How the Fathers Speak of the Dignity of the Mother of God

Those who have only read the Fathers of the Church in the brief extracts from their works, which are so often cited, can have no idea of the amplitude and magnificence with which they extol the praises of the Mother of God. I propose, therefore, in this chapter, to give more satisfactory examples of the mode in which they speak of her.

St. Proclus was a disciple of St. Chrysostom, and is highly commended by St. Cyril, as well for his learning and piety as for his accurate observance of the discipline of the Church. In the year 429, on a feast of the blessed Virgin, in the great church of Constantinople, he preached a discourse on the Mother of God, which was received with great applause by the people. Nestorius was present, and unable to endure so much truth, he rose up and burst out with a reply. 1 The discourse was afterwards placed at the beginning of the Acts of the Council of Ephesus. I propose to give the first part of it. St. Proclus begins:

The Virgin’s festival incites our tongue today to herald her praise. And well may this solemnity be considered fruitful to the assembled faithful. For we celebrate her, who is the argument of chastity and the glory of her sex; her who is at once Mother and Virgin. Lovely and wonderful is this union…. Let nature rejoice, and mankind exult, for women have also received their honour. Let men show their delight, that virgins are held in esteem. For, where sin abounded, there grace has superabounded. 2 For now the holy Mary, Virgin, Mother of God, brings us together. That undefiled treasury of virginity; that spiritual paradise of the second Adam; that laboratory of the union of natures; that mart of the commerce of salvation; that bridal chamber in which the Word espoused flesh unto Himself; that animated bush of nature, which the fire of the divine birth consumed not; truly the bright cloud, which bore Him bodily who sits upon the Cherubim; the most clean fleece of the celestial shower, with which the Shepherd put on the condition of the sheep. Mary, I say, handmaid and Mother, Virgin and heaven; the only bridge of God to men; the awful loom of the Incarnation, in which, by some unspeakable way, the garment of that union was woven, whereof the weaver is the Holy Ghost; and the spinner, the overshadowing from on high; the wool, the ancient fleece of Adam; the woof, the undefiled flesh from the Virgin; the weaver’s shuttle, the immense grace of Him who brought it about; the artificer, the Word gliding through the hearing. Who ever saw, who ever heard how God dwelt in the womb, yet suffered no limitation? And now, Him whom the heavens do not contain, the Virgin’s womb did nothing straiten. He is born of woman, not God only, nor merely man; and by His birth He made woman the gate of salvation, who before had been the gate of sin. For where the serpent entered through the way of disobedience, and shed his poison, there the Word, through the way of obedience, entered, and built a living temple for Himself. From whence Cain, the firstborn of sin, came forth, thence, without man’s concurrence, came Christ, the Redeemer of our race. It shamed not the loving God to be born of woman, for it was life He was building up. He contracted no stain from His lodging in that womb which He had formed without any dishonour. For except His Mother had remained a virgin, the offspring would be but man, and the mystery of the birth would be lost. And if after bearing she remained a virgin, how shall He not be also God, and a mystery which is unutterable? He is born of no corruption, who went forth unhindered through the closed doors. And when Thomas saw His conjoined natures, he cried out and said: “My Lord and my God.” 3 Think not, O man, that this is a birth to be ashamed of, since it was made the cause of our salvation. For if He had not been born of woman, He had not died; and if, in the flesh, He had not died, neither would He have destroyed him through death, “who had the empire of death, that is, the devil.” 4 By no means was the architect dishonoured, for He dwelt in the house which He Himself had built. Nor did the clay soil the potter in refashioning the vessel He had moulded. Nor did aught from the Virgin’s womb defile the most pure God. For as He received no stain in forming it, so He received none in proceeding from it. O womb, in which the general decree of man’s freedom was written. O womb, in which the arms against the devil were forged. O field, in which the divine husbandman grew wheat without sowing. O temple, in which God was made a priest, not changing His nature, but, through mercy clothing Himself as the priest according to the order of Melchisedec. 5 “The Word was made flesh,” 6 though the Jews believed not our Lord when He said it. Truly God took the form of man, though the Gentiles deride the miracle. Wherefore St. Paul exclaimed, “To the Jews a scandal and to the Gentiles foolishness.” 7 They know not the force of the mystery, because it passes their reason and comprehension. For “if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” 8 But if the Word had not dwelt in the womb, neither would flesh have been seated on the holy throne. 9

This commencement forms part of one of six discourses delivered by St. Proclus on the blessed Virgin.

