Theology for The Laity
Mary in the Theology of the Fathers (Part 2)
By Fr. Ambrose Sigman, O.P.
As we saw in the previous article, theological discussion of Mary and her role in God’s plan for our salvation occurred even among the earliest Christian authors and theologians. In this article, we will pick up where we left off and continue to survey the various Fathers and their writings about Mary down the centuries. As we will see, this reflection becomes more elaborate and complex. As theological reflection about the nature of Christ and our salvation also deepens and becomes more profound, so too does the understanding of Our Lady and thus her role in God’s plan become clearer.
Origen of Alexandria
The most important author from the third century to discuss Mary was Origen of Alexandria (184-254). Origen was one of the earliest and greatest exegetes of the early Church. His numerous commentaries and homilies on the various books of Scripture remained powerfully influential long after his death. While Origen’s theological legacy was controversial, he is also an early witness to some very important Marian doctrines.
In his Commentary on Matthew and his Homilies on Luke, Origen affirms the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady. He affirms also that she remained chaste throughout her life. “At this point we ought to refute the heretics’ usual objections; otherwise some simpler people might be deceived. Someone or other gave vent to his madness and claimed that the Savior had repudiated Mary because she had been joined to Joseph after his birth. I hope he knows what the state of his mind was when he said it. If heretics ever raise an objection like this to you, answer them and say, “Elizabeth surely was filled with the Holy Spirit when she said, ‘Blessed are you among women.’ If the Holy Spirit called Mary ‘blessed,’ how could the Savior repudiate her? Furthermore, they assert that Mary had marital relations after the birth of Jesus. But they have no source of proof. For the children who were called Joseph’s were not born of Mary. There is no passage in Scripture that mentions this” (Homilies on Luke 7.4). According to Origen, as Jesus inaugurated a tradition of chastity for men, so Mary did so for women (Homilies on Luke 7). It is possible that Origen was also one of the first to refer to Mary as the Theotokos (“Mother of God” in the Latin West) in his Commentary on Romans. This term to describe Our Lady only becomes firmly established at the end of the third/beginning of the 4th century.
The Fourth Century and Later
By the fourth century, there is a renewed interest among Christian theologians in the role of Mary. This is partially explained by the fact that this century witnessed the beginning of the great controversies surrounding the nature of Christ, beginning with the heresy of Arianism. As theologians became more focused on these discussions, the role of Mary began to take on a greater prominence, especially as a guarantor of the Church’s doctrine about Jesus.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373), the great defender of the Council of Nicaea and its teaching on the full divinity of the Son, did not hesitate to bring discussions about Our Lady into his many Christological debates with the Arians. Athanasius was one of the first authors to refer to Mary as the Mother of God, the Theotokos. Athanasius writes, “Christ, being God, became man for our sake and was born of Mary, the Mother of God, to free us from the devil’s power” (On Virginity 3). Athanasius emphasizes strongly the salvific purpose of the Incarnation. Because of this he can draw an indirect link between Mary’s motherhood and human redemption. He writes, “It was for our sake that Christ became man, taking flesh from the Virgin Mary, Mother of God” (Against the Arians 3.29).
The bishop of Alexandria was also a strong defender and promoter of the monastic life, being also the author of the very famous Life of Antony. In this context, he insists strongly on the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. In his letters to the monastic communities in Egypt, Athanasius presents Mary as a paradigm of the highest holiness to virgins who have consecrated themselves to the Lord.
In the Western Church, at this same time, St Ambrose of Milan (340-397) offers one of the most developed Mariologies of the early Church. Drawing on the writings of earlier figures like St. Athanasius, Ambrose stresses the importance of Mary as the Mother of God, as well as her virginity. In his various treatises written to consecrated virgins, Ambrose reminds them of how important a model Mary is for their way of life. “Yes, truly blessed for having surpassed the priest (Zechariah). While the priest denied, the Virgin rectified the error. No wonder that the Lord, wishing to rescue the world, began his work with Mary. Thus she, through whom salvation was being prepared for all people, would be the first to receive the promised fruit of salvation.” (Expositio in Lucam 2.17)
Saint Augustine, too, writing somewhat later, but still in the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, contributed much to further our understanding of Marian doctrine. Saint Augustine emphasizes in his works the predestination of Our Lady, chosen by God before her birth to be the God bearer. He writes, “And so he created a Virgin, whom he had chosen to be His Mother: a woman who did not conceive according to the law of sinful flesh; that is, not by the instinct of fleshly concupiscence. Rather she, with pious faith, merited to receive the holy seed within her. He chose her, to be created from her” (De peccatorum meritis et remissione, 2.24.38). Mary is the Virgin Mother of God and the holiest of creatures.
