Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.


“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.


This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)


The Hidden Mystery is Now Revealed

“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”  (Romans 16:25-27)

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12)  [emphases not in original texts]

In the Pauline corpus of writings, there are numerous references to Christ being God’s mystery hidden from all eternity and which God now reveals in  Jesus.  The mystery is a revelation about the nature of God – God is Trinity.  The mystery is a revelation about God’s own abilities to limit Himself and to enter into His creation in the incarnation.  They mystery is about what a human is – capable of being united to divinity, capable of sharing the divine life.    All of this we celebrate in the Feast of the Annunciation.  One of the hymns from the prefeast of the Annunciation proclaims:

THE MYSTERY HIDDEN FROM ALL ETERNITY,                                

UNKNOWN EVEN BY THE ANGELS,                                          


HE WILL COME TO YOU, PRECIOUS VESSEL;                               

HE WILL SALUTE YOU, CRYING IN JOY:                                   




The time comes for God to reveal the mystery: His plan for humankind is theosis.  It was always God’s plan to share the divine life with humanity.  It is given to the Archangel Gabriel to announce this plan of salvation of God entering into His own creation: God becomes that which is “not God”!  The Archangel comes from the throne of heaven to a backwater village, to an impoverished, young maiden.  The Archangel must have been amazed himself to the surroundings he could see when talking to the Virgin.  The incarnation defied belief, but then the very life God the Son embraced was poverty in the boondocks of Palestine.  Yet this is the very place where God begins the salvation of the world.

“… I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.   For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 1:25-2:3)

“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9)


Evil is Converted By a Woman

As we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, we can reflect on the role of the Virgin Mary in the salvation of the world by considering the words of Orthodox Theologian Paul Evdokimov:

“Evil is not destroyed by a man but is converted by a woman.” (In the World, of the Church, p. 165)

In Mary, the sinful flesh of fallen humans is transformed by Christ into a humanity once again capable of theosis.   The flesh is not destroyed but converted!  The incarnation of the Word of God means the flesh, this world, all of history are capable of being redeemed by God.  The fasting of Great Lent is not meant to destroy the flesh but to convert it to being receptive to and capable of bearing the Word of God and the deification that comes to those who unite themselves to Christ.

Evdokimov continues:

“Sharing organically in the descent from Adam, participating in the common destiny of all mankind, Mary, however, was kept from all personal impurity. Every evil was rendered inoperative in her. It is this dynamism, this human reaction so royally free, that Nicholas Cabasilas stressed in synthesizing the Patristic tradition. A human being cannot be saved without the free agreement of his own will. ‘The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of his power and of the Holy Spirit, but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the consent of the most Pure One, without the agreement of her faith, this plan would not have been realizable except through the intervention of the Three Divine Persons themselves. It was not until after having instructed and persuaded her that God took Mary to be his Mother, and took from her the flesh that she was willing to give to him. Just as he wished to become incarnate, so too did he wish that his Mother would give birth to him of her own free will.’

The objective action of her motherhood coincided with the action of her personal, active holiness. This is why she is eternally Theotokos, bearer of God and Panagia, the Mother Most-Holy. In her saying fiat, “Let it be done,” she has become Mother, not only in external obedience but also inwardly, by her love of God who came to her. With the Holy Spirit, she was made Theotokos.“ (Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church, pp. 169-170)

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

(Luke 1:38)

The Feast of the Annunciation (2017)

St Nikolai Velimirovic reminds us that Jesus was not adopted by God only when Jesus dies on the cross.  Jesus did not become God’s Son only at age 30 when He began His public ministry.  Jesus is God’s Son at the Annunciation to the Theotokos.  He was already beginning then His ministry of salvation.  St. Nikolai writes:

“Lastly, there is an important reason on the general, human level for the Lord Jesus’ going to Egypt, and not to some other country. He did not begin His earthly  mission only at the age of thirty, when He opened His divine lips and began to teach. He began His mission at his conception. At His conception by the Holy Spirit, He already had a follower. This was the holy Mother of God. Was not Joseph converted to Christ before His birth? Did not His birth open heaven to the shepherds and fill the astrologers from the East with truth, prayer, and immortality? Did not Herod, together with the hardened leaders and scribes of Jerusalem, fall away from Him and stand against Him while He still lay in the manger? As soon as He was conceived, He became the cornerstone of the palace of salvation, and a stumbling-block to others. As soon as He was conceived, the world around him began to be divided into sheep and goats. Above all, Mary and Joseph were for a short time divided in their view of Him. While Mary knew Him to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Joseph thought Him the fruit of sin. This division lasted only a short time.

