Theotokos: Mary’s Divine Maternity

Chapter 8 of Mother of God by Fr. Cyril Bernard Papali O.C.D.

Read the other chapters here.

For the Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth: A woman shall encompass a Man.” (Jerem. XXXI, 22.)


     A great storm broke over the Church early in the fifth century. It was one of those blighting winds from the eastern deserts which threatened to dry up the very sap of this tender plant. For from the time the Church was transplanted to the West, the East has viewed her with increasing suspicion. Her whole outlook was very different from that of the East. For instance the Church never believed it necessary to become unnatural in order to appear supernatural, which quite mystified the ultra-mystical East. The way she put forth a profusion of foliage and flower and fruit did not at all look reassuring to the dry and stern spirituality of the East. It has seen too much of the mirage to be taken in by this novel growth. The East believed the Church was losing her spirituality, while the Church knew she was only following the lead of God in trying to incarnate spiritual things in tangible form. The most characteristic of the whirlwinds from the East was the one that swept away all statues from their niches. To the East a statue was one of two things: an idol that was abominable, or a doll that was unbecoming in the Church. In any case it was to be broken. Now this zeal to spiritualise the Church could only end in an attempt to disincarnate God. And quite a number of heresies set themselves this task. But what is to the point her, through all this controversy Mary remained the stumbling block of the heretic and the touchstone of the true faith. There must be some radical opposition between the cult of the Virgin and all forms of heresy, for you could instantly and infallibly tell a Catholic from a heretic from the way he reacts to the cult of Mary. But there is much more to it than that, as is clear form the words of the Divine Office: “Rejoice O Virgin Mary, thou alone hast crushed all heresies in the whole world.” Evidently this is one way of crushing the serpent’s head.

     Nestorius took exception to the word Theotokos which means “Mother of God”. He even professed to be profoundly shocked by it. “How could a woman conceive and bring forth a child that was before her?” was his naïve objection. But the Church refused to explain the Incarnation in a natural way. She knew, what Nestorius could not understand, that though the Divinity was not conceived and brought forth by Mary, a Divine Person was, for in Christ there are two complete natures united in one Person and that Divine. “As the rational soul and flesh make one man,” says the Athanasian Creed, “so Divinity and humanity make one Christ”. St. Cyril of Alexandria, the great Doctor of the Divine Maternity, answered the objection of Nestorius in the clearest of terms: “You might object,” he wrote, “is the Blessed Virgin the Mother of the Divinity? To that we answer: the living and subsisting Word of God is beyond all doubt begotten of the very essence of God the Father, with a substance that had no beginning, so that He has always been in Him and with Him. But nevertheless in these last ages of time He has become Incarnate, that is, united to a body enlivened by a rational soul, and born of a woman according to the flesh. Now this mystery of the Incarnation has something in common with human generation. For the mothers of ordinary human beings, following the course of nature in generation, conceive the body in the womb which slowly grows with the progress of time and, by the marvellous and mysterious work of the Creator, finally attains human form. But it is God who in a manner known to Himself, infuses the soul into the body….Nevertheless though they become mothers of only the earthly bodies, they are not said to bring forth one part but the whole of the man composed of soul and body. No one, for example, will say that Elizabeth brought forth a mere body and not also a soul; for she brought forth the Baptist, a living man, a composite of two things, a body and a soul. The same, we hold, took place at the conception of the Emmanuel. As said above, the only begotten Word of God was begotten of the substance of God the Father, That same Word after assuming flesh, which He made His own, and putting on our nature, thereby becoming the Son of Man, is, without any absurdity, rather with every reason and necessity, believed and proclaimed to be born of the woman according to the flesh; just as the soul of man, though different in nature from the body it animates, nevertheless comes into being together with the body and is considered one thing with it.”[1]

