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A “biological vessel” used by God? Or the Mother of God, chosen by God?

On the Readings for Sunday, January 1, 2023, The Octave Day of Christmas Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

Detail from "Theotokos of Vladimir" (c. 1100/Wikipedia)

Nm 6:22-27
Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Gal 4:4-7
Lk 2:16-21

“If anyone believes that holy Mary is not the mother of God (Theotokos), he has no share in the divine inheritance”, wrote the great fourth-century Archbishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “If anyone says that Christ passed through the virgin as through a tube but was not formed in her in both a divine and human manner, divine without the assistance of man, human in accordance with the law of pregnancies, he likewise is ungodly.” 

Those are strong words, and if I had heard them while still a Fundamentalist Protestant, I would have been scandalized. A close relative, also a Fundamentalist, once referred to Mary as a “biological vessel” used by God, and at one time I would have agreed. But now I joyfully confess the truth that Mary is indeed the Mother of God.

What changed my mind? Many things, including the study of Church history and the development of theology and doctrine, but mostly a deeper and better understanding of Scripture. 

The readings on this marvelous Solemnity are not, of course, presented as a defense of the Theotokos (literally, “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”). Rather, within the liturgical celebration, they are divine brushstrokes that together create and write an icon of the Blessed Mother. 

One of those brushstrokes is the word “bless”. It’s worth noting that the first reading heard on the first day of the civil calendar is about God’s blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you!” God desires to bless us during our time upon earth; he wishes to shine his face upon us, which means he extends an offer of intimate and holy communion. 

And how, in the fullness of time—as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians—did that blessing come about? Through another brushstroke, that of “birth”. God sent his Son, Paul explained, “born of a woman, born under the Law…” God blessed man by becoming man, and the blessing of the Incarnation was through the power of the Holy Spirit and the faith of Mary.

The birth of the Son of God, Paul declared, had a most incredible goal: “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The only Son of God by nature became man so men can become sons of God by another brushstroke, that of grace, which is God’s own divine life. This profound truth is condensed by Paul into a phrase that captures, in a most fundamental form, the saving work of the Trinity: “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” 

The Catechism expressed this Trinitarian work and Mary’s perfect cooperation with grace in this beautiful way: “Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time. For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men” (par 721).

This dwelling place among men has a particular abode, another brushstroke: “heart”. Mary, in pondering the birth of her Son, “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51). The heart, in Scripture, is not merely a place of emotions or feelings, but is the deepest, most intimate part of one’s being. Mary’s physical role has eternal meaning and value because of her faith, flowing from a heart completely given to God. “Even her maternal relationship would have done Mary no good”, wrote St. Augustine, “unless she had borne Christ more happily in her heart than in her flesh.” 

Mary, then, is not a tube or a biological vessel, but the Holy Mother of God. She is also the Mother of all believers and the Mother of the Church (cf, Catechism, 963, 975). Our response should be that of the shepherds, glorifying and praising God, for he has blessed us with grace, peace, and salvation.

(Note: This “Opening the Word” column was originally published in Our Sunday Visitor newspaper on January 1, 2012.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Mary is a mystery of the divinity, not simply God’s chosen “dwelling place”. She was prefigured from all eternity as Mother of God and of Christ’s Mystical Body. In a mysterious, meaning unfathomable way she required prefiguration as the one unique creature united by design not by substance to the Trinity.
    Mary’s Annunciation assent, tantamount to the reparation of Eve’s assent to Lucifer is the hallmark. The initiation of Man’s participation in the divinity through Christ her Son. Athanasius of Alexandria taught Christ was born from her, not that the divinity entered her womb. Enabling us to say Christ was conceived in her, born from her. Her flesh and blood becoming his as the conveyance of the real presence of the Divine Person Jesus in the Holy Eucharist [confirmed Ephesus].
    So what must the Church hold in respect to a trend at deification, and the title Co-Redemptrix? To which Pope Francis has legitimate concern. Clarification is exigent. From Leo XIII adding the title Co-Redemptrix, to the clarification by Pius X. That what Christ obtains for the Church as unique Redeemer De Condigno, she the new Eve does in a manner De Congruo. Christ by right, Mary by the grace of Christ.
    If I may add to Carl Olson’s entirely orthodox essay, it is sovereign to the great love the Divine Majesty, Christ has for his mother that she is so highly exalted.

