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 the Son: Mary will carry the suffering of Jesus. A remembrance of the Cross will always be present with the praise. For a moment let us refer back to the interpretation of the same words in the poem “The Meeting” (that is, the Presentation at the Temple) by Lossif Brodsky, who translates them this way: “Your soul will be pierced,” declares Simeon, “This wound will allow you to see, in the blinking of an eye, every thing that is hidden at the depth of every human heart…” (3)
The Church of Christ will give birth to her children in exuberant joy and in sadness; in this world, she will remain under the “sign of contradiction” and she will have to suffer in Mary. The presence of Mary, however, will offer that particular light which emanates from the mystery of the Church. From this mystery, the Church will gather the truth about humanity and about God himself.
After the voice of the Russian poem, let us listen to the voice of the founder of the Protestant Church, who speaks of the same meeting. Luther as well, in his youth, wrote a beautiful comment about the “Magnificat”:
What does it mean the fact that Simeon addresses his words to Mary alone…to Mary…and not to Joseph? Probably it means that the Christian Church will remain on earth, spiritually, like the Virgin Mother, and that she will not be destroyed, even though her preachers, her faith and her Gospel…will be persecuted; even if Joseph will die, and if Christ will be tortured, and Mary will be a widow, even if her heart will be pierced because Joseph, the Holy Father, dies and the Gospel will be persecuted, she must suffer the sword and yet she must always remain, up to the last day. (4)
This sword transfixes the heart of the Church as well. This sword divides Christians because of the name of Mary.
In the Silence of God
But in the very sufferance of the Church, which often the world cannot feel or hear, in a discreet way, the presence of Mary is manifested. As Saint Ignatius of Antioch said when taken to his martyrdom: “To the prince of this world, the virginity of Mary and her birth were kept hidden; and so also was the death of our Lord. These are the three incredible mysteries that took place in the silence of God.” (5)
Tradition tells us that Saint Ignatius wrote these words during a brief rest while on his way to Rome, where he was sent to die in the arena of the circus. He is not afraid; on the contrary, he begs his friends not to intervene on his behalf with the Roman authorities in order to save his life. For him—we quote Saint Paul—”Life is Christ and death is gain” (Phil.1:21). Death promises a meeting with Jesus—”I am seeking the One who died for us; I want him who resurrected for our sake,” (6) echoes Saint Ignatius. But there is more. Facing his death, above all, he behaves and confirms his vocation and duty of a pastor; he writes letters to his flock imparting some teachings, he prays, preaches, exhorts. Above all he is concerned about the unity and catholicity of the Church, because where the Church is, there the Christ is truly present, there truly is a faith and a Eucharist; there she is bishop. After the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, the epistles of Saint Ignatius constitute a first very precise example of the correct and authentic ecclesiology. From the very source of his ecclesial experience, there, at the inner core, at the threshold of his death, at the light of his passing, in the offering of his life to God, he discovers the mystery of Mary.
Therefore, by confessing his faith in the Church, he lives his death in a liturgical manner, just like the sacrificed body is changed into the bread of eternal life. Many martyrs after Saint Ignatius will repeat his words: “I am grain of God and I must be ground by the teeth of the beasts in order to become pure bread for Christ.” (7) And the Eucharistic light of his death, acting like a magnet, all of a sudden draws out from the dark the face of Mary.
Why, on his way to martyrdom, at the moment of his “passing” (allow me to be one with pure light…), (8) did Saint Ignatius begin to speak about the “three incredible mysteries”: the birth of Jesus, his death and the virginity of Mary? The mystery calls us and invites us to give an answer. But we believe—and the long experience of the whole Church confirms it—that Mary walked along with him; and she, who at the Annunciation was called “full of grace,” kept pouring God’s grace upon him.
Mary gave him her gift, the gift of Eucharistic Communion in martyrdom; she also gave him the gift of being able to see, to capture her mystery. Her gift, however, was silent. We know that in front of the challenge of the prince of this world, who was taking him to be food to the teeth of the beasts, in the midst of the clamor of the crowds, we know that Ignatius had another revelation, that of silence. In the silence he felt the presence and the intercession of Mary intrinsically rooted in the mystery of her Son. In another passage of the same letter to the Ephesians we find an indivisible tie between the two, Jesus and his Mother.
What he (God) accomplished in the silence is worthy of the Father. He who possesses the word of Jesus can also understand his silence and thus reach to perfection: his actions will reflect his words; but his silence, as well, will bespeak of who he is. Nothing is hidden from the Lord, even our secrets are exposed; let us therefore keep in mind that he lives in us and that we act in such a way as to be temples of his, and he is the God who abides in us. This is a reality; some day we will see it clearly. (9)
“Therefore, let us hold in our minds the fact that he lives in us…” For Mary, this “abiding within” was the reality of her life, and, at the same time, as for all of us, an eschatological reality; Mary was and remains the living temple, the temple of silence where the Word is born. The Word became flesh, not only by the words of the Angel, but also in the silence of the Holy Spirit. And indeed Mary carries within herself the silence of the Holy Spirit. And in silence she comes in order to live with us, in our hearts, near the fountain of the faith in Christ. “The Father speaks the Word in silence,” says St. John of the Cross, “and humanity must listen to it in silence.” (10)
Silence is another voice of revelation, the voice filled with the presence of the Mother and of the maternity of God. God sends his Son who also becomes manifest in the care, in the tenderness, in the prayerfulness and in the presence of his Mother, according to the flesh. The martyrdom, that is, the victory over the world and its prince, and the last Eucharist of faith, allows you to discover the Virgin Mary. And there is more: Mary’s virginity as a sign of the great silence of God is united to humankind in order to save it.
The Grain that Grows
“Virginity is a deep silence, a silence from all the cares of the world,” says Saint Therese of Lisieux, “not absence of useless cares, but absence of all kind of cares.” (11) Was she familiar with the cherubim’s hymn of the Byzantine liturgy? “We, who now, in a mystic way are the icons of the cherubim and raise the Trisagion hymn to the living Trinity, let us put aside every care of life…” Or did she guess it herself through her own experience?
