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The early Christian belief in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption must be approached in two different ways.
The Immaculate Conception
Let’s take the Immaculate Conception first. The Immaculate Conception of Mary was declared to be a dogma of the Church in 1854. Before that time, it was merely what we call a theolegoumenon (a theological opinion). Thus, before the Church solemnly defined it in 1854, Catholics were free to either believe in the Immaculate Conception or reject it. Indeed, even some of our greatest Catholic saints, such as Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux (who had profound devotions to Our Lady) had serious problems with the idea that she was conceived without original sin (although they believed she was personally sinless). Yet, despite this, there were also others in the Church, such as St. Bonaventure and Blessed Duns Scotus who championed the Immaculate Conception. So, the Immaculate Conception was a debated question in the Church for centuries.
However, what was NOT a matter of debate was Mary’s sinlessness. The universal witness of the Church, from Pentecost until today, has always professed that Mary was without sin. The only question was: “When did her sinlessness begin”? And it was from this question that we arrive at the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, even those saints of the Church (like Aquinas or Bernard) who rejected the Immaculate Conception, STILL taught that Mary was sinless; and they suggested that her sinlessness began at the time of her birth, rather than at her conception. And we see this belief in Mary’s sinlessness going back to the earliest days of the Church. For example, ….
Around 390 AD, St. Augustine writes:
“Every personal sin must be excluded from the Blessed Virgin Mary for the sake of the honor of God.”
Similarly, St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) says:
“Mary, a virgin not only undefiled but a virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free from every stain.”
Likewise, the Greek Liturgies of both St. Basil the Great (d. 379) and St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) call Mary “Panagia” (“All-Holy One”) and “Panagiota” (“All-Sinless One”).
Furthermore, in the Syrian Church, we have St. Ephraem the Syrian (c. 350), who says:
“Thou, and Thy Mother are alone in this. You are wholly beautiful in every respect. There is in Thee, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in Thy Mother.” (Poem to Christ)
“My Lady Most Holy, All-Pure, All-Immaculate, All-Stainless, All-Undefiled, All-Incorrupt, All-Inviolate …Spotless Robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment …Flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone Most Immaculate.” (Ibid)
Also, the Syrian St. John Damascene (645-750) speaks of Mary, saying: “The serpent never entered that Paradise.”
Likewise, among the early Church Fathers, we have St. Irenaeus of Lyon (a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was the disciple of St. John the Apostle himself — the caretaker of Mary, according to John 19:26-27). And, according to St. Irenaeus, writing in 180 AD, we are told,
“Consequently, then, Mary the Virgin is found to be obedient, saying: ‘Behold, O Lord, your handmaid; be it done to me according to your word.’ Eve, however, was disobedient; and when yet a virgin, she did not obey…. having become disobedient, was made the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race; so also Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless a virgin, being obedient, was made the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race…. Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the virgin Mary loosed through faith.” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Book III c. 180 AD)
Here, St. Irenaeus uses “virginity” as a sign of sinlessness (i.e. Mary was sinless just as Eve was sinless before the Fall).
So, the Tradition of Mary’s sinlessness was always there. The only question was: When did this sinlessness begin?
Like I said, for centuries, it was the prevailing belief that Mary was “saved” and thereafter preserved from sin from the moment of her birth (not her conception). This is what St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued for when they disagreed with the Immaculate Conception. Yet, neither these two medieval fathers, nor any of the ancients, ever questioned Mary’s sinlessness. Rather, Mary’s sinlessness was a given; and all Christians until relatively recent times, including Martin Luther himself, maintained that Mary’s sinlessness is taught in the Bible.
For example, when we first meet Mary in Scripture, in Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel greets her with the phrase: “Hail, Full of Grace” — a phrase which most modern Bibles mistranslate as “highly favored one” or even “highly favored daughter.” Yet those words are not in the original Greek. In the Greek, it is “Kecharitomenae” — literally, “Full of grace” or “Perfectly graced” implying an “overflowing” or “abundance” of grace.
Furthermore, the angel Gabriel uses this as a proper name for Mary; and we all know the significance of names in the Bible, right? Names define who and what the person is. For example, Jesus’ Name means: “Yahweh is Salvation.” And, indeed, that’s what Jesus was and is.
So, if Mary is “Full of grace,” how can this be if she was a sinner? One cannot be sinful and “full of grace” or “perfectly graced.” That’s a contradiction.
So, therefore, Mary must have been Baptized into Christ, right? (How else can a person be “full of grace”?) So, the only question is: When was Mary made this? Or, in “Protestant-ese,” when was Mary “saved” ? It must have been before Luke 1:28, right? So, when was it?
