March 10, 2024

Mary, Mother of God

Mary, Mother of God

Mothering Sunday 4th Sunday of Lent 10 March 2024
Readings: 1 Sam. 1. 20-28; Ps. 34. 11-20; John 19. 25b-27
Theme: Mary, Mother of God

I can’t help but think of our dear parishioner Anne Gibbs, who died in November last year, when I hear our first reading today from 1 Samuel. This is the story of the birth of the prophet Samuel to his mother Hannah, who will be a great prophet in the time of transition in Israel from the rule of the charismatic rulers, the judges, to the kingship of the United Kingdom first under Saul and then under David. I remember this story as Hannah promises Samuel to the service of the Lord as she had struggled to give birth to children and asks the Lord’s help in this. So, on receiving the blessing of the judge Eli, she duly becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel, whom she will dedicate to the Lord.
Anne told me her own version of this story with her mother and wanted it recounted at her funeral, because she wanted everyone to know that just like Samuel, her mother had dedicated her to the service of the Lord. Dear Anne rest in peace and please pray for us.

On this mothering Sunday, just like the story of the birth of Samuel and Anne, we think of the place of motherhood in our lives, and I would like to do this through considering the motherhood of Mary, mother of Jesus that is the focus of our Gospel from St John today. St John recounts how standing at the foot of the cross of Jesus was Mary his mother. Seeing her there, Jesus tells St John, “Here is your mother”. From that point on St John takes Mary into his house as his mother in faith. It is a touching and important moment in the crucifixion narrative as it indicates who Mary is in the life of the church.

Now clearly over the centuries of Christian history it is a real tragedy that Mary has become a source of division between Protestants and Catholics in the western church. The Eastern Church has since very early on had a very special place for Mary in their liturgies and iconography as I’m sure you know. However, in the western church, following the Reformation, Mary became an identity marker separating Protestants from Catholics in a destructive and divisive conflict that has only served to weaken the mission of the church. So, on this mothering Sunday, when we remember all our mothers in gratitude, it is good for us to be clear about who the mother of the Lord is and the role she has in the church as one whom we greatly honour as having a unique place in the history of salvation.

It would take several centuries for the church to define these issues over the motherhood of Mary, but following the councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus in 325, 381 and 431 respectively the doctrine of Mary as “Mother of God” has been proclaimed as official for the Christian Church. So what does this mean “Mother of God”? Well, the disputes in the early church were principally about understanding who Christ was. Was Christ simply human? Was he simply divine? Or, was he the God-man who unites the divine and the human nature in his one person? Different factions debated these issues and eventually, the early fathers of the church defined Jesus as true God and true man, one person in two natures, divine and human, born of a woman, the virgin Mary.
In other words, the issue over understanding Mary as the ‘Mother of God’ was fundamentally an issue about how to understand Christ. If Jesus was only human, then Mary could simply be the mother of Christ, the man. However, if Jesus was also divine, then Mary must be the “Mother of God”, the “Theotokos” “the bearer of God” as it is expressed in Greek. The decision in 431 at the Council of Ephesus to designate Mary as the “Mother of God” makes clear that her Son, Jesus was fully God and fully human. She is therefore, the Mother of God born in the flesh in Jesus.

So, in the history of our salvation, Mary has a unique place. She is the woman through whom the God-man Jesus is born through the power of the Holy Spirit. Her virginity in this, has nothing to do with the anti-sexuality reading of Mary that has unfortunately sometimes been used in post-Freudian polemics over her, but rather it makes clear that Jesus is truly God and truly man, the union of heaven and earth in his very person, expressed in his two natures. Mary’s spouse, in this sense is the Holy Spirit, as it is through the union of Mary with the Holy Spirit that the God-man Jesus is born. This is why Mary is described as being “full of grace”, which means full of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the child born of her is not simply the fruit of a normal conjugal union, because Jesus is truly God. In other words, the union of humanity and divinity, of the woman Mary with the divinity of the Holy Spirit is the means that God has chosen for the incarnate Son of God, Jesus, to be born. It makes sense, when you think of it, because without this union between God and humanity, Jesus would be either God or man, and he shares both natures in his one person: The God-man of the incarnation.

In this sense, Mary is the mother of the church, and so our mother in faith as well. She is the one whom the evangelist and apostle, St John, takes into his own home as his own mother. This giving of Mary to John as mother in the gospel of John, is the giving of Mary as the mother of the church that will emerge following the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. She is the one who is already “full of grace”, in other words, the prototype, if you will, of the early church acting in the power of the Holy Spirit through the name of Jesus.

So, as we celebrate mothering Sunday today, we should remember each and every
one of our own dear mothers, dead or alive, who have given us our lives. To them we owe more than we can ever repay. We should also remember the Mother of God, Mary, the “Theotokos”, because it is through her that our saviour, Jesus, was born and that we have been incorporated into the family of the church. Therefore, as with St John, we should guard a place for her in our faith, because just like our dear parishioner Anne Gibbs, you can be sure that the prayers of Mary for each and every one of us will be heard by the Lord.

Mary “mother of God”, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.