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Mary’s Purity and Sinlessness in the Church Fathers

Courtesy of William Albrecht.

AD 100-700: Beginning to the end of the Patristic era

The Protoevangelium of James

And Anna made a song to the Lord God, saying: I will sing a song to the Lord my God, for He has looked upon me, and has taken away the reproach of mine enemies; and the Lord has given the fruit of His righteousness, singular in its kind, and richly endowed before Him. [A.D. 150]).

Here Mary is called the fruit of justification, with the utilization of the Greek word Dikaiousune.

Hippolytus of Rome

At that time, then, the Saviour appeared and showed His own body to the world, (born) of the Virgin, who was the “ark overlaid with pure gold,” with the Word within and the Holy Spirit without; so that the truth is demonstrated, and the “ark” made manifest.” Commentary on Psalm XXIII (ante A.D. 235)

Gregory the Wonderworker

The Holy Virgin is herself both an honorable temple of God and a shrine made pure, and a golden altar of whole burnt offerings. By reason of her surpassing purity, she is the Divine incense of oblation, and oil of holy grace, and a precious vase bearing it itself the true nard, the priestly diadem, revealing the good pleasure of God, whom she alone approaches holy in body and soul. She is the door which looks eastward. The fertile olive from which the Holy Spirit took the fleshly twig of the Lord and saved the suffering race of men. She is the boast of virgins, and the joy of mothers, the declaration of archangels, even as it was spoken: “Be thou glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee”, and again, “From thee” in order that he may make new once more the dead through sin.

New radiance now of eternal light gleams forth for us in the inspired fitness (or harmony) of these words. Now is it meet and fitting for me to wonder after the manner of the Holy Virgin, to whom in seemly wise before all things the angel gave salutation thus: “Be thou glad and rejoice”; because with her are quickened and live, all the treasures of grace. Among all nations she alone was both virgin and mother and without knowledge of man, holy in body and soul. Among all nations she alone was made worthy to bring forth God; alone she carried in her Him who carries along all by His word. (Concerning the Holy Mother of God, ever-virgin [A.D. 240])

Ephraim the Syrian

“You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?” (Nisibene Hymns 27:8 [A.D. 361]).

Epiphanius of Salamis

“How will holy Mary not possess the kingdom of heaven with her flesh, since she was not unchaste, nor dissolute, nor did she ever commit adultery, and since she never did anything wrong as far as fleshly actions are concerned, but remained stainless?” (Panarion haer 42:12; PG 41:777B)

Mary, the holy Virgin, is truly great before God and men. For how shall we not proclaim her great, who held within her the uncontainable One, whom neither heaven nor earth can contain?” (ibid 30:31; PG 41:460C)

“Whoever honors the Lord also honors the holy [vessel]; who instead dishonors the holy vessel also dishonors his Master. Mary herself is that holy Virgin, that is, the holy vessel.” (ibid 78:21; PG 42:733A) [300s]

Athanasius the Great

“… pure and unstained Virgin…” (On the Incarnation of the Word) [300s]

“Mary was a pure virgin… She loved to do good works… She did not want to be seen by men but prayed God to be her judge… She remained at home always, leading a hidden life… She gave generously to the needy what surplus she had earned by the work of her hands… She prayed to God as one person speaks to another… Her speech was reflective and her voice subdued… She purposed to make some advances each day and did so… She did not worry about dying. She was even sad and sighed every day because she had not yet reached the gates of heaven.” Letter to Virgins 42 [late 300s]

Ambrose of Milan

“Mary’s life should be for you a pictorial image of virginity. Her life is like a mirror reflecting the face of chastity and the form of virtue. Therein you may find a model for your own life… showing what to improve, what to imitate, what to hold fast to” (The Virgins 2:2:6 [A.D. 377]).

“The first thing which kindles ardor in learning is the greatness of the teacher. What is greater [to teach by example] than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom Glory Itself chose? What more chaste than she who bore a body without contact with another body? For why should I speak of her other virtues? She was a virgin not only in body but also in mind, who stained the sincerity of its disposition by no guile, who was humble in heart, grave in speech, prudent in mind, sparing of words, studious in reading, resting her hope not on uncertain riches, but on the prayer of the poor, intent on work, modest in discourse; wont to seek not man but God as the judge of her thoughts, to injure no one, to have goodwill towards all, to rise up before her elders, not to envy her equals, to avoid boastfulness, to follow reason, to love virtue. When did she pain her parents even by a look? When did she disagree with her neighbors? When did she despise the lowly? When did she avoid the needy?” (ibid., 2:2:7).

“Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a virgin not only undefiled, but a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin” (Commentary on Psalm 118:22–30 [A.D. 387]).

Augustine

“Our Lord… was not averse to males, for he took the form of a male, nor to females, for of a female he was born. Besides, there is a great mystery here: that just as death comes to us through a woman, life is born to us through a woman; that the devil, defeated, would be tormented by each nature, feminine and masculine, as he had taken delight in the defection of both” (Christian Combat 22:24 [A.D. 396]).

“That one woman is both mother and virgin, not in spirit only but even in body. In spirit she is mother, not of our head, who is our Savior himself—of whom all, even she herself, are rightly called children of the bridegroom—but plainly she is the mother of us who are his members, because by love she has cooperated so that the faithful, who are the members of that head, might be born in the Church. In body, indeed, she is the Mother of that very head” (Holy Virginity 6:6 [A.D. 401])

“Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins—for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?—so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?” (Nature and Grace 36:42 [A.D. 415]).

Jerome

“HE CONDUCTED THEM WITH A CLOUD BY DAY”

“BEHIND THE LORD COMES INTO EGYPT ON A LIGHT CLOUD. THE LIGHT CLOUD WE MUST UNDERSTAND, EITHER AS PROPERLY SIGNIFYING THE BODY OF THE SAVIOR, AS BEING LIGHT AND BURDENED WITH NO SIN, OR WE MAY CERTAINLY TAKE THE LIGHT CLOUD AS SIGNIFYING HOLY MARY…BEHOLD THE LORD COMES INTO THE EGYPT OF THIS WORLD ON A LIGHT CLOUD, WHICH IS THE VIRGIN. (Commentary on Psalm 77) [300s]

‘There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a flower shall grow out of his roots.’ The rod is the mother of the Lord–simple, pure, unsullied; drawing no germ of life from without but fruitful in singleness like God Himself… Set before you the blessed Mary, whose surpassing purity made her meet to be the mother of the Lord. (Letter XXII. To Eustochium, 19, 38; NPNF 2, Vol. VI, 29, 39; cf. Gambero, p. 213: “whose purity was so great that she merited to be the Mother of the Lord”)

Indeed how inferior they are, in terms of holiness, to blessed Mary, Mother of the Lord! (Contra Pelagianos, 1, 16; Gambero, 212) [300s]

Timothy of Jerusalem

“Therefore the Virgin is immortal to this day, seeing that he who had dwelt in her transported her to the regions of her assumption” (Homily on Simeon and Anna [A.D. 400]).

John the Theologian

“[T]he Lord said to his Mother, ‘Let your heart rejoice and be glad, for every favor and every gift has been given to you from my Father in heaven and from me and from the Holy Spirit. Every soul that calls upon your name shall not be ashamed, but shall find mercy and comfort and support and confidence, both in the world that now is and in that which is to come, in the presence of my Father in the heavens’” (The Falling Asleep of Mary [A.D. 400]).

“And from that time forth all knew that the spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise” (ibid.).

Cyril of Alexandria

Hail, Mary Theotokos, Virgin-Mother, lightbearer, uncorrupt vessel. Hail, O Virgin Mary, mother and handmaid; virgin, for the sake of him who was born virginally from you; mother, for the sake of him whom you carried in your arms and nursed with your milk; handmaid, for the sake of him who took the form of a servant. For the king entered into your city; or rather, into your womb, and he came forth from it as he wished, and your gate remained shut. For you conceived without seed and gave birth divinely… 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. Homily 11 [400s]

Theodotus of Ancrya (d. 445)

“Hail, our desirable gladness;
Hail, O rejoicing of the churches;
Hail, O name that breathes out sweetness;
Hail, face that radiates divinity and grace;
Hail, most venerable memory;
Hail, O spiritual and saving fleece;
Hail, O Mother of unsetting splendor, filled with light;
Hail, unstained Mother of holiness;
Hail, most limpid font of the lifegiving wave;
Hail, new Mother, workshop of the birth.
Hail, ineffable Mother of a mystery beyond understanding;
Hail, new book of a new scripture, of which, as Isaiah tells, angels and men are faithful witnesses.
Hail, alabaster jar of sanctifying ointment;
Hail, best trader of the coin of virginity;
Hail, creature embracing your Creator;
Hail, little container containing the Uncontainable.” (Theodotus, Homily 4:3; PG 77:1391B-C; Gambero, page 267-8)

