THE EASTERN CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
ON THE VIRGIN MOTHER MARY
Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the twenty-first ecumenical
council, the Church has striven to promote a new and more careful study of
the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and of the
Church, to encourage theological faculties in the pursuit of knowledge, research
and piety in regard to Mary of Nazareth. The Mother of the Lord is
understood as a “datum of revelation” and a “maternal presence” always operative
in the life of the Church.
A chief springboard for this movement was the instruction on The Virgin Mary
in Intellectual and Spiritual Formation issued by the Congregation for Catholic
Education during the Marian Year of 1988. This instruction offers many
rich insights. It draws copiously from Lumen Gentium, chapter eight,
Vatican II; Marialis Cultus by Pope Pius VI; and Redemptoris Mater by Pope
John Paul II.
Many other Christian Churches are also experiencing new interest in
this topic, and have followed suit in encouraging renewed study and research.
The history of theological reflection witnesses to the Church’s faith and
attention to the Virgin Mary and her mission in the history of salvation.
Especially is this true in the Western Church.
The deeper the understanding of the mystery of the Theotokos, the more profound
is the understanding of the mystery of Christ of the Church, and of the vocation
of humanity. Concerning Mary, everything is relative to Christ.
Only in the mystery of Christ is her mystery fully clear. Conversely,
it may generally be said that knowing Mary illuminates our appreciation of
the mystery of Christ and of the Church.
To the degree in which the mystery of the Church is understood, the mystery
of Mary is apparent. Knowing Mary, the Church recognizes its origins,
its mission of grace, its destiny to glory, and the pilgrimage of faith which
The Virgin Mary is like a mirror reflecting the mighty
works of God, which theology has the task of illustrating. The importance
of Mariological reflection derives from the importance of Christology, from
the value of ecclesiology and pneumatology, from the meaning of Christian
anthropology, from eschatology, and is an integral part of them.
Pope John Paul II reminded us simply that “Among creatures,
no one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound
knowledge of his mystery better than his Mother.”
In the Eastern Christian Churches, the understanding and
appreciation of the Virgin Mother of God developed differently, and not as
the result of scientific theological reflection. The veneration of
Mary, when properly understood, permeates the entire life of the Church.
It is a dimension of dogma and of piety, of Christology and of ecclesiology.
This dimension needs to be made explicit today in connection with the problems
of humanity. Mariology expresses something fundamental to the Christian
life itself, to the Christian experience of the world. Among contemporary
Catholic and Orthodox theologians, Orthodox Father Alexander Schmemann has
been especially emphatic on this point.
Sound Mariology has always been understood in Christological
terms. If the Gospel revealed nothing more than the fact that Jesus
Christ, man and God, was born of the Virgin Mary, this alone would be sufficient
for the Church to love her and to draw theological conclusions from pondering
this relationship of Mother and Son. We need no other revelations.
Mary is a self-evident and essential datum and dimension of the Gospel.
As in all aspects of theology and Church life, Eastern
Christian Mariological insights testify amply to the time-honored principle
Is There an Eastern Mariology?
Pursuing this question leads to a seeming paradox.
On one hand we find a tremendous richness of Marian thought in the liturgy,
but on the other hand a virtual absence of specifically Mariological studies.
The Mariological experience and piety of the Eastern Christian Churches --
Catholic, Orthodox, and non-Chalcedonian -- seem embodied almost entirely
in their worship. We find no prominent theological reflection on the
subject, nothing that would parallel the specialized Mariological treatises
of the Western Church. Theology manuals contain no chapters dealing
with the place of Mary in the economy of salvation. The veneration
of Mary, which is so central to Eastern worship, has not been extensively
expressed, analyzed, or evaluated systematically. How could the Eastern
Churches, who always connect Mary to God and Jesus in their prayer, neglect
theologizing about her? Why have they not focused their
theological minds on this enormously important aspect of their life and worship?
In the Eastern mind, this seeming absence of theological
study and reflection is seen as an integral part of the “mystery of Mary”
in the experience of the Church. Eastern Christian scholars question
whether theology as the rational investigation of the truths of faith is
adequate to transpose into precise terms the real content of that mystery.
Perhaps the proper locus of Mariology is in liturgy and prayer, that is,
in worship. This is reminiscent of Proper of Aquitaine’s maxim: Lex
orandi, lex credendi. What we pray, we believe.
In the Eastern traditions, Mariology developed through liturgical veneration
within the framework of its concomitant feasts; that is, it followed the
development of Christology and the Church’s contemplation of the Incarnation.
All Marian devotion -- liturgical and popular -- remained organically connected
with the mystery of Christ. This has always been the norm and criterion.
In the Eastern spiritual heritage the liturgy has been
the principal locus of Mariology. The liturgical expression of piety
is often adorned with allegory and symbolism. This gave rise to questions
about the Biblical character and justification of these expressions or forms.
