Mary in the Church Fathers

Mary in the Church Fathers

We saw that Mariology was an evolving doctrine in the Scripture. In the earliest level, the Pauline letters were indifferent and the first gospel, Mark, was almost hostile to Mary. However Luke edited Mark to clearly show an emerging veneration of the Mother of the Lord which certainly was developing among the faithful (80s). The last gospel written, John, had reaffirmed Mary’s role as the new Eve. This shows a definite trajectory toward a deeper understanding of the role of the Mother of the Lord in the Scripture.  Theology, which is the study of God and religious truth, is an ongoing process.  It does not happen overnight. The Church has always taught that faith must be grounded in the Scripture. It holds that revelation ended with the last writing of the New Testament, and that the Holy Spirit guides and facilitates this process.

We also must remember that the emerging Jesus movement grew within Judaism. It was expelled from its Jewish matrix about AD 85 at Jamnia because of what they were teaching about Jesus. This trauma is reflected in John’s Gospel (09:22; 16:02). It was at this time that Gamaliel II revised the eighteen benedictions for the Jews (Amida) to include the twelfth which was a curse against deviators which included the Jewish Christians and Gnostics.  Obviously it is at this point that worship in house churches becomes the norm.  It is from here on that liturgy, theology, and Christian culture begins to take form. The fathers of the Church many who were martyrs, formulated our creeds in response to heretical groups, composed our early liturgies, and decided what books were to be used in the Bible. This process stretched over six or more centuries.

They see Mary as used by God not merely in a passive way, but as cooperating in the work of human salvation through free faith and obedience. For as Irenaeus said, “being obedient became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.”

It is important to remember that whatever pronouncements have been made on Mary, the primary purpose has been to defend some attribute of her divine Son.  There is a religious-cultural factor at work that was present in the pagan world going back to time immemorial. Among the pantheon of gods and goddesses two of the most favored were the fertility goddess and the goddess of love.  The first appears in the pages of the Old Testament as Astarte (Judges 02:13).  In the New Testament the goddess of love was present at Ephesus in the temple to Artemus, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world (Acts 19:24).  Artemus was also the protector of women. The Greeks had Aphrodite as the goddess of love.

Psychologically Mary filled that void for a feminine figure. While Mary is human in every respect, she does have the exalted position as the “Mother of the Lord.” We venerate Mary not because she is some kind of a goddess, but because she was without sin and was the perfect role model as the first Christian.

Mother of God

Soon after the Arian crisis Nestorius denied that the Word suffered on the cross and he further refused to call the infant Jesus by the name of God. Then he refused the title “Mother of God” or Theotokis for Mary.

The Council of Ephesus (AD 419) met this theological problem. The main Scripture text giving support was Elizabeth’s greeting: “Who am I that the Mother of the Lord should come to me?” (Luke 01:43). The infancy narratives present Jesus as the divine son of God. The Council had as its primary purpose defining Jesus’ divinity not giving glory to Mary.

Immaculate Conception and Assumption

Through the centuries the Church after meditating on the Scripture had become ever more aware that Mary to become the mother of the Savior could not have had the stain of original sin. She was pre-redeemed so that she could become the dwelling place of God (Ark of the Covenant). Scripture says: “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 03:23). Augustine wrote: “Excepted the Holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on the account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have 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.” From the eighth century on faith in Mary’s intercessory power began to grow along with the belief of her Assumption.

The late Karl Rahner writes: “Mary’s election as mother of Jesus brought with it so high a degree of union with God that she was preserved from original sin.” Her closeness to Christ brought with it according to God’s eternal plan of salvation her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. There is no explicit testimony of this in Scripture.

Patristic testimony only begins in the sixth century. But the picture of Mary in the Scripture indicates that she is most intimately united with the Lord.  Original sin which has its roots in “the Fall” (Genesis 03) is amplified by Paul: “Just as through one man sin entered the world and with sin death, death thus coming to all men, just as one man sinned” (Romans 05:12). Adam’s sin brought death into the world. Mary received the privilege of discipleship in her Assumption just as we too, have been promised to share in the resurrection of the dead.

Vatican II and Mary

“At the message of the angel, the Virgin Mary received the Word of God in her heart and in her body, and gave life to the world. Hence she is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer. Redeemed in a special sublime manner by reason of the merits of her son, and united to him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the supreme office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God. As a result she is also the favorite daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all other creatures, both in heaven and on earth.  However because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all human beings in their need for salvation. Indeed she is “clearly the mother of the members of Christ since she cooperated out of love so that there might be born in the Church the faithful who are members of Christ their head...taught by the Holy Spirit the Church honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother” (Document on Church -Lumen Gentium- paragraph 53).  So we pray: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

"Mary in the Church Fathers" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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