We Catholics say that it was at the first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother. Why? Because of Genesis 3:15. Here, God speaks to satan, saying:
“I will place enmity between you (the serpent / satan) and the woman (Eve, or Mary the New Eve), and between your seed (sin /death) and her seed (the Messiah: Jesus), and He (Jesus) will strike at your head (i.e., crush your power), even as you strike at His heel (the Crucifixion).
This verse, according to both Jews and Christians, is the Proto-Evangelion: the first prophecy of the Messiah. And it reveals to us that the Mother of the Redeemer will be placed in opposition to satan, and not under his dominion. Thus, this New Eve could pass a sinless humanity onto her Son, the New Adam.
Yet, as I said, this realization took a while to develop in the Church, not being dogmatized for universal acceptance until 1854. So, we know that the early Church believed that Mary was sinless. Yet, was the Immaculate Conception believed by any Christians in ancient times? Yes it was.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception comes to us from the Syrian-speaking Church in the East — the branch of early Christianity which was closest in culture to the original, Jewish community of believers. I’ve already presented two of the Syrian fathers, St. Ephraem and St. John Damascene, speaking about how sin never touched the Virgin Mary. Once again, they write,
St. Ephraem the Syrian (c. 350)
“Thou, and Thy Mother are alone in this. You are wholly beautiful in every respect. There is in Thee, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in Thy Mother.” (Poem to Christ).
“My Lady Most Holy, All-Pure, All-Immaculate, All-Stainless, All-Undefiled, All-Incorrupt, All-Inviolate …Spotless Robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment …Flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone Most Immaculate.” (Ibid).
St. John Damascene (645-750):
“The serpent never entered that Paradise.”
“O blessed loins of Joachim, whence the all-pure seed was poured out! O glorious womb of Anna, in which the most holy fetus grew and was formed, silently increasing! O womb in which was conceived the living heaven, wider than the wideness of the heavens…This heaven is clearly much more divine and awesome than the first. Indeed he who created the sun in the first heaven would himself be born of this second heaven, as the Sun of Justice….She is all beautiful, all near to God. For she, surpassing the cherubim, exalted beyond the seraphim, is placed near to God.” (Homily on the Nativity 2, 3, 9 PG 96:664,676)
Fr. Luigi Gambero notes: “John Damascene often speaks of Mary as a sublime creature, filled with spiritual treasures. Accordingly, his homily on the Nativity, for example, goes so far as to make clear and explicit allusions….to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.” (Mary and the Fathers of the Church [Ignatius Press, 1999], page 401-2)
Indeed, we know that there was a 5th Century feast called the “Immaculate Conception” celebrated in the Syrian Church on December 9th. However, then the Monophysite controversy came along, and many Syrian-speaking Christians embraced the heresy of Monophysitism, which taught that Christ had only one nature (that of God) as opposed to two natures (God and man). At this time, the Greek-speaking Emperor at Constantinople started to replace the native, Syrian-speaking bishops of Antioch and the other Syrian bishoprics with Greek bishops from Constantinople. These Greek bishops were resented by the Syrians, and called “Melchites” (from the Syrian word for “king”) because they had been forced upon them by the Emperor.
Well, these Greek bishops had the Greek understanding of Original Sin (an understanding which is different from the Latin and Syrian understanding, and which is still prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox Church today). And, because of this, serious theological objections to this feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception came into being. Therefore, the feast was eventually withdrawn from both the Greek and the Syrian Liturgical calendar because of these theological disputes (much like the ones we see later in the 13th century). Yet, this December 9th feast was eventually restored in the East, and is still celebrated today in the Eastern Orthodox (Greek) Church as the “Conception of Mary” — a more “politically correct” title for the wary Byzantines.
Yet, the feast of the Immaculate Conception did not disappear all together. In the 7th & 8th Centuries, as Islam was overruning the Christian Middle East and more and more Christian bishops fled to the West, we began to have a lot of Syrians elected as Pope! Among these were Pope John V (685-86), Pope St. Sergius I (687-701), Pope Constantine (708-15), Pope St. Gregory III (731-41), etc. Most likely through their influence, or the influence of their disciples, the Syrian feast of the Immaculate Conception was transported to Italy in the mid 7th century. However, it was later dropped from the Western calendar, because of still more theological disagreements — all of which led to the serious debating of the doctrine in the 1200’s. At this time, the Immaculate Conception was defended by men like St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) and Blessed Duns Scotus (1265-1308) against St. Thomas Aquinas and his Dominicans, who favored Mary’s sinlessness beginning at the time of her birth, rather than at her conception.
