We have seen in previous subjects the teachings of the Fathers of the Church on the divine motherhood and perpetual virginity of Mary. We will see below what the parents of the iv centuries say to the saw about Mary’s holiness from the beginning to the end of her life. This reflection will be specified in the dogmas of the Immaculate and the Assumption. We will also make a brief reference to the way in which the parents of these centuries approach intercession and Marian invocation.
- The ethical figure of Mary: anthropological dimension of her original holiness
In addition to the theological aspect, we must consider the human dimension in Mary’s divine motherhood and in her holiness. Some heretics underestimated the human aspect in Christ and Mary (twelve, gnostic, Manichean) to give an answer to the problem of good and evil. These philosophical groups believed that Good came from the soul (mind, intellect, spirit), and that Evil was related to the body (the material and carnal). There were also other heretics, monophysites and apolinarists, who overestimated the spirit and transcendence of the Word: they saw in Christ an apparent body, without incarnation and without passion.
Then the following questions appeared. If God became a man, what did he take on Mary? What qualities does the Mother of God have as a creature? Parents will tell us that God does everything right, that Mary is good as a human creature, that human freedom is damaged by sin, but that Mary is healthy and if something was not pure, the Spirit sanctified her and made her able to receive the holiness of God.
During the iv-to-vi centuries Mary is given the title of All Saint (Panaghía), linked to the others of Mother of God (Theotokos) and always Virgin (Aieparthenos). In Judaism and during the first centuries of Christianity, the attribute of Saint for God (Trisaghio) was reserved, and for the Temple, where the Sancta sanctorum containing the Ark of the Covenant and the Tables of the Law was located. However, Mary is the temple of the Incarnate Word, a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit and the ark of the new Covenant. By the Incarnation of the Word, Mary had within herself the Holy God, was abode of the Spirit, the Most High covered her with her shadow, was filled with Grace, and gave birth to the Holy One of God, the Emmanuel or God-with-us.
John Chrysostome sees in Mary imperfections for being a human creature. She had a crisis of faith, doubt and turmoul, but she made a path in faith as a disciple. Without denying Mary’s holiness, she underlines the holiness of Jesus and follows the theological line of Origins and Tertullian.
Basil also says that Mary experienced the trials of faith and pain, typical of every human creature. The Holy Ghost purified her and made her fruitful, so she responded from faith.
Jerome says that God chose a believing virgin, he did not choose a widow. Mary is holy for her virginal response from faith, obedience and love. Ambrose considers that Mary is a disciple on the way, every saint, mother and virgin totally consecrated to her Lord.
Augustine thinks that Mary is a creature who has responded to God from faith and conceived in her bosom for believing. He says that every man bears the mark of sin, and Mary is of our nature. However, the Bishop of Hippo adds the following, without being able to explain it: “In relation to the Holy Virgin Mary, for the honor of the Lord, I do not want to hear of sin, for if she is Mother of God she could not sin”.
For Augustine, in Mary everything is the fruit of grace: motherhood and holiness. Julian the Apostate attacks him directly: “You say that original sin is transmitted to all by generation.” Augustine replies, “but the sin of being born is achilled by the grace of being reborn” (referring to the purification of baptism). According to Augustine, although Mary was not baptized she must have been purified in some way to be Mother of God. Augustine faced the problem of the universality of redemption for Christ, for we all need redemption, even Mary. Augustine cannot explain how Christ’s redemption is performed in Mary, but he senses a clue: “By the honor of the Lord, I cannot admit that she has sin.”
St Ephrén sees in Mary an exceptional holiness, all pure and beautiful. He claims that Mary and Jesus are the two great beauties of humanity. Mary and Jesus are associated in everything. He says Mary is the light and Eve is the shadow. For this reason, he argues that Mary’s body did not suffer corruption after death.
In short, Mary is holy because she is with Christ. She responded to God from faith and obedience, was prepurified, by the honor of the Lord, and committed no sin. Her holiness is not of a ritual type, but consists in the fullness of grace because it is the Virgin-Mother all given to the Son of God and filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the only God-Holy who sanctifies her.
2.Mary’s ultimate destiny: the Dormition or Assumption
After the Council of Ephesus (431), from a liturgical point of view, three Marian festivities appear that are celebrated in the Church, particularly in the East: Divine Motherhood, the Presentation or Feast of the Encounter and the Dormition. In today’s liturgy we continue to celebrate these three festivals. Eight days after Christmas, Divine Maternity is celebrated (January 1st). Christ, through his Mother, meets Simeon in the temple of Jerusalem (Hipapante) to indicate that God meets those who seek Him (February 2). From Jerusalem is spread the celebration of the Dormition of Mary (Koimesis), also known as the Transit of Mary (August 15).1
In the 6th century, the Eastern, Coptic, Abyssinian and Armenian churches celebrated the Dormition of Mary, corresponding to the birth of the martyrs. In the liturgy arises the problem of setting the date of Mary’s death (dies natale) and of knowing the fate of her body (relics) to celebrate her feast, just as she was doing with the martyrs. Some, with the desire to celebrate it, said that Mary also died a martyr.
