One of the tragedies of the Reformation as it progressed was that narrow and literal minded men not only lost contact with the age-old devotion of Christians to Our Lady, but, in their ignorance, sought to suggest that her place in Christian devotion was, in some unspecified way, a version of the worship of Diana which had taken place in Ephesus. Quite how it was that a Church which canonised St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, which mentions this tradition at Ephesus, but makes clear Paul made converts there, came to adopt ‘Diana worship’, is never explained by such people. Being both rather ignorant and literal minded, and perhaps with a trace or three of misogyny, they see veneration of the Mother of God, they vaguely know there was a cult of Diana at Ephesus, so they put 1 and 1 together and come up with 11, never stopping to explain two things: why Christians would worship Diana in another guise; and why none of their bishops would have noticed?
Ephesus was, as Cyril knew, the place where the Blessed Virgin had come to live with St John, the pair of them fulfilling Jesus’ charge to them. Our friend Bosco poured scorn on the idea, it is not, after all, in the Bible. Well, of course, the charge from Jesus is there, and unless we suppose the pair of them disobeyed that command, we believe they were faithful to Him. But why Ephesus? It was certainly traditional by the time of Cyril, but where did the tradition originate?
One of the Churches to whom St John addressed a letter in the Book of the Apocalypse, was that at Smyrna. Now known as Izmir and the third largest city in Turkey, it is located just north of the old capital of Roman Ephesus. St Polycarp, who was martyred in 156, lived there, and was a disciple of St John, whom he had known as a young man, and by whom he had been brought to Christ. St Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons who died in 200, was a disciple of Polycarp’s, and carried forward the traditions he was taught by the disciple of St John. Among those traditions was that the two saints, John and Our Lady, lived in Ephesus; that house has been uncovered by archaeologists. Naturally, those who prefer their own unaided interpretation of Scripture to the traditions handed on by the Church will do what some of St John’s own disciples did, which is to deny his testimony. The rest of us will respect that a faithful disciple of a faithful disciple of St John knew what he was talking about.
All of that is by way of prelude to an examination of St Cyril’s speech at the opening of the Council at Ephesus, a city steeped in stories of the life of Our Lady and St John. The first of the Church Fathers to have a developed Mariology was Irenaeus. He made no claim to originality in what he wrote, and was recording systematically what the generation before him had taken for granted – it was, after all, a time when first-hand testimony of those who had known the Apostles was beginning to fade – hence the need to note it down. He saw Our Lady as the New Eve, through whose obedience the disobedience of the first Eve was redeemed. Where Eve’s disobedience had condemned mankind, Mary’s obedience brought into the world Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. In emphasising the reality of Jesus as a man incarnate of the Virgin, Irenaeus fought the heresy of docestism, which taught that Jesus was just a man filled with the Spirit (a statement recently made here by our friend Bosco, who was unaware he was repeating the earliest heresy). All of these themes we find in St Cyril’s address to the Fathers at the opening of the Council.
I see here a joyful company of Christian men met together in ready response to the call of Mary, the holy and ever-virgin Mother of God. The great grief that weighed upon me is changed into joy by your presence, venerable Fathers. Now the beautiful saying of David the psalmist: How good and pleasant it is for brothers to live together in unity (Psalm 133) has come true for us.
Therefore, holy and incomprehensible Trinity, we salute you at whose summons we have come together to this church of Mary, the Mother of God.
Mary, Mother of God, we salute you. Precious vessel, worthy of the whole world’s reverence, you are an ever-shining light, the crown of virginity, the symbol of orthodoxy, an indestructible temple, the place that held him whom no place can contain, mother and virgin. Because of you the holy gospels could say: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
We salute you, for in your holy womb was confined him who is beyond all limitation. Because of you the holy Trinity is glorified and adored; the cross is called precious and is venerated throughout the world; the heavens exult; the angels and archangels make merry; demons are put to flight; the devil, that tempter, is thrust down from heaven; the fallen race of man is taken up on high; all creatures possessed by the madness of idolatry have attained knowledge of the truth; believers receive holy baptism; the oil of gladness is poured out; the Church is established throughout the world; pagans are brought to repentance.
And there, of course, we come to the heart of the matter. For Cyril, as for all Christians, the fact of the Incarnation is a cause of overwhelming joy, and that leads him to praise Our Lady extensively. This, of course, is the sort of thing which dour Protestants tend not to get, which makes one wonder what they do when they are taken up with the sheer joy of Christ? St Cyril, however, has only just begun:
What more is there to say? Because of you the light of the only-begotten Son of God has shone upon those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death; prophets pronounced the word of God; the apostles preached salvation to the Gentiles; the dead are raised to life, and kings rule by the power of the holy Trinity.
Who can put Mary’s high honor into words? She is both mother and virgin. I am overwhelmed by the wonder of this miracle. Of course no one could be prevented from living in the house he had built for himself, yet who would invite mockery by asking his own servant to become his mother?
Behold then the joy of the whole universe. Let the union of God and man in the Son of the Virgin Mary fill us with awe and adoration. Let us fear and worship the undivided Trinity as we sing the praise of the ever-virgin Mary, the holy temple of God, and of God himself, her Son and spotless Bridegroom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Formulaic language? No, there is a depth of devotion there which, as events were to show, was shared by so many others. This was no expression of a new doctrine. It was the eloquent restatement of one always held by Christians. Reading it gives one some idea of the depth of Cyril’s devotion – and an insight into why he fought this fight as fiercely as he did.