The title Mother of God (Greek theotokos), is limited by definition. No one gave birth to God, but the title is true, as it defines Mary as the one who gave birth to the incarnate Son of God. It is a remarkable role Mary was called on to play, unbelievable in some ways, with which Mary had to come to terms before she gave birth to Jesus and even after giving birth to him. How could a young woman—we might even call her a girl—be called upon to give birth to the savior of the world?
The incarnation is nothing if not the means by which God came to humanity in order to raise us up to God. And when God came down to humanity, it was in order to live among us as a human being and to share with us in human life from beginning to end. Divinity taking on human nature changes our knowledge of who we are and of our eternal destiny, and it allows us to understand God’s nature more fully; but this does not mean that understanding God, ourselves or our role in the divine drama is simple.
Mary was visited by shepherds, Luke tells us, most likely boys who had the cold night watch with their sheep, protecting them from danger. The shepherds had received a visitation from an angel, who told them, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:11) and explained to them where to find the child. So the shepherd boys ran to Mary and Joseph and told them what they had heard.
It seems that there were more people than just Mary and Joseph present, for we are told that “all who heard it were ‘amazed’ at what the shepherds told them.” Mary, however, was more than amazed, for she was the mother of this infant, a wondrous thing in itself. Mary, in fact, “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” This was not just an encounter with divinity, as it was for the shepherds, for this was Mary’s infant son, whom she had carried in her womb, the son she would nurse and raise.
The Greek word used here means to “hold, or treasure (in one’s memory),” but it could also mean to “keep in mind, or be concerned about” or even “to protect, defend against harm or ruin.” The word translated “ponder” means “consider, ponder, draw conclusions about.” What Mary is treasuring and pondering seems especially to be the rhêmata, which could be translated as “words” or “things” or “events.” All of these Greek words indicate that Mary was coming to terms not just with what had happened, or what she had been told, but what was still to happen.
It does not mean she understood all of these words or events, for when the 12-year-old Jesus was found in the Temple after three days and asked his frazzled parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49), Mary and Joseph “did not understand what he said to them” (Lk 2:50).
Did Mary understand what it meant that her son was Messiah, the Lord? Did she understand the way in which Jesus was the Son of God? Did she know how Jesus would die and understand the significance of it? Whether she understood immediately or not, she kept faith with God and that meant raising her son, taking him to be circumcised on the eighth day like every Jewish infant boy, teaching him Torah, feeding and caring for him. We can accept God’s ways and even be major players in God’s plan, but this does not mean that we understand all the ways of God. This is precisely the role of faith.
God’s ways are revealed in time and in the development of tradition. Because Mary became the Mother of God, the Son of God was born among us. And it is through Jesus that we are adopted into God’s family. The apostle Paul tells us: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” By becoming Mother of God she allowed us all to become children of God, sons and daughters crying out “Abba! Father!”