Various testimonies appear about the end of Mary during these centuries (iv-vi). Efrén says his body was uncorrupted; Epiphany of Salamina states that Scripture does not speak of this great wonder and that he knows nothing about his death or burial;2 Timothy and Hesiquius of Jerusalem maintain that Mary did not die because Jesus moved her to a secret place;3 Theotecno of Libya states that it was appropriate for the body that had brought God to glory along with his soul; the apocryphal books tell in detail of Mary’s sleep: she dies surrounded by the apostles gathered to fire her, and is brought by her Son to paradise. This is how Mary’s death represents oriental iconography.
3. Relationship between Mary and the Church
During this period (iv-vi centuries) a clear relationship is established between Mary and Eve, between Women and the Church. These figures are often interchangeable. Mary is in relation to Christ and to the Church. The Fathers continue to associate Eve with Mary until they can also establish the paranance between Mary and the Church. The Biblical Woman is a figure of Eve, Mary and the Church.
Saint Ephrén (†373) says that Mary is the blessed land of the Church, while Eve was a cursed land for mankind. It establishes a relationship between Eve, Mary and the Eucharist. Eve, Mother of the living, is in relation to the body of Adam; Mary is in harmony, intimately united with the Body of Christ; from Eve came the bread of suffering, Mary will bring us the Bread of Life.
Didony of Alexandria (†398), a blind man famous for his biblical knowledge and wisdom, compares Mary’s virginal conception by the work of the Holy Spirit to the virginal conception of the Church that gives birth to the faithful in Baptism, also by the work and grace of the Spirit.
Ambrosio (†397) sees the triple relationship between Mary and the Church as Mother, Wife and Virgin. They are virgins and mothers because they conceive virginally. The more forced is the relationship she establishes between the two as wives: Mary Joseph’s wife, and christ’s wife Church.
Augustine (†430) specifies Ambrose’s thinking. He affirms that Mary and the Church are Wives (of the Body of Christ); at the same time, both are virgins and mothers. Mary is Mother of the head and of the members for charity; she is the mother of the Church within the Church, for she is also a member because she is a disciple. The Church is attached to the Head. Mary is the mother of the Head and of the members, by faith and charity. Mary is a mother-virgin in body and spirit: she conceives and gives birth to Christ-Head for faith, hope and charity. She is a mother in the spirit and gives birth to members (spiritual motherhood), but she also belongs to the Church.
Leo the Great (†461) says that Christ is born from the bosom of Mary from the same Holy Spirit and the Christian is also born within the Church. Both are virgins and mothers by the action of the Spirit.
Cromatius of Aquileya (†407) says that we could not speak of the Church if Mary were not there, for Christ would also be missing. If Mary is not in the Church, it would be disengregated, for neither would the brethren be gathered round the Son.4
In short, Mary and the Church are virgins and mothers. But Mary is a Virgin in body and spirit, by faith, hope, fidelity and charity, while the Church is a virgin who asks forgiveness for her infidelity. Mary is Mother-Virgin (model of faith and fidelity) and member of the Church.
Mary is Mother of the Son and Wife, in the sense of associate, consort and collaborator. “Daughter of the Son” is an expression used by Dante and one could say as Mary is a redeemed creature, for God acts for Christ in the Spirit. Mary as a creature comes from the Father, by Christ in the Spirit.
4. Mary’s spiritual mediation and motherhood
In this period, Mary’s spiritual motherhood, intercession, mediation and cooperation in the work of salvation are being sclaimed. The theme is at the beginning of its development. Mary cooperates in the birth of the faithful because she gave birth to Christ, but it is not yet related to Mary’s intercession for the faithful. Let’s look at some testimonies:
Augustine (†430) said that Mary is Mother of the Body and of the Head; Christ is the central mystery because he is in time and out of time and Mary collaborates in the spirit;
Epiphany (†403) calls Mary “the new Mother of the living”, because she gave birth to the Living (Christ) who gives us Life;
Nile (†430) says that Mary is “Mother of all who live according to Christ”; to identify with Christ is to become the son of Mary. John, the disciple, receives Mary by the Cross because he looked like Christ;
the apocryphal books also outline the theme of Mary’s spiritual motherhood; she is the mother of all men because we are brothers in Christ; the apocryphals put in John’s mouth the name of Mary as “Mother and sister”, and the faithful disciple can be considered his son and brother;
Severiano de Gabala (†408) says: “We have Our Lady, the Mother of God, the glorious and Holy Virgin Mary whom we call to our aid”; that is, God acts through his creatures, Mary, the apostles, the martyrs who are our mediators or intermediaries;
a homily of the Council of Ephesus (431) says that “for Mary humanity goes to Christ”.
