A Little Treatise on Mary
by St. John Damascene


St. John Damascene at various places in his writings shows a clear belief in Our Lady's Immaculate Conception. He explains in a sermon on Mary's nativity why she was born of a sterile mother. "Since the Virgin Mother of God was to be born of Anne, nature did not dare to precede the product of grace, but remained sterile until grace had produced its fruit." In the homilies on the Assumption, St. John explains: that Mary, although not subject to death, died nonetheless. Death, of course, is the penalty for sin, and only one preserved even from Original Sin would be exempt.

For how could she who brought life to all, be under the dominion of death? But she obeys the law of her own Son and inherits this chastisement as a daughter of the first Adam, since her Son, Who is the Life, did not refuse it. As the Mother of the Living God, she goes through death to Him. [Sermon 2]
In the East, Marian devotion probably reached its high point with St. John of Damascus. It would be easy, for example, to go through his sermons on the Dormition and from them alone construct a litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the perennial "source of true light, the treasury of life, the richness of grace, the cause of all our good. She is life-giving ambrosia, true happiness, a sea of grace, a fountain of healing, a fruitful tree, the lily of the field, the rose among thorns, the gladness of Angels, the sweetness of patriarchs, refreshment of the weary. She is as shining as the dawn, beautiful as the moon, conspicuous as the sun; she is Queen, Virgin Mother of God, a rich treasure-house of the Godhead. Mary is the Saint of Saints, the spotless Virgin, most dear among women, all fair; her fragrance is sweeter than all ointment, the Ark of God". Over and over St. John Damascene calls her "the Mother of God".

St. John was a man who sought wisdom humbly. He did not push himself. Only near the close of his life did he write his greatest work, the Fount of Knowledge, and that at the request of Cosmas, Bishop of Maiuma, once his fellow-monk.
St. John Damascene had a penetrating and exact mind that made him a great theologian; at the same time he had the fine feeling and beauty of expression that made him an outstanding poet. This combination of talents must have made him a superb orator. But the point that seems most striking and endearing about St. John Damascene is his constant gratitude for being able to serve God and sing the praises of his Lady, the Theotokos or "God-bearer." Perhaps he expressed this best when he said: "We know that in celebrating her praises we payoff our debt, and that in so doing we are again debtors, so that the debt is ever beginning afresh."

[Source #1, pp. 243-245]

John writes on all the mariological questions that were current in his day: Mary's predestination, the Old Testament figures and prophecies that were usually applied to her, her Divine maternity, her perpetual virginity, and the meaning of the name Mary, which he interprets as "Lady", according to Syriac etymology. He was the first author to speak of consecration to Mary. Here we confine ourselves to certain aspects of mariological doctrine that are most original and most important to him, aspects for which the Church's Magisterium still invokes him today as an authority. Along with Germanus of Constantinople and Andrew of Crete, he is cited in Munificentissimus Deus, the document in which Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption and in John Paul II's encyclical Redemptoris Mater. His Marian thought has been the object of various studies and research, which have emphasized its value and depth.

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
-----unprecedented in previous centuries-----to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.

For John, both the Virgin Mary's conception and her birth took place completely under the influence of Divine grace. These two events also shaped the role played by her parents, Joachim and Anna. Their previous sterility is explained thus:

"Because it would come to pass that the Virgin Theotokos would be born of Anna, nature did not dare anticipate the seed of grace but remained unfruitful until grace bore fruit." [Homily on the Nativity, 2]

Anna's sterility was, therefore, a condition previously arranged in the Divine plan, so that the role of grace would appear fully predominant. This is why Damascene always names the Virgin's parents with profound respect: they would offer themselves as the passive instruments of God's miraculous intervention:

"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." [Ibid, 2; "Fetus" means offspring in Latin. We mention this because in modern societies the term has lost its Latin and (and true) definition and has come to signify a "non-person" for all practical purposes, a distortion for political manipulation
------The Web Master]

In these considerations [not devoid of realism], the author wants us to notice that even the physiological process of Mary's conception and birth unfolded in a sinless fashion, under the mysterious guidance of the Almighty. The very seed of which Mary was born was utterly perfect [panamomos]. This concept of perfection, then, is decidedly positive: it goes beyond a simple absence of sin and corruption to include an exceptional richness of grace.

Now one can understand why the Damascene gave himself over to the praise of Mary, seeing her as a new heaven:

"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." [Ibid, 3]

Mary also appears as a lofty ladder, planted between Heaven and earth, a kind of means of communication between God and man:

Today [Christ] . . . built Himself a living ladder, whose base is planted in the earth and whose tip reaches Heaven. God rests upon it. Jacob saw a figure of it. God, unchanged, came down it.  . . . He was made manifest on the earth and lived among men. [Ibid, 3]

The author emphasizes the fact that Mary's spiritual beauty derives from her special relationship with God:

She is all beautiful, all near to God. For she, surpassing the cherubim, exalted beyond the seraphim, is placed near to God. [Ibid, 9]

 It is understandable that the author should treat the theme of Mary's exceptional purity and sanctity in this context, since he considers it a condition that belongs to the very beginning of her earthly existence.

[Source #2, pp. 401-403]