Mary - East and West
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By Deacon Keith Fournier
In my return to the Catholic faith in which I was raised I walked a road filled with many turns. I am a "revert" to the Church and came home after a search for truth. That search led me to early Church history where I discovered a wealth of wisdom to be uncovered. I fell in love with the writings of the early Fathers - what is called "Patristic" literature. In the first few centuries of the Church we find some of the most profound prose, poetry and theological reflections on Mary, the Mother of God. I discovered that devotion to Mary is as ancient as the Christian Church.
Over the years, as my study of theology continued, my love for those early Christian writings only grew. The writings of the Greek Fathers (the Eastern Fathers) began to inform my devotional life. For example, I have prayed with icons for decades. After ordination to the Diaconate I sought and received permission to study for service at the Melkite Greek Catholic or "Byzantine" Liturgy, that is in addition to my service as a Roman Catholic Deacon. The Deacon at the Eastern or Byzantine Liturgy plays a more prevalent role which includes the continual offering of prayers of intercession and the incensing of both the icons and the faithful.
The chant from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, "It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you" is a mainstay of the Liturgy of Eastern Christianity, Orthodox and Catholic. Theotokos is a Greek word used at the Council of Ephesus which literally translates as "The One who bore God" or "the God bearer". It is also rendered the "Mother of God".
The Annunciation - Andrea del Sarto - 1512
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 on the teaching of the Council of Ephesus. Mary is the "Mother of God" because she gave carried and gave birth to the Incarnate Word, true God and true man, united in the person (hypostasis) of Christ.
Eastern Christianity, Orthodox and Catholic, affirms that she is ever Virgin. Further, that she fell asleep in the Lord (called the dormition in the East) and was taken bodily into heaven. Finally, Eastern Christians affirm her powerful role as a heavenly intercessor for all who follow her Son and Savior, Jesus Christ. My study and experience led me to discover that love and devotion to Mary is even stronger in the East than in the West. Further, that this love and devotion did not detract in any way from the worship which is proper only to God.
The earliest Feast days and formal prayers to Mary in liturgical history came from the Greek Fathers and the Eastern Liturgy. It was Eastern Iconography which became the foundation for Marian Art treasures in the West. Piety practices such as keeping an Image of Mary in every Christian home, began in the East. A pious story still circulates that the first appearance or "apparition" of Mary was to the Capadocian Father St. Gregory of Nazianzen. Shrines or pilgrimage sites which invite special prayers for Mary's intercession can be found very early on in the East, in Caesarea, Edessa, Lydda and Mount Athos to name just a few.
Blessed John Paul II regularly prayed for the "two lungs of the Church, East and West" to come into full communion and pray together again. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI is working tirelessly to that end. Clearly such a Church, healed of her division, will find itself together seeking the intercession of the Virgin of Nazareth. Her "yes" brought earth to heaven and still brings heaven to earth. Mary, the Mother of God, is a gift for Christians of both the East and the West.
Here is a beautiful excerpt on Mary taken from the Second Century Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. He is loved by both the East and the West. It shows how the beautiful "Marian" piety and Christ-centered Marian theology of the early Church Fathers proceeds:
"The Lord, coming into his own creation in visible form, was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband."
As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.
Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed him who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam, and trampled on his head, in accordance with God's words to the serpent in Genesis: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall lie in wait for your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel.
The one lying in wait for the serpent's head is the one who was born in the likeness of Adam from the woman, the Virgin. This is the seed spoken of by Paul in the letter to the Galatians: The law of works was in force until the seed should come to whom the- promise was made. He shows this even more clearly in the same letter when he says: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.
The enemy would not have been defeated fairly if his vanquisher had not been born of a woman, because it was through a woman that he had gained mastery over man in the beginning, and set himself up as man's adversary. That is why the Lord proclaims himself the Son of Man, the one who renews in himself that first man from whom the race born of woman was formed; as by a man's defeat our race fell into the bondage of death, so by a man's victory we were to rise again to life."
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