     But the Christ of Nestorius was not God Incarnate but a man possessed of God. To him Mary was only Christokos, the mother of the man called Christ in whom Divinity came to inhabit later. Be believed it a great concession on his part when he granted her the title of “Mother of God” in a very restricted and qualified sense, in the sense that she brought forth the man who later became united with the Godhead, just as we speak about the mother of a priest or the mother of the Pope. But he simply could not bear to hear her called Theotokos in the full and true sense of the word. And that was what the Church had learned to call her from the earliest days. It was the archangel Gabriel who first proclaimed her Mother of God in the most unmistakable terms: “Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a Son; … He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High.”[2] It is significant that throughout the Gospel of St. John, which was written precisely to prove that Jesus is God, she is mentioned not by her name but always as “Mother of Jesus”. “Whence is this to me that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”[3] exclaimed St. Elizabeth at the sight of Mary. It would take a very great effort of the imagination to believe that this “My Lord” is not God. This title was not an innovation of the time of Nestorius. “This name had already been coined and written and preached by many of the Fathers,” says John of Antioch in a letter to his friend Nestorius.[4] While Theodoretus in his booklet against Nestorius maintains that “the very earliest preachers of the Catholic Faith have received from Apostolic tradition and taught that the mother of Our Lord is to be named and believed truly Mother of God”.[5] And St. Cyril assures that this name has always been in common use with the earlier Fathers who were champions of the true Faith. We find Theotokos inscribed in the catacombs and on some of the very earliest monuments of Christianity. But more than anywhere else it remains engraved in the hearts of the faithful.

     If ever a dogma was defined by plebiscite it is that of the Divine Maternity. Nestorius had been warned by his friend John of Antioch not to offend the sensibilities of the mob. Before him Julian the Apostate had made a mad attempt to deter Christians from calling Mary Mother of God, but he ended up by admitting defeat to Theotokos long before he did so to the Galilean. But Nestorius counted on his position and prestige as Patriarch of Constantinople and dared the whole Church. But no sooner had he preached against Theotokos in his Cathedral than he discovered that he had unwittingly touched off a powder magazine. He had reckoned without the Catholic instinct. The whole Christian populace rose in indignation. This reaction proved once for all how deep this doctrine lay in the heart of Christianity. St. Cyril of Alexandria took up the challenge like a true knight of Our Lady and, in the battle that ensued, won for himself immortal fame as “Defender of the Divine Maternity”. The Pope fully endorsed his views and authorised him to deal with Nestorius as he deserved. Finally the Oecumenical Council of Ephesus condemned the error of Nestorius and defined the doctrine of the Divine Maternity. “Should any one refuse to confess,” it decreed, “that the Emmanuel is truly God, and the Blessed Virgin consequently is truly Mother of God, let such a one be anathema.”[6] All the time the Council was in session the faithful thronged outside and waited eagerly for it decision, which was only a confirmation of their own simple faith. They received it with great applause and in the excess of their exultation formed processions with lighted torches to lead the assembled Prelates back to their respective residences. And night was turned into day. It was a triumph of Catholic instinct, and Theotokos became the watchword of the Church.

     Heresies are a blessing in disguise in so far as they are an incentive to deeper study. For the Church hardly ever knows how much she knows until she is provoked to find it out. The controversy about Theotokos disclosed not only how deeply rooted that truth was in Catholic devotion, but also how centrally placed it was in Catholic doctrine. “That word implies the whole mystery of the Incarnation,” wrote St. John Damascene, “for if she, who conceived and brought forth, is Mother of God, then certainly He who was born of her is God. Now He is also fully man. How could God, who is before all ages, be born of a woman unless He become Man? The Son of Man must be Man. But if He who is born of the woman is also God, then the one and same who is begotten of God the Father in Divinity, without beginning, has taken beginning in time according to humanity. These two natures in one Person imply as many generations in Our Lord Jesus Christ.”[7] This one word Theotokos is at once a denial of the heresies of Nestorius, Eutyches, Photinus and the Ebionites. So much so that Ephrem, the Patriarch of Antioch, makes bold to assert that “in order to make sure of Catholic faith one need only believe and confess that the Blessed Virgin is Mother of God”.[8] This precisely was the reason, says Theodoretus, why Nestorius, when he declared war on the Church, launched his first assault against the Divine Maternity of Mary. “Believe,” says St. Chrysostom, “all the things that are told us about the Blessed Virgin, and doubt not but that she is at once the Handmaid and the Mother of God.”[9] And St. Gregory Nazianzus concludes: “He who hoes not believe her to be Mother of God is far from God.”[10]

