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May is the month of Our Lady for Catholics. To the poorly-educated, the prejudiced and the ignorant, this will raise the issue of Catholics ‘worshipping’ her, so it is as well to say at the outset, that this is nonsense. Catholics, like all Christians, worship only God. To say that a Catholic ‘worships’ Our Lady by kissing a statue of her, would be like claiming a Protestant ‘worshipped’ the Bible by kissing it. It is the sort of pernicious sectarian tosh that has no place in Christian dialogue.

For as long as we can look back, Christians have had a veneration for Our Lady. One of the most popular non-canonical texts was the so-called Evangelion of St James, which dates to the mid or late second century, and shows that by then, the intense interest in her was being satisfied by a steady supply of imaginative literature. Nor is this surprising. Last week we looked at St Cyril of Alexandria, who had a particular devotion to Our Lady. If its origin is unclear,its depth is not. Any attempt to deny that St. Mary was the Mother of God cast doubt on the source and fact of our salvation. Cyril agreed with St. Gregory Nazianzus that what was not assumed cannot be healed.

If Christ was not both fully divine and fully human, he wrote:

 we have no longer been redeemed by God (how could we have been?) but rather by the blood of someone else. Some man or other, an impostor and a falsely-named son, has died for us. The great and venerable mystery of the incarnation of the Only Begotten has turned out to be only words and lies, for he never really became man after all. We certainly could not regard him as our Saviour who gave his blood for us, we would have to attribute this to that man.

When it came to his ears that the new Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, was denying St. Mary the title of ‘Theotokos’ (God-bearer), he was alarmed.

Our opponents have chosen to hold and teach that the Only Begotten Word of God assumed a man of the line of the divine David and Abraham, and took care to form him in the holy virgin, then conjoined himself to him, made him come to the trial of death, raised him from the dead, took him up to heaven, and seated him at the right hand of God. But if this is the case then it seems to me that the holy Fathers and all the God-inspired scriptures, and we ourselves, are speaking in vain whenever we say that he became man. Nonetheless I think that it is exactly this, and nothing else, that the all-wise John meant when he wrote: “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14).

‘Thetokos’ was popularly translated as ‘Mother of God’. The laity had long used this appellation for the Blessed Virgin. Long before any theologian pronounced, the consensus of the faithful was orthodox – the Blessed Virgin was the Mother of Our Lord and Saviour, and since He was the God-Man (Theandros) she was the Theotokos. Popular opinion in Constantinople was outraged at any attempt to deny this; so was Cyril. In his paschal letter of Easter 429, St. Cyril affirmed the reality of the humanity of Christ and insisted on the unity of His Divine Person in terms quoted above. He composed his ‘Letter to the Monks‘ in which he founded his belief in the unity of God in his understanding of the position of Our Lady:

I was completely amazed that certain people should be in any doubt as to whether the holy virgin ought to be called the Mother of God or not. For if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, then how is the holy virgin who bore him not the Mother of God? The divine disciples handed on this faith to us even if they did not make mention of the term. We have been taught to think this way by the holy Fathers. Our Father Athanasius … composed a book for us concerning the holy and consubstantial trinity where, throughout the third discourse, he calls the holy virgin the Mother of God… the exact words are these: ‘This, then, is the purpose and essential meaning of the divine scripture, as we have said many times, that it contains a two-fold statement about the Saviour; firstly that he is eternally God,and that he is the Son being the Word, the Radiance, and the Wisdom of the Father, and secondly that later for our sake he took flesh from the virgin Mary the Mother of God and so became man’ (Contra Arianos 3.29).

At Ephesus in 432, St Cyril fought Nestorius to ensure that the correct understanding of the place of Our Lady in our salvation was enshrined in Christian doctrine. At the beginning of the month when we celebrate her, it seems respectful to remind ourselves of what St Cyril said and to honour his devotion. This is the first in a short series examining the Council of Ephesus.