No Mary, No Jesus: A Meditation on the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Sep 8th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

On September 8, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. Here’s a snippet of the stichera of the feast, which are verses chanted during the Vespers service in the Eastern rites:

Today the barren gates are opened
And the Virgin, Gate of God, comes forth
Today grace begins to bear fruit showing forth to the world the Mother of God
Through whom earth is united to Heaven for the salvation of our souls

One unique aspect of the Catholic mind, particularly in the Eastern rites, is the recognition of the precursors of the salvation that came to us through Christ.

Nativity of the Theotokos IconIcon of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Today we celebrate the greatest of these precursors, the birth of Jesus’ mother Mary, and we recognize that God’s work of salvation in the incarnation began far before Christ’s own birth. Today we recognize the birth of Mary as a significant step in that preparation as it is the first appearance of the body that would hold and give flesh to Christ our God.

One point of contention between Protestants and Catholics is Mary’s participation in the economy of salvation, but this holiday makes clear her special role as the mediatrix of all graces. I know, as a Protestant, that phrase grated against me hard, but I’ve come to see that her role is exactly as central as the Catholic Church claims it is, precisely because Christ took His sacred flesh from Mary’s own body.

That is to say, without the body of Mary, there would be no body of Christ. Given what science has told us about gestation and birth, we know that Christ’s body and Mary’s are forever intertwined. Mary’s body contained, and contains to this day, cells from the body of Christ, and vice versa just as every human mother and child share cells. There is no child without the mother, no mother without the child. It was her flesh that God took to make His own.

Everything that comes to us through Christ comes through Mary physically if in no other way. And once we realize that the spiritual and the physical are inextricably connected, we can see that grace cannot come to us through Christ without Mary—and that is by God’s own design.

Many Protestants would object that praising Mary’s role as the one who “mediated” salvation to us somehow takes away from the glory due to God for our salvation, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Being used as a channel of God’s grace is one of the greatest gifts God gives to His people. He allows us to minister to one another in many different ways and He allowed Mary to minister to the whole world in a most unique way, by giving her body to create the precious and life giving flesh that was nailed to a tree for the life of the world.

Furthermore, Mary sustained Christ’s life both in the womb and through His childhood. She nursed Him at her own breast and fed Him at her table as He grew—there she is, mediating God’s grace to you by sustaining God’s life. She taught Him to sing the Psalms, the words He would chant as He suffered and died on the cross for you. She anguished over losing Him in the Temple, a grief the equal of which none of us will ever know! In all this, she was bringing into being the Jesus who has saved our souls and made the world new.

She is due praise higher than any creature because God has done through her His greatest and most important work.

It is right for us to rejoice and wonder that God could humble himself so far as to put a human being between Himself and his plan of salvation, and it is right to mark the day of her birth with great joy, as it is the first appearance of the flesh that would become God incarnate.

So rejoice and thank God for His mother, whose birth we celebrate today, because God received His body from her body, and so you receive your salvation through her body.

In the words of another section of the stichera:

This is the day of the Lord:
Rejoice, therefore, O nations!
Behold: The chamber of Light, the Scroll of the Living Word,
Has come forth from the womb.
The gate that opens to the Rising Sun
And is ready for the entrance of the High Priest is here today.
She is the only one who introduced Christ, and Christ alone
Into this world, for the salvation of our souls!

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  1. [...] do, please continue to pray for us.For a better posts on this feast day, see Joanne McPortland and Called to Communion. Go here for more information on the foretelling of the New Eve. /* Filed Under: Living Tagged [...]

  2. Matt,

    Thank you so much for this article, brother. It is “right on time” for me, so to speak, as I am currently taking a graduate class on Mariology (which is *not* a Marian form of idolatry, for my non-Catholic friends!), and its Christological source within the Catholic Church, and its implications for Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and, in fact, all of humanity!

    Needless to say, this class is a pretty theologically mind-blowing one for me– i.e. a person who, only three and a half years ago, was still a committed Calvinist Protestant who did, indeed, believe that Mariology is idolatry. (Obviously, as a Catholic, my convictions therein have changed!) I’m taking this class, partially, because in humility and some degree of sadness, I recognize that my love for and understanding of Mary are still not what they should be. I still battle fears (based on misunderstandings and misinformation from my Protestant past) of certain aspects of Marian theology and practice. I do accept and affirm all that the Catholic Church teaches about Mary, but the fears are still there. Honestly, I believe that this lack of closeness to the Mother of God in my life is holding me back as a Christian in very real ways.

