We are going to take a look today at some of the writings of the Church Fathers on the Mother of God and on the thoughts today of Fr. Luigi Gambero.
Fr. Gambero, a Marianist priest and expert on Mary and early Christianity, collects these writings and discusses them in his book, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought (published by Ignatius Press).
In his book, he includes and examines the work of more than thirty Church Fathers and so gives us a comprehensive look at the thought of the Church Fathers on Mary.
For our talk today, we can only look at a few of the Church Fathers included in Fr. Gambero’s book, so I have chosen six to consider:
We will look at Ignatius and Irenaeus, because they are the earliest here and so help create a foundation on which the others build.
We will look at Athanasius, because of the important role he played in developing the understanding of Mary.
We will look at Gregory of Nyssa, because he is often overlooked and because he is the focus of our August retreat on the Beatitudes.
We will look at Andrew, because his Great Canon is prayed each Great Lent and because he has some important things to say about Mary’s purity.
And we will end with John Damascene, because he is the last of the Church Fathers and because Fr. Gambero tells us that his work synthesizes the thinking of the Church Fathers on Mary. In addition, each Pascha we pray his Canon of Pascha.
Because we will look at only six means that we cannot look at the excellent work of other Church Fathers such as Origen, Ephrem the Syrian, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Romanos the Melodist.
Perhaps we can do so at another time.
The Church Fathers Defined Our Faith
Before we look at Ignatius, let’s consider why the teachings of the Church Fathers are important.
Gambero notes that Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: 11:23 that “I hand on to you what I received from the Lord.”
He says that this is the mandate — a “divine mandate” — that the Fathers “put into practice.”
The Church Fathers lived from the first through seventh centuries. During that time, they defined the faith.
They are “faithful and authoritative witnesses to the faith.”
They are essential to the foundation of tradition.
They are considered Fathers by the Church because of their authority and their holiness.
Little attention was given to Mary until the second through fourth centuries and then particularly in the fifth century after the Council of Ephesus in 431 and Council of Chalcedon in 451.
After these councils, Gambero notes:
“Mary’s extraordinary role as Virgin Mother of the Savior had more and more influence on the faith of the Church. Christians began using the texts of Scripture to reflect on the mystery of this woman, in whom the Lord’s extraordinary intervention was interwoven with her own faith and openness.”
The Fathers wrote homilies about the Blessed Virgin, the devotion of the faithful grew, and Christians began to consider Mary as “a model for Christian life.”
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius, the earliest of the Church Fathers we will look at, spoke sparingly about Mary. But with his spare comments he begins to lay the foundation for our understanding today.
He speaks of Jesus as being “born and unborn,” born from Mary, unborn from the Father; of Jesus being born of the “seed of David” and the Holy Spirit through Mary; he emphasizes that Jesus was truly born and that he is “David’s descendent” and “Mary’s Son.”
He writes, too, that Jesus is the Son of God and “was truly born of a virgin and baptized by John in order to fulfill every command.”
Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus heard the teaching of Polycarp, a disciple of St. John the Theologian.
He follows St. Paul’s teaching that through Jesus there is a second creation, one that repeats the first creation but restores it to the Father’s original intent.
Irenaeus, therefore, teaches that sin and death have been destroyed by Jesus Christ, the new Adam, and that mankind has been restored to the image of God.
The Paschal Troparion includes something of this early understanding of Our Lord when we sing that that Our Lord has trampled upon death by His death.
Irenaeus develops the understanding of Mary as the New Eve, which Justin the Martyr (100-165) had first noted.
Fr. Gambero states: “Irenaeus clearly establishes a perfect parallel between the two women … just as the apostle Paul had done with Adam and Christ. Eve and Mary, though both married, were still virgins. But while Eve disobeyed, causing ruin and death for herself and the human race, Mary by obeying became the cause of salvation.”
Adam and Eve upset God’s plan; Jesus Christ and Mary restore it and perfect it.
Irenaeus states that Adam is the first of the dying, Jesus the first of the living and that “What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith.”
Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius is one of the most important defenders of Our Lord’s divinity.
He was involved in the Council of Nicea in 325 and was an outspoken opponent of the Arians.
Arianism, named after the priest Arius (250 or 256 - 336), is the belief that Jesus was created and the Son of God, but that he was not fully God. Arians did not believe in the Holy Trinity.
The First Ecumenical Council of Nicea declared Arius a heretic and Arianism a heresy.
As a result of his opposition to the Arian heresy, Athanasius was elevated to Bishop of Alexandria in 328.
His opponents were able to exile him five times, but he regained his office in 336 and remained in office through 373, the year of his death.
Athanasius declares that Jesus in the Son of God and that Mary, therefore, is the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
The Council of Ephesus in 431 would later state that Mary is the Theotokos.
Jesus, Athanasius says, truly was born of a woman, a virgin, and while Son of God was truly man with a human body.
He emphasizes the perpetual virginity of Mary and that Mary could not have had other children because at his death Jesus did not place any other but Mary into the care of John.
Mary, as virgin, he believes, would inspire many women in the Church to remain as virgins.
In one of his homilies Athanasius writes of Mary:
“O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness, for who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word. To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all….You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides.”
Mary, therefore, is the Ark of the New Covenant.
He called Eve, “the mother of the dead.” Of Mary, he said:
“In you, instead, O Wise Virgin, dwells the Son of God: he, that is, who is the tree of life.”
Through Mary, he says, “life came to all” through “the mercy of God, your beloved Son.”
Gregory of Nyssa
The younger brother of St. Basil the Great, Gregory was ordained Bishop of Nyssa in 371, was deposed by Arians in 376, and like Athanasius eventually regained his office, in his case in 378.
