In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A little boy sat down one day to compose his Christmas letter with his Christmas wish list. Now this was no ordinary letter which kids might address to Santa. No, he was much smarter than that, for he knew the chain of command. If Santa was good to write to, how much better then to write to God! So having gathered paper and pencil, he began to write, “Dear God, I have been good every day this year.” And there he stopped, put down the pencil and began to think about what he’d just written. God sees everything, he couldn’t write that! So he crumpled up his paper and threw it on the floor. Grabbed another sheet and started over, “Dear God, I have really tried hard to be a good boy every day this year.” Again he saw the problem with such a untruthful boast. Crumpled up the paper and threw it on the floor. Time passed and paper balls littered the living room. Sitting opposite the fireplace, his eyes caught the nativity scene that the family had put up for the holidays. And staring at it and all its characters it sparked an idea. He went to his room and grabbed his backpack along with a towel. And he carefully removed Mary from the scene wrapped her and put her in his backpack. Then took great care to hide it. He sat down one final time with pencil in hand and wrote, “Dear God, If you ever want to see your mother again….” I wished I could say I could never imagine this happening, but having lived with Justin these past four years I’m not going to put it past him.
Form the earliest days of the Church, the faithful both in her leaders, the early Church Fathers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Irenaeus, have referred to Mary as Mother of God. Again that ancient Orthodox prayer, “It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos (God-Bearer), ever blessed and most pure, and Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.” The title of “Mother of God” given to Mary was initially a simple logical conclusion, that went along the lines of something like this: Mary is Jesus’ mother. Jesus is God. Ergo, Mary is the Mother of God. And for a time the prevailing wisdom ruled the day, until Arius arrived along with his heresy, “Arianism.” He held that Jesus was indeed not God. His battle cry was, “There was a time when he [Jesus] was not.” He thoroughly denied the divinity of Jesus and he amassed quite a following. So large was his movement that even entire synods or dioceses were overtaken by Arianism. And had it not been for the Orthodox fathers such as St. Cyril and St. Nicholas, the real one, it might have destroyed the Christian church. In the rise of such heresies and others Mary was stripped of her title, because if Jesus is not God, then certainly Mary is not the Mother of God.
Pope Celestine at Ephesus in 431, called a council of the Church together under the jurisdiction of her bishops to deal with not only the theological disease of Ariansim, but to restore the dignity and title to Mary that she had held for so long in the early Church. Indeed Canon 1 of the Third Ecumenical Council states, “If anyone will not confess that the Emamanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos), inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh: let him be anathema.” Dr. Hahn in his book, “Hail Holy Queen” describes the proclamation of this canon to the masses writing, “Christians thronged the city, awaiting word of the bishops’ decision. When the bishops read the council’s proclamation that Mary was indeed the Mother of God, the people gave way to their joy and celebrated by carrying the bishops (all two hundred of them!) aloft through the streets in a torchlit procession (p. 101).”
This, as we can clearly see, was not just a theological concept of dogma for the hierarchy of the Church, but rather a foundational part of the piety of every early Christian’s faith. But why? Why did the early Church have this profound connection to Mary and took time to honor and venerate her? I think many of reasons can come to mind, but to express them here would be too laborious so I will quickly name three. The first is the reality that this Woman, flesh which shares our flesh was taken up into the life of God in a profound way and that God chose to redeem us through her life. God as we know from our faith is not an eternal solitude, but rather an eternal family of Father and Son and the Witness of the Love between them the Holy Spirit. God is one, but He is a trinity of persons. Bound by an eternal relation to one another, Father to Son. Son to Father. Together with the communication of their love to one another, the Holy Spirit. In complete humility and condescension the Father chose to make His Son like every son so that He could bring others into the eternal family of God. Though Christ is eternal, begotten of the Father from the beginning, He will be born in humanity and in order for that to take place He needs what every man needs, a womb from which to be born. For this He chose Mary, the virgin. She is selected in a profound way to give flesh and bone to the Word Made Flesh, to be a Mother. Her role is chiefly unique in all of history for from her has come the salvation of Man. Indeed she gave birth to her own salvation. Where we are brought into God’s life by baptism, she was brought into the divine life by an outpouring of pure grace and faith, not to be a mere child of God, but rather His Mother.
Second, which picks up where we left off. Mary gives birth to her own salvation and the salvation of all humanity. We speak often in our faith about our salvation in terms of being washed in the Blood of the Lamb. We even raise a cup, in accord with the will of Christ, and there proclaim in wine combined with the Word that it is the blood of our Lord shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. It is the crucified body of Jesus which has taken away our sins and been offered as a perfect and lasting sacrifice for all. It is that same body which rose from the dead and ascended into His glory in heaven. But there is none of that, no body, no blood, if not for the humble obedience of the handmaid of the Lord. The one who in pure faith and in pure holiness told the Lord, “Let it be to me according to your word.” The blood of Christ shed upon the cross, is the blood given to Him by Mary. The body broken for our sins is the body of flesh given to Him by Mary. His eyes, His hair, His genetic makeup, all of it came from the womb of the Blessed Virgin. As our own Lutheran Confessions state in the Formula of Concord of 1580, “Mary, the most blessed Virgin, did not bear a mere man. But, as the angel testifies, she bore a man who is truly the Son of the most high God.” And again, “Therefore she is rightly called and truly is the Mother of God.” Theotokos. God could have chosen to redeem humanity anyway He saw fit and He saw fit to honor Mary by overshadowing her, filling her with His divine life, making her “full of grace” and being born by her. In this she is taken up into the divine life of the Trinity in a profound way, making the plan of God literally come to life.
Lastly, Mary the Theotokos is lastly the New Eve. She is the first of the New Covenant, by giving birth to the new covenant. As we talked about typology last week comparing Mary to the Ark of the Covenant this week we do so comparing her to Eve. Eve, who was called by Adam “Woman.” Which is the same way in which Jesus refers to Mary in John’s gospel, addressing her in different places as “Woman.” Eve obeyed the word of the serpent. The New Eve, Mary has obeyed the Word of the Lord. For this she is the fulfillment of everything Israel was to be. As Eve gave birth to death by sin into the world, the fruit of her womb a murderer, Mary has given birth to life bearing the savior of the world. As Eve was kicked out of paradise, Mary has made possible the opening of paradise through the fruit of her blessed Womb. For all of this early Christians and the one holy catholic and apostolic church has continued to give honor and veneration to her, who is the Mother of our God and the Mother of our Salvation. As she herself will prophesy, “all generations will call me blessed.”
Thus even we Lutherans can offer up that ancient orthodox blessing,
“It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos (God-Bearer), ever blessed and most pure, and Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.”