Basil, Archbishop of Seleucia, was betrayed, with many others, into signing the false Council of Ephesus, assembled in the interests of Nestorius. For this he was deposed, but afterwards he was reinstated in his see. In beginning to discourse on the greatness of the Mother of God, he reveals his sense of the deep unworthiness which in his piety he felt, because of the error he had committed. “He,” he says,

who would exalt the holy Virgin and Mother of God, will find a most ample subject for his praises. But having before me my own weakness, struck to the soul I have long delayed…. Oppressed with the weight of my sins, I have hesitated and delayed upon the matter which such discourse demands. For I have thought it the work of the most clear-sighted men, of those who are eminently purified in soul and body, and that only those who have been intimately illuminated by the light of divine grace can worthily accord the praises which are due to the Mother of God. But I have nothing in me that can inspire this confidence and freedom of speaking. For my lips have not been purified like those of Isaias, who waited for the seraph with the divine coal. 10 Nor, like the divine Moses, have I loosened the shoes from the feet of my soul…. What fear ought to encompass me then, when I undertake to offer praise to the Mother of God, lest through some indiscretion I should utter words unsuited to her dignity! It is not my aim to ascend a visible mountain whence I may cleave the overspreading atmosphere, and be caught up into the midst of the stars sparkling in all their brilliancy, however such a thing were to be done; nor even rise above their orderly array, where, nearing the heavenly poles, I may take my stand upon the glorious course of their impetuous career. But, lifting my head above these, my purpose is, as far as my power will allow, with the help of the Spirit who guides to things divine, even to pass by the choirs of angels with the leaders of their ranks, and to rise above the brightness of the Thrones, the honoured dignity of the Dominations, the Principalities in their place of command, and the clear lustre of the Powers; and then the clear-sighted purity of the many-eyed Cherubim, and the six-winged Seraphim with their movements unrestrained on either side; and if there be any created being above these, I will not there stay my course or my longing desire, but will dare to fix my curious gaze intently, as far as is permitted for man in chains of flesh, and will contemplate the co-eternal brightness of the Father’s glory, and, encompassed and enlightened with that true Light, will begin the hymn of praise to the Mother of God there from whence she became the Mother of God, and obtained that name and title.

Can there be any subject more sublime than this? He who thinks so has not understood the difference between things human and things divine. For as it is not easy to know God and to speak of Him, yea, rather it is among the things that can least be done; so the great mystery of the Mother of God transcends both speech and reason. When then I speak of the Mother of God incarnate, I will ascend to God by the help of prayer, and will seek Him for the guide of my speech, and will say to Him: “O Lord omnipotent, King of all creation, who in an incomprehensible manner dost infuse Thy spiritual light into incorporeal minds, illuminate my mind, that the subject set before me may be understood without error; may, when understood, be spoken with piety, and when spoken, may be received without hesitation.”

Here Basil casts himself upon the mysteries of the Divinity, and then proceeds to those of the Incarnation, after which he runs through the prophecies which anticipate the coming of Christ of a Virgin Mother; and, illuminated with these truths, he passes to speak of that Virgin Mother.

From what flowers of praise shall we cull a garland worthy of her? From her sprang the flower of Jesse; she clothed our race with glory and with honour. What encomiums can we offer her as she deserves, when everything of this world is beneath her merits? For if St. Paul pronounced these words of the other saints, that the world was not worthy of them, 11 what shall we say of the Mother of God, who shone with as great a splendour above the martyrs, as does the sun above the stars? It is clearly fitting we should greet her with these words of Solomon: “Many daughters have wrought virtue, but thou hast risen above them all.” 12 O sacred Virgin, well may the angels exult through thee, destined as they are to the service of men, from whom, in former times, they turned away. And let Gabriel now rejoice, for to him is entrusted the message of the Divine conception, and he stands before the Virgin in great honour. Wherefore in joy and grace he auspiciously begins the message: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” 13

