Mary: The Promised Mother

The following is an excerpt from The Bible and the Virgin Mary

queen mother, mary mother of the church

All through the history of the Davidic kingdom, the Queen Mother occupied a place second only to the king. In Hebrew, she was called Gebirah, meaning “Great Lady.” Her duties included advising the king as no one else could and interceding for the people before the king. She also was a visible sign of the king’s legitimate rule. That’s because she wasn’t just the king’s mother, she was also the former king’s wife. Her motherhood of the king was a testimony to his descent from the previous king. 

When God established His covenant with David, He promised the young king that his kingdom would last forever. But, when the kingdom collapsed some 400 years later, it seemed as if God had gone back on his promise. But God’s promise was unconditional, and the Israelites believed the prophets who told of the day when the Kingdom of David would be restored. Those prophecies about the restoration of the kingdom, however, weren’t just about the future King. They were also about his mother—both Isaiah 7 and Micah 5 mention the mother of the Messiah. To the ancient Israelites that would have sounded very unusual. In the Bible (not to mention other ancient documents from the Near East) it is the father who figures prominently in any references to a son or a king. The mother is often not mentioned at all. 

Like Isaiah and Micah, however, the writers of the Gospel draw attention to Jesus’ mother, connecting both Him and her with the words of the prophets. For example, Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus Christ. 

And at the end of this genealogy we find Mary: “of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” Matthew’s words recall the words of Isaiah and Micah: It’s the mother who is emphasized. She is the one of whom the promised King is born. She is the Queen Mother foretold by the prophets. That point is reinforced by the other women on the list. Four women are named in Matthew’s genealogy, and the last of those women before Mary is Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon. She was the prototypical Queen Mother, just as Solomon was the prototypical son of David. 

Matthew takes up this idea of a royal mother in the second chapter of his Gospel. In that passage, we see three visitors who have traveled across the desert to see the newborn “king of the Jews.” When they arrive, they find “the child with Mary his mother.” Appropriately, these visitors come bearing gifts, much as the visitors to Solomon’s court would have: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold and spices were tributes regularly paid to Solomon by royal visitors. And the only other times in Scripture when myrrh and frankincense are mentioned together are in the Song of Solomon, when they are part of the pageantry of Solomon’s wedding day. 

Luke also depicts Mary as the Queen Mother. At the Annunciation in Luke 1:31-33, the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will give birth to a royal Son who will rule from the throne of David. A few verses later, Luke shows Elizabeth recognizing Mary as the Queen Mother. The title she uses—“mother of my Lord”— is full of queenly significance. In ancient Israel, the king was addressed as “my Lord”, which would make the Queen Mother the “mother of my Lord.” 

The final glimpse of the Queen Mother in the Bible comes in John’s Revelation, chapter 12, the famous symbolic vision of a woman. There we find Mary, the Queen Mother enthroned in heaven with her Son, the King. 

The image of Mary as Queen Mother is directly related to the first official Marian dogma defined by the Church: Mary’s status as Mother of God. The Greek word for the title is Theotokos, which literally means “God-bearer.” That title is one of the oldest and most commonly used titles for Mary, with Christians using it in the very first centuries of the Church. The title also appears in one of the oldest known Christian prayers, the Sub Tuum Praesidium (“Beneath Your Protection”), an early form of the Memorare that dates to the third century. 

The first Christians called Mary the “Mother of God” without hesitation. There was scriptural precedent, and it seemed logical. If Jesus was God, and Mary was his mother, then that made her the Mother of God.  

In the fifth century, however, some people raised the same objections to the title that many non-Catholics raise today: They argued that the title “Mother of God” implied that Mary was the “originator of God.” Those objectors said that they could accept the title “Mother of Christ,” but not “Mother of God.” At the heart of those objections, however, was an objection to the unity of Christ’s two natures. Mary, they claimed, gave birth only to Christ’s human nature, not his divine nature. The Church, led by Pope Celestine I and St. Cyril of Alexandria, disagreed. As St. Cyril pointed out, a mother gives birth to a person, not a nature. Accordingly, Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, who was and is a divine person. Although Mary did not “originate” or “generate” God, she did bear Him in her womb and give birth to Him. She was God’s mother. 

The controversy over Mary’s title as “Mother of God” was addressed in 431 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus. There, more was at stake than simply defending Mary’s title. Th e Christian teaching about Christ’s two natures was the real issue. Th e Church wanted to settle one question: Was Jesus one person or two? Rejecting the teaching of the heretic Nestorius, the Church declared that Jesus is one divine person, with two natures—his mother’s human nature and his Father’s divine nature. Mary did not give Jesus his divine nature or his divine personhood—those He possessed from all eternity as the only begotten Son of the Father. But she also didn’t just give Him His flesh: She gave birth to the whole person. She gave birth to Jesus Christ, both God and man. That is what we confess every time we say the Apostles’ Creed. 

Calling Mary “Mother of God” states a truth that must be stated in order to protect an essential truth about Christ. In a similar way, that’s what all Mary’s queenly predecessors did for their sons. One of the three essential tasks of the Queen Mother was to be a sign of her son’s legitimacy. She was the link between his father, the former rightful king, and her son, the present rightful king. Likewise, Mary as the virginal “Mother of God” is the link between her Son’s humanity and divinity. She is the sign that He is both God and man. 

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