Is There a Byzantine Mariology?
by Bro. John Samaha
Researching 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 in theology. The Mariological experience and
piety of the Byzantine Churches - Catholic and Orthodox- seem to
be embodied almost entirely in their worship. But 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 in Byzantine worship has not been
extensively expressed, analyzed, or evaluated systematically.
This scarcity of theological reflection may seem to some a
deficiency in Byzantine theology. How could the Byzantine Church
which never prays to God or Jesus Christ without at the same time
also addressing her prayers to Mary, and which constantly praises
her who "...is more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare
more glorious than the seraphim" neglect theologizing about her?
Why has the Byzantine theological mind not been focused on this
enormously important aspect of its 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. The Byzantine scholar
questions 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 Prosper of Aquitaine's maxim, "Lex orandi, lex
In Eastern Christianity, worship and liturgy are paramount.
Liturgy is not seen as an action of the community. Liturgy is the
procession or 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 this Byzantine tradition
differs from the theological elaboration common in the West, it
nonetheless "belongs to the full Catholicity and the Apostolicity
of the Church" (Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism, n. 17).
Some in the West have speculated that the Nestorian controversy,
which was lived in Byzantine territory, may have contributed to
fuller liturgical celebration of the Theotokos' in the East. This
development gave the East a more satisfying and habitual
expression of devotion to Mary, and would support the notion that
the proper locus of Mariology is primarily in 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.
The exploration of 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.
1- Byzantine Liturgy and Mariology
In the Byzantine liturgy we find four main expressions of
Mariology: Marian liturgical prayers, Marian feasts, Marian
iconography, and Marian paraliturgical piety.
a- Marian Liturgical Prayers
Each cycle of prayers 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, "Glory to the Father, the
Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages."
This rule applies to all liturgical prayer units, daily, weekly,
and 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.
b- Marian Feasts
The liturgical year includes a series of highly developed Marian
commemorations. 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 Purification,
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 9, and others.
The icons of the Theotokos are integral to the life of the
Byzantine Church. Their very position in the apse and on the
iconostasis indicates definite theological meaning.
An icon is not meant to be a visual representation to stimulate
the imagination for devotional purposes. Neither is it meant to
teach nor inspire. In the spiritual sense, it is a living thing,
the point at which heaven and earth meet. St. John of Damascus
called the icon a "channel of divine grace." Laden with faith and
grace, the icon is 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.
Also to be considered is the highly developed cult of the commonly
termed "miraculous" icons of the Theotokos, some of which have
given rise to important and extremely popular feasts.
d- Paraliturgical Piety
In addition to the official Marian prayers and celebrations of the
liturgy, we find an enormous amount of secondary or paraliturgical
feasts and services. To gather all the akathistoi to Mary, written
after the pattern of the renowned Akathistos attributed to
Romanus, would result in several printed volumes. They testify to
the constant flow of heartfelt piety, love, and praise directed to
Not all these compositions are of equal value and quality.
However, 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 the products of their pens we find the true expression,
contemplation, and understanding of Mary in Byzantine tradition.
The Byzantine patrimony in this area also includes the
commentaries on these themes in the homilies composed for Marian
feasts by the Greek Fathers and Doctors.
2- Historical and Liturgical Perspectives
Because the Eastern Churches have no comprehensive historical
record of the veneration of Mary, our observations are limited.
The first liturgical expression of Marian veneration must have
been the "concomitant" feasts, the celebrations attached to the
major feasts of Christ. Most likely the first Marian feast in the
Byzantine calendar was the Synaxis, December 26, which is directly
connected with the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Originally the name
given to the Sunday before Christmas was Annunciation. These facts
point to the Christological basis of the veneration of Mary. 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, an icon of Incarnation.
Concerning the Biblical expression of Marian themes, the Byzantine
Church focuses special interest on applying to Mary the
terminology of the Temple and its cultic symbolism. The Temple and
its sacred furnishings are under stood 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 into the Temple, are considered basically as the
fruit of a particular reading and understanding of the Old
Also to be considered is the origin of certain Marian feasts
rooted in the construction and dedication of churches in places
where events of sacred history were supposed to have occurred.
In tracing the history of Byzantine Marian piety we find that it
is rooted not in any special revelation, but primarily in the
experience of liturgical worship. Theological reflection on Mary
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, as an act of love and devotion, that
gradually revealed 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. But communion with Christ
reveals Mary as the secret joy within the Church. States a
Byzantine hymn, "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, hour, 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.
In seeking 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. Neither can theology be appealed to
for a definition or rational explanation of a single sign or
action; because Eastern Christian theology describes rather than
defines the reality of salvation. The Eastern Church resists
attempts to define meaning piece meal by analyzing elements of
liturgy. Eastern Christian worship must be comprehended
wholistically, 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.
3- Biblical Theological Perspective
The Byzantine liturgy unfolds other Mariological themes that are
Biblically based. Christ is the New Adam and Mary is the New Eve.
This is the primary and soteriological dimension of her veneration
by the Church. The Byzantine Church concentrates in Mary the whole
Biblical vision and experience of 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 the 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. Here 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 follows him, and in this total self-giving
she fulfills herself. Eve failed to be 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; it is often found in the apse
of Byzantine churches
4- Ecclesial Perspective
Another significant difference between Eastern and Western
Christianity is the understanding of Church. In the East the
Church is not only an institution or community, but sacrament in
the sense of being the epiphany of the events of salvation. In
this context, liturgy is not the way in 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 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, deification, peace. The Church
is an eternal 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. No ecclesiastical authority has decreed this.
The living experience of the church herself discovers this
identification of the Church with Mary, and expresses the life of
the Church in reference to Mary and the veneration of Mary in
reference to the Church. 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
eternally alive in adoration and self-giving.
5- 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 mentioned by theologians. The one
who is "virgin after child bearing" is also "alive after death"
states the Konlakion of the Feast of the Dormition. 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 the result of logical
arguments presented by theology. Only in worship can human beings
obtain knowledge of God. Such knowledge is nonrational; it is
contemplative and mystical. Mary's total unity with Christ
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.
6- 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 made her our Mother. Each
Wednesday and Friday the Byzantine liturgy remembers her mystery
of suffering and compassion in the moving stavro-theotokia,
Byzantine counterparts of the Latin Stabat Mater Dolorosa. The
experience of Mary as protection and intercession is another
dimension of Byzantine Mariology.
Mary is identified with all suffering and human tragedy. In this
regard she is the icon of 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 writings previously mentioned.
6- 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 free-standing element in the
rich tradition of the Byzantine Church or in any other 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 of
Christian doctrine in us.
Copyright (c) 1996 Catholic Information Network (CIN) - November