Mary and the Early Fathers
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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".
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"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
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 disobedienceÂ 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 uponÂ 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 wereÂ 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. ).
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- Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Act of Contrition
- The Apostles' Creed
- Padre Nuestro - Our Father (Lord's Prayer)
- A Guide for Confession
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