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"What's The Smoke For" is a page that will explain Catholic Customs, Liturgy, Diversity and Inclusivity, Architecture and Art, Liturgical Furniture and Objects, Liturgical Posture’s and Gestures, Liturgical Praxis, Liturgical Prayers and Devotions, Liturgical Theology, Liturgical Vesture and the Liturgical Year. We hope it will make understanding the Catholic faith easier.

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Dear Johan,

               I am somewhat confused by the fact that we call Mary Mother of God. Would it not be better to refer to her as the Mother of Jesus?​


Gentle Reader

             Be careful, someone may accuse you of Nestorianism and St. Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–90) would have replied that if you question that Mary is the Mother of God, you are at odds with God. In your defense, this is a matter that took a few centuries to settle.

The title of Mother of God, or Theotokos in Greek, is one of the oldest titles for Mary. The earliest written references date back to the early third century and by the fourth century the use of the title was widespread. This does not mean, however, that the theology of this title was fully developed. It also does not mean that the title was accepted by all.

Indicative of this ongoing discovery of the meaning of the title Theotokos is the conflict that arose in Constantinople between those who insisted on the title Theotokos or “God-bearer,” emphasizing that in Christ God had been born as a human, and those who rejected that title because God as an eternal being could not have been born. Nestorius, who was patriarch of Constantinople between 428 and 431, tried to find a middle ground and suggested the title of Christotokos or Christ-bearer. Neither camp accepted this title.

In order to once and for all settle the debate Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376–444) and Celestine of Rome (422–32) called on Emperor Theodosius II (401–50) to call an ecumenical council. During this somewhat unruly council, known as the First Council of Ephesus (431), Nestorius was condemned for suggesting that the title Christotokos was preferable over Theotokos. Since Nestorius was unwilling to recant, he was deposed and banned.

From that time onward, the church in both the East and West has embraced the title of Theotokos, thus emphasizing the divine nature of Jesus even when human.

So, are you OK with using the title? Or will you continue to teeter on the brink of Nestorian heresy?


© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.