Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus. Wikimedia Commons

Mary in the Life of the Church in the First Centuries

In the first centuries of Christianity, the first feasts of Mary were instituted and churches were built in honor of the Blessed Virgin. A people turns to the Mother of the Redeemer to ask for protection and favors.
Fidel González

What place does the Virgin Mary occupy in the life of the Church in the first centuries? We can answer this question by considering both the nature of the cult of Mary and the writings of the Church Fathers on the question. The Church Fathers had a clear view of the relationship existing between Our Lady and her Son. If they speak of Mary, they do so because they see in her the Mother of the Incarnate God. By virtue of His birth from Mary, Christ is truly man, but because of His eternal generation from the Father, He is truly God. This is what would be defined by the Council of Ephesus, the third great ecumenical council (431) (see Traces, Vol. 5, No. 7, July-August 2003, pp. 36-40) and the first to speak explicitly of Mary as “Mother of God” (Theotokos). “In this context, the Fathers read in the key of Christ also the miracle of the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, which seemed to them to be the unequivocal sign of the divinity of the Child, come into the world in such an extraordinary and prodigious way. Through meditation on Sacred Scripture, the Fathers came to understand and explain another great Marian truth: the Blessed Virgin’s collaboration in the work of salvation. This vocation, to collaborate with God the Redeemer, is highlighted by Mary’s position alongside Christ, the new Adam, as the new Eve. As the new Eve, Mary put right the wrongs of the first Eve, through her attitude which was antithetical to Eve’s conduct in the earthly paradise” (Testi mariani del primo millennio [Marian Texts of the First Centuries], 1, Città Nuova, 1988, p. 43).

In the history of the Church, the Council of Ephesus marks both a point of arrival and a point of departure. With this council, the question about Christ becomes central and therefore the figure of the Mother of God, intimately connected to the figure of her Son, comes to the forefront in the reflections of the Church Fathers. The explicit definition of Mary’s divine motherhood, proclaimed solemnly in that council, filled Christians, especially in the East, with wonder and admiration: how could Mary contain the Infinite within her? How could the Unborn be born of her? How could she call the Son of God her Son? Her virginal motherhood and her inviolate purity aroused similar sentiments. Where did this immense trust come from with which her intercession to God was implored for all the needs of men? “It is the moment in which Marian churches and shrines began to spring up almost everywhere. Think for example of the grandiose Liberian Basilica [Santa Maria Maggiore] in Rome, rebuilt under Sixtus III after the Council of Ephesus and dedicated to the Mother of God. This is the moment when Marian cult and piety exploded above all in the East, where the image of the Virgin became familiar and popular and began to shine out in all its greatness and dignity as Mother of the Lord” (op. cit., p. 45). Koehler writes, “After centuries of struggle against paganism, after a long maturation of Christian prayer to God in the Christological and ecclesial context, after the slow formation of the cult of the martyrs, in subordination to the cult of latria, that due to God, here the cult of Mary asserts itself as a need of faith and without any foreign contamination that could have corrupted it” (Maria nei primi secoli [Mary in the Early Centuries], Vercelli, 1971, pp. 104-105).

One of the first aspects stressed by the Church Fathers before the Council of Nicaea (325), when they speak of Our Lady, is that of presenting her as the new Eve, repairer of the fault of the first mother.

True theological study of Our Lady began in the East, based on the Bible and on the tradition handed down by the ancient Fathers and which leads to the definition of the dogma of Mary’s divine motherhood, proclaimed against Nestorius in the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. Whereas the previous Fathers insisted on the concept of Mary as the new Eve, the Fathers at the time of this council, and thereafter, insist in their writings on the divine motherhood, part of the Catholic faith and the basis for the whole of Marian theology. Along with this question we find that of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity, her immunity from every stain of sin, and her regality, linked to that of Christ the Lord. Here also the assertion of Mary’s cooperation in the distribution of all graces begins to find an echo.

“Under your protection”
The Church has always seen with growing strength Mary’s mission of intercession with her Son Jesus. A 3rd-century Egyptian papyrus (published by Roberts in Manchester in 1938) contains the well known prayer Sub tuum praesidium (Under Your Protection), that later entered the Roman, Ambrosian, Byzantine and Coptic liturgies. This prayer is a trusting invocation of the protection of the Mother of God so as to be freed from all dangers, and is held to be the most ancient Marian prayer. The reason for this trust is clear: the first Christians saw in Mary the one “full of grace,” the one “blessed amongst all women.”

