Today, January 1, is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
In 431, 250 bishops convened in Ephesus in Asia Minor to consider the question of Mary’s title as Mother of God. The council was convened by Emperor Theodosius II at the request of Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius had been in dispute with Cyril of Alexandria over whether it was appropriate to refer to Jesus’ mother, Mary, by the title Theotokos, or God-bearer. Nestorius insisted that Mary be called Christotokos, or Christ-bearer, because he emphasized the distinction between the divine and human natures of Christ. Cyril, along with other bishops, condemned Nestorius’ teaching. Pope Celestine I supported Cyril and demanded that Nestorius recant his position or be excommunicated. Nestorius turned to Theodosius in hopes that a council would favor him and condemn Cyril.
The Council of Ephesus, instead, condemned Nestorius, adopting the title Theotokos, Mother of God, for Mary. The reasoning was that Jesus was fully God and fully human. As fully God, the one conceived in the womb of Mary was, indeed, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity made man. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Since Jesus is God, and Mary is truly His Mother, then reason demands that Mary is Mother of God. In this sense, the Church’s insistence on calling Mary Mother of God is a Christological doctrine, because it affirms the divine nature of Jesus Christ.
It is important to point out that the council fathers did not claim that Mary is the cause of Jesus’ divinity, though she is very much the cause of His humanity. Mary is not the Mother of Jesus’ divinity. She is the Mother of Jesus, who is divine. Long before Nestorius questioned the legitimacy of Mary’s title as Mother of God, the Church recognized her as such. The Council of Ephesus simply put its stamp on what Catholics had believed from the earliest decades of the Church.
As a result of the council’s decision, Nestorius retired to a monastery, and he eventually recanted his position.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.