Mary in Byzantine Doctrine and Devotion | Brother John M. Samaha, S.M. | IgnatiusInsight.com
Mary in Byzantine Doctrine and Devotion | Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
In the various Christian traditions Marian doctrine and
devotion take shape in manifold and diverse ways. Since the
Second Vatican Council the Church has striven to promote a new
and more careful study of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of
God, in the mystery of Christ and of the Church; to encourage
theological faculties in the pursuit of knowledge, research,
and piety with regard to Mary of Nazareth. The Mother of the
Lord is understood as a "datum of revelation"
and a "maternal presence" always operative in the
life of the Church. 
The history of theological reflection witnesses to the
Church's faith and attention regarding the Virgin Mary and
her mission in the history of salvation. Especially is this
evident in the Western Church. 
The deeper understanding of the mystery of
the Theotokos, the more profound is the understanding
of the mystery of Christ, of the Church, and of the vocation
of humanity. Concerning Mary, everything is relative to Christ;
only in the mystery of Christ is her mystery fully clear.
Conversely it may generally be said that knowing Mary
illuminates our appreciation of the mystery of Christ and of
the Church. 
degree in which the mystery of the Church is understood, the
mystery of Mary is apparent. Knowing Mary, the Church
recognizes its origins, its mission of grace, its destiny to
glory, and the pilgrimage of faith which guides it. 
The Virgin Mary is like
a mirror reflecting the mighty works of God, which theology
has the task of illustrating. The importance of Mariological
reflection derives from the importance of Christology, from
the value of ecclesiology and pneumatology, from the meaning
of Christian anthropology, and from eschatology, and is an
integral part of them. 
The veneration of Mary, when properly understood, permeates
the entire life of the Church; it is a dimension of dogma
and of piety, of Christology and of ecclesiology. This
dimension needs to be made explicit today in connection with
the problems of humanity. Mariology expresses something
fundamental to the Christian life itself, to the Christian
experience of the world. 
Sound Mariology has always been understood in
Christological terms. If the Gospel revealed nothing more
than the tact that Jesus Christ, God and man, was born of
Mary, this alone would be sufficient for the Church to love her
and to draw theological conclusions from pondering this
relationship of Mother and Son. We need no other
revelations. Mary is a self-evident and essential datum
and dimension of the Gospel. 
Is There A ByzantineMariology?
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. In the Eastern Churches the understanding and
appreciation of the Virgin Mother of God developed
differently, and is not the result of scientific theological
reflection. 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. 
The 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 the Eastern traditions Mariology
developed through liturgical veneration within the framework of
the concomitant feasts; that is, it followed the development of
Christology and the Church's contemplation of the Incarnation.
All Marian devotion—liturgical and popular—remained
organically connected with the mystery of Christ. This has
always been the norm and criterion.
In the Byzantine
spiritual heritage the liturgy has been the principal locus
of Mariology. The liturgical expression of piety is often found
to be adorned with allegory and symbolism. This gave rise to
questions about the biblical character and justification of
these expressions or forms. Where in the Bible do we find
information about Mary's nativity, presentation in the temple,
dormition? Yet these are celebrated as Marian festivals.
Whatever their poetic, liturgical, and hymnographic
expressions, all these events are real because they are
self-evident. Mary was born, like every Jewish girl she was
taken to the temple, she eventually died. Simply because
such information derives from the Apocrypha does not alter
their reality. The Church contemplates the ultimate reality of
these events, not the poetic elaborations in the prayers and
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
Byzantine tradition differs from the theological elaboration
common in the West, it nonetheless "belongs to the full
catholicity and the apostolicity of the Church." 
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
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.
Byzantine Liturgy And Mariology
the Byzantine liturgy we find four main expressions of
Mariology: Marian liturgical prayers, Marian feasts, Marian
iconography, and Marian paraliturgical piety. 
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.
The theotokia, concluding
prayers dedicated to Mary, vary for each day of the week in
ordinary time, for special seasons, and for major feasts.
For a Tuesday that is an ordinary weekday, the proper
theotokion reads: "O Mother of God and Virgin
forever, through you we were made to share in the divine
nature. You gave birth for us to the incarnate God. Therefore
we all exalt you with great devotion."
