“Hail, Mary, you are the most precious creature in the whole world; hail, Mary, uncorrupt dove; hail, Mary, inextinguishable lamp; for from you was born the Sun of justice.” – Cyril of Alexandria
“It is necessary to go back to Mary if we want to return to that “truth about Jesus Christ,” “truth about the Church,” and “truth about man.” – Pope Benedict XVI
On my journey to Catholicism, one of the chief obstacles was the Church’s Marian doctrine. Growing up Protestant, worship of Mary was the surest sign of Catholic apostasy as this practice was not only not found in scripture but was expressly forbidden by scripture. Rosaries, statues, feasts; clearly these were acts of worship that had no place in REAL Christianity. I remember seeing the Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine in Orlando and thinking, “What an absolutely absurd title! What is wrong with these people?” Even as I begin to understand and accept other tenets of Catholic doctrine, reverence for Mary still made the good Baptist in me squirm, especially when I heard Mary described as Queen or Mediatrix. Indeed, on my confirmation day, I still wasn’t exactly comfortable with all the Marian devotion I saw. I accepted the Church’s teaching on Mary but only because I’d come to believe in the authority of the Roman Church.
Once a Catholic, I added an occasional Rosary to my prayer practices and began to think fondly of Our Lady. But, in the back of my mind, I still wasn’t completely at ease with Mariology. A few years ago, on a whim, I bought a copy of Father Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church. I expected my reading of this book to be an academic exercise, perhaps one that could bolster my rather weak understanding of a central figure of Catholic doctrine. Instead, I found a deep love of Our Mother and a sense of joy in the blessing she is to all of us.
Originally written in Italian, Father Gambero’s book isn’t exactly a defense of Catholic Mariology. Instead, the book traces Marian thought from the first century of the Church through the late Patristic period, about 700 AD. Gambero covers many famous theologians, many more obscure ones, and a few heretics. He shows how our understanding of the Blessed Virgin developed, when doctrine was established, and why some statements required clarification and correction.
One of the most important themes Gambero draws out as he traces this history is that Mariology is inseparable from Christology. As a Protestant, much of what Catholics said about Mary seemed not only extrabiblical but superfluous and speculative. What in the world did it matter whether Mary had other children or not? All of that extra stuff was just inconsequential. But Mary, Father Gambero writes, “has an essential role in the mystery of the Incarnation, so that, if the nature of her relationship with the Son of God become man is not exactly defined, the purity of the faith in the mystery of the incarnate Word is endangered” (MFC 86). In other words, misunderstanding Mary can easily (and I might say, inevitably) lead to misunderstanding Christ. A perfect example of this is the Nestorian heresy of the fifth century. Nestorianism was chiefly a Christological heresy denying the union of Christ’s divine and human natures. But Nestorius’ conflict with Christian Orthodoxy manifested itself as a Marian controversy, namely, Nestorius denied that Mary was Theotokos, “God-bearer.” In 431, the Council of Ephesus corrected this heresy. In doing so, Father Gambero writes, ”Mary was solemnly declared Theotokos, as a consequence of the fact that the two natures of Christ are inseparably united in a single Divine Person. Thus the Council, which had been called to resolve an essentially christological problem, had an important mariological outcome” (MFC 238). So, we name Mary Theotokos not because we wish to ascribe extra titles to a woman we admire but because to deny her this title would be to deny the Orthodox (and absolutely crucial!) understanding of Jesus Christ.
ANYWAY! This book was important not just in my understanding of Marian doctrine but in the deepening of my love for and devotion to our Blessed Mother. I’d like to share some of the ideas I gleaned from Father Gambero. Or, really, the ideas of the Early Church Fathers.
As I add posts on this subject, I’ll add the links here.