He was involved in the Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Synod of Constantinople in 394.
Gregory writes that Mary is the Mother of God because she bore the incarnated Son of God and that Jesus assumed his human nature in her womb.
“When the Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, the new man was formed in her.
Mary’s virginity, he says, was foretold in the Old Testament and notes in particular Isaiah 9:6 and Isaiah 7:14.
“O marvelous event! The Virgin becomes a mother and remains a virgin! Observe this new ordering of nature.”
The burning bush witnessed by Moses, he writes, also foretold of Mary:
“What was prefigured at the time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin….As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted.”
Gregory also writes that in saying “Yes” to the angel Gabriel she intends a vow of perpetual virginity.
He writes, too, that Mary fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (66:7) that she as virgin bore the Son of God without the pain of childbirth.
Andrew of Crete
Each Great Lent we pray Andrew’s Great Canon.
Each of the odes of this magnificent prayer ends with a verse in honor of Mary that encapsulates Church teaching. (The Great Canon is Included in the Publican’s Prayer Book with instructions for praying it.)
For example, the First Ode ends with:
“O Theotokos, hope and protection of those who praise You, take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and accept me in repentance, O Pure Lady!”
The Third Ode ends:
“Hail, O Womb that held God! Hail, Throne of the Lord. Hail, Mother of our Life.”
Besides the Great Canon, Andrew wrote three other canons in honor of Mary, along with a number of homilies.
Andrew shares the view of earlier Church Fathers that Mary was pure at the Annunciation.
Andrew emphasizes that in addition to being a perpetual virgin, Fr. Gambero writes, “the Blessed Virgin lived her whole life without being contaminated by any moral stain.”
Some believe his writings support the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and he is mentioned in the papal bull that declared the dogma.
In one of his writings he states:
“This is Mary, the Theotokos, the common refuge of all Christians, the first to be liberated from the original fall of our first parents.”
But Fr. Gambero cautions that since “he does not define the nature of the intervention God wrought in her….we would not be justified to attribute to him the concept of preservation from original sin as we understand the concept today, precisely as the solemn Magisterium of the Church has defined it.”
Fr. Gambero emphasizes that Andrew did not have the understanding of original sin that was set forth in the West; however, Andrew writes that God prepared Mary in advance so that she would be worthy to be the Mother of God.
Since Mary was holy, Andrew questions whether she would be subjected to death, a punishment for sin.
Fr. Gambero notes that Andrew writes in his homilies on the Dormition that Mary’s death was different from ours:
“Death, natural to men, also reached her; not, however, to impress her, as happens to us, or to vanquish her. God forbid! It was only to secure for her the experience of that sleep which comes from on high, leading us up to the object of our hope….”
Andrew writes that Mary is a mediator because she is the Mother of God, but her mediation is not superior to that of Our Lord.
Like Athanasius, John is a Doctor of the Church. Gambero calls his thought on Mary “a complete and substantial synthesis of patristic faith and teaching about the mystery of the Mother of God.”
He states as well that John’s work “sums up the whole tradition of the Eastern Fathers.”
He wrote a number of hymns in honor of the Mother of God. He also wrote homilies.
Fr. Gambero notes that “His four Marian homilies (one on the Nativity and three on the Dormition) are of particular importance.”
He writes about:
The meaning of the name Mary (from Hebrew mara, meaning the beautiful or the perfect one)
Fr. Gambero notes that “He was the first author to speak of consecration to Mary.”
He is cited, along with Andrew of Crete, in the papal document on the Assumption, as well as Lumen Gentium and Redemptoris Mater.
John praises Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna:
“O blessed loins of Joachim, whence the all-pure seed was poured out! O glorious womb of Anna, in which the most holy fetus grew and was formed, silently increasing!”
He calls Mary “a new heaven”:
“This heaven is clearly much more divine and awesome than the first. Indeed he who created the sun in the first heaven would himself be born in the second heaven, as the Sun of Justice.”
He speaks of Mary’s beauty:
“She is all beautiful, all near to God. For she, surpassing the cherubim, exalted beyond the seraphim, is placed near to God.”
He writes of the Dormition:
“Even though your most holy and blessed soul was separated from your most happy and immaculate body, according to the usual course of nature, and even though it was carried to a proper burial place, nevertheless it did not remain under the dominion of death, nor was it destroyed by corruption.
He writes of Mary’s role as mediatrix and compares her in this role to Jacob’s ladder:
“So you have assumed the role of a mediatrix, having become the ladder by which God comes down to us….”
He also speaks of her role in our salvation:
“From her we have harvested the grape of life; from her we have cultivated the seed of immortality. For our sake she became Mediatrix of all blessings; in her God became man, and man became God.”
He writes that she deserves our veneration, which includes venerating icons of her, because when we venerate Mary we glorify God:
“If the memory of all the saints is celebrated with panegyrics, who will refuse to praise the font of justice and the treasury of holiness? This is not done to glorify her but so that God might be glorified with an eternal glory.”
He speaks of his own devotion to Mary:
“What is sweeter than the Mother of my God? She has taken my mind captive; she has taken possession of my tongue; she is on my mind, day and night.”
With his book, Fr. Gambero give us an excellent overview of the development of Marian doctrine in the Church.
Let us close then with a statement from Fr. Gambero, which pertains to the importance of understanding the Patristic view of Mary, the Mother of God:
“...the teaching of the Fathers contains something indispensable, whose value the Church constantly recalls to us, so that we may build our Christian faith and Christian mentality upon the foundation left us by the Fathers.”
[Notes from our May 19, 2018, talk.]