My intent here is to offer a few thoughts, in the light of the Fathers, concerning the unique and privileged association of the Virgin Mary with the redemptive work of her Son, and to show how the Fathers, although living long ago, and without the contemporary adjustments of a theology that has become more technical, have prepared the way for today’s doctrine of the Catholic Church such as it has emerged during Vatican Council II.
I have already presented, in various articles (1) and books, (2) the theme of Mary’s cooperation in the mystery of Redemption by a slightly different approach—that of spiritual motherhood—but identical in substance. I will use here, but in a more synthetical way, these previous works, while at the same time attempting to illuminate them in other ways, old as well as new. Except for some occasional passing references to Mary’s role in the distribution of the Redeemer’s gifts, I will concentrate mostly on the privileged participation of the new Eve in the sacrifice of the Redeemer, the new Adam.
Here is the itinerary I plan to follow:
– I will evoke, in the first place, witnesses close to the Apostolic Tradition, for whom Mary, redeemed, saves us as she saves herself in order to help us become a Church increasingly more coredemptive.
– Secondly, I will evoke the more remote witnesses, post-Nicaean, to this same mystery, especially in the liturgical prayer of the various Churches within the Church, without failing to mention some medieval or modern references.
– Finally I will examine the relations between these recent and older testimonies on the one hand, and the Apostolic Tradition on the other.
It will thus be shown that the very ancient, yet always new and current doctrine of the Church on the Virgin, the pre-eminent associate of the Redeemer, could contribute, by means of new homogeneous clarifications, to a renewal of the whole Church and each of its members at the service of its fundamental vocation: the coredemptive activity in view of the increasingly greater triumph of the unique Redemptive act of Christ, until his return. The star of Mary coredemptrix will shine all the more so she will be better seen, from her very first appearance, in dependence upon the unique Redeemer, constantly urging all the other coredeemers in their dependence upon Him: Virgo corredemptrix corredemptorum omnium ad majorem gloriam unici Redemptoris.The Fathers will help us react against a disastrous isolation of the Virgin within the economy of Salvation.
For the Fathers, if the Virgin is Coredemptrix in a unique and powerful manner because she alone is the Mother of God, Mary is not the only, but the first coredemptrix, so that all may be faithful to a similar vocation, though inferior in dignity, as coredeemers.
This coredemptive vocation, however, transcends, in the supernatural order, the vocation of the human person in the natural order and highlights the sublime dignity of the ecclesiastical and supernatural destiny of all human persons.
A. Witnesses Near to the Apostolic Tradition
The Fathers of the second century speak inseparably of the Incarnation and of the Passion of the Son of God. For them to evoke the former is to include the latter also. Important consequences result from this view in order to understand correctly, without diminution or curtailment, their presentation of the mystery of Mary and her cooperation in our salvation.
Thus the affirmation of Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians (XIX, 1) is indeed heavy with meaning: “The prince of this world ignored the virginity of Mary, her childbirth, and the death of the Lord, three resounding mysteries that were accomplished in the silence of God.”
As Father Camelot says so well: the devil “could not have ignored the facts of the life of Jesus,” but their soteriological meaning “remained hidden to him.” (3) This meaning Ignatius holds from Saint Paul. (4) Our text constitutes not only “the first testimony of Christian faith to the virginal motherhood of Mary,” (5) after Saint Luke, but also a clear insinuation of the link between this virginity and the Cross of Jesus. Virginity, the birth and death of our Lord are presented as three mysteries interlinked, three mysteries which, in a sense, are but one. The link seems to be, not only that of the orientation of the Incarnation of the Son of God towards His death on the Cross for our salvation, but also that of a privileged participation to this salvific death on the part of His Virgin Mother, Mary, by her virginity itself. The dying Lord, acting in the silence of the Father, is the Son who caused the virginity of Mary. The resounding mystery, “proclaimed everywhere,” (6) of the virginal motherhood of Mary, seems to be not only a condition willed by the Father and the Son, of the saving death of the Lord on the Cross, but also a free cooperation with it, and even a privileged and unique cooperation in His redeeming death.
This interpretation of the quoted passage is all the more convincing as it immediately followed this other affirmation (XVIII, 2): “Jesus Christ, carried in Mary’s womb, is born…. to purify the water by his passion”: in other words, is born to die in view of our baptism, in view of constituting his Church as sacrament of salvation. We are here quite close to the Pauline text which undoubtedly Ignatius is thinking about: Jesus is born of a woman to enable us to be adopted as sons (Gal 4,4). Hence for the bishop of Antioch everything indicates that the virginal motherhood with regards to the crucified Lord was equivalent to a very intimate and unique cooperation in His salvific action. Unique, since the human existence of the Lord, implied by his death, was itself conditioned by the free virginal motherhood of Mary. In bearing Jesus Christ in her womb, Mary already bore, in some way, his passion and death in her heart.
One of the beautiful texts of Saint Melito of Sardis leads us to a similar understanding: “He is the voiceless lamb himself, the lamb who was slain, born of Mary the kind ewe lamb,….he rose from the dead and raised man from the depth of the grave” (On Easter, 71, 11.513-520).
As O. Perler notes, “The metaphor of the lamb implies the twofold idea of sacrifice and virginal purity.” (7) Let us develop the quote more precisely: by renouncing the licit practice of sexuality, virginity itself implies sacrifice. Here, the parallel between Mary and Jesus, the Lamb, is obvious. Just as was the case with Ignatius of Antioch, Melito’s thought seems to be: the kind and (good) ewe lamb gave birth to the Lamb so that He might raise us up spiritually by rising bodily from the grave. In order to be able to give birth to the Lamb, Mary chose to conserve her virginity. She is the ewe lamb precisely because she wants to be virginal in order to give birth to the Lamb, himself virginal, in favor of humanity. In Melito’s wonderful poem, Mary alone is called the ewe lamb, and for a good reason: she, alone, brought forth the unique Lamb of God. Here again is the explicit text: “He is the slain Lamb, born of Mary, the kind ewe lamb.” He alone “raised up man from the depth of the grave.”
