Since tomorrow is the Solemnity of Mary, The Holy Mother of God, and a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics (in the Western lung of the Church), todays post is dedicated to this important dogma in the life of the Church. If you can’t make it to Holy Mass on January 1, I would suggest attending a Vigil Mass (Mass of Anticipation) tonight.
Out of all of the titles for our Blessed Mother, Theotokos – the God-Bearer, has to be my all time favorite. The title became my favorite after taking the course, Mary in the Modern World at Franciscan during graduate school. The summer after this class, I wrote a paper on the Council of Ephesus in my Historical Foundations course to help me understand the importance of the Theotokos in light of the actions at the council. Below are excerpts from my paper titled – The Council of Ephesus: A Dogma Defined.
In 431, the Council of Ephesus was called just 50 years after the Council of Constantinople. The great Church Fathers who were alive and explaining truth to the Church had passed on to the heavenly kingdom. By this time, St. Jerome had completed his translation of the Sacred Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. St. Augustine was invited, but word had not reached the east that he had died the previous August. The Cappodocian Gregory’s were both deceased and St. John Chrysostom died a saint in exile.
St. Cyril of Alexandria was the ‘man of the hour ‘ at Ephesus. Before the Council of Ephesus was called, he wrote a series of letters back-and-forth with Nestorius regarding the claims he had made against the Blessed Virgin Mary, and essentially Jesus Christ. When one speaks false teachings about Mary, the Mother of God it often leads to false teachings about Jesus as well.
From the Antioch school and standing against St. Cyril was Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus. He was a student with Nestorius and his close personal friend. He traveled to the council with John of Antioch, but his greatest work was before and after the council where he wrote against Cyril. He was considered the best theologian in the Antiochian camp and the strongest to stand against Cyril. In 433 when the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria contracted peace, Theodoret was a holdout because of his loyalty to Nestorius.
Nestorius, the reason behind the calling of the council chose not to reject the council. By 431, he was 50 years old. He was educated in Antioch and was a monk well known for his great preaching ability. Because of his great skills as an orator, he was chosen to be bishop of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II in 428. Because the people of Cyzisus wanted a less educated and simple bishop, Nestorius was “entering shark-infested waters.”
Another major figure was John Cassian. He was a great author who lived as a monk in Egypt, he was ordained by St. John Chrysostom, and he is often considered the father of monasticism in France. John Cassian wrote several important works against Nestorius right before the council began from works he received from the Pope.
Pope St. Celestine I did not attend the council in person, but sent three papal delegates who presented him personally. His thoughts were influential in the final outcomes of the council. The Pope asked Cyril to hold to moderation and to try and bring conversion to the heart of Nestorius.
After being raised to the office of Bishop, Nestorius wrote a series of letters to the Pope. In one of these letters, he speaks how the people don’t properly understand the great mystery that Christ is equally God and man. He says that the people think the humanity of Christ was divine. He continues to say that the people think that God was born, God was buried, and profess that the Mary, the ever virgin, as bringing God forth – she is the Mother of God, the Greek term- Theotokos. Nestorius argued that the Blessed Virgin should really be called – Christotokos – the one who brought forth Christ, the mother of Christ. He adamantly declared that she is not Theotokos.
To say it mildly, his teachings arose major conflicts between his clergy and the people. In his sermons, he spoke of how the word, Theotokos, was not to be used and that anyone who refused to be obedient to his authority would suffer the consequences. Nestorius’ biggest mistake was that he chose to publicly declare his doctrines among the people. In his book, The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils 325-1870, Philip Hughes says, “Nestorius chose to do it in sermons to the multitudes that filled his cathedral, and not in terms of learned, anxious speculation, but in blood-and-thunder denunciation of universally practiced piety.” The people whom he spoke to may not have clearly understood all the doctrinal errors he was preaching, but once he declared that Mary was not the Theotokos – the people knew he was heretical.
As Nestorius was prophesying his false doctrine, Cyril of Alexandria caught wind of it and engaged him in a series of correspondence. The letters that went back and forth did nothing to change the mind of Nestorius and actually led to some serious malcontent between the two men. After minor gatherings in the both the West and the East did nothing to remedy the false doctrine that clearly attacked Jesus Christ and his Blessed Mother, it was decided upon to have a council in the city of Ephesus.
On Pentecost Sunday 431, the Council of Ephesus began. Without the papal delegates (the Pope sent three who were in route) and with some of the bishops not in attendance, Cyril opened the Council of Ephesus in the Church of St. Mary, where he assumed the executive position. It’s not known if he took this authority on his own. Also in Ephesus, Nestorius and his cohorts protested the council, left the gathering, and met in a “anticouncil.”
Since Nestorius was not in the chamber, he was sent for three times – as the law requires. Not adhering to the council’s request, they began to hear the case against him. Following this, the reading of the Nicaea Creed was read and then the letter from Cyril to Nestorius. After his letter was the read, the bishops gathered in the assembly, concurred, and then cheered that Cyril’s letter and the Nicaea Creed were of the same theology. The letter that was read to the bishops declares that the patriarch of Constantinople erred in his teachings. Cyril’s letter declares,
“The holy Fathers do not hesitate to call the holy Virgin Theotokos, not in the sense that the divine nature of the Word took its origin from the holy Virgin, but in the sense that he took his holy body, gifted with a rational soul, from her. Yet, because the Word is hypostatically united to this body, one can say that he was truly born according to the flesh.”
There was a request that Nestorius’ letter be read among the assembly of bishops as well. After his letter was read, it was condemned unanimously. Nestorius was excommunicated and he was unseated from his position as Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius was branded as “the new Judas.”
As the bishops returned to their lodging for the night on June 22, the faithful of Ephesus gathered and passionately supported the bishop’s decision to excommunicate Nestorius and to show their love for the Blessed Mother by shouting, “Hagia Maria Theotokos” and “Praised be the Theotokos.”
Even though this council had rather irregular procedures and would not be fully complete until the summer months, after the papal delegates arrived and the Emperor placed both Cyril and Nestorius in jail, the Church allowed the statements and doctrinal declarations to stand. The “anticouncil” where Nestorius and his supporters met also excommunicated Cyril and the other bishops who showed allegiance to him.
In the long run, this council was out of sorts, however it concluded with three positive actions –
1. The council succeeded to define the Dogma of the Theotokos
2. The two natures of Christ cannot be separated but united in one Divine Person.
3. The council not only clearly defined Christology, but also defined an important step in Mariology.
In the year 433, the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools reunited under the Edict of Union – also, Symbol of Ephesus. John of Antioch accepted the term – Theotokos– and dropped the terms used by Nestorius. St. Cyril of Alexandria embraced their return with great enthusiasm since they now professed the one true faith declared in the Niceae-Constantinople Creed.