Maestro Daddesco, 'Annunciation in an Initial M,' ca. 1310–15 (Robert Lehman Collection, 1975/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In seven years, the Church will celebrate the 1,600-year anniversary of the Council of Ephesus, the third of seven great ecumenical councils common to East and West. The Council came at a time of civil and ecclesial unrest. Rome had been sacked in 410; in 430, St Augustine died as Vandals besieged the walls of Hippo. The controversies of the previous century over Christ and the Trinity were more or less settled. As ever, however, settled business begets more business. The answers to one set of questions generate new questions.

One of those new questions concerned the mother of Jesus. If Jesus is God, as the bishops at both Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) had affirmed, then what does that make Mary? In her song of praise to God, she had prophesied that all generations would call her blessed. At the same moment, St. Elizabeth called her “the mother of my Lord.” So Jesus is the Lord, and Mary is his mother. Does saying so settle the question? It doesn’t—though some future theologians, such as John Calvin, wished it had. Among the faithful, a title arose for Mary: “Theotokos.” The verbal root of the Greek tokos means “to bear.” Hence Theotokos refers to the God-bearer: Mary is the one who bore God in her womb.

Could a woman really do that? Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, argued the negative case. Mary, he acknowledged, was the mother of the man Jesus and thus the mother of the Messiah. But she could not have been the mother of God himself, for God has no mother. God is uncreated, and it is unseemly and misleading to say otherwise. St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, disagreed. If Jesus is God and Mary his mother, then it follows quite plainly that she is the mother of God. Qualify it as much as you like—say, for example, that Jesus is God in the flesh—but the title stands. As does the scandal. For the scandal of the Theotokos is the scandal of the Gospel itself. The good news of Jesus is that his name is Immanuel: God with us. The Incarnation trips up the world because it says not only that the Creator became a creature, but that he became like you and me in everything but sin. He was a man who could suffer and die. He was a boy who could run and cry. He was an infant, nursing at the breast. He was an unborn child, gestating in his mother’s womb.

Is the womb a fitting residence for the Creator of the universe? Could God become small enough to occupy a uterus? As small as a clump of cells? Infinitesimally tiny—this, the infinite God? Gestating, growing, developing, all the while hidden from view? A secret known only to his mother, his adoptive father, and a few relatives? To all this Cyril said: yes. “He did not consider it beneath him to follow a path congruous to this plan”—namely, the plan that he become human so that we might become divine—“and so he is said to have undergone a birth like ours, while all the while remaining what he was.” As St. Bernard of Clairvaux would say centuries later, “There was never any moment…when that fullness which he assumed at the instant of his conception in the womb was in any way diminished or augmented. He was perfect from the beginning.” And so Cyril concludes: “He was God in an appearance like ours, and the Lord in the form of a slave. This is what we mean when we say that he became flesh, and for the same reasons we affirm that the holy virgin is the Mother of God.”

At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril’s position won and Nestorius’s lost. Two decades later, at the Council of Chalcedon, the title of Theotokos was reaffirmed as orthodox. And ever since, the Church has reaffirmed the truth that, because Jesus is God, Mary is God’s mother.


Does Mary as Theotokos bear on any of the Church’s moral questions? It does, and in the most profound way. God almighty was conceived in the womb of a Galilean girl a little over two thousand years ago. God underwent the typical course of embryonic and fetal growth common to human beginnings. God was born: a baby boy, utterly dependent and defenseless, loved and cared for by his parents. The conception and birth of Jesus thus bear directly on the question of abortion. It is my contention that, even if Christians had no other resources for thinking about abortion, the doctrine of the Theotokos would be more than enough.

Abortion raises theological, moral, and legal questions. In that order, I should add. The theological question concerns the status of unborn human life before God: What is this life? What does God say it is? The moral question follows: How should we treat this life, given what God says? The legal (and political) questions are last: Should the state protect unborn life, and if so, how? Those last questions are far from unimportant. They’re the ones that pro-life Christians in the United States focus most of their attention on. And not just Christians: ask an American about abortion, and he or she will immediately start to talk about laws and policies and constitutional rights. 

But the moral question was never in serious dispute in the Church’s history—at least, not until recently. Christians had a reputation in this regard. In the ancient world, they were the ones who did not expose their infants, even when the child was unexpected or physically flawed. They were the ones who welcomed human lives in all their variety, particularly when they were vulnerable or voiceless. So today: the Church does not wonder whether an extra chromosome justifies an abortion. How could it? Each and every human being is created by God, in God’s image. For the sake of each and every soul on earth, inside or outside the womb, Christ died on the cross. In Christian terms, these conclusions are not difficult to reach, however they may conflict with common non-Christian intuitions, and whatever they may imply for the politics of a pluralistic liberal democracy.

Christ’s solidarity is total: in every nook and cranny of human life, he is there.

