Human Nature Transfigured Through the Theotokos

When we think about salvation, redemption, atonement, Christianity says all of this activity of God happens in this world, within our history, in and through us human beings.  God’s plan for salvation may come from all eternity and heaven, but it is realized only in time on earth.   The hymns of Great Lent dealing with redemption remind us how our salvation is worked out through the Virgin Theotokos.

Human nature was counted worthy of God’s revelation
through you, Virgin full of divine grace,
for you are the only mediator between God and man,
rightly glorified by us all as the Mother of God!

In choosing the Virgin Mary for the incarnation, God shows His love for the world He created. God shows creation, particularly humans are worthy not only of God’s revelation but of union with God.  Mary is the very sign that God sees in her person as well as in her humanity the creation worth saving and capable of being in union with the Creator.  God sees in Mary exactly what God created humans and the world for: to share in the love and life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Adam’s nature was made divine, Virgin,
when God took flesh without change in your womb!
And we who were deceived of old by the hope of becoming gods
have been set free from the ancient condemnation.

Both of the above hymns are taken from the Canon for the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent.  God is united to humanity in the womb of the Virgin – Adam’s human nature is made divine in the union with God.  Eve was tricked by the Serpent into thinking she could become like God by disobeying God.  In Christ the hope of our being god-like becomes a reality for in Christ God submits Himself to taking on human nature.  Christ, the incarnate God, conforms humanity to God’s will that we would become divine.

A pain causing lesson: we don’t become divine by asserting our will against God but only by submitting our will to God’s will.

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4 thoughts on “Human Nature Transfigured Through the Theotokos

  1. As a former Protestant Evangelical who was chrismated into the Orthodox Church 17 years ago, I have come from scepticism of the veneration of the Theotokos to genuine affection for her who is full of grace. She bore God the Word! But there are still hymns that cause me to stumble somewhat. I will chant “Virgin full of divine grace, for you are the only mediator between God and man” because I trust the Tradition, but there is this cognitive dissonance in light of the verse in St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (2:5): “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus … ” and also when we call on the Most Holy Theotokos as our only hope. Perhaps it’s a matter of the mind entering the heart during these prayers that I am missing. Lord have mercy. – William Gall

    1. Fr. Ted

      Indeed, when one hears some of these statements, it grates on our literal reading of the biblical texts. And being shaped by Protestant land, it is hard to shake those concerns. Not sure this will be of much help, but the Orthodox are also looking at the theology through a very long lens of history. There is a level at which the Orthodox would say absolutely to 1 Timothy 2:5. Jesus is the only mediator as St. Paul says, and within that context it is absolutely true. The longer lens however has centuries of theological argumentation, dispute and development. St. Paul’s words to Timothy are read as absolutely true when one considers Jesus to be the incarnate God, the God-man, in whom salvation takes place. The book of Hebrews has Christ as an eternal intercessor, and it is understood He does this as the incarnate God, not as God alone.

      But then as history unfolds, more argumentation takes place, and efforts are needed to affirm Christ’s divinity. And those efforts succeed. Except they also tend to push Christ into the heaven as the Pantocrator, the heavenly Savior. And His role as intercessory almost disappears in His Divine role as God the Son enthroned with the Father. Now others are interceding before Him, and He is receiving their intercession. So in the church, at icons of Mary have her arms raised in prayer as intercessory or the saints always standing in prayer with their arms raised surround the divinely exalted Christ. As history unfolds, Christ is understood and portrayed more often as far away in heaven and we now need the Virgin and the saints to intercede with Him. Slowly, this even begins to change. The saints in iconography are portrayed in their own right as able to hear and answer our prayers. We need them because Christ being divine is far removed from us sinful humans, from us mere mortals. So Mary’s role as intercessor increases, as do the saints. Now we begin to feel without her we are lost. Heaven has gotten much bigger and further away. Christ is further removed, now between Him and us we need the saints to connect us.

      Theology is always trying to deal with the human problems created by our understanding of God. Sometimes it succeeds almost too well. And the original context of St. Paul’s letter to Timothy is also left behind. That statement in (2:5) affirmed certain truths important in that day. But as other issues emerged, Christians had to deal with them, and the context of the discussion changed. As Christ was being honored more as God incarnate, not just a human, His role in salvation took on new images. His role as intercessory, so important for Hebrews and St. Paul is a bit forgotten, and now God the Son sits enthroned in heaven and we need someone to intercede with Him for us. Mary and the saints fill this role nicely.

      Yet, as you note, if we get back to the plain text of 1 Tim 2:5, what is now being said in the Church – Mary intercede with your son for us – is offering an image in a different theological context. Paul is emphasizing the incarnation of God, and as THE God-man He alone intercedes with God on our behalf . Later the Church found itself emphasizing the divinity of Christ, now enthroned in heaven. A magnificent image, but a bit removed from the incarnate God and Jewish carpenter. So we took comfort in images of Mary and the Saints interceding with Him for us to help us maintain that same warmth and closeness which is so obvious in Paul.

      1. Yes, Father, as you say, we must see the larger context. And in fact, my favorite icon in our home is the Life giving Spring, with the Theotokos and Christ. I don’t really even know why this is the one I am drawn to, but nevertheless it is. As we hear in the intercessions in the Liturgy, “grant us a good defense before the fearful or dread judgement seat of Christ.” Among other things, (Bread of Life, Light, Shepherd, Way) the Lord Jesus is also the Judge before whom we tremble.

  2. Nevertheless our Lord Jesus Christ, while fully God, is fully human. As is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews, He can fully sympathize with our weaknesses. He came to seek and save the lost. He called on the Father to forgive those who crucified him. By this we know love, that He gave His life for us; while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He is meek and lowly of heart; His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He is our Judge, but He is also all these things, The Council of Chalcedon did not affirm a distant God, Nicea II affirmed a God-man Who can be depicted. And as we supplicate Him, we cry Lord have mercy, sometimes once, and other times thrice,12 times, 40 times, 100 times, 500 times (Pentecost, if I’m not mistaken). Do we ever say, Most Holy Theotokos have mercy on us? And while we say “Most Holy Theotokos save us,” we also say in every Liturgy “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, Savior, save us,” which clarifies how the Theotokos “saves” as well as Who ultimately saves us.
    Now I do realize that Orthodox Christian theology, so multi-dimensional and richly textured, is ultimately beyond comprehension in His fullness. Not “it’s fulness, as theology is not a set of propositions but a union with God Who is tri-personal (Is that a legitimate way to say it?) as well as an open ended community of human persons who are being divinized from glory to glory, eternally. And so it is time I stop writing and stop trying to encompass this matter conceptually and get on with my call to know Him in a personal sense.

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