December 29, 2010

The Mother of God and the Mystery of Prayer

Christians have called Mary the Mother of God since ancient times.  'Mother of God' is how the Church in the West understood the title Theotokos (God-bearer) attributed to Mary by the Eastern Churches.  This title protects the great mystery of our faith.  The Word became flesh: this means a total recapitulation of true, historical, concrete, human reality - raising our life, our dignity, our family and our motherhood far above merely natural purposes, to a greater unimaginable end.  Mary is the first sign of this.  This truth, at the heart of the Gospel, was safeguarded at the Council of Ephesus in 431 which affirmed the title Mother of God used in the prayer of the Church as definitive for the Christian faith.

When we affirm Mary is the Mother of God, we are proclaiming all at once that Jesus, begotten of the Father from all eternity, is the Son who "emptied Himself" to be become man "born of a woman" in "the fullness of time" (Phil. 2:6, Gal. 4:4).  By this affirmation we bind ourselves to the truth that the incarnation was no mere appearance or myth, but rather a living reality transforming all of human history and each one's personal life story.  This is the form and pattern of our prayer.  It too must become a real, living reality in our lives.  This mystery of God entrusting himself to a mother contains the truth about all that is good, true and beautiful in humanity and the truth about the Father's wisdom, love and goodness.

Affirming this helps us ponder the radical confidence God has in us when He entrusts his Mystery to us, and when we see this we can begin to learn to have the same kind of confidence in Him.   We have hope because the Eternal Son of God entered so fully into our humanity that He delighted to be conceived in the womb of a woman and dwelling in her to be born as her vulnerable baby, yearning to be totally reliant on her maternal love for his life so that He could be like us in all things but sin.  He humbly let her form his human heart with her maternal love.  What drew God to subject himself to such love was not our mighty achievements or self-sufficiency or worldly cleverness.  It was the humility and trust of a woman pure of heart who generously responded with intense faith and confidence in Him who had even more confidence in her.  What unlocks this capacity in the human but prayerful contemplation of the ever surpassing love of God?

According to Augustine, Mary bore Christ in her heart before she bore him in her womb.  This means her physical motherhood is first and foremost a spiritual reality, the fruit of loving obedience, the masterpiece of profound contemplation.  Conformed to Him whose body was formed in his mother's womb, Christian prayer continues to reach for fruition in flesh and blood, the here and now: that determined, obedient and humble effort to love God and all those God entrusts to us, come what come may, because what He did for us was so much more.  It means that our faith, our prayer, goes way beyond nice ideas, happy wishes and comfortable feelings.  As Pope Benedict teaches, our faith is above all performative, it makes real love possible.  Here is the greatness of the mystery of our piety, the devotion that flows from Christ!  Our faith can offer itself in true sacrifice because it bleeds with the love of a real man, the True Man, who was bloodied for our sakes, and we know He is the True Man because his mother's faith permitted Him to become flesh and blood.

To affirm Mary as Mother of God is an affirmation of a great truth concerning human life, dignity, family, and motherhood - there is something divine in these most holy human things which must be honored, cherished and protected.    Today these most sacred things are trampled on to such an extent our world is fast forgetting its humanity, and we are at the very brink of disaster, not for the first time.  What a great gift that our calendar year begins in the middle of the Christmas Season with the Solemnity of  the Mother of God.  Against forces that hate what is truly human, we remember the woman who bore the Son of the Most High, who prays for us even now, even when we stand in the face of great evil and personal weakness.  And, we join our prayers together with hers that all the most holy human things of this present life might not perish, but instead, by the blood of her Son, be saved for the glory of God the Father.