Moreover, in early Christianity the Virgin Mary was set up especially as a model for virgins. Thus, in the catacombs of St Priscilla, on the via Salaria in Rome, in a 3rd-century cubiculum, is the picture of a bishop who, in the act of imposing the holy veil on a virgin, gives her the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model. In the 4th century, St Gregory Nazianzen (389) speaks of a Christian virgin’s trusting recourse to Mary. In the same century, St Ambrose exhorts Christian virgins to have recourse to Mary, the Virgin par excellence. The Fathers also insisted on the imitation of Mary. Thus St Ambrose asserted, “the life of Mary is itself a school for everyone,” and so exhorts everyone to imitate her (De Virgin, II, c.2, n.9, 15; c.3, n.19).

This is why the Church accorded Mary a special cult, which in theology is called hyperdulia (see St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica), for her singular excellence as Mother of God. This indicates a special honor, above that given to the saints, who themselves have a cult or veneration, called dulia. The unique nature of the cult accorded to Mary with respect to that accorded the saints refers to the unique holiness of the Virgin Mary, holiness of a higher degree than that of the saints, not of a different kind. It is of a different kind if we take as the reason for that cult her unique dignity as Mother of God, which places her in a class of her own, specifically higher than that in which are ranked all the other saints (see St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica). Christians have always understood this cult of Mary as veneration, as invocation and as imitation.

Liturgical cult in the early centuries
The Church, therefore, has accorded cult to Our Lady in various and increasing ways; in this she has followed the development of her theological reflection, as in all other fields of Christian theology. From the historical point of view, the first period lasted from the earliest days of the Church up to the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. It was a preparatory period that culminates with a liturgical apotheosis. In this preparatory period, we see growing in strength and clarity the veneration for our Lady, the various forms of liturgical cult and the feasts as such. We find a true Marian feast only in the second half of the 4th century in the East and in the 6th century in the West. This is not a sign of hostility towards the Marian cult, since up to this time the liturgical feasts had not yet acquired the shape that they would subsequently have.

The development of theological reflection on Christ during the 4th century stressed more and more the essential role of Our Lady in the redemption, and at the same time the concept of her great holiness kept growing. The expression “all holy” (panaghia), used for Our Lady, belongs to the first half of the 4th century. We find it first in the ecclesiastical writer Eusebius; it would subsequently become common in Byzantine literature.

So, since apostolic times there has been no lack of great veneration for Mary, the Mother of the Lord, although there was no specific liturgical feast, just as there was no feast for many aspects of the life of Our Lord Himself. This veneration had its basis in Holy Scripture. The Acts of the Apostles present her united to the disciples in expectation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). The Apostolic Fathers, like St Inatius, stress her divine motherhood. During the 2nd century, Justin in Rome, Irenaeus in Lyons and Tertullian in Carthage, starting off from the Adam-Christ parallel, so forcefully argued by St Paul (Rom 5:12-21), develop the analogous parallel: Eve-Mary. The ancient formula of the baptismal symbol, the Credo (2nd C.), reminded the faithful continually of Mary’s greatness as virgin and mother of the Savior: Natum ex Maria Virgine. All this goes to show the unique veneration of the first Christian generations for her. A significant echo of this veneration, and a witness at the same time of trust in Our Lady’s intercession, are offered by the many monuments of Roman funereal art in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, with the image of Our Lady in the catacombs.

From the beginnings of the life of the Church, the Fathers have always pointed to Mary as a means of understanding Christian virginity. From the 3rd century on, with the spread of monasticism, of consecrated life in virginity, and of the ideal of virginity and of obedience in many Christians, Our Lady is taken as the model of Christian virgins.

Already in the 5th and 6th centuries, we find in the liturgical life of the Church concrete liturgical expressions in honor of our Lady, which express this convinced and trusting faith in her intercession with Christ. Thus, in the Roman Canon of the Mass we find our Lady named first in the list of saints.

The feasts of Our Lady
As we have already said, the first Marian feast seems to have been instituted in 4th-century Syria, precisely in Antioch, seat of one of the three first great Patriarchates of the East, where the Lord’s disciples were for the first time called “Christians,” as we are told in the Acts of the Apostles. At Constantinople there was a liturgical feast before the Council of Ephesus (431). For in the year 429, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Proco, pronounced a discourse in the presence of Nestorius (who denied the divine motherhood of Mary), on a day wholly dedicated to the glorification of Mary.

