Orthodox America

  Holy Fathers – The Most Holy Virgin Mary

From the very beginning, the Most Holy Virgin Mary was regarded with the greatest esteem, held in the highest honor, and venerated for the purity and sinlessness of her life. Among the earliest Church Fathers--that is, among those that received the Faith directly from the Apostles--we already find wonderful tribute s,

For instance, St. Dionysius the Areopagite, Bishop of Athens, who was converted to Christ by St. Paul himself,[1] visited the Mother of God in Jerusalem and afterward wrote about it to St. Paul:

 "It is impossible for the human mind to grasp what I have seen not only with the eyes Of my soul, but with my bodily eyes, too. I have seen with my own eyes the most beautiful and holy Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ .... That time was for me a time of supreme happiness, r thank the most high and most g r a e i o u s God, and the Divine Virgin, the great Apostle John, and thee (St. Paul), for having mercifully granted me such a great blessing,"

Another Church Father that wrote about the Holy Virgin was St. Ignatius the God bearer, a disciple of the Apostle John, to whom he wrote these words:

"If it is made possible, I intend to come to you in order to see the faithful gathered in Jerusalem, and especially the Mother of Jesus: they say of her that she is honorable, affable, and arouses wonder in all, and all wish to see her. But who would not wish to see the Virgin and to converse with her who bore the true God? ..With us she is glorified as the Mother of God and the Virgin full of grace and virtue. They say of her that she is joyful in troubles and persecutions, does not grieve in poverty and want, and not only does not get angry with those who offend her but does good to them still more..,.All who see her are delighted."

 The Holy Virgin was often called by the title "Mother of God," but in the 5th century an Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, began to teach a strange doctrine. Nestorius believed that Jesus Christ was truly and fully God, the Second Person of the Trinity, but he was unable to understand that the nature of God and the nature of man had been perfectly united in the Person of Christ, as indeed they must have been if human nature were to be offered salvation. Nestorius taught that two distinct persons somehow '"coexisted" in Christ, and that one must distinguish between the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus, the Son of Mary. The one to whom the Virgin gave birth was not God, but the man, Jesus. God then dwelt in Jesus, as in a temple. For this reason. Nestorius taught that Mary could not be called Mother of God; at most, she could be called "Mother of Christ" (Christatokos).

 There then arose, in opposition to this error, the Archbishop of Alexandria, St. Cyril. Calling on Nestorius to teach the Orthodox Faith as handed down from the Apostles, St. Cyril and others summoned a Council of the Church in the year 431. More than 200 bishops gathered in Ephesus from ail over the Christian world. (The city of Ephesus was specifically chosen because there the Mother of God had lived for a while.) St. Celestine, Bishop of Rome, was unable to attend, but he asked that St. Cyril of Alexandria defend the Orthodox doctrine. At at earlier Councils, the Book of the Gospels was placed on a throne in the midst of the Fathers to show that Christ, as the only Head of the Church, governed invisibly in their midst.

When Nestorius declared that Mary was only the Mother of Christ's humanity, St. Cyril replied with this verse from Scripture: The Word was made flesh (John I:14). As Timothy (Fr. Kallistos) Ware has written in The Orthodox Church:

"What Mary bore was not a man loosely united to God, but a single and undivided person, who is God and man at once. The name Theotokos (Mother of God) safeguards the unity of Christ's person: to deny her this title is to separate the Incarnate Christ into two, breaking down the bridge between God and man .... Thus we see that not only titles of devotion were involved at Ephesus, but the very message of salvation."

St. Cyril of Alexandria, and the decree of the Council of Ephesus-the third great Council of the Church, was the voice of Orthodoxy, defending not only the Holy Virgin, but Jesus Christ, perfect God and man. Since that time Mary has been given the full title, used in all Orthodox services, of "Our All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary." This includes Theotokos (Mother of God), Aeioparthenos (Ever-Virgin), and Panagia (all-holy). The Fifth Church Council (held in Constantinople in 553), officially added "Ever-Virgin" to the list of titles. Father Kallistos gives a good explanation for our use of the term "All-holy":

"Among all God's creatures, she is the supreme example of synergy or cooperation between the purpose of the deity and the free will of man. God, Who always respects human liberty, did not Wish to become incarnate without the free consent of His Mother. He waited for her voluntary response: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word (Luke 1:38)..,.If Christ is the New Adam, Mary is the New Eve, whose obedient submission to the will of God counterbalanced Eve's disobedience in Paradise."

Sincerely in Christ,

Fr. Alexey Young

[1] St. Dionysius was the judge of the Areopagus mentioned in Acts 17:34.