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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)