In 434 A.D., St. Vincent of Lerins, a priest of the monastery at Lerins, a pair of islands lying off the Bay of Cannes, wrote in defense of Mary’s title, “Mother of God,” which had been attacked through various Christological heresies:
- Photinus denied the Divinity of Christ, teaching that reverence was due God the Father only.
- Apollinaris denied the presence of a human soul in Christ, and taught that the flesh of the Savior descended from Heaven and was not formed from the flesh of Mary.
- Nestorius taught that there were two persons (Divine and human) in Christ, instead of the two Natures united in the one Person of the Savior. Because of this, he declared that Mary could only be called Christotokos (Mother of Christ), not Theotokos (Mother of God). This erroneous teaching was dealt with by St. Cyril and the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., during which Nestorius’ views would be condemned and Our Lady’s title, “Mother of God,” would be dogmatically defined.
Only three years after the Council of Ephesus, St. Vincent of Lerins wrote a powerful defense of Our Lady’s title, Theotokos. While reading these inspired words, it would be well to recall that the heresies attacked by St. Vincent are alive in the Church today, promoted by Catholic “teachers” who claim that Jesus did not always know He was God, and who downplay the importance of Christ when engaged in ecumenical dealings with religions that do not believe in the Triune God. St. Vincent of Lerins wrote:
“We must therefore take utmost care to be precise in our confession, so as to say that Christ is not merely One, but that He always has been One. It were, indeed, an intolerable blasphemy to assert that, although you admit His now being One, you contend that He once was not One but Two — One after His baptism, but Two at the time of His birth. We cannot escape this enormous sacrilege unless we assert that humanity has been united to divinity through the unity of Person, not through the ascension or resurrection or baptism, but within the Mother, in Her womb, and — even more — in the Virginal Conception itself. Because of this unity of Person, it happens that what is proper to God is ascribed to the man, and what is proper to the flesh is ascribed to God — indifferently and without distinction. Therefore, as it is written in Holy Scripture: ‘He that descended from Heaven, the Son of Man who is in Heaven’ (Jn. 3:13), and ‘crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Cor. 2:8) on earth. Furthermore, since the body of the Lord was made and created, it is said that the ‘Word’ of God Himself was ‘made’ (Jn. 1:14), His wisdom fil1ed up. (Eccl. 24:35), His knowledge created (Eccl 1:4, 24:36); therefore do the prophetic writings refer to His hands and feet as ‘pierced’ (Ps. 21:7). Through this Unity of Person it also becomes perfectly clear — by reason of a similar mystery — that it is most truly Catholic to believe (and most impious to deny) that the Word of God Himself was born from the Virgin even as the flesh of the Word was born from an Immaculate Mother.
“Therefore, may God forbid that anyone should attempt to defraud Holy Mary of Her privileges of divine grace and Her special glory. For by a unique favor of Our Lord and God She is confessed to be the most true and most Blessed Mother of God (Theotokos). She is truly the Mother of God, not merely in name, as a certain impious heresy claims, because She gave birth to a man who later became God, as we call the mother of priests or bishops such, because she gave birth, not to a priest or a bishop, but to a child who later became one. Not thus, I say, is Holy Mary the Mother of God, but rather because, as has already been said, in Her sacred womb was accomplished the mystery that, by reason of a certain singular and unique Unity of Person, even as the Word is made flesh, so the man is God in God.”1
These words of St. Vincent are worth re-reading many times over. They present a remarkable defense of the Incarnation and of the dignity of Mary and Her Divine Maternity, not in the technical language of theology, but through common-sense arguments based solidly on Sacred Scripture and nature. By the Divine ordering, the integrity of the Incarnation of the God-Man has been preserved in the most simple and universal of all natural images — a mother holding her infant. It is an image understood by all, by every man and woman who ever was or ever will be born. It is even reflected, to its own degree, in the animal kingdom. There is no more universal image in nature. It’s as though the Holy Trinity said, “Let us clothe this mystery in the most recognizable image possible, so that all can perceive it.”
