Ars Praedicandi: Preaching Church History

I truly believe that preaching is not catechetics, and certainly not academic lecturing. But I am, in my day job, an academic, and I know some things about the history of doctrine. So for this year’s celebration of Mary, Mother of God, I am providing a bit of a capsule account of the 5th-century controversy over the title Theotokos, so as to give some sense of the significance of the doctrine. It also allowed me to make a few comments about the perils bishops run when they mess with the way that people pray. I am hoping that, if done with a light enough touch, it is possible to talk about the history of theology in a way that can both inform minds and move hearts.

Once upon a time, long, long ago,
in a land far from this one,
the people of the city of Constantinople,
in their private prayer and public liturgy,
sang praises to the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos,
a Greek term that literally means “the God-bearer,”
and which Latin-speaking Christians translate as
Mater Dei, Mother of God.
Their logic was fairly simple:
if Jesus is God from God and light from light,
as was proclaimed in the Creed they professed,
and if Mary is the mother of Jesus,
then Mary must be the Mother of God.
As one of their bishops,
St. John Chrysostom, put it:
“she is the Mother of God inasmuch as of her
God was born in human flesh….
she gave birth and became the mother of him
who before all eternity was begotten of the Father.”
To praise Mary as the Mother of God
was to praise the God
who in the incarnation
had drawn so near the human race
as to have a human mother,
just like the rest of us.

One day (April 10, 428 AD, to be exact)
the people of Constantinople got a new bishop,
a man named Nestorius,
and he was a person
of considerable theological sophistication.
Like a lot of theological sophisticates
he cast a somewhat jaundiced eye
upon the popular devotion of the common people,
and he found the practice
of praising Mary as God’s mother
to be at best irrational exuberance
and at worst a kind of thinly veiled paganism,
reminiscent of the old Greek religion
in which deities gave birth and were born,
the way that Ares was born to Zeus and Hera.
Bishop Nestorius’s real worry, however,
was not with the birth of Jesus,
but with what all this might imply
about the rest of his life.
If God could have a mother,
if God could undergo birth,
just like the rest of us,
could God also undergo hunger,
undergo grief,
undergo pain,
even undergo death,
just like the rest of us?
If Mary could be spoken of
as the Mother of God,
could not the cross be spoken of
as the suffering and death of God?
Shouldn’t there be some line drawn
to delimit just how close God has drawn to us
in the incarnation,
lest God become too involved
in the sorrows and worries of the world?
Bishop Nestorius thought it much more fitting,
much more theologically correct,
to refer to Mary as the mother of Christ,
meaning that she was the mother of the man Jesus,
but not of the divine Word that dwelled within him.

As often happens
when a new bishop comes to town
and tells everyone
that they have been doing things wrong,
particularly with regard to prayer and liturgy,
the people of Constantinople would have none of this.
They had called Mary “Mother of God” for years
and were not about to change
because of some bishop’s theological qualms.
Bishops from other cities were drawn into the controversy,
and even the Roman emperor
(who favored Nestorius’s views),
and, to make short a very long
and not particularly inspiring story—
involving meetings of bishops,
excommunications, exiles,
a lot of fairly technical theology
using terms like “hypostatic union”
and “communicatio idiomatum,”
as well as, alas, a lot of mutual recrimination—
ultimately the Council of Chalcedon, held in the year 451,
refuted what it called “Nestorius’s mad folly,”
and affirmed that the eternal divine Son,
who was, as we say in the Creed,
“born of the Father before all ages,”
as regards his divinity,
was also truly born “for us and for our salvation
from Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
as regards his humanity:
one and the same Christ.”

But on this feast day of Mary the Mother of God,
we can set aside for the moment the tangled history
and technical theology
and focus on what first inspired people
to give this title to Mary.
We should treasure the title “Mother of God,”
not primarily for what it says about Mary,
but for what it says about God.
It says that in the mystery of the incarnation,
the great act of God drawing near to us
so as to become Emmanuel, God with us,
we can truly say that God has a mother,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God cries in the crib
and grieves at the grave,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God rejoices with friends
and is beset by enemies,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God suffers human pain and humiliation and death,
just like the rest of us.

But we must say more than this.
As we stand at the turning point of the calendar year,
looking back at a year that has had its joys
but has also had its pain and disappointment,
looking forward to a year that we hope will be better
but fear may be worse,
we seek a God who not only stands in solidarity
with our joys and hopes, our griefs and anxieties,
but a God who comes into our midst to save and heal.
In the incarnation,
the great act of God drawing near to us,
we seek someone who will not just share our situation,
but who will change our situation.
We seek a savior.
The incarnation begins in the mystery
of the humility of God becoming just like us,
emptying himself and taking the form of a servant,
but it ends in the mystery
of our being lifted up to become like God,
what Paul in our second reading
calls our adoption as God’s children,
heirs with Christ to the glory of the eternal life of God,
a life beyond pain, beyond sorrow, beyond fear.

This mystery of salvation,
which ends in glory,
begins even now in grace.
It begins in the grace that transforms our lives,
the grace that consoles us in our grief
and calms us in our anxiety,
the grace that prompts and empowers us
to seek a more just and peaceful world,
the grace to resist all the forces
of injustice and dehumanization
that plague our world,
the grace that gives us signs of hope
and makes us signs of hope for others.

