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The Titles of Mary's priestly dignity

The Titles of Mary's priestly dignity

The Fathers of the Church never worked out a systematic theology of Mary’s priesthood. But from their writings it is clear that for them Mary possessed the highest priestly dignity any human being could possess. This was implied for them by Mary’s close association to Jesus Christ, who was the great High Priest and the sacrificial victim.

Although few Fathers directly applied the title ‘deacon’, ‘liturgical minister’ or ‘priest’ to Mary, they implied her priesthood and her priestly functions in a thousand ways. We could summarise their view by saying: ‘If anyone was a priest, after Christ and with Christ, it was Mary!’ A study of the sample texts offered in this selection will make the point.

Note. The Fathers’ views on Mary’s priestly dignity are documented more fully by Hilda Graeff, Mary. A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Sheed & Ward, London 1965, pp. 101 - 202; and Réné Laurentin in Maria, Ecclesia, Sacerdotium, Nouvelles Éditions Latines, Paris 1952, pp. 21-95, where detailed references can be found.

To understand the background of these ‘titles’, read the description of the Sanctuary in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Title given to Mary Meaning of the title Fathers who use the title
Mary is ‘of priestly descent’ According to Old Testament law, only members of the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron could be priests.
As bridge between Old and New, Mary’s descent from a priestly family seemed significant to the Fathers.
There is no doubt that the Virgin Mary possessed not only royal, but also priestly blood’; ‘Mary drew her family ties both from a royal [=Judah] and a priestly tribe [=Levi]’: St. Augustine; also: St. Irenaeus; St. Hilary of Poitiers; St. Ambrose; Epiphanius; Severus of Antioch, etc.
Mary, the Mother of God, was of both royal and priestly descent’: John of Euboea.
Hail, o Queen, descended from kings, descended from priests!’: John the Geometer.
All the glories of Mary cannot be mentioned in one breath: I mean the fame of her race, the double nobility of her parents, elevated equally in priestly and royal dignity’: St. Andrew of Crete.
Mary is the ‘priestly staff’ According to Numbers 17,16-26, God affirmed Aaron’s priesthood by making his staff miraculously sprout. Aaron’s staff’: Pseudo-Athanasius; George of Nicomedia; Pseudo John of Damascus; Theodore the Studite.
you, blossoming staff of Aaron’: St. Tarasius of Constantinople.
levite staff’: St. Andrew of Crete.
priestly staff’: St. Andrew of Crete; George of Nicomedia.
priest’s staff which has budded forth . . . . the guarantee of the eternal priesthood’: Pseudo-Methodius.
Mary is the ‘altar of holocausts’ This altar stood in the priests’ court, facing the sanctuary.
The main sacrifices were offered here by priests.
‘spiritual altar of the divine victim, altar consecrated and dedicated to God’: St. Germanus of Constantinople; St. Andrew of Crete.
golden altar of holocausts’: Proclus.
living altar of the bread of life’: Pseudo-Methodius.
I call the Virgin both priest and altar’: Epiphanius II
Mary is the ‘sanctuary’ The sanctuary [=Greek naos] was a small building in the middle of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Only priests were allowed to enter the sanctuary.
‘the sanctuary, in which the High Priest in the order of Melchisedech will dwell’: Basil of Seleucia.
‘holy sanctuary’: St. Andrew of Crete.
‘living sanctuary’: Pseudo-Gregory Thaumaturgos; Modestus of Jerusalem; John of Euboea; Gregory of Nicomedia; Epiphanius II.
‘sanctuary of all sacrificial worship’: St. Andrew of Crete.
Mary is the ‘altar of incense’ This altar stood in the front part of the sanctuary (in the ‘Holy Place’).
Twice a day priests offered an incense offering here.
Pseudo-Ephraem; Pseudo-John of Damascus.
altar of parfums, entirely made of the purest gold. On this altar the Word has enbalmed the world with heavenly scent by offering his flesh as a holocaust’: Gregory of Nicomedia.
golden altar of incense on which the Word, assuming his body, filled the world with scent, and on which the hurts of disobedience have been burnt’: Gregory of Nicomedia.
Mary is ‘the lamp-stand with seven branches’ This lamp-stand stood in the Holy Place of the sanctuary. Pseudo-Proclus; St. Andrew of Crete; St. Germanus of Constantinople; St. Tarasius of Constantinople; Leo the Philosopher; Pseudo-Ephraim.
Mary is ‘the table with the loaves of proposition’ This table stood in the Holy Place of the sanctuary.
It held 12 sacred loaves of proposition.
Once a day priests refreshed these loaves.
Only priests could eat of the sacred loaves.
‘table that carries life, that supplies not the loaves of proposition but the bread of heaven’: St. John of Damascus.
‘this table of life on which lie the loaves of proposition of human life . . . .’: Gregory of Nicomedia.
