Mary’s Many Titles: Their Origins and Implications, Part 1
Contemplating the virtues of the Lady Mary of Nazareth in the early 1800s, the renowned non-Catholic British poet, William Wordsworth, was moved to write:
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied.
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
This is but one example of how Christian spirituality abounds with loving appreciation for the humble, sinless maiden of Galilee, the divinely chosen mother of Jesus Christ. Mary, the mother bequeathed us by Jesus Himself as He died, is often affectionately addressed by maternal, devotional, or even regal titles when we implore her heavenly intercession — and of them there are a basketful.
These designations are derived from both Testaments and dogmatic reflection by the Fathers of the Church, along with later devotees. And let us not to forget the many areas where, over the centuries, the Virgin Mother has appeared on earth, always encouraging her children to aspire to greater heights of repentance, holiness, and love for her Son, who is also her Creator.
Pagans flatter their gods with many titles, supposing it will ensure their service. Catholics know that Mary — indeed, any saint in heaven — is beyond flattery since their glory is the glory of God who is all in all. We ask only for their intercession.
Many Marian titles are found in the Litany of Loreto, named for a small town on the east coast of Italy. This is the location of the Holy House, the home of the Holy Family in Nazareth, believed to have been transported there by angels in 1294. It has been an objective for pilgrims ever since. Reviewing this litany, composed there in praise of Mary, one becomes aware that Catholics do not use titles obsequiously but as catechetical tools, reminders of truths grounded in Scripture and taught by the Church.
“Mother of God” is the first and greatest title bestowed on Mary by those who love her. It arose from her humble acceptance of God’s will, agreeing to bring Him into the world as a baby in her womb. Indeed, St. Elizabeth was the first to address Mary by this title. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and substituting the Aramaic word Adonai (“Lord”) in place of YHWH, the Ineffable Name of God, she called out to her kinswoman, “Who am I to be honored by a visit from the mother of my Lord?” (Luke 1:43).
Sometimes misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, using the term “Mother of God” does not outrageously impute divinity to Mary. In context the title affirms the words of the Gospel: Mary, selected by the Father, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, truly bore the preexisting Son, united at conception to a human zygote in the germinal stage of development. In this way He became the Son of Mary (Luke 1:35). Carried for nine months in her womb before His birth, this human and divine baby was named Jesus at His circumcision (Matthew 1:25, Luke 2:21).
“Mother of God” translates the Greek word Theotokos (literally: “God-bearer”) conferred on Mary in 431 at the Council of Ephesus when it was decreed that while Jesus is one person, He possesses natures both human and divine. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the completeness of Christ’s two natures was reconfirmed. The Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary as the Mother of God, the Theotokos, each January 1. Related titles in the litany are “Mother of Christ” and “Mother of our Savior.”
Some may question the use of “Mother of our Creator,” thinking “Creator” is a title restricted to God the Father. However, referring to the Word — St. John’s designation for God the Son in eternity — we learn, “Through Him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through Him” (John 1:3). The Holy Trinity is Three Divine Persons working in unanimity as One God.
At the same time, it cannot be forgotten that all these titles depend upon Mary’s obedience. Upon accepting the divine will, Mary dubbed herself “the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) and repeated her acceptance of servitude to God, when she described herself to St. Elizabeth as “His lowly handmaid” (verse 48). In that same verse Mary joyfully predicted, “All generations shall call me blessed.” And so, across two millennia, she has been universally called “the Blessed Mother.”
Inspired by her chastity and virginal maternity, Mary is also “the Blessed Virgin.” Building on this, in the Loreto litany she is the “Holy Virgin of Virgins,” “Mother most pure,” “Mother most chaste,” “Mother inviolate,” “Mother undefiled,” and “Queen of Virgins.”
As the “Virgin most venerable,” Mary is admired, revered, and honored for making the courageous decision to become the “Cause of our joy.” Selected by God to become the mother of Jesus, the God-man, Mary is a “Spiritual Vessel,” a “Vessel of honor,” and the “Singular vessel of devotion.” The title “Ark of the Covenant” belongs to this grouping as well.
The original Ark of the Covenant, an acacia-wood box covered with gold and overshadowed by cherubim, was designed by God as the treasured repository of the Ten Commandments given to Moses, written by the hand of God. The Ark was the physical token of the unique, covenantal relationship existing between YHWH and the Children of Israel.
The Blessed Virgin, an Israelite beyond compare, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, became part of God’s design for a new relationship between Himself and all humanity. Within her womb reposed the Word of God who would proclaim a New Covenant. “Then the sanctuary of God in heaven was open, and the Ark of the Covenant could be seen within” (Revelation 11:19). In heaven, by dint of this comparison, Mary, mother of the Word made Flesh, will be seen as the real Ark of the Covenant.
She is the “Virgin most renowned,” due to the Church’s great veneration, called hyperdulia — a composite Greek word meaning “highest honor.” She is thus reverenced because of her Son, the focus of our prayers. A bumper sticker I once saw epitomizes this relationship quite well: “Whoever honors the Mother adores the Son.”
As an intercessor, Mary is the “Virgin most powerful,” the woman who knows Jesus best. In the Bible, the two Books of Kings tell how the Davidic monarchs of Judah relied on their mothers for advice and listened to their intercession. However many wives they might have had, only the king’s mother was honored with the title “queen.” It was based on the idea that a mother’s regard for the safety of her son was deeper than any particular wife’s admiration which may wax or wane.
This relationship is best exemplified in 1 Kings 2:19-20. When Bathsheba entered his court with an appeal, King Solomon rose to welcome his mother, caused a chair to be brought so she could sit in the place of honor at his right hand, and said, “My mother make your request, for I can refuse you nothing.”
See the deference Solomon showed Bathsheba? This is a potent sign of the singular relationship between Mary and Jesus. She is the “Virgin most merciful” for, when we take her our cares and concerns, she gladly, compassionately, and confidently intercedes for us at the throne of Jesus her Son.