In Praise of Our Lady, Mary

On August 15 we in the Orthodox Church remember the Dormition of the Theotokos.

There is a great deal of beautiful poetic reflection on Mary’s role in our salvation.  The poem below is from the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition:

My Lady Mary–

Consecrated to virginity from your earliest years,

Whose heart gave no entry to the desires of this world,

There is none among men or angels that can compare with you.

You are the thorn bush that bore the flames of fire,

Out of which God himself spoke

About how he would deliver the tent of his people Jacob from it.

You are the Cloud of Manna raining down at the time dew descends

All manner of delightful food, flavored according to each one’s taste.

(Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory, p. 81).

Mary Opens Heaven to Us

“This hymn sums up the entire body of hymnography for the feast. Mary, the chosen dwelling-place of God, is offered as a pure and blameless sacrifice. She is preordained as the one who brings salvation to mankind. It is precisely at this point, however, that we may ask whether the hymnography has passed into the realm of hyperbole. If, as we have already noted, the hymnography of this period presupposes an understanding of salvation (theosis) in which God alone can save man, how can it be said that Mary “has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to us”? Or, how can it be affirmed that Mary is the “restoration of all who dwell on earth: for through thee we are reconciled to God”?

It is precisely because salvation is defined in terms of theosis that these hymnographers can make such statements about the Virgin without encroaching upon the uniqueness of Christ. God alone can redeem man and deify human nature, but man must be able to receive that gift. This is the role of the Virgin Mary. She is the pure and blameless sacrifice that mankind offers to God as the one who is able to receive the salvation that God has prepared for the human race. It is important to note here, however, that while this hymnography often refers to Mary as reconciler and mediatrix, she is never referred to as redemptrix or co-redemptrix. Mary is the necessary human component in the reconciliation of man with God, but in no way is she said to redeem or deify man.”  (C. Clark Carlton, “The Temple that Held God”, from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly Vol 50, No 1-2   2006 , p. 112).

The Virgin Mary and the Robe of Glory

“In her virginity, Eve put on

leaves of shame, but your mother has put on,

in her virginity, a garment of glory

that encompasses all, while to Him who covers all

she gave a body as a tiny garment.”

(Ephrem the Syrian)

The imagery of the Robe of Glory, deeply embedded in the Syriac tradition, is used to describe the various stages of salvation history: Adam and Eve are originally clothed in it in Paradise, but lose it at the Fall; Christ, the Divine Word who “put on the body,” deposits humanity’s lost Robe of Glory in the River Jordan at his baptism, and at each Christian baptism it is received in potential from the Font (often described both as the Jordan and as a womb; …); finally, at the Last Judgement, it becomes the clothing of the Righteous in reality ….

Since Christ’s presence in the Jordan makes the Robe of Glory available again to humanity, his presence in Mary’s womb is understood as constituting her baptism, thus providing her with her Robe of Glory …. Mary’s giving Christ “a body as a tiny garment” and receiving in return a “Robe of Glory” is one of the ways in which Ephrem brings out the idea of exchanged involved in the incarnation; this is expressed in epigrammatic form: “He gave us divinity, we gave Him humanity” (Sebastian P. Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, p. 51).

Deification: Becoming God’s Children

Patristic tradition usually sees a man’s potential for deification in the fact that man is created by God in his own image. Because of this natural affinity, the fathers spoke of a man as potentially a son of God. The process of deification involves the realization of the status of son of God through the process of hyiothesia (“adoption of sons”).The idea is present already in the New Testament. Christ gave power to those who receive him “to become the sons of God” (Jn. 1:12), that the faithful might “receive the adoption as Sons” (Gal 4:5; cf Rom 8:15). This adoption of sons was accomplished through Christ’s incarnation. Athanasius represents one set of ideas when he asserts that “Christ made us the sons of the Father and deified man by becoming himself a man.”

His thought hinges upon the idea of the incarnation: humanity is deified in a natural (physikos) manner, being assumed by God in the incarnation. Due to this understanding – our becoming God’s children as a natural consequence of God the Son becoming man – he uses the concept of hyiothesia as synonymous with “deification”: to be a son or daughter of God is to be deified. Another set of ideas is presented by Basil, who speaks of our adoption not so much through natural deification at the incarnation as through its subsequent effects: the descending and indwelling in man of the Holy Spirit.”   (Nicholas V. Sakharov, I Love Therefore I am, pp. 144-145)

Christ Removes All Barriers to God

Since having Christmas in July (sales!) is popular these days, we can think what this means for us Christians.

“He did not change place, nor did He penetrate or pass over a wall, but, as He Himself showed, He left no barrier standing which could separate us from Him. Since God occupies every place He was not separated from man by place, but by man’s variance with Him. Our nature separated itself from God by being contrary to Him in everything that it possessed and by having nothing in common with Him. God remained Himself alone; our nature was human, and no more.

When, however, flesh was deified and human nature gained possession of God Himself by hypostatic union, the former barrier opposed to God became joined to the Chrism. The difference gave way when God became man, thus removing the separation between Godhead and manhood. So chrism represents Christ as the point of contact between both natures; there could be no point of contact were they still separate.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 104-105)

It is not living on earth which separates us from God – it is our own freely chosen sins which separate God from us.  Christ in the incarnation shows divinity is united to our humanity.  We are capable of bearing God in our selves, our bodies, our lives!  We are not separated from God by space or distance, but only by our wills.  God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks waiting for each of us to invite Him into our lives, our hearts and our homes.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  (Revelation 3:19-21)

 

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,                                          

IS NOW ENTRUSTED TO THE ARCHANGEL GABRIEL.                           

HE WILL COME TO YOU, PRECIOUS VESSEL;                               

HE WILL SALUTE YOU, CRYING IN JOY:                                   

REJOICE, PURE DOVE!  REJOICE, ALL HOLY ONE!                    

MAKE READY BY YOUR WORD TO CONCEIVE THE WORD OF GOD!  

 

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)

 

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)

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.

Sunday of Orthodoxy: The Doctrinal Significance of Icons

The first Sunday in Great Lent also commemorates the acceptance by the Church of icons as theologically essential for proclaiming the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  There was a very long dispute about the use of icons that lasted more than a century, but eventually the Church declared icons were Orthodox and should be in churches and venerated by the faithful.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast  [those who rejected the use of icons] dispute. Granted that icons are not idols; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules [those who accepted icons as Orthodox] held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: ‘no one has seen God at any time’ (John i, 18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became human and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who for my sake effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshiping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.

The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos.”  (The Orthodox Church, pp. 31-32)  

Give to the Lord What is Yours

“St. Ambrose emphasizes that we must learn from St. Peter to confess our own unworthiness to be in the presence of the Lord. ‘You must also say, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,’ so that the Lord may respond to you, ‘Fear not.’ Confess your sins to the Lord, for He forgives. Do not be afraid of giving the Lord what is yours, since He granted to you what is His.’ In becoming man, the Son of God has given to men the power to become the sons of God (John 1:12) and to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), in the divine life.”

(Archbishop Dmitri, The Miracles of Christ, p 52)