I feel like the first day of 2016 should call forth something profound, but I’m not feeling profound, as the joys and sorrows of this world continue along their unpredictable ways regardless of the turning of the calendar. I guess I prefer straight and narrow language, the kind I get from my garbage man, for example, who left me a note that read “if we don’t get a bigger Christmas tip this year, we’ll kick your can.”
In yesterday’s post (December 31) I talked about the origin of today’s feast of Mary, the Mother of God. After I posted, I went to the Vigil Mass along with the small congregation that show up for “holy days of obligation” and I was awarded with a very good sermon from our newly ordained associate. He went to the trouble to explain the Nestorian heresy, something I had overlooked in my reflection yesterday. I had failed to consider that the development of this Marian feast of January 1 in Rome of the fourth century is historically connected to a line of well-intentioned but erroneous conclusions embodied in the works and preaching of Nestorius.
Nestorius is one of the Church’s truly tragic figures, for from all indications he was trying to do the right thing, that is, defend the divinity of Christ from what we would call today the “excesses of piety.” Nestorius was a monk and a priest, so highly regarded for his orthodoxy and asceticism that the Roman Emperor Theodosius II nominated him as Archbishop or Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius may have taken his new responsibilities a bit too strenuously, as the year was hardly finished before the new archbishop was embroiled in one of Christianity’s greatest doctrinal conflicts.
To understand the problem, one must step back and look at the figure of Mary in the divine plan, or the “economy of salvation.” She is identified in all four Gospels as the mother of Jesus; this point is beyond dispute. The problems arose as the Church, from the early post-Apostolic times forward, attempted to understand the nature of Jesus, and gradually came to a point where Jesus’ divinity could be doctrinally established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The language of this Council produced the phrase in our Creed today, “consubstantial with the Father,” or “of the same substance as the Father.”
Nestorius came into Church life at a time when this doctrine was a century old. In his efforts to protect this primal doctrine of Jesus, he became concerned about the intensity of devotion to the Virgin Mary, particularly intense in the East. One possibility for the intensity of Marian piety in the East may have been the long-held belief that after the Ascension the Apostle John took Mary to Ephesus where she lived out her natural life under his protection. In any event, the custom of reverencing Mary as the Mother of God or theotokos was widespread by his time. There was a logic here, too: if the Council of Nicaea had declared Jesus to be fully God and fully man, of one substance, it stood to reason in the heart of the faithful that Mary must be the mother of the godly as well as the humanly Jesus, since Nicaea had declared these inseparable.
Nestorius, though, could claim a logical position, too: if the human Jesus is consubstantial with the Father, i.e., one with the Father, then the phrase “Mother of God” states without asterisks that Mary is God’s mother, that she gave origin and birth to the Creator, to Yahweh, to He who lives in the heavens and the holy of holies in the Temple. Understood this way, the assertion of Mary’s divine motherhood is at least a literary conundrum; at worst it is either absurdity or blasphemy. Nestorius never, to my knowledge, made his argument ad hominem against Mary; his issue was the theological claim made about her.
Nestorius had a not insignificant following, which included for a time the Emperor himself. The controversy Nestorius evoked on Christmas Day, 428, in his holy day sermon (timing not being among the archbishop’s greatest gifts) took place in a time when several cities were vying for position as the seat of Christendom: Rome; Constantinople (now Istanbul); Alexandria, Egypt; Ephesus (now Selcuk, Turkey); and Jerusalem. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, saw this misstep of his rival Nestorius as an opportunity to promote Alexandrian esteem as the center of Church orthodoxy and led the crusade for the discrediting and excommunicating of Nestorius—though this process took nearly a generation as bishops and theologians attempted to unravel the difficulty.
In truth, there never was a compromise because such would have been impossible. Human logic can only take us so far in our understanding of the Incarnation, God become man. We cannot--pace Nestorius—explain how an eternal being takes form in a finite environment. It is a one-time occurrence, the one-time occurrence that grounds all of human reality. St. Paul, in Philippians 2:5ff, talks of this frontier of belief with a poetry that might have better served Nestorius. In its growing awareness of the demands of faith and the limits of Greek logic, Church theologians did develop a kind of literary and devotional shorthand known as “the communication of idioms,” whereby attributes of the divine and the human in Jesus could be interchanged for reasons of worship and catechesis. Thus, one can say on Good Friday that God died upon the cross (a mysterious but wondrous truth) just as one can say that Mary is indeed the Mother of God, with the understanding that our human speech and logic can only take us so far, to the point where it is our honor to render an intellectually submissive act of faith.
Nestorius overlooked another facet of Christian life that remains true even today. The term “Mother of God” was not invented at a council; it was the product of grass-roots faith, the sublime truth of countless worshippers who—in the full knowledge of the humanity and divinity of Christ, did the math that the French mathematician would describe centuries later: “The heart has reasons that reason knowns nothing about.”