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Eight intriguing facts about Mary’s title Mother of God

“If anyone does not believe that Holy Mary is the Mother of God, such a one is a stranger to the Godhead.”
—St. Gregory Nazianzen (c. 329–390), Father and Doctor of the Church

On January 1 we celebrate the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Although this title sometimes baffles non-Catholics, it makes complete sense once we acknowledge that Mary is the mother of Jesus:

Jesus is both man and God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. If Jesus is God and Mary is His mother, she is also Mother of God.

Despite this inarguable logic, a major theological battle was waged nearly 16 centuries ago over Mary’s being called Mother of God.

It took an ecumenical council for the Church to sort out the arguments pro and con and make a definitive statement.

Here are eight intriguing facts about what happened:

1. Mary was officially proclaimed Mother of God in 431 A.D. during the Council of Ephesus, near present-day Selçuk in Turkey.

2. Ephesus was a city renowned for the veneration of Mary.

3. During that council—which officially opened on June 7, Pentecost Sunday—she was acknowledged as Theotokos, a Greek word that means God-bearer (the one who gave birth to God). The title Theotokos itself was already well-established but had become a point of controversy.

4. The council was called in large part to deal with the claim of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, that Mary should be called Christokos—Christ-bearer—but not God-bearer. Nestorius did not believe Jesus was consubstantial with the Father.

5. Nestorius himself had requested that a council be convened to prove his orthodoxy. The opposite occurred: the Council of Ephesus condemned his teaching as heresy.

6. The council affirmed that Jesus was one person—fully human and fully divine—not two separate people.

7. Unfortunately, a major schism within the Church followed the council’s decisions. It wasn’t until 1994 that agreement was reached between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. In that year the two bodies expressed their common understanding concerning the divinity and humanity of Christ.

8. Even Protestant reformer Martin Luther acknowledged Mary as Mother of God: “St. Paul says, ‘God sent His Son born of a woman.’ These words, which I hold for true, really sustain quite firmly that Mary is the Mother of God” (Martin Luther’s Works, volume 7).

And here’s one more for good measure: the feast day of St. Gregory Nazianzen (and St. Basil the Great) is celebrated January 2, the day after the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.