Category Archives: Blessed Virgin Mary

Earliest icon of the Annunciation

I love early Christian history. Don’t you? In fact, I have enjoyed time spent in the various musea, locally and notably here in New Haven, Connecticut at the Yale Art Museum where there is a marvelous exposition of Dura Europus, one of the earliest house churches. But there are marvelous early collections at the world’s musea. I’d suggest going on a study tour. The study of our early Christian roots is about our common Christian memory.

I saw this icon today in cyberspace making the historic claim of being the oldest surviving icon of the Annunciation. A terrific find! The icon is located in the Catacomb of Priscilla on theVia Salaria in Rome. This icon dates from the second century AD.

Several years ago I had the privilege of walking and praying in one of the catacombs but not this one. Historians of Christian archeology say that the Roman catacombs are treasuries of early iconography.

For more info on this early icon of the Annunciation is located here.

One of the interesting comments made is “One difference between this depiction of the Annunciation and later icons is that the Mother of God is shown with her head uncovered. In Rome, young virginal maidens would always have their heads uncovered, and so the imagery is in keeping with the Christian beliefs regarding Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. The veil worn in the East would come to dominate iconography of the Mother of God in later centuries.”

Annunciation to Mary

Today is the beginning of our salvation. Indeed, we rejoice in Mary’s “yes” to being the Mother of the Redeemer, and respond with our own “yes” today to God’s will in our lives.

In the Servant of God Father Luigi Giussani’s Meditations on the Holy Rosary, he writes about the Annunciation:

The Angel’s words could have astounded with wonder and humility the young woman to whom they were addressed. But they were not so astounding as to be totally unintelligible; they contained something that made them intelligible to the heart of that young girl who was living her religious duties. The Virgin embraced them to herself: “I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to Your word.” Not because she understood but, in the confusion that had become boundless because of the Mystery that announced itself by vibrating in her flesh, the Virgin opened her arms wide, the arms of her freedom, and said, “Yes.” And she stayed alert every day, every hour, every minute of her life. The Virgin Mary’s state of mind, that state of mind which determines an attitude and decides for it in the face of the occasion and the moment, how can we better describe the Virgin’s state of mind than with the word “silence”? Silence as memory filled to overflowing. Two things contributed to this memory, two things determined this silence. The first was remembering what had happened. What had happened preserved its marvelousness, its true mystery, its mystery of truth intact because — and this is the second thing — it had something that was present: that Child, that present young Man, that Son who was present.

Going to the Church Fathers is always a good thing: Saint Ireneus of Lyons teaches us that “For as Eve was seduced by an angel’s voice to turn from God betraying His word, so Mary was given the good news by an angel’s voice that she would bear God, and the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that Mary should become the advocate of Eve. And as the human race was bound to death by a virgin, by a virgin it was delivered.”

Agiosoritissa of the 7th century

Mother of God 7th centuryThis icon is of the rare Byzantine icon of Agiosoritissa (Mother of God) of the 7th century. It is said to be one of the few Byzantine icons that survived from the iconoclast era. The icon is said to have been in the Agia Soros chapel in Constantinople (hence the name in the title).

Indeed, a terrific gift to receive. The historicity of this beloved icon of the Virgin emboldens faith and lends credence to coherence of Christianity in time.

The provenance is Constantinople located now at the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario a Monte, Mario, Rome. Dimension 42.5 x 71.5 cm.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Mary’s motherhood embraces us

Theotokos berlinghiero berlinghieri 1230The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God was just celebrated on January 1 and today is the first Saturday of January, a day in which we attend a little more to the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is appropriate to stay close to the Mary in these early days of 2014 for it is Mary who will lead us into the arms of the Messiah. I came across this reflection on Mary by the Cistercian Father Blessed Guerric of Igny. As I have echoed so often before on these pages, a proper Marian theology always indicates a proper Christology. This Berlinghieri icon of the Theotokos (1230) illustrates what I think is the true Marian theology of our Church: to know Mary is to know, love and serve her Son. In the printed word, thanks to Blessed Guerric we have a great example of what the Church teaches: Mary always points to her Son and Savior; Christ is made known through the yes of Mary. Today, ask yourself, in our own body, do we say yes to Jesus Christ?

“One and unique was Mary’s child, the only Son of his Father in heaven and the only Son of his mother on earth. Mary alone was virgin-mother, and it is her glory to have borne the Father’s only Son. But now she embraces that only Son of hers in all his members. She is not ashamed to be called the mother of all those in whom she recognizes that Christ her Son has been or is on the point of being formed…Like the Church of which she is the model, Mary is the mother of all who are born again to new life. She is the mother of him who is the Life by which all things live; when she bore him, she gave new birth in a sense to all who were to live by his life. Recognizing that by virtue of this mystery she is the mother of all Christians, Christ’s blessed mother also shows herself a mother to them by her care and loving kindness. She never grows hard toward her children, as though they were not her own. The womb that once gave birth is not dried up; it continues to bring forth the fruit of her tender compassion. Christ, the blessed fruit of that womb, left his mother still fraught with inexhaustible love, a love that once came forth from her but remains always within her, inundating her with his gifts.”

Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos)

TheotokosThe beginning of the calendar year in the Missal of Paul VI is dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. The readings at Mass are still those connected with the older tradition of the Naming of Jesus, the circumcision of the Lord (according to the Mosaic Law). A new facet of the Incarnation of the Word. It is the eighth day since the Nativity. In the sacred Liturgy we commemorate the holy Child receiving the name Ieusha, Jesus, the Lord saves; the name given to us by the angel (Lk 1:31). What we get is a liturgical mess: is it a liturgical remembrance of Mary as the Mother of God, or the eighth day celebration of Jesus fulfilling the Law. The readings for this day of Christmastide give the clue, but I digress.

As a Marian feast day it seems appropriate to reflect upon what the dogma of the Theotokos (Mary, the Mother of God) means for us. To do so we need to look at a piece of Church history.

Much of the way we come to understand this dogma is to look at the problem that gave rise to a church council and a solemn acceptance of a Christology and a Marian teaching. Most of the early councils were called not by the Church but by the emperor. Historically speaking Pope Saint Celestine I did not personally attend the council but sent three representatives who knew his thinking and his expectations. Pope Celestine delegated Cyril to teach with pastoral sensitivity with the hope of brining the now famous and dissenting Nestorius back to the heart of orthodox Christianity.

By AD 431 the 50 year old theologian-monk  Nestorius, educated in Antioch known for his great capacity to move people’s hearts by preaching. He was elected as the bishop of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II in 428.

One of Nestorius’ interlocutors was John Cassian, a monk in Egypt and disciple of Saint John Chrysostom. Cassian is accorded the title of Father of Monasticism in France and prolific author. (He is revered in some Church circles as a saint.) It is Cassian who helps to refine our Christology and what was later to become believed in the dogma of Mary as God’s mother.

In history we know that it was Nestorius who agitated for a change in church teaching on Christology. Recall that all that is said of Mary is a Christological statement of belief. Hence, Nestorius was not merely wanting to make a change in what we believe about Mary but what we believe about Jesus Christ, Savior. Nestorius began to reconsider how his people understand the mystery that Jesus Christ is equally God and man.

According to Nestorius the people think the humanity of Jesus was divine; that the people do not think that God was born in history, that God was buried, and professed that the Mary, the ever virgin, as bringing God forth in the flesh – that she is the Mother of God, Theotokos. Rather, he said that the Blessed Virgin Mary should really be called – Christotokos – the one who brought forth Christ, the mother of Christ. With great vigor he denied Mary the title of Theotokos. There is a theological difference in Jesus from Christ.

Then, as today, many people, laity and clergy alike, may not be well schooled in the details of theological and philosophical thought, nor would they be able to say with precision why a particular point about God and the economy of salvation is true or false. What we often see is that the Christian faithful echo —and believe— what is credibly taught in catechism and from the pulpit. The Church’s credible witnesses and teachers are given incredible authority when they often have not earned such. “Father said thus and such. Who are you to say otherwise?”

The people, hence, may not have clearly understood all the doctrinal errors that Nestorius was propagating through his preaching, but many did detect his choice in an alternative view when he declared that Mary was not the Theotokos. Those who knew in their gut something was wrong rejected Nestorius’ false teaching. Sometimes true piety is stronger than theological disputation.

It was a letter from Cyril to Nestorius that set the council fathers to define in certain terms what the true faith of Christians was with regard to Jesus and His mother. The letter that was read to the bishops declares that the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, erred in his teachings. Cyril’s letter says,

“The holy Fathers do not hesitate to call the holy Virgin Theotokos, not in the sense that the divine nature of the Word took its origin from the holy Virgin, but in the sense that he took his holy body, gifted with a rational soul, from her. Yet, because the Word is hypostatically united to this body, one can say that he was truly born according to the flesh.” 

Then, Nestorius’ letter to Cyril was read to the bishops. Thereafter, Nestorius was unseated from his position as patriarch of Constantinople and excommunicated; some branded him as “the new Judas.”

The faithful’s love for Mary could be seen in their declaration, “Hagia Maria Theotokos” (Holy Mary, Mother of God) and “Praised be the Theotokos.”

Ours is a Savior who is the Eternal Word of God, born of Mary, the Mother of God.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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