The lyrics of a popular Christmas Carol expound upon a series of rhetorical questions, questioning Mary about whether she knew that Jesus would save us, whether she knew that her child once walked with angels… and the short answer to this sequence of “did you know” questions, is Yes! Mary did know.
This is succinctly stated in Scripture when the Archangel Gabriel visits Mary at the Annunciation:
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1: 31 -33)
This is confirmed in the prophetic words of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth,
“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1: 42-45)
This is next corroborated by a random person Simeon, whose life was attuned to the Will of God:
“…for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2: 30-32)
“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” (Luke 2: 34)
Thus, the infancy narratives of Jesus clearly spell out the messianic role of Jesus, the identity of Jesus as Son of God, and how Mary would be a co-operator in the Lord God’s plan to save and redeem humanity. Jesus did not come to keep the status quo, but His earthly presence heralded a new era of change, and while Mary did not in her human capacity understand many things, she pondered upon them in her heart, in the knowledge that was gifted to her, and allowed the Will of God to move her where she needed to be until the time came when revelation would be made to reveal and allow her to make sense of her life’s experiences.
The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God finds its root in the affirmation of Mary as Theotokos in the Council of Ephesus in 431 (Papal Encyclicals Online, n.d.), where Mary was given the title of God-bearer. In Christ, there are two natures, but one person. Christ is both divine – God, and human – man. Mary is the holy Virgin who begets Jesus by allowing the Word of God to take on human flesh in her human person. This is elaborated upon in the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (Papal Encyclicals Online, n.d.b):
“…begotten from the Father before the ages as regards his godhead, and in the last days, the same, because of us and because of our salvation begotten from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as regards his manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten…”
Mary’s Divine Motherhood was not an independent dogma that stood alone, that which existed to merely define Mary’s identity. This Marian dogma is intertwined and interwoven so deeply and completely with the Divinity, life, nature, and personhood of Christ. The dogma of Mary’s Divine Motherhood is part of and informs Christological truths and dogmas. From this truth springs all other dogmas about Mary – this first foundational dogma of Mary as God-bearer leads to the dogma about Mary’s Perpetual Virginity – for the birth of Christ did not diminish Mary’s virginal integrity, but sanctified it.
The dogma about Mary’s Immaculate Conception is in alignment with the dogmas of Mary’s Divine Motherhood and Perpetual Virginity. This truth about Mary’s immaculate Conception –
“that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was kept free of every stain of original sin,”
tells us that Mary being spared from original sin and born without stain comes to existence only through the realisation of who Jesus is as God and Man. It was proclaimed as an independent dogma by Pope Pius IX in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus (December 8, 1854). While it presents an honour and privilege that was gifted by God to Mary, this Marian dogma emphasizes the dignity and holiness required to become the “Mother of God.” The privilege of the Immaculate Conception is the source and basis for Mary’s all-holiness as Mother of God (Pope Pius XII, 1953; Pope Pius IX, 1854). Mary from the start of God’s plan was kept sinless and blameless, and remained in this holy state of sanctified grace and in union with God for all time. Logically, this dogma makes sense, for how can Christ, who is God and completely sinless, be born in a vessel that is a sinful body. He cannot for sin and God are incompatible.
The fourth Marian dogma is the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While this dogma is not stated explicitly in Scripture, this dogma was proclaimed by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950 in his encyclical Munificentissimus Deus:
“Mary, Immaculate Mother of God ever Virgin, after finishing the course of her life on earth, was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.”
This makes again, logical sense, supporting the firm consent of the magisterium and alludes to the concordant belief of the faithful. Scripturally, St. Paul says,
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
Rationally, Mary is accorded this privilege of being assumed into heaven body and soul, because in her are absolutely no wages of sin.
Tracing the history of the institution of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, we see that it could have arisen as a result of influence by the Byzantine Church which celebrates the Synapsis of the Most Holy Theotokos on December 26. As it is the custom in the Eastern Church, feasts that honoured secondary persons were usually placed adjacent to the feasts honouring the principal person. In this case, the birth of Christ precedes the honouring of Mary as Mother of God. In the Coptic Church, this feast was celebrated on January 16. In the Western Church, as early as the 5th century A.D., this feast was traditionally placed on the Sunday before Christmas. While in Spain it is celebrated on December 18, and in France, this celebration takes place on January 18.
Before Pope Sergius introduced in the 7th century, the four pivotal Marian feasts – the Birth of Mary, the Annunciation, the Purification and the Assumption, in Rome, the octave day of Christmas was celebrated in honour of the Maternity of Mary. In the 13th to 14th centuries, the feast of the Circumcision was added, although it had been introduced into Spain and France at the end of the 6th century and was later included in the Missal of Pope St. Pius V. Liturgical reforms restored the original Roman practice, which replaced the pagan feast of the New Year, dedicated to the god Janus, with this feast honouring the Mother of God. In Portugal, in the 18th century, a grassroots movement was started to honour Mary’s maternity, and in 1914 the date of the feast was fixed at October 11. It was extended to the entire Latin Church in 1931, the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus. The restoration of the feast to January 1, which falls in the Christmas season and has an ecumenical significance, aligns with other anniversaries; for example, the octave day of Christmas, the circumcision of the Infant Jesus (assigned to the first Sunday of January); the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (which dates back to 1721); and the day for peace, introduced by Pope Paul VI.
In the encyclical Marialis Cultus (1974) Pope Paul VI states:
“This celebration, assigned to January 1 in conformity with the ancient liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the ‘holy Mother . . . through whom we were found worthy . . . to receive the Author of life.’ It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewed adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels, and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. For this reason . . . we have instituted the World Day of Peace, an observance that is gaining increasing support and is already bringing forth fruits of peace in the hearts of many” (no. 5).
The celebration of Mary, Mother of God is a fitting solemnity to welcome the new fiscal year. Mary is an example of contemplation and pondering, and while little has been recorded about what she has said in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, her silence holds poignancy. She is in fact, in her quietude, speaking the first language of God in her listening to God, there is wisdom that we can emulate from.
Mary is the seat of Wisdom, and is the new Ark of the Covenant. With the ongoing festivities, the transition of the old fiscal year into the new, the continuing celebration of Christmas, the invitation is turn to Mary who is Mother of God, and also our Mother. How may we carry out the will of God in this new year? The answer may be found in quietly contemplating upon Mary.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Papal Encyclicals Online. (n.d.). Council of Ephesus – 431 A.D. Papal Encyclicals Online. Retrieved January 1, 2022 from https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum03.htm
Papal Encyclicals Online. (n.d.). Council of Chalcedon – 451 A.D. Papal Encyclicals Online. Retrieved January 1, 2022 from https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum04.htm
Pope Paul VI. (1974). Marialis Cultus. The Holy See. Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Pope Pius IX. (1854). Ineffabilis Deus. The Holy See. Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Pope Pius XII. (1950). Munificentissimus Deus. The Holy See. Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Pope Pius XII. (1953). Fulgens Corona. The Holy See. Libreria Editrice Vaticana.