     Divine Maternity! It is the foundation, the sum total and the crown of all the graces and privileges conferred on the Blessed Virgin. It is the end for which she was predestined and created. When that is said everything is said that there is to say about her. And there is nothing surprising in it if the Evangelists merely said she was the Mother of Jesus and held their peace. Hear what Luther himself confessed in one of his saner moments: “such sublime and immense graces are conferred on her that they exceed the understanding of all creatures. All her glory and blessedness derive from the fact that in the whole human race she is a unique person above all else, without any equal, who has such a Son in common with the Heavenly Father…. Therefore, if you call her Mother of God, all her glory is implied in it, and no one can ever proclaim anything greater about her or announce anything better to her than his, even though he may have as many tongues as there are flowers an blades of grass on the earth, stars in the sky or sands on the sea shore.[11] And no wonder, for the Divine Maternity is the highest of all dignities after the Hypostatic union. It belongs not merely to the supernatural order but the Divine, essentially bound up with the Hypostatic union. Hence St. Thomas Aquinas has written: “The Blessed Virgin, from the fact of her being the Mother of God, has a certain infinite dignity deriving from the infinite good that is God.”[12] And Cajetan believes that “she attained, by her own operation, to the very confines of the Divinity when she conceived and brought forth God and nursed Him with her own milk”.[13] Is it much then to expect to find every possible grace and privilege surrounding this divinely unique dignity? That is the line of argument followed by Cornelius a Lapide: “Just as the humanity of Christ, being united to that Union…so too God conferred on the Blessed Virgin all the gifts and ornaments that became such a Mother of Christ and Spouse of God. Hence you may safely conclude: the Blessed Virgin is Mother of God; therefore she is far above all the angels even Seraphim and Cherubim. She is Mother of God; therefore most pure and most holy, so much so that under God greater purity is inconceivable. She is Mother of God; therefore whatever privilege has been granted to any saint, that she too must possess in an over-exceeding measure.[14] What else is the meaning of the Church when she prays daily in these words: “Almighty and Eternal God who through the operation of he Holy Ghost prepared the body and soul of the glorious Virgin Mother Mary to become a worthy abode of Thy Son, etc.”? From her eternal Predestination and Immaculate Conception to her Assumption and Coronation in Heaven, every one of those gifts was a necessary preparation for or a logical consequence of her Divine Maternity. We do not dwell long on them here for they deserve each a separate chapter. We confine ourselves in this chapter to a consideration of the marvellous relations Divine Maternity has brough her into with the Incarnate Word.

     But before passing on to her relations with her Divine Son it would be in place here to emphasise one peculiar significance of the Divine Maternity in the plan of God that necessitates Mary’s being a microcosm of all that is good. The works of God are in a grand cycle. All things proceed from Him, and they must all surge back to Him. But this great circuit must remain incomplete without the Mother of God coming in. It was only in her that all creation could at last in a very true sense repay God in His own coin. Creatures receive life and being from God; Mary on their behalf gave a creaturely life and being to God. To discharge this great office she must represent all creatures and unite in her own self all that is good in the whole creation. “O admirable transaction,” exclaims the Church at the contemplation of this marvel. A modern theologian has explained it thus: “Consider how sublime is the transaction between God and man effected in and through the Virgin Mary. God gives man His Divinity, and man gives God his humanity. Now Mary is the link of this ineffable economy, and consequently occupies in the whole universe a middle place between the creature and the Incarnate God. Not that she is not to be counted among creatures, but that, thanks to the all but infinite dignity to which she has been raised, she holds a place between creatures and God.”[15] St. Anselm has developed the same idea in one of his sermons: “All nature is created by God, and God is born of Mary. God brought about all things, and Mary brought forth God. God created all things, and created Himself through Mary; and thus re-created all that He had created. He who could make all things from nothing would not remake them without Mary. God, therefore, is Father of all created things, and Mary is mother of all re-created things. God is Father in the constitution (creation) of all things. God begot Him without whom nothing exists at all; Mary brought forth Him without who nothing is well at all. Truly, the Lord is with thee, to whom He made all creation along with Himself indebted to such an extent!”[16]

