Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Mary: why is she so important?

As many of you might have noticed I have a strong devotion to Our Lady, I already wrote down posts documenting her position in Anglican theology or about England as Mary’s dowry. This time I would like to go far back and write an article about the very basis of why Our Lady holds such a place of honour among all the saints.
We know that the figure of Mary held a place of high importance from the very beginning of the Church; the Apostles commemorated Mary with the highest praises as the first Fathers of the Church stated. During the first centuries, testimonies of Marian cult are rather common, especially in the forms of art found in the Roman catacombs: from scenes of Jesus’ life, like the Epiphany or the Annunciation, to devotional representations such as the famous Virgin and Child in the catacombs of Saint Priscilla or a Virgin between the Apostles Peter and Paul in the catacombs of Saint Marcellinus.

Early representation of the Virgin Mary in the Catacombs of St. Priscilla.

Commonly, it is thought that the early Christians overly praised the Virgin in rather heterodox ways, in fact this is not at all true, an early Father of the Church, Saint Ambrose, famously stated that Mary is the Temple of God and not the God of the Temple but still the Mother of all the virgins. The very first Father of the Church who wrote of the Virgin Mary was Saint Ignatius of Antioch who explained the humanity and divinity of Jesus as he was the fruit of the Virgin, descended by the line of David, but her conception was virginal and therefore a mystery of the silence of God. Like Saint Ignatius, Saint Justin holds a very similar point in his book “Dialogue with Trypho”, but he bases his reflections on the parallelism between Eve and Mary, a point that will inspire later theologians. St. Irenaeus, based on this point, puts the divine motherhood at the centre of his Christology, in which the human nature assumed by Christ in the womb, gives a redemptive value to his death, applicable to all men. Later during the 3rd century, the word “Theotókos” (Mother of God) comes into use, first applied by Origen, it becomes the title used for Mary in so many prayers of supplication, such as the Sub tuum presidium which is in fact the oldest known one. Among later theologians such as St. Ambrose or St. Augustine, the title “Mother of God” became widespread. The Divine Maternity of Mary became a dogma in 431 A.D. during the Council of Ephesus.
Marian devotion had already been shaped by then; as texts from theologians of the time show:

You are the vessel and tabernacle containing all mysteries. You know what the Patriarchs never knew; you have experienced what was never revealed to the Angels; you have heard what the Prophets never heard. In a word, all that was hidden from preceding generations was made known to you; even more, most of these wonders depended on you. (270 A.D., St. Gregory Thaumaturgus),

Blessed Virgin, immaculate and pure you are the sinless Mother of your Son, the mighty Lord of the universe. You are holy and inviolate, the hope of the hopeless and sinful; we sing your praises. We praise you as full of every grace, for you bore the God-Man. We all venerate you; we invoke you and implore your aid...Holy and immaculate Virgin...be our intercessor and advocate at the hour of death and judgment...you are holy in the sight of God, to Whom be honor and glory, majesty, and power forever. (373 AD, St. Ephem of Edessa).

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'... (373 St. Athanasius).

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, feel 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 for ever. (St Augustine in 430 A.D. ).

The Three Holy Mothers in Santa Maria Antiqua.
During the time of Pope Sylvester, a Temple dedicated to Vesta, in the Roman Forum, was reconstructed and dedicated to Santa Maria Antiqua, also Bishop Alexander of Alexandria consecrated another early church dedicated to the Mother of God. It is also known, that Our Lady was being honoured with her Son, in the Church of the Nativity in Palestine since the era of the Emperor Constantine. The early liturgies, since the 3rd century, had special celebrations of the Eucharist that mentioned the name of Mary, especially at the Nativity, Epiphany, etc. and the Feast of the Most holy Virgin/Mother was soon instituted in 380 A.D. 

Renaissance Birth of the Virgin Mary by Ghirlandaio in Santa Maria Novella.

The main commemorations of the Virgin for Anglicans, most of which, except the Dormition/Assumption, are found in the Book of Common Prayer, are: the Purification (February 2), the Annunciation (March 25), the Visitation (July 2), the Falling Asleep/Assumption (August 15), the Nativity (September 8) and the Conception (December 8), the first two are primarily commemorations of our Lord. The Presentation of Christ to the Temple, also known as the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin represents the human nature of Christ being presented to His Eternal Father. The Festival, also called Candlemass, representing the light of Christ among the Gentile world as in the Nunc Dimittis. This commemoration is first found in the “Pilgrimage of Sylvia” at Jerusalem during the fourth century. The Annunciation commemorates the beginning of Christ’s incarnate life on earth and we remember that he took our nature in the Virgin’s womb as in the Creeds. This is well resumed in the second Article of Religion of the Church of England:

THE Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.