We can thus see that in these few words Melito of Sardis gathered a very rich doctrine that involves Mary’s unique and privileged cooperation in the economy of salvation.
Following Ignatius of Antioch and Melito of Sardis comes the testimony of a bishop, a contemporary more or less of the latter: St. Irenaeus of Lyons. We will now examine his thoughts at length. If we understand to what extent, with him, the mystery of the Cross is already included in that of the Incarnation—as we will soon show—we will discern, more accurately than many authors do, the coredemptive dimension of his Marian affirmations.
For Irenaeus, the Incarnation without the Passion would not have saved humanity. He is quite explicit in this: “Abraham was a prophet. He saw by the Spirit the day of the coming of the Lord and the economy of his Passion by means of which he himself and all those who, like him, believed in God would be saved” (AH IV, 5, 5). Irenaeus expresses himself even more clearly elsewhere in his writings: “By his passion, the Lord destroyed death, dispelled error, annihilated corruption, dissipated ignorance” (II, 20, 3). “The mighty Word and true man,” this Son “redeemed us by his own blood” (V.1.1).
With these statements as background, we can better understand the relation between Jesus Christ and his Mother that the Bishop of Lyons is presenting to us (in III, 22. and V.19, 1 and 2).
For Irenaeus, Mary is in no way excluded from those who believe in the Word Incarnate, are redeemed by His Blood, saved by Him. He says clearly that Mary, no less than Abraham, is a prophetess (AH III, 10, 2), and what he says about Abraham illuminates what he writes about Mary in the same work:
We who have faith in Abraham, take up our cross, just as Isaac took up the wood, and follow the Word. For in Abraham man had learned beforehand and had become accustomed to follow the Word of God: Abraham, in fact, followed by faith the commandment of the Word of God, relinquishing earnestly his only and beloved son in sacrifice to God, so that God also accepted, on behalf of all his posterity, to give up his beloved and only Son in sacrifice for our Redemption (AH IV, 5, 4).
Among those who “learnt beforehand, in Abraham, to follow the Word of God,” we must obviously consider, in the first place, the Virgin Mary. Much more than Abraham, whose son Isaac did not ultimately die, Mary has “relinquished earnestly her only beloved Son in sacrifice to God…for our Redemption.” If, in the eyes of Irenaeus, “Abraham was a prophet and saw by the Spirit the economy of the Passion of the Lord” (AH IV, 5, 5), it is permitted to infer that he attributed the same anticipated vision—in faith—to the Virgin Mary, prophetess also in his eyes.
It would be proper, therefore, not to disregard the thought of Irenaeus on Abraham when interpreting the famous passages on the recapitulation of Eve by Mary: AH III, 22, 4 and V, 19, 1 and 2. What is expressed about the virginal birth of the New Adam and the obedience of Mary should not be cut off from the constant thought of Irenaeus on the sacrifice of Jesus for the redemption of the world. The innumerable quotations from St. John’s Gospel (including Ch. XIX) in the writings of Irenaeus affirm that the Bishop of Lyons, when referring to the scene of the Annunciation, could neither ignore nor forget the presence of Mary at the foot of the Cross. It is, precisely, what he tells us about Abraham and Isaac that allows us to catch a glimpse of his thoughts on the link between the Virgin of Sorrows, her crucified Son, and the merciful Father.
For Irenaeus, the new Eve is the “human creature of the Word” (AH III, 19, 3); the one who became the “cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race” is inseparably the one who was saved by Christ and more precisely by his Passion, like Abraham (AH IV, 5,4-5). Since “the One who would save existed then”—before and for all eternity—”what was to be saved” (Mary included) “had to come to existence as well, so that the Savior would not be without a reason for being” (AH III, 22, 3): it is even proper to say that, considering the role that Irenaeus assigns to Mary and to her obedience in the effective realization of the salvation of the human race (AH III, 22, 4), the salvation of Mary constituted, in his eyes, the main reason for the coming of the Savior. Saved by her Son and because of Him, Mary was able, by her obedience, to cooperate in her own salvation and that of the whole human race: “Virgo obaudiens et sibi et universo generi humano causa facta est salutis” (AH III, 22, 4).
We must underline, here, the importance of the passage Irenaeus is alluding to in the Letter to the Hebrews (5, 9), a passage that has been universally acknowledged. For Irenaeus it signifies that Mary participates in the salvific obedience of Christ on the cross and has participated in it ever since the Annunciation, receiving from her Son the grace of obedience—obedience to Him—in view of the salvation of the human race. Let us recall the text: “He learnt to obey through suffering,… He became for all who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” The quote of Irenaeus, already mentioned in III, 22, 4, links, therefore, the salvation of the human race not only to the obedience of Christ on the cross but also to that of Mary to Christ her Savior.
Redeemed by Christ, she received from Him the power to contribute, in a unique way—by consenting to become His mother—to the salvation of the whole human race.
For the object of the salvific obedience of Mary—and we must insist on this—was the (virginal) acceptance of Divine Motherhood. Even though this expression does not appear explicitly in the writings of Irenaeus, the elements that compose it can be established: Mary is certainly for him the Mother of Him whose divinity he attests to (8) and she alone is that mother; she is, therefore, in a unique way, the cause of the salvation of the whole human race, since her own salvation, no less unique, results precisely from her consent to be the Mother of Christ. Let us notice, by the way, how Irenaeus has very probably received from Paul, “The woman who was led astray and fell into sin…she will be saved by childbearing” (I Tim 2: 14-15), the origin of the contrast between Eve and Mary, as the idea of affirming that Mary was saved by accepting a Maternity, not totally human, but theandric.
