Posts Tagged ‘Mary Mother of God’

God’s Grandmother

July 25, 2012

Today is the patronal feast of my parish, St. Anne. St. Anne (Anna) was the wife of St. Joachim. Joachim and Anna were the parents of the Virgin Mary, according to the early tradition of the Church. In Orthodox commemorations they are referred to as the “ancestors of God.” It is a shocking title, perhaps even more shocking than Mary’s “Mother of God.” Christmas devotion has accustomed many Christians to think about Christ as a child and thus as a child with parents. But the popular imagination generally stops there. We forget the fullness of what it means to be human (perhaps because we ourselves live in a world in which our own humanity is severely truncated).

St. Joachim was a priest who served in the temple. His wife, St. Anne, was unable to have children and elderly (a very familiar story in the pages of Scripture). The child Mary is a gift to them in their old age, a joyful intervention in their lives. The tradition goes on to tell how the couple present their young daughter for service in the temple (the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple). This feast, far more than a sentimental remembrance of a special day in the life of a young girl, is a feast of dynamic irony. The child who will become the true temple and ark of God when she conceives Christ, enters the temple which had been described as “Ichabod,” (“devoid of glory”). The temple that had once been filled with the glory of God stood empty. The ark had been carried away, the glory faded to memory. The child who enters appears insignificant, but is herself the fulfillment of the temple itself. She is the true Temple, the true Ark. The glory of God that will reside in her womb is none other than God Himself.

Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God and to the Ancestors of God, is a devotion born of Divine irony. The very phrase “God/Man” is the height of oxymoronic irony. How can a man be God? How can God be a man? It is the very heart of the Christian faith and a scandal to many.

The same irony is the true revelation of God’s great love of man, and the foundation of human dignity. Only the incarnation of Christ protects humanity from destruction in the face of the Absolute. God, when considered as a cypher for the Absolute, will brook no rival, no diminution of His complete sovereignty. In the name of such an abstraction, human beings are all too easily swept away. We are less than dust and without value. No concept ever entertained by man is more dangerous than the concept of God.

The Christian faith has no conception of God. God is not an idea. The Christian faith begins with a man, Jesus of Nazareth. It confesses this man to be both fully God and fully man and that through Him and through Him alone is knowledge of God possible.

No man has seen God at any time. The Only-Begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known (John 1:18).

Thus Christianity does not know a God who is revealed apart from man. It is the condescension of God, His meekness and humility that we see in Christ. We also see His great mercy towards mankind that He should raise us up and exalt us and bless us uniquely as sons and daughters. The dignity (worth) of human beings is guaranteed by this reality alone. Human rights, as the world now knows them, did not exist except through the foundational understanding of human persons made known in the revelation of Christ. The revelation of God in Christ not only makes it possible for us to know God but also makes it possible for us to approach in safety the throne of His glory. Ideas and abstractions offer no such thing.

And so the Orthodox Church embraces the wonderful paradox and irony of God: that God should become a man; that a woman should be the Mother of God; that an older couple can be called the ‘ancestors of God’; that we should be fellow-heirs with Christ. Anything less is not Christianity. Anything less is simply a dangerous idea.

Greetings on the feast!

The Day the Earth Stood Still

August 12, 2011

Orthodox Christians (New Calendar) are currently observing a two-week fast in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition, a day which marks the death (“falling asleep”) of the Mother of God. For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which is Christ – who alone is our salvation.

The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.

The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”

There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross that pays the penalty of our sins (the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement). This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor does the Virgin herself have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation.

However, our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is our salvation through union with Him, through true communion in His life.

His Incarnation thus becomes a part of reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. He becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystical in her soul as well.

Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:

Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.

Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.

This prefigurement and their abundant use in the fathers, all flow from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aarons lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Lamp, etc.

As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that in accordance with the Scriptures is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very wholistic understanding of salvation and its story – and unfolds that from beginning to end.

The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).

These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.

The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:

All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!

Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.

Silent Sentinels

September 28, 2010

On October 1, the Church will celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. Icons of this feast portray the Mother of God extending her veil over the whole Church – a graphic presentation of her prayers and maternal love. A similar love and prayer belongs to the saints of heaven, who stand as “a great cloud of witnesses,” urging the Church forward and always surrounding us with their prayer. The small reflection below concerns the saints who live among us on earth – almost unanimously unknown. It should be remember that Sodom and Gomorrah would have been spared had only 10 righteous men be found. As it was, the prayers of the righteous Abraham were not without effect. His kinsman, Lot, and family were delivered from that destruction at the hands of angels. It may be that none of us who read this post are among the “silent sentinels” whom I describe. But we can and must join our prayers with theirs (and with the hosts of heaven) as a veil of protection in a world that often seeks its own destruction. May God make is fervent in prayer on behalf of all and for all.

Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints. I do not know that my friend’s kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

Something from Nothing and the Apostolic Hypothesis

September 10, 2010

On September 8 the Orthodox Church celebrated the Nativity of the Mother of God. This is one of a number of feasts involving the life of the Virgin Mary, particularly during this time of the year. Many of the feasts mark events that are unfamiliar to many Christians, in that they are based on Tradition and have no direct account within the Scriptures. This would be especially troubling for some, if these extra-canonical stories changed essential doctrine or added to the faith more than was proclaimed in the Creeds.

However, I would submit, neither is the case. These extra-canonical Traditions not only conform to the Apostolic Hypothesis mentioned by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, they provide commentary and reinforcement to that very deepest heart of Christian teaching.

The situation for St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century needs to be appreciated. Though some Protestant groups constant point back to the point in time when the writings of the New Testament were finished (at the death of the last Apostle), such an artificial date is a modern configuration and was not entirely obvious to the early Church and those who succeeded the Apostles. St. Irenaeus would himself note that he knew Polycarp (the martyred bishop of Smyrna) and that Polycarp knew the Apostle John. Morever, Irenaeus cited the living tradition found in those Churches founded by the Apostles.

His great struggle was against the strongest heresy of the first two centuries of the Church – Gnosticism. This heresy was not one thing, but many things, expounded by many teachers and deeply attractive to a Roman world that was unfamiliar with the Old Testament and the traditions of Judaism. In the presentations of Gnosticism, Jesus was used as a convenient cypher to promote whatever idea a teacher sought to put forward. Some were extreme ascetics, others were extreme hedonists and all used the “phenomenon” of Jesus to justify their philosophies.

There was not a “variety” of teachings about the Christ in the early years – but a variety of opportunists who sought to exploit the growing popularity of Christ as a means to their own ends. The utter lack of unity among so-called gnostic teachers is itself testimony to the opportunistic character of their work. The unity found in the early Apostolic communities, as noted by St. Irenaeus, points to the authentic Tradition and life of the primitive Church. Gnostics did not produce martyrs – that was the work of faithful Christians who held to the Orthodox Catholic faith.

St. Irenaeus, in an attempt to describe this faith, used the term “Apostolic Hypothesis” to represent what was a mattered of settled, received teaching. Those who had been appointed as successors of the Apostles were also given the Apostolic faith (how could they not?). This faith was summarized by what St. Irenaeus called the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” He did not mean by “hypothesis” what we would mean today. It was not a “guess” on the part of the Apostles. Instead, he used the word hypothesis is its more pure Greek meaning, to refer to an underlying structure or matrix upon which the rest of the structure rests.

Such an Apostolic Hypothesis is found in documents such as the Apostles Creed, which was the early Baptismal Creed of the Church of Rome. Such Baptismal creeds were common throughout the ancient Churches, though not completely identical. However, as hypotheses, they were in utter agreement.

That primitive hypothesis can be summarized:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.

Of course, this is the text of the Apostles’ Creed. But we find echoes of this text within Scripture itself:

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: (1 Corinthians 15:1-5).

St. Paul describes this, not as his own opinion or authorship, but “I delivered to you what I also received.” The words used are specifically the words of tradition (paradosis). St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of a tradition they have received (and doubtless received by all the Churches of the Apostles) a summary of the Apostolic faith.

When this hypothesis is compared to any of the gnostic writings, the differences become clear. The gnostic writings are not clear on the nature of the incarnation or of the death of Christ on the Cross. Neither are they clear about the nature of humanity (nor even of God).

What is consistent throughout the Apostolic Hypothesis, as witnessed in the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the writings of the early Fathers of the Church (most of whom were Bishops in Apostolic Succession) is the nature of the incarnation and of human sin and of the role of Christ’s death and resurrection in the salvation of the human race and of all creation.

It is this same fundamental understanding that runs throughout the extra-canonical devotions and stories of the Virgin Mary. It does not add to that fundamental understanding or change it. It serves to underline, yet again, the very nature of our salvation in Christ.

The most simple example I can point to is the one most recent in the Church’s calendar: the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. It is a feast that is held very close to the heart of the community in which I serve – for it is named for St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary. The story handed down is that the parents of the Virgin Mary were aged and childless. Thus Anna and her husband Joachim, were (in their own Jewish context) considered somehow “unblessed.” Anna’s barrenness was seen as a rebuke.

