Mother of God, what’s the big deal?
Folks in Constantinople said ‘Theotokos’ the way folks around us say ‘Mother of God’ in popular piety and mild profanity. Their bishop Nestorius tried to qualify the term as ‘Christokos’ or ‘Mother of Christ’ – closer to ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’ epithets. They found the bishop a killjoy for his qualifying language – the wider church condemned him for even trying.
Ironically, Nestorius paid for ‘Theotokos’ though he didn’t buy it. His enemies exiled and banished him to Alexandria, denying that there should by talk of ‘Mother of God,’ lest we exacerbate Trinitarian issues, with a fourth and feminine figure of Godhead.
The ‘eastern’ church was alienated by this ‘western’ suppression of Mary, or disrespect for their local piety. This high-handed stuff made the alienation of the Coptic communions, the ‘auto-cephalous’ churches of our time, likelier, and made the rise of Islam easier in the next century in the ‘east’ and in Africa.
Nestorianism, without its namesake, flourished through Syria, Persia, India and China. It remains a viable movement today in Turkey, Persia and India – on a small stubborn scale. They affirm monotheism, while celebrating Mary’s role – do we? Could you recognize a Nestorian? Would they like us?
Nestorius gets a day here for Mariology, veneration of the Virgin, finding a feminine element in the faith, to balance a too-masculine western version of he Christian God of action. The eastern school of Antioch had always preferred a cruder incarnation in flesh to the sophistry of Alexandrian abstractions of ‘logos’. Rather than deriding the biological implausibility of virgin birth, we might do better to try to ask why people keep this Marian piety alive in their understanding of divinity, and of humanity.
We recognize praying to Mary as a Catholic thing, and many in our crowd get stuck on her virginity as a matter of their scientific enlightenment worldviews. Is it possible that our western church is a bit too abstract, active, masculine, and needs this balancing heresy?
What reflections do you have
about the power of imagery of conception and birth?
What art works portraying Madonna and child could move you,
and which leave you cold?