Mystical Rose and Mother of God: Mary in the Early Church
As a rose begins with a small bud, holding within itself all of its petals in seminal form, so also the Catholic doctrine on Mary began in the early Church with one compact teaching, holding within itself all of the doctrines and decorations that would one day flourish into the Church’s full teaching on Mart. What was that teaching? Paul lays it out in the earliest book of the New Testament, the Letter to the Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God send 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” (4:4-5). God’s eternal plan for salvation was for His Son to be born of a woman, and that woman was Mary. From this kernel, which was present in the earliest times of the Church, bloom forth all of the different elements of Marian doctrine.
Mother of God
The early Church Fathers received and reflected on Paul’s interpretation of the importance of the role of Mary in salvation. St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote a letter to the Ephesians as he was being carried off to Rome to be martyred around the year 100 A.D. In it he says, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.” St. Ignatius points out not only that Jesus was conceived by Mary, but that this conception was “according to God’s plan.” God’s eternal plan for salvation included Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ.
In the following paragraph, St. Ignatius says “the virginity of Mary, her giving birth, and the death of the Lord are three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed”. Ignatius considered Mary’s virginity and motherhood to be in the same category as the death of out Lord! Why is Mary’s virginity and motherhood so important to St. Ignatius? The salvation worked by Jesus Christ required him to pay an infinite debt on behalf of man, and that requires Him to be true God and true man. Jesus, as God, could pay an infinite debt by His death because He has infinite worth, and Jesus, as a man, could pay that debt on behalf of humanity because He was a true man. But if Mary didn’t conceive virginally, Jesus was not true God, and if Mary wasn’t Jesus’ mother, Jesus was not a true man. Therefore, for humanity to be saved according to God’s plan, Mary must be the Mother of God.
The concept of Mary being the mother of Jesus who was true God and true man carried into the later centuries with the Greek word Θεοτόκος (theotokos), which means “God-bearer” or “mother of God.” One of its earliest uses was int he prayer dated as early as the middle of the 2nd century, the “Sub Tuum Praesidium” (which is still prayed by Catholics today!):
We fly to thy patronage,
O holy Mother of God; (Θεοτόκος- theotokos)
Despise not our petitions in our necessities,
But deliver us always from all dangers,
O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.
Great saints, theologians, and bishops continued to use the term. St. Alexander, bishop of Alexandria and a key figure at the Council of Nicaea, wrote in 320 A.D. that Jesus Christ “bore a body not in appearance but in truth, derived from the Mother of God.” And St. Athanasius in 373 A.D. reflected upon “the Word begotten of the Father on high” who “inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly and eternally, is he that is born in time here blow, of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.” And the term “Mother of God” became canonized in the doctrinal vocabulary of all Christians at the Council of Ephesus in 431 when it stated that Jesus was “according to his divinity, born of the Father before all ages, and in these last days, according to his humanity, born of the Virgin Mary for us and for our salvation . . . A union was made of the two natures . . . In accord with this understanding of the unconfused union we confess that the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God.”
The New Eve
But the early Christians did not see Mary’s role as a passive placeholder. She was not just that necessary human being who fell by the wayside after God used her to become man. According to the Father of the Church, Mary has an essential and active role in the entire work of salvation. From the earliest times, this active and essential role was communicated by the frequent parallel made between Eve and Mary. St. Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, written around 150 A.D., writes “While Eve, who still a virgin and undefiled, by conceiving the word that came from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy, . . . answered, Be it done to me according to thy word. And so by means of Mary was Jesus born; . . . through whom God overthrows the serpent and those angels and men who have become similar to it, and through whom God works deliverance from death for all those who repent of their sins and believe in Him.” Just as the virgin and undefiled Eve had an essential role alongside Adam in the condemnation of humanity, so also the virgin and undefiled Mary had an essential role alongside Christ, the new Adam, in the salvation of humanity.
St. Irenaeus in 150 A.D. goes even farther that St. Justin Martyr writing of Eve and Mary: “And though the one had disobeyed God, yet the other was drawn to obey him; so that the virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve, and as the human race had been bound to death by a virgin, so it is saved by a virgin, the balance being preserved- a virgin’s disobedience- by a virgin’s obedience.” St. Irenaeus goes so fat as to say that the human race is “saved by a virgin”! He of course does not mean to say that Mary, and not Jesus, save humanity, but rather that Mary had an essential and active role with Jesus in the salvation of humanity.
In summary, since the first and second centuries of the Church, Christians have held that the virgin Mary, by God’s eternal plan, had a particularly honored relationship with God (“Mother of God”), and that she played an essential and active role in the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ (“the new Eve”).
The Blooming of Marian Doctrine: the Fourth Century
From these two buds of Marian doctrine flourished the fullness of Marian devotion in the second half of the fourth century. One might ask, what was happening between the end of the second century and the second half of the fourth century? The third century of the Church saw harsh persecutions from a series of emperors and magistrates that suppressed theological reflection on the part of Christians. The Christian’s books were burned, gatherings were banned, citizenship was revoked, property was confiscated, and leaders were killed. After the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, and theological reflection continued. The first half of the fourth century was filled with fierce debates regarding the identity of Jesus Christ, and it was not until the second half of the fourth century that theological reflection could continue on the Mother of God.