But the division made at His birth between, on the one hand, the shepherds and eastern astrologers, and Herod and the wise men of Jerusalem on the other, never came to an end. He came to sow, and at the same time to winnow. And He began his work from His conception in human flesh, right through to His death and glorious Resurrection, and from His Resurrection to this day, and from this day to the Last Judgement. He did not come into the world just to be a thinker. He lept into the drama of human life, as into the darkness of Egypt, to be light and leader, thinker and actor, sacrifice and victor. Indeed, He began His work in the world at that moment when His messenger, the great Archangel Gabriel, came down to Nazareth and announced His coming.”   (Homilies, pp. 53-54)  

The Gospel Lesson of the Annunciation:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

The Annunciation: the Kenotic Mary

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

“The dogma of the Annunciation is not the revelation of a solitary and autocratic God; nor is the Annunciation a story of human subservience to that God.  Mary is called to an act of kenosis (self-emptying, suffering love), imitative of her own Son’s, even before he himself has revealed it to the world. For by conceiving the holy child, she risks humiliation and social ostracism. But whatever the Father asks of the mother, he asks also of his Son, who “emptied Himself… taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:5-11, NKJV).

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a reading for the feast of the Birth of the Mother of God. St. Paul argues that the kenosis of the Son of God lights the way toward a religious affirmation of human freedom and holiness. The true end of human freedom is voluntary self-limitation in loving service to others and to God. God holds to this law of love when he condescends to become one of us. Mary is the first human being to obey this command wholly and consummately.”  (Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 702ff)

Rejoice, Theotokos, Bridge to Heaven

Seeking to know the incomprehensible, the Virgin cried to the ministering spirit: “Tell me, how can a son be born from a chaste womb?”

And in fear, he answered, crying out:

Rejoice, initiate of God’s secret counsel!

Rejoice, faith in that which must be guarded by silence!

Rejoice, prelude of Christ’s miracles! Rejoice, crown of his teachings!

Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down!

Rejoice, bridge which conveys men from earth to heaven!

Rejoice, wonder of angels, blazed abroad!

Rejoice, wound of demons bewailed afar!

Rejoice, for ineffably you bore the Light!

Rejoice, for you revealed your secret to none!

Rejoice, wisdom surpassing the knowledge of the wise!

Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of the faithful!

Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc. 2374-82)

He Bowed the Heavens to Lift Us Up to Him

It is God’s good pleasure to raise humanity to heaven, to dwell with our Creator.  To accomplish humanity’s ascension, God descends to earth in the incarnation and becomes human.   They way to heaven for us is not to escape our humanity, but to unite ourselves to the God-man Jesus Christ.   God descends to earth in order to raise us up to heaven.  God even goes further than this for Christ descends into Hades to free death’s captives and to bring all humankind to life with God.

“However, God who made us looked lovingly down on us in His mercy. He bowed the heavens and came down. Having taken our nature upon Him from the Holy Virgin, He renewed and restored it. Or rather, He led it up to divine and heavenly heights. Wishing to achieve this, to bring fulfillment on this day His pre-eternal counsel, He sent the archangel Gabriel, as Luke the evangelist tells up, ‘to Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary’ (Luke 1:26-27).” (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p102)

The Annunciation (2015)

On March 25 we Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation to the Theotokos.  This Feast celebrates the beginning of salvation for all creation as God becomes incarnate in the Virgin’s womb.   The event is described by St. Luke in his Gospel:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.   (Luke 1:26-38)

The early Christian writer, Tertullian (d. ca 220AD) says:

“First of all, we need to show the reason why the Son of God had to be born of a Virgin. The initiator of a new birth had to be born in a new way, and Isaiah had predicted that the Lord would give a sign of this. What is that sign? ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive in her womb and bear a Son’ (Is. 7:14). Therefore the Virgin conceived and bore Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And this is the new birth: that man is born in God when God is born in man, having assumed the flesh of the old seed, but without using this seed, and to purify the flesh after having eliminated all its ancient stains. But, as it happened, this whole new manner of birth was prefigured in the ancient wise design that depended upon a virgin. When man was created by God’s action, the earth was still virgin, not yet pressed down by man’s toil, not having been sown. We know that, from this virgin earth, God created man as a living soul.

