The Early Church and the Virgin Mary: St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker

St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker (14th c. icon)

In honor of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, I thought I would share with you a glimpse into how the early Church viewed Mary. In particular, I want to share excerpts from a homily delivered by one of the great Saints of the early Church, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who lived from about 213-270 A.D.

Gregory is little remembered today, but that’s a shame. In the early Church, he was held in high esteem. To give you some sense of what I mean, “Thaumaturgus” isn’t a last name: it’s the Greek for “the Wonder-Worker,” in honor of all of the miracles that he performed. In addition, he was a great evangelist. When he became bishop of Neo-Caesarea, there were only seventeen Christians in his town. By his death, it is said that there were only seventeen pagans left unconverted. Writing some decades later, St. Basil (329-379 A.D.) had this to say about St. Gregory:

But where shall I rank the great Gregory, and the words uttered by him? Shall we not place among Apostles and Prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they; who never through all his days diverged from the footprints of the saints; who maintained, as long as he lived, the exact principles of evangelical citizenship? I am sure that we shall do the truth a wrong if we refuse to number that soul with the people of God, shining as it did like a beacon in the Church of God; for by the fellow-working of the Spirit the power which he had over demons was tremendous, and so gifted was he with the grace of the word for obedience to the faith among…the nations, that, although only seventeen Christians were handed over to him, he brought the whole people alike in town and country through knowledge to God. 
He too by Christ’s mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course, and caused a lake, which afforded a ground of quarrel to some covetous brethren, to dry up. Moreover his predictions of things to come were such as in no wise to fall short of those of the great prophets. To recount all his wonderful works in detail would be too long a task. By the superabundance of gifts, wrought in him by the Spirit in all power and in signs and in marvels, he was styled a second Moses by the very enemies of the Church. Thus in all that he through grace accomplished, alike by word and deed, a light seemed ever to be shining, token of the heavenly power from the unseen which followed him. To this day he is a great object of admiration to the people of his own neighbourhood, and his memory, established in the churches ever fresh and green, is not dulled by length of time. Thus not a practice, not a word, not a mystic rite has been added to the Church besides what he bequeathed to it.

Now that we know who Gregory the Wonder-Worker is, what he had to say about the Virgin Mary. Again, this homily was delivered back in the mid-200s.This detail is significant, because there’s a myth that Marian devotion didn’t really start until after the Council of Ephesus in 431. But Gregory is clearly devoted to Mary, and in a way closely connected to his Christology. Notice how his praise of Mary flows over into praise of Jesus Christ, and his praise of Jesus Christ flows into praise of the Virgin Mary. He doesn’t pit the two against each other, but clearly sees how love of Jesus and love of Mary are related to one another:

Mother of God, Milkgiver (19th c. Ukrainian icon)

1. When I remember the disobedience of Eve, I weep. But when I view the fruit of Mary, I am again renewed. Deathless by descent, invisible through beauty, before the ages light of light; of God the Father wast Thou begotten; being Word and Son of God, Thou didst take on flesh from Mary Virgin, in order that Thou mightest renew afresh Adam fashioned by Thy holy hand.

2. Holy, deathless, eternal, inaccessible, without change, without turn, True Son of God art Thou before the ages; yet wast pleased to be conceived and formed in the womb of the Holy Virgin, in order that Thou mightest make alive once more man first fashioned by Thy holy hand, but dead through sin.

3. By the good pleasure Thou didst issue forth, by the good pleasure and will of the invisible Father. Wherefore we all invoke Thee, calling Thee King. Be Thou our succour; Thou that wast born of the Virgin and wrapt in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger, and wast suckled by Mary; to the end that Thou mightest make alive once more the first-created Adam that was dead through sin. [….]

