Fr. Mitch Pacwa's Homily for the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome
There are four major basilicas in Rome. One of them is that of St. Mary Major. It was dedicated in August of 431 AD. And it would seem odd that of all the churches, I do not think we celebrate the dedication of St. Peters or St. Paul, but we celebrate this one. And the reason has to do with what motivated them to found this church–the 1st church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. It goes back–think about the year, 431. Christianity had been legalized not even 120 years by the Roman Empire.
Even during the life of Constantine and in the years following there was a lot of controversy about who Jesus Christ is. This is something that was a problem in the earliest church. St. Paul in writing to the Galatians condemns them for having chosen a Christ different from the one he had preached. In 2nd Corinthians 11, he speaks about people coming to preach another Christ, another spirit, and another Gospel. This is an explicit warning in that chapter. St. John, in his epistles, is warning about those who preach a different Jesus and he calls them ‘Antichrists’. This was a problem for this reason: a number of different folks already had their own background, sometimes in Judaism, sometimes in Greek ways of thought. And what they would do is have Christ fit their understanding. They would have Jesus reduced to what they could comprehend. This was still going on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Sadly, it still goes on in modern times, even among some Catholics.
There are some who come up with a different Jesus than the Jesus Christ of the Gospels; one who fits their mentality. Yesterday, on my Scripture and Tradition show, I spoke about how you had a number of rationalistic philosophers making Jesus into a nice guy who just did these things that people thought were miracles but weren’t, like multiplying the loaves and fish, but that he was really a philosopher like themselves–this was a common pattern.
The sequence of things coming up to the founding of the Church of St. Mary Major is: you had Sibelius in the 3rd century who said, “well, Jesus is the Father and he is the Son and he is the Holy Spirit–he is all three persons–just different ways of looking at him at different times.” That way you had just one God and one person, and three molds. Arius said, “well, that’s not right.” It was not, but the heresy still exists today and it is flourishing again. Then Arius said, “he is not God, only God the Father is God, and Jesus is just an angel–a great angel–the greatest creature, but he is just a creature. And he took on human flesh.” That teaching is also around. Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-to-door teaching that.
Another reaction against that came up from a bishop–while he was a Deacon he started thinking this. Bishop Photinus came up and said, “that is not right either.” So he taught that you only have this one creature who, by his sufferings, earned becoming divine. He suffered so much and did so much good he earned the right to be God, but he is just the son of man and he is not God.
Now we see in the generation after him and a reaction to him, the patriarch of Constantinople, named Nestorius. And he said that Jesus is God but he took on this human nature and Mary can not be called the Mother of God. Nestorius taught you don’t call her the Mother of God. She is the one who bears Christ. Instead of Theotokos you can call her ‘Christotokos’; one who bears Christ, or bears his humanity: ‘Anthropotokos’; she bore the humanity of Jesus–this also still exists.
So this Photinus doctrine that Jesus was adopted by God and became divine by his good deeds–that is still around–this is something that goes on. As Nestorius forbade people to use the title ‘Mother of God’, he was doing more than criticizing the Blessed Mother–that was not what was at stake. What is key to understand about these heresies: they fit Christ into our concept. What they do is they destroy Christ as the authentic redeemer by God’s revelation of His concept.
What does God reveal to us about Christ? What does Christ reveal about himself? He says explicitly that “before Abraham came to be, I AM” (in John 8). He uses that as a name for himself a number of times in the Gospel of St. John.
It also appears at other times, when he walks on the water, why is that significant? Because in the Old Testament only God walks on water. In the Psalms and in Isaiah, only God walks on the waves of the ocean. So when Christ does something that only God does and then the Apostles are scared out of their minds he says, “fear not, I AM.”
He is claiming to be God. This is not a god, this is not a creature, this is the Lord God who reveals himself at Sinai, because in Exodus 3, that is God’s name, I AM. Christ claims that for Himself as He does what only God does.
We see over and over again, He does what God does but He also is the son of man. He really is fully human. He is truly born of the Virgin Mary. So he is not only the Son of God–that is the way some heresies go; he is only God and he just put on a human clothing, he put on humanity like a garment, but not real. Or they say he is only a creature, he is not really God. These are the two main lines, and it is important to see.
