Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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What's in a title?
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the December 20, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
Each year during the Christmas season – while the tinsel still glitters and before the Christmas music goes silent – the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary (in yesteryear, the Feast of the Circumcision or, later, the Day of Peace). For us Catholics, this day, Jan. 1, is more than “New Year’s Day.” In focusing on the role that the Blessed Virgin Mary has played in the history of salvation by means of this special day the Church gives us an opportunity to reflect prayerfully 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 was just a human being like any one of us, but who later becomes the Christ of God? Or is this child the very reality of 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 – 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 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 … as if God chose in such a manner to focus the spotlight on an outstanding man who had proven himself to be worthy of special attention.
Of course, this kind of argument did not set well with good number of the successors of the Apostles and other members of the faithful. They literally took to the streets 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 (“Bearer of God”) while the other side stamped its feet and screamed that she was only Christokotos (“Bearer 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 theological 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 favored ones to follow. They are seen as certainly more life-giving than those of consumerism, communism, utilitarianism, etc., which attract the attention of so many in the modern world.
But! But if Mary is affirmed as the Mother of God – if the One in her womb and later in the manger and even later on the cross is God himself – then not only are our individual lives changed, but 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 and very real 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 Jesus 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 approach 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 the parishes in Oakesdale, Rosalia, St. John, and Tekoa, and also serves as the diocese'ss Moderator of the Curia.)
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