    • Thank you, Carl, for this excellent article. It seems that some Protestants moved away from the original views of Luther and Calvin, who both acknowledged Mary as the Mother of God (though Calvin thought it best not to speak of her with this title). I am also grateful to Fr. Morello for his comments and his citation of St. Pius X on Mary’s merit de congruo. On the papal use of the title, Co-redemptrix, there seems to be some misinformation. This article by Inés San Martin claims that the Marian title, Co-redemptrix, is absent from papal teaching except in Leo XIII’s 1894 encyclical, “Iucunda Semper”.
      I should mention that the title appears in the English translation of the “Iucunda Semper” posted on the Vatican website, but it’s not there in the Latin. Leo XIII however, on July 18, 1885, did approve some laudes to Jesus and Mary with an indulgence of 100 days granted by the Congregation for Indulgences and Sacred Relics. In the Italian version of the praises to Mary, she is referred to as “coredemptrix of the world” (corredentrice del mondo). In the Latin version, she is referred to as the “mundo redimendo coadiutrix). Leo XIII approved both the Italian and Latin versions of the prayer (Acta Sanctae Sedis [ASS] 18 [1885] p. 93). There are, though, other papal approvals or uses of the title. During the pontificate of Pius X, the Holy See three times gave approval to prayers invoking Mary as co-redemptrix (cf. Acta Sanctae Sedis [ASS] 41 [1908], p. 409); Acta Apostolicae Sedis [AAS] 5 [1913], p. 364; AAS 6 [1914], pp. 108–109).

      Pius XI was the first pope to publicly use the title: once on November 30, 1933 (Discorsi di Pio XI, 2, p. 1013); again on March 23, 1934 (L’Osservatore Romano [OR] 25 March 1934, p. 1); and once again on April 28, 1935 (OR 29–30 April 1935 p. 1).

      John Paul II publicly used the title, Co-redemptrix, at least six times: General Audience, 10 December 1980 (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo [Inseg] II, III/2 [1980], p. 1646); General Audience 8 September 1982 (Inseg V/3 [1982], p. 404); Angelus Address 4 November, 1984 (Inseg VII/2 [1984], p. 1151); Discourse at World Youth Day 31 March 1985 (Inseg VIII/1 [1985], p. 889–890); Address to the Sick 24 March, 1990 (Inseg XIII/1 [1990], p. 743); Discourse of 6 October, 1991 (Inseg XIV/2 [1991], p. 756). Moreover, in a homily in Guayaquil, Ecuador on January 31, 1985, John Paul II spoke of the “co-redemptive role of Mary —el papel corredentor de María (Inseg VIII [1985], p. 319).which was translated as “Mary’s role as co-redemptrix” in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano March 11, 1985, p. 7. The Italian translation, though, is closer to the Spanish, viz., il ruolo corredentore di Maria.

      The title “Co-redemptrix” was not used in Vatican II because it was thought that it would be understood with difficulty by the separated brethren (e.g. the Protestants). The title, when properly understood, does not take anything away from Christ who is one divine-human Redeemer of the human race. The great Mariologist, Gabriele Roschini (1900-1977) understood the title Co-redemptrix this way: “The title Co-redemptrix of the human race means that the most holy Virgin cooperated with Christ in our reparation as Eve cooperated with Adam in our ruin” (Gabriele Maria Roschini, Who is Mary? A Marian Catechism, qu. 83). In the Italian original it reads: “Il titolo Corredentrice del genere umano significa che la Virgine SS. ha cooperato con Cristo alla nostra riparazione, come Eva aveva cooperato con Adamo alla nostra rovina.” Padre Gabriele Maria Roschini, Chi è Maria? Catechismo Mariano a cura di Carlo DiPietro (Pignola: Sursum Corda, 2017) domanda 83, p. 47).

