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Symbol or Saint? 

Mary, Mother of God, in the Byzantine tradition

It is truly right to call you blessed, who gave birth to God, ever blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God. Greater in honor than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. Truly the Mother of God, we magnify you.

This Hymn to the Theotokos, which Eastern Christians say or sing in many services, as well as in their private prayers at home, expresses the importance of Mary in the Byzantine tradition of the Eastern churches.

The Mother of God, according to this text, ranks above the highest powers and angels in the celestial hierarchy. It is inadequate to describe her as a saint as she transcends even these transfigured people in her purity, holiness and intercessory power. But have we lost sight of the human woman when we exalt Mary to this extent? Has she come to represent a theological symbol rather than a real person who lived in Judea and Galilee during the first century? The Virgin Mary, the all-Holy Mother of God, fulfills both these roles in addition to others, including tender mother, faithful disciple of Christ, protector and warrior. She is a multifaceted figure who the Eastern Christian faithful have appealed to for many centuries, calling on her intercession according to their needs.

Let us explore three main aspects of the Mother of God: first, her Christological importance; second, her historical role in the life and mission of Jesus and, finally, her place as protector and defender of Christians. Each of these characteristics has roots in the Early Christian and Byzantine traditions although they developed at different times.

The essential role that the Virgin Mary played in the Incarnation of Christ was recognized from an early date in the church. At the same time, early church fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, saw this as a mystery that remained hidden. This, he writes, along with the death of the Lord, was “accomplished in the silence of God.”

Early writers such as Ignatius were probably aware of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, in which the stories of Christ’s birth were told; however, they also recognized that these narratives left much unsaid. For example, who was the virgin who lived in Nazareth, “engaged to a man whose name was Joseph”? When and how exactly did she become pregnant when, according to her own account, she was a virgin? (Lk 1:26-38).

The moment of the archangel’s greeting is caught by a team of Byzantine Greek iconographers.
Christians believe Jesus shared in our humanity due to Mary, who said “yes” to the Archangel Gabriel and gave birth to the Messiah. The mystery of the Incarnation, and the role played by Mary as Theotokos, is a prominent feature in every church of the Byzantine tradition worldwide. Here, the moment of the archangel’s greeting is caught by a team of Byzantine Greek iconographers, Eutychios and Michael Astrapas, who created the image in 1295 in the Church of the Virgin Peribleptos, “the one who watches over all,” on the shores of Lake Ohrid, northern Macedonia. (photo: Sean Sprague)

The silence of the Evangelists on these questions led later writers, such as the author of a probably mid-second-century text known as the Protoevangelium of James, to expand on the story. This account provides many more details about Mary’s parents, her miraculous conception — since Joachim and Anna were known to be sterile and had long passed childbearing age — infancy in the temple, betrothal to Joseph at the age of 12 and, above all, her virginity even after she had given birth to the Messiah in a deserted cave.

The theological message of the Protoevangelium is that this female child was special from the moment of her conception. She was brought up in the holiest part of the Jewish temple, thus remaining pure enough to give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Later patristic writers would develop these ideas further, asserting, for example, that by remaining a human woman, Mary provided Christ with his human nature. At the same time, it was her virginity that guaranteed his ongoing divinity. It is the latter aspect of Mary’s birth-giving role that caused her — especially from the early fifth century onward — to be described as Theotokos or Birthgiver of God.

Byzantine liturgical texts, including hymns and homilies, express this doctrine repeatedly at key moments in the Daily Office and Divine Liturgy. However, it is noticeable that hymnographers and preachers often choose typological or metaphorical language to teach it to their congregations. A whole range of Old Testament “types,” including Jacob’s ladder (Gn 28:10-17), the burning bush (Ex 3:1-6), the tabernacle (Ex 40:1-7), the temple (1 Kings 6-9), and many others, express in indirect ways the Virgin Mary’s role in the Incarnation. For example, she is the ladder that links heaven and earth; the bush that is not affected by the divine fire (symbolizing Mary’s virginity); and the holy and consecrated space in which God chose to dwell.

Liturgical texts also spell out the theological role of the Theotokos in more discursive ways, but they never lose sight of the mystery that lies at the heart of the Incarnation. Byzantine Christians are physically able to see Mary’s central role in this mystery depicted in the apses of many churches where she stands or sits — usually with the Christ Child in her arms or contained in her womb — presiding over the altar in the sanctuary.

But who was the historical Mary, the girl who lived in Nazareth with her betrothed husband, Joseph? As we have already seen, the New Testament, including the epistles of St. Paul and the gospels, tell us very little about this biblical figure.

We know, according to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that she lived in Nazareth, experienced the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel and gave birth to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Of all the Evangelists, Luke offers the most personal insights about Mary: He says that after the visit to the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old and was found speaking to the teachers there, “his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51).