“Silence is a virgin atmosphere. It is not the absence of material words that constitutes silence, but, this inner peace, rather, is the silent expression of two souls who, having conquered the world and themselves, hear nothing and comprehend nothing except the Word of God…” (12)
“Silence is the sacrament of the coming century,” used to say Saint Seraphim of Serov in remembering the words of the ancient Fathers. (13)
In the silence of the Spirit, listening carefully to the future century, Saint Ignatius was able to hear the mystery of Mary. By anticipating and living his death in the Eucharistic dimension, death—offering and transmutation—he discovered (in an absolute and spontaneous way) she who Saint Gregory of Nissa called “the limit between creation and non-creation.” It was so that all of a sudden he found within himself the seed of the presence of Mary. But in reality this seed had been sown in him from the beginning, by his baptism in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This seed was already hidden in the Most Holy Trinity, grown in Saint Ignatius’ Church, but martyrdom gave him the opportunity to bear much fruit.
This seed germinates in silence, it is concealed from the prince of this world and is found under the “sign of contradiction” with all that it sees, all that it hears; and it reasons by means of the tools of this world. But what is more important is Mary’s presence in the ecclesial faith, which, above all, derives from the mystery of Christ; such mystery is deeply Christological: The Word became flesh, and consequently Mary’s flesh, and all human flesh, is filled and consecrated with the presence of the Word. In the virginal birth we can see reflected the marvel of salvation itself; we can see the Heart of God in the refusal of any possession and dominion on his creatures—and here we are quoting Karl Barth (who, in addition, was a bad-tempered opposer of Marian veneration). (14) The Lord’s virginal birth, which already pre-announces the hidden glory of his death, is like the mark of the silence and the seal of the mystery.
We can talk about the archetype of Marian piety, as it began to be done after Jung, because the same discovery experienced by Saint Ignatius will be repeated in many innumerable “revealed hearts,” hearts “revealed” thanks to the touch of Mary. The same mystery will become clear, and the same silence will speak to the heart of each individual and also to all the generations that will call Mary “blessed,” and that with her and through her will enter in communion with her Son. But, to speak with the Gospel language, let us remember that, as Jesus says while speaking about the reign of God, “it is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” (Mk. 4:31). Also the “little seed” of Mary’s mystery is very small, so tiny that it is not even clearly visible in the Gospel. But no sooner is the “Marian seed” sown in genuinely lived faith that it begins to grow. Saint Ignatius was one of the first witnesses to this (but certainly not the only one). The seed grows in the silence of the Kingdom; “This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how” (Mk. 24:26-27), but it continues to grow in the Church and with the Church who reflects within herself the growth of the Kingdom of God. From the fountain of faith the light which illumines the presence of Mary in the Church of her Son becomes spread. It is the very Church that, by growing together with the “Marian seed” in its bosom, recognizes the gentle presence of Mary everywhere where the Church herself is present: in her past, transformed in Sacred Tradition; in her eschatological future, in her eternal evangelical present; but above all in the heart of humankind, in the heart of every person.
Tradition: The Memory of Mary
One can say that the heart of Mary is the heart of the very Church; the Gospel points this out very clearly: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them” (Lk. 2:19-51). The meditation of Mary is her mediation. God sends his message, the angels bring it to the shepherds. Shepherds, simple people, they announce it to Mary: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings” (Is. 52:7). It is the “Good News” that once more becomes flesh in the heart of Mary, is transformed into her mediation, in the chamber of the memory of what God reveals. It is like the seed of silence transformed into words. By means of the silent words held in the heart of Mary, we can also hear the same message from God; the message about the Mother of God as well as the message given by the Mother. The root of tradition develops, not so much from the voices of the people or of the little “traditions of our fathers” (Mal. 3:7), but above all by the great silence of the heart of Mary which is the mediation or the womb that generates the Word.
Thus, the “remembrance” of Mary becomes the beginning and the deposit of the ecclesial memory. To the extent in which the memory of the Church is developed and manifested in our consciousness, we will begin to hear the words of Jesus, the words that Mary preserved and kept in her heart. Therefore, one of the gifts that we receive from the Church is that of Marian remembrance. Every generation of the faithful possesses all the richness of the past, of the revelation of Christ which is repeated, not only in his Word, but in continuing growth, remaining faithful to its original identity.
But the identity of the soul that believes and speaks with prayers and celebrations, starts in the “Conciliar” remembrance which gets its beginning in the silence of the heart of Mary and causes this memory, or rather, this Marian Tradition, to blossom. Tradition is the “remembrance,” but a remembering filled by the same Spirit that filled Mary. Vladimir Lossky, in his essay called “Panaghia, Wholly and Totally Saint,” dedicated to Mary, finds the foundation of the very principle of the Church, the tradition of the Church, in the Marian heart, in the “remembrance” of Mary.
If Christ is preached on the rooftop, if he is proclaimed so that everyone may come to know him in the teaching presented to the whole world, then the mystery of the Mother of God opens itself to the inner core of the Church, to the faithful who receive the Word of God and aspire to walk forward to what lies ahead, continuing the pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14). This is not only the object of our faith, but it is something more; it is the fruit of faith, matured into Tradition. (15)
The fruit grown by the seed of Marian silence, sewn in the memory of the Church, is, above all, the “remembering,” the “recognition” of the very person of Mary. We carry inside of us this “remembering” like a seal, a fingerprint of the Word, of the same Word that Mary utters as Mother of Christ and of all the living—Mary prefiguring the Church, Mary, like the image of the soul that gives birth to the Lord. The fruit of silence becomes the voice of the Church, the voice of a “remembering” Church, a Church that recognizes, a Church that transforms her silence into the word of faith.
Certainly in the Gospel Mary does not always remain silent. She talks to the angel who comes to her with his announcement, “She ‘magnifies’ the Lord within her soul,” she asks Jesus to help the poor family at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. But she talks little and keeps quiet a lot. At the foot of her Son’s Cross she doesn’t utter a word. She is also silent at the hour of Jesus’ death and after the news of his Resurrection. She continues to keep quiet at the moment of the Holy Spirit’s descent, when everybody else begins to talk. Therefore, if the gift given to the others was the gift of tongues, the gift of Mary, the greatest of all, was the gift of “prayerful silence,” (presence of the indescribable Presence, attention to the eternal Love, “behind the veil of time,” as Emilianos Timiadis defines it). (16) In this manner, when the silence of the heart is transformed into faith, according to the prophecy of Simeon, “the thoughts of many hearts are revealed.”
