Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Mother of whom?

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 15, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky By the time this column strikes the eyes of readers, the things of Christmas will have been squirreled away in basements, garages and closets after yet another celebration of the great Christmas Feast. Kids will have returned to classrooms and the pace of life will have returned to normal for us all. Even the Church’s liturgical calendar now reflects “ordinary time.”

While the memories of Christmas just-past still echo in our minds and hearts, it would serve us well to learn a final lesson from one of the several “postcard” glimpses of the Christmas mystery we have just celebrated.

Each year on Jan. 1, during the Christmas season, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary (in yesteryear, the Circumcision or Day of Peace). For us Catholics it is more than “New Year’s Day.” In focusing on the role the Blessed Virgin Mary has played in the history of salvation, by means of this special day the Church gives us an opportunity to prayerfully reflect on the relationship between Mary, the Babe in the Bethlehem’s manger – and us.

What is the nature of this child to whom Mary has given birth? Is Mary the mother of a person who originally was just a human being like any one of us who later becomes the Christ of God? Or is this child God among us?

The question may seem trite. After all, have we not learned from our mother’s proverbial knee, as it were, that Baby Jesus is God? We profess that he also is the Christ of God (the Messiah, the Anointed One) precisely because Jesus is the very Word of God incarnate – even in Mary’s womb from the moment of conception. Then what’s the problem?

The question seems to be settled for us – at least intellectually. But there was a time in Church history when it was not. Led by the bishop Nestorius in the fifth century, there were other bishops and Christian laity who claimed that God could not possibly have become tainted by becoming flesh – that is, human. Therefore, the one born of Mary was fully but only human in nature, not the second person of the Holy Trinity. Evidently, later after his Resurrection Jesus became the Christ as if by some divine dispensation … kind of like God focusing the spotlight on a man who had proven himself to be worthy of attention.

Of course, this kind of argument did not set well with the rest of the hierarchy and other faithful. They took to the streets (literally) in protest. In the ensuing fight several even lost their lives over the issue! Like little children locked in a power struggle, snapping back and forth “Is to! – Is not!” one side insisted that Mary was Theokotos (Greek for “Mother of God”) while the other side stamped its feet and screamed that she was only Christokotos (Greek for “Mother of the Christ”).

History reveals that the Theokotos crowd won – not because they shouted the loudest, had the most votes or beat up the most people, but because they were true to the faith of the Christian community. Mary’s Son was more than man-become-Christ; she was the Mother of God. The title – the highest among the several by which she is revered – reveals both its truth and its honor.

The issue seems trite to us in the 21st century, but I would suggest that not only is the question an important theologicial one but that we still struggle with it in subtle ways in the maturation of our spiritual lives. Without realizing it, we ourselves can be clandestine followers of Nestorius.

It’s one thing to be theologically or catechetically correct – affirming that Mary is the Mother of God. It is yet another to let that statement effect our lives in “ordinary time.” We can relate readily to Jesus as just another good man who later received from his heavenly Father the honor of being “the Christ.” In that sense Jesus has no more influence in our lives that other good men and women whose moral witness has caught the attention of the world and who are held up for imitation. Of course, since either by circumstance or personal choice copying the lives of these individuals seems to be so much beyond our capacity they can be set aside as fine moral examples who, in the end, have little to do with our day-to-day lives. We can find our way in life with their inspiration or we can survive without them. It’s all relative.

The world readily acknowledges Jesus as the “christ” of God in this limited moral sense. Very few people deny his historical existence and even affirm the importance of his moral example. “Christian principles” are acclaimed as good ones to follow. They are seen as certainly more life-giving than those of consumerism, communism, utilitatrianism , etc., which attract the attention of so many in the modern world.

But! But if Mary is accepted as the Mother of God – if the One in her womb and later in the manager and even later on the cross is God himself, then not only are our individual lives changed – so too is the very reality of humanity. The union of divine and human nature in the single person of Jesus raises our dignity to supreme levels! Because of the Incarnation – God’s Word become flesh – every human being is different. The love expressed in such an awesome free choice on the part of God is the mind-boggler of mind-bogglers. It exceeds understanding and engulfs us in the delights of grace and mystery. We can never get enough of this kind of love and find ourselves year after year celebrating its merriment.

The question for the opponents of Nestorius and his ilk – the question for us Christians – is not primarily a theological one. It is a practical one. Do we walk in the Way of Jesus as mere imitators of his moral example or do we walk through life, literally inspired by the same Spirit by which He was conceived? Do we walk in the Way of Jesus because either guilt or some outside authority demands obedience, or because in doing so we are faithful to who we are in the eyes of God? In Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary, the goodness or badness of human action and decision is revealed as more than obedience to abstract moral rule. Moral goodness reflects the fullness of our humanity – our dignity as sons and daughters of God.

Nestorius of old raised a question which we could do well to settle in some renewed fashion as we enter into a new calendar year. Perhaps it could even form the basis for all those resolutions by which we seek to better ourselves in the months ahead. Our relationship to God is more than one of obedience to moral principles, rules and regulations. It calls for a way of living that is full of life because God’s Word becomes uniquely incarnate in each one of us, too.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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