“In the place of Eve, an instrument of death, is chosen a Virgin, most pleasing to God and full of His grace, as an instrument of life. A Virgin included in woman’s sex, but without a share in woman’s fault. A Virgin innocent; immaculate; free from all guilt; spotless; undefiled; holy in spirit and body; a lily among thorns.” (Theodotus, Hom 6 in S. Deiparam, No 11; PG 77:1427A)

Another translation of the above:

Innocent virgin, spotless, without defect, untouched, unstained, holy in body and in soul, like a lily flower sprung among thorns, unschooled in the wickedness of Eve, unclouded by womanly vanity… Even before the Nativity, she was consecrated to the Creator… Holy apprentice, guest in the Temple, disciple of the law, anointed by the Holy Spirit, clothed with divine grace as with a cloak, divinely wise in your mind; united to God in your heart… Praiseworthy in your speech, even more praiseworthy in your action… God in the eyes of men, better in the sight of God.” (Theodotus, Hom 6:11; Gambero, page 268)

“What did the divine messenger do then? Perceiving the Virgin’s interior dispositions and perspicacity in her outward appearance and admiring her just prudence, he began to weave her a kind of floral crown with two peaks: one of joy and one of blessing; then he addressed her in a thrilling speech of praise, lifting up his hand and crying out: ‘Hail, O full of grace, the Lord is with you, you are blessed’ (Lk 1:28), O most beautiful and most noble among women. The Lord is with you, O all-holy one, glorious and good. The Lord is with you, O worthy of praise, O incomparable, O more than glorious, all splendor, worthy of God, worthy of all blessedness….Through you, Eve’s odious condition is ended; through you, abjection has been destroyed; through you, error is dissolved; through you, sorrow is abolished; through you, condemnation has been erased. Through you, Eve has been redeemed. He who is born of the holy [Virgin] is holy, holy and Lord of all the saints, holy and Giver of holiness. Wondrous is he who generated the Woman of wonder; Ineffable is he who precedes the Woman beyond words; Son of the Most High is he who springs from this highest creature, he who appears, not by man’s willing it, but by the power of the Holy Spirit; he who is born is not a mere man, but God, the incarnate Word.” (Theodotus, On the Mother of God and on the Nativity; Patrologia orientalis 19:330-1; Gambero, page 271)

Proclus of Constantinople (d. 446)

“He came forth from her without any flaw, and made her for Himself without any stain.”; And again: “Mary is the heavenly orb of a new creation, in whom the Sun of justice, ever shining, has vanished from her entire soul all the night of sin.” (Proclus, Oratio 1 de Laudibus S. Mariae; PG 65:683B; Oratio 6; PG 68:758A)

“Thanks to her all women are blessed. It is not possible that woman should remain under her curse; to the contrary, she now has a reason to surpass even the glory of the angels. Eve has been healed… Today, a list of women is admired [Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Deborah, etc.]… Elizabeth is called blessed for having carried the Forerunner, who leapt for joy in her womb, and for having giving witness to grace; Mary is venerated, because she became the Mother, the cloud, the bridal chamber, and the Ark of the Lord.” (Proclus, Homily 5:3; PG 65:720B; Gambero, page 256)

O man, run through all creation with your thought, and see if there exists anything comparable to or greater than the holy Virgin, Mother of God. Circle the whole world, explore all the oceans, survey the air, question the skies, consider all the unseen powers, and see if there exists any other similar wonder in the whole creation… Count, then, the portents, and wonder at the superiority of the Virgin: she alone, in a way beyond words, received into her bridal chamber him before whom all creation kneels with fear and trembling.” (Proclus, Homily 5:2; PG 65:717C-720A; Gambero, page 251)

Leo the Great

For the uncorrupt nature of Him that was born had to guard the primal virginity of the Mother, and the infused power of the Divine Spirit had to preserve in spotlessness and holiness that sanctuary which He had chosen for Himself… (Sermon XXII: On the Feast of the Nativity, Part II; NPNF 2, Vol. XII) [400s]