In the silence of the Cross Jesus speaks his last words to his Mother and to John, the beloved disciple: “Son, here is your Mother,” “Woman, here is your son.” Who did not hear in his own heart the echo of these words? After this gesture of adoption no one is ever alone because the Mother is near. “And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn. 19:27). And in his very home, in the habitat of Mary’s silence, immersed in the maternal mystery, after many years of the invisible work that was being done in his heart, John, with perhaps the most beautiful words about God that man could have ever said, was able to bring about the fruit of his faith grown to full maturity in his very words, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the word of life, for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible for us” (1 Jn. 1:2). Yes, this witnessing of Mary is silent, but her silence speaks, her silence carries and touches the Word of life. Her presence is hidden here, but who can make a statement like this, who can pronounce these words with a heart fuller then that of John’s, “Life made itself visible” and “We have seen?” The testimony of John is like a transmutation into the hidden and unspoken words in the heart of Mary. Wasn’t it Mary herself who made visible this life? Wasn’t she the instrument for which this Word was made audible?
“And from that hour the disciple took her into his house.” But John isn’t only the beloved disciple who gives his testimony. John stays always in the same house; this is another image of the Church in communion with Mary, in the silence of Mary, in the love of Mary. And it was John himself who, from his Marian silence, spoke these other piercing words about God, “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 Jn. 4:16).
Mary, the Church
“We have come to know…” and this “knowing” of John embraces and unites all of us, the faithful. It comes from the heart of Mary. But she stands removed, she lets other people do the talking. John speaks, Peter speaks, Paul speaks. Scriptures talk and the Church talks; but each one of their words are as if drenched in the mediation of Mary.
Saint John’s “coming to know love,” as well as Saint Ignatius’ becoming aware of the “three incredible mysteries” a few generations later, reveal another mystery that unites Mary with the Church. The Church hears the Word in the silence of Mary, receives the love of God from the hands of Mary, and “recognizes herself” in Mary; the Church also remembers Mary in all her prophetic “prefigurations” which we find in Scriptures. The ecclesial memory or “remembrance” always goes back to its source in the heart of Mary.
Of her it is spoken in the narration of creation as “virgin land,” in the image of the garden of Eden, in the story of Eve who become “the mother of all the living” because Mary is destined to become the new Eve. We sense her discrete presence in the arc of Noah and in the heavenly ladder of Jacob, but above all we see her in the burning bush because Mary herself becomes the receptacle of the “Fire,” that “Fire” which the entire earth cannot contain. In the crossing of the Red Sea we recognize the virginal birth of the Word, in the hymn of the prophetess Mary, sister of Aaron, we hear the echo of the “Magnificat.” Also in the Dwelling, and in the Glory of the Lord which filled the Dwelling, we already recognize the vision of Mary’s glory. We recognize the figure of Mary in Anna’s canticle in the Psalms. We meet her in the uncreated Seat of Wisdom, we confess her as Spouse in the Canticle, and finally, in the words of Isaiah we hear her prophesied, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel” (Is.7:14).
The Church in the commemoration of Mary recognizes herself in Mary, because the remembrance that lives in the Holy Spirit—or Tradition—continues through time. Therefore, faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, which the Church confesses from the beginning, finds its fulfillment, its fullness, only when enlightened by the mystery of Mary.
The Church, in her knowledge of Mary as Odighitria, Succourer, Mother of the afflicted, Joy of all creation, finds the avenue to her own mystery. “Mary is the archetype and the personification of the Church, body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit.” (17) Jesus says, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn. 14:26).” With the words kept in the heart of Mary, the Holy Spirit that lives in her keeps reminding the Church of everything that Jesus said and everything that Jesus continues to tell us, even today. Tradition is the uninterrupted Word. But this dimension of the “sanctified remembrance” is tied to another one, to that one of sacrifice. Christ is an offering of God to humanity, but an offering that we receive as gift from Mary. Mary herself, as well, is above all the gift that humanity gives of itself to God, the most precious gift, the fruit of a long maturation in the embrace of grace.
“What can we offer you, O Christ?” sings the Orthodox Church at Christmas vigil, “Heaven offers you the angels, earth brings you her gifts, but we, humankind, we offer you the Virgin—Mother…”
And almost as an echo to this ancient hymn, John Paul II says in Redemptoris Mater:
Mary receives life from Him to whom she herself, in the order of earthly generation, gave life as a mother. The liturgy does not hesitate to call her ‘mother of her Creator,’ and to hail her with the words which Dante Alighieri places on the lips of Saint Bernard: “daughter of your Son.” (18)
In the writings of the early Fathers we find the idea of reciprocal thirst which unites God and man; we find the idea of God’s walk towards humankind and the walk of humankind towards God. The story of humanity is the very long vicissitude of the place of this encounter. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you,” we hear Isaiah’s cry (Is. 63:19-20). But God came down in secret and in peace. The womb of the daughter of Zion was the place of his encounter with humankind. And from the moment of this encounter a new light falls all over Scriptures. The Word of God becomes a string of “icons” that foresees the coming of Mary as the one who carries within herself the mystery of the definite encounter of God with humanity. Mary was chosen as the last stopping place in the long walk of the Word toward man.
As Melito, Bishop of the Sardinians wrote in the second century:
It was He who through Noah was piloting the Arc, it was He who led Abraham and who was tied with Isaac, it was He who with Jacob was pilgrim, it was He who was sold with Joseph, it was He who was the leader with Moses, who gave the law to the people, who with Joshua the son of Nun divided the promised land, who sang through David and who through the prophets predicted his sufferings; it was He who became Incarnate in a Virgin to be born in Bethlehem, it was He who in the manger was wrapped in swaddling clothes, who was seen by the shepherds, who was glorified by the angels, who was adored by the Magi… (19)
The Church of the Word was revealed and became fully realized in Mary, in her body, in her heart, in her faith.
And so it was also in the faith of her saints and martyrs.
