25 December 2011

Becoming Theotókos

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans

In 431 A.D., our Church Fathers gathered in Ephesus for a council and decreed that the Blessed Virgin Mary would be honored with the title, Theotókos, God-bearer or the one who gives birth to God. For a majority of Christians at the time, this decree was yawn-inducing b/c Mary had been known as Theotókos for a couple of centuries. However, one bishop, Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, objected to the title because he thought it was irrational to believe that a creature of God—a human woman—could be the mother of the God who had created her. He preferred the title, Christotokos or bearer of the Christ. This title makes it clear that Mary is the mother of Christ, the man, but not the mother of Christ, who is God. Nestorius was credibly accused of dividing Christ into two persons—a human person and a divine person—and thus destroying our means of salvation. After all, we are saved by Christ precisely because he is one person possessing both a human nature and a divine nature. The council fathers declared Nestorius' teachings heretical and supported the teachings of his opponent, the bishop of Alexandria, St. Cyril. In support of his position at the council, Cyril wrote, “I am amazed that there are some who doubt whether or not the Virgin should be called Theotokos. For if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how is the Virgin who gave him birth, not the one who gives birth to God?” 

Now, you are probably thinking to yourself: Father, we're all stuffed with ham, sweet potatoes, yeast rolls, and pie. . .and we have a big mess to clean up at home. . .what have we ever done to you to deserve a lecture on fourth-century Christological controversies? Well, you've probably done something in the last year to deserve it. . .but that's not really the point. The point is this: the event we celebrate today is not Jesus' birthday. . .this is not a Birthday Party. The event we celebrate is (quoting John's gospel): “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. . .” The Word became flesh. Who is the Word? Again, quoting John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Don't miss that last bit: “and the Word was God.” God took on skin and bone and blood, and He dwelt among us as one us. Today, we celebrate the event of our Creator stepping into His creation to become a creature. This is most emphatically NOT a birthday party. . .this is an Incarnation Party! The Word of God, the Christ, who is God, becomes Man so that we might become Christs. 

And that's the answer to my next question: why did the Word of God, the Christ, who is God become Man? So that we might become Christs. John writes, “. . .to those who accept [Christ] he gave power to become children of God.” To be a child of God is to be a co-heir to God's Kingdom, to be a brother or sister to the Son of God. To be one of the Father's children is to be one who sees “[Christ's] glory. . .full of grace and truth.” And to see Christ's glory, full of grace and truth is to see clearly the righteous path back to the Father. When we follow that path—with humility, in obedience; loving, forgiving, showing mercy all along the way—we grow closer to Christ and become more and more like Christ. But the only reason we can even begin to walk this path is because the Word of God, the Christ, became human like one of us; suffered and died like one of us; and rose from the tomb in order to show us how it's done. He had to go first, so that we might follow.

Today, Christ is born to the Virgin Mary. She is Theotókos, God-bearer, Mother of God Incarnate. And if you step onto the narrow way, the path of holiness, you too can bear Christ into the world; and not only bear him into the world, but become him for others in the world. Your words, deeds, thoughts can all reveal God's glory to the world just as Christ himself revealed God to us. When you leave this evening. . .when you go back out there. . .back to your Christmas mess. . .or someone else's mess. . .wherever you go. . .remember that this holy day celebrates the ultimate triumph of Light over darkness. . .and so, as you go, be “the true light, which enlightens everyone.” Be Christ!

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  1. I love that. I used to get so tired of the United Methodist Christmas is Jesus' Birthday Party thing.

    An Incarnation party. Yeah.

  2. God stepped outside of himself, in love.

    The thought makes my skin tingle!!

    Happy Christmas, Father!