      Fr. Ludwig Ott, in The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (London: Baronius Press, 2018) pages 229–230, offers this comment on the Marian title, Coredemptrix:
      “The title Coredemptrix = Coredemptress, which has been current since the fifteenth century, and which also appears in some official Church documents under Pius X (cf. AAS 6 [1914] 108), must not be conceived in the sense of an equation of the efficacy of Mary with the redemptive activity of Christ, the sole Redeemer of humanity (1 Tim. 2, 5).”

      Pope Francis, like Benedict XVI, believes it’s better to avoid the term. He did, though, state that “there is no salvation without the woman” (non c’è salvezza senza la donna) in his Jan. 1, 2020 homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

  2. The Immaculate Conception predestined this little Jewish maiden to conceive by the Holy Spirit and become the mother of the Incarnate God. Mary full of grace and her divine Son did not sin but shared a life of holy purity, poverty, sacrifice and prayer. How much she must have loved her divine Son and beloved God, all in one. But “the debt that He pays is the debt of the human race but He only pays it because He substitutes Himself, out of love, for all of us.” Blessed Catherine Emmerich writes:
    “I saw Him taking leave of His mother. I saw Mary’s grief. I saw Him upon the Mount of Olives and He said to me: ‘Dost thou wish to be treated better than Mary, the most pure, the most beloved of all creatures? What are thy sufferings compared to hers?” When the sword had pierced her soul of pure love; still, I think the Blessed Virgin loves the second person of the Blessed Trinity, and her Son, so deeply she would not want Him to share his title: Redeemer, Savior of the world. They say the martyrs approach the throne of Christ and place their crowns at His feet because He suffered more physically and innermost pain and torment than all of them together.

  3. Many years ago, while I was involved in my parish’s RCIA program, one of the catechumens asked me a simple question:

    “Why do we need Mary?”

    I gave him some answer, one probably intended to showcase my own highly scintillating brilliance rather than the simple truth.

    Anyway, I thought about the question afterwards and realized that I should have said:

    “Good question, Dave. So tell me, why did you need your mother?”

    It’s not complicated.

  4. Dear Carl:

    Happy New Year and God’s richest benedictions as you delve into the mysteries of the Lord to enlighten the CWR flock. Though we may tend to differ on some small points, you get the job done! The “Readings” you provide are a !blessing.

    Gal 4:4-7 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.[a] 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba,[b] Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

    Luke 2:19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

    In Galatians 4, it simply says born of a women. Where do we find the “immaculate Conception” in Holy scripture, we don’t. Where do we find Anne mentioned in the Bible? For such important considerations that are to accepted, it stands to reason that scripture would address matters. To presuppose a motif doesn’t necessarily make it so.

    In Luke 2 it says Mary pondered these matters. You and I ponder matters too, we are not perfect and scripture strongly suggests that Mary was not perfect either. God is perfect and the Virgin Birth of Jesus and His sinless perfection comes from the Holy Spirt, not from anything Mary did or was.

    Perhaps we should touch on the “Queen of Heaven” appellation!

    Jeremiah 7:18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger.

    Jeremiah 44:25 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: You and your wives have declared with your mouths, and have fulfilled it with your hands, saying, ‘We will surely perform our vows that we have made, to make offerings to the queen of heaven and to pour out drink offerings to her.’ Then confirm your vows and perform your vows!

    These two passages are a cautionary note from the Lord. Some will argue that Mary herself would not be comfortable with such a title. Let us hold Mary in high honour for her name will always be blessed. Let us be content to know that we are not privy to the mysteries of God. Let nothing be established before its appointed time.

    In the peace and majesty that is jesus Christ,


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