This decisive contribution of the Virgin to the salvation of the whole human race is presented by Irenaeus not—as a large number of modern theologians might be inclined to express—as a simple consent, but rather as an act of virginal obedience, parallel to the act of obedience of Christ on the cross (AH V, 19, 1); in this paragraph alone, Mary’s obedience is mentioned twice; by resituating this act of obedience of the Virgin in the total Irenaean soteriology, we see that, for the Bishop of Lyons, Mary by her obedience to the Word through the Angel united herself to the obedience of the Word to His Father; she thus participates in the obedience of Jesus even unto death. We can then say that, for Irenaeus, Mary’s obedience is not only salvific but also coredemptive in her union with the future obedience of the Redeemer and, in dependence of His obedience, reparatrix of the disobedience into which Eve—through Adam—had drawn the human race (cf. Rom 5:19).
Thus, the real meaning of this astonishing expression, “Mary, Eve’s advocate” (AH V, 19, 1), appears once more: it signifies, beyond a possible intercession of the second Eve in favor of the first—included in the prayingacceptance of the Incarnation through the answer given to the angel—(9) a contribution, by obedience to God, to Eve’s eternal salvation (denied by Tatien as Adam’s) as is evident from the grandiose affirmation: “universo generi humano causa facta est salutis“; for from this universality even Eve herself, obviously, is not excluded.
In the face of the extraordinary wealth of these very dense texts, we can, therefore, with Irenaeus, speak of “dispensatio Virginis,” of an economy of the Virgin within a dispensation and economy of the mystery of Christ (AH V, 19, 2 and 23, 2). In the same paragraph (AH V, 19, 2), we see that the “economy of the Virgin” manifests “the economy of God.” From this point of view, a much later image is in no way foreign to Irenaeus’ depth of thought: In order to save the world, Christ has willed to associate the tears of his mother to the shedding of his Blood. Irenaeus, once more, has drawn from Paul (Gal 4,4) this luminous summation of his redemptive and coredemptive christo-mariology: “He who is born of Mary has also suffered the Passion” (AH III, 16, 5).
“He who is born of Mary”: this expression is clearly a reference to Galatians 4,4 especially if we recall that this Pauline verse is quoted by Irenaeus five times in his Adversus haereses, that is to say, more often than most other verses.
Among these five quotations, two of them link the Pauline verse to the Proto-Evangelium. Thus Irenaeus thinks that the association of the new Eve with the new Adam, so essential in his eyes for the salvation of the world, was already prophesied and announced to our first parents (AH V, 21, 1 and 2). (10)
It is, therefore, through the Apostle Paul that Irenaeus relates his doctrine of the new Eve, advocate of the first Eve, to the initial promise of salvation contained in Genesis. He offers, thus, the apostolic testimony on the privileged association of Mary to the redeeming work of Christ as it relates to the fulfillment of a promise, the promise of God the Savior of the human race.
We can then conclude. The testimony of Irenaeus in favor of a privileged, and even unique, Marian coredemption could appear (and has appeared) (11) more implicit than explicit, if we were to isolate, in regard to the totality of his work, his most striking affirmations (AH III, 22, 4; V, 19, 1). If, on the other hand we clarify them by the total context of his affirmations “Against heresies,” no doubt is possible any longer as to the very thoughts of the Bishop of Lyons: in full dependence upon Christ, Mary, by her obedience, was the cause of the salvation of the whole human race by effecting her own salvation; the very act by which she cooperated in her own salvation is also the same act by which she cooperated in the salvation of us all.
Privileged Marian co-redemption: this expression implies that we can still find in Irenaeus the elements—at least some of them—of a coredemptive mission of the ordinary Christian and more so of the Church as such, in dependence upon its very explicit doctrine, on Christ the Savior of Mary, His associate in a unique way in his mission of salvation of the whole human race.
Irenaeus, on the one hand, affirms that “having disobeyed God, we have been reconciled to Him in the second Adam, becoming obedient even unto death” (AH V, 16, 3). The reference to the martyrs is quite obvious.
The Church, on the other hand, is present, active and loving in the suffering and the witness of the martyrs: “The Church everywhere, because of her love of God, is constantly sending ahead of her a multitude of martyrs to the Father…. The Church, salt of the earth, remains the upholder of the faith, confirming her children and sending them ahead of her to their Father” (AH IV, 33, 9 and 31, 3).
In other words, the ecclesiastical community, by its faith and love, is itself the coredemptive Church. (12) By sending her children to the Father, she is contributing to their salvation. Irenaeus, however, does not specify what differentiates this role of the Church from the roles, already different between them, of Jesus and Mary in the salvation of the human race; we will have to wait, no doubt, for the technical developments of modern theology (particularly the distinction between objective and subjective redemption) to outline a more precise answer. If we examine his work carefully, we could, nonetheless, catch a glimpse of how the Bishop of Lyons, presiding over Eucharistic assemblies, would have expressed his thoughts precisely: the prayer of the Church, mainly the Eucharistic prayer, procures for the faithful the graces of faith and charity which lead them to martyrdom and to heaven: the Eucharist is “oblation and pure sacrifice” (AH IV, 18, 4). It is, particularly, the sacrifice of all those who wish to be “obedient unto death.”
Drawing to a close our brief study of the thought of Irenaeus, we can sum it up in this way: The Bishop of Lyons, without intending to say new things, by developing the doctrine of the Apostle, transmitted the faith of the Church, and believes with her that Christ, the Creator and Redeemer, has willed to bring about the salvation of the human race with the unique and privileged cooperation of Mary, His Mother, whom He created and redeemed. Each aspect of this global affirmation can be justified by his explicit writings. In a more implicit manner, Irenaeus presents the Church as coredemptrix of the Christians, which implies that the baptized people are coredeemers of each other. The Virgin appears in this light, already as the coredemptrix of the coredeemers, for the glory of the only Redeemer of all.
It is in this manner that Irenaeus, following Ignatius of Antioch and in the same period Melito of Sardis, prepares the more precise testimonies of other successors of the Apostles, following them further in time.
B. More Remote (But More Precise) Witnesses of the Apostolic Tradition
Let us consider here, first of all, the collective testimony of the Fathers assembled in Councils, then their individual testimonies, in the East as well as in the West, and more especially the convictions of their Churches, manifested in their liturgies.