…No matter how crazy the world can get and raise a turbid wave upon what we have that is most sacred and pure, we are certain that the sacred mysteries will triumph, because our sinful earth is marked by the footprints of the only Pure One. No matter how much the Church will undergo persecution, it cannot be overcome, because the Mother of God is the heart of the Church, and this heart is cloaked in the sacred mystery of divine love. This sacred mystery is the source of our rebirth, the triumph of eternal life. (20)
Mary, the Faith
Saint Clement of Alexandria says, “Only one Virgin-Mother exists, and according to my point of view no better name can be suited to her than the name Church.” (21)
“The Mother of God is the praying Church,” says P. Seghij Bulgakov:
Mary by herself, because of her ever-alive faith, built the Church of Jesus, and during the long vigil of that Saturday, while Christ was resting in the sepulcher, the entire life of the mystical Body was gathered in her, almost as if to look for refuge in her, as if the Body were in its own heart. (22)
And from the very heart of Mary the infant Church was also trying to understand herself and her own faith. For sure, the act of faith preceding the consciousness of the Church’s own existence was always a spontaneous act of faith. The first Christian generations who could live in the mystery of Mary, who possessed the strong sense of her protection, of the fullness of the Holy Spirit within her being, had not put together yet a “mariology.” The hold of dogmatic consciousness of Mary’s role and of her presence became more deeply rooted by means of the necessity born in the discussion with many opposers to a christocentric faith. For this reason the mystery must be lived, not only in the liturgical glorification or in the profession of faith, but also in the reasoning that deals with the mystery as if it were a precious stone, and takes it apart, cuts facets on it with human rationality. There is more: the dogmatic knowledge is developed, keeps going ahead, but at the end it goes back towards the source of knowledge, towards the remembrance hidden in the heart. True knowledge is in fact gratitude because it springs from love; and it is also recognition because it derives from veiled memory. The Church, therefore, by developing her vision of Mary, always arrives at the truth of faith already known, because she carries it within herself from the very beginning, the truth already lived by her saints and her martyrs: Mary is the Mother of God, Mary is always Virgin, Mary is Mother of humankind. This truth is only born by the “intelligent contemplation” of the mystery of the Incarnate Word.
It is in this manner that Saint Justin, philosopher and martyr, discovers the analogy, which became classical, between Mary and Eve, because Mary was already present in the remembrance of Eve:
Eve…while still virgin and incorrupt, conceived the word of the serpent and gave birth to disobedience and death. Mary, the Virgin, on the contrary, when the angel Gabriel brought her the happy news that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, accepted it with faith and joy … and for this reason the Holy One born of her would be the Son of God. And she responds with the following words, “Be it done to me accord to your word” (Lk. 1:38). (23)
Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, in his fight against Gnosticism, the heresy of the second century after Christ, a heresy that shows its vitality even today, speaks of Mary as the Mother of the Word of God. The gnostic diluted the Christian faith by separating the Word and Jesus, a separation that keeps coming back when reason, separated from faith, is tempted to close faith in its own cage. According to the gnostic, “…he was Incarnate and suffered…” “The Jesus of the economy” of which they speak, they say, passed through Mary like water passes through a pipe. According to others still Jesus would have been born of Joseph and Mary, and upon him would have come down “the Christ of the superior regions” who “has no flesh and therefore cannot suffer.” (24)
Two centuries later the idea of separation finds its form in Nestorius’ doctrine. He used to say a simple thing and according to him very logical: the Word of God did not need nine months of development in order to be born of Mary. That is, God used Mary as his “instrument.” Mary as Mother of God simply does not exist.
It is a noteworthy fact that heresies are coming back even today (and, perhaps, today more than ever before) because the Incarnation is still under the “sign of contradiction.” The Council of Ephesus, which condemned Nestorius, placed this sign in the paradox of the mystery of the union of the human and of the divine having taken place in the womb of Mary; this union is placed as the foundation of the salvific work of God at work in the Virgin Mary. “According to the concept of the Council of Ephesus,” says the Orthodox theologian, Alexis Kniasev, “we are acknowledging the holy Virgin as Theotokos (Mother of God) since the Word of God became Incarnate and was made man and since the Word united to himself, from the very beginning and by means of that very conception, the temple undertaken by her.” (25)
The term “Theotokos” is not a small part of dogmatic mariology, but it is the center in the vision of Mary, or rather, it is “the Marian wisdom” finding its rational formula. Mary only as Mother of God can also become Mother in an ontological and soteriological sense. “The mystery of the divine maternity reaches far beyond the personality of the Mother of God and is revealed like a fundamental mystery of Christ’s salvific work. She receives and introduces the Savior as well as salvation to humankind” (26) And as incarnation of the divine maternity she is also Mother of all humanity in its walking toward God. The decision of the Council of Ephesus remains, for the Orthodox Church, a definitive boundary of the last facet that separates true spiritual knowledge, salvific and rooted in the mystery, from erroneous and illusory avenues. This is like a stone upon which is founded the christocentric piety. The sense of the Conciliar decision is: the truth about Christ casts a light on the truth about his Mother as well, and only this light can nourish our soul with the correct faith, rooted in Christ, conceived in Mary.
The term “Theotokos” is apophatic as well. It contains the whole truth about the divine maternity, a truth, however, “folded” into the mystery, wrapped in the non-knowledge. The light that comes from Mary’s maternity in not always “decipherable” with precise formulae. This light continues to live and grow in the Church, but its “development” according to Orthodoxy is not dogmatic or purely rational, but is existential, which manifests itself in the history of the sanctity lived by the Saints. The Holy Spirit allows the development of the truth about Mary and of Mary to be manifest in the experience of the saints, in the common remembrance of the People of God where the word “Theotokos,” while safeguarding its infant and Conciliar nucleus, becomes filled with the new senses that are brought about from a prayer-filled life pervaded by the presence of the Mother.
And this presence is the language of divine love that speaks with the soul, in the silence, a presence that also keeps looking for its liturgical expression.
Ave, torment of the invisible enemies,
Ave, key to the doors of heaven,
Ave, bond of joy from heaven to earth,
Ave, as the earth exults with the sky,
Ave, from the unceasing lips of the Apostles,
Ave, invincible courage of martyrs,
Ave, firm assertion of faith,
Ave, luminous knowledge of grace,
Ave, for whom hell is destroyed,
Ave, of whose glory we are blinded… (27)
The art of the akathist is that of recognition. The heart (of humankind, of the singing community, of the Church) recognizes the different faces of its joy of loving or of being loved by the Mother of God, the joy of singing its faith with her or the joy of simply being near her. We can see the definitions multiplying themselves in the expression of joy and in the exuberance; the akathist, as a liturgical form, is an act, or it is, rather, the river of knowing that does not become rigid through the dogmas, which has its value in the very flowing of the confession of faith as a state of mind that takes life from its own singing. This casting, this musical flowing gets its origin in the only definition of Mary, “recognized,” praised in the role of Theotokos and goes back to the same source. The divine maternity is like a fountain of “the essence of being ecclesial,” of the church, who, in her praying finds her definition in Mary.
