The Theotokos Weaves our Salvation

In a famous fifth-century homily delivered at Constantinople (the centre of fine weaving in the eastern Roman world) St. Proclos called her [the Theotokos]

The awe-inspiring loom of the Incarnation on which the weaver, the Holy Spirit, ineffably wove the garment of the hypostatic union. The overshadowing power from on high was the interconnective thread of the weave; the ancient fleece of Adam was the wool; the undefiled flesh from the virgin was the threaded woof; and the shuttle – no less than the immeasurable gracefulness of her who bore him. Over all stood the Logos, that consummate artist.”

(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History Doctrine and Spiritual Culture, p. 222)

An Icon of The Mother of God

A typical icon of the Theotokos:

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The usual type is that which you find in East and West – the Virgin holding the child.  This is an image of several things and not only the Mother of God as a person.  It is an image of the Incarnation, an assertion of the Incarnation and its reality.  It’s an assertion of the true and real motherhood of the Virgin.

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And, if you look attentively at the ikon, you will see that the Mother of God holding the Child never looks at the Child.  She always looks neither at you nor into the distance but her open eyes look deep inside her.  She is in contemplation.  She is not looking at things.  And her tenderness is expressed by the shyness of her hands.  She holds the Child without hugging him.  She holds the Child as one would hold something sacred that one is bringing as an offering, and all the tenderness, all the human love, is expressed by the Child, not by the mother.

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She remains the Mother of God and she treats the child, not as baby Jesus, but as the Incarnate Son of God who has become the son of the Virgin and He, being true man and true God, expresses to her all the love and tenderness of man and God both to His mother and to His  creature.

(Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp 109-110)

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The Nativity of the Theotokos (2018)

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St. Photios the Great (d. 877AD) writes:

Thus, while each holy festival both affords the enjoyment of common gifts and lights up its particular glow of grace, the present feast honoring the birth of the Virgin Mother of God easily carries off the glittering prize of seniority against every competitor. For, just as we know the root to be the cause of the branches, the stem, the fruit and the flower, though it is for the sake of the fruit that care and labor are expended on the others, and without the root none of the rest grows up, so without the Virgin’s feast none of those that sprang out of it would appear. For the resurrection was because of the death; and the death because of the crucifixion, and the crucifixion because Lazarus came up from the gates of Hell on the fourth day, because the blind saw, and the paralytic ran carrying the bed on which he had lain, and because of the rest of those wondrous deeds (this is not the time to enumerate them all) for which the Jewish people ought to have sent up glory and chanted praise, but were instead inflamed to envy, on account of which they perpetrated the Savior’s murder to their own destruction.

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And this because Christ, having submitted to baptism, and having released men from their error, taught the knowledge of God in deed and word. The baptism was because of the nativity; and Christ’s nativity, to put it briefly and aptly, was because of the Virgin’s nativity, by which we are being renovated, and which we have been deemed worthy to celebrate. Thus the Virgin’s feast, in fulfilling the function of the root, the source, the foundation (I know not how to put it in a more appropriate way), takes on with good reason the ornament of all those other feasts, and it is conspicuous with many great boons, and recognized as the day of universal salvation.

(The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, 165)

Be Mary, or at Least be Martha

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”   (Luke 10:38-42; the Gospel lesson for the Nativity of the Theotokos)

St Theophylact of Ochrid comments:

Understand that Martha represents active virtue, while Mary represents divine vision. Action entails distractions and disturbances, but divine vision, having become the ruler of the passions (for Maria means mistress, she who rules), devotes itself entirely to the contemplation of the divine words and judgements…therefore, whoever sits at the feet of Jesus, that is, whoever steadfastly follows and imitates Jesus, is established in all active virtue. Then such a man will also come to the listening of the divine words, that is, he will attain to divine vision. Mary first sat, and by doing this she was then able to listen to Jesus’ words.

Therefore you also, O reader, if you have the strength, ascend to the rank of Mary: become the mistress of your passions, and attain to divine vision.  But if you do not have the strength, be Martha, and devote yourself to active virtue, and by this means welcome Christ.

(Hillarion Alfeyev’s Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 453)  

Did Moses Foresee the Theotokos?

It seems to me that, already, the great Moses knew about this mystery by means of the light in which God appeared to him, when he saw the bush burning without being consumed (cf Ex 3:1ff). For Moses said: “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision.” I believe that the term “go up closer” does not indicated motion in space but a drawing near in time. What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once an intermediate space of time had passed.

As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted. Nor should you consider the comparison to the bush to be embarrassing, for it prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin.

(St Gregory of Nyssa, in Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 155)

Most amazing in the quote is that St. Gregory is way “ahead of his time” in thinking that Moses is able to foresee the incarnation in the Virgin because of a miraculous condensing of time which enabled him to experience a prefiguring in the burning bush of what was to happen in the womb of the Virgin.  It is not that Moses got closer physically to the burning bush, but somehow he crossed through time to get a glimpse at what God was planning.  This relativity of time that St. Gregory describes predates Einstein by 1500 years.

The Feast of the Dormition (2018)

the Virgin’s pivotal role as the second Eve in the healing transformation of human nature damaged by the sins of the first Eve was already recognized by such Church fathers as St. Irenaeus as early as the second century. This recognition combined with the sifting of a very long oral tradition resulted by the late sixth to early seventh centuries in the establishment and celebration of the solemn Feast of her Dormition throughout the Christian Roman empire. With the addition of this feast to the Church calendar, later Church fathers began to offer rhetorical homage to Mary as the Theotokos in the form of sermons in honor of the Feast of her Dormition. Her death, after all, represented the completion of her mission as the second Eve. By grace, she experienced a reciprocal transformation, the deification of her humanity (and by extension, all human nature) as she offered her humanity to the divine presence within her womb.