We are aware of the decisive role that Saint Cyril of Alexandria played in the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431. In this context, the prayer of Cyril in the presence of the Council could be considered as a reflection of the thoughts of the bishops present. Here is an invocation that expresses their conviction as to Mary’s salvific role in regards to the human race: “Hail, Mary, Mother of God,….by whom the human race reaches the knowledge of the truth.”
This text, as well as the other praises of the Virgin contained in the same prayer, refers to the present Church and to the distribution of graces whereof Mary is seen as the Mediatrix; however, this mediation is itself based on the divine Motherhood. The “by whom” (di ès) that follows immediately the mention of the Mother of God underlines the deeply rooted Mediation of Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation. In another homily given in the same context of the Council of Ephesus, Cyril insists, more precisely still, on the salvific role of Mary: “Hail, Mary, Mother of God, by whom all faithful souls are saved” (sozetai). In these two homilies (13) this role is linked to the unique privilege of divine Motherhood; thus Cyril points to the unique character of the Virgin’s cooperation in the economy of salvation.
A few years later, Saint Leo the Great prepares, by his preaching, the Christological definition of the Council of Chalcedon. In the framework of a beautiful explanation on the mystery of our salvation, Leo writes, on June 13, 449, to Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople: “an inviolate virginity provided flesh (to the Savior): “inviolata virginitas carnis materiam ministravit” (ch. 4, DS 294). We understand by this that: Mary, by the willing acceptance of her physical virginity, has placed herself, as a minister, in the service of the saving design of the Incarnation of the Redeemer, fulfilling thus a salvific ministry. The twenty-second sermon of the same Pope stated precisely in a magnificent way: “nativitas nativitate reparatur” that is to say: the birth in sinfulness (of the ordinary man) is repaired by the extraordinary birth of God becoming man, “born human according to his will and power” (Ch, IV and II: ML 54, 197 C and 195 B).
We see here a reflection of the usual vision of the Fathers: by accepting voluntarily her virginity, Mary was prepared to accept her motherhood voluntarily too and it is by both her virginity and her motherhood that she cooperated freely in the Incarnation of the Word; far from being a purely passive instrument—according to the gnostic interpretation—Mary wanted to be and indeed was the active collaborator with the Creator in the mystery of salvation of the human race. This is, precisely, the viewpoint that the Council of Chalcedon adhered to and made its own; let us recall the famous definition:
Following the Holy Fathers, we, unanimously, teach to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born for us and for our salvation, according to the flesh, of the Virgin Mary, mother of God.
If this definition is not cut off from the patristic context that precedes it, we realize that Mary’s freedom and her will for our salvation are intimately connected with the human birth of the Savior. The affirmation of Marian coredemption is as inherent in this dogmatic definition as it is in the Pauline text of Gal 4,4. The Redeemer has willed to come into this world, being freely willed as Redeemer by Mary his Mother; because He is the Word, He has, by and with his Spirit, created this will in his Mother.
Obviously, the individual writings of the Latin and Greek Fathers are much more explicit. We will attempt here to examine them in function of the general perspective of this study. Mary, redeemed by Christ, has been associated, in a unique way, with Him in the salvation of the human race, to the point of stirring in each one of us a coredemptive activity in favor of the other.
Ambrose of Milan, clearly, presents us Mary as redeemed by Christ in view of her cooperation in the salvation of all.
On the one hand, Ambrose says: “Let us not be astonished that the Lord, who came to save the world, began his work in Mary, so that she, by whom the salvation of all was being readied, would be the first to receive from her own child its fruits” (In Lk. II, 17 ML 15, 559). Ambrose is, therefore, presenting Mary as the first of all the redeemed. The New Adam is, then, not only the Creator but also the Savior of the New Eve. Better still: Mary is redeemed to prepare the salvation of all!
On the other hand, Ambrose writes: “Mary was alone when the Holy Spirit came upon her and overshadowed her. She was alone when she saved the world—operata est mundi salutem—and when she conceived the redemption of all—concepit redemptionem universorum” (Epist. 49, 2; ML l6, 1154). He also writes: “She engendered redemption for humanity, she was carrying, in her womb, the remission of sins” (De Mysteriis III, 13; ML l6, 393; De instit.Virginis 13, 81; ML 16, 325).
Just as previously in the eyes of Irenaeus, the Incarnation is, for Ambrose, according to the auspicious formula of E. Druwé, “redemption itself intrinsically begun. This flesh that the Word receives from Mary is itself the host of his sacrifice, given by the human race for this purpose…It was necessary that a virgin should make it possible in the name of all mankind.” (14) This commentary evokes the beautiful thought in the Latin Liturgy: “ad Crucem e Virginis sacrario intacta prodit victima” (from the sanctuary of the Virgin springs forth intact, towards the Cross, the victim of our redemption).
These various texts of Ambrose on how Mary welcomed Redemption signify the following: by bringing forth the Redeemer as such, because of a free and meritorious consent, the Virgin, implicitly, consented to see Him give His life for her own salvation and that of all mankind; she even consented, implicitly, to die for Him and with Him, for the same intention of universal Redemption. (15)
In the thought of the Doctor of Milan, however, the Virgin Mother is not the only Coredemptrix; the bishop who insists so strongly on the fact that Christ is the only Redeemer, (16) in no way excludes, but affirms the coredemption of all by all in the Church, and the coredemption of each individual by the universal Church. This is what is emanating from the Ambrosian vision of penance. The penitent is “redeemed from sin, washed by the tears and weeping of all the people (fletibus plebis redimitur a peccato) for Christ gave to His Church the power to redeem one by all, to this Church who obtained the coming of the Lord Jesus so that all might be redeemed by one.” Let us quote the original Latin; its terseness makes it almost impossible to translate: “Donavit Christus Ecclesiae suae ut unum per omnes redimeret, quae Domini Jesu meruit adventum, ut per unum omnes redimerentur.” (17)
Ambrose does not treat explicitly the question of how to distinguish between the two roles of Mary and of the Church, both subordinate roles in relation to the unique mission of Christ; how to avoid bringing Marian coredemption to the level of the ecclesiastical coredemption. Nevertheless, the Latin doctor provides us, implicitly, with the answer: Mary—unlike the Church—cooperates in the salvation of the human race by collaborating in the very generation of the Word incarnate; she humanizes the eternal Salvation; she collaborates in what some, today, call objective Redemption, while the Church collaborates only in the subjective Redemption, in the distribution of graces that Christ acquired for us. However, Mary herself does not collaborate with Christ on an equal footing, since she herself has been redeemed by Him. She has been saved in a unique manner so that she might play an exceptional role: to be the only
mother of the only Redeemer.
