Celebrating Mary in the Byzantine Tradition

Since the Second Vatican Council the Church has striven to promote a new and more careful study of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and of the Church, in order to encourage theological faculties in the pursuit of knowledge, research and piety with regard to Mary of Nazareth. The Mother of the Lord is understood as a “datum of revelation” and a “maternal presence” always operative in the life of the Church. (1)

The history of theological reflection witnesses to the Church’s faith and attention to the Virgin Mary and her mission in the history of salvation. Especially is this evident in the Western Church. (2)

The deeper the understanding of the mystery of Theotokos, the more profound is the understanding of the mystery of Christ, of the Church, and of the vocation of humanity. Concerning Mary, everything is relative to Christ; only in the mystery of Christ is her mystery fully clear. Conversely, it may generally be said, that knowing Mary illuminates our appreciation of the mystery of Christ and of the Church. (3)

To the degree in which the mystery of the Church is understood, the mystery of Mary is apparent. Knowing Mary, the Church recognizes its origins, its mission of grace, its destiny to glory, and the pilgrimage of faith which guides it. (4)

The Virgin Mary is like a mirror reflecting the mighty works of God, which theology has the task of illustrating. The importance of Mariological reflection derives from the importance of Christology, from the value of ecclesiology and pneumatology, from the meaning of Christian anthropology, and from eschatology, and is an integral part of them. (5)

In the Eastern Churches the understanding and appreciation of the Virgin Mother of God developed differently, and is not the result of scientific theological reflection. The veneration of Mary, when properly understood, permeates the entire life of the Church; it is a dimension of dogma and of piety, of Christology and of ecclesiology. This dimension needs to be made explicit today in connection with the problems of humanity. Mariology expresses something fundamental to the Christian life itself, to the Christian experience of the world. (6)

Sound Mariology has always been understood in Christological terms. If the Gospel revealed nothing more than the fact that Jesus Christ, God and man, was born of the Virgin Mary, this alone would be sufficient for the Church to love her and to draw theological conclusions from pondering this relationship of Mother and Son. We need no other revelations. Mary is a self-evident and essential datum and dimension of the Gospel. (7)

Is There a Byzantine Mariology?

Researching this question leads to a seeming paradox. On one hand we find a tremendous richness of Marian thought in the liturgy, but on the other hand a virtual absence of specifically Mariological studies in theology. The Mariological experience and piety of the Byzantine Churches—Catholic and Orthodox—seem to be embodied almost entirely in their worship. But we find no prominent theological reflection on the subject, nothing that would parallel the specialized Mariological treatises of the Western Church. Theology manuals contain no chapters dealing with the place of Mary in the economy of salvation. The veneration of Mary, which is so central in Byzantine worship, has not been extensively expressed, analyzed, or evaluated systematically. (8) This scarcity of theological reflection may seem to some a deficiency in Byzantine theology. How could the Byzantine Church, which never prays to God or Jesus Christ without at the same time also addressing her prayers to Mary, and which constantly praises her who “… is more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than seraphim…,” neglect theologizing about her? Why has the Byzantine theological mind not been focused on this enormously important aspect of its life and worship?

In the Byzantine mind, this seeming absence of theological study and reflection is seen as an integral part of the “mystery of Mary” in the experience of the Church. The Byzantine scholar questions whether theology as the rational investigation of the truths of faith is adequate to transpose into precise terms the real content of that mystery. Perhaps the proper locus of Mariology is in liturgy and prayer, that is, in worship. This is reminiscent of Prosper of Aquitane’s maxim: Lex orandi, lex credendi. (9)

In the Eastern traditions Mariology developed through liturgical veneration within the framework of the concomitant feasts; that is, it followed the development of Christology and the Church’s contemplation of the Incarnation. All Marian devotion—liturgical and popular—remained organically connected with the mystery of Christ. This has always been the norm and criterion.

In the Byzantine spiritual heritage the liturgy has been the principal locus of Mariology. The liturgical expression of piety is often found to be adorned with allegory and symbolism. This gave rise to questions about the biblical character and justification of these expressions or forms. Where in the Bible do we find information about Mary’s nativity, presentation in the temple, dormition? Yet these are celebrated as Marian festivals. Whatever their poetic, liturgical, and hymnographic expressions, all these events are real because they are self-evident. Mary was born, like every Jewish girl she was taken to the temple, and she eventually l