But the prayer born in the heart of the Church also creates the truth in the Church, truth in the two following aspects: christological and mariological; the truth in two senses: existential and dogmatic. Certainly, not every word of our liturgical usage can expect to claim a definitive truth. At times it expresses nothing but our search, our intuition or conjecture, a bursting of the soul. But also in this case, when the search is done along the trail of the authentic Tradition, the prayer brings the witnessing of its truth, a truth not completely perfect, but the truth of the “indistinct vision” (1 Cor. 13:12), characteristic of humankind, or the hypothetical truth that can also be rejected.
However, in the Orthodox Church, this rigid confinement between faith and its devotional expression, upon which Newman insists at the beginning of his letter to Pusey about Mary, does not exist. (28) Faith, having its solid structure in its dogmatic foundation becomes open and constantly recognizes itself in its prayer, faith in turn, “becomes aware” of the moment of truth in the Spirit through the praying community. We believe and we know that the roots of the entire ecclesial truth are found in Christ and are hidden in Mary as the depository of Tradition and as custodian of the Revelation. “Only the Church,” writes Vladimir Lossky, “the expansion of Christ’s human nature, can hold the fullness of Revelation; if a book were to be written about it not even the entire world would be able to contain it. Only the Mother of God, chosen to contain God in her womb, can fully realize all that is connected to the event of the Incarnation of the Word, which, at the same time, is the secret of her divine Maternity.” (29) Therefore, in Orthodoxy, the word of prayer, of praise, of supplication, of hope etc., which is born from the maternal womb of the Church, by means of Mary’s mediation, tries to become the very Word, that is, the revelation of truth without, however, claiming a dogmatic position.
But there is yet another aspect of Mary’s mediation, the pneumatological one. In the Church’s conscience every dogma is like a seal of the Holy Spirit upon the human mind, the rational icon of the same Holy Spirit. The definition of Mary as Mother of God is the act of self-consciousness of the ecclesial faith and the manifestation of the Spirit. The birth of dogmatic knowledge is like the conception of the Word. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35). But the Spirit also comes to give life to the Word in our soul, that is, to faith.
“This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God” (Jn. 4:2). Faith is the fruit of the descent of the Spirit, and Mary is always the first image of faith, its icon, its Mother giving birth to faith itself.
In other words: If Christian faith has a face, this face is the one of Mary, the icon of the Church.
“Crown of dogmas,” Mary sheds light on the Trinitarian mystery reflected in the human: “you have given birth to a Son without father, this Son who was born of the Father without a mother” (the dogmatic, third tone). To the paternity of the Father in the realm of the divine corresponds, in the realm of the human, the maternity of the Theotokos; the image of the maternal virginity of the Church. And it is Cyprian who exclaims, “One cannot have God as father who does not have the Church as mother.” (30)
Mary, the Soul
Ave, dawn of the mysterious day….
Ave, who sheds light upon those who preserve the mystery of the Trinity… (31)
The center of Christian faith is always Jesus Christ, because “there is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved,” as saint Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles (4:12). But in our most intimate, in our deeper life with God there is a secret relationship between Son and Mother, between the Word and silence, between faith placed upon Conciliar formulas and the mystery, the mystery hidden in the heart. The mystery of Mary always walks along with the mystery of Christ (and of the Trinity), just as silence walks along with the Word. When this mystery is severed we receive a shallow Christianity, impoverished, as if robbed of its own moralistic rationality, such as it is in the extreme forms of Protestantism; or, on the other hand, we receive a terrible mixture of a morose mysticism with fanatic imaginations, such as occurs in some Marian sects.
The roots of Mary’s veneration are centered in the faith and in the love of her Son, “the true light that enlightens every human being.” But, in its own simplicity and transparency, the light that enlightens us also carries within itself the maternal presence. Among the people this light takes on the “material” substance of this world. And the light’s first “matter” was the flesh of its Mother. The light comes clothed in an obscure and unfathomable mystery, it comes as a message, the Good News; it comes as a person, as the face of Christ back to us, but it also comes as the purity of the Virgin, as tenderness and protection, intercession and love. All these are the “substances” of the Word that speaks to the soul, that enters the soul and, in a primordial manner becomes flesh in the soul as well as in the Church.
“Every soul that believes, conceives and gives birth to the Word of God; according to faith, Christ is the fruit and all of us are mothers of the Christ,” Says Saint Maxim the Confessor. (32)
“Mary and the Church are a single Mother and many Mothers, a single virgin and many virgins,” echoes a Cistercian monk of the twelfth century, blessed Isaac of the Star.
Every faithful soul is spouse of the Word of God, mother, daughter, and sister of Christ as well. Every faithful soul must also be called virgin and fruitful.
The same thing then, is to be said universally about the Church, particularly about Mary, particularly about the faithful soul; and it is the very Wisdom of God that says it, “She is the Word, the Word of the Father…” (33)
Mary, the Mother
Christian faith is founded on the Word, is nourished by the Word, but cannot be reduced to the Word. Because faith is the Word we feel and sense in our heart, in the depth of our silence, it is the silence we feel at the depth of the Word. And the Word gives life and life enters in our heart. The Word has a Mother and the Mother brings the Word to us. It is exactly in this sense that the Mother of God can be called “the model”; she is our model and she invites us to live the mystery of the Incarnation as well as the mystery of obedience to God. Mary lived all this fully in her maternity.