Basil of Seleucida (†458) states: “The Mother of God is a unique creature and, if Peter works miracles, what will not be mary’s strength?”;
Romano el Meloda (†560) is a Greek iconographer who always places Mary with Christ as her collaborator and our intercessor.
In short, Mary’s spiritual motherhood is based on her having cooperated with Christ out of love to generate the Church (head and members). Her mediation and effective maternal intercession is based on her special relationship with her Son (she is the mother). His intercession is stronger than that of apostles and martyrs because he sees our needs and desires our good.
5. Mary’s position in Christian worship
Culture expressions are reflected in documents of a typological or exemplary nature. Mary is a point of reference for Christians and for the Church. St Ambrose says: “Mary was blessed for believing, and we are happy for faith.”5 Sometimes, as when virginity is exhorted, it would be a cult of imitation: “Women cultivate chastity and become mothers of Christ as was Mary Virgin” (Gregory of Nacianzo).
Saint Athanasius recalls that virgins have the same kind of life as Mary, because virginity would be the model or image of heaven’s own life.
There are also eucological testimonies: prayers and invocations. The Akathistos is a splendid prayer addressed to Mary composed at the end of the v century. It is a hymn that is sung standing up because it implies great respect and veneration. It is a poetic synthesis of the Council of Chalcedon.
Gregory of Nacianzo says that the virgins Justina and Tecla invoked Mary in persecution. He also tells us that, in Constantinople, his patriarchy, there was a place dedicated to Mary where the sick and needy went. Gregory of Nisa refers that Gregory Taumaturgo did not know how to explain the Trinity to the capped people and the Virgin appeared to him with John to help him.
Divine Motherhood was celebrated in the East in reference to Christmas, eight days later. It was also the feast of Christ and Mary to meet the Lord (Hipapanté) with those who seek him, or the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus, which is celebrated forty days after Christmas.
The mystery of the Annunciation, formerly also associated with Christmas, became in the century I saw in an autonomous festival. In relation to the creation of the world (March 25), the new creation (incarnation) was presented.
Around 431, the Theotokos was held at the Church in Jerusalem on 15 August. A century later, under the influence of apocryphals, Mary’s Dormition or Transit is celebrated throughout the East on the same day (Assumption).
Later, already in the twentieth century, the feast of the Nativity of Mary is introduced to the East on September 8, which will pass to the West in the twentieth century through the Byzantine monks. The same was the case with the feast of Mary’s Presentation in the temple.
Homilies and liturgical hymns confirm Marian feasts and celebrations, an expression of praise and veneration to Mary.
Marian iconography: theology and worship of Marian images
Icons, like prayers and homilies, are abundant in these centuries. They manifest themselves in reliefs and paintings. The Church also expresses with art, through the way of beauty, the faith professed, prayer, celebration and imitation models. That is, what is believed is embodied and expressed in celebration and veneration (lex orandi lex credendi).
The first Christians did not keep any portraits of Mary, and the first plastic expressions or Marian images must be found in the catacombs, in relation to funerary art. One of the oldest images of Mary, dating back to the 2nd century, is found in the Roman catacomb of Priscrilla. Mary is with the Child in her arms, in an attitude of showing it to the Magi. Mary also appears as the praying Woman, with her arms raised.
After the Council of Ephesus (431), Marian images are multiplied in the East and in the West, bearing the Greek title of Theotokos or the corresponding Latin of Sancta Maria. Marian images were venerated in churches built in his honor. In the city of Rome alone, there were already four churches dedicated to Mary in the 6th century: St. Mary the Ancient, erected in the Roman forum (iv century); Saint Mary the Great, on the hill of the Esquilino, commanded to build by Pope Liberius in 352 and renovated by Sixtus III after the Council of Ephesus; the Basilica of Santa Maria roundabout, corresponding to the ancient Roman Pantheon, and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Transtévere.
This shows Marian images painted in “fresh” on the walls, in mosaics or on wood with tempering paint. The Odighitria-like image (which points the way), attributed to Luke, is reported as an icon in east and west from 451, when Empress Eudoxia sends this painting to Constantinople.
Marian icons have historical, biblical and theological, liturgical and spiritual content. The icon is the subject of worship and veneration, especially in the Orthodox church. Mary witnesses the mystery of incarnation and redemption, as expressed in the various icons with their respective title: Odighitria, Eleúsa, Glycofilusa, Galactotrefussa, Déesis, Orante, Virgin of Passion, Kyriotissa, etc. Icons become an expression of the faith professed by the Church, as St John Damascene said: “If someone asks you for your faith, take him to church and show him the icons you venerate.” Ω
1 Cf. PG 147, 292.
2 Cf. PG 41, 777b.
3 Cf. PG 86, 245c.
4 Cf. Marialis Cultus, 28.
5 Cf. L. Gambero: “Cult”, in Nuevo Dictionary of Mariology, Madrid, Paulinas, pp. 338 y ss.