The Blessed Virgin Mary has been loved and honoured by Christians from the foundation of the church, from the time that our Lord gave us His Mother from the cross: “Behold your Mother!” (John 19:27) They have called upon Mary for her prayers, knowing that there is no one closer to Jesus in heaven than she is, no one who can plead for their cause more effectively than she.
Evidence of this can be found in the catacombs of Rome where the early Martyrs of the church were buried, and later, where pilgrims would go to pray, asking for their intercession. Images of Jesus, ‘The Good Shepherd’ stand along side those of the Prophets and Mary. Mary is shown either with the Christ Child in her womb or upon her lap (the Mercy Seat); there are close to a hundred images of Mary – a sign of the early church’s deep reverence for their Mother.
The other evidence of early Marion devotion is to be found in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, of which the following pages contains just a few.
But first a few words on the Churches teachings on Mary:
The New Eve:
St Paul tells us, “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Cor 15:45) The early Christians knew that if Jesus was the ‘New Adam’ then Mary is the ‘New Eve.’ In the Gospel of St. John there are two occasions where Jesus calls His mother ‘Woman,’ a title denoting respect. The first is at the wedding at Cana where we see Mary’s first act of intercession. (John 2:1-11) The second occasion was from the cross (John 19:26). In calling Mary ‘Woman’ many of the Early Fathers see a clear allusion to Genesis 3:15. God tells the devil “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heal.” The Early Fathers called this verse the ‘protoevangelium’ (the first Gospel) as it expresses how the devil would strike the heel of the Christ (upon the cross) and how the Christ would crush the serpents head, defeating him (from the cross).
The Fathers would also see the ‘woman’ as their ‘Queen of Heaven’ described in (Rev Ch 12), ‘and a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.’ The chapter goes on to describe ‘the woman’ giving birth to a ‘male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.’ (Rev 12:5) This is the Christ Child (See also Isa 66:7 and Ps 2:9).
There was never any question of Mary having further children after Jesus, she was the Spouse of the Holy Sprit, the immaculate temple of God. Early writings tell us that the “brethren” mentioned in scripture were children brought to the marriage by St Joseph, whether these children were his own, or again, just part of a wider family group is unclear (the word, “brethren” in the language of that day encapsulated a wider family circle i.e. cousins etc.)
Early Christians called Mary “The Window of Heaven” because through her God poured the “True Light” upon the world..
The Immaculate Conception:
This dogma is not explicitly mention in scripture but it is implied in certain scriptural texts and also found in the Old Testament biblical types that pre-figured Mary. God said He would put enmity between the devil and the woman, but there could be no enmity between them unless Mary had been sinless. The Angel Gabriel greeted Mary: “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) The word for grace used here is “cacatomene” meaning “you have been perfected.” And the fact that the angel told Mary that she was “full” of grace does not leave room for further grace to be imparted to her at a later date.
In the order of grace, Mary had already received a most singular privilege. This was done for her by the Father, through the merits of her divine Son Jesus. God, not being limited to the boundaries of time applied the saving grace of Christ to Mary in the womb of her mother Ann, at the moment of conception. This was done in order to prepare for the Lord His earthly Temple and the Ark of the New Covenant.
The Ark of the New Covenant:
Just as the first Ark held the Manna from heaven, which fed the people of God in the desert, so Mary’s body held the very ‘Bread of Life,’ that brings life to the soul. As the first Ark contained the rod of the long-ago ancestral priest, so Mary’s body contained the divine person, the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who was to “rule the nations with a rod of iron.” There are also other parallels between these two Arks. David, before the first Ark exclaims “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6::9) Elizabeth exclaims to Mary, the New Ark, “Why is this granted me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) David “danced” for joy before the old Ark (2 Sam 6:14, 16) whilst John the Baptist leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb before Mary (Luke 1:44).
Finally, the old Ark remained in the hill country for 3 months (2 Sam 6:11) and Mary stayed will Elizabeth for 3 months (Luke 1:56).
