EARLY CHURCH ISSUES ~ The Most Rev. Robert L. Wise
MARY ~ In the post-Reformation world, the subject of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is difficult to approach. Some Protestants groups rail against her veneration in the Roman Catholic world. Other scholars believe the New Testament claims are a misunderstanding of the book of Isaiah while the conservatives call that idea nonsense. Many believers elevate her to the top of the list of saints. At the same time, the Orthodox Churches place the Virgin Mary in an elevated place on their icons with the baby Jesus next to her check.
How can we work through these various viewpoints? The best way is to return to the first century church and discover what they thought and practiced. Here are some insights.
The first non-biblical texts about Mary can be found in the Letters of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. He wrote, “And the virginity of Mary was hidden from the ruler of this world, as were her giving birth and likewise the death of the Lord—three secrets to be cried out aloud which were accompanied by the silence of God.” He also wrote that Jesus was born “out of Mary and out of God.” In other words, the earliest writings outside of the scripture affirmed belief in the virgin birth.
In the second century, St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon said even more:
Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yet still a virgin … became by her disobedience the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary, too, espoused yet a virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race … And so, it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary’s obedience.
In other words, the earliest examples that we have of the convictions of the first Christians affirmed the virgin birth and the most significant role that a woman could occupy.
One of the most interesting affirmations came from the fourth-century hymnist Ephraim the Syrian. He wrote of Mary, she is “your mother, your sister, your spouse, your handmaiden.”
The Church paid such attention to Mary because she provided an important defense against Gnostic denial of the incarnation. Gnostic’s devised rituals to provide an escape from the flesh, but Jesus came in the flesh and that was a troubling problem for them. The Christians proclaimed that salvation was of the flesh. The Virgin Mary stood as a proclamation that Jesus came in the flesh and must be recognized as such. Today she remains a symbol of the importance that the Heavenly Father placed on our bodies as well as our souls. She is picture of the importance of the human body in the eyes of God.
The glory of Mary is that she allowed nothing to take priority over living out God’s will. She said “yes” when the angel came and thereafter entered into an impossible social position. Yet, that was the beginning of the Savior coming and bringing salvation.
We think a “virgin” birth to be strange, but is such a conception really that different from 90-year old Sarah conceiving Isaac? As the history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham and that birth, so the story of salvation begins with Mary.
The time has come to go back to the beginnings of the Christian faith and honor those earliest origins. We can all truly say, “Hail Mary, full of grace!”