Summary: We will understand better the term Mother of God if we realize that the January 1 feast is really a feast of Our Lord Jesus.
Solemnity of Mary Mother of God–January 1
(Thirteen Days of Christmas)
To begin every New Year, the Church gives us a great gift, the Solemnity of Mary in her title “Mother of God.” But even though the feast has Mary in the title, like every Marian celebration, it is really a feast of Her Son, Jesus. We see in today’s Gospel the historical event that is commemorated today, the first shedding of Jesus’s blood at His circumcision. Joseph and Mary were good Jews, and so they called in a mohel, hopefully not to the same stable where Mary had given birth, and there the ritual circumcision of the firstborn male child was done, and the boy received the name Jeshua, meaning “The Lord saves.” In the 1962 form of the Mass, the Gospel is again read next Sunday, which is in that calendar the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
The title, Mater Dei, or Mother of God, is a Latin translation of the Greek term Theotokos, or God-bearer. There was a great deal of controversy in the fourth and fifth centuries over the person and natures of Jesus. The heretic Arius, whose doctrine was condemned at the Council of Nicaea, had held that Jesus was a human person elevated by God to a divine status. That’s a misreading of the hymn in the second chapter of the letter to the Philippians. Whereas orthodox Christianity believes that Jesus is the Word, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, and consubstantial with the Father, Arius taught that Jesus was not God in the same sense as the Father. In street language, we’d say Arius taught that Jesus was “kinda” divine.
Arius was a priest with a big following. After Nicaea, orthodoxy gradually prevailed over Arianism. But Nestorius, who studied under Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch, held to the divinity of Christ, he taught that in Christ there were two persons having two loosely connected natures, divine and human. Nestorius was the patriarch of Constantinople, second in dignity and power only to the Roman Pontiff. He had great influence in the East. Most Nestorians would tell you that the divine and human persons and natures were united in Jesus Christ at His baptism. So He would have been born as a man, and then elevated to truly divine status later in life. They would teach that Mary was the mother of the human Christ, but that she was not mother of the whole Christ, human and divine.
At the council of Ephesus in 431, and two decades later, at Chalcedon, the doctrine of Nestorius was declared heretical. He himself was deposed from his patriarchate. Eventually the Nestorians separated from the Catholic Church and migrated into the Persian empire; later, at the time of the Crusades, they were associated with the Mongol tribes.
When the decrees of the council were promulgated, the people of Ephesus, where there was a great cult of the Virgin Mary, rushed into the streets chanting “Theotokos, Theotokos.” Some have thought the term meant that Mary herself is a god. This kind of pagan thought has never been part of Church teaching. Mary was and is the “God-bearer,” the one who brought Jesus Christ, true God and true human, into the world. She is the one who first taught us to be obedient to the Word of God in all things. If we take as our motto in this new year the one she took all her life, we will have a year of good, not just a good year. In everything, let us say with her “God’s will be done.”