This festival is said to have been introduced in the West by Emperor Maurice in the 7th century, together with the Nativity and the Falling Asleep of the B.V. Mary. The Visitation of the B.V. Mary to her cousin, Saint Elizabeth, the Mother of the Baptist, is of extremely great importance, as this is when she spoke the words of the Magnificat, words of joy and exaltation given by her Lord. This feast was instituted by Pope Urban IV in A.D.1389 (and adopted in England in 1480). The commemoration of the departing of Mary from this life first appeared in the West at the same time of the introduction of the feasts of the Annunciation and Nativity of the B.V. Mary, it originates in the East about the year 600 A.D. The original title was the “Rest of the Theotókos”. The Falling Asleep of the Virgin or the Assumption are commemorated on this day, in both theologies which I explored in another article, the Virgin’s body is finally assumed into heaven. The Conception (Dec.8), together with the Nativity of our Lady (Sep.8), is of great importance. Both festivals appear to have originated in Syria during the 6th century, the first commemoration was centred on St.Anne, the ancestress of God, in the 7th century the festival became more defined and during the late Middle Ages it gained popular favour in most of the West, the modern feast appears to have originated in England, amongst the monks of Winchester, before the 11th century. The feast of the Birth of the B.V. Mary also originated in Syria and it was linked to the dedication of the Basilica of the Virgin’s Birth (now St. Anne’s Church) in Jerusalem. Later, the feast was widespread throughout the Byzantine Empire. This was a popular time for Marian devotion - specially after the Council of Ephesus. These two festivals place great importance and draw attention to the immediate preparation for the Incarnation of Christ - the Virgin’s close association as a saint with her Divine Son give her an undoubted right to special commemoration and to her virginal conception and indeed holy birth. Her birth was the coming of one through whose agency the Eternal Son would take our nature and reveal Himself to mankind.

Renaissance Falling Asleep of the Virgin by Filippo Lippi in Spoleto Cathedral.

During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the basis of Marian devotion, later shaped in the 17th century as we know it today, were laid. But why did Mary inspired our religion, the hearts of the faithful and even so much of our Christian art and music?
Why do we give Mary this important place though? Why do so many question us about Mary? Often degrading her as if Jesus would gain something from this. “Mary is dead and can’t help you”, etc. We do not worship Mary and we do not worship her as a goddess. We really just follow Scripture with the historical and divinely inspired interpretation of the wider Church. 
Often, the God of the Scripture chooses to work through a human, let us think of Moses, Jacob or Joseph, Isaiah or Elisha. The same happened with Our Lady, God sent Jesus Christ for our Salvation into the world through Mary, even though he could have come on his own! It shows great humility to appear through the form of the most humble and lowly creature of the time: Mary. If Jesus was obedient for her for about 30 years as a Son, shouldn’t we be too? Mary was indeed good enough for our Lord and he said to us: no servant is greater than His Master. Mary and God shared the same body for nine months and his Sacred blood and body which we receive every Sunday has been flowing in Mary’s veins as well. We do not worship Mary, we simply respect her Grace, as announced in the Scriptures, by the Archangel Gabriel: “Hail Mary”! The Queen of Heaven, the daughter of the Father, the bride of the Spirit and the Mother of Jesus is indeed worthy of our praise, but why so? What does Scripture say?
The Old Testament tells us of the virginal birth of Christ; in the Book of Genesis (3:15), God says I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. This is clearly a reference to the Messiah who will be born of a Virgin, in Isaiah (7:14) it is said that the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Annunciation by Simone Martini.

But why do we sometimes ask Mary’s intercessions during prayer? Where is that written! If we move on to the New Testament, in particular to the Gospel of St. Luke (1:26-28 we read that in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you! The Grace of God that filled her - in a special, transmissible way. Be it unto me, according to Thy Word - she received and accepted the mission of Salvation, brought by the Angel. In Luke 1:15 Mary sanctifies the greatest man, John the Baptist, while he is still in the womb: and when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:42 tells us that Mary’s fruit is blessed and so is she Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! A lowly maiden blessed by the blessed fruit (God) she is carrying, also in Luke 6:43-44: for no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The Gospels are never vague when they need not to be and Luke 1:43 affirms and confirms us that Mary is God’s Mother: and why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? and in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47), her joyful song of praise, Mary rejoices in the mission giver to her, a mission of Salvation, the mission of God’s testimony unto humanity: and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. The Magnificat continues with Mary’s understanding of her holy mission, of how God chose a lowly maiden to be the Blessed Mother of God, Luke 1:48 goes: for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed - a lowly maiden thankful for what God has done unto her (Luke 1:49): for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, also shared the suffering of her beloved child, yet God. In Luke 2:34-35: Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. And Mary was aware of the sacrifice of the Lamb, with great courage she begins this great path of love - a love for her Son the God, greater than her own maternal feelings (Luke 11:27-28): he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked! But he said, Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it! The greatest of saints was always subdued to God. These verses are at the foundation of the Hail Mary, the most famous of our devotional prayers to Mary, the Magnificat instead, which we always sing at Evensong, is a testimony of the joy of the announced God in the womb and Mary's mission here on earth and beyond.