5. Turn ye, O congregations, and come. Let us all praise Him that is born of the Virgin. For that being the glory and image before the ages of the Godhead, He yet became a fellow-sufferer with us of poverty. Being the exceeding magnifical power [and] image of God, He took on the form of a slave. He that putteth on the light as a garment, consorted with men as one that is vile. He that is hymned by cherubim and by myriad angels, as a citizen on earth doth He live. He that being before (all) maketh all creation alive, was born of the Holy Virgin, in order that He might make alive once more the first created. [….]

7. And He took the form of a slave from the Holy Virgin, in order to call us up to the glorified dominical image. He put on the outward shape made of clay, that He might make [us] sharers of the heavenly form. He sat in the lap of the Holy Virgin, that He might place us on the right hand in the intimacy of His Father. In a vile body was He; and by means of the same He was laid in a tomb, that He might manifest us heirs of eternal life. In the womb of the Holy Virgin was He, the incomprehensible (or inaccessible) one, confined; in order that He might renew the Adam destroyed through sin. [….]

9. Wherefore even with one voice [let us sing the praises] of God the Word, that according to the worthiness of each is cause and promoter of salvation, unto young men and old, and unto children and women. For from Mary, the divine fountain of the ineffable Godhead, gushes forth grace and free gift of the Holy Spirit. From a single Holy Virgin the Pearl of much price proceeded, in order to make alive once more the first-created man that was dead through sin. [….]

Coronation of the Virgin (18th c.)

11. Let us twine, as with a wreath, the souls (or selves) [of them that love the festival and love to hearken] with golden blossoms, fain to be crowned with wreaths from the unfading gardens; and offering in our hands the fair-fruited flowers of Christ, let us gather [them]. For the God-like temple of the Holy Virgin is meet to be glorified with such a crown; because the illumining Pearl cometh forth, to the end that it may raise up again into the ever-streaming light them that were gone down into darkness and the shadow of death. [….]

13. The Holy Virgin is herself both an honourable 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 ( = προθέσεως), and oil of the holy grace, and a precious vase bearing in itself the true nard; [yea and] the priestly diadem revealing the good pleasure of God, whom she alone approacheth holy in body and soul. [She is] the door which looks eastward [this is a reference to the Temple Gate of Ezekiel 44], and by the comings in and goings forth the whole earth is illuminated. The fertile olive from which the Holy Spirit took the fleshly slip (or 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.

14. Thou didst allow her to remain a virgin, and wast pleased, O Lord, to lie in the Virgin’s womb, sending in advance the archangel to announce it [to her]. But he from above, from the ineffable hosts, came unto Mary, and first heralded to her the tidings: “Be thou glad and rejoice.” And he also added, “The Lord with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” But she was in tumult, and pondered in her mind what sort of tidings was this. But then in seemly fashion, I ween, the grace chose out the Holy Virgin; for she was wise in all ways, nor was there her like among women of all nations. [….]

18. The Virgin spake in turn unto the angel: My mind swims in thy words as in a sea. How shall this be unto me? for I desire not to know an earthly man, because I have devoted myself to the heavenly Bridegroom. I desire to remain a virgin. I wish not to betray the honour of my virginity. […]

20. Great is the mystery. Thou hast learned, O Mary, that which till now was hidden from angels. Thou hast known that which deaf prophets and patriarchs heard not; and thou hast heard that which the choirs of the God-clad were not ever held worthy to hear. David and Isaiah, and all the prophets foretold in their preaching about the Lord’s becoming man. But do thou alone, O Holy Virgin, receive the mystery unknown by them, and learn and be not perplexed as to how this shall be unto thee. For He that fashioned man out of virgin soil, the Selfsame shall even now do as. He will for the salvation of His creature.


21. 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.

Bartolomeo Caporali, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1470

22. And not only is it meet to marvel at the beauty of the Holy Mother of God, but also at the excellence of her spirit. Wherefore were addressed to her the words: “The Lord with thee”; and again also, “The Lord from thee.” As if this: ” He will save him that is in His image as being pitiful.” As purse of the Divine mystery the Holy Virgin made herself ready, in which the Pearl of Life was enveloped in flesh and sealed; and she also became the receptacle of supramundane and Divine salvation. [….]