If, then, the first Adam was introduced in this way, all the more reason that the second Adam, as the apostle said, had to come forth from a virgin earth, that is, from a body not yet violated by generation, by God’s action, so that he might become the spirit who gives life. However, lest my introduction of Adam’s name appear meaningless, why did the apostle call Christ ‘Adam’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45), if his humanity did not have an earthly origin? But here, too, reason comes to our aid: through a contrary operation, God recovered his image and likeness, which had been stolen by the devil.

For just as the death-creating word of the devil had penetrated Eve, who was still a virgin, analogously the life-building Word of God had to enter into a Virgin, so that he who had fallen into perdition because of a woman might be led back to salvation by means of the same sex. Eve believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. The fault that Eve introduced by believing, Mary, by believing, erased.”  (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p 67)

The Annunciation (2014)

Author John Baggley writing about the Annunciation says:

“Just as for St. Luke the event has profound theological implications, so for the Church there is a continuous exploring and relishing of the implications of our humanity being taken by God the Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary, to be redeemed, perfected, and raised to glory. The Virgin’s ‘Yes’ to God reverses the sin of Eve, and begins to reverse the consequences of the fall. Time and again we are reminded that whereas the serpent’s deception beguiled Eve, kindled human pride and led to the fall, the Archangel’s message of the redeeming love and humility of God leads to the Virgin’s obedience and the accomplishment of God’s work of redemption through the Incarnation. The fruit of Eve’s deception is the curse, especially in relation to the pain of childbearing, whereas the fruit of Mary’s obedience is joy, with the conception of the Child who is both God and man. The Archangel’s greeting is often rendered as ‘Rejoice!’ in the hymnody of the Feast, for it is more than a simple greeting; Mary is to rejoice because of her vocation, and what is to be accomplished through her; and joy will be the hallmark of the renewed humanity that is brought to life through the self-giving and humility of God’s human birth. ‘Now God becomes man, that he may make Adam God.’ What greater statement of the doctrine of theosis – the taking up of human life into union with God – could there be?

Today there come glad tidings of joy: it is the feast of the Virgin. Things below are joined to things above. Adam is renewed, and Eve set free from her ancient sorrow; and the Tabernacle of the human nature which the Lord took upon Himself, making divine the substance He assumed, is consecrated as a Temple of God. O mystery! The manner of his emptying is unknown, the fashion of his conceiving is ineffable. An angel ministers at the wonder; a virgin womb receives the Son. The Holy Spirit is sent down; the Father on high gives his consent; and so the covenant is brought to pass by common counsel. In Him and through Him are we saved, and together with Gabriel let us cry aloud unto the Virgin: ‘Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee. From thee has Christ our God and our Salvation taken human nature, raising it up unto Himself. Pray to Him that our souls may be saved.’

In Jerusalem by the fifth century the celebration of the Annunciation was regarded as the occasion when the Fathers of the Church who had upheld the doctrine of the Incarnation should be honored. In Constantinople during the sixth century, because of the growing significance of the commemoration of the Mother of God, the celebration of the Annunciation was taken out of the immediate Christmas period and given a feast in its own right: 25th March, nine months before Christmas, became the date for celebrating the Annunciation.”

(John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pp 23-24)

The Annunciation: Truth in Beauty

The hymns for the Annunciation give us a rich harvest of the spiritual poetry in which Orthodoxy expresses truth in beauty.    St. Gregory of Nyssa said  the book of Genesis is not so much history as “doctrines in the guise of narrative.”  Hymnology is doctrines in the guise of poetry.

The ability of narrative/story and hymns/poetry to express truth opens the heart in the mind to the creativity of God and rescues us from a wooden literalism and the rigorous straitjacket of rationalism.  We will look below at some of these wondrous hymns and the theological world which like icons they open to our viewing.

The first hymn comes from the Prefeast of the Annunciation (March 24).   All of power of the hymns is founded in the theology of the incarnation –  the Word of God becomes flesh in the Virgin’s womb.