Anticipating the ideas expressed at the Second Vatican Council, Augustine does not hesitate to say that Mary is still a part of the Church though. He writes, “Mary is holy, Mary is blessed, but the Church is better than the Virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is a part of the Church, a holy member, an outstanding member, a supereminent member, but a member of the whole body nonetheless. If she is a member of the whole body, the body is undoubtedly greater than one of its members” (Sermon 25.7). This idea, of course, takes its departure from the Pauline doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.
At around this same time, there was another great defender of the Council of Nicaea, St. Ephrem the Syrian. Dubbed the harp of the Holy Spirit, the poetry and sung homilies of Saint Ephrem are some of the most beautiful poetic works of this period. Ephrem was one of the first to lay such strong emphasis on the mysteries and grandeurs of the Mother of God.
Many of the themes already discussed, and some new ones which become of increasing importance are found in the works of St. Ephrem. In his works, Ephrem evokes very powerfully the mystery of Mary’s role in creation, her privilege as the one chosen to bear the Savior of the world. Mary is the figure of the Church, and the alternative to Eve. He writes, “The Church gave us the living Bread, in place of the unleavened bread that Egypt had given. Mary gave us the refreshing bread, in place of the fatiguing bread that Eve had procured for us” (Hymns for the Unleavened Bread, 6.6-7). Ephrem lays great stress on Mary’s Divine Maternity, according to him, since Christ’s flesh came from Mary’s flesh, she shares directly in the process of redemption brought about through the Incarnation. As the New Eve, Mary is the mother of our new life in Christ, just as Eve was the mother of the old life.
In the year 428, the imperial capital of Constantinople received a new bishop, a man from Antioch named Nestorius. Within a short time of his arrival, Nestorius would spark a controversy that would sweep the Christian world, when he denied the Virgin the title of Theotokos, calling her instead Christotokos. Meaning “Christbearer,” the title was meant to reflect Nestorius’ ideas about the relationship between the humanity and divinity of Christ. In the city of Constantinople, Nestorius was opposed by the priest (and future Patriarch) Proclus. On a Marian feast in 429, in the presence of Nestorius, Proclus preached his famous sermon on the Incarnation, which affirmed Mary as Theotokos, thus sparking a controversy that would sweep the Christian world. Nestorius’ greatest opponent, though, was the bishop of Alexandria, St. Cyril. The two exchanged a series of letters laying out their various positions, and the exchange ended with a decision to call a council of the Church to meet in Ephesus in 431. This Council affirmed the title of Theotokos and removed Nestorius as Patriarch of Constantinople. The events surrounding this council were a watershed in the history of Christian devotion to Mary.
One of the last Fathers of the Church, and one whose writings show the full flowering of early Christian reflection on Mary is St. John of Damascus (675-749), who is also referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption because of his writings concerning the Assumption of Our Lady. A story is told in his biography about how the Caliph in Damascus, thinking that John was part of a Byzantine plot to attack the city, ordered his right hand cut off and hung up for public display. After a few days, John asked for his hand back and prayed fervently to the Theotokos, before her icon, asking that his hand be restored, a miracle which was granted. In gratitude, John attached a third, silver hand to the icon, which afterwards became known as the “Three-Handed” or “Tricheirousa.”
This is only a small taste of the many authors and figures who discussed and contemplated the role of Mary in the theology and life of the Christian faithful during this period. Many more could have been added. The purpose of these articles was to offer a grounding in some of the basic ideas that were circulating at this time about the Virgin Mary and her role in Christian theology, especially about her role as a guarantor of Christological doctrine. From the very beginning, Christian authors recognized the importance of Our Lady in theological discourse, especially for what she could reveal to us about her Son.