Annunciation on March 25: "Today is the fountainhead of our
salvation and the revelation of the mystery that was planned
from all eternity: the Son of God becomes the Son of the
Virgin and Gabriel announces this grace. Let us join him in
crying out to the Mother of God, "Hail, O Woman, full of
grace! The Lord is with you."
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 Meeting of
Our Lord in the Temple, 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 or
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. Some examples are the
Protection of Mary, October 1 (celebrated by the Melkite
Church only): the Theotokos of Kazan, July 8 ; the Theotokos
of the Sign, November 27.
In addition to the official Marian prayers and celebrations
of the liturgy, we find an enormous number 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 Mary.
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.
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. These may be found in
A few excerpts will
illustrate this richness. Addressing the Dormition St. John of
Damascus extols Mary thus:
No, you were not merely like Elijah taken up to
heaven; you were not like Paul transported to the third
heaven. Rather, you reached the very throne of your Son,
in immediate vision, in joy, and you remain at his side
with great and unspeakable security. For the angels and for all
the powers that rule the world, you are ineffable
happiness: for the patriarchs, endless delight; for the
just, inexpressible joy: for the prophets, perpetual
Speaking of the
Yaroslavi Virgin of Tenderness we hear St. Gregory of Nyssa
According to the
reliable testimony of the Word, the Bride is a wellspring
of living water whose current descends from Lebanon. Who could
ever fully express the marvels set forth by this comparison?
It would seem impossible to elevate her any further, since
she resembles every aspect of Beauty's archetypal form.
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 is found in 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 understood 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 Testament. 
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: rather, 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 piecemeal by analyzing elements of
liturgy. Eastern Christian worship must be comprehended
holistically, 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. 
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. Her
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. 
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 also 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.
Church is institution and the Church is life. Since the
Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Western 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. 
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
childbearing" is also "alive after death," states
the Kontakion 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 this mystery. 
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
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." 
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 stavrotheotokia,
Byzantine counterparts of the Latin Stabat Mater
Dolorosa. The experience of Mary's 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
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 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. 
 The Virgin Mary in
Intellectual and Spiritual Formation. Rome, Congregation
for Catholic Education, 1988, no. 1 . This instruction leans
heavily on Lumen Gentium, chapter 8: Marialis
Cultus', Redemptoris Mater.
 Ibid., n. ff.
 Ibid., nn. 18-19.
 Ibid., nn. 20-21.
 Ibid., n. 2.
 Schmemann, Alexander, "On Mariology in
Orthodoxy," in Marian Library Studies', vol. 2 ,
1970 : reprinted in Schmemann. Alexander, The Virgin
Mary. Crestwood, N.Y., St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995 ,
 Ibid., p. 60.
 Schmemann, Alexander,
"Mary in Eastern Liturgy," in Marian
Studies, vol. 19 , 1968 : reprinted in Schmemann, Alexander,
The Virgin Mary. Crestwood, NY, St. Vladimir's
Seminary Press, 1995, p. 85.
 Ibid., p. 85.
 Schmemann. "On Mariology in Orthodoxy," pp. 60-61.
 Timko. Louise, "The Epitaphion," in
Worship, March 1996.
 Decree on Ecumenism
(Unitatis Redintegratio), n. 17.
Polycarp. "Byzantine Mariology," in Proceedings
of the Fifteenth Convention of the Catholic Theological Society
of America. 1960.
"Mary in Eastern Liturgy," p. 86.
 Schmemann. "Mary in Eastern
Liturgy," p. 88.
 Ibid., p. 89.
 Ibid., p.
 Kapusnak. Sister Margaret, "Great Friday,"
in Journey through the Great Fast. McKees Rocks.
Pennsylvania: Byzantine Catechetical Center.
"Mary in Eastern Liturgy," p. 90.
 Ibid., pp.
90 - 91.
 Ibid., p. 92.
 Ibid., p. 92.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Ibid., p. 93.
 Ibid., p. 3.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the July/August
2000 issue of Catholic Faith magazine.
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Brother John M. Samaha, S.M., belongs to the Pacific
Province of the Marianists, and is currently working at Villa
St. Joseph in Cupertino, Calif. Previously he was engaged in
high school and adult education in the western states and
Lebanon. He is a member and officer of the Mariological Society
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