As this short series draws to an end, I hope it is clear that although Ephesus was technically about the use of the word ‘Theotokos’ it was about much more than that; it was about the whole question of the Incarnation and the nature of Jesus. The Docetists and Adoptionists had argued that Jesus was just a man upon whom the Spirit had descended and in whom the Spirit dwelt until the crucifixion; some of this eway of thinking can be traced in Islam’s ideas about Jesus.
Cyril, like his great predecessor, believed in theosis. Though now often misunderstood (there is information here on this blog) it was at the heart of Cyril’s theology, inherited from St. Athanasius. In principle, the Incarnation transformed human nature as a whole, the Word refashioning it in His own flesh. Cyril was following Athansius in holding that ‘The Word was made man so that we might be made God” (De Inc 54.3).
Participation in the Divine Life is the purpose of the sacraments; without the deifying power of the Word they are emptied of their power and we are lost in sin. ‘If you detach the life-giving Word of God from the mystical and true union with the body and separate them entirely, how can you prove that it is still life giving?‘ If the Word had not deified our flesh through the Incarnation by the Virgin Mary, then Christians could not become sons of God by adoption and thus participate in the Divine Life. In his Commentary on John [i:9] he wrote:
Those who have attained adoption as sons of God through faith in Christ are
baptized not into anything belonging to the created order but into the Holy Trinity
itself, through the mediation of the Word, who on the one hand joined what is
human to himself by means of the flesh that was united to him, and on the other
was joined by nature to him who had begotten him, since he was by nature God.
Thus what is servile [i.e. our humanity] rises up to the level of sonship through
participation in him who is Son in reality, called and, as it were, promoted to the
rank which the Son posses by nature. That is why we are called offspring of God
and are such, for we have experienced a rebirth by faith through the Spirit.
What was at stake in confessing Our Blessed Lady the Theotokos, was nothing less than the reality of our salvation:
Is it not wicked and shocking to try to take away from God the Word his birth
from a woman according to the flesh? For how could his body possibly give life to
us if it were not the very own body of him who is Life? And how could it be that
the “blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7) if it was in reality only that
of an ordinary man subject to sin? And how has “God the Father sent his Son born
of a woman, born subject to the law” (Gal 4:4)? Or how has “he condemned sin in
the flesh” (Rom 8:3)?
As always, devotion to Our Lady led towards her Son and our salvation. The sad thing about those Protestants who attack the Church for ‘bigging up’ Mary and think is somehow lessens the role of Christ, is that they get it precisely wrong. Our Lady may be the most blessed of human beings, but she simply facilitates the birth of the Saviour; her soul magnifies God. Of course, if you start with the odd idea that Catholics ‘worship’ Our Lady, you will end up in an odd place; and it is sad that some, however often they are shown it is not so, continue to repeat their own legend.
St. Cyril saw the truth with a clear eye; we have much to thank him for.
It is fitting to finish with this prayer of St. Cyril’s:
“O most holy Lady, Theotokos, light of my poor soul, my hope, my protection, my refuge, my comfort, and my joy! I thank you for having enabled me to be a partaker of the most pure Body and most precious Blood of your Son.
Enlighten the eyes of my heart, O Blessed One who carried the Source of Immortality.
O most tender and loving Mother of the merciful God; have mercy on me and grant me a repentant and contrite heart with humility of mind. Keep my thoughts from wandering into all kinds of distractions, and make me worthy always, even to my last breath, to receive the most pure Mysteries of Christ for the healing of my soul and body.
Give me tears of repentance and thanksgiving that I may sing of you and praise you all the days of my life, for you are ever-blessed and praised. Amen.”
It may well be that we have so far lost sight of the sense of the sacred that was with Cyril, that we can no longer enter into the world which he inhabited, but if we cannot, we shall not understand what motivated him, or why it mattered so much to him and his contemporaries. What was at stake was nothing less than the issue of our eternal salvation.
My gratitude to those of you who have expressed your appreciation of this series. There will be a hiatus as we approach the centenary of Fatima, and thereafter I shall return to this topic with an examination of the Christological controversy which led to the split at Chalcedon in 451.