    I know that, to many serious Protestants, the above simply sounds like a pitiable, and eternally damning, lack of trust in, and closeness to, *Christ.* However, in a way quite different than those Protestants think, a lack of closeness to Mary *is* a lack of closeness to Christ (I do understand that much as a Catholic)– and both need to change in my life. I ask for the prayers of all Catholics here that God would possibly use this class to help in bringing about that change.

    A question, for Matt, and/or any other Catholic here– what would you say to a convinced, anti-Catholic Protestant who claims that, in regard to Mary, 1.) She is not indispensable to our salvation, and 2. ) She is “just like any other Christian” (other than in bearing and raising Our Lord!), and that, 3. ) God, theoretically, could have just “used another woman” (the very words sound terrible to my ears, but they are not my words) to bring Our Lord into this world– the obvious intended implication of all three contentions being that Mary is actually not so special, and that Catholics think far too much of, and about, her?

    (Again, as a Catholic, these are not my contentions. They are the contentions of a Protestant with whom I was recently in dialogue about Mary’s place in Catholic thinking and practice.)

  3. Chis — Thanks for the kind words! It was a pleasure meditating on the close relationship between Jesus and Mary.

    As to your questions, I’m glad you asked because I almost addressed this in the article, but it felt a little beyond the points I was making so I let it slide.

    First and foremost, I would say it could not have been another woman because another woman would not have produced Jesus as we know Him. Half of Christ’s DNA came from Mary. Had that DNA come from someone else, we would have had a different person. Could God have saved the world as a different person? Perhaps, but that was obviously not His plan.

    Which leads to the second point,which is the ancient Christian tradition that Mary was prepared specifically and lovingly as a dwelling place for Christ. The Church has long taught that she was no accident, no after thought, but rather the crown of all creation. And why wouldn’t she be? She’s referred to as an earthly Heaven, as she is God’s dwelling place among men, or a human temple.

    And, frankly, I hope you’ll forgive the turn of phrase, but God starts coming off a little creepy if he’s just wandering about finding any old woman with whom to become incarnate. The idea that she was a special creation rings much more true to the nature of God and the behavior we know of Him.

  4. Also, just an anecdote about Marian theology and Protestants. When I was thinking about the Catholic Church as a Protestant, I was grilling a Catholic (whom I hardly knew! I’m thankful to this day for his patience) about Mary and the Church’s teaching about her, and at some point he got this confused look on his face. He looked at me and said, “You don’t need to be afraid of Mary. She’s your friend. She cares about you.”

    All of a sudden, Mary went from being (bizarrely) an enemy, or an obstacle, and I was able to see her for what she is: a person, and more to the point, Jesus’ actual mother. And if she loves Jesus anywhere near as much as my earthly mother loves me, then the adversarial way I was thinking about her didn’t make any sense at all.

    That was quite the turning point for me. Take that for what it’s worth.

  5. I can understand in the abstract theological sense the arguments behind Mariology, and most of the “fears” like Christopher #4 mentions have for me evaporated as well. However, I still feel a sense when it comes to how those theological ideas play out in actual practice that it’s all overdone…no offense intended, just a sense which I’m sure other sympathetic Protestants or other ex-Protestants have felt.

    I think about the early church Jew-Gentile struggles and how Gentiles were asked to tone down practices which would most offend their Jewish brothers, even though such practices were not strictly “wrong.” Is Marian devotion so intimately interwoven with Catholic worship at this point that there could not be a set of rites which specifically tone down the Marian aspects to help Protestants more easily make the transition and not be “offended” using the same spirit as in the Jew-Gentile issues?

    Perhaps for others like me, Mariology is something to be submitted to because of the Church’s authority but not something believed in with the same fervor as other specifically Catholic doctrines. Having an ability to transition gently would actually help.

