In the year 431 there was a fierce debate raging in the Catholic Church regarding a specific title of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The debate required a rare Ecumenical Council at the city of Ephesus to resolve the issue. Two different arguments were presented, one by Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople and the other by St. Cyril of Alexandria. Nestorius firmly believed that Mary should be called Christotokos, “Birth-giver of Christ” (also translated as “Christ-bearer”).
Fr. Dwight Longnecker explains that “Nestorius used language that was perceived as asserting that there were two separate persons conjoined in Jesus Christ. Thus the Blessed Virgin Mary in giving Jesus human flesh could be the ‘Christ-bearer’ but not ‘God-bearer.'” This was determined to be false teaching, heresy. St. Cyril and a great number of bishops taught that Mary should be called Theotokos, “Birth-giver to God” (also translated as “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”). This terminology affirmed that Jesus is “one person in two natures which are united.” It was decreed by the Council of Ephesus that Theotokos was the correct title for Mary, and Nestorius was subsequently removed from his position as bishop of Constantinople as a heretic.
The title “Mother of God” does not mean Mary somehow existed before God or created God, but that Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is fully God and fully man. The Catechism puts it like this, “In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos)” (CCC 495).
The Eastern Church continues to theotokos, preferring it to any other of her titles. An ancient hymn in their liturgy poetically summarizes this complex truth, “He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.”
The decision to call Mary Theotokos was a pivotal point in the Church’s history. It clarified the Church’s belief in Jesus Christ and gave further confirmation regarding the nature of Christ’s incarnation. What the Church believed about Jesus since apostolic times was ratified at the Council of Ephesus. Furthermore, the granting of this title confirmed Mary’s privileged role in salvation history and deepened understanding of the great mystery that occurred in her womb.
To honor the memory of this council, Pope Pius XI in 1931 established the feast of the Divine Maternity of Mary on October 11, which after the Second Vatican Council was transferred to January 1 and renamed the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God in the ordinary form of the Mass. The original date of the Maternity of Mary is kept on October 11 in the traditional Latin liturgy of the Church called the extraordinary form.
Mother, help our faith! Open our ears to hear God’s word and to recognize his voice and call. Awaken in us a desire to follow in his footsteps, to go forth from our own land and to receive his promise. Help us to be touched by his love, that we may touch him in faith. Help us to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in his love, especially at times of trial, beneath the shadow of the cross, when our faith is called to mature. Sow in our faith the joy of the Risen One. Remind us that those who believe are never alone. Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that he may be light for our path. And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day which is Christ himself, your Son, our Lord!BACK TO LIST