Yet, while this debate was still going on, the feast of the Immaculate Conception was re-instated in Italy by Pope Sixtus IV in 1477, moving the date from December 9th to December 8th (the date we use today). Later, in 1708, the feast on December 8th was extended to the entire Church by Pope Clement XI. Then, in 1854, the doctrine was declared an official dogma of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX, thus bringing the theological debate to a close. So, Catholics had celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th for 377 years before the dogma was defined; and, in the East, for 957 years before that on December 9th.
Thus, the Immaculate Conception was always with us. It just took some time for God’s providence to bring it to the forefront.
The Assumption of our Lady
As for the Assumption, the strongest evidence for Mary’s Assumption is, oddly enough, a complete lack of evidence.
That is to say, no early Christian ever claimed to have a bodily relic of Mary, and no city ever claimed to have Mary’s remains. And this is in STARK contrast to the early veneration of the tombs of the Apostles and the other saints of the early Church. For example, everyone knew that the graves of Peter and Paul were at Rome. Likewise, the graves of John and Timothy were at Ephesus. The grave of Luke was in Greece, whereas the grave of Mark was in Alexandria, Egypt; later being transported to Venice. Likewise, the grave of James was at Jerusalem; the grave of Mary Magdalene was at Marseille. And, even the graves of the Old Testament saints were similarly venerated — such as the graves of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at Hebron; the grave of Rachel at Bethlehem (Matt 2:18), and the grave of David in Jerusalem itself (Acts 2:29). So, why did NO early Christian ever speak about a grave of the Virgin Mary? Unless there never was one.
Indeed, in the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107), we had the heresy of the Docetists, who claimed that Jesus did not have an earthly body. St. Ignatius, a disciple of Mary’s caretaker, the Apostle John himself, speaks out against these Docetists in his Epistle to the Ephesians, citing Jesus’ relationship to Mary to prove that the Lord had a true, human body. Yet, if Mary’s grave was available, it would have been used by both Ignatius and the Docetists to support their positions. Ignatius would have argued that Jesus’ body was real because His mother’s body is with us today; and the Docetists would have argued that Jesus’ body was not real because He was not subject to death, whereas His mother’s mortal body was. Yet, we have no mention of this. Why not?
Truth be told, it seems that the earliest Christians chose to remain silent about Mary’s Assumption so that it would not take away from the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. In this, we have to remember that Christianity was still a very new thing, and the main tenets of the Gospel had to be revealed to the world first, before devotion to Mary could properly develop. So, as with the Shroud of Turin, things like Mary’s Assumption were kept as “family secrets.” Not that they were withheld from anyone, but they were simply not widely advertised.
And, as with the Immaculate Conception, the earliest evidence that we have for the Assumption comes to us from the Eastern, non-Greek-speaking Church. Around 390 AD, we have the writings of St. Epiphanius of Salamis. Now, St. Epiphanius was a native of Palestine (so he would have been familiar with all the Sacred Traditions of the original Jewish Church in Jerusalem). Yet, in around 390, St. Epiphanius moved to the Greek island of Cyprus, where he was elected to be the Bishop of Salamis. Thus, around this time, we have this Palestinian bishop writing to his Greek flock about the end of Mary’s earthly life. And, speaking very diplomatically, he writes:
“Say she died a natural death. In that case she fell asleep in glory, and departed in purity and received the crown of her virginity. Or say she was slain with the sword according to Simeon’s prophecy. There her glory is with the martyrs, and she through WHOM THE DIVINE LIGHT SHONE UPON THE WORLD IS IN THE PLACE OF BLISS WITH HER SACRED BODY. Or say she left this world without dying for God can do what He wills. Then she was simply transferred to eternal glory.” (Haer. lxxix, 11).
So, St. Ephiphanis is speaking to his Greek, Cypriot flock — a flock which apparently had no eatablished Tradition about the Assumption. Yet, even so, Epiphanius mentions his own, Palestinian Tradition of the Assumption; and, while he does not force it upon the Greeks since, at this time, it was not a dogma and one did not have to accept it to be in the Church, he does present it to the Greek-speaking world. And he was most certainly not the only one, since the mere fact that he mentions the Assumption in passing shows that it was currently known to be an established belief — an established theolegoumenon (theological opinion), even if it was not yet widely known to the Greek-speaking Church.
