Saturday, June 27th, 2009
O blessed doctor, Saint Cyril,
light of holy Church and lover of God’s law,
pray to the Son of God for us.
Today we may see nothing controversial about the Marian title “Mother of God,” but in the fourth and fifth centuries debate raged among bishops over how Christians should properly honor Our Lady. Is it fitting, they wondered, to call Mary the “Mother of God,” or should believers apply to her the humbler title “Mother of Christ,” which is more biblical? The latter title does not explicitly confirm Mary’s divine maternity, but neither does it reject it, which is its strength, argued its proponents. For them, “Mother of Christ” remained loose enough to accommodate a variety of theological opinions.
This Marian debate was essentially Christological in nature. At issue was the identity of the child Mary carried in her womb. St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria from 412 to 444, saw the problem clearly. The identity of the child, he argued, should specify the proper title of the mother. Accordingly, St. Cyril concluded that the traditional title “Mother of God” is indeed fitting for Mary, for it identifies the child in her womb as the Incarnate Word. Therefore, contrary to the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril argued that “Mother of God” points more squarely to the full mystery of the Incarnation than “Mother of Christ,” which as used by Nestorius could locate in Jesus a human personality separate from and parallel to that of the Eternal Word. At the Council of Ephesus, which took up this issue, the doctrine of St. Cyril prevailed over that of Nestorius.
Taken from today’s Office of Readings, the following passage presents St. Cyril’s defense of the orthodox tradition in his own words:
That anyone could doubt the right of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills me with astonishment. Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and she gave birth to him! Our Lord’s disciples may not have used those exact words, but they delivered to us the belief those words enshrine, and this has also been taught to us by the holy fathers.
The divinely inspired Scriptures affirm that the Word of God was made flesh, that is to say, he was united to a human body and endowed with a rational soul. He undertook to help the descendants of Abraham, fashioning a body for himself from a woman and sharing our flesh and blood, to enable us to see in him not only God, but also, by reason of this union, a man like ourselves.
It is held, therefore, that there are in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nevertheless one, the one true Son, both God and man; not a deified man on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form. We are assured of this by Saint Paul’s declaration: When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons. (Epistle 1)
St. Cyril was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1883. In 1944, Pope Pius XII wrote this letter to commemorate the 15th centenary of Cyril’s death.
the bishop Cyril courageously taught
that Mary was the Mother of God.
May we who cherish this belief
receive salvation through the incarnation of Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.