The Mother of God And Womanhood

Henry Karlson

The Augusta Pulcheria, accustomed to receiving communion in the sanctuary of the cathedral, was shocked when the newly appointed Patriarch, Nestorius, forbade her entry to receive as she normally did. It was Easter and the doors in front of the sanctuary were shut in front of her. What did this new upstart think he was doing? Who did he think he was to say that she, the sister of the Emperor and a major benefactor of the church, was forbidden entry to the sanctuary?

Nestorius wanted his notions of piety to be enforced. Just like in the temple, he believed that the sanctuary was to be only for clergy and men of rank like the emperor. Pulcheria thought too highly of herself. She had given gifts to the church, but many of them were not proper for a church to have. Why did she think her own robe should be used as an altar cloth? Why was her image put up for all to see? She should know her place. He thought the authority given to him by God was to be used to make sure the church was purified. All heretics were to be denounced. All those who were acting out of fashion would be corrected.

Pulcheria was not one to be trifled with. Instead of just going back and obeying the patriarch, she gave a response which she believed was backed by tradition: “Why? Haven’t I given birth to God?” Pulcheria, at this point a dedicated virgin, saw a link between herself and Christ’s mother. If a woman, if Mary, could give birth to God, why could women not enter the sanctuary? Pulcheria’s acclamation was to point to Mary, the Theotokos, the Birth-Giver of God, and to show that God had elevated women through her. If God elevated women, who was Nestorius to act as he did?

This was a foundation for one of the early doctrinal debate in Christian history. Nestorius rejected the term Theotokos, believing it was heresy to say God had been given birth by a woman. It is difficult to know whether or not he would have been so insistent on this point if he did not face the practical ramifications of the term in the person of Pulcheria. But the Augusta had made the point and a contest of wills ensued. Pulcheria was to have Nestorius’s teachings condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431 CE).

Christian theology, however strange the debates might be for outsiders, often developed out of the practices of the people. Here we see the vindication of the dignity of women as being a reason for and an end product of a doctrinal debate. The promotion of women in the church faced a great challenge, and if the Nestorian contention had succeeded, could have found itself lost in history. Pulcheria spoke of herself in the place of Mary, and through Mary, as everywoman. Jesus was born of a woman, and so motherhood was dignified and blessed by God. Because Mary was believed to be both virgin and mother, God not only blessed motherhood, raising the feminine principle, God also raised and dignified women who wanted to live in the world free from the burdens of marriage. One did not have to be married to be dignified, though marriage and motherhood had to be understood as goods one could accept. In the ancient world, where women often were dependent upon others for status, this was something new. The virgins, those who planned to live apart from marriage, needed help and were given it from fellow Christians. But that demonstrates how Christianity freed women from the burdens society had placed upon them.

For any humanistic enterprise to be promoted, the human condition must be accepted. This means gender is important. A rejection of the uniqueness of the masculine or the feminine is a rejection of what it means to be human. Nestorius would have turned Christianity way from its humanistic background. We see, in the present age, a similar denial by “radical feminists” who fear or hate motherhood. If we do not appreciate the gift of motherhood, how can we continue to exist? Can we really say we are respecting humanity when we deny the good of motherhood? Are we not telling women to hate themselves? How is that good? Let us, like Pulcheria, point to the universal feminine and say, “Who is to deny this?” If one is to promote women, the answer cannot be “me.”

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