Indeed, a similar case comes to us from St. John Damascene. Although he wrote in the 700’s, he tells us a Tradition from his own, Jerusalem city-church about its bishop Juvenal, who represented the Church of Jerusalem at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, about 50 years after St. Epiphanius was writing. And St. John tells us …
“Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem at the Council of Chalcedon (451) made known to the Emperor Marcian and [his Empress] Pulcharia, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles and that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to Heaven.” (Homily on the Dormition, PG 96)
So, this shows us that as late as 451 the Tradition of the Assumption was not widely known within the Greek-speaking world. Indeed, the Emperor and Empresses (who would not have been the most devout of Christians anyway) didn’t know about it, and had to be informed by the Bishop of Jerusalem. So, as I’ve said, it seems that the Assumption of Mary was understood by the Church in a relatively “private” way.
Yet, by the late 5th century, all this changed. The feast of “The Dormition and Assumption of Mary” began to be widely celebrated in the East; and this feast was moved to the West in the 700’s by one of the aforementioned Syrian Popes, St. Sergius I. And, at this point, the Assumption begins to be widely publicized for the first time. Thus, we begin to see the following quotes from the Fathers:
The Pseudo-Augustine (c. 500):
“This venerable day has dawned, the day that surpasses all the festivals of the saints, this most exalted and solemn day on which the Blessed Virgin was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. On this day the queenly Virgin was exalted to the very throne of God the Father, and elevated to such a height that the angelic spirits are in admiration.”
St. Gregory, Bishop of Tours in France (594 AD)
“The Lord . . . commanded the body of Mary be taken in a cloud into paradise; where now, rejoined to the soul, Mary dwells with the chosen ones.”
St. Germaine I, Patriarch of Constantinople (c. 732 AD speaking of Mary)
“Thou art . . . the dwelling place of God . . . exempt from all dissolution into dust.”
St. John Damascene [of Damascus] (c. 700)
“He who had been pleased to become Incarnate (of) her . . . was pleased . . . to honor her immaculate and undefiled body with incorruption . . . prior to the common and universal resurrection.”
And, so, the Assumption continued to be celebrated by the Church’s Liturgy until modern times when, in 1950, it was finally declared to be a dogma of Catholic Christianity.
Queenship of Mary
As for Mary’s Queenship, that’s not even a question for orthodox Christians who have any understanding of the Old Testament. In OT times, the Queen of Israel was not the King’s wife (because the king had many wives — a harem), but rather his mother:
2 Kings 10:13 — ” ‘ We are kinsmen of Ahaziah,’ they replied. ‘We are going down to visit the princes and the family of the queen mother.”
Song of Songs (Songs of Solomon) 3:11 –“Daughters of Jerusalem, come forth and look upon King Solomon. In the crown which his mother has crowned him, on the day of his marriage, on the day of the joy of his heart.”
Jeremiah 13:18 — “Say to the king and to the queen mother: ‘Come down from your throne.’ “
1 Kings 15:13 — “He also deposed Maacah from her position as queen mother.”
If Christ is the legitimate Messianic King of the true Israel (the Church / Heaven), then Mary is the Queen Mother. This is what the ancient Church believed, and we can multiply examples in the patristic witness, if anyone is interested.
Let me point out a couple things on Mary as “Co-Redemptrix” and “Mediatrix of all grace.” First, all “Co-redemptrix” and “Mediatrix of all grace” refer to is the aspect of redemption that is shared by Christ with His Church, and is exercised by all Christians to one degree or another. For example, in Colossians 1:24, St. Paul says:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST, on behalf of His Body, which is the Church.”
Here what St. Paul is saying is that he is offering up his own sufferings on behalf of his fellow Christians in order to make up for the one and only thing that is “lacking” in Christ’s redeeming Sacrifice on the Cross, which is OUR CONTINUAL ACCEPTANCE of that Sacrifice. This is why Catholics believe that our struggles, sufferings, and hardships can be offered up for the good and salvation of other Christians; and that the merits of the saints in Heaven (that is, their loving and willing total acceptance of Christ) can be applied to others via their prayers.
It’s in this sense, as the most perfect of all Christians, and as the image of the Church herself (Revelations 12:1-3) that the Virgin Mary is Co-Redemptrix with Christ (because the Church herself is such a Co-Redemptrix) and Mediatrix of all grace (because the Church herself is such a Mediatrix of all grace). That is the nature of the Christian mystery before us. At the moment, the doctrines of Mary as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of all grace are merely theological opinions within the Church, stemming from traditional Catholic theology and resting upon the Apostolic Deposit of Faith (e.g. Colossians 1:24, etc).
Anyway, I hope that helps. If you have any more questions, please let us know.
By Mark Bonocore
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