Today is the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, that is, Theotokos, "God-bearer". Of course, the day also marks the traditional celebration of Christ's circumcision (e.g., the 8th day from Christmas). For more on that see the post by my good friend Taylor Marshall here.
The history of the Marian title Theotokos is well-known to those who have studied Church history. The title was upheld by the Council of Ephesus in order to counter the heresy known as Nestorianism. For an older yet still helpful and balanced overview go here.
Suffice it to say, the Marian title was chosen because it duly preserved a Christological truth, the divinity of Christ. Jesus is God, Mary is his mother, ergo, Mary is the Mother of God. The person who came from her womb is in fact not simply a human person but divine. Thus to settle for some lesser title--e.g., Christotokos ("Christ-bearer")--would be to detract from the truth of Jesus' divinity. The Marian title was thus employed to highlight a truth about Christ.
I thought I'd use the occasion to underscore the idea that in fact, for Catholics, this is the purpose of all the Marian doctrines. The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated under John Paul II, which is the official compendium of all the teachings of the Catholic Church, states, "What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ" (no. 487).
I realize that many non-Catholics look at Catholic Marian beliefs with suspicion. I am frequently asked by callers on my nationally syndicated weekly radio show (yes, here's a shameless plug--Friday, 2pm ECT, EWTN radio), "Do not the Catholic beliefs about Mary detract from the glory of Christ?"
No, they do not. I do not have time to discuss each one here. In short let me say this: the Catholic appreciation for the holiness of Mary ultimately stems from our understanding of her role as "full of grace". Whatever is good or holy or special about her is due to one thing and one thing alone: God's grace. Let me highlight this: Mary role is nothing without grace. Without, as she put it, "God my Savior", Mary would be of no consequence.
That's not to say of course that there are some ignorant Catholics out there who misunderstand the Church's teachings about Mary. In fact, there are some ignorant Christians out there of all stripes--Christians who use the Bible to support racism, hatred, war, and violence. That doesn't make the Bible a bad book. It just means people have misunderstood it. The same is true about Mary. Many people misrepresent the official, traditional Catholic teachings about Mary. But when carefully considered I think a lot of the straw man arguments evaporate quickly.
Ultimately, the Marian beliefs such as her role as Theotokos are meant to preserve truths about Christ. They do not detract from but underscore the glory of God. Some may complain that Catholic beliefs elevate Mary too much. In reality though anything said about Mary is meant to highlight the redemptive work of Christ--to underscore what God is capable of doing for a lowly "handmaid of the Lord". Yes, God's grace can make someone that holy.
Again, this is the point of all of the Catholic Marian doctrines. God is able to raise up a human being by the grace of God to . . . e.g., become Theotokos. While some may misunderstand what they are about, complaining that they are somehow meant to point away from Christ, this grossly misrepresents their substance. Beliefs such as Mary's title as Theotokos may be the subject of dialogue between Christians of different traditions. But let's do away with this nonsense that somehow they represent a Catholic attempt to shift focus off of Christ.
If anything, let Catholics be accused of giving him too much credit.
Happy Feast of Mary, the Theotokos.