     St. Bernard contemplated the union of the Mother of God with her Divine Son and burst forth in these words: “Truly thou art clothed with the Sun as with a garment … How familiar with Him thou hast become, O Lady! How close, how intimate thou hast merited to be, how great the grace thou hast found with Him! He abides in thee and thou in Him. Thou dost clothe Him and art in turn clothed by Him. Thou didst clothe Him with the flesh and He has clothed thee with the glory of His majesty. Thou hast clothed the Sun with a cloud and hast been thyself clothed with the Sun!”[17] But it was Jeremiah who struck the most correct and most happy note when he prophesied: “For the Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth: a woman shall encompass a man.”[18] “Your life is hid with Christ in God,” said St. Paul,[19] and in that sense Mary’s life more than all else is hidden in Christ. But the new and wonderful thing God has created is this: that in a very real and literal sense Christ’s life was completely hidden in Mary. “Thou didst carry in thy womb Him whom the very heavens could not contain,” says the Church congratulating Mary, and in one of her hymns sings thus: “Who made and rules the triple orb, in Mary’s Virgin womb lies hid.”[20]

     There is perhaps nothing more remarkable and surprising about the life of Christ than His Mother’s place in it. A child is an extension and complement of the mother, and the mother is the very life of the child in its early days. All this is even more true about Christ and His Mother. But there is much dependence on and devotion to a mother as Christ has done. Thirty out of the thirty-three years of His life are literally lost in the shadow of His Mother. She heard His first infant cry. She received His last expiring sigh. Her arms received Him both after His birth and after His death. Her lap was His first and last resting place. The sweet word “mother” must have been among the first words He lisped as a child; the last words He uttered to man we know were: “Behold thy Mother”. What do all these coincidences mean but that “a woman has encompassed a man” and that He has set her as Alpha and Omega in His life? Was it then by accident that the Evangelist summaries the whole story of Christ’s thirty years into one short sentence: “And He was subject to them?”[21] He does so in connection with an incident wherein Christ seems to assert His independence of His Mother. “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”[22] The heretic has taken these words to mean that Mary has no claims on Jesus; while the Catholic has learned from them that Mary’s authority over the divine Child was exceeded only by that of the Eternal Father. And Jesus Himself gave us sufficient indication of what He meant by these words, for after insisting that He must be about His Father’s business, the real business He did was to go where His mother led Him and there live subject to her for a whole lifetime. This then is the most marvellous side of the Divine Maternity, where she immensely outgrows the stature of a creature as we understand it. Where all creation can have only relations of subjection and duty to God, she has those of claims and rights and authority. “God,” says St. Bernard, “to whom the Angels are subject, whom Principalities and Powers obey, is Himself subject to Mary … There are two things to be wondered at; try to find out which is more wonderful: the loving condescension of the Son or the exceeding great dignity of the Mother. Both are stupendous, both are miraculous. That God should obey a woman is humility without a par; that a woman should govern a God is sublimity without parallel. In the praises of Virgins it is specially sung that ‘they follow the lamb wherever He goeth’. What praise then do you think should be given to that Virgin who even precedes the Lamb?”[23]