‘holy table’, ‘mystical table’, ‘the most holy table which has carried by itself the living bread, Our Lord and God Jesus Christ, eternal life made bread . . . . ’: St. Andrew of Crete.
‘Table through whom we who suffered hunger have been filled with bread’, ‘o table, who carries the new and supernaturally cultivated bread with which we, who died of hunger because of the season of sin, have been fed’: St. Germanus of Constantinople.
‘table of the bread of life’: St. Tarasius of Constantinople, St. Joseph the Hymnographer, Pseudo-Ephraem, Epiphanius II.
Mary is the ‘Holy of Holies’ The innermost part of the sanctuary which was entered only once a year by the High Priest to fulfil the rite of reconciliation. Pseudo-Gregory Thaumaturgus, Andrew of Crete.
‘Mary entered the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could enter’: St. Germanus of Constantinople. Also: Gregory of Nicomedia; Jacob the Monk; Theophylact of Bulgaria.
Mary is ‘the golden thurible’ The thurible with which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year Pseudo-Proclus; Theodore the Studite.
Mary is ‘the ark of the covenant’ This box, which stood in the Holy of Holies, originally contained the two tablets with the 10 commandments.
God was believed to be present on top of it, between the wings of the cherubim that stood on both sides.
spiritual ark’: Modestus of Jerusalem.
The the ark prefigured the Virgin who gave birth to God, the propitiation of the world, for in it lay the urn with the manna that fed Israel’: Romanos Melodes.
‘She is the ark, guilded inside and outside, sanctified in body and spirit, where were found the thurible of gold and the urn with manna’: Pseudo-Proclus.
spiritual and divine ark of the New Covenant’: St. Germanus of Constantinople.
See here the new ark of the glory of God in which lies the golden urn that contained the manna that fed Israel’: St. Andrew of Crete.
Also: Theodore Studites, St. Ambrose, Proclus of Constantinople, etc.
Mary is ‘(the lid of) propitiation’ The cover of the ark of the covenant was known as the propitiation, or the throne of mercy, because on the day of atonement the High Priest sprinkles sacrificial blood on it to mediate atonement. Lev 16,1-34. highly mystical (lid of) propitiation of the priest who rules the world’: St. Germanus of Constantinople; also St. Tarasius.
very holy and consecrated (lid of) propitiation’: Leo the Philosopher.
the (lid of) propitiation that expiates our sins through the mystical coming of Jesus’: St. Andrew of Crete.
the very divine (lid of) propitiation, based on God, through which has come propitiation for the whole world’: Modestus of Jerusalem.
Mary is ‘deacon’ The diaconate belonged to Holy Orders. During the time of the Fathers many women were ordained deacons. ‘You who have become deacon of the great mystery, o totally immaculate!’: Joseph the Hymnographer.
‘You alone have been revealed as the true deacon of the great mystery, you who gave birth to God!’: Joseph the Hymnographer.
Mary is ‘liturgical minister’ (of the Incarnation) The word ‘liturgy’ indicates activity by members of the hierarchy, esp, in worship. E.Peterson, Réserches de Sciences Réligieuses 36 (1949) 577-578. ‘o ministry greater than that of High Priests!’: St. Tarasius.
‘No one else has been chosen for the liturgy of this mystery except this little girl’: George of Nicomedia.
‘Mary exercises the liturgy of the secrets of God’: George of Nicomedia.
‘Mary was chosen by God for the liturgy of this mystery’: Jacob the Monk.
Mary is ‘mediatrix’ Mediation for sinners is one of the main priestly functions according to Hebrews 5,1; 8,6; 9,15; 12,24.
The Fathers often apply these texts to Christ's priesthood or the ministry of other priests.
‘Truly kind mediatrix of all sinners’: St. Germanus of Constantinople.
‘Hail o mediatrix of all people on earth!’; ‘mediatrix of salvation for the world’: St. Tarasius.
‘Exercising your mediation you reconcile us’; ‘Mary's birth is a great joy, for she will bring mediation and reconciliation’: George of Nicomedia.
‘Mary mediates between God and people’; ‘this instrument of reconciliation [=Mary] is presented in the Temple. Be all reconciled to God today!’; ‘Christ has reconciled us to God, o Mary, through you’: St. Andrew of Crete.
Mary is ‘priest’ Pseudo Epiphanius uses the term ‘hiereus’, the ordinary Greek word for ‘priest’.
Theodore calls Mary ‘thuêpolos’ which means ‘sacrificial priest’.
‘I call the Virgin both priest and altar, she, the “table-bearer” [=liturgical minister] who has given us the Christ, the heavenly bread for the forgiveness of sins.’ Epiphanius II
“Hail daughter, young sacrificial priest,
whose purity is aimiable and whose vestments are incredibly beautiful, in the eyes of him who says in the Canticles: ‘How beautiful are your feet in your sandals,o daughter’ of Amminadab. (Cant 7,1)” Theodore Studites.

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