THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY, the Mother of Christ. The place accorded to her in Catholic and Orthodox theology and devotion arises from her state as Mother of the Redeemer. She is regarded as pre-eminent among the saints
In the New Testament the Blessed Virgin:
♦ figures prominently in the infancy narratives of Matthew (1–2) and especially Luke (1–2).
♦ Mentioned several times during Christ’s public ministry
(i.e. at the wedding at Cana and
later with relatives wishing to speak with Christ),
♦ she remains mainly in the background.
♦ In the Fourth Gospel she reappears at the foot of the Cross (Jn. 19:25).
♦ In the Upper Room at Jerusalem she witnessed the growth of the early Church (Acts 1:14).
Both her maternity and her virginity are stated in the Gospels; she conceived and gave birth to Jesus (Lk. 1:31–3) without losing her virginity (Mt. 1:20 and 23; Lk. 1:34 f.).
In the earliest patristic writings Mary is mentioned only rarely, and then usually in conjunction with Eve.
♦ Justin Martyr (d.c.165) contrasts her obedience with the disobedience of Eve,
♦ and the same theme is developed by Irenaeus (d.c.202).
♦ Her perpetual virginity was first asserted in the apocryphal Book of James;
♦ it may have been taught by Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria,
♦ but was certainly held by Athanasius, who used the term ‘ever virgin’ (ἀειπάρθενος); and, though contested by Jovinian, it was accepted by orthodox Fathers of the East and West from the 5th cent. onwards.
The development of Marian doctrine received considerable impetus at the Council of Ephesus (431), which upheld the title Theotokos (θεοτόκος).
This expression was prob. in use among Alexandrian theologians perhaps from as early as Origen; it became common in the 4th cent.; and, though it was contested by Nestorius as being Christologically incorrect, it was defended by Cyril of Alexandria and became generally accepted after 431. In the W., where at this time Mary played a lesser role than in the E., she was esp. associated with the Church; St Ambrose held her to be a type of the Church, in that in giving birth to Christ she also brought forth Christians who were formed in her womb with Him. In the 6th cent. the doctrine of the corporeal Assumption of Mary was formulated in orthodox circles by Gregory of Tours (d. 594); it had previously been found in apocryphal documents dating from the late 4th cent. onwards. Also in the 6th cent. the feast of the Assumption of the BVM became more widely observed, and sermons preached on the occasion, e.g. by Theoteknos of Livias (between 550 and 650) and by Germanus of Constantinople, emphasized her power in heaven. Belief in the Assumption seems to have spread in both E. and W. without arousing opposition in the pre-Reformation period; it was defined for RCs in 1950. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM, on the other hand, was a matter of dispute throughout the Middle Ages. In England Eadmer wrote a treatise in defence of the doctrine, which had been denied by his master, Anselm of Canterbury; Eadmer sought to solve the problem of the universal transmission of original sin in the sexual act by teaching the ‘passive’ conception, that is, that only Mary herself, without reference to the parental act, was without stain of original sin from the moment of her conception; he argued that because God could do it and because it was fitting, He also did do it. This teaching was developed in more stringently scholastic terms by Duns Scotus and led to a long-drawn-out controversy. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was defended by the Franciscans and later the Jesuits against the Dominicans; it was defined for RCs in 1854.
In modern times, esp. in the 19th and 20th cents., efforts have been made to secure a Papal definition of Mary as ‘Mediatrix of All Graces’ and ‘Co-Redemptrix’. The former description was widely popularized by St Alphonsus Liguori, and Pope Benedict XV sanctioned a Mass and Office of the BVM under this title. At the Second Vatican Council, however, a chapter on Mary was added to the Constitution on the Church, against the wishes of those who sought a separate document on her. The chapter is remarkable for its restraint, its insistence on Scripture and the Fathers, and its stress on Mary’s complete dependence on her Son.
