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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 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.