One of the first doctrines reflected upon by the Fathers of the Church was Mary’s sinlessness. If Mary was the Mother of God, how could God not have preserved his own mother from the pain of sin? And if the virgin Eve was undefiled by sin prior to her participation in the condemnation of mankind, it is only fitting that the new Virgin should be undefiled by sin as she participated in the salvation of mankind. Therefore, we see a great number of authors proclaiming the sinlessness of the Blessed Mother in connection with her Divine Motherhood and her role as the new Eve.
St. Ephrem (+373 A.D.) is the greatest early proponent of Mary’s sinlessness. In a hymn he wrote: “We praise you as full of every grace, for you bore the God-Man . . . Holy and immaculate Virgin” and again in a poem: “You and your mother are alone in this: that you are wholly beautiful in every way. There is in You, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in your Mother.” And perhaps most explicitly in another poem he says, “My Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate . . . spotless rope of Him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, along most immaculate!” St. Ephrem was not alone in his teaching regarding the sinlessness of Mary. St. Ambrose included the greeting of the angel (“full of grace”) in his interpretation of Mary’s sinlessness when in 430 A.D. he wrote, “Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain.” And, when St. Augustine addressed the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin, he said, “I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sin.”
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
Along with Mary’s sinlessness, the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries reflected on Mary’s virginity, not only in conceiving Christ, but throughout her whole life. If Mary was the Mother of God, how could she seek to have another son through natural birth? Was her divine Son not enough? Did being the Mother of the Body of Christ, the Church, leaves something to be desired for Mary? St. Ambrose responds: “Imitate [Mary], holy mother, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of maternal virtue; for you don’t have sweeter children [than Jesus], and the Virgin did not seek the consolation of being able to bear another son” (338 A.D.). But the argument was not just logical, the Fathers also backed it up with Scripture. St. Hilary of Poitiers pointed out; “If [the brethren of the Lord] had been Mary’s sons . . . she would never have been given over in the moment of the passion to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother” (354 A.D.). And when Helvidius interprets Matthew 1:18 (Before they came together, she was found to be with child by the power of the Holy Spirit”) to mean that Joseph and Mary eventually entered into marital relations, Jerome writes in 383 A.D., “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Should I accuse him of lack of experience or just carelessness? Suppose someone should say: ‘Before eating lunch at the harbor, I set sail for Africa.’ Would this mean that his statement could not be valid unless he had to eat lunch at the harbor some day?” He goes on to say, “Therefore, it is not necessary that the things one was planning to do should really happen, should something else intervene to prevent them from happening. This, when the evangelist says: ‘Before they came together,’ he means that the time of the wedding is near and that things have reached the point that she who had been considered engaged was about to become a wife.” Jerome even goes so far as to say, “You say that Mary did not continue a virgin; I claim still more, that Joseph himself on account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born.”
If Mary is the Mother of God, and God is the King of Heaven and Earth, then how is Mary not the Queen of Heaven and Earth? Prior to Christian kingship which flourished in the medieval period, the queen was not the wife of the king (because the king oftentimes had many wives), but rather the queen was the king’s mother (cf. 1 Kings 3: 13-21; 2 Kings 10:13; Jeremiah 13:18). With this reasoning in mind, St. Athanasius (+373 A.D.), one of the great defenders of the faith in the Arian Crisis, wrote, “It becomes you to be mindful of us, as you stand near Him who granted you all graces. For you are the Mother of God and our Queen. Help us for the sake of the King, the Lord God Master Who was born of you. For this reason you are called ‘full of grace.’” Many other writers from the partristic period, such as Origen (+254 A.D.), Jerome (+420 A.D.), and Peter Chrysologus (+c. 450 A.D.) gave the Blessed Mother the regal title domina in Latin or κῡρίᾱ (kuria) in Greek. Both terms literally mean “Lady” and are the titles used when addressing a queen.
Marian Veneration and Intercession
Alongside the historical face of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, the Fathers of the Church had opened up from that one compact teaching found in Galatians a broad flourishing of Marian teachings by the middle of the fifth century. (These teachings even precede the fundamental definition of Christ having two natures in one person in 451 A.D.!) The early bishop-theologians- the rails upon which the engine of theological development progressed in the early church- would never have poured out so much ink concerning the Blessed Mother had she not fulfilled an important role in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church.
How could any devout Christian, who so firmly holds the truths concerning the Mother of God, not turn to her intercession? How could the early Christians not honor with veneration the Queen of Heaven and Earth? The first clear evidence that has arrived to our era of Christians beseeching Mary’s intercession is the above quoted prayer Sub Tuum Praesidium, which can be dated as early as the middle of the second century. That tradition of prayer continued throughout the patristic period and into today. It is only fitting to end with the prayer of the great pastor, Father and Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430 A.D.):
“Blessed Virgin Mary, who can worthily repay you with praise and thanksgiving for having rescued a fallen world by your generous consent? . . . Accept then such poor thanks as we have to offer, unequal though they be to your merits. Receive our gratitude and obtain by your prayers the pardon of our sins. Take our prayers into the sanctuary of heaven and enable them to bring about our peace with God . . . Holy Mary, help the miserable, strengthen the discouraged, comfort the sorrowful, pray for your people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all women consecrated to God. May all who venerate you, fell now your help and protection . . . Make it your continual care to pray for the people of God, for you were blessed by God and were made worthy to bear the Redeemer of the world, who lives and reigns forever.”