In the same way, the Bishop of Milan does not limit himself in invoking the coredemptive Church of every Christian; he also shows us the coredemptive role of every baptized person within the Church (and with her help) in relation to the other members: “the penitent is redeemed by the tears of all the people of God” and thus by each member. Mary’s unique contribution to the salvation of all is itself therefore finalized by the individual role of each one in the mystery of universal salvation. Mary places herself at the service of the coredemptive vocation of each human being.
In fact, every human person, by his concern for the salvation of others, effects his own salvation; to say that Mary conceived, gave birth and brought about the salvation of all—and that is what Ambrose tells us—is to say, equally, that by giving birth to Christ she offered to each human being the concrete possibility of contributing to the salvation of others, thus becoming the mediatrix of the coredemptive activity of the universal Church and of each of its members. The transcendent Mother of the Lord was transformed into the servant of the coredemptive vocation of every human being.
Extending Ambrose’s views, his spiritual son Augustine of Hippo in turn states: “Christ received from us his flesh in which he gave himself as sacrifice” (Enarr, in Ps 129, 7; ML 37, 1701). All his theology on the article of the creed: “natus ex Maria Virgine” can be summarized as follows: In the name of us all Mary gave from her flesh the host for the sacrifice that regenerates us (Sermon ined. 5, nn. 5 and 6; ML 46, 832-833).
A few decades later, the Bishop of Ravenna, Saint Peter Chrysologus, also doctor of the Church, will express eloquently his firm belief in Mary’s salvific role:
“Hail, full of grace”;… the Angel offered her this grace. The Virgin received Salvation so that she may give it back to the centuries: accepit Virgo salutem saeculis redditura. Greater than the world, she, alone, received a God that the world cannot contain…She gave birth to the One whose very child she was” (Sermon 140).
The German theologian Otto Semmelroth has an excellent commentary on this text:
“Mary is the cause of salvation through a receptive welcome that comprised an active faith… Mary, personal summit of humanity, by her yes, transformed it into the Church: she received the Redeemer and his work with its fruits and transmitted them to the Church precontained in her: accepit Virgo salutem saeculis redditura.” (18)
In other words, the Virgin received the salvation of all men as a precious deposit of trust; she received it in their name so she could give it back to each one. The Bishop of Ravenna, elsewhere (Sermon 140, 6), specifies that the salvation of the world is a reward granted to Mary: “a young maiden receives as a reward of the womb (Ps 126) salvation for those who were lost: salutem perditis pro ipsius uteri mercede.” The concept of a coredemptive merit is here hinted to the more strongly as this “unique young maiden” is contrasted to the powerlessness of all creation (una puella…creatura non sustinet).
Cardinal Newman emphasized this point when he quoted this text: “it is difficult to state more explicitly, although rhetorically, that the Blessed Virgin has fulfilled a real meritorious cooperation, a participation with the reversing of the fall as its price.” (19)
This meritorious cooperation had, in the eyes of this Doctor who influenced the Council of Chalcedon, retroactive consequences in the likeness of those of the Sacrifice of the Redeemer Himself: “when did she not engender, she who bore the author of the centuries (genitrix quando non quae saeculorum generavit auctorem)?” (Sermon 146). Here we find ourselves, in another way, placed in the presence of the universal causality and salvific mediation of Mary in favor of the whole human race, already affirmed by Irenaeus.
Saint Peter Chrysologus, while exalting Mary’s cooperation in the redemption, in no way forgets that she is a pure creature of her Son, redeemed by Him: “God comes towards the virgin, that is to say: the Operator towards His work, the Creator towards His creature” (venit ad Virginem Deus, hoc est ad opus suum opifex, creator ad creaturam suam: Sermon 143); “O Virgin, as soon as you give Him birth, call upon the Savior and invoke Him”: Mox ut genueris, invoca salvatorem (cf. Lk 1:31; Sermon 142).
These are some of the considerations by which the Western Fathers underscored the created role, dependent as well as unique, of the Lord’s Mother in the economy of redemption.
Let us now turn to the East, focusing particularly on the teachings given by the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries.
The Syriac Doctor, Ephraem, combines two compelling points: Mary is the only virgin chosen to be the instrument of our salvation; (20) and, in one of his hymns, the deacon of Edessa hears this reflection of Mary’s on the Incarnation: “I am maid and daughter because of the blood and water, since you have redeemed and baptized me.” (21)
From the Greeks of the same period we shall retain in particular the affirmations of Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom.
For the former, as with Irenaeus, (22) “Eve brought in sin by means of a tree; Mary, on the contrary, brought in Good by means of the tree of the Cross.” (23) This affirmation is found in a homily, probably authentic, by Gregory. (24) It points out what we already have mentioned: for the Fathers, Mary, by accepting the Incarnation, also accepted the Cross. The one included the other, since the Incarnation was already seen as a paschal Incarnation. In a homily for Easter, Chrysostom offers a very similar affirmation: the virgin, the wood and death are symbols both of our ruin and our resurrection. (25)
Let us now go on to the fifth century, that of Ephesus and Chalcedon.
Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople, writes during the period between those two councils: “He, who in the womb of the Virgin, had condemned me, assumed me, I who am subject to condemnation.” (26) Here, too, although the role of the Virgin and of her free consent seem not to be stressed, the paschal and redemptive orientation of the Incarnation is emphasized.