Images on the external walls of the convent Church of the Annunciation in northeast Romania in 1537.
The iconographer who created these images on the external walls of the convent Church of the Annunciation in northeast Romania in 1537 wanted to make a point. To the left, Moses removes his sandals as he approaches holy ground — the burning bush not consumed by fire, which in Eastern Christianity is a reference to Mary as ever Virgin. The image at the center, with a detail to the right, depicts Mary protecting Constantinople as the Persians besieged it in the year 626. In fact, the fresco depicts the final collapse of Constantinople. The images were created 84 years after the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks in May 1453 in a remote post of the Orthodox world threatened by the Ottomans. The images remind pilgrims to retreat to Mary and ask for her protection. (photo: Realimage/Alamy Stock Photo)

We also glimpse Christ’s mother several times during his life of teaching and ministry, which suggests that she, along with the disciples and some of his siblings, accompanied him on his travels through Judea and Galilee (see, for example, Mt 12:46-50; Mk 3:31-35; Lk 8:19-21).

Mary also appears at the marriage at Cana, according to the Gospel of John, where she tells the servants to obey Christ and to fill six jars of water (2:3-5). And finally, in the same gospel, she stands at the foot of the cross with “the disciple whom [Christ] loved,” probably John himself, and is entrusted to the latter’s care (19:25-27). These glimpses are tantalizingly brief and we have to ask ourselves why the Evangelists provided so few clues about the life of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps, as Ignatius suggested, this was to protect her from “the ruler of this age,” that is, the Roman emperor or his governors in Judea.

It was only in later centuries that Mary’s story began to be elaborated, probably in response to growing veneration of her as a holy figure in her own right and curiosity about her historical life. The Protoevangelium of James, as we saw earlier, offered the first full account of her conception and childhood in the temple of Jerusalem. Several centuries later, probably toward the end of the fifth century or beginning of the sixth, accounts of Mary’s death, or of her “falling asleep,” began to circulate not only in Greek, but also in Syriac and other ancient languages.

These narratives offer glimpses into the Virgin’s later years, which she spent, depending on different accounts, either in Bethlehem or Jerusalem in a house owned by the Evangelist John. They also describe how Mary was warned of her approaching death by an angel and how the apostles were miraculously transported on clouds to her bedside. Christ appeared at the moment of the Virgin’s death and received her soul, which he passed to the Archangel Michael for safe passage to heaven. The disciples then placed Mary’s body on a bier and took it to a tomb near the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. According to most accounts, they opened the tomb after three days and found that her body had disappeared.

In some narratives, the apostles saw the body being carried up to heaven. What happened after that is viewed as a mystery. The Virgin Mary was either pictured in an earthly paradise, along with Abraham and the other saints, or at the right hand of Christ, having experienced — unlike any other human being apart from her Son — an early resurrection.

Another aspect of Mary’s earthly life, which developed especially in monastic circles, was asceticism and dedication to constant prayer. Fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria describes the pious qualities of the Virgin Mary in a letter to encourage virgins who had adopted a monastic way of life. This theme is also taken up in several Byzantine “Lives of the Virgin,” which describe her ascetic practices as a child in the temple, in Joseph’s home once she was betrothed to him, and after the death and Resurrection of Christ, when she was living in the care of John.

These accounts also suggest that Mary took on a leadership role among the disciples after Christ’s Ascension. John Geometres’s late 10th-century “Life of the Virgin,” for example, states the Theotokos directed not only the apostles’ spiritual lives, but also told them where to carry out their missions. According to these Byzantine texts, the Virgin Mary was a model of asceticism, not only for monks and nuns, but also for lay Christians who wished to lead more pious lives.

Third and finally, every Eastern Christian will be aware that the Mother of God acts as their protector and intercessor before Christ. The historical background for these roles lies again in Byzantium, especially in the imperial city of Constantinople. It was during the sixth and seventh centuries that Byzantine Christians turned increasingly to the Virgin Mary as their defender against external enemies and other threats. Famously, at the siege of the Avars and Persians in 626, the Mother of God was seen fighting along the walls of Constantinople. The unexplained — and miraculous — retreat of these enemies was attributed to her intervention. The Byzantines continued to appeal to the Virgin Mary for protection in subsequent sieges, battles and natural disasters throughout the long history of this empire.

Prayers, hymns and narratives that express this dependence continue to be sung in Byzantine Christian, Catholic and Orthodox, services today. The Akathistos Hymn, which is chanted in its entirety on the evening of the fifth Friday in Lent, represents the best-known example of such supplication. The service of the Small Paraklesis to the Mother of God, sung during the 15 days that lead up to the feast of the Dormition, is another. A powerful image that conveys the protective power of the Mother of God can be seen today in one of the wall paintings of the new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. She is depicted as the Virgin Blachernitissa, calmly overlooking the city of New York, with her hands uplifted in prayer and the bust of the Christ Child resting in a medallion on her breast.

In conclusion, the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, remains a significant figure in Byzantine Christian history, theology and spirituality. She is the woman who gave Christ his human nature and who relates to him and to all the faithful as tender mother and protector. Mary is thus both symbol and human person: She represents the link between God and humanity while remaining a historical woman who lived in first-century Palestine.

The multifaceted aspect of the Mother of God in Eastern Christianity is in some ways unique. This religious tradition has always maintained a balance between Mary’s humanity and divine grace. She plays a central role in the mystery of the Incarnation while also acting as protector, intercessor and model for Eastern Christians throughout the world.

Mary B. Cunningham is honorary associate professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, England. She has written books and articles on the Mother of God, Byzantine preaching and hymnography, and Orthodox theology.

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