Part of the consciousness of the Orthodox faith was forged in the defense of the Divinity of Christ. The Church was clear in its understanding that Christ is truly God – truly God and truly man. The great councils of the early centuries of the Church stated this understanding time and again, refining each statement as various challenges were offered to the fundamentals of the faith.
It is in the context of these battles that some of the titles most familiar to Orthodox Christians came to be used. The Blessed Virgin Mary was solemnly declared to be the ” Theotokos” (“Birth-giver of God”) at the Third Ecumenical Council. It is the same understanding that gives rise to the title “Mother of God.” The intent of this title is to defend the unity of the Person of Christ. He who was born of the Virgin is none other than the Second Person of the Trinity, the only-begotten Son of God. For those who would argue that Mary is only the Mother of His humanity – the Church answers that we cannot make such a division because Christ, though God and Man (two natures), is but one Person. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity is also the subject of the birth from Mary. Her title, “Theotokos,” is meant to be paradoxical. For those Christians whose ears cannot bear the sound of this paradox – meditation on the meaning of Christ, fully God and fully man, is warranted.
The same paradox is extended to St. James, known in Scripture as the “brother of our Lord.” Orthodox and Catholic teaching hold that James is a step-brother to Christ, a child of Joseph by an earlier marriage (Joseph was a widower). But the Orthodox icons of Christ push the paradox to its limit and entitled the saint, “James the Brother of God.” It is true, though some theological understanding is required to reach it.
Again, this same paradox is rehearsed in the title of the parents of the Theotokos, Joachim and Anna, “the ancestors of Christ,” and sometimes, “the ancestors of God.” My own preference is for the latter if only for the cognitive dissonance created in the mind by the extreme statement of the paradox. Of course, nothing created exists prior to God and cannot in that literal sense be an “ancestor of God.” And yet, because God has entered history and taken to himself our human nature, we can indeed refer to his ancestors (according to the flesh) as the “ancestors of God.”
There is a feast day, one of the Sundays before the feast of Christmas, designated on the Orthodox Calendar as the feast of the Ancestors of Christ on which day all of Christ’s holy ancestors are remembered (some of them, of course, are rather scandalous).
The parish I serve is named for St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. July 25th is her feast day, and the patronal feast of my parish (we will observe it tomorrow, the 26th, by permission of our hierarch). I have become accustomed to hearing the hymn to St. Anne at almost every service in the Church (unless otherwise appointed).
O godly ever-blessed Anne,
You bore the pure Mother of God, whoconceived Him who is our life.
You have now passed to heaven,
And are rejoicing in glory.
Asking forgiveness for those who faithfully honor you.
She has indeed been a faithful intercessor for our parish and a constant reminder that Christ partakes of our flesh. We cannot rightly honor Him by divorcing Him from history, nor by separating Him from the people of whom He was born. The history of the descendants of Abraham is disturbing at points but is, at the same time, the history of the ancestors of Christ. All of human history is a disturbing mess (as is the present). But it is into the midst of this disturbing mess that God has entered, even condescending to unite it to Himself. It is the great mystery of Christ’s incarnation – a reminder on July 25 of Christmas.
On the feast – glory to God!