Basil of Seleucia

“He who would exalt the Holy Virgin and Mother of God, will find a most ample subject for his praises… 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….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…

“… 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 honored 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…

“… 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 the whole 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…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 honor. 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, what shall we say of the mother of God, who shone with as great a splendor 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.‘ O Sacred Virginwell 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 intrusted the message of the Divine Conception, and he stands before the Virgin in great honor. Wherefore, in joy and grace he auspiciously begins the message: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

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 of God and men, through whom the middle wall 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 odoriferous with the aromatics of chastity. In thee shall dwell the great High Priest, who, according to the order of Melchisedec, is without father and mother — of God without mother, of thee without father…And the most Holy Mother of the Lord of all, the true Mother of God, pondering these things in her heart, as it is written, inbibed 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…

“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; and if when men took the handkerchief which wiped the perspiration from Paul, they drove the devils away with it, how much power, think you, did He give His Mother?…

“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, how must she not be more blessed than all, who deserved to hear Him whom Peter confessed? And if Paul is called a vessel of election, 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 harbor of silence.” (Basil of Seleucia, Orat in S. Dei Gentricem, Combefis; Ullathorne, The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, page 14-18) [400s]

Jacob of Sarug

“The very fact that God has elected her proves that none was ever holier than Mary, if any stain had disfigured her soul, if any other virgin had been purer and holier, God would have selected her and rejected Mary.” On the Mother of God{ante A.D. 521}.

Romanos the Melodist

Then the tribes of Israel heard that Anna had conceived the immaculate one. So everyone took part in the rejoicing. Joachim gave a banquet, and great was the merriment in the garden. He invited the priests and Levites to prayer; then he called Mary into the center of the crowd, that she might be magnified (On the Birth of Mary 1 [d. ca A.D. 560])

Gregory of Tours

“The course of this life having been completed by blessed Mary, when now she would be called from the world, all the apostles came together from their various regions to her house. And when they had heard that she was about to be taken from the world, they kept watch together with her. And behold, the Lord Jesus came with his angels, and, taking her soul, he gave it over to the angel Michael and withdrew. At daybreak, however, the apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb, and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; the holy body having been received, he commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise, where now, rejoined to the soul, [Mary’s body] rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones and is in the enjoyment of the good of an eternity that will never end” (Eight Books of Miracles 1:4 [A.D. 584]).

“But Mary, the glorious Mother of Christ, who is believed to be a virgin both before and after she bore him, has, as we said above, been translated into paradise, amid the singing of the angelic choirs, whither the Lord preceded her” (ibid., 1:8).

Theoteknos of Livias

“She is born like the cherubim, she who is of a pure, immaculate clay.” Panegyric for the feast of the Assumption 5:6 {ante A.D. 650}.

Sophronius of Jerusalem

Others before you have flourished with outstanding holiness. But to none as to you has the fullness of grace been given. None has been endowed with happiness as you, none adorned with holiness like yours, none brought to such great magnificence as yours; no one was ever possessed beforehand by purifying grace as were you . . . And this deservedly, for no one came as close to God as you did; no one was enriched with God’s gifts as you were; no one shared God’s grace as you did. (In SS Deip. Annunt. 22; O’Carroll, 329) [600s]

Andrew of Crete

Today humanity, in all the radiance of her immaculate nobility, receives its ancient beauty. The shame of sin had darkened the splendour and attraction of human nature; but when the Mother of the Fair One par excellence is born, this nature regains in her person its ancient privileges and is fashioned according to a perfect model truly worthy of God. . . . The reform of our nature begins today and the aged world, subjected to a wholly divine transformation, receives the first fruits of the second creation. (Homily 1 on Mary’s Nativity; O’Carroll, 180) [LATE 600S]… alone wholly without stain… (Canon for the Conception of Anne; Graef, 152)

Germanus of Constantinople

“Truly elect, and superior to all, not by the altitude of lofty structures, but as excelling all in the greatness and purity of sublime and divine virtues, and having no affinity with sin whatever.”, Marracci in S. Germani Mariali {ante A.D. 733}.

John of Damascus

O most blessed loins of Joachim from which came forth a spotless seed! O glorious womb of Anne in which a most holy offspring grew. (Homily I on the Nativity of Mary; O’Carroll, 200; cf. Graef, 154; Gambero, 402) [700s]

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