January 1, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God / World Day of Peace on January 1, 2016, at St. John XXIII Parish in Knoxville, TN. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67; Galatians 4:4-7; and Luke 2:16-21.
Today, the Church celebrates two different things. Let’s start with the more recent decision: in 1968, Pope Paul VI declared that every New Year’s Day would be celebrated as the World Day of Peace. But as my instruction book for Mass, the Roman Missal declares, the proper prayers today MUST come from the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, not from the Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice.
So, what’s the big deal about Mary being the Mother of God?
Well, it’s a huge deal. This was the main declaration of the Church’s third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, held in the year 431. Today’s homily will be a romp through the story of this Council – which is perhaps my favorite story about the complexity of Church history. (A lot of this comes from chapter 5 of Kenneth G. Holum’s delightful book, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity.) And yes, I promise, before the homily is over, I’ll tie this back to the World Day of Peace.
Let us take a moment to pray that on this New Year’s Day within the Extraordinary Jubilee Year, that we will grow ever more aware of God’s mercy and that we will each become agents of God’s mercy for others.
If you ever have the opportunity to attend the divine liturgy of one of the Eastern Churches, I highly recommend it. The icons, the chanting, the incense, the bells – it’s a very beautiful experience. You’ll notice that they’re big on using a certain Greek word over and over again: Theotokos. That’s a title for Mary. We usually call translate Theotokos as “God bearer,” but we can also translate it as the title of today’s solemnity, “Mary, the Mother of God.”
The term Theotokos appears in liturgical prayers as early as the 3rd century, but Mary was not officially declared by the Church to be the Theotokos until the 5th century at the Council of Ephesus. But to leave it there is to gloss over one of the most fascinating chapters in Church history.
Back in the 5th century, issues of church and state were much more intertwined than they are today. And so it was that Theodosius, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, selected a monk named Nestorius to become Patriarch of the capital city, Constantinople. Nestorius seemed to be a good choice, both politically and religiously: he was known for his asceticism. He was a skilled preacher with a very distinctive voice. He was highly educated. And he reminded people of his great predecessor 20 years before, St. John Chrysostum.
Nestorius might have been a holy man, but he turned out to be a disaster in the very public role of patriarch. He did a poor job in picking which battles to fight, and he wasn’t the best at explaining his reasoning on unsettled issues of theology. In the fifth century, the Church was still wrestling with how Jesus was both God and human. Nestorius entered into the fray by declaring that Mary should not be understood as the Theotokos, the Mother of God, but as merely the Christotokos, the Mother of Christ. We may scratch out heads today, wondering about this distinction. But at the time, this lit a powder keg. And so, in the summer of the year 431, we have bishops rushing to Ephesus on the orders of Emperor, holding rival councils while people are rioting on the streets. The ugliness exposes divisions between the Antiochan and Alexandrian schools of theology, between the patriarchs Cyril and Nestorius, and between Pope Celestine I and the Emperor Theodosius. And most surprising of all, it exposes the ambitions of Theodosius’ sister, Pulcheria, who sought to gain authority for herself by declaring that she was a spiritual “bride of Christ.” (Nestorius responded, “You!? You have given birth to Satan!”)
So, the Council of Ephesus declares that Mary is indeed what everyone had been saying for centuries: the Mother of God. But as far as settling the open debates on the nature of Christ, it actually moves the Church backwards. One of the many results of the Council of Ephesus is the first major schism in Christianity. Persian Christians, influenced by Zoroastrianism, reject the council. They form a separate church that still exists today, the Assyrian Church of the East.
So, at this point, you may think that there is nothing that could be as incongruous as celebrating the World Day of Peace on the same day that we celebrate Mary as the Mother of God. Luke tells us that Mary – hearing that a multitude of the heavenly host had appeared to shepherds, instructing them to come to the stable to worship her newborn baby – Mary “kept all these things in her heart.” Mary, the Queen of Peace, had simply said “yes” to the angel Gabriel, and now, 430 years later, debates about her role in salvation history had led to political intrigue, bloodshed, excommunication, and schism on three continents.
If the earthly leaders of the Body of Christ behaved this violently in 431 AD, is there any hope for peace in our world in 2016? It’s especially sad when you realize the parallels between the crises of 431 and the crises of 2016 – waves of violence still take place in that part of the world; armed groups still wrap themselves in the banner of religion to carry out selfish desires; and political leaders still make outrageous claims about their personal piety.
Well, perhaps we need to reflect on Gabriel’s reassurance to Mary when she was invited to become the Mother of God: “nothing will be impossible for God.” God works in mysterious ways. In the year 540, at the Council of Chalcedon, the Church finally resolved the understanding of Jesus Christ as both true God and true human being. 20th-century scholarship has revealed that Nestorius actually had some salient points in the ongoing Christological debates. And last, but not least, in 1994, Pope Saint John Paul II and the Catholicos Mar Dinkha IV, signed the Common Christological Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.
As 2015 gives way to 2016, there is much that stands in the way of world peace. But let us, like Mary, keep the manger scene in our hearts. Angels are messengers of God. Everyone gathered around the Christ child – Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds – had received messages from God. We who are gathered around this Eucharistic table – we also receive messages from God. And if we are open to God’s invitations to bring peace to the world in both big ways and small ways, nothing will be impossible for God.