This is a common theme within the Old Testament. Sarah’s barrenness is the bane of her existence. The promise of God is not simply that He will give Abraham a land, but, more importantly, that Abraham will be “the father of many nations.” As an elderly man with an elderly wife, such a promise seems beyond belief. But Sarah bore Abraham a son and God’s promise was fulfilled.

Such barrenness occurs in the story of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. It occurs as well in the story of Manoah and his wife in the book of Judges (the parents of Samson).

The theme cannot be fully understood apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. God brings forth fruitfulness from barrenness – it is a theme of His work of salvation. In modern Protestant parlance we would say, “We are saved by grace and not works.” The barren woman cannot be fruitful of herself – it is entirely the grace of God which causes fruitfulness to occur. This is very obvious in the case of the elderly Abraham and Sarah. It is echoed in the extra-canonical story of Joachim and Anne. Our salvation is a work of grace, not of human effort.

The image of fruitfulness being brought forth from barrenness is merely interesting if considered apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. However, when placed in that proper context, it becomes a hallmark of the Gospel are type of salvation itself. The image of fruitfulness from barrenness goes as deep as Genesis 1:1 and its ancient commentaries. The God who created the world brought it forth from “nothingness.” No image of barrenness can be found that is greater than “nothing.” For many Christians, this teaching of the faith is simply a datum of cosmology: God created the universe from nothing. But to make this a matter of mere cosmology is to miss the point. The God who created the universe out of nothing delights Himself in bringing forth something from nothing. As St. Paul says, “He has chosen…the things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28).

It is a consistent pattern throughout the Old Testament from the creation to the birth of Isaac, to the very creation of the nation of Israel. The work of God’s election is not a choice among things that are, but a bringing forth of things that never could be (apart from grace).

This same pattern is seen in the story of the Nativity of the Virgin, and of Christ’s virgin birth. Mary is born to elderly parents who are barren. God makes a promise to the elderly Joachim and Anne and they bear a child, Mary. For her, in her youth and purity we have one of the ultimate instances of barrenness: what can be more barren than the womb of a virgin. How can a virgin be fruitful? That Christ is born of a virgin (often bound up in tortuous theories about sin and sinlessness) is perfectly consistently with the actions of a God who creates out of nothing.

Our salvation comes forth from the utterly barren womb of Hades. In His death (what is more empty and barren than death?) Christ descends into death and “takes captivity captive.” As is sung throughout the Orthodox world, “Christ has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This great theme of Christ’s Pascha (Easter) is the very theme of our salvation. We are saved by the One who trampled down death by death. The death of our sin is trampled down by the life of His righteousness.

The great miracle of God’s work in creation is of a piece: He creates where there would otherwise be nothing. Our life in Christ is a “new creation.”

The stories of the Virgin Mary, including those the Church observes which are “extra-canonical” are not outside the Apostolic Hypothesis. Our own lives and experience of Christ are not outside that same hypothesis. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Christ says. In my sin I am empty, barren and unfruitful, incapable of true life. Only in the action of the good God, who creates from nothing, who makes the barren womb to be fruitful, who enters Himself into the barrenness of the womb of the Virgin and the emptiness of sinful man, who becomes what we are and enters into the emptiness of death and hell – only such a good God can save and make those things which are not to be as if they were.

God is glorified in His saints! The God of Israel!

The Mystery of the Mother of God

August 3, 2010

The 15th of August is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (her death). Orthodox Christians fast for two weeks prior to this great feast and celebrate it with great solemnity. A question was recently placed by a reader about the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. I am offering this small post to address that question and to look at the place of the Most Holy Theotokos in Orthodox faith and life.

I am always hesitant to write about the mystery of the Mother of God. There are few things within the Orthodox Church that are held more dearly while at the same time being misunderstood and occasionally vilified by those outside the Church.  Originally these doctrines and devotions were not part of the most common kerygma (public preaching of the Church). Mark and John have no narratives of the birth of Christ (even though John contains some of  the most deeply significant material with regard to the Mother of God). St. Paul seems to have but a single reference to Mary (Galatians 4:4).