Proclus is more specific in a homily discovered recently: commenting on Is 45:8, the preacher sees justice on earth, for Mary has liberated Eve, by becoming the help whom, in his original plan, God designated for man, while the Emmanuel, coming down from heaven to earth, by abolishing the empire of the devil, saved Adam. The Colombian patrologist Roberto Caro notes:
The first transgression has been repaired by the action of both Mary and Christ; it is a truly active, but differentiated, causality; Mary and Christ are not two independent redeemers who would have agreed together to accomplish a common work; the two different verbs used by the orator indicate the distinction: On one hand the sin of Eve vanishes (aneklithè) by Mary’s action; on the other hand this sin is only repaired (sesôstai) by the action of Christ alone. (27)
According to Caro, we have here the twofold affirmation of Mary’s collaboration with Christ and of Christ’s transcendence over Mary within this same collaboration. Proclus however, does not state precisely here what Mary’s help consists of; nevertheless, his text as a whole makes it clear that the bishop has in sight the collaboration of the new Eve with the New Adam in the work of Salvation of the world.
Later on, Basil of Seleucia exclaims: “Oh womb so holy that welcomed God, womb in which the writ of sin was torn up.” Here too, though vaguely, Mary is shown exercising a free and voluntary consent in favor of God the Savior; this acceptance, especially, stipulates the cancellation of every record of the debt we had to pay and nailed it to the cross (Col 2:14). The author thus implies that Mary receives the Lord in his very activity of Redeemer, Repairer of sin. (28)
More than a century ago, J. H. Newman already took notice of this impressive thought of Basil: “Mary shines above the martyrs like the sun above the stars and she is Mediatrix between God and men.” (29) For Basil, Mary’s mediation is a result of divine Motherhood, a unique privilege that establishes her as Mediatrix between God and men. Basil justifies this view point by a suggestive biblical reasoning: if Peter was proclaimed “blessed” for having confessed Christ, if Paul has been qualified by Him as “chosen instrument” for having preached His name to the nations, what should we not think of Mary’s great power, she who gave Him a human body? (30)
Caro notes: thus we find formulated, for the first time in the fifth century, with Basil of Seleucia, one of the most fecund principles of Mariology: the close link between Mary’s motherhood and the Word determines in her a fullness of grace by which she transcends in merit all other creatures. To be convinced of the power of Mary suggests that we have recourse to her help and her privileged intercession. (31)
We can therefore see, in the reasoning of Basil of Seleucia, a first outline of the Church’s contemplation of the three stages of the mystery of Marian coredemption: the consent to the Incarnation already seen as paschal, foreseeing Jesus’ death on the cross, and explaining Mary’s power in the distribution of graces, basis of our recourse to her intercession.
We can thus say that, since the fourth and especially the fifth century, the Greek Fathers, expounding the views of Irenaeus, have become the clearer and more active witnesses of the unfathomable mystery that constitutes the privileged and unique mission of the Virgin Mother in the economy of Redemption. This role was magnificently summed up by the fifth century Fathers in these statements: Mary is the Mother of the Economy(Theodosus of Ancyra, MG 77, 393 C), the Mother of Salvation (Severien of Gabala, MG 56, 4) and the one who gives birth to the Mystery (Proclus of Constantinople, MG 65, 792 C).
All these expressions signify that Mary was, in dependence of the unique Savior and Redeemer, an active cause of our redemption. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the more abundant testimony of the Greek Fathers adds nothing essential. It will be enough here to quote Saint Andrew of Crete: Mary is “the first reparation (32) of the first fall of the first parents”(MG 97, 879).
It will not suffice, however, to consider the individual testimonies of the Fathers during the first millennium in order to get a clear idea of the doctrines acknowledged and held true by their Churches; we should also, indeed especially, examine the collective testimonies of their Churches in the liturgical prayers. This is what I shall attempt to do in the following section.
C. Liturgical Testimonies of the Churches During the First Millennium
Numerous liturgical prayers going back to the first millennium, both in the East and the West, reveal the privileged association of the Virgin Mary with Christ the Redeemer. This is a normal fact, that is, a fact conforming to the doctrinal norm: if, as early as the second century, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Melito of Sardis recognize and acknowledge Mary as the New Eve, the Advocate of the human race, the Associate of the Redeemer in His work of salvation, should not this doctrinal conviction be bound to express itself, during the eucharistic celebration, in recognizing her privileged role? Should not the rule of faith influence the rule of prayer? (33)
The coming of the Word into humanity and His victory of the Cross are perpetuated at Mass: how could the Church not associate, during the celebration of the Central Act of its life, the mention, memory and veneration of the name of Mary, associate with Jesus at the manger in Bethlehem, and at the altar of the Cross?
Indeed, ever since the third century, the liturgical texts, presently known, commemorate Mary. A primitive stage of commemoration without invocation was followed in the fifth century, in the Roman Canon, by the recourse to her intercession. We can say that beginning in the fifth century, Mass has never been celebrated, neither by the Catholic Church, nor during periods of schisms by the separated Churches, without invoking or mentioning the name of the Mother of God.
The Church on earth knows that it owes Jesus’ sacrifice, which it perpetuates, to Mary’s free and obedient consent. Since the third century, the Roman Church, in the canon (then still optional) of Hippolytus, mentions the Mother of Jesus: “Your inseparable Word…whom you have sent from heaven to the womb of the Virgin…born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin.” The total context (Cf. Martimort, L’Eglise en prière, Tournai, 1965, p. 276) constitutes an affirmation of the soteriological character of this maternity of the Virgin; we can therefore recognize in this persistent reference to the name of the Virgin (name repeated) a proclamation, though still hidden, but already real, of her privileged role in the Mystery of Redemption.
Then, as soon as the Church has determined its anaphoras, it proceeds to a more explicit commemoration of its Advocate, Mother of its Supreme Priest. The Church knows more clearly the close and indissoluble link that unites Mary to the Savior and which will be later evoked by Vatican Council II (LG 53); this link is the very link that unites the Church to the Virgin; it is the link of divine motherhood. Therefore, all indications are that for the Church, henceforth, it would be inconceivable to celebrate the Eucharist of the Son without desiring, loving, recognizing, verbalizing and invoking the presence of the Mother. It would be impossible to celebrate the memorial of the Son without exalting the memory of the Mother. By having His Mother be invited to the wedding at Cana, the Word signified that we could not exclude Her from His nuptials with the Church consummated in the Eucharist.
