Saturday, December 31, 2016

Honoring Mary; Celebrating Christ

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

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On the octave of Christmas, eight days after the birth of Christ, the day when Mary and Joseph, following the Judaic law, would have presented their newborn Son to be circumcised, the Church celebrates a great feast of Mary, the Mother of God.

Do Catholics make too much of Mary? I heard a Presbyterian minister on the radio once complain of this. (I used to like to listen to broadcasts of his sermons because of his Scottish accent). He said the problem with Catholicism is that we have a "very small Jesus" and a "very big Mary." Is this true?

The mistake he made, of course, is in thinking our love to be a quantifiable thing; something that we have to take away from one pile in order to put in another. Of course any parent of multiple children can tell you this is false. You don't love one child any less because you also love another. Likewise we don't love Christ less because we also love Mary, Joseph, or any of the saints. In fact, we love these people -- as we love one another -- primarily because Christ loved them first. This is what it means to love God and love your neighbor. To love God means loving what God loves. In fact, the love we give to Mary and the saints pales in comparison to the love Christ pours out upon them. If you ever fear that you are loving Mary too much, just remember that you will never love her as much as Jesus does. 

All that being said, it is easy to see how those on the outside may get the impression that Catholics "go overboard" in their devotion to Mary. We do love our Mother and are not afraid to show it! But the key thing to understand is that our devotion to Mary is all because of Christ. We don't honor Mary for her own light, but because she reflects perfectly the light of her Son. Mary's consistent role in our faith is to point at her Son and say, as she did at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5).

The feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a perfect example of this. From the very earliest days of the Church, Greek-speaking Christians in the East had the habit of referring to Mary as the Theotokos, which means "Mother of God," or literally, "God-bearer."

Some thought this title attributed too much to Mary. How could Mary, a mortal woman, born in time, be the mother of the eternal God? How can a creature be mother of her Creator? This is impossible, they would argue. We can call Mary the Mother of Jesus or the Mother of Christ, but not the Mother of God. But devotion to Mary the Theotokos was strong and people were not willing to reject this ancient and revered title of our Lady.

Debate ensued, but the point of the debate was not about Mary, but about her Son. It all revolved around the question, "Who is Jesus?" Jesus is like no one else. His birth changed the world forever. He was born in a humble manger, yet that birth was heralded by angels. He was raised by a carpenter, yet foreign sages worshiped Him as a king. He is a man who could suffer and die. Yet He is also divine and will live and reign forever. Jesus Christ is like no one else and is at the very heart of our religion. How are we to understand this Jesus?

Some thought He was a man much blessed by God. Others thought He was God who took on the appearance of a man for our sake. Still others thought He must be half-man and half-God. All these theories about Jesus are flawed. All of them fall short of the full truth.

The truth about Jesus, as taught by the Church, is that He "is inseparably true God and true man. He is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and Lord, became a man and our brother" (CCC 469). The theological term for this is hypostatic union, from the Greek word hypostasis, meaning "person." We believe and profess that Jesus possess both a full human nature and a full divine nature, united perfectly in one Divine Person.

What does this have to do with Mary? Simply put, Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore Mary is the mother of God. When we call Mary the Theotokos, the Mother of God, we profess our belief in the divinity of Christ. We affirm that the Person Mary bore in her womb is a Divine Person.

To suggest that Mary is not the mother of God implies that Jesus is something less than God. In order to defend and uphold the Catholic faith in Christ's divinity, the Church declared at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, "If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the Theotokos (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema."

For the past week we have been in the "octave of Christmas." An octave is a celebration so great that it cannot fit into a single day, and so the Church celebrates that "day" for eight full days, as if it were one great feast. So the celebration of Christmas and the feast of Mary, Mother of God, are intimately linked. We began the octave of Christmas with the celebration of Jesus being born of Mary. We conclude it by honoring Mary and proclaiming that her Son is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Let us never be afraid to honor the mother of our God, as Jesus honors her. And let us pray always for a heart to love Christ as Mary loved her Son.

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