    Peace,
    Jeff

  6. Matt (re:#3 and #4),

    Thanks for your replies, brother. I have to admit that I have never even considered that if Mary had not given birth to Jesus (and some other woman had done so), He would literally be a different person, in the sense of having different DNA. I suspect that for many strongly committed Protestants (who, by definition, do not hold to Marian theology), their response would basically be, “So what?” Meaning, that they would see no problem with Jesus having different *human DNA*, as long as He were still fully human and fully divine. If you have time, what would your reply be to that possible Protestant response?

    As a Catholic, of course, I do assent to the Church’s thinking, in her Sacred Tradition, about Mary having been specially set apart and prepared (most notably in the Immaculate Conception) for her incomparable human role in redemption history as the Mother of God, Our Lord, the incarnate Redeemer. I am still very much in the process of coming to understand all the profound *implications therein*. It’s definitely a change and an evolution my understanding, as a former “Reformed Baptist,” but I do accept, and am increasingly coming to love, the Church’s teaching on Mary as being the greatest and highest of all created beings (especially as I understand that teaching more and more).

    I appreciate your anecdote about the Catholic’s response to your grilling on Mary. I have had very similar experiences, not so much in literal conversations, but in reading Catholic books. John Janaro, a fine contemporary Catholic author, has written a powerful book about his struggles with chronic physical illness and mental illness entitled “Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy.” In this book, he writes of Mary, in effect (I’m quoting from memory, so it may not be verbatim), “You may have a problem with her. That’s ok. She doesn’t have a problem with you.” The implication being that, as your Catholic conversation partner said to you, “You don’t have to be afraid of Mary. She’s your friend.” That book, and specifically, *that part* of the book, made a big impact on me. I think that if more Protestants simply knew that the Catholic understanding of the communion of saints (including Mary) has always been part of historic Christianity, that would go a long way in alleviating many of their objections to, and fears about, Marian theology and practice.

    Similarly, “to Jesus through Mary” is not nearly as troublesome a maxim for an inquiring Protestant, if he/she understands that the phrase does *not* challenge, at all, Jesus’s role as the one, uniquely salvific mediator between God and man, but rather, is more of a statement about how, and through whom, Jesus actually *came* to us. Without Mary, simply, we would not have Jesus (as the title of your article states). It is right and fitting that all Christians would show her the very highest of human honor (hyperdulia), while reserving worship (latria) for God alone.

  7. Chis, I wouldn’t personally worry about the DNA question or whether someone else could have been chosen. Your question is about the heart, not the head, so as such facts will not increase love although it might reduce resistance to love.

    Let me ask you a question. Had your father married another women other than your mom, would you still love her? Why? Because she is your mom. It’s a simple as that.

    The way I explained marry to my wife (who is still Protestant) is I told her that I love her mother as my own, simply because I love my wife. The more I love my life, the more I love the one who brought her to live, raised her, and took care of her.

    If you want to increase your love for Mary, just pray to her, especially in family related things. Since it is about the heart not the head (since you’ve already accepted that its okay to love Mary), it will take time, so don’t try to force it.

  8. Anil (re:#7), and anyone else who wishes to reply,

    Thank you for your reply, brother. In *many* ways, my struggle with loving and understanding Mary more deeply is a matter of the heart, and not the head. Not in *every* way– I do have some of the same struggles which Jeff mentions above in #5– but in most ways, it is a struggle of the heart and not the head.

    You mention praying to Mary (asking for her prayerful intercession, that is) about family-related things. I have never written about this on CTC (or hardly anywhere else), but I come from a family background that involved a good bit of severe emotional trauma (in addition to my having been born with the physical disability of Cerebral Palsy). I was not raised in a strong Christian household. My parents probably understood themselves to be Protestants (in that we lived in the deep South and were not Catholics) but in our daily lives, faith in God, from what I could see, did not play much of a role. My mother suffered from severe mental illness and died, by suicide, when I was a child. In light of these things, Christian faith (whether Catholic or Protestant) has never been “easy” for me (to the extent that it is easy for anyone).

    I mention all of these things, knowing full well that some people might use them to question my own emotional clarity and stability. However, anyone who knows me knows that I am serious and thoughtful about my faith. No one *ever* questioned my trust in, and commitment to, Christ when I was a Calvinist Protestant. (I initially entered the Catholic Church in college. Sadly, I soon left the Church, largely due to having received very poor catechesis in the mid-90s, drifted into nihilism, and came back to Christ as an anti-Catholic Protestant.)

