Catholic Classroom: Mary, the Mother of God

Question: What does it mean for Mary to be the Mother of God?

Mary, the Theotokos, with the child Jesus | Text: What does it mean that Mary is the Mother of God?

To begin the new calendar year, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. What exactly the title “Mother of God” means can be a little tricky to grasp. But understanding Mary’s role can help us to better understand Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate.

Mary was officially declared the “Mother of God” in the 5th century, but it was already a centuries old title.

Council of Ephesus, Image in church "Notre-Dame de Fourvières"The Council of Ephesus convened in 431 to address the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who taught that Jesus’ two natures were separate – that no full union between divine and human is possible, and that the divine Logos and the human Jesus occupied one body as two persons.

Nestorius therefore taught that Mary could be referred to as the Christotokos (birth giver of Christ) but not the Theotokos (birth giver of God). Nestorius’s views were seen by his opponents as denying the fundamental truth of the incarnation.

Jesus’s divine and human natures cannot be separated.

It might seem strange that a human being should give birth to God. But as the Council of Ephesus affirmed, Jesus is one person possessing both a human and a divine nature. A mother by necessity carries the full person of her child—the child cannot be separated into different natures.

Nestorius, who taught that the human and divine natures of Jesus were distinct and separate persons, was declared a heretic by the Council of Ephesus. Mary carried the full person of Jesus within her person. The Council confirmed this by declaring that Mary was to be referred to as the Theotokos, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 reaffirmed this declaration.

Being the Mother of God does not mean that Mary herself is divine. 

17th century icon of the Theotokos of the Passion (cropped)Jesus’ divinity comes from God the Father, because the Logos is eternally begotten of God the Father. Just as a child cannot receive a trait from his father and pass it along to the mother who carries him, Jesus does not pass divinity to Mary.

When we call Mary the ”Theotokos” or the “Mother of God”, we are affirming an important truth about Jesus Christ: that he is fully human and fully divine from the moment of conception, and that she who bore his person necessarily bore God and man within her. We are not saying that Mary precedes God nor that she is herself divine, even if we acknowledge that Mary is especially loved and chosen by God as evidenced by her special role.

The full meaning of the Incarnation is a profound Mystery of our faith. In this Christmas season and on this Solemnity, we meditate on this Mystery and acknowledge Mary’s particular role in it, knowing that we cannot possibly understand.


Catholic Classroom: Mary, the Mother of God