If Mary is the Ark of the Covenant then she also becomes the Mercy Seat. In Leviticus we read that the old Ark had a Mercy Seat, where the Lord’s Spirit would descend and the presence of the Lord would “overshadow” the Ark taking the form of a cloud. In Luke the Angel Gabriel tells Mary ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will “overshadow” you.’ (Luke 1:35)
Mother of God:
In 431 at the Council of Ephesus the church gave Mary the title of “Theotokos” (Mother of God). This title was given to Mary to help the early Christians understand the divinity of Jesus, that He was both God and man. The official declaration was as follows: “If any one does not acknowledge that Emmanuel is in truth God, and that the Holy Virgin is, in consequence, “Theotokos,” for she brought forth after the flesh the Word of God who has become flesh, let him be anathema.”
Queen of Heaven:
The Lord had promised David that a king in his line would rule all the nations and reign forever (2 Sam 7:12-14 & Ps 132:11-13). In the ancient tradition the queen was always the king’s mother and not his wife because of the practice of polygamy (the king having many wives) e.g. Solomon reigns with his mother Bathsheba at his right hand and she intercedes for the people (1 Kings 2:19 & 20).
The queen mother of old, was a foreshadow of the eternal Queen Mother to come. Mary is our Queen Mother and we see an example of her intercession at the wedding feast of Cana. Mary instructs the servants “Do whatever He tells you.” (Jn 2:5) We also find other texts that reveal Mary’s status: The Angel Gabriel approaches Mary with a royal greeting, “Hail Mary” (Lk 1: 28) And in Revelation 12 we see Mary crowned Queen of Heaven.
Mother of the Church:
The early fathers believed that Mary was to be our Mother, given to us by Jesus from the cross (John 19:27). In Revelations 12 we see that Mary “the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars” gave birth to the male child who was to rule the nations, and later, in verse 17, we read that we too are Mary’s offspring: “then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” In keeping the commandments of God we become children of God and spiritual children of Mary who is the spouse of the Holy Spirit.
The information in these pages is only a brief introduction into the teachings of the Church on the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are far more truths to be found in both Scripture and Tradition. Two books that are recommended for further study are:
- True Devotion To Mary, by St Louis de Montfort
- Hail, Holy Queen (The Mother Of God In The Word Of God)
by Dr Scott Hahn
On the following pages are some of the words of the Early Church Fathers.
The New Eve
…[Eve] having become disobedient, was made the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race; so also Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, was made the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. . . . Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith” (Against Heresies 3:22:24 [A.D. 189]).
It was while Eve was still a virgin that the word of the devil crept in to erect an edifice of death. Likewise through a virgin the Word of God was introduced to set up a structure of life. Thus what had been laid waste in ruin by this sex was by the same sex re-established in salvation. Eve had believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. That which the one destroyed by believing, the other, by believing, set straight” (The Flesh of Christ 17:4 [A.D. 210].
“Our Lord . . . was not averse to males, for he took the form of a male, nor to females, for of a female he was born. Besides, there is a great mystery here: that just as death comes to us through a woman, life is born to us through a woman; that the devil, defeated, would be tormented by each nature, feminine and masculine, as he had taken delight in the defection of both” (Christian Combat 22:24 [A.D. 396]).
Mother of All Christians
In spirit she is mother, not of our head, who is our Saviour himself—of whom all, even she herself, are rightly called children of the bridegroom—but plainly she is the mother of us who are his members, because by love she has cooperated so that the faithful, who are the members of that head, might be born in the Church. In body, indeed, she is the Mother of that very head” (Holy Virginity 6:6 [A.D. 401]).
John the Theologian
“[T]he Lord said to his Mother, ‘Let your heart rejoice and be glad, for every favour and every gift has been given to you from my Father in heaven and from me and from the Holy Spirit. Every soul that calls upon your name shall not be ashamed, but shall find mercy and comfort and support and confidence, both in the world that now is and in that which is to come, in the presence of my Father in the heavens’” (The Falling Asleep of Mary [A.D. 400]).
Ambrose of Milan
“Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a virgin not only undefiled, but a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin” (Commentary on Psalm 118:22–30 [A.D. 387]).
“Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honour of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins—for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin. (Nature and Grace 36:42 [A.D. 415]).
Ephraim the Syrian
“You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you, nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children [says the Father] can compare in beauty to these?” (Nisibene Hymns 27:8 [A.D. 361]).
The labour pains of a woman during childbirth are the result of original sin. (Gen 3:16) The following two quotes are a witness to the fact that Mary, being conceived without original sin, did not suffer these pains.
The Ascension of Isaiah
“[T]he report concerning the child was noised abroad in Bethlehem. Some said, ‘The Virgin Mary has given birth before she was married two months.’ And many said, ‘She has not given birth; the midwife has not gone up to her, and we heard no cries of pain’” (Ascension of Isaiah 11 [A.D. 70]).
The Odes of Solomon
“So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies. And she labored and bore the Son, but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose. And she did not seek a midwife, because he caused her to give life. She bore as a strong man, with will . . . ” (Odes of Solomon 19 [A.D. 80]).
We fly to your patronage O Holy Mother of God, despise not our prayers in our necessities, but ever deliver us from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen (250AD).
Gregory of Tours
“But Mary, the glorious Mother of Christ, who is believed to be a virgin both before and after she bore him, has, as we said above, been translated into paradise, amid the singing of the angelic choirs, whither the Lord preceded her” (ibid., 1:8).
Pope Siricius I
“You had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would never have chosen to be born of a virgin if he had ever judged that she would be so incontinent as to contaminate with the seed of human intercourse the birthplace of the Lord’s body, that court of the eternal king” (Letter to Bishop Anysius [A.D. 392]).
“In being born of a Virgin who chose to remain a Virgin even before she knew who was to be born of her, Christ wanted to approve virginity rather than to impose it. And he wanted virginity to be of free choice even in that woman in whom he took upon himself the form of a slave” (Holy Virginity 4:4 [A.D. 401]).
Cyril of Alexandria
“[T]he Word himself, coming into the Blessed Virgin herself, assumed for himself his own temple from the substance of the Virgin and came forth from her a man in all that could be externally discerned, while interiorly he was true God. Therefore he kept his Mother a virgin even after her childbearing” [A.D. 430]).
Pope Leo I
“His [Christ’s] origin is different, but his [human] nature is the same. Human usage and custom were lacking, but by divine power a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and Virgin she remained” (Sermons 22:2 [A.D. 450]).
(In speaking of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, against a heretic) “Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men”
Gregory of Tours
“The course of this life having been completed by blessed Mary, when now she would be called from the world, all the apostles came together from their various regions to her house. And when they had heard that she was about to be taken from the world, they kept watch together with her. And behold, the Lord Jesus came with his angels, and, taking her soul, he gave it over to the angel Michael and withdrew.
At daybreak, however, the apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb, and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; the holy body having been received, he commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise, where now, rejoined to the soul, [Mary’s body] rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones and is in the enjoyment of the good of an eternity that will never end” (Eight Books of Miracles 1:4 [A.D. 584]).
“If therefore it might come to pass by the power of your grace, it has appeared right to us your servants that, as you, having overcome death, do reign in glory, so you should raise up the body of your Mother and take her with you, rejoicing, into heaven. Then said the Saviour [Jesus]: ‘Be it done according to your will’” (The Passing of the Virgin 16:2–17 [A.D. 300]).
Timothy of Jerusalem
“Therefore the Virgin is immortal to this day, seeing that he who had dwelt in her transported her to the regions of her assumption” (Homily on Simeon and Anna [A.D. 400]).
John the Theologian
“And from that time forth all knew that the spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise” (ibid.).
Model of purity
Ambrose of Milan
“Mary’s life should be for you a pictorial image of virginity. Her life is like a mirror reflecting the face of chastity and the form of virtue. Therein you may find a model for your own life . . . showing what to improve, what to imitate, what to hold fast to” (The Virgins 2:2:6 [A.D. 377]).
A 3rd Century Prayer
We fly to thy patronage O Holy Mother of God, despise not our prayers in our necessities, but ever deliver us from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen. (AD250)