Since Christ is always God (from the very nanosecond He enters into creation He remains and is fully God), God dwells in Mary’s womb from the moment of conception and from that moment Mary is rightfully titled Theotokos.  Since the incarnation of God is the re-uniting of divinity with humanity (ending the separation which had existed since the time of Eve and Adam’s sinful disobedience), it is proper to say that the salvation of us all comes through the Thetotokos.  In this first hymn, Mary is compared to “the Palace of Light” –  Christ the King is coming to take up abode in her so she is His palace.   Christ enters into the world as it now is – not the world of Paradise but the world which is enslaved to our enemies, sin and death.








Beauty was a God-given characteristic of Paradise, God’s Garden of Delight.  But the beauty of creation was destroyed by death which resulted from the Ancestral Sin of disobedience to God.  Salvation consists of God reclaiming all of creation from the power of sin and death as we see in the meditation within the next hymn from Annunciation.








LORD, OUR CREATOR AND DELIVERER, GLORY TO YOU!              (Matins Apostika)

In Orthodoxy salvation does not begin with the crucifixion or the death of Christ on the cross satisfying some legal demand for the restoration of justice in the universe.  Salvation begins when the power of sin and death are confronted, which occurs at the moment of the incarnation in the Theotokos.  At the moment of the Annunciation, God is already reclaiming creation, the world and all of humanity for Himself.   Death is being exposed as an empty and unjust power which had usurped its authority by claiming sovereignty over all of creation.

Already at the Annunciation as the hymn notes “the things of earth have become those of heaven.”  God in uniting Himself to humanity is already redeeming, transfiguring and transforming the world of the fall into the world of heaven:  heaven is nothing else but the place where God abides.  In the incarnation God is now abiding in the flesh, in this world, in His creation!

They hymns do tell us that the salvation of God is not limited to or by human reason and understanding.  While the Virgin ponders the mystery of the Incarnation and reasonably questions the implication of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel poetically explains to her:

You seek to know from me the manner of your conceiving, Virgin,

but this is beyond all interpretation!

The Holy Spirit will overshadow you in His creative power,

and shall make this come to pass!

(Matins Canticle 3)

The Word becomes flesh in the Virgin.  This exceeds any merely rationalistic explanation we might conceive to interpret the Scriptures.  The incarnation, Mary’s conceiving of God in the flesh is not explainable by human reason, but rather is comprehensible only in and through the Holy Spirit.  God is acting in and through His creation, transforming and transfiguring creation itself as well as human understanding.  We can contemplate this mystery, but will enter into it only as an act of faith.  It cannot be explained scientifically or by reason alone.  God is doing something with creation which is equivalent to creating ex nihilo!  A new creation has begun in the womb of the Theotokos.  The Archangel Gabriel in the hymns draws our hearts and minds to the mysteries revealed to us in the Scriptures before Christ.   The Old Testament prefigures and serves as a prototype to help us understand the New Covenant and new creation which God is revealing in Christ.

The bush that burned with fire and yet remained unconsumed

disclosed the mystery that shall come to pass in you.

For after child-birth, you shall remain ever-virgin,

pure Maiden, full of grace.

(Matins Canticle 4)

The Archangel points to the revelation Moses received when he encountered God speaking through the burning bush (Exodus 3)  as a theological preparation for the mystery that was revealed in the incarnation of God at the Annunciation to the Theotokos.   In Orthodox theology, the event of the burning bush through which God speaks to Moses, is not as important as a historical event as it is a prefiguring of the full revelation of God’s plan of salvation.

Thus the Old Testament is not so much history, nor is it to be focused on the past.  Rather the Old Testament points to, directs our minds to and is fulfilled in the New.

The Old Testament’s main purpose is not to orient us to past history but rather it prepares us to understand God’s new revelation and new creation in Christ.  It ultimately prepares us and orients us to the future when God restores all things in His Kingdom.

The hymns of the Feast help us enter into this theological understanding of time, for the hymn takes us not to the past, but tells us that today we are experiencing and entering into the events of the Feast.  Today we experience the salvation of God as initiated by God in history but made present today by the Holy Spirit in the liturgical life of the Church.  We experience this presence of God’s power and activity in history as the means for us to attain the Kingdom of God which is to come.