Gospel reflection for Jan. 1, 2023, Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

There is likely no full accounting of all of the various names and titles by which Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is known.

There are many thousands of regional titles connected to various apparitions and images of Mary, Yet, of all of the titles of Mary, the feast that we celebrate on the Octave Day of the Nativity: Mary, Mother of God, is by far the most important. It is from this title that all of the others flow. While the Church struggled for decades to clarify and explain the theological position of Mary as Mother of God, without this honorific no other titles or definitions of Mary could mean as much. 

While it is true that the title of Mary as Mother of God, or more specifically Theotokos the bearer of God, is not formally defined until the Council of Ephesus in 431, it was already well understood and in wide use long before then. It is specifically the rejection of this title for Mary by the esteemed theologian Nestorius at the time that demanded a formal definition of the title and a condemnation of the Nestorian definition.

To diminish the place of Mary within Salvation History is to also then diminish the significance and place of Jesus as well. All titles for Mary fundamentally point us back to Jesus. 

Our Gospel passage for the feast takes us to the arrival of the shepherds to the manger in Bethlehem. They have been told by the heavenly host of angels that the savior, Son of God, has been born and is in the Bethlehem manger. They come to give homage to their king, their savior, their God. Since Jesus is the Son of God, who else can Mary be but the Mother of God? This does not mean that she is in any way superior to God, nor is she equal with God. In her person and her nature, Mary is not different from the rest of humanity. But as Jesus is the Word of God, Incarnate in human flesh with human nature, then Mary must also necessarily be the Mother of God. 

To reject the title of Mother of God for Mary is to reject the divine nature of Jesus in the Incarnation. There were some Christians who believed at the time that Jesus became divine at a point in time after the Incarnation. Some held further that perhaps it was not until his Resurrection that the father designated Jesus as son. This notion is not only problematic it is non-biblical, for it rejects clearly what was announced to Mary by the angel, but also stands in dispute of the great Prologue in John’s Gospel.

Once the Church assented in full to the definition of this dogma and title for Mary, then all of her other titles and honorifics become possible. The understanding of Mary as Mother of God stands as a direct precursor to both the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. While both of these dogmatic statements we made hundreds of years afterward, both were understood within the tradition and were themselves only formalized in the face of further erosion of the understanding of Mary within the tradition.

Orthodox Christianity holds firm to the Theotokos tradition.

The shepherds came to see not someone who would one day be Messiah and Lord, but who is already such. While Jesus will lead a natural human life, his divine nature will become apparent in and through his public ministry and he will be fully realized through the Paschal Events. 

While Mary remains silent in the Nativity, instead [“she] kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart,” she becomes for us a powerful intercessor, as she assumes her rightful position as Mother of the King, sitting at the right hand of her Son in the heavenly realm.

We appeal to her, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners” in the Ave prayer, and trust in her loving desire to intercede for us and pour out her graces upon us. 

As we begin this new year, may our prayer ever be to the Mother of God for peace in our world, our church, our country, and our homes. 

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.