“Maternity becomes a key for all the mysteries pertaining to Mary,” says Adrienne von Speyr. (34)
Maria Scobtzova says, “Maternity is indication of love.” (35)
The maternity of Mary is also a message that speaks with the language of tenderness and of protection, shedding light upon the maternal aspect of revelation. (36)
The revelation of the maternity of God is another aspect, another face of his love. In our most intimate, deepest life with God there is a secret relationship between the Son and the Mother, between the Word and the silence, between faith held and kept by means of dogmatic rules and the mystery, the mystery hidden in the act of faith. And this relationship is essential and sapiential. From the Word we go to silence, from Christ to Mary, from the Church to the soul and back, because the Spirit of truth unites these realities in itself, inseparably and distinctly at the same time. The Father himself sends his Spirit “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:17); and Jesus is conceived in our hearts by the maternity of Mary.
Consequently, the seed of “Marian piety” is alive in every kind of Christian faith, but it is only Tradition that, by going back to its own apostolic and patristic source, discovers Mary as Mother of faith in Christ. Mary, as a figure of the Church, enables this seed to grow. Therefore, tradition itself, in its ecclesial concept, gets its start and its development beginning with the “remembrance,” which originates in the heart of Mary (according to Lk. 2:19). In Mary every heart that “lives by faith” (Rom.1:17) becomes a dwelling place of the Word.
This fundamental bond between Mary and the Church, between Mary and the faith, between Mary and the maternity of God himself, holds within itself the hidden wisdom of faith—faith that is always aware of its origin in Christ and cannot forget its womb in Mary.
To confess our faith in God we can use different words, but they all rise from the same silence with God, from “the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). In spite of the fact that there are differences in the Marian dogmas, we must also acknowledge that there are similarities, even in the coincidence of the “Marian soul” of the two Churches. This “soul” can also be called knowledge, that is, the “knowledge of God,” or the silent knowledge, existential, mysterious and full of grace of the maternal presence of Mary in every matter regarding our belief.
The knowledge filled vision of Mary is confirmed from the beginning of Christian history to today. Divided in the rational expression, we are called to search for unity in the knowledge that exists everywhere where the apostolic faith is truly confessed. Therefore, before looking for correspondence in fixed formulas, in rules and regulations, we have to “secure” and confess the common knowledge, the vivifying font that makes us one, allowing freedom of its diversified expressions. In the communion of Marian knowledge seen as “maternity” of the Word, rooted in every single human soul, we can find the signs of the reconciliation which can be called, and fully deserving it, “Marian.”
Everything is a sign: tenderness and virginity; the icon and the miracle; and so is the sign that brings into focus, that develops, that proclaims the mystery of the living God who is born in us and lives in us.
Such was the faith of the ancient Church: the Word of faith cannot be eradicated from the place of its birth, from the “virgin” mystery of the maternity.
In Luke 8:21, we read, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” Let us marvel at this; “all those who listen to his word, He raises up to his Mother’s level and calls them brothers and relatives!” (37)
Mary, the “Orthodox”
Regarding this ancient faith, which one is the segment that was inherited and developed from Orthodoxy?
“The heart of Orthodoxy (in particular, Russian Orthodoxy), perhaps, never expressed itself so completely, as in the veneration of the Mother of God and of the Saints.” (38)
“The whole of human suffering in its yearning does not dare to break open its heart in front of Christ for fear of God,” says Georguij Fedotov in his writings, “but it freely and lovingly turns to the Mother of God. Assumed in the realm of the divine, up to the dissolution with the Almighty, Mary stands as a distinction from Christ, tied with the human race, the compassionate and protective Mother.” (39)
The “Orthodox” face of Mary has many expressions, many images that can be found in a permanent correlation. Very briefly, let us look at only three of them: Mary—Protectress, Mary—Eucharist, Mary—Wisdom. Mary is the one who protects, the one who accompanies, the one who pulls us away from danger, that danger that threatens our lives on earth and also the one that threatens the salvation of our souls. The justice of the Lord awaits us, “and we don’t have other help, other hope, except You, O, Queen…” sings one of the many Orthodox hymns addressed to Mary. “Protection,” in Russian “pokrov,” is not just the remembrance of a past miracle, but it is the maternal protective part of the very same faith that places us in front of God’s eyes in view of our own misery. There, where the ancient virtue of wisdom is present, who, according to Scriptures, is “the Wisdom of God” (Ps.110:10), Mary meets us as Mother of repentance. In Orthodoxy there is a tension and equilibrium between faith lived in fear, and trust in the protection in front of the Final Judgment as well as in front of our own temptations and the dangers of this world.
The maternity of God is also his compassion. Speaking about the mystical theology of Orthodoxy and of its “ethic” as well, we can say that their roots are very deeply Marian. “But the human heart,” writes Maria Scobtzova, “still must be transfixed by a double sword blade….The cross of the neighbor must be a sword for the soul and it must be transfixed by it. The soul must participate with the destiny of others, feel with, and suffer with….Due to the resemblance with her prototype, with the Mother of God, the human soul is attracted to Golgotha on the footprints of the Son of Mary; thus, it cannot be attracted without shedding some blood.” (40)
And just on the Golgotha of her destiny, the Orthodox soul calls upon the mercy and the intercession of the Mother. The miraculous icons, those of Vladimir, Kazan, Pochiaev and Tichvin (in Russia alone there are hundreds of miraculous icons), all express, each time in different ways, the “message” of hope, the sign of protection, the mystery of her mediation. There is no room for the mystery where protection is guaranteed, where fear of our merited condemnation due to our sins is absent. The “space” of protection is the hope placed in the love that envelopes us because it is born out of fear, in fact, born out of the fear of that love that burns and judges us.
“Under the protection of your mercy we find refuge, Oh Mother of God, do not let those who pray to you be overcome by temptation, but free us from danger, you the only pure and blessed one.” (41) The idea of protection is particular of the Russian Orthodox soul. Among all the Marian festivities, “Pokrov,” even though not part of the traditional Twelve, is still one of the most loved ones. (42) In most parts of Northern Russia the feast of “Prokov” is celebrated the 14th of October, (October 1st according to the Julian calendar), and it often coincides with the first snowfall. The earth becomes covered by a white sheet. The brightness of the mantle of snow symbolizes the Immaculate’s icon of purity. But, at the same time, the incoming of winter brings within itself a certain anguish—cold, hunger: the thought of the Russian farmer was always how to survive during the winter. And this anguish becomes fused to the image of purity and the two of them together give birth to a third image, the image of death. The snow is like a denial of a preceding life, another dimension of life undergoing trial, yet cloaked in purity.
