Mary, Mother of... Well, it's Complicated (Advent Part 1)
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
The picture included in this week's post is a print that my wife Anna made earlier this year depicting Mary with Jesus wrapped around her back, a common practice in the Ancient Near East that enabled women to work while keeping their children close by. It's one of my favorite works that she's ever done. She uses iconography that alludes to ancient depictions of Mary and Jesus, such as the medieval practice of depicting Mary with the color blue or depicting a cross in Jesus' halo to distinguish him from other persons in a work. When Anna asked me an idea for a name for the work, I thought of something that would also harken back to ancient practices and suggested "Theotokos," the Greek title attributed to Mary in the early Church. It roughly means "Mother of God."
But is Mary the Mother of God?
You probably weren’t expecting that to be the subject of an advent devotional. And I’ll admit, it is definitely an out-of-left-field question. Believe it or not, though, it was one of the most contentious issues in early Christianity. It was so contentious, in fact, that in 457 CE an angry mob in Alexandria murdered a Patriarch because his answer to that question was “yes,” which is insane to think about. Even with division and schism plaguing the United Methodist Church, we can at least say that angry mobs aren’t going around murdering bishops. But why did this seemingly random question result in so much vitriol? The main reason is that it touched on a central theological issue that had yet to be fully worked out, one that is especially relevant to this Christmas season: the full divinity and humanity of Jesus.
Although this issue flared up in the 5th century, it was certainly not a new issue. The Church had already debated this topic and arrived at a broad consensus that Jesus is God when they rejected Arianism and affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. But there were a lot more questions to be answered once the Church arrived at that consensus. Specifically, how is Jesus God? God’s almighty, all-powerful, eternal, all-wise, and omnipresent. God has no needs and is utterly outside human comprehension. Jesus, on the other hand, got hungry and tired. He bled and died. He was born and had a beginning. How do we coherently say that the eternal, all-powerful God was a frail, finite, vulnerable human being? The humanness of Jesus seems incompatible with divinity. And this is where the issue of Mary’s title came in. Do we call Mary the mother of God (theotokos) or something else? If she’s the mother of God, then does that mean that God had a beginning? That doesn't seem to be right. But if she’s not the mother of God, then how do we say that Jesus, who is clearly her son, is God?
These are complicated questions, but before really getting into them over the next 3 weeks we need to consider another question: why is this relevant? After all, it is incredibly easy to fall into the trap of abstract theologizing that has very little to do with our lived experiences. In contrast to abstracted irrelevance, Christians are instead called to proclaim the gospel, literally “good news.” Our theology must therefore be good news and have the visible impact of good news. So, as we explore these questions together during advent, I invite us to ponder together, even as Mary did. Why is it good news that Jesus is human and divine? What impact does believing that have on our lives? And why is it good news that we may enter into that strange mystery together? I look forward to exploring those questions together with y'all.