Hail, full of grace. Let thy face be joyful. For from thee shall the joy of all be born; and He shall take away their ancient execration, dissolve the empire of death, and give to all the hope of resurrection. Hail, full of grace. Most flourishing paradise of chastity, in which is planted the tree of life which shall produce for all the fruits of salvation, and from which the fountain of the gospels shall stream to all believers, in floods of mercy from their fourfold source and spring. Hail, full of grace. Mediatrix between God and men, through whom the intervening barrier of enmity is cleared away and earthly things conjoined with those of heaven. The Lord is with thee. For thou art a temple truly worthy of God and redolent of the perfumes of chastity. In thee shall dwell the great High Priest, who, according to the order of Melchisedec, is without father and mother 14 — of God without mother, of thee without father. . . .

Emmanuel then came into this world, which before He had created; a child new born, though pre-eternally existing; who lay in the crib, and was borne upon the Cherubim; who found no place in the inn, yet prepared the eternal tabernacles. . . . And the most holy Mother of the Lord of all, the true Mother of God, pondering these things in her heart, 15 as it is written, imbibed full draughts of joy within her, and as the greatness of her Son and her God revealed itself more and more to the eyes of her soul, her awe increased with her delight.

As then she looked upon the divine Infant, and fastened her affections full of reverence upon Him, alone with Him, she spoke in her emotion such words as these: What fit name shall I find for Thee, my Son? A man’s name shall I give Thee? But Thy conception is divine. God’s name shall I give Thee? But Thou hast taken human flesh. Shall I nourish Thee with milk, or shall I glorify Thee? Shall I cherish Thee as Thy mother, or adore Thee as Thy handmaid? Shall I embrace Thee as my Son, or adore Thee as my God? Shall I present Thee my breast, or offer Thee incense? What is this greatest, this most unutterable of mysteries? Heaven is Thy seat, and Thou art carried on my breast. Thou art altogether here, with the dwellers of this earth, and Thou hast in nothing left the dwellers of heaven. Nor hast Thou come here through change of place, but Thy divine condescension has brought Thee into our condition. I search not the secrets of Thy incarnation, but I entreat Thy goodness and Thy clemency.

See what a mystery is wrought in her; how it passes both thought and speech. Who then will not admire the vast power of the Mother of God? Who will not see how far she is lifted above the saints? For if God gave to His servants a grace so great, that by their very touch they healed the sick, and the mere casting of their shadows across the street could do the same thing; if Peter, I say, with his shadow could heal the infirm, 16 and if when men took the handkerchief which wiped the perspiration from Paul they drove the devils away with it, 17 how much power, think you, did He give His Mother? And what wonder if the saints, whilst they lived and walked on earth, had such efficacious influence, when even after their death the earth could not hinder their power? For whilst their bodies lie beneath ponderous stones, if we approach to them in a worthy spirit, they bring health to those who need it. But if to the saints He has granted to do things so wonderful as these, what has He given to His Mother for her nursing? With what gifts has He adorned her? . . . If Peter is called blessed, and the keys of heaven are entrusted to him because he called Christ the Son of the living God, 18 how must she not be more blessed than all, who deserved to bear Him whom Peter confessed? And if Paul is called a vessel of election, 19 because he carried the august name of Christ over the earth, what vessel is the Mother of God, who did not merely contain the manna, like the golden urn, but who in her womb bore that bread, that heavenly bread, which is the nourishment and strength of the faithful?

But I fear, lest, whilst prepared to say more concerning her, I should say little that is worthy of her dignity, and bring the more shame upon myself. Wherefore I draw in the sail of my discourse, and retire into the harbour of silence. 20

The extract which follows is from a discourse of Theodotus, Bishop of Ancyra, who was one of the most active and able antagonists of Nestorius. It is taken from his sermon on the holy Mother of God and St. Simeon. 21

Let us begin with the salutation of Gabriel, the heavenly citizen: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” 22 Let us take up the greeting again. Hail, our longed-for joy: hail, glory of the Church: hail, sweetly breathing name: hail, divinely refulgent and most gracious countenance: hail, most venerable stronghold: hail, salubrious and spiritual fleece: hail, yes hail, thou clothed with light and mother of the splendour which knows no setting: hail, most undefiled mother of sanctity: hail, pellucid fountain of life-giving milk: hail, thou new mother and framer of a new birth: hail, thou new book of that new handwriting of which Isaias sings, and of which men and angels are witnesses: hail, thou alabaster vessel of the unguent of sanctification: hail, thou upright dealer in the coin of virginity: hail, thou who fashioned by hand, embraced Him who fashioned thee: hail, thou who, be the limits of thy capacity what they may, yet containest Him who contains all things. . . .

