Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church
The liturgical celebration of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, has been ascribed to several different dates down through the ages. The liturgical reform which prepared the way for the Second Vatican Council prompted the restoration of the feast to January 1st, the completion of the Octave of Christmas, the eighth day, on which the child Jesus was circumcised and officially given the name which the angel gave him before his conception. Restoring this feast to the Octave of Christmas rightly celebrates Mary’s participation in the mystery of salvation.
Mary recognised as Mother of God
In the first three centuries after the life of Christ on earth, there were many different explanations of the unity, diversity and relationships of the Blessed Trinity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some said Jesus was divine but only seemed to be human. Others said he was human but not divine or that he became divine at some stage of his life. Similarly, there were multiple speculations regarding the Holy Spirit. The Council of the Church in Ephesus in 431 AD clarified the dogma that Jesus was truly divine and truly human. It followed then that Mary, the mother of Jesus, could be called Mother of God.
The people of Ephesus had a special devotion to Mary because it was to their town that the Beloved Disciple brought Mary, having been asked by Jesus on Calvary to care for her. There is a tradition that when word came out of the Council that Mary was recognised as Mother of God, people began to dance and sing, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners”. The story goes that this was when the second half of the Hail Mary was added.
How did John write about Mary
The Gospel of John is very different to the other three which are called synoptic, a Greek word which literally means seeing in the same way. John, writing later, sees in a different way, with more emphasis on the divinity of Jesus than on his humanity. He does not have the story of the human birth of Jesus at Bethlehem but he begins his Gospel calling Jesus the Word of God, existing even before creation.
John mentions the mother of Jesus in two places, at the wedding in Cana and at the foot of the cross on Calvary. There are deliberate parallels which connect the two episodes. We will reflect on three of these connections.
Seven is a very important number in John’s Gospel. He recalls seven miracles, called signs. The first sign was at the wedding in Cana when Jesus changed water which was stored for purification into the wine of celebration. The seventh sign would be on Calvary when blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side, anticipating the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. The second connection is the hour of Jesus. At Cana, he said that his hour had not yet come. At the beginning of his Passion, he said that now his hour had come.
The third parallel is that at Cana and Calvary, Mary is not introduced by name but as the mother of Jesus. And in each place, when Jesus speaks to her, he calls her “Woman”. It sounds very cold to us but at that time it was a noble title. It recalls the promise immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve that a woman would come whose offspring would crush the head of the servant.
Mother of the Church
Had Jesus addressed her as mother he would have referred to her as his own mother, but in calling her woman he opened up a worldwide sense of motherhood. On Calvary, seeing the disciple he loved, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son”. Then to the disciple he said, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. The disciple is not named so that all who love Jesus and follow his ideals are invited to take Mary into their lives as Mother of the Church.
Her universal motherhood was foreshadowed at Cana. She showed a maternal instinct when she sensed the family’s embarrassment at the impending shortage of wine. In bringing their need to Jesus she interceded on their behalf. To intercede literally means to stand between parties. When Jesus said that his hour had not yet come, she disregarded his hesitation as only a mother might. Totally confident that her son would accede to her request, she told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary always directs people towards the will of her Blessed Son.
The first cell of the body of disciples
The miracle at Cana was “the first of the (seven) signs given by Jesus … He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).
What about Mary? When did she believe? Her approach to her son, and confidence in him, shows that she believed before the miracle. There is an old principle in theology that what God wants to effect in many people is first accomplished in one. At school we learned to write by copying a headline. Mary was the first believer whose faith drew the miracle from her son. Life in the womb begins when one cell is fertilised. This cell expands, divides and multiplies. Different organs are formed. What amazes me with a newborn baby is the tiny fingernail! Having seen the sign, the disciples believed. The one cell had become many, and the new body began to develop. After the Ascension of her Son, Mary was with the disciples prayerfully awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit. Then, under the power of the Holy Spirit, the direction-less and timid disciples emerged from the womb and the living Church was born. The number of disciples multiplied rapidly and the number of Christians today is more than a billion. She is Mother of the Church, a title rarely used before the Second Vatican Council.
On the first day of the New Year, we celebrate Mary as the Mother of God and Mother of the Church. We pray that she will intercede for us as she did at Cana. May it be a year of justice and peace … peace in the Ukraine, peace throughout the world, peace in our families and peace in our hearts. Holy Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, pray for us.