    With my familial background of, basically, functional agnosticism and emotional chaos, my poor initial catechetical formation in the Catholic Church, and my strongly Calvinist indoctrination *against* the Church, it is a sheer miracle, by any standards, that I ever returned to the Church. As I’ve mentioned here before, doing so caused very great damage to my career life. I am 39, unmarried, living alone with a physically painful disability, trying to rebuild both my career and my social life after losing most of my friends (due to my reversion), and trying to undo the damage that poor catechesis, my family background, *and* my Protestant past did to my Catholic faith. As one might be able to imagine, it’s not easy.

    I trust in Christ, and Him alone, for my salvation, but I am also humble enough to admit that I always struggled to fully understand God as a loving Father (both as a Protestant and a Catholic), and now, I struggle to fully understand and accept Mary as my spiritual Mother– and again, for my Protestant friends, Catholics do believe that Mary is a *created human being*, not to be worshiped, but the mother of Our Lord, and as such, the spiritual Mother of *all* Christians, even though many (Protestants) do not recognize her as playing that role in their lives.

    For my fellow Catholics, when we pray for each other, and for the other expressed intentions at Mass, may we each remember that, in different ways, we are all carrying heavy loads, even with the grace and help of God. We need God, and the prayers of the Blessed Mother, and the prayers of all the Saints in Heaven, to make it through this life. We also need the love and help of our brothers and sisters in the pews, and we need to extend that love and help ourselves.

  9. JeffB (re:#5),

    I hear your concerns about some of the Marian practices, brother. Have you ever read Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on Mary, “Redemptoris Mater”? If not, I think that it would be helpful for you, and for any Protestant convert to the Catholic Church. It is saturated in Scripture and Scriptural reflections. It can be read, for free, at the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031987_redemptoris-mater_en.html

    If, like me, you have sensitive eyes and struggle with reading long documents online, you can either print it out, or you can buy the Ignatius Press edition of the encyclical, titled “Mary: God’s Yes to Man.” This edition also features a forward by our current Pope, and commentary from Catholic theologian, and personal friend of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar: http://www.ignatius.com/Products/MGYM-P/mary-god39s-yes-to-man.aspx

  10. Anil Wang (#7)

    Had your father married another women other than your mom, would you still love her? Why? Because she is your mom. It’s a simple as that.

    Except you wouldn’t be you. There is a slippery use of the word ‘you’ here. I think we can be thinking in Cartesian terms, of the body and soul as two separate substances. God could take the soul – which is the real ‘you’ – and implant it in any body He likes. That is not, I think, the way things are.

    The soul is the form of the body. Different DNA, different body – different body, different you.

    If we think of Jesus in this Cartesian way, we are Nestorians (if we think His body was its own person), or maybe – well, what’s the heresy where the Second Person of the Trinity is the soul of Jesus, implanted in a human body? Anyway, that way lies not only Christological error, but the possibilities of reincarnation and all sorts of nonsense.

    If Mary had said ‘no’ then Whomever we had, we wouldn’t have the same Christ.

    jj

  11. Christopher (comment 9) , Just wanted to let you know about the readability app which is free here: http://readability.com/ If you load it onto your computer it will take most hard to read articles and put it in an easy to read form with just a click. I use it all of the time. It is very helpful for reading the Catholic Encyclopedia, for reading the encyclicals, and for reading old works like St.Augustine , etc. It is a fantastic help!

  12. Kim, (re:#11),

    Thank you for the information, sister. I appreciate it. However, my problem is not that certain articles online are hard for me to read due to their *format*. My MacBook Pro laptop already has the capability within it to make texts much easier to read, and I utilize that capability regularly when reading encyclicals online and when reading here at CTC. My problem, ultimately, is simply that I have very poor eyesight, and I get headaches trying to read lengthy articles online, regardless of how “easy-to-read” the formatting can be made. Even when I make the font of texts very, very large and “easy” to read, I still cannot read lengthy texts online without needing to take many breaks, so as to not get headaches. Thank you for the tip about the Readability app though.

  13. Christopher (#9),
    Thanks for the link(s)…I’ll definitely take a look at the encyclical. And thanks Kim (#11) for the helpful link as well.

