, DS 148; Ludwig Ott Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan, 1974, p. 144.
(3) Cf. Gerald van Ackeren, S.J., “Mary’s Divine Motherhood” in Juniper Carol, O.F.M., ed., Mariology, Vol. II, Bruce, 1957; Juniper Carol, O.F.M., Fundamentals of Mariology, New York, Benzinger Bros., 1957, p. 35-40.