Early church fathers (and mothers), along with the Protestant Reformers, saw Mary as a pivotal character in the drama of redemption. The hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem leads us to sing, “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray – Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” As Mary accepted God’s visitation to her and voiced her “Let it be” to God’s indwelling in her, we can think of her in a sense as the very first Christian.
By saying “Yes” to God, Mary metaphorically overturned the sin of the first woman in turning her back on God. Just as Eve had brought forth death by disobedience, Mary brought forth Life into the world through her obedience. As early as 180AD, Irenaeus wrote:
“Just as the former—that is, Eve—was seduced by the words of an angel so that she turned away from God by disobeying his word, so the latter—Mary—received the good news from an angel’s announcement in such a way as to give birth to God by obeying his word; and as the former was seduced so that she disobeyed God, the latter let herself be convinced to obey God, and so the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. And as the human race was subjected to death by a virgin, it was liberated by a Virgin; a virgin’s disobedience was thus counterbalanced by a Virgin’s obedience…” (Against Heresies., V, 19, 1).
Protestants often shudder at the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox practice of referring to Mary as the Mother of God, thinking that she is placed above God in some sense. There is some fault to be laid at the feet of Catholicism’s practice in this matter, but their phraseology is thoroughly orthodox, used even by the Reformers. While the Son of God is eternal, and Mary was created and sustained by the Son of God, yet there is truth in the phrase.
Jesus Christ is truly man, and truly God, in one person. Thus, referring to Mary in this way is a proclaimation primarily about Jesus – He is in fact one person, who is indeed fully God – fully God yet born of a woman. This is a profound mystery, and the language of “Mother of God” shocks us with the truth of the incarnation.
If Jesus Christ is indeed truly the eternal God, and truly man, then did Mary give birth to merely a man, or did she give birth to the GodMan? And if she gave birth to the GodMan, is it not true that she is the Theotokos – the bearer of God? This has been the opinion of every part of the church from the inception of Christianity.
And so as Jesus Christ has dignified human experience through His divine and human life, so has He dignified birth and motherhood. As Jesus is truly the Second Adam (Romans 5), so Mary may be thought of as a counter-Eve. Jesus came to “destroy the works of the Devil”, and starting with His very conception as Man He began to redeem all that is human. As Mary herself said,
“All generations will call me blessed.”