    The question I was trying to get at in my original comment (#5) was whether there are any opportunities for interested Protestants (or recent Protestant-to-Catholic converts) to participate in masses or other worship/devotional events that specifically avoid the Marian words or practices that are difficult to accept. Forgive me if that’s a totally crazy question that shows how far I have to go in understanding Catholicism. I’m not suggesting going the way of Protestant “seeker services” or permanent “Catholic lite” masses, creating a two tiered church sort of like contemporary vs traditional Protestant worship. No, I’m just wondering if there is a way that someone who can accept and submit to the church’s teachings can begin to participate in a way that feels more like learning to swim by first wading in the shallow end of a pool rather than jumping off a boat in the middle of the ocean. I mentioned the Jew/Gentile controversies in the early church in which Gentiles at certain times, to help their weaker Jewish brothers, gave up or downplayed the things that Jews found most offensive…while at the same time of course, the Jews were asked not to judge their Gentile brothers. Is there anything in the same spirit that the Church does offer or could offer to help the “weaker” brothers?

  14. We [praise] our kids, parents, and acquaintances when they’ve done something of virtue. Heck, we even use the language of praise to denote [the good] our dogs do when they’re commanded to fetch a newspaper and they do it. However, as a Protestant, I squirm at the suggestion that I should offer praise higher than any creature to Mary because she’s sustained Christ’s life both in the womb and through His childhood. As a matter of fact, “she nursed Him at her own breast and fed Him at her table as He grew—there she is, mediating God’s grace to you by sustaining God’s life. She taught Him to sing the Psalms, the words He would chant as He suffered and died on the cross for you. She anguished over losing Him in the Temple, a grief the equal of which none of us will ever know! In all this, she was bringing into being the Jesus who has saved our souls and made the world new.” Perhaps it is me who suffers from Tiber anxiety.

  15. “…whether there are any opportunities for interested Protestants (or recent Protestant-to-Catholic converts) to participate in masses or other worship/devotional events that specifically avoid the Marian words or practices that are difficult to accept. ”

    A good friend of mine created this devotional meditation based on the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jesus-Prayer-Rosary-Meditations-Praying/dp/1853118117

    It is mainly Scriptural and centred around the Name of Jesus.

  16. Thanks for the link Michael #15.

  17. Many Protestants would object that praising Mary’s role as the one who “mediated” salvation to us somehow takes away from the glory due to God for our salvation, but nothing could be further from the truth.

    I want to point out that all Protestant may not understand Catholic Mariology or the hearts of Catholics. You mention that you are misunderstood when you praise Mary’s role as if that takes away from your glorifying God. I think for a Protestant to explain their feelings about Mariology is very difficult to articulate in a way that a Catholic understands, and Protestants resort to conceptual words like ‘pagan’. I cannot say that it would be any easier for me to explain Mariology to a Protestant in a way that they would accept. On the Catholics side, Mary is an important grace, and in a way represents the heart of Jesus. A Christian in general believes that Jesus is present when 2 or more are gathered together, but Protestants take that message as a close and intimate relationship with Christ (brother and teacher as seen through the eyes of the apostles), where as Catholics have a close and intimate relationship with Mary and the Saints and Christ is King and ruler. If you try to put something (Mary or Saints) between a Protestant and Christ, you have divorce between Christ and Protestant. If you take Mary and Saints away from Catholics, you have a judgmental King Christ without a loving intercessor. If you understand this relationship, you can understand that a Protestant would be concerned that you praise Mary when gathered together in the presence of Jesus.

    Would it be so hard for a Protestant: If you understand the Protestant, you would also know that a Protestant is not usually anti-belief. In fact if you were in prayer with a Protestant worshiping Jesus and you said ‘Praise God for you Mary and if you are there, may you ask Jesus to look upon us with favor’, a Protestant would I think not take harm to your prayer. If you understand that relationship you can see that a Protestant is concerned for your salvation – because she might look upon you that your are not “…seeking God with your whole heart…”. And in fact if you are seeking God with your whole heart while you are praising Mary, and you have “judged your own heart before God…” judges your heart, why would Mary not deserve your love in the presence of Jesus?

    Blessings,
    MTN

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