In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Christian Church was deeply engaged in discussions about the nature of Christ, focusing on how his divine and human natures coexisted. Central to this debate was a title given to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Known as the “Theotokos” or “God-bearer,” this title for Mary dates back to at least the 3rd century, with its first documented use appearing in Origen of Alexandria’s writings around AD 230. This term evolved to mean “Mother of God,” reflecting the belief that Jesus Christ was both fully divine and fully human.
This title for Mary was widely accepted in Christian circles. However, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, challenged this notion. He argued that Mary was the mother of Jesus’s human aspect but not his divine nature. This view was ultimately rejected by the Church, particularly at the Councils of Ephesus in AD 431 and Chalcedon in AD 451. These councils affirmed that Jesus Christ was indeed both fully divine and fully human, united in one person. Consequently, Mary was recognized as the “Mother of God,” since she gave birth to Jesus, who was divine and human.
The term “Mother of God” is not just a title; it represents a significant aspect of Christian doctrine, honoring both Mary and Jesus. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and many Protestants revere Mary as the “Mother of God,” especially during the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. This celebration occurs one week after Christmas, concluding the octave of Christmas. It not only honors Mary for her unique role in bearing the incarnate God but also venerates Jesus Christ in his dual nature. During this solemnity, Mary is also honored as the “Queen of Peace,” paralleling the honor given to Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” during Christmas. Significantly, this feast day, on January 1st, also marks the World Day of Peace.
The origins of a feast celebrating Mary’s divine maternity are somewhat unclear, but records suggest the existence of early celebrations. Around 500 AD, the Eastern Church observed a “Day of the Theotokos,” and over time, this evolved into specific Marian feast days in the Byzantine and Coptic calendars. In the Western Church, the Christmas octave traditionally included a strong Marian emphasis. Initially, the eighth day of this octave was dedicated to the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, but over time, the focus shifted toward celebrating Mary’s divine maternity. Pope Benedict XIV, in 1751, allowed Portuguese churches to celebrate this aspect of Mary in May, and by 1914, the feast became more widely observed on October 11. It was only in 1931 that it became a universal feast.
Following the Vatican II, Pope Paul VI made a significant change: he replaced the Feast of Jesus’ Circumcision with the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God on January 1st. This decision was aimed at reinstating the ancient Western tradition of emphasizing Mary’s role at the end of the Christmas octave. Pope Paul VI explained that this arrangement not only honors Mary’s part in the salvation narrative but also allows for the renewed worship of Jesus as the newborn Prince of Peace. Additionally, aligning this solemnity with New Year’s Day reinforces its message of peace, making it an appropriate time to celebrate the World Day of Peace. This decision by Pope Paul VI thus underscored the dual celebration of both Mary and Jesus, and their interconnected roles in Christian theology.
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