Let us examine now in a detailed but brief manner some testimonies of the Roman, Mozarabic, Byzantine and Ethiopian liturgies, with the help of the divine-apostolic tradition in regard to Mary’s privileged participation in the redemptive mission of her only Son.
We owe it to Dom Botte and to M. Chavasse, (34) to know of the existence, in Rome in the sixth century, of the very texts of a Marian Mass celebrated on January 1st. The prayer super sindonem proclaims that the merits of Mary “tore up the writ where our sins were recorded”: “ex cujus meritis deleantur nostra chyrographa peccatorum.” Daring words, says Dom G. Frénaud: By means of a Pauline expression (cf. Eph 2,14), Marian coredemption in terms of merit is affirmed—as early as the sixth century. We can understand the meaning of this prayer in this way: by consenting to the Incarnation, Mary, in the eyes of the Father, has merited, in dependence upon the coming Christ and by Him, the fruits of His sacrifice, the purpose and the very reason for His Incarnation which began with her. We can further understand: deserving by a condign merit, the Incarnation itself, Mary has, at the same time, earned its salvific fruits for the whole human race (cf. St. Pius X, Ad Diem Illum, DS 3370).
The Preface of this Mass sings the astonishment of Mary: “The grace she enjoys is twofold: she is overwhelmed for having conceived while a virgin, she rejoices for having brought forth a Redeemer (laetatur quod dedit Redemptorem).”
Frénaud observes that Mary, by her very maternity, considers herself intimately united in the work of salvation accomplished by her Son. The Preface proclaims Mary coredemptrix by her virginal conception and because she gave birth to the Redeemer. The Benedictine monk adds: “Divine and virginal Motherhood, intercession, mediation and coredemptive merit constitute the fundamental themes of this early Marian liturgy” of the Roman Church, of this very first Roman Mass for January 1st.
In other words, the divine Motherhood exalted since the beginnings of the Roman Church is clearly a salvific motherhood. The Roman Mass of January 1st seems to confirm what we had already seen with Irenaeus, Ambrose and Augustine: Tradition and liturgies (the plural here anticipates our remarks regarding the Byzantine and Ethiopian liturgies) saw in the consent to the Incarnation and divine Motherhood an implicit and coredemptive acceptance of the Sacrifice of the Cross and of the compassion at the foot of the cross.
At the same period or slightly thereafter the Mozarabic liturgy (35) of Spain used to celebrate a feast of the “glorious and holy Virgin Mary.” This feast established in 656 to be observed on December 18th, aimed at exalting the Incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world. This feast celebrated, at least as much as the Roman liturgy, the spiritual, mediative, coredemptive Motherhood of the Virgin. With a particular difference: the Mozarabic prayers address the Virgin directly. Here is the first prayer of this feast: “Virgo genetrix et humani generis reparatrix; implorantium preces auribus offer divinis” (Virgin, who generated Christ, reparatrix for the human race, present to the Divine attention (ears) our prayers of supplication).
Dom Frénaud, precisely, notes in connection with this text: “The expression humani generis reparatrix is evocative: we should, however, guard against lending the Christians of the seventh century all the ideas that we are able, today, to discover, hidden in these words.” Undoubtedly. And yet, by calling to mind Irenaeus, this expression seems to claim as real the belief in a privileged participation in the Reparation of Christ.
This interpretation is confirmed in another Mozarabic prayer stressing the role of the merits of Mary regarding our salvation: “May her merits lead us to salvation” (nos ejus merita provehant ad salutem). A third prayer insists: “May your Son deliver us from our sins by your merit.” A deeper examination would no doubt show that the Mozarabic liturgy, when mentioning the merits of all the other saints, emphasizes, however, the unique character of Mary’s merits, and their unique efficacy. For they alone are the merits of the Mother of God.
We must here underline the fact that these prayers are still in use today. The Latin liturgy of Spain expressed already in the seventh century and continues to express the mediating intercession and the coredemptive merits of the Virgin Mother with such an emphasis that it encouraged the perfect filial love of Christians towards Mary: that of Marian slavery, clearly indicated in a prayer of the feast of December 18: “O most holy Servant and Mother of the Word…honor (us) by the homage to be your slaves…we are glad to enjoy the sweet burden of being your slaves…May we all live as your slaves always.” Incidentally, this prayer, according to Dom L. Brou, OSB, is the personal composition of Saint Idelphonsus of Toledo (d. 669).
Let us now proceed to examine two very ancient liturgies, the Coptic and the Ethiopian liturgies, still in use in the Monophysitic churches of Egypt and Ethiopia just as in the corresponding rites of the Catholic Church.
The Coptic liturgy (36) comprises thirty-two feasts in honor of Mary, still invoked at each ceremony, each office and each canonical hour.
At the hour of nones, the office shares in the grief and suffering of the Virgin standing at the foot of the Cross:
When the Mother of the Lamb and the Good Shepherd saw the Redeemer of the world hanging on the cross, amid her tears she said: the world is rejoicing because it has been saved, but my heart is broken as I consider the crucifixion you suffered for all the human race, O my Son and my God.
A moving text but less assertive, however, than this other one: Mary is “the cause of our salvation.” Both these texts should be interpreted in the light of our preceding conclusions: Mary is the cause of our salvation because she was the human origin of our Savior whose Incarnation, from the very beginning, was redemptive, since it was oriented towards the Cross.
The Coptic liturgy in the Preface still implores: “By the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who for us bore the Savior of the world, grant us, O Lord, the forgiveness of our sins.”
The testimonies of the Alexandrine liturgy, in regard to the mediating and coredemptive intercession of Mary, are quite eloquent while at the same time very similar to those we already saw and will later see in other liturgies.