24. Not any more doth Adam fear the crafty serpent; because our Lord is come and hath dispersed the host of the enemy. Not any more doth the race of men fear the craftiness and mad deceit of the serpent, because the Lord hath bruised the head of the dragon in the water of baptism. Not any more do I fear to hear the words: Dust thou wast, and unto dust shalt thou be turned. For the Lord in baptism hath washed away the stain of sin. Not any more do I weep, nor ever lament, nor ever reckon it again to wretchedness, when the thorns wound me. For our Lord hath plucked out by the roots the sins which are our thorns, and hath crowned His head withal. Loosed is the first curse in which He said: Thorns and thistles shall earth bring forth to thee, for the thorn is plucked out by the roots, and the thistle withered up; and from the Holy Virgin hath shot up the tree of life and grace. No more doth Eva fear the reproach of the pangs of childbirth; for by the Holy Virgin her transgressions are blotted out and effaced; forasmuch as in her was God born, to the end that He might make alive him whom He made in His image.

25. A bulwark of imperishable life hath the Holy Virgin become unto us, and a fountain of light to those who have faith in Christ; a sunrise of the reasonable light is she found to be. Be thou glad and rejoice. The Lord with thee and from thee, who in His Godhead and His manhood is perfect, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead: “Be glad and rejoice, the Lord with thee and from thee” —-with His handmaid the Lord of glory; with her that is unspotted, He that halloweth all; with the beautiful, He who is wonderful in beauty above all the sons of men, to the end that He may make alive him whom He made in His image. [….]

27. Holy and wise in all things was the all-blessed Virgin; in all ways peerless among all nations, and unrivalled among women. Not as the first virgin Eva, who being alone in the garden, was in her weak mind led astray by the serpent; and so took his advice and brought death into the world; and because of that hath been all the suffering of saints. But in her alone, in this Holy Virgin Mary, the Stem of Life hath shot up for us. For she alone was spotless in soul and body.

28. With intrepid mind she spake to the angel: Whence is this salutation, and how shall this be unto me? Dost thou desire to learn how the exceeding magnifical power becomes a fellow-sufferer with us of our poverty? How He that hath power over the hosts assumes the image of our baseness; and how He who is God before the ages is about to become a child and be made flesh, He that putteth on light as a garment and giveth life unto His creature. Grant me, said the Holy Virgin, to learn such an impenetrable mystery, and I become the vessel that receives the Divine mystery (or thought), being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and [I am] to receive the truth of His flesh in my flesh, unto the building by Wisdom of her abode.[….]

30. The element of flesh doth the Son of God take from the Holy Virgin, for before the ages He is God. He hath deigned to be born, and to be called Son of man, and to become visible, He the invisible; and for our sake to be poor, who is all riches; and to suffer as man, He the impassible and deathless. For with (or in) the flesh in truth He was united, but He was not changed in spirit. In a mortal body the Invisible One was enveloped, that He might make it also deathless, making it sharer of His deathlessness through His Godhead; to the end that He might renew him that was fashioned by His holy hands. [….]

35. Therefore, O ye fair-fruited and comely branches of Christ’s teaching, ye shall in this place bring to us the fruits of blessing (= εὐλογίας). Here, where is all purity and fragrance, let us offer to God with holy conscience the incense of prayer. Here, where virginity and temperance dance together, bearing for fruit the life-giving cluster of grapes. […] Here, where the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed by the archangel to the Holy Virgin according to the gospel: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. For Holy is that which is born of thee, Son of God.” To whom be glory and honour for ever and ever.

Happy Feast of the Assumption!

2 Comments

  1. Uh oh. It would appear Bercot (an Anglican scholar) left out Gregory the Wonder Worker’s quote here in his Dictionary of Early Church Beliefs (which isn’t really a dictionary, but quotes the Eastern and Western Ante-Nicean Fathers a few sentences or paragraph at a time organized by topic…about the size of a collegiate dictionary).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *