THE VIRGIN MARY MARY IN BYZANTINE SPIRITUALITY
By Bro. John Samaha
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 significant 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
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, the late Orthodox Father Alexander Schmemann
has been especially clear on this point.
In the East and in the West 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 a Byzantine 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 Byzantine Churches – Catholic
and Orthodox -- seem embodied almost entirely in their worship. Mutatis
mutandis, this is also true for the
non-Chalcedonian Churches. 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 Byzantine worship, has not been extensively
expressed, analyzed, or evaluated systematically. How could the Byzantine
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 Byzantine 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 Byzantine 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 Byzantine 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 Byzantine 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 Marian doctrine and devotion 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 Byzantine 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 offers ample
evidence of these marks.
Byzantine Liturgy and Marian Spirituality
In Byzantine liturgy are found four main expressions of
Mariology: Marian liturgical prayers, Marian feasts, Marian iconography,
and Marian paraliturgical piety.
Each cycle of prayers in the liturgy concludes with a
special prayer addressed to Mary. For example, the groups of hymns
called stichiras in the structure of the daily services always conclude with
the theotokion, which follows the doxology. This applies to all liturgical
prayer units -- daily, weekly, yearly cycles, and also the sanctoral cycle.
Whatever the theme of any liturgical celebration, the last word and seal
will be the Theotokos, Mary the Virgin Forthbringer of God.
The liturgical year includes a series of highly developed
Marian commemorations, both major feasts and lesser feasts.
Four belong to the category of the twelve major feasts:
the Nativity of the Virgin, September 8; the Presentation of the Theotokos
into the Temple, November 21; the Annunciation, March 25; the Dormition,
August 15. The feast of the Puruification, February 2, belongs to the
same category and is also deeply Marian in meaning.
Among the lesser Marian feasts are the Protection of the
Virgin, October 1; the Synaxis of the Theotokos, December 26; the Conception
of Mary, December 8; and others.
The icons of the Theotokos are integral to the life of the Byzantine
Church. The very position of the icons in the apse and
on the iconostasis 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.”
Laden with faith and 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 liturgy, include an abundance of secondary, or paraliturgical, feasts
and services. To gather all the akathistoi to Mary, written in
the pattern of the renowned akathistos attributed to Romanus, would fill
several volumes. They testify to the constant flow of heartfelt piety,
love, and praise directed to Mary.
While these compositions vary in quality and value, it must be noted that
the outstanding Byzantine hymnographers, like St. John of Damascus, St. Andrew
of Crete, St. Cosmas of Maioum, wrote some of their best works on Marian
themes. In general, 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.
Most likely the first Marian feast in the Byzantine calendar was the Synaxis,
December 26, which is directly connected to the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
Originally the name given to the Sunday before Christmas was the Annunciation.
The Byzantine Church contemplated Mary within the mystery of the Incarnation.
This Christological dimension is still evident today in the chief Byzantine
icon, which portrays Mary as the Mother with the Child, and in the Incarnation-centered
The employment of biblical expressions applies to Mary
the terminology of the Temple and its cultic symbolism. The Temple
and its sacred furnishings are understood by Byzantine hymnographers and
preachers as announcing the various dimensions of the mystery of Mary.
She is called the Temple, the Door, the Candlestick, the Censer, the Holy
of Holies, and so forth. In this context, the non-biblical feasts,
like the Nativity of the Virgin and the Presentation in the Temple, are considered
basically as the fruit of a particular reading and understanding of the Old
The origin of certain Marian feasts is rooted in the construction
of churches and shrines in places where events of sacred history were supposed
to have occurred. Historically Byzantine Marian piety 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,
the Byzantine in particular, 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 and Byzantine 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 addressed to God and Christ, a quality of that cult.
A Biblical Theological Perspective
The Byzantine liturgy unfolds 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. The Byzantine Church concentrates 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. She is not the representative of the woman
or women before God. Mary is the icon of the entire creation as response
to Christ and to God. The traditional icon of Mary “wider than heaven”
expresses well this notion, and is often found in the apse of Byzantine churches.
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. These canonical and
organizational aspects are necessary and essential for 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 Byzantine Church
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
in the kontakion 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 Christian East has never rationalized
In the 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 Byzantine liturgy recalls her suffering and compassion each Wednesday
and Friday in the moving staurotheotokia, similar to the Latin Stabat Mater
Dolorosa. The experience of Mary as protector and intercessor is another
dimension of Byzantine devotion. She is identified with all human suffering
and tragedy. She mirrors the Church as Mother. This theme is
emphatically expressed in the feast of the Protection of the Virgin, and
in the endless flow of paraliturgical Marian prayers and reflections.
The Byzantine 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 freestanding element
in the rich tradition of the Byzantine Church or in any of the other Eastern
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.