Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Theotokos and Me. . .

It being Christmas time, and all (I know it's still Advent for a couple more days, but Advent does point toward Christmas, after all), and Christmas marking, at its most basic level, the Incarnation of the Word of God (OK, that would technically be the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, but work with me here. . .), several thoughts, of a Theological nature are swirling around in my head.  Perhaps you'll find one or two of them interesting (or, you know, perhaps not. . .)

'Theotokos' is a Greek word meaning, literally, 'God-bearer', and it refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary; in Catholic circles, it's almost always rendered as 'Mother of God' (I'm not sure how my Greek Orthodox friends render it into English; for all I know, they just say 'theotokos', and figure they know what it means).

Theotokos is a 'theological' word, born out of the Christological controversies of the 4th/5th centuries AD; the idea is to be utterly clear that Jesus, the 'fruit of Mary's womb', was the bearer of a divine nature, along with the human one he shares with us.  There were those who preferred the term 'Christotokos' - 'mother of Christ' - but that came to be regarded as tantamount to a denial of Christ's divinity (back in the 4th-century Byzantine Empire, they took their theology seriously).

It's hard not to have a certain sympathy for the folks who would have some reservations about a term like 'Mother of God'.  I mean, Mary, this teenaged Jewish girl, could hardly be said to have any kind of 'ontological priority' over the Creator and Sustainer of All Things.  God, who is Before All Things, can hardly be said to have come into being in Mary's womb.  And yet, Jesus, who was 'born of a woman' (and, more to the point, this particular woman), was certainly God, incarnate in human flesh, and in that sense, 'Mother of God' is precisely what she was.


OK, enough woolly theology, at least for now.  I have been through my own journey relative to the Blessed Virgin, in the course of my Christian life (I gave an account of my spiritual journey here, more than six years ago).  I didn't grow up Catholic, so 'Marian stuff' isn't 'in my bones' the way it is for 'cradle Catholics'.  In general, my Evangelical/charismatic teenaged self was as suspicious of Marian piety as most Protestants are.  Basically, "what's up with the 'Mary stuff'?  Isn't Jesus enough for you?"  And I was exposed to all the more hard-edged stuff about pagan goddesses and fertility rites, etc, etc, etc.

When I undertook to be received into the Catholic Church myself, Mary was probably the biggest obstacle that I had to overcome on my way through the door.  I just didn't get what the 'Big Deal' was.  Honestly, at least at first, I more-or-less 'punted' on the whole 'Mary question'.  I had no problem with the Catholic Church as such, and so, if the Catholic Church told me I had to accept those doctrines, well, then, I would, if only as an act of trust in the Church herself, even if I didn't really understand them.  And I prayed that, as I 'lived through' my newfound Catholic faith in the coming years, that God would give me understanding.  And even some of my Protestant friends would point out that Scripture itself calls her 'blessed'.

And for several years, that's where I stood, relative to the Blessed Virgin, the Theotokos. . .


For several years, starting around the time I turned 30, I wrote annual meditations on Christmas, Advent and/or the Incarnation.  In the course of one of those, on the Incarnation, it dawned on me: Jesus was The Word Made Flesh, God Himself in Human Flesh.  "For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weakness, but one who has been tempted in every way as we have been, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15)  Jesus' humanity makes possible for us an incredibly intimate and sympathetic relationship with the God of the Universe.  And the human nature that Jesus took on, he got from Mary.  She is, if you will, the Vessel of the Incarnation.  And suddenly, I understood a little better.

Much is made of Mary's example of saying 'yes' to God (or, as Scripture would have it, "be it done to me according to your word"), even when she couldn't possibly have understood what-all was hanging on her answer.  And amen, I should be so ready to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit in my own life.

But sometimes I smile.  Being adopted, for many years I had no idea where, in human terms, I had come from.  The shape of my nose, the color and texture of my hair, the general shape and size of my body, the wacky way my fourth toe curls under my third - how did all these things come to me?  And when I met my birth-parents, I knew.

So, sometimes, I think of Jesus and Mary, and I think, "Oh, he got his divinity from His Father's side; his humanity comes from His mother."  And that makes sense. . .


  1. As a Catholic for life, I always took much on pure faith.

  2. I learned pretty much all I know about Catholicism from my ex-wife (there's no small irony in THAT), she who had eight years of being taught by nuns in grammar school, topped off by four years at a Catholic University of some renown (and whose football team finds no favor around here). My point is I find the Catholic take on Christian theology very interesting. You've added to my understanding with this post, Craig. Thanks for that.

  3. Skip - No zealot like a convert, they say. . .


    Buck - Yeah, that IS ironic. . . :/

    And you might surmise that I share your fascination with the 'Catholic take on Christian theology'. . .

    Thanks for stopping by. . .

  4. Thanks for that thinky stuff, now I can relax and just enjoy!!! ;)

    I find it interesting how little thinking folks put into Christmas beyond the shallow- Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas, Xmas vs Christmas, etc etc.

    The reality of God choosing a young girl to carry and raise His own Son along with a common man is just mind-boggling.

    now being the odd contrarian I tend to be, I leave you with a pondering: Having been a child of a mother as well as the father of children I wonder, just how did things go the time or two when Mary and/or Joseph as parents instructed God's own Son to do something sinful? To my shame I've instructed my daughters on an occasion or two as such. How do you suppose that went down? And yet I am not privy to such an answer until eternity. Now for the crux of the matter- this has been on my mind for decades. Will I think to mention it in eternity or will it just go away? Will I even care?

    But back on topic- what an incredible young woman was she.

  5. Xavier - Yeah, it could be real interesting to get DNA test results on Jesus & Mary, eh? I mean, especially since she didn't have a 'Y' chromosome to pass to him. . .

    Catholic theology would most likely say that Mary, at any rate (being Immaculately Conceived, and all) wouldn't have given such an instruction. Tho I do understand that you and I would have very different takes on that. . . But Scripture says that He was 'like us in all ways but sin', so there's that. . .

    And just for the sake of sayin' so, I have a whole list of things that I want to ask in Heaven (unless, as you say, all becomes clear once I'm there. . .)

  6. yeah, we'd have vastly different takes on that for sure. Christ was the sole one who was 'like us in all ways but sin' so, you know, what's that say about Mary? When in Catholic circles I'm kinda careful of how I approach this as there are many, um, misconceptions out there. And some (most) are not open to debate.

    Kinda like the Baptist implication that one is not 'truly' saved (or at least the Holy Spirit is not conveyed) until post-salvation full-immersion Baptism. You know, the old 'my way or the highway'.