By: Fr. James Gross
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” If I’m on track, I pray these words many times every single day—at least 53, to be exact, when I recite the rosary. Multiply that by the number of days in a year, and we come up with 19,345. Small wonder, then, that these words seem very familiar to me, and to a great many of us here. Would you be surprised to learn that these words were at the heart of one of the biggest controversies in the Church 1,600 years ago?
The reason for the controversy was a prominent Bishop named Nestorius, who screwed up big enough that history only remembers him for the heresy that bears his name. Nestorius taught and believed that one could only use terms like “Mother of Christ” or “Mother of the Savior” in reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The problem with the title “Mother of God,” in his thinking, was that it diminished the stature due to God alone and created confusion.
In response, the Church fathers argued that it is a simple matter of logic. Jesus is not just a spiritual guru or teacher, or a dynamic public speaker. Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, possessing both a divine and a human nature. Mary is truly his mother, by means of giving birth to him. Therefore, simply put, Mary is the Mother of God. Such a title does not insult God, but shows how His magnificent plan intervenes in our lives. We affirm this every time we pray the Nicene Creed at Sunday Mass, with all of its phrases: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”
We could say that today’s feast day is not principally about the person of Mary, but concerns the true identity of Jesus, her Son. However, today gives us the chance to make an important observation about Mary from the scriptures.
Today’s gospel tells us that Mary pondered the events regarding the birth of her child and reflected on them in her heart. Out of that reflection came an unflinching courage manifested in her discipleship and her desire to follow Jesus to the very place of his death. How often in the Gospels would large crowds seek out Jesus, to the extent that, when at a lakeshore, he would climb into a boat so as not to be crushed the throng? When we hear the Passion of Our Lord every Good Friday, there’s a very small group of supporters gathered near the foot of the cross of Christ. These early enthusiasts were nowhere to be found, including the majority of his inner circle. Among them are St. John the Apostle and Mary.
Our devotion of the Stations of the Cross makes further mention of Mary, according to tradition, meeting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa and later receiving the broken, lifeless body of her Son as he was taken down from the cross. Michelangelo captured this moment with his dramatic sculpture called the Pieta. Anyone who has seen it in person near the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica can tell that they are beholding a masterpiece in the Christian heritage: Our Lady’s face is both serene and grieving, trying to come to grips with the cruelty of Christ’s crucifixion, cradling him in her lap more like he were a small child than a grown man.
If her sharing the sufferings of her Son were intense, how much more exuberant was Mary when she first saw for herself that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the remainder of her days on earth, the Blessed Mother would be a powerful eyewitness of her risen Lord, and gathered with her in the days leading up to Pentecost, the Apostles no doubt drew strength and consolation from her as they looked ahead to the missionary task that would await them.
Through it all, our mother Mary was courageous, with a flinty determination to be present to her Son in good times and in bad. Sacred art frequently portrays the Blessed Mother as a dainty, youthful woman, endeavoring to capture her purity and beauty. But we must not think of Mary as a shrinking violet, hiding away from the troubles of the world. The Mother of God stood firm in the face of unspeakable pain. And rather than to remain sequestered, she has appeared numerous times in places like Fatima, Lourdes, and Mexico City, often to poor children, drawing us through them to her Divine Son with fresh confidence.
I want to share one quick story with you about the tenacity of Our Lady’s motherhood. Several years ago, I was in an assignment with a bunch of vexing problems like division among the parishioners, and large decisions that needed to be made about building a rectory, etc. Once when my parents were visiting, I was venting about my anxiety and exasperation. No matter what I did, someone would be pushing back vigorously. I saw my mom getting irritated in a way I’d seldom seen. “How dare they give my boy a hard time?!” She was ready to read someone the riot act. I’ll never forget that expression on her face. I’d like to think that we also get a taste of that in our relationship with Mary, a mother who was tough as nails in order to remain with Jesus at Calvary, and overflowing with tenderness as a refuge for poor sinners everywhere.