The early Church made a clear distinction between its kerygma (public preaching) and those things which were held as mysteries. The mysteries were largely unspoken – though accepted as true and embodied in the life, prayer and liturgy of the Church. The reason for the mysteries as mysteries were varied. In some cases, certain teachings were held quietly lest they cause too much of a scandal in the preaching of the gospel. In other cases, some teachings were unspoken because they were very hard to speak – they were beyond words. Among these latter teachings would be the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While absolutely foundational to the Christian faith, this teaching was implied frequently throughout the writings of the New Testament, but never declared in a forthright and definitive manner until the 4th century. Orthodoxy holds that the doctrine was not the product of development nor of evolution, but was known from the beginning, even if the language in which it was expressed was as yet unknown. The Church could not have recognized Arianism as a heresy had it not already known the truth as found in Orthodoxy, nor could it have recognized the truth as spoken in the Nicene Creed and by saints such as Athanasius had the truth not already and always been known.

Having said this, I offer some cautious observations on the Orthodox dogmas and devotional understandings concerning the Mother of God. A question was posted earlier today on the Orthodox doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the problems raised by Matthew 1:25 “[and Joseph] did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn child.”

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity (that she remained a virgin throughout her life), interestingly, was almost universal in its acceptance within the early Church, and was defended even by John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, and Martin Luther. The key word [heos] in Matthew 1:25 is generally translated as “until” in English – which many modern readers take to mean that “after she brought forth her firstborn child she had relations with Joseph.” However, the same Greek word is used in Matthew 22:44 “Sit Thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies Thy footstool.” There it clearly does not mean that Christ will cease to be at His father’s right hand after His enemies are defeated. The word has the clear sense that Mary had no relations with Joseph before the child was born (the issue in the passage is His virginal conception) and is consistent with the Church’s belief that she had no relations with Joseph at any time thereafter.

That Mary remained a virgin for her entire life, as noted above, was a generally accepted teaching of the Church, found in the writings of the fathers, and consistently proclaimed in the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church.

The liturgical life of the Church makes frequent use of Old Testament images as prefiguring Christ’s virginal conception and birth. The bush which is on fire and yet not burned is a frequent image of Mary. The passing through the Red Sea on dry foot is another such image; Aaron’s rod that budded; the fleece of Gideon, etc. Indeed, the space needed to list all of the Old Testament images used as such prefigurements exceed the space I generally use for a posting.

The sense of all these images is of God being born into the world without a human father. The barrenness of Mary’s virginity is the human counterpart of the fruitfulness of God. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. The manner of her  birthgiving is synonymous with the manner of our own salvation. It is the work of God from Whom life alone can come. Our role is like her role, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.”

That Mary remained a virgin both before, during and after the birth of Christ is the common understanding of the Orthodox fathers and of the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church. The Theotokos is always presented with three stars on her veil in her icons. They represent her virginity “before, during, and after the birth of Christ.”

There is also a “common sense” argument for Mary’s perpetual virginity (or so it has always seemed to me). Joseph understood what was to take place within Mary according to the witness of Scripture. It strains every Biblical understanding of piety to believe that Joseph having such knowledge would then take Mary into the common practices of marriage. The Orthodox tradition is that the “brothers and sisters” of Christ mentioned in Scripture are children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

But the Biblical witness is extremely important within Orthodoxy. However, it is a witness that is not readily apparent to the eye of literalism. As noted by the fathers in their use of Biblical imagery: Mary is the “Gate which no man shall open.”

And the LORD said unto me: ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, neither shall any man enter in by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it; therefore it shall be shut” (Ezekiel 44:2).

Such verses are not used as “proof-texts,” just as many of the verses traditionally cited by Christians for Christ’s messiahship are not proof-texts. The reality of who Christ is and His death and resurrection are known to the disciples before they understood the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). In the same manner, the Church knows of these matters within Holy Tradition and finds that Tradition upheld and revealed within the Scriptures.

Those who argue for various positions of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) abandon the pattern of the New Testament itself. The mystical life of the Church is confirmed repeatedly – but in a manner which is known within the heart and not in the manner of hard science. God is not a passive object such that He can be studied like a lump of dirt. The truth of the faith is living and active and makes itself known (rather than being the object of our discovery).

The mystery of the Mother of God can be known and becomes the source of rich understanding in the life of grace. But it is not a subject for argument (certainly not for me). Were someone to erase the entirety of tradition and begin with the bare text of Scripture, it is quite likely that the result of their thought would be something other than the thought of early Christians and the Orthodox faith as it has been taught and received.  The multitude of interpretations that would result from such an experiment are readily apparent in the modern chaos of Sola Scriptura Christianity. Indeed, the role and function of Tradition are often rapidly replaced by various streams of modern culture.