     There is a beautiful incident  recorded in the Gospel of St. John which illustrates Mary’s maternal authority. But it is an incident which, like everything else relating to her, is at once a scandal to many. “There was a marriage in Cana of Galilee: and the Mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus was also invited, and His disciples to the marriage. And the wine failing, the Mother of Jesus saith to Him: they have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: woman what is that to me and to thee? My hour is not yet come. His Mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever He shall say to you do ye. Now there were set there six water-pots of stone, according to the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three measures apiece. Jesus saith to them: Fill the water-pots with water. And they fill them up to the brim. And Jesus saith to them: Draw out now and carry to the chief steward of the house. And they carried it.”[24] This whole incident has suffered twists and turns without end. To begin with, Jesus addressed her “woman”. What further proof is needed, asks the unbeliever, of His complete disdain for her? We must admit our poor translation is responsible to a great measure for this abuse of Mary. The word “woman” conveys none of the reverence and endearment which the Hebrew word for it is capable of implying. “The letter kills,” said St. Paul in another context; certainly a literal translation often kills the meaning of a text. We have a typical example in the “thou hast said it” which sounds far too vague and irresponsible an evasion to mean anything like the emphatic affirmation it is supposed to translate. The same is the case with “woman” in the context. It has gone very wide of the mark. Perhaps that genuinely Catholic word “Madonna” would be the happiest rendering of the original Hebrew. And yet for a very valid reason “woman” was the right word there. That word addressed by Christ to His Mother at such a solemn moment at the opening of His Messianic mission, and repeated later at its climax on the Cross, has a far deeper significance than the sentiments associated with it. He was not merely the Son of Mary expressing a sentiment to His Mother, but rather the eternal God fulfilling a prophecy. He had already foretold her in Eden as the Woman who should crush the serpent’s head; what other word was He to call her by, now that He was announcing her to the world? Mary is pre-eminently The Woman.

     But greater difficulties follow. “What is that to me and to thee?” To the heretic the meaning of these words is so very obvious that he has even gone to the extent of helping Our Lord to express the idea better: “What have I to do with thee?” (Protestant version) – a complete rejection and disowning of His Mother. In the Protestant view Mary made a most improper request and was rudely thrust aside. If that were so what special lesson has Jesus given us by this conduct of His? Those who interpret the words of Christ as a rebuke to His Mother do not suspect for a moment that they dishonour not so much the Mother as the Son. And yet it all reflects on Him. Indeed, as Father Faber has said, no dart can ever wound the Mother unless it pierces and passes through the Heart of the Son. The Church has never been able to countenance any such suggestion. “What is the meaning of this,” asks St. Augustine, “did Jesus come to this marriage to teach a lesson that Mothers were to be despised? I presume that the man to whose marriage He came was marrying a wife that he might have children, and we may presume too that he wished to be honoured by those children whom he desired to beget. Had Jesus then come to this marriage to put disgrace upon His Mother, when marriages themselves are celebrated and wives are taken in order that children may be born, which children God distinctly commands to honour their parents. Without doubt, my brethren, there is something here.”[25]

     But to the simple Catholic this incident, far from being a scandal, or even a mystery, is the best proof of Mary’s maternal authority over God. That offending Hebrew expression “what is that to me and to thee?” need not frighten us. It recurs several times in the Bible and admits of a variety of meanings, but not notably the offensive and objectionable sense attributed to it by the Protestant version. At any rate the poor widow of Sarephta approaching the Prophet Elias to obtain the resurrection of her son believed it the best words to preface her prayers with. When David, fleeing from the face of Absalom, dissuaded his Generals from vindicating his honour in these words, he was far from expressing displeasure at their loyalty or threatening to repudiate them. It is idle to attempt an elaborate study of all the possible meanings of an idiom like this, when we can get at the right sense only by considering the context. And the context is this: as soon as Jesus had said “woman what is that to me and to thee? My time is not yet come”, Mary turned to the attendants and asked them to prepare for a miracle, and Jesus straightaway performed it. It was all as simple as that. There was no fuss, no embarrassment, no scene about it. Mary was not taken aback by the reply, she never read in the words of Our Lord any of the rebuff and repudiation that he Reformers claim to have scented in them; on the contrary she quietly assured the bystanders that a miracle was going to take place. Jesus was apparently not in a fix, He did not make an effort to slip out of a delicate situation; He simply behaved as if He meant exactly what His Mother understood. What intolerable irreverence to suppose that Jesus rejected His Mother’s request, declared it neither the time nor the place for a miracle, and then by some unaccountable accident unwittingly performed it!

