Hearts of Jesus and Mary- Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, FI

The history of the Church teaches us something fundamental about Mariology: Mary’s relation to Christ in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation links them inseparably. There has never been, in fact, an important heresy concerning the heart of the mystery of Christ, the Incarnation, which has not also involved some grave error in regard to His Mother Mary.

Many councils, ecumenical and local, have dealt with articles of faith concerning the Incarnation and Redemption. Two, however, are rightly regarded as having exceptional importance for 1) a correct theological and practical understanding of that central mystery of faith, Jesus, and 2) for a correct answer to the question: who is the Son of Man? These two are the Councils of Ephesus in 431, and Chalcedon in 451, both cities found in present-day Turkey, but then part of the Eastern Roman Empire, at that time mostly Catholic. Unfortunately, the statistical fact just cited does not mean that among all the Eastern Catholics of the 5th century there was doctrinal unity in replying to this very question. This lack of unity would shortly give rise to schism and heresy, and the eventual reduction of the Church in that part of the world to the status of a small minority in a sea of Islamism.

Doctrinal disunity and the quarrels consequent upon this were not, in the 5th century, novel events in the Christian world. These had arisen almost from the birth of the Church, and in one way or another concerned Jesus and Mary jointly. Those who erred concerning the Messianic character of the Son of Mary—some considering Jesus a mere man (the so-called Ebionites) and some considering Jesus a phantom man (the so-called Docetists or Phantomists)— also erred concerning the person and role of Mary: the first group professing Her a woman no different from any other; the latter group regarding Her as a kind of virginal goddess, without any real maternal activity in the proper sense. In the 4th century, the crisis over the theories of Arius concerning the divine Person of Jesus, and later over those of Macedonius concerning the divinity of the Holy Spirit, were resolved respectively in the first Council of Nicea (325) and the first Council of Constantinople (381), with the condemnation of these two heretics and the imposition of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed on the entire Church, still recited every Sunday during Holy Mass.

While the great heresies of the 4th century set the scene for those of the 5th, they did not deal directly with the heart of the Incarnation, viz., the hypostatic union, the very basis of our redemption. But when heresy did touch that heart directly, it necessarily also touched Mary. In a sense there can be no error concerning the hypostatic union (and its consequences for soteriology) except through an error concerning Mary. In modern times, Card. Newman (The Glories of Mary for the Sake of Her Son, in Discourses for Mixed Congregations) expressed this most clearly: if one wishes to be orthodox in Christology and soteriology, one must be Marian. Contrariwise, if one wishes to demean Christ, one must first minimize His Virgin Mother. The Council of Ephesus was called in order to deal with the problems posed by the preaching of the Patriarch of Constantinople concerning Our Lady: was She only the Mother of Christ, as the Patriarch Nestorius insisted, or truly Mother of God, as tradition held? Nestorius did not deny, as had Arius, the divinity of the Son of God. He merely maintained that no creature could be parent of a divine Person. Whom did the Virgin beget? Nestorius replied: another man, another human person, who subsequently formed as it were a single personality in union with a divine person called the Son of God.

The error of Nestorius was twofold: he identified begetting with reproduction of a nature. Therefore, first, since Mary could only reproduce a human nature, She could only be the mother of a human person. Therefore (and this is the second error), in Christ there were in fact not one, but two persons, so intimately united or allied as to seem one and the same person in action. To defend his view, however, he had to insist that Mary was not the Theotókos: God-bearer, Dei Genetrix: Begetter of God, or Mother of my Lord (Yahweh), as St. Elizabeth greeted Her (cf. Lk 1: 43), but merely the Christotókos: Christ-bearer.

The position of Nestorius was very popular in his day, as it still is among many influenced by what is known as Pelagianism or naturalism. This is the heretical tendency to confuse grace and free will, to make holiness merely a matter of one’s natural initiative to resist sin and practice virtue, and so define holiness simply in terms of psychological maturity. In the theory of Nestorius, the most that the Christ can do for us is to give us good example, to encourage us, etc., to do what is already in our power. The Nestorians would deny that we depend on this Man, Who is literally God, to find pardon and, still more, those supernatural aids or graces without which we cannot find eternal salvation and blessedness— in a word, a solution to the problems represented by guilt and death. The truth, in contemporary terms, is that Christ can raise us from death, both in soul (the forgiveness of sin) and in body (reunification of body and soul). Christ, the Son of Mary—as Son identical with the divine Person Who is the pre-existent Son of God—can work a miracle. The Nestorian Christ, on the other hand, can only counsel.

This is the difference between addressing Mary as Mother of God and not merely Mother of Christ: that a divine Person, without ceasing to be divine, became what He was not, namely a man, by being born of the Virgin Mary, is the heart of the supernatural; whereas the mere Mother of Christ of Nestorius was no different from any other woman who bore a model hero. The mystery of the Divine-Virginal Maternity both reveals and guarantees the supernatural character of grace, and is the reason we invoke Mary as Mother of grace, viz., of the Incarnate Son of God. It is also a guarantee of the true nature of motherhood, which is not primarily a reproducer of nature, but a begetter of a person. In the case of ordinary mothers, that person did not preexist his procreation. In the case of Jesus, the Person begotten pre-existed the begetting, but in no wise was it impossible for Him to be begotten a second time of a virgin Mother, for in this case the Father is the same as in His (the Son’s) eternal generation.

We may ponder here the observation of St. Bonaventure: whether we consider the hypostatic union or the virginal maternity, we are face to face with a mysterious fact totally beyond the powers of nature to effect and the power of reason even to apprehend without the light of faith. We behold here a conception-birth leaving the mother’s virginity integral; we ponder the conception-birth of a child who pre-existed his historical beginning. This is what is meant in essence by supernatural.

Theotókos is the sign or index of supernaturality, the guarantee of hope in the sanctification of our souls, the resurrection of our bodies and our glorious entrance into the everlasting paradise of the Holy Trinity. The Nestorian concept of the hypostatic union, as a kind of alliance between two persons, left Christ simply another natural phenomenon; and the condemnation of this grievous error was a resounding reaffirmation of the only basis of our hope in everlasting bliss. No wonder generations of faithful have saluted Mary in the Salve Regina as “our life, our sweetness and our hope.”

(Copyright by Immaculate Mediatrix On-line www.marymediatrix.com)


Fr. Peter Damien Fehlner FI, STD is a professor of dogmatic theology. He taught in Seraphicum in Rome for many years; he wrote extensively on Franciscan and Marian themes. He was featured in Mother Angelica's EWTN several times.


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