The Marian doctrine of the Orthodox Church is very similar to that of the RC Church, though the corporeal Assumption of the BVM has not been made a dogma and the Immaculate Conception is denied. The Reformers, esp. M. Luther, stressed the humility of Mary and attacked her glorification by the RC Church. Among all Protestant bodies there was a strong reaction against excessive devotion to her. In the C of E the Thirty-Nine Articles forbade the invocation of saints, incl. the BVM, but the Caroline Divines insisted on her holiness, and A. Stafford could call her ‘fountain of grace’. Since the Oxford Movement certain Anglican theologians have accorded the BVM an increasingly important place which has come to differ little from the RC position. On the Continent also there has been a tendency among German Protestant theologians to restore an element of Marian doctrine.
Belief in the efficacy of Mary’s intercession and hence direct prayers to her is prob. very old. It is attested in a Greek form of the well-known prayer ‘Sub tuum praesidium’ found in a papyrus dating from the late 3rd to early 4th cent. After the Council of Ephesus devotion to the Theotokos became so strong that her name was even substituted in the official service books in place of that of the Lord at the end of some of the liturgical prayers. In the W. St Thomas Aquinas formulated the doctrine of the ‘hyperdulia’ proper to her, which, though infinitely inferior to the ‘latria’ (worship of adoration) due to her Son, surpasses that befitting angels and saints.
Liturgical devotions in the W. came to include the ‘Little Office of Our Lady’ as well as the Saturday Mass and Office. Popular piety found expression in the Hail Mary, Rosary, Angelus, May and October devotions, and pilgrimages, esp. to Lourdes and Fatima. Since the Second Vatican Council, however, these practices have come to occupy a less prominent place in the RC Church. In the Orthodox Church Marian devotion is expressed in the Acathistus hymn and the Theotokia or short prayers to the Theotokos following the invocation of the Trinity which came into use in the 8th century.
The first Marian feast was called the Commemoration (μνήμη) of St Mary and was kept in many places on the Sunday before Christmas; this developed into the feast of the Assumption (15 Aug.). The other major feasts of the BVM are the (Immaculate) Conception (8 Dec.), the Nativity (8 Sept.), traditionally the Annunciation (25 March; now in the RC Church called the Annunciation of the Lord and accounted a feast of Christ), the Purification (2 Feb.; since 1960 called the Presentation of Christ), and the Visitation (2 July; in the RC Church and some modern Anglican calendars, now 31 May). The calendar of the BCP retains all of these except the Assumption (which is retained in the Oxford University Calendar), but only the Annunciation and the Purification have a proper Collect, Epistle, and Gospel. Many modern Anglican calendars include a major general feast of the BVM on 15 Aug. (without any reference to the Assumption). Since 1969 the RC Church has observed 1 Jan. as the ‘Solemnity of Holy Mary, the Mother of God’ (in place of the Circumcision), thus reverting to a practice attested at Rome in the Gregorian Sacramentary. A number of minor feasts have also been observed in the RC Church; they include the (Seven) Sorrows of the BVM (15 Sept.), the Presentation of St Mary in the Temple (21 Nov.), Our Lady of the Snows (5 Aug.; now renamed the ‘Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary’), Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (16 July; now reduced to an optional memorial) and the Holy Name of Mary (12 Sept; now suppressed).
The earliest recorded vision of the BVM is supposed to be that of Gregory Thaumaturgus (d. c.270), recorded in a panegyric almost certainly by Gregory of Nyssa. The most famous modern apparitions are those of Lourdes and Fatima; lesser ones are those of La Salette, Knock in Ireland (1879), Beauraing (1932–3) and Banneux (1933) in Belgium, and Medjugorje (1981) in what was then Yugoslavia; in all these (except Knock) the recipients were children. The apparition which resulted in the striking of the popular ‘miraculous medal’ took place in 1830; the visionary was Catherine Labouré, a ‘Daughter of Charity’ of St Vincent de Paul.
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2012