As we enter the ever-new season
of God’s favor toward us,
may the God who in Christ became just like us,
and who by his grace makes us to become like him,
through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God,
make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
may God look kindly upon us
and give us peace in this new year.


  1. Thank you for this lovely homily. It certainly informed this mind and moved this heart.

    Love also the way it is written — seemingly light yet not in any way less profound.

    (oh how I wish all academic papers, including dissertations, could be written thusly!)

    Happy new year~

  2. I might add, at a meta level, that dogma and ritual tend to elaborate more on points in dispute than points that are less disputed. For example, we bow at the point in the Creed that treats the Incarnation, not the Paschal Mystery – because the former was more disputed (and then some) than the latter. We should not let this elaboration blind us to what is less disputed.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      What’s your argument for claiming that the bow is there because of more dispute?

      In some of the Eastern Fathers the Incarnation is the act of redemption and salvation par excellence.

  3. Nestorius was indeed rejected for his “mad folly” at Chalcedon in 451, but the focus on Nestorius was surely at the Council of Ephesus twenty years earlier (ie 431) which convicted him of “thinking and preaching impiously” and declared “Our Lord Jesus Christ having been blasphemned by him, determines through the present most holy council that the same Nestorius is excluded from the dignity of the episcopate and from all participation oin the priestly fellowship.”
    True, Ephesus is somewhat controversial itself, having separate sessions for Cyril’s supports and opponents, but Cyril’s supporters ultimately won the day and had the support of the papal legates. Nestorius was exiled in 435 by the Emperor, from Antioch to the monastery of the Great Oasis of Hibis (in Cyril’s demesne) where it seems he survived raids by brigands until at least 450.
    I realise the OP wrote that Chalcedon “ultimately” rejected Nestorius, but he himself was pretty much a spent force by 435, as far as I know. You could, after all, even say that Nestorius was “ultimately” rejected by the Council of Florence in 1442. “[The holy Roman Church] anathematises Theodore of Mopsuestria and Nestorius …” So where do you draw the line? But I think one needs at least to mention Ephesus if talking about the history of Nestorius.
    Nice homily, though. I’d like to see more like it. Forgive my nit-picking.

    1. @Martin Wallace OP:
      I am totally down with nit-picking, particularly when it recognizes itself as such.

      I thought about mentioning Ephesus as the council where Nestorius got the axe, but decided that for catechetical/homiletic purposes it was Chalcedon that I wanted to lodge in thebrains of my listeners as the council associated with Christological doctrine (if anything, Chalcedon was a slight vindication of the Nestorian position—or at least a re-tilting of the balance). I suppose I can try to excuse myself by saying that Ephesus gets included in the homily under “meetings of bishops,” but at the end of the day I must plead guilty to gross over-simplification. The fifth century conciliar debates are immensely complicated, particularly when you figure in the ecclesiastical and imperial politics; preaching on the Council of Nicaea would be much easier. 😉

      Which does raise the interesting question of how much simplification—whether historical, doctrinal, or moral—can you engage in for homiletic purposes before you are committing homiletic malpractice? Augustine’s sermons contain tremendous theological depth and subtlety and are major sources for those who study his theology. But he wasn’t working within the constraints of the modern Catholic 8-12 minute homily (and I do wonder how much the average citizen of Hippo got out of his sermons—though they must have thrilled to the beauty of the language).

      I think getting theological subtlety into a short homily that is accessible to the people is a real challenge. I’ve always looked to the late Herbert McCabe, O.P., as a model. His sermons are short, delightful, and filled with theological nuance.

  4. OK, so after Mass this morning a parishioner come sup to me and says, “Shouldn’t you have mentioned the Council of Ephesus rather than Chalcedon.” Admittedly, she is a religious sister and a Classics professor, but still, it’s a good reminder not to underestimate your audience.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      Well, perhaps it vindicates your point, though. I mean, a lot of people would think of Ephesus when you mention Nestorius. Few would know that he came up again at Chalcedon, and if they know about Ephesus they would know that Chalcedon was mainly about Christology – and of course the title Theotokos is mainly a Christological rather than Mariological statement (if one can make the distinction.) So it is a good teaching point, perhaps especially for those like the sister and myself, who might have thought to mention Ephesus but not Chalcedon.
      Yes, I reckon Herbert McCabe is a brilliant preacher too. And, as I said about your homily, I’d like to see more like it.

  5. Too often history is presented as dull factoids or irrelevant curiosities. When we view and present history as a story – as you did – it can be exciting, informative, and inspirational. Thanks for this homily!

    1. @Cody Maynus:
      Perhaps. But in many of the homilies I’ve heard over the years – and probably in too many of the homilies I have preached – the historical dimension of a feast or mystery of the Faith is overlooked completely. I really can’t recall “dull factoids” at all; “irrelevant curiosities”, yes, I admit I’ve heard a few of those. Anyway, I think we agree it’s great to see the historical dimension in a homily, and to see it presented well.

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