Natures, Persons, and Mary, Mother of God

Proper catechesis on our holy days of obligation would benefit many

The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, is poorly understood by contemporary Catholics. It doesn’t, in that regard, differ from many of our other holydays of obligation, the significance of only one of which — Christmas — is arguably at least somewhat well grasped.

Consider the others. There are still plenty of Catholics who think the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus’ virginal conception by Mary, not Mary’s own conception. The Ascension? Okay, Jesus said goodbye. All Saints Day? Our most “democratic” vision of heaven, celebrating everybody who made it (with some universalistic undertones that includes everybody). But is that enough in 2024 to interrupt our TGIFs with a Friday night Mass, since our pastorally unaccommodating bishops haven’t dispensed Friday holyday obligations? The Assumption? Well, Mary went to heaven. Nice, but what’s in it for me — and, without that, is it worth interrupting a nice summer beach day?

You get the picture.

I have long been concerned that Catholic holyday of obligation praxis in the United States is catechetically illiterate. To the degree that nominal Catholics have not given themselves dispensations from the obligation to participate in Mass (and not just on Saturdays and Mondays), many arguably still attend purely out of a canonical duty: “the Church says to go to Mass that day.”

Obedience is a virtue. Trusting obedience is blessed. But simple blind obedience is not, and I fear that is what underlies how many still observe these holy days.

Not only does that not have to be the case but, in fact, there’s a lot that a proper catechesis of these feasts can speak to us in our world today.

Take the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. At its most basic, some Catholics will say, “OK, so we believe Mary is Mother of God, since she was Mother of Jesus and Jesus was God.” Okay…

Some priests might try to explain the feast in their homilies by mentioning — more or less explicitly — the Council of Ephesus and its teaching about Mary as Theotokos, “God-bearer.” They might even mention that Mary is mother of Jesus in His human nature. But since there are no “natures” walking around, only persons with a given nature, and since Jesus is one person with human and divine natures, Mary is Mother not just of “Jesus the human nature” but of the person Jesus Christ, who also “happens” to be God. So, she is Mother of God. Again fine, except that — outside of Mass — we don’t talk about “natures” and “persons.”

Which is too bad, because it means we lose valuable concepts to address contemporary dilemmas.

Our culture, having lost the concept of human “nature,” seems to think that each individual person is his own unique nature. The upshot is that we don’t assume there is a natural, common substratum that binds human beings together, establishing a certain anthropological and ethical floor of human expectations. Instead, we all nurture a kind of modified sense of Anthony Kennedy’s false fantasies about “liberty” as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” At least when it comes to sex. If there’s no common human nature to provide an objective criterion against which to measure those concepts, was Kennedy really so off-base?

On the other hand, if there’s no common human nature, on what basis am I compelled to submit to claims about my “equality” with my fellow human beings or, even less so, to take seriously hyperventilated calls for “equity?” Absent a common human nature, I am what helicopter parents and the Pretenders assure me: “There’s nobody else here, no one like me/I’m special (special), so special (special)!” After all, it’s “intention, I feel inventive.”

So, is there a human nature? Is there something objective and normative about it? And, if there is, what’s its relationship to the person?

The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, gives us the Christian (and human, since “nature” is — well, natural — not a supernatural revelation) answer to those questions. And those questions, in turn, answer lots of modern questions. Questions like:

If I destroy my natural human capacity to give life, is that just suppression of some “biological rhythm” or is it, in fact, a love-lacking attack on the person, whom I refuse to love in the fulness of his (or, more often, her) being until outfitted with optional extras?

Is my sexual differentiation just a biological and evolutionary accident of the dread “gender binary,” manipulable/correctable at will, or is it part of the natural embodied reality of being human, so that its destruction is a love-lacking attack on the person?

Is my incarnation in a human body, through whose nature my person expresses himself, a wholistic understanding of what a human being is, or is that body just an attachment, sub-personal to “me,” for my manipulation/disposal at will?

Those three questions show that the nature/person relationship, which is indivisibly essential to understanding Mary as “Mother of God,” is also absolutely essential to answering fundamental anthropological questions that plague human beings today. Without the correct answers to those questions, there are elements in the prayers for the Solemnity that make no sense. The Collect speaks of Mary’s “fruitful virginity,” the Preface of her “glorious virginity.” Does either term make sense to a world in which virginity is at best a “choice,” at worst a choice of the repressed or for losers? The very pro-life Collect also speaks of Mary’s “fruitful virginity” giving us the “Author of Life,” but do we really believe God is that Author when we depersonalize fertility? It is then as dishonest as our weekly profession of faith in God as “Lord and Giver of Life.”

Similar extrapolations of anthropological applicability can be drawn, for example, from the doctrinal content of other holydays. Mary’s Assumption, far from being a nice but ultimately personal “benefit,” speaks to the unity of human body and soul in the post-Easter order of redemption, with both moral implications for how we treat that body and eschatological significance for all of us.

So, instead of reducing our holydays to ill-understood occasions to check a box on Mass attendance (provided it has not been clerically dispensed by canonical fiat), perhaps we need to get to the hard work of explaining just why those feasts were considered in the first place so important “for us and for our salvation.”

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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