Where in the Bible do we find information about Mary’s Nativity, Presentation
in the Temple, Dormition? Yet these are celebrated as Marian festivals.
Whatever their poetic, liturgical, and hymnographic expressions, all these
events are real because they are self-evident. Mary was born.
Like every Jewish girl she was taken to the Temple. Eventually she
left this earthly life. Simply because such information derives from
the apochcrypha does not alter their reality. The Church contemplates
the ultimate reality of these events, not the poetic elaborations in the
prayers and hymns.
In Eastern Christianity worship and liturgy are paramount.
Liturgy is not seen as an action of the community. Liturgy is the procession
and entrance into the eschatological reality of the Kingdom of God.
It is the meeting place between this world and the Kingdom of God fully realized.
Worship is not the commemoration of a past event; it is participation in
the events of salvation themselves because, although these occurred
historically, they also occur outside the category of time.
While the Eastern tradition differs from the theological
exposition common in the West, the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis
Redintegratio n.17) explains that it nonetheless “belongs to the full catholicity
and the apostolicity of the Church.”
Some in the West have speculated that the Nestorian controversy,
which was lived in the East, may have contributed to the fuller liturgical
celebration of the Theotokos in the East. This development gave the
East a more satisfying and habitual devotion to Mary, and would support the
notion that the proper locus of Mariology is primarily in the liturgy.
The West, which lacks such regular liturgical expression,
sought other means of elaborating Marian devotion, such as defining privileges
and giving impetus to various movements.
Exploring three areas may enlighten our appreciation of
the Eastern Christian Marian heritage: the place of Mary in liturgical tradition,
the development of the veneration of the Mother of God, and a synthetic view
of its theological significance. The Byzantine tradition especially
offers ample evidence of these marks.
Eastern Liturgy and Mariology
In Eastern Christian liturgies are found four main expressions
of Mariology: Marian liturgical prayers, Marian feasts, Marian iconography,
and Marian paraliturgical piety.
Usually each cycle of prayers in the liturgy concludes
with a special prayer addressed to Mary. This applies to all liturgical
prayer units -- daily, weekly, yearly cycles, and also the sanctoral cycle.
The last word and seal will normally be the Theotokos, Mary the Virgin Forthbringer
The liturgical year for the Eastern Churches includes
well developed Marian commemorations, both major feasts and lesser feasts.
In most Eastern Churches the icons of the Theotokos are
integral to the life of the Church. This is especially pronounced in
the Byzantine tradition. The very position of the icons in a church
conveys definite theological meaning. The meaning of an icon is not
a visual representation to stimulate the imagination for devotional purposes.
Nor is it meant to teach or inspire. In the spiritual sense it is a
living thing, the point where heaven and earth meet. St. John of Damascus
called the icon a “channel of divine grace.” The icon is considered
a mirror of divine revelation, and gives testimony to the reality that the
saving truth is not communicated only by mere human words but also through
wordless beauty. The cult of commonly termed miraculous icons of the
Theotokos is highly developed, and some of them are celebrated in important
and popular feasts.
In addition to the official Marian prayers and celebrations
of the Eastern liturgies, add an abundance of secondary or paraliturgical
feasts and services. While these vary in quality and value, it must
be noted that many outstanding hymnographers wrote some of their best works
on Marian themes. And the Eastern patrimonies are rich in the commentaries
on these themes in the homilies composed for Marian feasts by the Greek and
Syriac Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
Historical and Liturgical Perspectives
Because the Eastern Churches have no comprehensive historical
record of the veneration of Mary, our observations are limited. The
earliest liturgical expression of Marian veneration must have been the concomitant
feasts, the celebrations attached to the major feasts of Jesus Christ.
Mary was contemplated within the mystery of the Incarnation. This Christological
dimension is still evident today in the Incarnation-centered prayers and
iconography of the Mother with the Child.
The employment of Biblical expressions applies to Mary
the terminology of the Temple and its cultic symbolism. This is considered
basically as the fruit of a particular reading and understanding of the Old
The origin of some Marian feasts is rooted in the construction
of churches and shrines in places where events of sacred history were supposed
to have occurred. Historically the Marian piety of the East is not
rooted in any special revelation, but primarily in the experience of liturgical
worship. Theological reflection did not give rise to her veneration.
This veneration sprang from the liturgy as the experience of “heaven on earth,”
as communion with heavenly realities. This is the result of an act
of love and devotion that gradually indicated the unique place of Christ’s
Mother in both the economy of salvation and the mystery of the “world to
come.” The Church preaches Christ, not Mary. An ancient hymn
states, “In her rejoices the whole creation.”
In celebrating the liturgy there is really no time gap.
In the mystical area of time beyond time, Jesus’ redeeming act and one’s
being redeemed are going on together now -- this day, this hour, this minute.
When one is praying with the Church, one is not praying a memory of an event.
One is living the dynamics of the event with that special awareness that
recognizes the presence of the Lord.
To understand the meaning of Eastern Christian liturgy,
it is important to note that it is not symbolic in the Western sense.
