Who Is St. Mary?
The Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, stands before us as an exemplar of faithful obedience. Her “be it to me according to your word” is the grace-filled response each of us is called to make to God, both personally and communally, as the Church, the body of Christ. It is as figure of the Church, her arms lifted up in prayer and praise, her hands open in receptivity and availability to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that we are one with Mary as she magnifies the Lord.
In the early Church, reflection on Mary served to interpret and safeguard the apostolic Tradition centred on Jesus Christ. Mary has come to be known as “God-bearer” or “Theotokos” through the Church’s reflection on her journey as revealed in Scripture and the celebration of Christian feasts. Many of the current teachings and understandings about Mary also came from the early challenges and controversies in the Church relating to what is the true nature of Jesus Christ. The first five hundred years of the church involved much controversy over what it meant to say that Jesus Christ was truly God and truly man, and Mary’s role was integral to this journey.
In defence of Christ’s true humanity, the early Church emphasized Jesus’ birth from Mary. He did not just ‘appear’ to be human; he did not descent from heaven in a ‘heavenly body,’ nor was when he was born did he simply ‘pass through’ his mother. Rather, Mary gave birth to her son of her substance. Jesus is fully human, because “he was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” In 451 a great council of the Church in Chalcedon agreed that Christ is “one with the Father according to his divinity and one with us according to his humanity.”
In defence of his true divinity, the early church emphasised Mary’s conceiving as a virgin of Jesus. According to early Church leaders, his conception by the Holy Spirit testifies to Christ’s divine origin and divine identity. The One born of Mary is the eternal Son of God. Saints like Justin, Irenaeus, Athanasius and Ambrose appealed to the virginal conception to defend both the Lord’s divinity and Mary’s honour. As the Apostle’s Creed confesses: “Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”
Mary’s title as “God-bearer” or as in the Greek “Theotokos” formally came into being to help clarify and safeguard the understanding that Jesus is one person, both full human and fully God. Because Jesus has been understood to be “true God from true God,” as the Council of Nicaea declared, the churches concluded that his mother, Mary, can rightly be called the “God-bearer.” In one of the formative teaching declarations from the early church, the Council of Chalcedon, they spoke clearly on this and made this their formal declaration on who Jesus and Mary his mother are to the Church. “(Jesus) was begotten from the Father before the ages as to the divinity and in the latter days for us and for our salvation was born as to the humanity from the Virgin Mary Theotokos.”
Mary in the communion of saints, exercises a distinctive ministry of assisting others through her active prayer. Many Christians reading the Cana account continue to hear Mary instructing them, “Do whatever he tells you,” and are confident that she draws the attention of her son to their needs: “they have no wine” (John 2:1-12). Many experience a sense of empathy and solidarity with Mary, especially at key points when the account of her life echos theirs. For example; the acceptance of vocation, the scandal of her pregnancy, the improvised surroundings of her labour, giving birth and fleeing as a refugee. Portrayals of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, and the traditional portrayal of her receiving the crucified body of Jesus, evoke the particular suffering of a mother at the death of her child. All are drawn to the mother of Christ, a figure of tenderness and compassion.
The motherly role of Mary, first affirmed in the gospel accounts of her relationship to Jesus, has been developed in a variety of ways. Christian believers acknowledge Mary to be the mother of God incarnate. As we ponder our Saviour’s dying words to the beloved disciple, “behold your mother” (John 19:27) we may also hear an invitation to us, to hold Mary dear as ‘Mother of the Faithful’: as she will care for us as she cared for her son in his hour of need. Many Christians find that giving devotional expression to their appreciation for the ministry of Mary enriches their worship of God. May the mother of our Lord, and our Patron Saint be with you in your prayers and help to carry them to the throne of grace, that they be heard and answered by God.