The mystery of the Mother of God is at the very heart of Scripture – but only the heart would know that. And the mystery goes much deeper than the questions of virginal conception, birth and the like. Far too few Christians take the time to ponder the mystery of grace and our salvation.

Our salvation is not an afterthought: “The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8).

St. Maximus the Confessor writes of the Incarnation of Christ: “It is the cause of all things and caused by none of them” (Epistle to Thalassius, PG 90, 620-621). There is no incarnation of Christ apart from the womb of the virgin. It is from her that He took flesh. Thus, though Mary is a creature born into history, she is nevertheless present in the eternal counsels of God.

The Lord said to my Lord…I have begotten Thee from the womb before the morning (Psalm 110:1,3).

The statement, according to the Fathers, refers both to Christ’s eternal begetting from the Father, but also contains reference to His incarnation (“from the womb before the morning”). All of this refers to that which is prior to creation.

Just as Adam is understood as the “first man,” so Christ is understood as the “Second Adam” – the one who is the true “image of the invisible God.” In the same manner, the Fathers refer to Mary as the “Second Eve,” for the life which is made ours in the Incarnation of Christ is a life that is also “bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.”

In the Incarnation, the Uncreated is united to the created. Heaven is united to earth. And all of such statements begin with Christ took flesh of the Virgin.

There is a cosmic dimension to our salvation. Those who confine their thoughts only to the historical moment of Christ’s sacrifice, do neither justice to Scripture nor to reality. Regardless of the fact that literalists may quibble over misinterpretations of Scripture, the reality of our salvation and its greatness, cannot be considered without reference to the Mother of God.

Orthodoxy does not, and will not accept modern language such as co-redemptorix, put forward by some zealous Roman Catholics: Christ alone is our redemption. But neither can we tell the story of redemption without reference to her. She is indeed, our most holy, most pure, most glorious and ever-blessed, Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.  This is a great mystery. May God make it known to all His children!

St. Nektarios of Aegina Sings (or wrote hymns)

November 9, 2009

Today is the feast day of St. Nektarios of Aegina, whose hymn “O Virgin Pure,” is among the most popular modern hymns in the Orthodox Church. Here it is sung by monks of Valaam Monastery (in Russian). An English translation follows. Saints sing.

O Virgin Pure

by St. Nectarios
Plagal First Tone (Tone 5)

Refrain: Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

O Virgin pure, immaculate/ O Lady Theotokos
O Virgin Mother, Queen of all/ and fleece which is all dewy
More radiant than the rays of sun/ and higher than the heavens
Delight of virgin choruses/ superior to Angels.
Much brighter than the firmament/ and purer than the sun’s light
More holy than the multitude/ of all the heav’nly armies.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

O Ever Virgin Mary/ of all the world, the Lady
O bride all pure, immaculate/ O Lady Panagia
O Mary bride and Queen of all/ our cause of jubilation
Majestic maiden, Queen of all/ O our most holy Mother
More hon’rable than Cherubim/ beyond compare more glorious
than immaterial Seraphim/ and greater than angelic thrones.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

Rejoice, O song of Cherubim/ Rejoice, O hymn of angels
Rejoice, O ode of Seraphim/ the joy of the archangels
Rejoice, O peace and happiness/ the harbor of salvation
O sacred chamber of the Word/ flow’r of incorruption
Rejoice, delightful paradise/ of blessed life eternal
Rejoice, O wood and tree of life/ the fount of immortality.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

I supplicate you, Lady/ now do I call upon you
And I beseech you, Queen of all/ I beg of you your favor
Majestic maiden, spotless one/ O Lady Panagia
I call upon you fervently/ O sacred, hallowed temple
Assist me and deliver me/ protect me from the enemy
And make me an inheritor/ of blessed life eternal.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

The Nativity of the Theotokos

September 8, 2009

nativityofthetheotokosToday marks the birth of the Mother of God on the calendar of the Orthodox Church (New Calendar). It is one of the twelve major feasts of the year. It is also a feast which shares a great deal in common with many other events in the course of Scripture – all of which emphasize the character of our salvation.

The story of Mary’s conception and birth, as received by Tradition in the Orthodox faith, is similar to many stories within Scripture: it is the story of fruitfulness within the context of barrenness. The account tells us that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, were elderly. St. Joachim served as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem – his wife had never given him a child. In the story, Joachim bears the reproach of his fellow priests. He and Anna offer prayers to God in their barrenness and God shows mercy: they conceive a child and become the parents of her who is to be the Mother of our Lord.

