On January 1, the Octave or eighth day of Christmas we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. This feast which can be traced back at least to the 7th C. was replaced by the Feast of the Solemnity of the Circumcision of Christ in the 13th C. Saint Pope Paul VI replaced the Feast of the Solemnity of the Circumcision of Christ with the more ancient feast of Mary, Mother of God.
Mary is known by many titles often evoking her role in Salvation history such as Queen of Heaven, her virtues such as Mother of Good Counsel, or referencing her apparitions such as Our Lady of Guadalupe. The oldest and most foundational title for Mary is Μητερ or Mother as found in Scripture. The oldest theological title is that of Θεοτοκος (Theotokos), Bearer of God or Mother of God.
Although the latter title is very common and perfectly accepted today it was not so from the beginning. This title likely was first used around the year 200 and became widely accepted by about the year 300, give or take some decades. At first, it seems to have been used for its poetic beauty without giving much thought to its theological implications. But as the title became more popular its theological significance was carefully studied and discussed.
In essence, two opposing positions developed. The first argued in favor of the title insisting that in Jesus, God became human thus Mary became the Mother of God. The opposing position disputed the title arguing that God who is eternal could not be born and thus the title of Mother of God made no sense.
Trying to reconcile both camps Archbishop Nestorius who became the Patriarch of Constantinople in 428 offered an alternative. Rather than Θεοτοκος (Theotokos) he suggested the use of the title of Χριστοτόκος (Christotokos) or Christ bearer, Mother of Christ.
The matter was discussed at the Council of Ephesus which Emperor Theodosius II called in 431 at the insistence of Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria and Pope Celestine of Rome. The Council affirmed the title of Theotokos, condemned and deposed Nestorius as Patriarch of Constantinople and sent him into exile. And ever since, Mary has been known as the Mother of God.
Since those early theological debates, Mary has been honored with many other titles. Just think of her titles in The Litany of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Litany of Loretto. This Litany was officially approved by Pope Sixtus V but predates this official recognition. Since its inception more titles have been added by successive popes, even until today. Since becoming Pope, Pope Francis has added three new titles to the Litany of Loretto: “Mater Misericordiae” or Mother of Mercy; “Mater Spei” or Mother of Hope; and “Solacium Imigrantium” or Solace of Migrants.
These many titles honor Mary and all her many virtues but the one title that is the foundation for them all is undoubtedly the title of Theotokos.
Mary, Mother of God, and Mother of the Church, pray for us.