The separated Churches of Ethiopia (37)—born of the Coptic Church—have added to the thirty-two Marian feasts in the Coptic liturgy an original one, glorifying the merciful mediation of Mary: the feast of the Merciful Pact concluded between Mary and the Savior. The Ethiopian liturgy manifests, more magnificently than any other liturgy, Mary’s presence during Mass and her motherly association to the sacrifice of her Son. Two anaphoras have a more accentuated Marian character. In one of them, the Mass of Our Lady called “the pleasant scent of holiness,” which was composed in the fifteenth century by an Ethiopian, Giyorgis, Mary is called “foundation of the world, salvation of Adam, redemptrix of the whole world.” In this Marian canon, the celebrant addresses Mary, before and after the consecration: “You have given birth to the victim of our religion.” This canon was to celebrate the sacrifice of the New Covenant, with Mary, in Mary.
These developments, obviously, happened much later than the first millennium which is the range of our consideration of the patristic and liturgical testimonies regarding Mary coredemptrix and mediatrix. Nevertheless, they show us great convergence between the separated Churches of the East and the Roman Church with respect to the mystery of Mary within the economy of salvation. Certain statements of doctrine seem even excessive: Mary is not redemptrix, but coredemptrix—a point which will be stated more precisely in the conclusion and which seems to sum up favorably the patristic tradition.
Let us complete our liturgical course by examining the testimony of Byzantium. We are almost submerged by the wealth of texts in favor of the maternal mediation of Mary, based on her divine motherhood.
J. Ledit, in his book Marie dans la Liturgie de Byzance, (38) offers us an inventory. The community says to the Virgin, “the only mediatrix of eternal riches”: “You are the salvation of all men.” Numerous texts affirm that Mary “divinizes men.”
The Byzantine liturgy possesses a rich vocabulary of Marian mediation. This word often seems to signify: prayer (of intercession). Does this liturgy set off prominently enough the Mediation of Christ, the Priesthood of Christ the Man? In any case, Mary’s association in the passion of Jesus is magnificently emphasized. Let us quote:
Standing at the foot of the cross, knowing that you are God and that you willingly endured death in the flesh for the human race, your mother’s heart was pierced by the sword and was crucified as much by the torment and sufferings, but desiring the salvation of the human race and the redemption of the world, she sings to you, praying and saying amid her tears: Rise up and save those who, in faith, glorify your sufferings, O Son who have shed for all, your Precious Blood.
We see here how nature and human suffering are clearly emphasized.
Let us also note, with Father C. Dumont, O.P., (39) a characteristic trait of the Byzantine liturgy: it does not hesitate to implore the Virgin herself for salvation. The following expression is often repeated in the liturgy: “Most Holy Mother of God, save us,” Surely;—numerous texts express it—if Mary can save us, it is because of her intervention with her Son, the only Savior. But, precisely, unlike the intercession of other saints, the foundation of Mary’s efficient intervention is the privilege of her Divine Motherhood, truth underscored numerous times in the Byzantine liturgy. Even if this liturgy entreats other saints to save us too, it would obviously not ask them to do it by invoking the same reasons. This is sufficient to give us the right to affirm the unique character of this petition, when addressed to Mary, and to see in that prayer a glorification of her unique role in the economy of salvation, as well as her privileged mediation with Christ and the Father.
In fact, notes Father Dumont, no mention of salvation in the liturgical prayers is ever made without invoking the intercession of the Virgin. Such frequency and insistence are not found to the same degree in the course of the Mass in Western liturgies. Hence, there is a spiritual and doctrinal atmosphere marking the Byzantine faithful with a deep impression.
Serge Boulgakov (40) has summed up perfectly the Byzantine theology of the intercession of Mary: “Though she is in heaven, in her glorified state, the Virgin still remains the mother of the human race for whom she prays and intercedes. That is why the Church presents to her its supplications beseeching her help. She enfolds the world within her veil, praying and weeping over the sins of the world.”
In the Byzantine liturgy, the recourse to the mediating intercession of Mary reveals the faith of the Church in her unique participation, through divine Motherhood, in the mystery of Redemption.
While exalting the powerful intercession of the Mother of Christ, the Byzantine liturgy does not ignore the created finitude of the Virgin. As proof, the astonishing prayer of the Byzantine Church for Mary; (41) linked, besides, to the recourse to her intercession:
We offer to You this reasonable sacrifice for those who are asleep in faith…in particular for the most holy, immaculate, blessed above all others and our glorious Queen, Mary, Mother of God, ever virgin, and for all the saints: by their prayers, O God, protect us.
An impressive text, recited by the priest immediately after the consecration, uniting harmoniously the prayer for Mary and the saints in recourse to their intercession.
Saint Epiphanius, in the fourth century, explains in this way the purpose of this prayer: “It is to set apart the Lord Jesus Christ from the rest of mankind: the Lord cannot be compared to any man: Christ God is in heaven, but man is on earth by what he has left behind.” (42)
By praying for the saints, the Church not only prays for them, in relation to them (as Jungmann used to think); but rather, as some Armenian theologians of the fourteenth century saw it, (43 ) since Angels and Saints (cf. Lk 15,7-10) rejoice in the conversion of sinners, by praying for the saints we ask for the grace to contribute to their accidental beatitude by obtaining our own salvation and by being placed with them in heaven. The prayer of the terrestrial Church for Mary and for the saints rejoins their prayer as we read it in the Book of Revelation (8:3-4; 6:9-11).
The Byzantine liturgy, by praying for Mary and for the saints, makes us participants in their prayer for our salvation and that of the world, in order to bring their joy to its fullness. That is to say: their joy, not the essential joy (the one that comes from the possession of the Creator), but the accidental, resulting from other creatures.
In the context of our present study, the interest of this prayer for Mary consists in stressing that the Virgin—exalted to such an extent by the Byzantine liturgy—remains in its view purely a creature, a human being who needs to be fulfilled, in some way, by the universal Church of which she never ceased to be mysteriously the daughter as well as the mother.