As in Scripture, so too in the infant Church we see the attention of the faithful rightfully focused first and foremost on Jesus Christ. The divine primacy of Jesus Christ (with its appropriate worship of adoration) had to be clearly established before any subordinate corresponding devotion to his Mother could be properly exercised. Nonetheless, the beginnings of acknowledgement and devotion to the Mother of Jesus is present from apostolic times in the living Tradition of the early Church.
The first historic indications of the existing veneration of Mary carried on from the Apostolic Church is manifested in the Roman catacombs. As early as the end of the first century to the first half of the second century, Mary is depicted in frescos in the Roman catacombs both with and without her divine Son. Mary is depicted as a model of virginity with her Son; at the Annunciation; at the adoration of the Magi; and as the orans, the “praying one,” the woman of prayer. (1)
A very significant fresco found in the catacombs of St. Agnes depicts Mary situated between St. Peter and St. Paul with her arms outstretched to both. This fresco reflects, in the language of Christian frescoes, the earliest symbol of Mary as “Mother of the Church.” Whenever St. Peter and St. Paul are shown together, it is symbolic of the one Church of Christ, a Church of authority and evangelization, a Church for both Jew and Gentile. Mary’s prominent position between Sts. Peter and Paul illustrates the recognition by the Apostolic Church of the maternal centrality of the Savior’s Mother in his young Church.
It is also clear from the number of representations of the Blessed Virgin and their locations in the catacombs that the Mother of Jesus was also recognized for her maternal intercession of protection and defense. Her image was present on tombs, as well as on the large central vaults of the catacombs. Clearly, the early Christians dwelling in the catacombs prayed to Mary as intercessor to her Son for special protection and for motherly assistance. As early as the first century to the first half of the second century, Mary’s role as Spiritual Mother was recognized and her protective intercession was invoked. (2)
The early Church Fathers, (also by the middle of the second century), articulated the primary theological role of the Blessed Virgin as the “New Eve.” What was the basic understanding of Mary as the “New Eve” in the early Church? Eve, the original “mother of the living,” had played an instrumental, though secondary role, in the sin of Adam which resulted in the tragic fall of humanity from God’s grace. However, Mary, as the new Mother of the living, played an instrumental, though secondary, role to Jesus, the New Adam, in redeeming and restoring the life of grace to the human family.
Let us examine a few citations from the early Church Fathers that manifest this growing understanding of Mary’s spiritual and maternal role as the “New Eve,” who as the “new Mother of the living,” participates with Christ in restoring grace to the human family.
St. Justin Martyr (d.165), the early Church’s first great apologist, describes Mary as the “obedient virgin” through whom humanity receives its Savior, in contrast to Eve, the “disobedient virgin,” who brings death and disobedience to the human race:
(The Son of God) became man through the Virgin that the disobedience caused by the serpent might be destroyed in the same way in which it had originated. For Eve, while a virgin incorrupt, conceived the word which proceeded from the serpent, and brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary was filled with faith and joy when the Angel Gabriel told her the glad tidings…. And through her was he born…. (3)
St. Irenaeus of Lyon (d.202), great defender of Christian orthodoxy and arguably the first true Mariologist, establishes Mary as the New Eve who participates with Jesus Christ in the work of salvation, becoming through her obedience the “cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race”:
Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yet still a virgin, became by her disobedience the cause of
death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary, too, espoused yet a Virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race…. And so it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary’s obedience. For what the virgin Eve bound fast by her refusal to believe, this the Virgin Mary unbound by her belief. (4)
The teaching of St. Irenaeus makes evident the Early Church’s faith and understanding that Mary freely and uniquely cooperates with and under Jesus, the New Adam, in the salvation of the human race. This early patristic understanding of Mary’s unique cooperation appropriately develops into the later and more specified theology of Marian Coredemption.
St. Ambrose (d.397) continues to develop the New Eve understanding, referring to Mary as the “Mother of Salvation”:
It was through a man and woman that flesh was cast from Paradise; it was through a virgin that flesh was linked to God….Eve is called mother of the human race, but Mary Mother of salvation. (5)
St. Jerome (d.420) neatly summarizes the entire patristic understanding of the New Eve in the pithy expression: “death through Eve, life through Mary.” (6)
The Second Vatican Council confirms this early understanding of Mary as the “New Eve” by the Church Fathers, as well as the Fathers’ certain testimony to her active and unique participation in man’s salvation:
Rightly, therefore, the Fathers see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience….
Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert with him (Irenaeus) in their preaching: “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound by her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.” Comparing Mary with Eve, they call her “Mother of the living” and frequently claim: “death through Eve, life through Mary” (Lumen Gentium, No. 56).
The Christian witness of the first centuries of the Church also provides us with examples of direct prayer to Mary as a means of intercession to the graces and the protection of her Son.
For St. Irenaeus, Mary is an “Advocate,” or interceding helper, for Eve and for her salvation. (7) St. Gregory Thaumaturgis (d.350) depicts Mary interceding for those on earth from her position in Heaven. (8)
St. Ephraem (d.373), the great Eastern doctor and deacon, directly addresses the Blessed Virgin in several Marian sermons. Direct prayer to Mary is also found in a sermon of the great Eastern Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen (330-389). (9) By the last part of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, we have numerous explicit examples of direct prayer to the Mother of God, for example in the writings of St. Ambrose, as well as by St. Epiphanius. (10)
As already referred to, the most complete ancient prayer to the Blessed Mother historically preserved is the Sub Tuum Praesidium (250 A.D.):
We fly to your patronage,
O holy Mother of God,
despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us from all dangers.
O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.
Note that by the third century, our early Christian brothers and sisters already accepted Mary under the title of “Mother of God,” even though this title would not be solemnly defined for another two hundred years. Further, the early Church realized that direct prayer to Mary did not consist of forms of idolatry or adoration, as is sometimes mistakenly interpreted in our day, but rather as a spiritual communication of love and petition to the Mother of Jesus, who continues to care for the Mystical Body of her Son by her intercession.
Moreover, the Sub Tuum prayer tells us that the early Christian community went to their motherly Advocate especially in times of trial and danger. The acknowledgement of Our Lady’s special intercession, especially for the Church in times of danger, continues to our present day. (11)
By the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., where Mary is formally declared the “Mother of God,” we have cathedrals dedicated to her in the central ecclesial locations of Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople. After the Council of Ephesus, the Church experiences an extraordinary flourishing of devotion to the Blessed Virgin both in the East and the West, the quantity and quality of which would exceed the most comprehensive study. Historians have compared the expansive spreading of Marian devotion in both Eastern and Western “lungs” of the Church to the post Anno Domini development of Western civilization itself. Marian prayers, Marian liturgical feast days, Marian icons, Marian paintings and Marian artwork became ubiquitous throughout the Christian world after the Council of Ephesus.
The Second Vatican Council attests to this tremendous flourishing of Marian devotion from the early Church onward:
From the earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honored under the title of Mother of God, whose protection the faithful take refuge together in prayer in all their perils and needs. Accordingly, following the Council of Ephesus, there was a remarkable growth in the cult of the People of God towards Mary, in veneration and love, in invocation and imitation, according to her own prophetic words: “all generations shall call me blessed, because he that is mighty hath done great things to me” (Lk 1:48) (Lumen Gentium, No. 66).
Historians have further testified to the vast influence of Marian devotion upon the overall development of Western civilization. The British historian, Kenneth Clark (not a Catholic) describes in his excellent work, Civilization, the dramatic effect of devotion to the Blessed Virgin on Western civilization. He describes Mary as
the supreme protectress of civilization. She had taught a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion. The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages were her dwelling places upon earth…in the Renaissance, while remaining Queen of Heaven, she became also the human Mother in whom everyone could recognize qualities of warmth and love and approachability…. The all-male religions (a reference to Israel, Islam and the Protestant North) have produced no religious imagery—in most cases have positively forbidden it. The great religious art of the world is deeply involved in the female principle. (12)
Along with the impact of devotion to Mary on Western civilization, the fruitful effects of Marian devotion on the proper dignity of woman has also been historically verified. The noted historian, William Lecky (neither Catholic nor Christian but a self-professed rationalist), offered these comments about the influence of Mary on the West:
The world is governed by its ideals, and seldom or never has there been one which has exercised a more salutary influence than the medieval concept of the Virgin. For the first time woman was elevated to her rightful position, and the sanctity of weakness was recognized, as well as the sanctity of sorrow.