Mary in the Mystery of the Church: The Orthodox Search for Unity



Throughout the whole “walk” of Christian faith, there isn’t perhaps, a more natural and a more surprising thing than the veneration of the Virgin Mary. It springs out spontaneously from the sources of the very life of the Church: the few words from the Gospel we know about her, on one hand; the hymns, the prayers, the vows, the icons, the numberless manifestations of piety of the East, as well as the West, on the other. In every era of history after Christ, the prophetic words “From now on all generations will call me blessed” (Lk. 1:48), acquire a fuller meaning and again became a reality.


This is because every generation discovers and lives in its own unique way the beatitude of Mary, the beatitude that finds many forms for its expression. In commemorating Mary, the Church can truly repeat the words of the Psalm, “My mouth shall be filled with your praise, with your glory day by day” (Ps. 70/71:8).


It is as if the Church had the need to live the presence of Mary in her own bosom, to enter more and more in communion with her beatitude. It is not very easy to explain this fact outside the real experience of her presence: the river of praise is never exhausted. On the contrary, with time it always finds new expressions; at times it becomes richer, more abundant. Among the Russian Icons, I remember one with her image and the title “Vivifying Fountain.” Every title given to the icons, which expresses the various faceting of her life in the Church, is trying, through the same title, to anticipate and to explain the secret content by means of the same representation: “Unexpected joy,” “Finder of the lost,” “Petitioner for the sinners,” “Divine river of living water…” This river of images and of words that comes from the spring called “Mary” is born in the faith, nourishes it and becomes part of our “ecclesial being,” (1) though it often doesn’t come to light in the Word. However, where the Church is, there is Mary, and where there is Mary the Church of her Son is born and is formed. In order to understand the nature or the origin of our spontaneous veneration, we have to interrogate this half-hidden source of the Christian faith, or rather, our way of living the faith in the Tradition of the Church.


Why Mary? This current of Marian piety, from the Gospel times to our days, where does it originate?


Let us go back to the beginning, leaving aside all knowledge. Let us question ourselves regarding this intimate tie which unites the faith in Jesus Christ and in his Mother according to the flesh. For sure, we cannot add even one single word, even a trace of news to all that has been said, sung, prayed, praised or kept silent in front of Mary, throughout the centuries. But, let us try for a moment to enter into this “river of living water,” and let our thoughts be held still over there, not so much as to discover some new truths unknown to this day, but rather to try to follow the trail, to trace on the footprints of those ancient truths an avenue through which Christian families can find reciprocal recognition at the feet of the Virgin-Mother.


Sign of Contradiction


“How shall we call you? Full of grace? Heaven, since you made the sun of justice rise? Paradise, since you caused the flower of incorruptibility to blossom, how shall we call you? Virgin, since you remained incorrupt. Chaste Mother?


Since you held in your holy arms the Son, God of the universe, implore him so that our souls may be saved.” (2)


Liturgical thought tries to link within itself the praise, the marvel and the paradox. From the very beginning of Mary’s existence in the Church, it is as if Mary were cloaked in the mystery, that kind of mystery which gives rise to wonderment and excites the world into challenge, the same wonderment that had Elizabeth cry out:


“And how does this happen to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43), the same challenge of which old Simeon “The Just” spoke, while prophesying about her Son: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35).


The “sign of contradiction” causes the thoughts of hearts to be revealed; the contact, just a slight touch with this “sign,” reveals the inner core of human nature “for He himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:25). Therefore in the depth of the heart is hidden the truth about man, the truth that can be seen by God alone and lived only with God. And this truth is not only the law or the Word; this truth also has its own image. This image carries the countenance of Jesus as well as the face of Mary. Only the heart, within itself, can recognize these images, and at the moment of recognition, every individual, like Elizabeth, is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk. 1:41). The heart, then, filled with “the Holy Spirit,” becomes a womb giving birth to prayers, praise, dogmatic truths and ecclesial feasts. There is yet another part to the Simeon prophecy:


“And you yourself a sword will pierce your soul” (Lk. 2:35). Immediately we pick up the analogy of “Mother of Sorrows” with t