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Mary and the Early Fathers

By Deacon Keith Fournier

Among the multiple and profound references to Mary, the Mother of God, found in the writings of the early Church Fathers is one of my favorites in the Cappadocian, Gregory of Nyssa who died in 356 A.D. "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."

The early Christians knew that Mary's "Yes" (Fiat) not only changed history but reveals the meaning of the Christian vocation. During the praying of the Angelus while he was visiting Germany in 2011, Pope Benedict called the faithful to join their yes to the "Yes" of Mary: "The Archangel Gabriel presents God's plan of salvation to the Virgin Mary, by which she was to become the Mother of the Redeemer. Mary was fearful, but the angel of the Lord spoke a word of comfort to her: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." So Mary is able to respond with her great "yes".

"This "yes," by which she accepts to become the handmaid of the Lord, is the trusting "yes" to God's plan, to our salvation. And she finally addresses her "yes" to us all, whom she received as her children entrusted to her at the foot of the Cross (cf. Jn19:27). She never withdraws this promise. And so she is called happy, or rather blessed, for believing that what was promised her by the Lord would be fulfilled (cf. Lk 1:45). As we pray this Angelus, we may join Mary in her "yes", we may adhere trustingly to the beauty of God's plan and to the providence that he has assigned to us in his grace.

Madonna Enthroned with the Infant Christ and Saints - Antoniazzo Romano - 1487

Madonna Enthroned with the Infant Christ and Saints - Antoniazzo Romano - 1487

Then God's love will also, as it were, take flesh in our lives, becoming ever more tangible."

The Pope stands on the shoulders of giants throughout Church history. Here are short insights from the writings of the Fathers on Mary, the Mother of God. In the year 130 the Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus wrote concerning a theme common in patristic Marian reflections, that Mary was the "Second Eve": "As Eve was seduced by the speech of an angel, so as to flee God in transgressing his word, so also Mary received the good tidings by means of the angel's speech, so as to be God within her, being obedient to this word. And though the one had disobeyed God, yet the other was drawn to obey him; that of the virgin Eve, the virgin Mary might become the advocate and as by a virgin the human race had been bound to death, by a virgin it is saved, the balance being preserved- a virgin's disobedience  by a virgin' obedience." (Against Heresies, 3, 19 130 A.D.)

Years before, the great apologist of the second century, Justin the Martyr (110-165 A.D.) wrote: "For whereas Eve, yet a virgin and undefiled, through conceiving the word that came from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy, when the Angel told her the good tidings that the Spirit of the Lord should come upon  her, and the power of the Most High overshadow her, and therefore the Holy One to be born of her should be the Son of God, answered, Be it done to me according to thy word. And so by means of her was he born, concerning whom we have shown so many Scriptures were spoken; through whom God overthrows the serpent, and those angels and men who have become like to it, and on the other hand, works deliverance from death for such as repent of their evil doings and believe in him (Dialogue with Trypho, 100 A.D.)

In the fourth century, St. Epiphanius, wrote "Against Eighty Heresies" where he affirmed: "Eve was called the mother of the living ...after the fall this title was given to her. True it is...the whole race of man upon earth was born from Eve; but in reality it is from Mary the Life was truly born to the world. So that by giving birth to the Living One, Mary became the mother of all living"

Contained within the larger version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a fragment of the fresco from the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome dating from the Third Century which is one of many ancient images of the Blessed Virgin. The oldest hymn to her is contained is called in Latin the " Sub Tuum Praesidium" (Under Thy Protection) and dates to the Third Century. It is also found in Greek and Church Slavonic and begins with these words:"We fly to your patronage, O holy Theotokos; despise not our petition in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O ever-glorious and blessed Virgin."

The Greek term Theo-tokos means "God-bearer" or Mother of God. It is still the most popular title given to Our Lady in the Eastern Christian Churches. It was affirmed in early Church Councils precisely because it confirmed the Christian claim about who Jesus Christ is and protected the meaning and implications of His Incarnation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it simply," What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ" (CCC#487).

We find a myriad of affirmations of Mary in the early Christian writings. Here are a few more: "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. ).


More Mary, Mother of God



Appearances of Mary

Apparitions and Appearances

Apparitions and Appearances Image

The term "appearance" has been used with Marian apparitions and visions of Jesus Christ. The Church will confirm an apparition as worthy of belief, but belief is never required by divine faith. Read More

Evaluating Apparitions

Evaluating Apparitions Image

A Roman Catholic approved Marian apparition is one that has been examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and has been granted approval by the local Bishop or the Holy See. Read More

Approved Appearances
Traditionally
Vatican
Bishop
Coptic
Un-Approved Appearances
Approval of Faith Expression
Unapproved Apparitions

Mary as Mother

Mother of God (TheotoKos)

Mother of God (TheotoKos) Image

From antiquity, Mary has been called "Theotokos", or "God-Bearer". The word in Greek is "Theotokos". The term was used as part of the popular piety of the early first millennium church. Read More

Daughter of the Father

Daughter of the Father Image

Mary is "full of grace," because it is precisely in her that the Incarnation of the Word, the hypostatic union of the Son of God with human nature, is accomplished and fulfilled. Read More

Mother of the Redeemer

Mother of the Redeemer Image

Mary was there at the Incarnation, Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of God Incarnate. She was there throughout the often called "hidden years" in Nazareth. In the life of the Redeemer... Read More

Spouse of the Spirit

Spouse of the Spirit Image

Throughout God's relationship with Israel He promises to espouse His people to himself (See, e.g. Hosea 2:19). This language of spousal love, of nuptiality, is also present in this overshadowing... Read More

Mother of the Church

Mother of the Church Image

Since the Virgin Mary's role in the mystery of Christ and the Spirit has been treated, it is fitting now to consider her place in the mystery of the Church. She is acknowledged as... Read More

Mother of the Domestic Church

Mother of the Domestic Church Image

Mary is the mother of every domestic church, of every Christian family. She fully understands the naturally supernatural realities of family life because she lived them. Read More

Our Mother

Our Mother Image

I found that every one of the great influences in my Christian life from that communion of saints to which we are all joined was profoundly "Marian". Francis of Assissi, Bernard of Clairvaux... Read More



Mary as Model

Mary in the Scriptures

Mary in the Scriptures Image

Christian Scripture calls the "more excellent way", the way of Love. Mary understands this Way and walked on it with extraordinary humility. Follow her in journey through the Scriptures. Read More

Mary in the Tradition

Mary in the Tradition Image

To understand Mary in the Tradition of the Church we have to understand what is meant by the word "Tradition" - and why it matters. In his second letter to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul... Read More

Mary and the Councils

Mary and the Councils Image

A Bishop named Nestorius objected to the title of Theotokos, Mother of God or God Bearer for Mary. The Council of Ephesus met in 431AD and affirmed Mary was the "Mother of God"... Read More

Mary in the Liturgical Year

Mary in the Liturgical Year Image

The Second Vatican Council did not offer one particular document on Mary, the Mother of God. Rather, the Council fathers incorporated the meaning and mission of Mary, as well as her... Read More

Mary East and West

Mary East and West Image

Devotion to - and love for . Mary, the Mother of God, is a foundational part of the Christian Church both East and West. The Eastern Christian emphasis, both doctrinally and devotionally, is... Read More

Mary and the Early Fathers

Mary and the Early Fathers Image

Among the multiple and profound references to Mary, the Mother of God, found in the writings of the early Church Fathers is one of my favorites in the Cappadocian, Gregory of Nyssa... Read More

Mary and the Saints

Mary and the Saints Image

Among the titles given to Mary is "Queen of all the Saints". In one of his reflections on this woman whom he loved with such devotion, Blessed john Paul II proclaimed "This woman of faith... Read More


Mary as Disciple

Mary as Disciple

Mary as Disciple Image

We were made to give ourselves away to the Lord and, in Him, for others. Mary's choice, her response to the invitation of a God, is a singularly extraordinary event in all of human history. Read More

Handmaiden of the Lord

Handmaiden of the Lord Image

"I am the handmaiden (servant) of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word." (Luke 1:38) When Mary spoke those few words, human history was forever changed. Read More

Model of Holiness

Model of Holiness Image

From antiquity the early Christians reflected on a "mystery" of the faith- how the Incarnation of Jesus Christ came about through the free cooperation of this little Virgin of Nazareth... Read More

First Disciple

First Disciple Image

She was the first evangelizer and the first disciple of her Son Jesus. She gave the first Gospel testimony to her cousin, Elizabeth, without words, as the Redeemer in her womb drew the child in her womb... Read More


Way of Mary

The Message of Mary

The Message of Mary Image

And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her. (The Gospel of Luke 2:34-37) Read More

The Meaning of Mary

The Meaning of Mary Image

"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word." "At the announcement that she would give birth to "the Son of the Most High" without... Read More

The Prayer of Mary

The Prayer of Mary Image

Mary's Prayer teaches us to stay afloat in the ocean of life, with all of its undertows. Mary's way is to become an ark within, where the same God who became incarnate within her... Read More

The Song of Mary

The Song of Mary Image

"When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you... Read More

The Titles of Mary

The Titles of Mary Image

From the earliest theological reflections in Christian history we find the defense of the most important of the titles of Mary, "Theotokos" in Greek. It is translated God-bearer... Read More


Mission of Mary

Mary and the Eucharist

Mary and the Eucharist Image

In a beautiful apostolic exhortation entitled the Sacrament of Love, issued in 1997, Pope Benedict XVI wrote these words under a section entitled The Eucharist and the Virgin Mary... Read More

Mary & the New Evangelization

Mary & the New Evangelization Image

Throughout his pontificate, Blessed John Paul II called for this "New Evangelization." Pope Benedict XVI made this a central pillar of his pontificate. He erected a Pontifical Council... Read More

The Path of Mary

The Path of Mary Image

Before they were called Christians (Acts 11:26), at Antioch, they were referred to as "the Way". A Rabbi named Saul spoke of persecuting "the way" (Acts 22:4) before he was profoundly converted... Read More

The Marian Moment

The Marian Moment Image

Over the last two decades a recovery of the significance of the life and witness of Mary has occurred among many Christians, even those who descend from the communities of... Read More

Mary's Mission

Mary's Mission Image

"Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother... When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, Woman, behold, your son." Read More

Marian Prayer and Piety

Marian Prayer and Piety Image

Marian prayer and piety developed very early in the history of the undivided Christian Church of the first millennium. It has been kept alive in a myriad of piety practices in the both the Catholic... Read More


Message of Mary

What Does She Say?

What Does She Say? Image

The message of Mary is the message of the Gospel, to repent and believe the Good news. The message of Mary is conversion to Her Son by saying "yes" to God's invitation. That is the path to true... Read More

Marian Prayer and Devotion

Marian Prayer and Devotion Image

The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs the faithful on just how Mary prayed. Mary still prays. She has a special role in the plan of salvation and is a model for all Christians... Read More

Marian Consecration

Marian Consecration Image

To consecrate means to dedicate. It is used in reference to worship and means to be set aside or set apart for God. It is also a word which speaks to the very core of the Christian... Read More


Devotion of Mary

Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary

Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary Image

When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them... Read More

Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary

Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary Image

My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid; For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed... Read More

Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary

Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary Image

But at daybreak on the first day of the week they took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered... Read More

Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary

Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary Image

While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory... Read More

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