This is an image that helps my mind: think of these as two rails of a train track. If either rail is missing, you make a wreck out of your faith. You can’t get rid of Christ’s humanity. You can’t get rid of his divinity. Either way makes a train wreck of your Christian life, because our salvation, as God has set up the means of salvation, according to Infinite Mercy and at the same moment, Infinite Justice. For the Infinite Justice, a human has to redeem the human race, because it is humanity that sinned, from Adam forward, and the rest of us join right in and we need our sins forgiven by one of us but none of us have the capacity to fulfill the offense against God and it is only God, infinite God, who can make up for the infinite offense to God that our sins are.
In reality, it is Christ who truly unites human nature and divine nature. This is where this doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, the Mother of God, the bearer of God comes in, because she is not the source of his divine nature–that’s what Nestorius thought was meant. He perceived it through the lens of thinking, “you are calling her powerful goddess as yourself, you’re making her a goddess, you are saying she is the one that created his divinity.” No.
As a matter of fact, no one creates divinity. Divinity is completely uncreated and that is what it means to be God. His divinity is never made by anybody else. That is where the creation buck stops: with God. God only is uncreated. It is not saying that the Blessed Mother creates Our Lord’s divinity, but what it is saying is that God truly became flesh. In fact, the Angel Gabriel said, this is why He will be called the Son of God–at the moment of The Annunciation, he says that about the son she would bear; He would sit on the throne of his father David because she is from the family of David. So he is human from the family of David–a family of big sinners. And he is also the Son of God. That is in the message of the Angel Gabriel to Our Lady at The Annunciation.
When you are a mother you are not the mother of a nature. You do not give birth–aww, my new little human nature–the baby you give birth to is a human being with a human nature, but you do not say, “I want to introduce you to my little human nature–I want you to meet Johnny, or Janie, or whatever the child is, because it is a person.” That is the exciting part of what a mother brings forth: she gives birth to a person–and this is what Nestorius was missing; the person of Jesus Christ is a divine person. Because Nestorius could not see that human nature and divine nature really are joined in this union, called the ‘hypostatic union’, if you want to use technical terms–because he could not see that they are really joined natures, he separated the natures, and that again becomes a problem for The Redemption; it is God truly made flesh, God’s nature united with the human nature. But Nestorius said, “no, he has to have a second person, a human person inside himself as well as a divine person.” And the Church said “no!”
They met at a council in the city of Ephesus. At the council, St. Cyril of Alexandria presided. He was the patriarch of Alexandria. He is dealing with the patriarch of Constantinople as an equal. And they made it clear that Christ is a divine person, He does not have an extra personality, He is not going to have the divine person talking to his human person and introducing each other–this would be schizophrenic. It is one divine person but two truly distinct natures, united–not mixed together–not a hybrid, but truly united in His person.
And, like any mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the mother of a person. And so, by saying that she is the Mother of God; this is a way to point out that the divine person, with the human nature and divine nature, is the son of Mary–He is the one she bore. And that is what ‘Theotokos’ means: she bore God–He truly is God. It’s an emphasis on who Jesus Christ is, and this also must be our own emphasis.
I tragically hear in movies and TV sometimes, people saying, “Mother of God” as sort of, not a prayer or a title, but just like that “oh no,” kind of thing. Why are they using this term of Our Lady? It is a great title of hers. We do not toss it around.
And the Church responded, as a matter of fact, after the council, made this proclamation, it was not just theologians who were saying we figured this out. The people of Ephesus who were Christian were so excited they had a procession from the Church where they held the council all through the city. Ephesus was a great city, I’ve been there, you can walk through and see what a large and beautiful city it had once been. This procession went from the Church where the council was held, and if you go to Ephesus, when you come to the end of the area where the ancient city is–the ancient ruins–it ends up at the ruins of that church–this is where the council took place. And what is important is that it was a church dedicated to Our Lady; it was a church dedicated to the Mother of God. And the people of Ephesus were super excited that this ancient title of hers is maintained, and that the truth about Christ is maintained.
And when the council decrees were sent to Rome, the Pope then not only signed it and confirmed it, but he also ordered the building of St. Mary Major as a celebration of this doctrine about Christ and Our Lady. This is why we celebrate it; it is about understanding Jesus, it is about understanding his divinity and his humanity, and the fact that he is born of the Virgin Mary, and she really is the Mother of God, but also a mother to us.
This is what we are celebrating today: not only the beautiful church building. And in that way, when the woman cried, “blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that nursed you,” and the Lord responds, “blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” Remember, that was the benediction that Elizabeth gave Our Lady at The Visitation; “blessed is she who believed the word of God and did it.”
Now, in the celebrating of this feast, we join with God in accepting God’s benediction to us, that we hear the word of God and we believe it and we do it.