All About the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Mary, Mother of God Definition and Summary
The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God commemorates the divine motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. It is celebrated on January 1, one week after Christmas.
Prayers: Mary, Mother of God Prayers
Liturgical Color(s): White
Time of Year: January 1
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Mary, the mother of our God, Jesus Christ
Alternate Names: Solemnity of the Holy Mother of God; Christ's Circumcision used to be celebrated the same day
In the fourth and fifth centuries, debates about the nature of Jesus raged within the Church. While the divinity of Christ was mostly settled as official doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the debate about the relationship of Christ's divine and human natures persisted after.
At the center of this debate was a particular title of Mary. Since at least the third century, Christians referred to Mary as Theotokos, meaning "God-bearer." The first documented usage of the term is in the writings of Origen of Alexandria, in AD 230.
Related to Theotokos, Mary was called the "Mother of God." Referring to Mary this way was popular in Christian devotion, but Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople from AD 428-431, objected on theological grounds.
He suggested that Mary was only the mother of Jesus' human nature, but not His divine nature. Nestorius' ideas (or at least how others perceived his ideas) were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, and again at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.
In response to this, The Church determined that Christ was fully God and fully human, and that these natures were united in one person, Jesus Christ. So, Mary could be called "Mother of God" since she gave birth to Jesus, who was fully divine as well as human. Since this time, Mary has been frequently honored as the "mother of God" by Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants.
The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God falls exactly one week after Christmas, marking the end of the Octave of Christmas. It is fitting to honor Mary as Mother of Jesus following the birth of Christ. When Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, we are not only honoring Mary, who was chosen among all women throughout history to bear God incarnate, but we are also honoring Jesus. Calling Mary "Mother of God" is the highest honor we can give Mary. Just as Christmas honors Jesus as the "Prince of Peace," the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God honors Mary as the "Queen of Peace." This solemnity, falling on New Year's Day, is also designated the World Day of Peace.
The origins of a feast celebrating Mary's divine maternity are obscure, but there is some evidence of ancient feasts commemorating Mary's role as Theotokos. Around AD 500 Eastern Churches celebrated a "Day of the Theotokos" either before or after Christmas. This celebration eventually evolved into a Marian feast on December 26 in the Byzantine calendar and January 16 in the Coptic calendar. In the West, Christmas has generally been celebrated with an octave, an eight-day extension of the feast. The Gregorian and Roman calendars of the seventh century mark the Christmas octave day with a strong Marian emphasis. However, eventually in the West, the eighth day of the Octave of Christmas was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. The push for an official feast day celebrating Mary's divine maternity started in Portugal, and in 1751 Pope Benedict XIV allowed Portugal's churches to celebrate Mary's divine maternity on the first Sunday in May. The feast was eventually extended to other countries, and by 1914 was being celebrated on October 11. The feast of Mary's divine maternity became a universal feast in 1931.
However, following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI decided to change the feast of Jesus' Circumcision to the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God to reclaim the ancient Western Marian emphasis at the end of the Octave of Christmas. Celebrating Mary's divine maternity during the Christmas Octave makes complete sense in that the celebration is connected closely to Christ's birth. Pope Paul VI gave his reasoning for the change:
In the revised arrangement of the Christmas season, we should all turn with one mind to the restored solemnity of the Mother of God. This feast was entered into the calendar in the liturgy of the city of Rome for the first day of January. The purpose of the celebration is to honor the role of Mary in the mystery of salvation and at the same time to sing the praises of the unique dignity thus coming to "the Holy Mother...through whom we have been given the gift of the Author of life." This same solemnity also offers an excellent opportunity to renew the adoration rightfully to be shown to the newborn Prince of Peace, as we once again hear the good tidings of great joy and pray to God, through the intercession of the Queen of Peace, for the priceless gift of peace. Because of these considerations and the fact that the octave of Christmas coincides with a day of hope, New Year's Day, we have assigned to it the observance of the World Day of Peace (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, Feb. 2, 1974, no.5).
Thus Pope Paul VI highlighted the feast's celebration of both Mary and Jesus. He also noted the connection to New Year's Day and Mary's role as Queen of Peace. January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, is also the observed "World Day of Peace."
There are many Marian feasts in the Church calendar. These include the Assumption of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of Consolation, among many others. However, Mary, Mother of God focuses on Mary's divine maternity.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions, Symbols, and Typology
Traditions: This is a new feast, so specific traditions are developing. Being a part of the Christmas season, all Christmas traditions apply. Suggestion: Take this day to offer up prayers for peace or give some Christmas money to a charity that promotes peace.
Symbols: Any Marian or Christmas symbol; candles
Old Testament typology foreshadowing Mary, Mother of God: New Eve: Mary's offspring will crush Satan; Ark of the Covenant symbolizes Mary bearing Living Word of God in her womb; Great Old Testament heroines: Hannah, Esther, and Judith
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Catholics and Orthodox call Mary "Mother of God." How could Mary give birth to God, when He is eternal? The term Theotokos, or the similar title "Mother of God," does not mean that Mary gave birth to the Trinity before time began. This would be absurd and downright wrong. However, calling Mary Theotokos, or "Mother of God," affirms that Mary gave birth to Christ, Who is both God and man. When Jesus was in Mary's womb, He was fully God and fully man. When Jesus passed through Mary's birth canal, He did so as one fully human, but also as one fully God. To separate the human and divine natures of Christ the way Nestorius did is to incorrectly divide Jesus into two persons, one divine and one human.
Thus, affirming Mary as the Mother of God has more to do with who Jesus is than who Mary is. It has everything to do with Christ being God and human at the same time. Calling Mary "God-Bearer" simply affirms that Mary is the mother of the one person, Jesus, Who is both fully human and fully divine. Catholics, Orthodox, and the majority of Protestants accept the declarations of the Council of Chalcedon that call Mary "Theotokos." This includes Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and some Baptists.
This page written by David Bennett.