Saturday, October 10, 2015

Mary as the Mother of the Holy Trinity, not just Christ

When considering women in the Bible, we do not often also think of the word “powerful”. Power suggests that the women in the Bible had been given great responsibility or accomplished great feats or were influential in the story of Christ’s life. Instead, women are primarily depicted as exemplifiers of desired characteristics, such as in the stories of Mary and Martha or Mary Magdalene. One of the prevalent thematic characteristics with women in the Bible is that of childbirth and family. Sarah most desires a child, Martha and Mary are sisters that desperately mourn their brother, and Mary Magdalene has no family, further suggesting her irresponsibility and sin. One of Ruth’s defining characteristics is the loss of her husband, Naomi’s that of the men of her family, and Eve’s that of being the mother of humanity. It must come as no surprise then that one of the most controversial characters in the Bible is a woman who’s defining characteristic is that of Mother of God. 


Why is that controversial at all, if the pattern of childbirth has already been established? Seeing as God needed to come to earth as man to save humanity, does it not make sense that He be born as man is, from a woman (and for interest’s sake, a virgin woman), to enter the realm of man? In Isaiah, we even see God predict this by saying to Achaz, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” 
If we feel like stopping there to accept the birth of the Lord because of Christian faith or lack of interest or some other reason, then yes, it makes complete sense that a virgin gave birth to God. It, as we are so fond of saying when we don’t fully understand something, just makes sense. It is a miracle. What more needs explaining? 
What needs explaining is her role. Because we don’t know that much about her, we are left to speculate based off of Scripture, psuedo-scripture and hymns. One of the most important words used to describe this woman in the original Greek translation of scripture is “Theotokos”, meaning “Mother of God” or “birth giver of God”. In the Akathistos Hymn, Theotokos is venerated as the “excellent dwelling-place for him who is above the Seraphim” and “key to the kingdom of Christ”. This image is one of clear belief that Mary was instrumental to the creation of God as man and eventually, the spiritual saving of humanity. However, in another later translation of the Bible, Theotokos was deemed too strong a word for Mary and that just because she gave birth to the Son of God does not necessarily make her the carrier of God. As the bishop Nestorius points out in a later letter explaining this idea, “Holy scripture, wherever it recalls the Lord's economy, speaks of the birth and suffering not of the godhead but of the humanity of Christ, so that the holy virgin is more accurately termed mother of Christ than mother of God.” He references various Old Testament passages that suggest that the meanings of “Son” and “Father” are not interchangeable. Christ then is just man, and although perhaps a divinely touched man, he is not and cannot have been the Lord personified. Nestorius, and another bishop in the 5th century, Proclus argued passionately on this subject. Proclus refuted him by also referencing passages from the Old Testament and interpreting that Mary is “the awesome loom of the divine economy upon which the robe of union was ineffably woven” and “If the mother had not remained a virgin, then the child born would have been a mere man  and the birth no miracle. But if she remained a virgin even after birth, then indeed he was wondrously born who also entered unhindered ‘when the doors were sealed,’ whose union of natures was proclaimed by Thomas who said, “‘My Lord and my God’”. 

Ergo, one of the main controversies over Mary can be found within this name, which epitomizes the paradox that while the whole kingdom of heaven could not contain God, her womb could. Based of off these translations, she then either holds an incredible position of power as the vessel that carried the Lord and helped make him man or one of mild veneration as the mother of an important figure named Christ that preached about Christianity. In this way then, Mary determines Christ’s being. By giving power to her and her image as the Theotokos, although she herself as an entity has much to gain in the way of veneration, in the end, her interpretation determines how Christianity determines who the Lord is and how to view and worship Christ. So while the Virgin Mary, the epitome of childbirth in the Bible, also is one of the first female figures to hold true power in the Christian faith in that she is the Mother of God, it is power that has been given to her, in a sense, as a means to an end of determining the “greater” image of Christ and God. 

It is Cyril (whose argument, similar to Proclus’s, was eventually accepted as correct regarding the Virgin) who offers a suggestion to an even greater reason for why Mary has been venerated and interpreted as she has in a letter to Nestorius. He writes: 

“When speaking of Christ we avoid the expression: "I worship him who is carried because of the one who carries him; because of him who is unseen, I worship the one who is seen." It is shocking to say in this connection: "The assumed shares the name of God with him who assumes." To speak in this way once again divides into two Christs and puts the man separately by himself and God likewise by himself. This saying denies openly the union, according to which one is not worshipped alongside the other, nor do both share in the title "God", but Jesus Christ is considered as one, the only begotten Son, honoured with one worship, together with his own flesh.”

Here the suggestion of separate, not conjoined, entities again comes into play. If we consider other references of conjoined entities in the Bible, we then arrive at the Holy Spirit, the completion of this idea of 3-in-1. And here lies one of the reasons Mary is important. Not only does she stand out as a desired representation of womanhood, not only does her role in the childbirth of the Lord determine Christ’s image, not only does Christ’s image determine God’s power and image, but in the end, if we determine that God and Christ are separate entities, then the Holy Spirit cannot connected to both of them and thus the Trinity does not exist. A major tenant of an entire faith today would not exist without the determining of importance on the Mother of Christ. Without Theotokos then, Christians are left with a damaged image of the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Lord. 



  1. Though we come to the same conclusion, I believe it to be a clearer approach to first identify that Christ’s being determines that of the virgin since it is the “pre-emptive” salvation through Christ that Mary was able to be born without original sin and consequently become a worthy vessel of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is primarily through slight misunderstandings of the doctrine of the Incarnation that Christians are left with a damaged image of the Lord, and this lack of understanding and consistency in thought is magnified when approached through the role of Mary. The title “Theotokos” certainly honors Mary, but it subtly gives more praise to Christ in the end because it reaffirms the incarnational language used to accurately describe Jesus. Mary, like the rest of us, cannot be anything without Christ, and so whatever privilege she receives always acts as a mirror of the grace and salvific power of her Son. Obviously to deny Mary as the Theotokos will lead rationally to a warped understanding of the combined dual natures of Christ, but such a denial is primarily an affront against the validity of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, not primarily against the role of the virgin.


  2. So, to follow on JB's comment, both of these things are arguably true: as HG says, without the Theotokos, Christians cannot see God; as JB says, God reveals himself through his birth from Mary. In the ancient, medieval, and Orthodox tradition, Mary and Christ are very much a duo, one cannot be seen without the other. What is most interesting for our purposes, looking at the tradition historically, is how this conviction developed. RLFB