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.]
Today we are going to look at one of the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022).
St. Symeon was a monk, abbot, mystic, and great proponent of spiritual fatherhood.
He was born in Galatia in Asia Minor and educated in Constantinople. We celebrate his feast day, the day of his death, during Great Lent on March 12. Some Orthodox transfer his feast to October 12.
St. Symeon is known as the “New Theologian,” which recognizes that he is the successor of the only other two saints in the Eastern tradition who have received this title: St. John the Evangelist and St. Gregory Nazianzus.
St. Symeon is known for his mystical writings and writings on Hesychasm, or Eastern Christian contemplative prayer.
If you read the Gospel and Apocalypse of St. John, the orations and poetry of St. Gregory, and St. Symeon’s hymns in particular, you find that all three have a mystical understanding of the Holy Trinity that transforms our hearts.
Pope Benedict XVI writes of St. Symeon in his Church Fathers and Teachers (Ignatius Press) that:
“The holy Eastern monk calls us all to pay attention to our spiritual life, to the hidden presence of God within us, to the sincerity of the conscience and to purification, to conversion of heart, so that the Holy Spirit may really become present in us and guide us.”
Self-renunciation is part of the practice of the hesychast. The Jesus Prayer also is part of his practice, because the praying of Our Lord’s name can lead to prayer of the heart or unceasing prayer.
Through prayer of the heart one can attain inner stillness, or interior peace, which then can lead to the experience of the uncreated light of God.
The material we will look at today is included in The Philokalia: The Complete Text (volume four), a four-book collection of the writings of Eastern saints on the spiritual life compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, and translated and edited from the Greek by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.
If you have read The Way of the Pilgrim, you have heard of The Philokalia and have been exposed to one of the works included in this collection.
I am going to quote specifically from St. Symeon’s work included in a one-volume collection of writings from The Philokalia that was translated earlier from the Russian by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer: Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart.
The works included in The Philokalia are essential to understanding Eastern Christian spirituality and the contemplative life.
If you can, make the four-volume set central to your spiritual reading. If you cannot read the four volumes, read at least this one volume. Let me add that it is worth owning and reading both to give you a different view of the same material.
I am going to focus in particular on some of St. Symeon’s thoughts in the work “Practical and Theological Precepts,” which consists of 184 paragraphs, about 45 pages, directed to monks.
We too can benefit, however, from his advice, since all Christians, not just monks, should seek to pray always.
Faith (Paragraphs 1-3)
“To have faith is to die for Christ and for His commandments....”
“To have faith in Christ means not only to stand aloof from the delights of this life, but also to endure patiently every temptation and test that brings upon us distress, affliction and misfortune, for as long as God wishes and until He comes to us.”
“Those who in any way esteem their parents above the commandments of God do not possess faith in Christ....”
Are we willing to die for our faith in Jesus Christ?
When we read or hear this question we usually think of physical death, martyrdom. And we should.
But most of us will not be martyrs.
How many of us realize that having faith means dying for Christ through self-renunciation and for His commandments, which show us how to renounce our desires and conform our wills to God’s will for us?
Life tempts us with delights that lead us astray. The commandments teach us how “to endure patiently every temptation.”
Living the commandments will give us great freedom and happiness. But this does not mean that we will never experience temptations or distress.
Dying to Christ, willingly climbing up on the cross with him, and living the commandments, however, will help us to endure.
Renunciation of the world (Paragraphs 5-6, 9)
“Renunciation of the world and complete withdrawl from it—if it includes withdrawl from all worldly things, habits, opinion and people, and the disowning of the body and will—in a very short time bring great profit to a man who is fired with such zeal.”
Those of us who live in the world, who make our living in the world, who must work, who must raise families cannot completely withdraw from the world.
We have responsibilities to others and to ourselves that demand our attention.
Yet we can withdraw much more than we often think from things, habits, opinions, and people. We also can disown the body more than we think. And, even in our state of life, we must disown the will.
Things—How much do we really need? Have we convinced ourselves that we need the things we have? How often have you heard questions like this and ignored them?
Families once made do with much smaller and less expensive cars and houses. The more we focus on the cars we own, the houses we live in, the less we focus on Christ.
Jesus Christ usually is not even a flicker of a thought when we buy a car or a house. We think instead of how much pleasure the new car or house will bring us, or how much we need the new car or house.
We often define ourselves by the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the clothes we wear.
We often buy things to gain in some way the attention of others, even things that are good, and even when we convince ourselves that we have a good reason to buy something.
Habits—It is difficult to break bad habits. Eating poorly is a bad habit. Using crude language is a bad habit. Sexual sins often are bad habits. Our bad habits can lead to illness and death in this life and hell in the next.
Opinions—We often are very proud of our opinions. Our opinions often lead us to disagreements, arguments, false understandings and impressions, lies, gossip, and malice.
Will—As Christians, we must deny the will. We must become Christ in the world. This only can happen if we decrease so that he increases.
There is much we can withdraw from in our lives.
Renunciation of the pleasures of the body (Paragraphs 26-27)
“It is impossible to fill the body to satiety with food and at the same time have spiritual enjoyment of mental and Divine blessings. For inasmuch as a man panders to his belly, in the same measure he deprives himself of spiritual blessings....it is through the body that lusts are excited and brought into action....”
Most of us are deprived of spiritual blessings because we eat and drink too much and enjoy what we eat and drink far too much.
Most in our society today think primarily of pleasure, especially pleasures of the body.
We pay a high price for this physically and emotionally. Consider how many of the ills of the world today are related to pleasures of the body.
We pay an even higher price for this spiritually.
Those who lust for pleasures of the body have placed, to use an image from the poet William Blake, manacles on their own minds. They live in a prison of pleasure, which they believe is freedom.
Arguing (Paragraphs 29-30)
“A man given to arguing...destroys his soul, without knowing it....”
Our society tends to argument, often out of anger. We argue with our spouses, our friends, and those we think of as enemies. Arguments often lead to lies, malice, gossip, and grudges.
We must be careful. Even when we argue with someone because of an injustice, we can destroy the soul.
Cares of this life (Paragraph 54)
“A man whose thoughts are occupied with cares of this life is not free...whether he worries for himself or others.”
We are often tripped up by the cares of this life. We worry about those we love. We worry about money. We worry about clothes. We worry about what others think of us. We worry about the Church. These are some of the cares of life that enslave us.
If your thoughts are occupied with the cares of this life, you have let yourself be controlled by the passions.
Hesychasm teaches us to be dispassionate. If we are dispassionate, we have learned how to control our passions. We learn to handle the thoughts that can lead us away from Jesus Christ.
Keeping the commandments (Paragraph 95)
“A house is roof is held up by the foundations and the rest of the building....So it is with the soul: the grace of the Holy Spirit is preserved by keeping the commandments.”
We return to and end with the commandments. We have ten, which Our Lord summarized as two. He then gave us the Beatitudes as a way of showing us how to live the commandments in our daily lives.
Our Lord is our cornerstone. All we do as Christians must be built on his teachings, just as the Church is built on his teachings.
If you spend any time reflecting on the Psalms, you will notice that they often speak of the necessity of learning, knowing, and living the commandments. This is the core teaching of Psalm 118 (Septuagint numbering), but you will find it in many others.
Reflect on the commandments and the Beatitudes. But also reflect on Psalm 118 and the rest of the Psalms. This will help you preserve the grace of the Holy Spirit you have received and will receive.
[Notes from our April 21, 2018, talk.]