The story of barrenness is common in the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah cannot have a child. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, cannot have a child. God hears their prayers and gives a blessing. From their barrenness will come the salvation of Israel.

The ultimate barrenness in this understanding is the virginal womb of Mary. How can a virgin give birth to a child and yet remain a virgin? All the stories of barrenness in Scripture look forward  to and prefigure this final barren womb. God will bring fruitfulness out of barrenness.

Mary’s fruitfulness itself is a prefigurement of the cosmic barrenness of a world that has cut itself off from God. Hades is the ultimate barrenness. There the dead cannot even offer praise. But Christ becomes the “firstborn of the dead” – a phrase that is so rich in contradiction and paradox that it is often overlooked. How can death yield life? How can the barrenness of Hades yield a firstborn anything? And yet it does.

God, Who so loves the world, has emptied Himself and entered the most barren of all places. There He has trampled down death by death and made a path to the resurrection for all. Hades becomes the place of new birth. Thus it is into Christ’s death we are Baptized that we might be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.

These things remind us that the barrenness of our own lives are not the final say. God brings life from death and undoes the emptiness of the universe by making it full.

May She who was born this day, the mother of God the Word, pray for us all that we, too, might be fruitful bearers of the word of God to the praise of the glory of His grace!

The Ancestors of God

July 25, 2009

annaPart 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!

The Most Holy Mother of God

August 13, 2008

On August 15, the Orthodox Church (new calendar) commemorates the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Most Holy Mother of God. The feast is considered to be one of the 12 Great Feasts of the year and thus an integral part of the proclamation of gospel of Jesus Christ.

Many who are not familiar with Orthodoxy, or its manner of understanding saints, easily see feast days and the veneration of saints as distractions from the gospel. The thought is: “If it’s not about Jesus, then somehow the gospel is not being preached.”

I am willing to grant the point – but to quickly add that the veneration of the Mother of God is inherently about Jesus and that without paying proper attention to Mary, Christ is being short-changed and not fully understood.

In the history of the Church the first dogmatic proclamation concerning Mary was the use of the title, Theotokos, meaning “the one who gave birth to God.” Nestorius, for whom the heresy of Nestorianism is named, objected to the use of the term saying that she should be called Christotokos instead. This would mean that she was the mother of Christ, but not properly called Mother of God. The Church condemned Nestorius’ teaching and affirmed the use of this title for Mary, for Christ is not properly divided into a schizophrenic being (God and Man but not united), but is instead but one Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Eventually the Church would declare that He was one Person with two natures (Divine and Human) but never sought to contemplate Him in a manner that divided His person.

Thus the title given to Mary was and is about Jesus and was solemnly defined in order to protect the proper understanding of His incarnation.

The Scriptures themselves bear ample witness to her unique position. “All generations will call me blessed,” are words spoken by Mary in her dialog with her cousin, Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist). To refuse this honor to Mary is to violate the clear word of Scripture.

At the Wedding at Cana, where St. John records Christ worked his first miracle, we have a story of an encounter between Christ and His mother. For what reason we do not know, the problem of the wine shortage is brought to Mary. She takes the problem to Christ who responds: “What is this to me and you, woman? My hour has not yet come.” Idiomatically the statement means, “What concern is that of ours?” Addressing her as “woman” is not derogatory as some claim (why would Jesus fail to honor his mother in violation of the law?). Her response to His statement is interesting. She turns to the servants and tells them to “do whatever He tells you.” At her intercession Christ works His first miracle. Argue with it if you will, but on the plain face of the story that is what happens. Why does St. John record the story? It is certainly a story that points towards the great wedding feast at the end of the age, but Mary plays a central role.

This same role is played throughout Scripture in the lives of the righteous. They intercede before God for others and God hears them. Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses interceded many times for Israel and God heard him; the stories of these righteous men and women can be multiplied many times over(Read Hebrews 11).

This same communion of saints has continued through the ages adding to its list those who have followed Christ and in union with Him offered intercession for the world. Those who have known the communion of the saints and their fervent prayer before God on our behalf have known something of the fullness of the Church. For it is they (and us) whom St. Paul has in mind when he says that the Old Testament saints awaited a promise which is now ours, that, together with them, we are made complete (Hebrews 11:40). That promise, of course, is Christ, born of the Holy Spirit and the Most Holy Virgin Mary who is blessed through the ages.

Eternal life is to know God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent (John 17:3). But the Christ we are called to know is to be known in His fullness. That fullness includes His incarnation and the communion of saints He established when He united Himself to our flesh in the Virgin.