Why do you foolishly dissent from the truth? And why do you detract from, why do you deny the good pleasure of God, as it is providentially ordered in the most holy Virgin for the common salvation? For He who created the primeval virgin without reproach, framed the second also without spot or crime. And He who made the exterior beautiful, adorned the interior with holiness for the abode of the soul; which, therefore, appeared most sweet and delectable to God. . . .

Ye Christians who are good and teachable of God, hearken to the divinely-inspired predictions of the prophets, for they everywhere exclaim of the most praiseworthy Virgin: “The Most High hath sanctified His tabernacle. God is in the midst of her, and she shall not be moved; 23 man is born in her, and He the Most High hath founded her.” 24 But as the adversaries of the truth are carnal-minded, and have not the spirit of God, they savour spiritual things in a carnal manner. For that is true which the apostle so wisely says: “The animal man perceives not those things which are of the spirit of God.” 25 And for this cause, they seek to be taught by things sought out from a distance; they are not willing from what is more near and familiar to have it shown them that the Virgin was advanced unto yet greater holiness. But things that are known to all eyes render things obscure perceptible to sight. As iron, then, when it holds commerce with the fire, will scatter its sparks and flakes upon all that is about or in contact with it; as it improves at the same time both in its nature and condition; as it quickly gains resemblance with the flame that so readily enkindles it; as it grows incapable of being touched by whatever may come near to it; how can it seem wonderful that the all-undefiled Virgin should, by the coming unto her of the divine and immaterial fire, be inflamed to greater purity? So that, removing whatever may be opposed to its nature, 26 she stands resplendent in the beauty of a nature that is most pure. And so far, indeed, that henceforth she is incapable of being closely approached, or endured, or even beheld, by those who are become degenerated through carnal vileness. And as he on whose head there is water poured, is overstreaming with the dropping fluid from head to foot; so the holy Virgin and Mother is imbued in every part of her nature by the sanctity of the Holy Ghost descending upon her: and then, at last, we believe that she received God, the living Word, into her virginal and unguent-breathing chamber. 27

From: The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God,
An Exposition
by Archbishop Ullathorne
Revised by Canon Iles, D.D.

1 Marius Mercator, t. ii, pp. 19, 26, etc.

2 Rom. v 20.

3 John xx, 28.

4 Heb. ii, 14.

5 Ps. cix, 4.

6 John i, 14.

7 I Cor. i, 23.

8 I Cor. ii, 8.

9 S. Proclus, Orat. i, in Laud. S. Mariae, ed. Combefis.

10 Isa. vi, 6, 7.

11 Heb. xi, 38.

12 Prov. xxxi, 29.

13 Luke i, 28.

14 Heb. vii, 3.

15 Luke ii, 19.

16 Acts v, 15.

17 Acts xix, 12.

18 Matt. xvi, 16, 17, 19.

19 Acts ix, 15.

20 Basil. Seleuc. Orat. in S. Dei Genitricem, 39. Combefis, Orat. 39, Bib. Max. Pat. viii, 481. It is uncertain whether this is by Basil; vide Ceillier, x, 164 and 166, new edition.

21 This discourse seems to have been incorrectly attributed to St. Amphilochius; vide Ceillier, v, p. 370 and viii, 391, new edition.

22 Luke i, 28.

23 Ps. xiv, 5.

24 Ps. lxxxvi, 5.

25 I Cor. ii, 14.

26 Theodotus has affirmed, in the previous paragraph, that the blessed Virgin was made without spot or crime, as Eve was created without reproach, and he here illustrates that more perfect holiness, and yet more absolute purity, which arose from the descent of the Holy Ghost at the Incarnation.

27 Oratio IV inter opera Sti Amphilochii.