A liturgical action has no isolated intrinsic meaning. There can be
no appeal to theology for a definition or rational explanation of a single
sign or action, because Eastern theology describes rather than defines the
reality of salvation. The Eastern Churches resist attempts to define
meaning piecemeal by analyzing elements of liturgy. Eastern Christian
worship must be comprehended holistically, and liturgical actions recognized
as pointing beyond themselves to a greater reality in which the Christian
participates when worshipping.
In the Eastern world the cultic, liturgical origin of
Mariology possesses special importance for the understanding of its true
nature and theological implications. Mary is not the object of a cult
added to that of Jesus Christ. Rather she is an essential dimension
of the cult.
A Biblical Theological Perspective
The Eastern liturgies unfold other Mariological themes
that are Biblically based. Jesus is the New Adam and Mary is the New
Eve. This is the primary and soteriological aspect of her veneration
in the Church. Some of the Eastern Christian Churches, especially the
Byzantine, concentrate in Mary the entire Biblical vision and experience
in the relationship between God and creation, the Savior and the world, as
a mystery of love whose closest expression in this world is the man-woman
relationship. God loves the world; God loves the chosen people; Christ
loves the Church as a husband loves his wife. More precisely, the mystery
of human love reflects the mystery of God’s love for his creation.
Mary stands for the femininity of creation itself. Her femininity means
responding love, obedience, self-giving, the readiness to live exclusively
in and for the other. The woman responds to the initiative of man and
flows to him, and in this total self-giving she fulfills herself. Eve
failed to be the woman because she took the initiative; she distorted the
order of creation and became the cause of sin. The chosen people of
God failed to be the handmaid of the Lord in love and obedience. But
Mary, by her total obedience, restores something absolutely essential in
the order of creation.
An Ecclesial Perspective
The Church is not only an institution or community, but
a sacrament in the sense of being the epiphany of the events of salvation.
In this context liturgy is not the way which the community expresses its
faith, but is the participation of those who believe in the timeless reality
of salvific events. The Church is institution and the Church is life.
Since the Reformation and Counter- Reformation, ecclesiology has often dwelt
mainly on the institutional aspect of the Church. All this, however,
is not the Church. The Church is new life in Christ, new joy, communion,
love, dedication, peace. The Church is a continuing passage from the
old into the new, from this world into the Kingdom of God. This life
is difficult to define, but those who live it , no matter how imperfectly,
know Mary is its perfect expression, its very movement. As heart of
the new creation, Mary is the icon of Christ, the Bride of the Bridegroom,
as is the Church. The living experience of the Church herself discovers
this identification of the Church with Mary, and expresses the life of the
Church in the Mary-Church context. The devotion of the Eastern Churches
is Mariological because Mary is the very embodiment of that piety, its image,
its direction, its movement. Mary is the oranta constantly alive in
adoration and self-giving.
An Eschatological Perspective
As icon of creation and icon of the Church, Mary is also
“the dawn of the mysterious day,” the foretaste of the Kingdom of God, the
presence of realized eschatology in the Eastern mind. Dormition prayers
call her “virgin after childbearing” and also “alive after death.”
Faith tells us that even before the common resurrection and the consummation
of all things in Christ, Mary is fully alive, beyond the destruction and
separation of death. The Eastern Churches have never rationalized this
In the Christian East knowledge of God is not seen as
the result of logical arguments presented by theology. Only in worship
can human beings obtain knowledge of God. Western saints have also
attested to this. Such knowledge is non-rational; it is contemplative
and mystical. Mary’s total unity with her Son destroyed her death.
In her a part of this world is totally glorified and deified, making her
the “dawn of the mysterious day of the Kingdom.”
A Maternal Perspective
Mary was associated in all the mysteries of her Son’s
life on earth. She stood at the foot of the cross, and a sword of sorrow
pierced her heart. Her crucified Son proclaimed her our Mother.
The Eastern liturgies recall her suffering and compassion in hymns and prayers
similar to the Latin Stabat Mater Dolorosa. The experience of Mary
as protector and intercessor is prominent in Eastern Marian veneration.
She is identified with all human suffering and tragedy. She mirrors
the Church as Mother.
The Eastern Mariological Perspective
The role of theology in Eastern Christianity differs from
that in Western Christianity. In the West theology is symbolized and
encoded in liturgical action. In the East theology flows from liturgy
and is subject to it. Theological discussion is always dependent on
liturgy, and can be understood and experienced only in the context of the
worship life of the Church.
Mariology is not an independent and free-standing element
in the rich tradition of the Eastern Christian Churches. It is not
studied in itself. Rather Mariology -- doctrine and devotion -- is
an essential element of Christian cosmology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology,
and eschatology. It is not an object of faith, but its fruit.
Mary is not a nota ecclesiae, but the self-revelation of the Church.
Mariology is not a doctrine, but the life and fragrance and flavor of Christian
doctrine in us.