And, yet, this image of Mother and Child was despised by the heretics challenged by St. Vincent and others. In order to sidestep the beauty and simplicity of the Divine Maternity, they created the most absurd of scenarios: Christ descending from Heaven already in possession of some sort of “phantom body,” pretending to be a man, when He was not … Christ being “possessed” by the Holy Ghost at the Jordan River … a bizarre, “schizophrenic” Christ, in whom human and divine natures co-existed, but were not actually united to each other. These unwholesome science-fiction tales presented no philosophical or “theological” obstacle to the Christological heretics, but the image of Mother and Child was unacceptable to them! And so we see proof that sins of heresy indeed cloud the intellect and reason.
St. Vincent accents the actual physical relationship between Jesus and Mary that is the substance and glory of the Divine Maternity. This physical relationship involves the Blessed Virgin in a completely unique situation. She has gone “where no man has gone before.” As St. Vincent points out, the Divinity of Jesus Christ does not result from the human Jesus being “possessed” after His baptism, or from His merely “pretending” to be a man. It is in the “sacred womb” of the Mother that this great mystery — the Unity of Person — was accomplished. The Redemption of the world was dependent on this Unity of Person, as God was given flesh with which to make a reparation that only He could make.
To view the Blessed Virgin, then, as just another character inhabiting the pages of the Gospels, as many Protestants ignorantly profess, is to dispense with the faculty of simple discrimination. To see Her as merely worthy of some grudging “respect” because, after all, She gave birth to Christ, is to forget not only the supernatural lessons taught in the Gospels, but the dictates of nature as well. All such nonsense is washed away in the timeless image of the Madonna and Child. Mary has a certain place in reality. This exalted place is Hers — supernaturally and naturally — because of WHO She is, and WHAT She is. The one great mystery of all time, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity for the restoration of the world, was effected through Her.
And so, as the economy of our redemption unfolds in the Scriptures, we encounter again and again the Mother, concerned for and active in the mission of Her Divine Son and His Church. The Magi, traveling far in search of the newborn King of the Jews, discover “the Child with Mary His Mother.” The first public miracle of the Redeemer was performed at Cana because “the Mother of Jesus was there.” Then, when Our Lord’s “hour” had arrived, the hour for which He had been born as a man, we find that “there stood by the cross of Jesus, His Mother.”
Finally, after Our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, when the Apostles and disciples (the infant Church) find themselves without their Master’s immediate, physical comfort for the first time, they persevere in prayer “with the women, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren”
We try, sometimes haltingly, sometimes eloquently enough, to explain this awesome mystery of God-made-Man. We try, using all the art of which our minds are capable of expending on the effort, to gain some small idea of Our Lady’s position in the mystery. The Incarnation of Christ is the jewel of Redemption, and the Immaculate Mary is the ring in which this precious jewel is set. The poet, Dante Alighieri, addressed Our Lady with these words: “Thy merit so ennobled human nature that its divine Creator did not scorn to make Himself the creature of His creature.”
The Blessed Virgin — unique? The word barely does justice to Her, because no other being — including the most powerful of Archangels — has ever or will ever be closer to God, in any way shape or form. With such a thought in mind, it becomes second nature for us to echo Dante’s prayer to the Virgin:
“Lady, Thou are so near God’s reckonings that who seeks grace and does not first seek Thee would have his wish fly upwards without wings.”
“And on this account, that one woman is both a Mother and a Virgin, not only in the spirit but also in the flesh. In the spirit, indeed, she is not the mother of our Head, Which is the Savior Himself, of Whom rather she was born after the Spirit — forasmuch as all, who have believed in Him, among whom she herself also is, are rightly called children of the Bridegroom (Matt. 9: 15) — but she is clearly the mother of His members, which we are, in that she cooperated by charity, that faithful ones should be born in the Church, who are members of that Head. In the flesh, however, she is the mother of the Head Himself. For it was meet that our Head should by means of an extraordinary miracle be born after the flesh of a virgin, that He might thereby signify that His members would be born after the spirit of a virgin, the Church.” — St. Augustine of Hippo, On Holy Virginity, 6:6
1 The Commonitories, Chapter 15 (On the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of all Heretics).