Catholics have it great. We get to celebrate New Year twice: once on the first Sunday of Advent, and again on January 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God. That title, Mother of God, has long been a point of contention for people. As far back as the 300’s, some Christians have argued that Mary couldn’t be the Mother of God. After all, Mary is just a human being. God existed before she did. She didn’t create Him. So how could she possibly be His mother?
It’s a darned good question. It requires some careful thought about the Incarnation to see how it is true. In the Christmas column, we saw that Jesus unites the one divine nature and human nature in His own Person. In order to understand the Incarnation, we have to know what a person is and what a nature is.
A person is that which possesses an intellect and a will. Together, the human intellect and the human will make up the human soul. So what are these two aspects of the soul? The intellect is that which knows, the will is that which chooses. The will is sometimes called the “appetite” or “hunger” of the intellect, because it chooses based on what the intellect finds to be good. How these two operate is rather important, for the things the intellect knows and the will chooses form the basis for relationships.
Read the next sentence very carefully. Persons are defined by their relations. This is critical. We may know God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but nothing in those attributes tells us that He is three Persons. We only discover the Divine Persons by discovering the relations within the Godhead. God the Father eternally begets God the Son, God the Son is eternally begotten by God the Father. God the Father and God the Son together breathe forth God the Holy Spirit. These relationships, the begetting, the breathing forth, these are the only things that distinguish the Three Persons of the Trinity. If we didn’t know these relationships existed, we wouldn’t know Trinity exists. Only relationships distinguish persons.
We are made in God’s image and likeness. If relationship is that critical to the Persons of the Godhead, it is going to be important to us created human persons. This is part of the answer to the question posed by the title “Mary, Mother of God”. But we need more.
We know about person now, but what about nature? What is that? Nature is the range of options available to an entity. Rabbits have a rabbit nature. They can hop, but they don’t have the ability to fly. Birds have a bird nature. They can hop and they can fly. Rocks have a rock nature. They don’t hop or fly. Not all things with natures are persons. Birds, rocks, rabbits – they have natures, but none of these are persons. There are only three kinds of persons: the uncreated persons of the Godhead, and the created persons, human and angelic.
Now, we are persons precisely because God calls us into relationship with Himself. We are persons because we are called into relationship with the three Divine Persons. That is, my mother and father did not give me my personhood, God did. My mother and father gave me my body, but God created my soul, He infused me with an intellect and a will, with a soul capable of direct communion with Himself. So, when any of us look at our mothers and try to discern exactly what makes her a mother, we can see that she gave me her ovum, and she gave me her womb to grow in. That’s it, and it is quite enough. She gave me my body, God provided me my personhood because God immediately created and infused my human soul. Even though my mother neither created my personhood nor gave me my personhood, God enabled her to conceive a person and give birth to a person.
Mary did exactly this for Jesus. According to Genesis 3:15, Mary gave “her seed” to God, she gave her ovum. She gave God her womb to grow in. God provided the Personhood. Instead of creating a human person, He actually gave His own Divine Person. Mary conceived a Person in her womb and gave birth to a Person. Both for our mothers and for His own mother, God provided the person. The major difference between her maternity and the maternity of any other woman lies only in this: Mary conceived a Person who existed before she did. She gave birth to a Person who existed before she did. The rest of the mothers who have ever lived conceived persons that God created fresh and new on the spot. But both Mary and our mothers gave exactly the same thing to the persons God helped both of them conceive and birth: each gave her own ovum and each gave her own womb. That’s motherhood. That’s why Mary is Mother of God. She did as much as any mother ever has. God did the rest, as He always does.
But let’s go further. Mary’s motherhood resonates even more deeply when we know something about both the inner life of the Trinity and the Theology of the Body. The Trinity has a quality that few people talk about: the interpenetration of Persons. The Interpenetration of Divine Persons is simply this: no matter which Person of the Trinity you may contemplate, the other two Persons of the Trinity are wholly contained within Him. This is a very important aspect of the inner life of the Trinity, for it is in Mary’s pregnancy that we first get a concrete example of a divine Person completely contained within another person. Mary is the first to live out the inner life of the Trinity in her own body. The Interpenetration of Persons she lived is something we are all called to live out, right here, right now.
Have you ever seen the medieval and Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation? The angel Gabriel is depicted in various ways, as is Mary, but one thing is constant. Nearly every rendition of the scene shows Mary reading the Scriptures as Gabriel approaches. Catechesis in Our Times, article #27, explains why: “…catechesis must be impregnated and penetrated by the thought, the spirit and the outlook of the Bible and the Gospels through assiduous contact with the texts themselves…” Look at the verbs the Holy Father chose: “impregnated… penetrated.” The Scriptures impregnate us, they penetrate us. Earlier generations knew what we have forgotten. We must be penetrated by, impregnated with the Word if we are to successfully pass on the Faith.
Why? Because “the Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord…” The 21st article of Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation makes the connection clear. The Word of Scripture and the Word of God are intimately linked. Mary had the grace to understand the centrality of Scripture to human life. She was impregnated, penetrated by the Word long before the angel Gabriel appeared. The angel drew together the strands of prophecy she had been studying and made a breath-taking connection: all the prophecies of Scripture could be fulfilled right here, right now. She had only to love God with her whole being. She had only to love Him as He desires each of us to love Him.
She whispered, “Yes.”
In that moment, God leapt across the chasm separating us from Himself, He leapt into her womb and gave her the first and most powerful experience of Eucharist that anyone would ever have. The continuous, physical presence of “God with us” began here: “God with her.”
Christ commanded us in John 6: we are to gnaw on His flesh if we want eternal life. When we receive Him in Eucharist, He empowers us with the grace to be like Him. He gives us the power, the ability to change, to transform ourselves into an imago Dei, an image of God.
But note very carefully: if we want to be an imago Dei, we can do so only by first being an imago Marie. The very act of worthily receiving Christ into my body makes me an image of Mary. In Eucharist, the flesh of the Bridegroom penetrates me, impregnates me with eternal life. It is only by becoming like the pregnant and most Blessed Virgin that God enables me to become like Christ. By receiving Christ into myself, I begin to live out the Interpenetration of Persons which is the inner life of the Trinity. I begin to live heaven on earth. And all of this happens because God empowers me, through the Eucharist, to image Mary, Mother of God.
On the first day of the year, on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, the Church grants the opportunity for a plenary indulgence to anyone who participates in devout public recitation of the hymn Veni, Creator (Come, Creator Spirit). We are very much encouraged to spend this day contemplating the new creation Christ makes of us through His Mother, on this, the first day of the secular year. Receive Christ in the Eucharist, make yourself like unto Mary, then pray the Veni, Creator in her honor. You will have started the New Year well.