But moral judgments are only as firm as their foundations, and the Christian moral teaching about abortion requires theological, indeed metaphysical, grounds. The doctrine of Theotokos supplies these grounds. To be clear, I don’t mean that opposition to abortion was historically underwritten by confession of Mary as Mother of God. I mean that the Theotokos—together with the larger constellation of beliefs about the Incarnation—is part of the deep grammar of a Christian understanding of human origins, unborn life, and God’s intimate presence in procreation. Nor do I mean to suggest that a properly Christian view of abortion is the result of divine revelation alone: natural reason and the empirical sciences offer complementary paths to the same conclusion about life in the womb and the moral demands it places on us. What laws or political strategies follow from this conclusion is another question altogether. That question tends to pull everything within its orbit. For that very reason, I want to bracket it so that we can instead recall the beginning of the Gospel and reconsider the moment when the Incarnation began.

Anyone who has visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth can tell you the highlight. There are many things to choose from, not least the row upon row of icons and paintings of Madonna and Child offered as a gift by every nation and culture on earth. The message of these images takes you by force: the God who became a Jew is the God not only of Jews but of gentiles, too. In assuming Jewish flesh, he assumed human flesh. As the one in whom all the nations find their desires fixed and consummated, as the one who draws all peoples to himself, he is infinitely translatable, infinitely depictable. As a Jew to the Jews he is also, and therefore, an Ethiopian to the Ethiopians, a Frenchman to the French, an Indian to the Indians, a Chilean to the Chileans. When they clothe him in their garb, they are honoring the child Christ and the mother whose flesh he took. Yet somehow this is not the most memorable feature of the Basilica. As one descends to its depths, one approaches the cave where, tradition reports, the angel Gabriel announced the good news to Mary. There on the altar is a Latin transcription: verbum caro hic factum est. It’s taken from the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh.” Except one word has been added, hic: “here.”

The Word became flesh here. In this place. At a specific time. In the womb of a woman who said yes, like father Abraham before her. Called, he went; called, she replied: fiat mihi. And as God created the heavens and the earth with his fiat lux, so through Mary’s fiat the Spirit begins the work of new creation. The new Adam starts to form inside her. As Eve was taken from the first Adam, so this Adam is taken from a new Eve. In anticipation “the whole world is waiting, bowed down at your feet,” as St. Bernard writes, addressing Mary. “And rightly so, because on your answer depends the comfort of the afflicted, the redemption of captives, the deliverance of the damned; the salvation of all the sons of Adam, your whole race.” In his poem “For the Time Being,” W. H. Auden has Gabriel say to Mary: “[C]hild, it lies / Within your power of choosing to / Conceive the Child who chooses you.”

This mystery has never been far from the Church’s heart, its teaching, or its theological reflection. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to say that, strictly speaking, Christ did not need to suffer and die for our sins. “From the beginning of his conception Christ merited our eternal salvation,” he writes. The work of Jesus for our sake does not begin in Jerusalem. The story of Jesus does not begin in Bethlehem. It all begins in a cave in Nazareth, in the womb of Mary. Our redemption starts there.

In much recent academic theology, there is a strange silence about Jesus’ life in the womb. We are told that what it means to be human finds its norm and pattern in Jesus. Yet his person and work are presented as if they began either at his birth or at his baptism. But the Annunciation was not cooked up by some overeager pro-lifers; it’s right there in the gospels. St. Luke dedicates two leisurely opening chapters to it. The Apostles’ Creed makes the crucial distinction: conceived by the Holy Spirit / and born of the Virgin Mary. In this distinction lies all we need to know about unborn human life and its relationship to Christ.


Consider the implications if all the following is true. Jesus is God incarnate. The Incarnation begins not with Jesus’ birth, but at his conception. Jesus is like us in every respect except for sin. He is fully God (consubstantial with the Father according to his divinity) and fully man (consubstantial with us according to his humanity). He became human precisely to share all that we are, that we might share all that he is. Jesus, in a word, is the God-man from conception to birth and beyond. The Incarnation therefore comprehends not only natality, but fetality; not only born life, but unborn life; not only the public and the visible, but the private and the hidden. Jesus is God in the flesh. Thus, Jesus is God in the womb. And if he is God in the womb, he is man in the womb, too. What is true of Jesus is, mutatis mutandis, true of all humanity. The unborn are sisters and brothers of Jesus. They, like us, are persons for whom Jesus died. They make claims on us—or rather, through them God makes claims on us. Our response is to be modeled on Mary’s. We welcome and protect these gifts from the Lord. For they, like him, are unseen. And like him, they are destined for glory.

“Universal joy has arrived today! God is on earth, God is from heaven, God is among human beings, God is carried in the womb of a virgin, he who is contained nowhere.” So St. Andrew of Crete cries out in praise, and continues: “You are truly blessed, who alone of all mothers was made ready to be Mother of your Creator.” Do we subtract from Christ in praising Mary so? By no means, according to St. Bernard: “Whatever we say in praise of the mother touches the Son, and when we honor the Son we detract nothing from the mother’s glory.”

Christ’s solidarity is total: in every nook and cranny of human life, he is there. He is there because he was there, beginning with the womb. For nine months, Mary was the ark of Israel. Wherever she went, she carried the Lord’s presence with her. This is why St. John leapt at her approach: like David before the ark, he couldn’t help himself. We shouldn’t help ourselves either. Each unborn life is a little Christ waiting to be born—waiting to be received and held and clothed and loved. We rejoice with Andrew and bow with Bernard and leap with John and fall to our knees with Cyril. For Christians know what pregnancy means: not the prelude to a life but the first chapter of it. 

Brad East is associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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