Madonna of the Magnificat, Sandro Botticelli.

Since the early Middle Ages, Mary was seen as the intercessor to the mighty God, as we can see from so many frescoes and mosaics, she was seen as an understanding and more approaching way to the God of the Final Judgement. In the Scriptures Mary’s intercession with Jesus can be found in the Gospel of St. John (2:3-5): when the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you”. A rather moving testimony.
In the Gospel of St. John (19:26-27), in a rather dramatic passage, Jesus also instructs humanity to behold its Mother, Mary that will follow Christ into heaven, subdued to the same: when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. An analogue passage can be found in the Revelation (12:17): then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

Descend from the Cross, Rogier van der Weyden.

In late Medieval and Renaissance art, the Coronation of the Virgin, became a rather common subject for religious commissions - where does it originate from though? Again in the Scripture we can find references to Mary, the Mother in Heaven, in 1 Corinthians 6:17 but he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. It suggests of Mary being at the mighty presence of God in heaven. In the Book of Revelation (11:19-21), Mary is also seen as the New Ark of the Covenant, because as we know Jesus is the new Temple, the only messianic mission fulfilled in a different, yet real way than as expected in the Old Testament: then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Revelation (12:1) also confirms Mary’s assumption into heaven as Queen of Heaven: a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars - translated into art; it is a very common iconography if you think about it!
Mary also takes an incredible mission in Revelation (12:17), together with the army of angels and archangels she is the greatest warrior against Satan: then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

Coronation of the Virgin by Gentile da Fabriano.

In Rome, several churches were dedicated to Our Lady, the most notable example being the majestic St. Mary Major built in the 5th century, under Pope Sixtus III. Later, Marian veneration was particularly widespread among Benedictine monasteries, chants dedicated to the Virgin such as Ave Maris Stella and the Salve Regina started to emerge. In the 8th century the "Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary" became part of the Canonical hours. In France, the Carolingians were quite devoted to Mary; they celebrated various liturgical feasts throughout the year and dedicated churches in her honour. During the Romanesque period, great Marian churches such as Speyer Cathedral or Tournai Cathedral were built. Later, as Gothic architecture developed, even grander shrines were dedicated to her, a famous example being Our Lady of Chartres or Santa Maria Assunta in Siena. During the 12th and 13th centuries the growth of the cult of the Virgin was partly inspired by a large number of theological writings, such as those of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote of her virginity and humility or John Duns Scotus who defended the Immaculate Conception. By then, also large sanctuaries, such as Loreto or Walsingham, became part of the pilgrimage movement and attracted hundreds of people.

Our Lady appearing to St. Philip Neri - Sebastiano Conca - c.1740 - Oil on Canvas - Indianapolis Museum of Art.

By the 14th century the figure of Mary had become almost a compassionate intercessor, great art was being commissioned regarding Mary’s life, especially in Italy, a splendid example is the Annunciation by Simone Martini, an incredibly popular iconography at the time, during the Renaissance a dramatic growth in Marian art took places and depictions of the Virgin and Child, of whom Filippo Lippi’s ones are great examples or the many Coronations, Stories of the Life of the Virgin, etc. became extremely popular among the great patrons of the time. Another form of art during the Renaissance, music, also became a form of art to immortalise Mary’s testimony of fatih, notably through works by Palestrina or Victoria: the Salve Regina, Alma Redemptoris or the Missa de Beata Virgine. After the Counter-Reformation, popular Marian teachings such as the Conception or the Falling Asleep/Assumption became even more so. Also, a fruit of Baroque spirituality was Saint Ignatius of Loyola who instructed the Jesuits to preserve the shrine of the Madonna della Strada at their mother church of the Gesù in Rome, whereas Saint Philip Neri is credited with devoting the month of May to the Mother of God. In the 17th century, the Church of England saw a new beginning - Mary's feasts increased in the Book of Common Prayer and Anglican Divines such as Lancelot Andrewes, Thomas Ken and George Herbert wrote beautiful verses on the Virgin Mary.
Marian devotion evolved through the centuries, according to how the Holy Spirit inspired the Tradition of the Church - but the foundation are steady and strong; Hail Mary, Full of Grace!
I hope that this brief article summed Mary’s role, both passive and active in the history of God’s revelation unto humanity and why we should give her the honours as Mother of Jesus that she so deserves, the mission of Mother of God and Mother of all, given from the Most High.

Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi.

The great Cappadocian Father of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa wrote: What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for 'we no longer know Christ according to the flesh,' but He dwells in us spiritually and the Father takes up His abode with Him, the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each of us.
May God bless us all, with the prayers of Mary the Virgin.

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