However, it will be this council that will exercise great influence and determine a rapid and florid development of the liturgical cult of Mary in East and West. An Armenian lectionary written around the year 450 speaks of “August 15th. It is the day of Mary Theotokos.” Around the years 455 and 479, a priest of Jerusalem, called Crisipio, speaks of the same feast in a homily, quoting even the liturgical texts used. The feast of the Theotokos is therefore one of the most ancient Marian feasts. It was first celebrated in Syria, and later in other eastern parts; this feast celebrated the divine maternity of the most pure Virgin. Already from the 4th to the 6th centuries in the East we find established also the other great Marian feasts: Annunciation, Assumption (Dormition), Nativity, Presentation and Conception, with beautiful invocations, hymns and songs to Mary, as we said above Sub tuum praesidium, and the mention of Mary in the Canon of the Mass. All the Marian feasts are intimately bound up with the Mystery of Christ and even considered as feasts of the Lord Himself. In particular, that of the Dormition or Assumption of Mary was soon to come to pre-eminence. For around the year 600, the Emperor Mauritius prescribed its celebration throughout the empire on the date of August 15th.

The West was a little slower in developing its Marian devotion. No feast of Mary can be traced before the 5th century. There is one in Gaul in the 6th century. St Gregory of Tours witnesses to the fact in 594; it was probably celebrated in January. The same was true in Spain, where it was linked to the time of Advent in December; the IX Council of Toledo fixed December 18th, eight days before Christmas, for that feast, still called the “Expectation.” In Rome, from the 6th century, there were many references to Mary during Advent; the 1st of January, the Octave day of Christmas, was celebrated in a special way as a Marian Feast, with liturgical texts loaded with Marian content, those we still find today. In 7th-century Rome, the great Marian festivities are recorded as being celebrated solemnly, as the Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Pontiffs) witnesses, speaking of the dispositions of Pope Sergius I in this regard (687-701). The arrival in Rome of monks fleeing from the East in the wake of Persian and Arab invasions contributed to their diffusion.

The first churches
From apostolic times, Mary’s role and her veneration saw continuous growth. This was happening, too, with all the rest of the Church consciousness regarding the contents of the faith. The Council of Ephesus marks a critical point for the development of Marian cult, even by means of the churches dedicated to her, her images exposed for veneration, and the various Marian feasts. As regards churches, we have to recall that two were built in Palestine during the 5th century, one in Jerusalem on the place claimed to be her tomb and another on Mount Gerezim. In Egypt, in Alexandria, the ancient Patriarchal Church was dedicated in the 5th century to Our Lady. In Ravenna, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore dates from the 5th century. In Rome, the most ancient catalogue of churches, that added to the itinerary De locis sanctis martyrum of the 7th century, lists four Marian churches: Basilica quae appelatur Sancta Maria Maior (St Mary Major), the celebrated basilica on the Esquiline Hill build by Pope Liberius (352-366) and renovated by Sixtus III (432-440), who decorated it with marvelous mosaics, which are still in existence and must be considered a historical monument to the Council of Ephesus; basilica quae appellatur Sancta Maria antiqua, built in the Roman Forum, apparently the most ancient Marian church in Rome; basilica quae appellatur Sancta Maria Rotunda, in other words the Pantheon, transformed into a church by Boniface IV (608-615), and dedicated by him to the Blessed Virgin and all martyrs; basilica quae appellatur Sancta Maria Transtiberim (in Trastevere), in other words, the ancient “titulum” (a kind of parish church) of Calistus (the engineer working for the catacombs and for Popes), which was already dedicated to Mary in the 6th century. By the 7th and 8th centuries, there was not a city in the East or West that lacked a church dedicated to Our Lady.

With the erection and foundation of churches dedicated to Our Lady, the cult of her images came into use. The most celebrated is the one in the East attributed to St Luke (Hodegetria) and which the Empress Eudoxia sent from Jerusalem to Pulcheria in Constantinople in the year 451. This became the prototype for many images of Mary. A recent discovery in Rome, in the Church of Santa Maria Nova, brought to light an image of Our Lady that probably comes from Santa Maria Antiqua, and dates from the 5th century. Churches dedicated to Mary continued to rise up everywhere, found also in almost every town by the 9th century. The images of Mary were multiplying, along with the Marian feasts.