“That anyone could doubt the truth of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills us with astonishment. Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God and she gave birth to Him!”
These words from St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444), who the Church celebrates this week, express the great love for the Blessed Virgin which the Church has always shown from her beginning days. St. Cyril would become the hero of the Council of Ephesus (431) in a way similar to St. Athanasius’ heroism and leadership when he attended the Council of Nicea (325) over a century earlier. Like Nicea, the Council of Ephesus grappled with the question of who the Person of Jesus Christ is. In Ephesus, the issue that precipitated the Council was whether it was correct to call the Blessed Virgin the Mother of God, the Mother of Jesus, or the Mother of Christ. Were all of these titles the same or different?
The Church has always placed great emphasis on correct belief because Jesus said that He is truth Himself (see John 14:6). God reveals His truth to us which we receive in obedience and humility; no one can cavalierly make up his own beliefs about God even though it has been accepted to do so since the Protestant Revolt in the sixteenth century. To misunderstand the Person of Jesus Christ is to answer the question incorrectly that He asked at Ceasarea Philippi: “Who do people say that I am?” Most people failed to answer that question correctly two thousand years ago, and many people still cannot answer it (see Matthew 16:13). To misunderstand who the Person of Christ is means that all that He has achieved for our salvation and the grace that He bestows upon us is for nothing. If Jesus Christ is solely God alone or even man alone, then we have no redemption because there exists no bridge between God’s divine nature and our human nature—a human nature that needed to be reconciled and healed before God because of Adam’s Fall and our own personal sins.
In the Church, every age experiences errors that have to be corrected. St. Cyril, known affectionately as the ‘Pillar of Faith’ by his supporters, answered the need in the fifth century to explain how Jesus is both God and Man, and thereby, to reveal how we quite rightly call Our Lady the Mother of God, or Theotokos, the God-bearer. To his detractors, however, Cyril was labeled as a “monster, born and educated for the destruction of the Church (see Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 47). People who hold tenaciously to error and obstinately refuse to submit to the truth in obedience often have an irrational hatred toward the bearers of God’s truth. However, Cyril thankfully refused to accept error, and instead, he remained loyal to what God had revealed about Himself and to what the Church had faithfully taught for those four centuries. Today, each faithful Catholic benefits from Cyril’s steadfast adherence and love for God’s truth. May we also follow his example in our own day with its many challenges and errors!
The archdiocese of Constantinople (in modern-day Turkey) was the second most important archdiocese in the Christian world at the time—second only to Rome. Therefore, whoever was the archbishop (otherwise known as the patriarch) of Constantinople was seen as second only to the pope himself. Unfortunately, Nestorius became the patriarch of Constantinople in 428, and he held teachings that were heretical. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria in north Egypt (another major archdiocese, but one that was answerable to Constantinople directly) since 421, took issue with Nestorius’ teaching that the Blessed Mother could only be called the Mother of Christ because she was the mother only, according to Nestorius, of Jesus Christ in His human nature. Since God has no beginning, and the Son of God is eternally generated from God the Father with no mother, Nestorius then taught that Mary cannot properly be called the Mother of God. Many bishops followed this line of thinking which led to confusion among the faithful.
Cyril sent letters to Nestorius correcting his errors along with letters to the faithful of Constantinople advising them not to listen to their patriarch because he was teaching heresy. As you would imagine, a heated exchange broke out between Nestorius and Cyril. Cyril sent the matter to Rome for a decision, and in the meantime, since the issue was becoming more contentious, the Roman Emperor Theodosius II called a Council in 431 to settle the matter among the bishops. Cyril chose Ephesus as the location because from its ancient days, that particular city had always held great veneration toward Mary as the Mother of God. Cyril was no fool!
The problem with Nestorius’ position at it root concerns the nature of Christ. If one misunderstands who Jesus Christ actually is, then the way we see Our Lady is incorrect, and Jesus’ mission and redemption on our behalf is also misunderstood completely. The teachings of the Catholic Church all fit together in one cohesive, necessary whole; if one brick, as it were, is pulled out, then the entire building collapses. Therefore, Cyril wanted to ensure that the faithful were believing and praying as they ought in line with Apostolic teaching from the Church’s earliest days.
Who, then, is Jesus Christ? According to Nestorius, the Person of the divine Son of God and Jesus Christ in His human nature were joined together as separate entities, as it were. Therefore, in His soul and intellect, Jesus would be split, or schizophrenic, with separate divine and human natures if one followed Nestorius’ thinking because Jesus’ two natures were not united in His one Person. Therefore, Nestorius taught that not only was Mary not the Mother of God, but he also taught that the Son of God was incapable of suffering, and therefore, the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death for our salvation was diminished, to say the least.
However, Cyril and the orthodox bishops protested Nestorius’ false teachings. He was condemned by the Council of Ephesus and experienced a type of “soft” exile by the Emperor for his heresy. Nestorius lost his position as the patriarch of Constantinople, and the Emperor eventually placed Nestorius in a monastery within Cyril’s own archdiocese of Alexandria.
How, then, is the Blessed Virgin Mary rightly understood as the Mother of God in relation to Our Lord? The Church has always understood that the Person of the Son of God and the Person of Jesus Christ are one and the same. In His divinity, the Son of God has eternally existed, and He will always exist. In His human nature, the Son of God came down from heaven at the Incarnation and took His perfect human nature from His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary (since she was herself conceived with no original sin and committed no actual sin, as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches). Because Jesus Christ is one Person, both God and Man, and since in His human nature, Jesus does, indeed, have a mother, the Church correctly teaches that Our Lady is, in fact, the Mother of God. Moreover, Mary’s greatest title among so many for her is ‘Mother of God.’ She alone can say that she gave birth to her Savior who is both God and Man for us and for our salvation.
The words, therefore, of the Council of Chalcedon (451) further explaining this mystery are as relevant today as ever: We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between the natures [divine and human] was never abolished by their union [at the Incarnation], but rather the character proper to each of the two natures [being both God and Man] was preserved as they came together in one person and one hypostasis (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 467).
Because the Son of God took on a human nature and did not absorb it, He fully endured His Passion and won for us the graces of the Resurrection which are freely offered to us daily (see Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 22.2). May we place all of our needs in the hands of Mary each day through the Rosary knowing that she brings our pleas before her Son as we pray, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, pray for us.
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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