     Evidently, there is something here, as St. Augustine said. Let us try to probe it. “What is that to me and to thee?” Presumably it did not concern Jesus and Mary. Possibly the wedding party did not merit such a grace; certainly they did not ask for it. And yet Mary obtained it for them. That is her way and her privilege. “My time is not yet come” – here is something more stupendous. That miracle was wrought entirely in response to His mother’s wish. Even the decrees of God sweetly yield to her maternal authority. And if the expression is permissible, even God will go out of His way to fulfill her wishes. We lingered so long on this point not only because it helps us to appraise the Divine Maternity, but principally because it is a test case that throws into bold relief the Catholic and the Protestant attitudes towards the Mother of God.

     This then is the position, to use the words of St. Bernardine of Sienna: “Everything is subject to the Virgin, even God.”[26] St. Richard of St. Lawrence has said: “She can not only pray to her Son for her servants, as the Saints can do, she can even command Him with maternal authority. Hence, when we pray to her ‘show thyself a mother’ we really beg her to demand for us graces from her Son with the right of maternal authority.”[27] “We cannot address her by a better name than that of Mother of God,” wrote Gerson, “because by this title she has as it were a right and authority over the Lord of all the world, and much more over all that is subject to Him.”[28] This brings us to a side issue of the Divine Maternity, her dominion over all creation. She needs no further crowning to become the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She is necessarily that. “Because He who was born of the Virgin is truly King, Lord and God,” argues St. Athanasius, “for that same reason the Mother who brought Him forth is truly and really Queen and Mistress.”[29] “Mary is the Mistress of all created things,” says St. Damascene.[30] And Salazar concludes that in the opinion of all the Fathers “Mary is the most powerful Mistress of heaven and Earth and Hell.”[31]

     After saying all this we can only conclude in the words of St. Augustine: “The consequence of this dignity can neither be conceived by the heart nor expressed by the tongue.”[32] St. Bonaventure made a desperate attempt o express this great truth, and this is what he said: “Mary is that being than which God cannot make a greater; He can make a greater earth and a greater heaven, but not a greater Mother!”[33] “You ask me: How great is the Mother,” said St. Eucherius, “rather ask: how great is the Son.”[34] That gives you the measure of the Mother.


[1] Epist. Ad Monach. Egypt.

[2] Luke I, 31, 32.

[3] Luke I, 43.

[4] Epist. ad Nestorium.

[5] Libell. contra Nestorium.

[6] Acta Conc. Ephes. Can. i.

[7] De Fide Orthod, I, iii, c. 12.

[8] Quoted in Janssens, Summ. Th. P. II, Sect. 1, membr. ii, c. i, art. 4.

[9] Homil. in Hyp. Dom.

[10] Orat. 51.

[11] Comment. ad. Cant. B.M.V., op. ix, 85, ed. 1554.

[12] Summ. I, q. 25, a. 6, ad. 4.

[13] In II-II, q, ciii, a. 4, ad. 2.

[14] Quoted in Thanquerey, Theol. Tom. II, De Consect., art. ii.

[15] Laur. Janssens, Summ. Prs. II, sect. i, membr. ii.

[16] Orat. 52, PL, clviii, 956 B.

[17] Serm. De 12 Praerogat. B.M.V., n. 6.

[18] Jer. xxxi, 22.

[19] Col. iii, 3.

[20] Hymn. “Quem Terra, Pontus, sidera.”

[21] Luke ii, 51.

[22] Luke ii, 49.

[23] Homil. i, supra Missus Est, n. 7.

[24] John, ii, 1 to 8.

[25] Quoted in “Mary in the Gospels” of J. Spencer Northcote, pp. 178, 179.

[26] Serm. 3 de Nom. Mariae.

[27] De Laud. Virg., lib. ii.

[28] De Annuntiat.

[29] De Deipara.

[30] De Fide, lib. IV, cap. iv.

[31] Comment. In Cant. VIII.

[32] Quoted in “Exposit. In S. Evang.” Ed. Honkong, Tom. viii, in Fest. Annun.,

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.