Elizabeth Esther recently published a post on Mary and a fairly lively discussion ensued in the comments. I contributed several comments and the discussion has been bouncing around my head ever since. I’ve decided to develop those thoughts into a blog series. If you pose a question and my response to it is in a later post, I’ll probably just say that rather than try to summarize my future post in a comment.
I’m not a sociologist, though I tend to read at least some papers and books in that field. I’m not a historian, though I’ve had a deep interest in history for seemingly my entire life. I’m not a theologian or a bible scholar, though I tend to read quite a few of both. I’m not Roman Catholic, though I attended a Roman Catholic school for several years and have a number of Catholic relatives (including my mother, though I had been ‘out of the house’ for some years before she converted). I’m not Orthodox, though I’ve read and listened to many Orthodox past and present. If you are in any of those groups and at any point in this series feel I’ve misstated or misrepresented something, please say so. I do the best I can to speak accurately and truthfully, but I can and do sometimes misunderstand or misinterpret things I’ve read or heard.
I am basically Protestant, but I don’t think that term means what most people seem to think it means. I think it means that in matters of faith, I ultimately decide what I choose to believe or not believe is true. That’s not something I can turn on or off. I’ve been doing it my whole life, whether or not the things I believed at the time were Hindu, Christian, or something else. Of course, most Protestants don’t actually decide for themselves what to believe or not believe. Instead they accept their beliefs on authority from someone who has previously asserted that right to choose and has chosen to believe differently than the traditional Christian Churches. (That latter category is pretty much limited to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and what we call Oriental Orthodox.) Nevertheless, even if most people don’t personally employ that core Protestant ethos, the right to decide for yourself what Scriptures mean and what Christianity is lies pretty much at the core of Protestantism. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I find myself largely in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox on virtually everything that matters, but I arrived at that point in a distinctly Protestant manner.
I want to open this series with a reflection on two of the most common titles for Mary. I wrote one in Greek and the other in Latin for a reason. While both are used in the Eastern and Western traditions, the former is more common in the East and the latter in the West.
Theotokos translates as God-bearer or Birth-giver of God. This name emphasizes that he who was conceived in Mary was God before the ages. It has a post-Nicea emphasis. Arius, of course, held that Jesus was not God, but a created being. Others had held that Jesus was born an ordinary human being who at some point (most often his Baptism) had become divinized. No, the Church responded, and emphasized that the child conceived in Mary was indeed true God of true God. And this has remained the emphasis in the East, whose liturgies were largely fixed in that era. It’s an important point, but it’s not the only one that must be made.
Mater Dei translates as Mother of God, and is the most common name for Mary in the West, though Birth-giver or God-bearer is also used (as Mother of God is used to a lesser extent in the East). The theological flavor of this name is different. It emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. As with all of us, he not only had a mother, he required a mother. His mother breastfed him, wiped his butt, taught him to speak, cared for him, loved him, and nurtured him. This name for Mary has a post-Chalcedon feel to it. Jesus was not just true God; he was true man as well.
Both of those emphases are important. We need both names for Mary in our devotion. Within them, we find our creeds.