The Mother of God and the Natural World: Byzantine Conceptions of Sacrament and Creation

This article examines the connection between Mary, the Mother of God, and a transfigured natural world, as depicted in Byzantine liturgical texts and experienced in the lives of Orthodox Christians. Although these two aspects of Marian devotion may seem unrelated, they both reinforce the Virgin Mary’s theo-logical role as the meeting-place between the divine and created spheres. Byzantine hymnography and homiletics use typology not only to express Mary’s role as the receptive creation into which God entered, but also to convey a sacramental meaning specifically linking the Theotokos with the mysteries of baptism and the Eucharist. More tangible reminders of her link with the material elements that play a part in spiritual renewal and healing can be found in the shrines, often endowed with miraculous pools and springs, that existed in medieval Constantinople. Both formal liturgical and popular association of the Theotokos with a transfigured creation thus reinforced her role as Christians’ main intercessor before God in the Byzantine world.


Hail, favoured one, the all-gold jar of manna and the tabernacle truly made of purple, which the new Bezaleel adorned in golden style! Hail, favoured one, forever purple God-bearing cloud and spring eternally pouring out grace for everyone! 1 ...

Praise of Mary, the Mother of God, takes many forms in Orthodox liturgical worship. Passages such as the above, which appear not only in surviving Byzantine festal homilies but also in the hymnography that is still sung in offices of the great Marian feasts, may bewilder a visitor who encounters this tradition for the first time. Instead of instructing the faithful in a discursive or literal way by means of lessons and sermons, the Orthodox Church presents congregations with a fully developed exegetical interpretation of Scripture, much of which is expressed by means of prophecy, typology, and song (often the biblical canticles). Such didactic practice, which is especially espoused in the Eastern Christian tradition, must reflect a belief that the Christological mystery is best expressed by means of poetic, and especially biblical, language.


1. Germanos, Homily on the Annunciation, in D. Fecioru, ‘Un nou gen de predica in omiletica ortodoxa,’ Biserica Ortodoxa Romana 64 (1946): 71; trans. M. B. Cunningham, Wider Than Heaven. Eighth-Century Homilies on the Mother of God (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2008), 226.

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