In effect, her life and death represent the fullest flowering of the hope of all Christians: union with God in theosis. In contrast to the good thief, the second Eve, in the entirety of her life and death, is the confirmation of the very real possibility of an ever-expanding relationship between creature and Creator that transcends any conceivable earthly human hope, which can begin in this life well before the eleventh hour.

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 126)

Is the Assumption of the Virgin Orthodox Dogma?

“Belief in the Assumption of the Mother of God is clearly and unambiguously affirmed in the hymns sung by the Church on 14 August, the Feast of the ‘Dormition’ or ‘Falling Asleep’. But Orthodoxy, unlike Rome, has never proclaimed the Assumption as a dogma, nor would it ever wish to do so. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation have been proclaimed as dogmas, for they belong to the public preaching of the Church; but the glorification of Our Lady belongs to the Church’s inner Tradition:

It is hard to speak and not less hard to think about the mysteries which the Church keeps in the hidden depths of her inner consciousness…The Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the Apostles; while Christ was preached on the housetops, and proclaimed for all to know in an initiatory teaching addressed to the whole world, the mystery of his Mother was revealed only to those who were within the Church. . .

…It is not so much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition. Let us therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatize about the supreme glory of the Mother of God. (V. Lossky)”

(Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 253) 

The Theotokos: Icon of All That is Good

“For at present she is the only one who has a place in heaven with her divinely glorified body in the company of her Son.  Earth, the grave and death could not ultimately detain her life-giving body,  which has held God and been a more beloved habitation for Him than heaven and the heaven of heavens.  . . .

It is as though God wanted to set up an icon of everything good and in so doing, to display His own image clearly to angels and men, and thus He made her so truly beautiful.  Bringing together all the various means He had used to adorn all creation, He made her a world of everything good, both visible and invisible.  Or rather, He revealed her as the synthesis of divine, angelic and human loveliness, a nobler beauty to embellish both worlds, originating from the earth but reaching up, through her ascension now from the tomb to heaven, to the heavens beyond.  She untied things below with things above, and embraces the whole of creation with the wonders surrounding her.” 

(St Gregory Palamas, THE HOMILIES, pp 292-293)

The Theotokos as an Image of the Church

It might not be surprising that the use of a virgin-mother as an image of the Church began to be paralleled at this time by the use of Mary, virgin and mother, for the same purpose. Preceded by Ephrem in the East, Ambrose was the first to develop this metaphor in the West, and in an important passage he does so in terms that recall his virgin-mother-Church metaphor. After recounting the relationship between Mary and Joseph as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he comments on its deeper meaning:

Let us address the mystery: She was truly espoused, but a virgin, because she is a type of the Church, which is immaculate but married. As a virgin she begot us form the Spirit, as a virgin she bears us without groaning. And this is perhaps why the holy Mary, although married to one person, was impregnated by another, because the individual churches as well are in fact filled with the Spirit and with grace, while simultaneously being joined under the aegis of a temporal priest.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 112-113)

The Annunciation (2018)

St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople  gave a sermon in the late 9th Century on the Feast of the Annunciation which celebrates the events described in Luke 1:24-38.  He reveals in his words the theological and cosmic importance of the Feast.

“Gay is today’s festival, and splendid is the joy it conveys to the ends of the earth. The joy it yields banishes the cures of the world, inaugurates the raising of him who fell long ago, and pledges salvation to all of us. An angel converses with a virgin, and the whispering of the serpent is made idle, and the impact of his plot is averted. An angel converses with a virgin and Eve’s deceit fails, and convicted nature, seen to rise about condemnation, as it had been before condemnation is enriched with the possession of paradise as its portion. He speaks to the Virgin, and Adam receives a pledge of liberty, and the serpent, instigator of evil, is deprived of his tyranny over our kind, and is dispossessed of his authority, and learns now that he had armed himself in vain against Creation. His devices against us weaken, as an incorporeal being brings the message of the invincible trophy against sin: for Christ’s cross and willing suffering are death and sin swallowed up in victory, and such also is His suffering through the Incarnation.

The angel is now bearing the good tidings of the Incarnation, in which tidings we are rejoicing today, and whose festival we are celebrating. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and human nature is renewed; for, having quaffed the tidings like a remedy of salvation, it spits out all the poison of the serpent, and is cleansed from the spots of its disease. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and the bond of sin is being torn up, and the penalty for the disobedience is abolished, and the universal recall is pledged in advance. Today the tidings of joy have arrived, since the archangel is exchanging words with the virgin maiden, the commander of the invisible host is conversing with Mary, espoused to Joseph but designated and preserved for Jesus. (The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 112-113)

An historical note about March 25 and the Annunciation:

…the origin of the solemnity on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent is linked to a shift in the feast of Annunciation. We know that, in the spirit of Canon 51 of the Council of Laodicea (c. 365), it was not appropriate to celebrate feasts during Great Lent, and such celebrations consequently had to be shifted to the following Saturday or Sunday. It was only the Council in Trullo (692) that decided to celebrate Annunciation on the very day (March 25).”   (Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, p. 200)