All these images “work” at the deepest level which is the one of human rationality. But the answer of faith, which has its roots in the subconscious, that part which always remains concealed to man but that at the same time possesses a clear and rational expression, is the prayer addressed to Mary requesting her protection:
Today, we, people of good will, celebrate in the light, enlightened by your coming, Oh Mother of God; while looking at your most pure image, we say with a heart made tender: cover us with your mantle and save us from every ill; while praying to your Son, Christ our God, save our souls. (43)
From all these images, buried in the depth of the human heart, the icon representing the face of Mary Mother of God is born; Mary protecting us from evil. But let us take a closer look: this icon is invaded by the light of Christ. Without confusion and without separation, as always in the Orthodox Marian piety, Mother and Son are always together. “Mary covers us and protects us with her mantle, and this is for sure,” writes the Monk of the Oriental Church. “But her mantle is nothing else than the tunic of Jesus, that cloak which the sick of the Gospel used to touch in order to be healed. When it seems that Mary is touching us, it is really Jesus that is touching us.” (44)
Otherwise we can say: Jesus is protecting us with the mantle of Mary, he is saving us with the prayer of Mary.
In the Orthodox tradition there is also another view of the “prokov,” that of Mary as defense from divine love itself whose fire, for us mortals, is unbearable. Bishop Alexandre Semionov-Tian-Shanckij writes:
Any writer holding the faith can confirm that the mantle of the Mother of God protects us from the light of divine glory, from its splendor unsustainable by us sinners. Without this gentle mantle we would be burned by the brightness of the divine glance turned on us, by the ray of his justice and of his love; the mantle of the Sovereign Queen gives to each one of us the possibility to receive this light as if it were received from our own strength, thus disposing us to gradually open up, more and more, to the light. (45)
One can sense in here, in the Orthodox vision, how the disclosed secret of sanctity can be our being open to the light of God, and how it can also be the absence of human defense against that light, but, all this, always under the protection of the Mother of God.
A brief word on the origin of this feast. Like all feasts, it is tied back to a mystical and historical event, precisely, to the apparition of the Mother of God in the Church of Blacherne, in the Constantinople of the tenth Century. According to the story, Andrew, “a madman for the Lord,” and his friend Ephraim, saw Mary accompanied by a huge army of saints guided by saint John the Baptist. She lifted up her mantle (pokrov) and spread it over the two men and over the city of Constantinople as a sign of protection.
Protection against whom? Against troops of pagan Russians who, at that moment, were besieging a glorious Christian capital which had the honor to be called the second Rome. All the people were praying for protection against the imminent sacking, and pillaging. The following day, the whole town went to the sea, in order to look at the waters carrying on its waves the menacing threat. What did it see? A peaceful and calm sea with no trace of Russian ships on its tides. They were gone! This feast was just about forgotten by the Greeks; among the Russians instead, “Pokrov” became one of the main festivities. Nationalism never touches the heart of the Church.
However, the mystery of the “protection” goes still deeper, and rational logic cannot express it except by using a paradox. One of the most loved Marian prayers in the Orthodox Church, often sung spontaneously by the people after vespers (when the office is finished), contains the following confession: “Besides You, Oh our Lady, we have no other help, we have no other hope; we hope in You, we praise You, we are Your servants and we are not ashamed of it.” The only help? The only hope? But where is Christ? Christ is in Mary and Mary is in Christ, without confusion, without separation, in the same mystery of salvation. Thus, one can understand another prayer, shorter but not less paradoxical, “Save us, Oh Most Holy Mother of God!”
When the wind of temptation is raised up, when you are carried toward the cliffs of adversity, look at the star, call Mary! If you are tossed by the waves of pride, of ambition, of disparagement, of jealousy, look at the star, call Mary! If anger or greed or if the luring of the flesh shakes the little boat of your soul, look toward Mary! (46)
The Most Holy Mother of God defends us from the visible and invisible enemies….with her maternal protection she defends us from the darts of carnal passions, because she is all pure and blessed, she calms the winds of pride, because she is a lover of humility; she heals from greed, because she loves poverty; she protects from divine anger, because she is the Mother of mercy, she preserves from moments of temptation, because she is our defense. (47)
This mystery cannot be explained, but it becomes clear by examining another one, the Eucharist. The Mother of God is present here as well. But in order to speak of “Eucharistic Mary” we must remember that according to the Orthodox faith the Eucharist is an action of God. The people of God get prepared in order to receive him, gather together in the Church, carry the bread and the wine, but God alone can change these human gifts into the gift of his presence. The people pray and invoke his descent, but the mystery of transmutation is an act of faith on behalf of the Church. And, by means of this act, the Church finds her realization, finds her “identity” as the Body of Christ, and, in following the secret logic of her faith “finds herself” in Mary who gave human life to this Body. The people of God gathered in the Church become the Body of Christ in the Eucharistic act, in the communion. The Eucharistic act with the Son in the Holy Spirit is offered to the Father and is included in the memory of Mary, in whose spirit the perfect communion, or the union with God, was and remains fully realized. This “Marian remembrance,” ontological, existential, and vital, is constantly revealed in the liturgical prayer, “Bringing our memory to recall the all holy one, the stainless one, more than blessed, glorious Queen, our Deipara and ever virgin Mary together with all her Saints, we ourselves and everyone else entrust our life to Christ God.”
We always partake of communion with Mary, in the light of her beatitude. In the anaphora, or in the Eucharistic prayer of Saint John Chrysostom, immediately after the epiclesis, the gathered community sings these words to the Mother of God: “It is truly just to call ‘you’ blessed, O Deipara, because you are highly blessed, all pure and the Mother of our God…” (48)
Mary assists us and walks with us during the whole liturgy and during communion. She assists us at the Eucharist and prays for us and with us, so that the communion with the Body and Blood of her Son may not become “condemnation for us.” Instead, she prays so that “our souls may be purified and sanctified” ready for eternal life where she will be forever near us.
It is not for nothing that the “remembrance” of the Eucharist includes within itself the entire life of our Saviour, from Christmas (which presupposes, without doubt, the entire earthly life of the Mother of God including the Annunciation), up to his glorification in his Dormition; it brings to light the thought that the Church holds within herself when she teaches us to implore the gift of Holy Communion, not only by the hands of the One who gives Himself in the Communion, but we are also exhorted to implore such gift by the hands of the Mother. The Church, then, invites us to give thanks to Mary for such a gift.… (49)
The Virgin remains at the vertex, at the summit of sanctity in the Church, and her virginity expresses the “Essence” of the Kingdom, Sanctity in Aeternum, the epithalamium of Sanctus. The reading of Proverbs 8:22-23 at the feast of the Immaculate Conception identifies the Virgin with the place of the Wisdom of God and through her celebrates the aim reached by divine creation. (50)
The image of Mary: Wisdom does not have any dogmatic expression. Wisdom is the vision of the world in its initial “project”—”The Lord begot me, the first born of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago” (Pr. 8:22); and faith in our Creator cannot exist without this visual and spiritual contact with his work of which we are part. Without the remembrance of “wisdom” of the first day of creation, or of the joy of creation just out of the hands of God, or of the grace that fills the world with each breath and that finds his fullness only in the heart and in the silence of Mary, faith becomes impoverished.
“Oh full of grace, the whole of creation rejoices in You, the throng of Angels and the progeny of mankind, Oh sanctified Temple and rational Paradise…” (51)
Joy is another name with which wisdom can be called. Mary is the incarnation of the joy of creation; she is the heart of all creation exulting for joy and holding present within her memory the eternal moment when, by God’s lips creation was proclaimed “a good thing,” because sin had not yet touched it. The whole of creation is recapitulated in Mary, it goes back to its initial goodness, to its original wisdom.
Wisdom has many definitions. I will dwell on this one alone, the simplest, the most evident, the most “Marian”: the joy of all creation. Said joy must spring out of me, must find its source within me, it must allow this fountain within to become free. For this reason one can speak of wisdom and purification, the purification of Adam’s cry after the fall. This is the wisdom of prayer and of asceticism of monastic life. But wisdom has other “channels,” other forms, other ways of expression. One of these channels could be the “intelligent” vision of the world, which is true philosophy; another channel could be artistic activity. The authentic act of creation is always wisdom filled. The artist, with his human wisdom, is trying to answer to the voice of the original Wisdom, hidden in the silent joy of the first day of creation. But the most perfect joy abides in Mary, in the grace, in the receptacle of grace that she became.
Therefore, in addition to prayer, one of the main expressions of wisdom is the art of the icon.
The following is the description of the icon “In You every creature rejoices.”
The icon offers a radiant image of Heaven adorned with blooming flowers whose center, depicting the Virgin with the Child, is God Incarnate who came down to bring salvation to the world. The Mother of God is represented seated on a throne surrounded by a garland of divine glory and by the symbols of the four evangelists…and by choirs of angels…Behind her, among the heavenly verdant shrubs on which birds are resting, the domes of a luminous Church stand out, representing the Virgin celebrated in the hymn “Sanctified Temple.” This figure is framed by a red semicircle from which tongues of fire are emanating being thus interpreted as an opening in the firmament admitting into the kingdom of light. The universal character of exultation is rendered by the presence of all the “orders” of sanctity, beginning from the unanimous tension of the whole earthly surface toward the hemisphere of Paradise, to the celestial asters appearing through the clouds.… (52)
Mary, the Image
If so often we speak about silence, we do so, not to bring into light our personal experience, or to underline our “mystical depth,” but in order to go to the source of our own faith. This source begins with the Word—”In the beginning was the Word.” We must deal with absolute seriousness the “verbal principle” for created things, even for ourselves, but we should not confuse the Word with human languages. The Word speaks in us from the “beginning”; our hearing cannot perceive those words; but the true voice of the Silence of the Word is the image. And his most meaningful image, the most “eloquent” is the human countenance. We cannot reduce the Word who “was at the beginning” to the word that is at our disposal, that is, at the disposal of our morality, doctrine, conscience, to all that can be expressed by rational means, measurable by “pure reason.”
The Word is also this: The Incomprehensible and The Inconceivable opening to us, calling us, communicating to us “through the inner face” of the presence of the divine in his human image which we recognize in ourselves. (53)
The power of the image is in the recognition of the hidden face within us and of the hidden voice which we hear in the silence.
Thus, from the few words of Mary given to us by the Gospel, we recognize her voice and her image awakening in our inner being. The absence of her words carries a very suggestive density and, let us say, it also carries the ontological “homogeneity” expressed with her initial words, “Here I am, I am the servant of the Lord” up to her silent staying at the foot of the Cross, and to the “Magnificat” even to the day of Pentecost.
The very Gospel creates the space of the image of silence by beginning to talk through the images created by the people.
Surely, with the pretence of obedience to the “pure” Word, we could close our ears to this silence and our eyes to the face of Mary that we carry within our heart. But, if this be the case, then we should also erase the interior space created by the Word, which, I repeat, beside human words possesses other means for communicating to us, other languages. That which we call Tradition in the largest sense of the word is based on the trust of this interior space, of this subconscious (if we use the dictionary somewhat distorted by modernism), subconscious that reveals to us very early images, “ancient” ones, more deeply rooted in us then the ones brought up by psychoanalysis.
The Word has its own walk, it goes from top to bottom, it becomes transformed in a human talk (a sermon, ethics, dogmatic conscience etc.). But there is another walk traveled by the Word, a walk that goes much deeper, it travels from the “beginning” to the image, to wisdom, to the paradisiacal vision; a walk that comes inside some areas of our being, unknown even to ourselves, because the power of God on the subconscious is more powerful then on the conscious. The art of prayer is, in a certain sense, “the collaboration” with this power, its manifestation.
From the same power also derives the sapiential art of the icon.
The stains of sin had darkened the splendor and the charm of human nature, but when the Mother of God was born, the Mother of he who is Beauty par excellence, this nature finds in itself the ancient privileges and it becomes shaped according to the perfect pattern thus truly worthy of God. This formation is a perfect restoration and this restoration is a perfect divinization and the latter is an assimilation to the primitive state. Today our nature, in order to become shaped and visible undergoes a totally divine transformation, receiving the first fruits of the second creation. (54)
The art of the image is primitive as wisdom itself, due to the fact that it is primordial and takes part in the new creation.
Mary the Icon
“The art more suitable for the Virgin is the one painting.” (55)