The Nativity of the Theotokos (2019)

“The great eighth-century liturgical poet Andrew of Crete composed a panaegyris of a feast for Mary’s Nativity (Sept. 8), which resumes ancient themes of how she recapitulates all creation in the pristine splendor God had first imagined for it. It is typical of the lofty themes that are engaged in the liturgical troparia of this era: 

‘Today there is built the created Temple of the Creator himself…

Today…Adam, offering firstfruits to the Lord for us and from us,

Selects Mary as the firstfruits on behalf of all our defiled mass.

She alone remained unspoiled.

From her the bread was made for the redemption of the human race…

Today the human race is pure and nobly born.

It receives the gift of its original and divine creation,

Returning to its former self. 

All the beauty and loveliness which had been darkened

By humanity’s birth in gloom and evil. 

Nature is now resumed in the Mother of the Supremely Beautiful, 

And at her birth it receives new shape: high exaltation and loveliness divine. 

This new shaping is restoration indeed: the restoration of our deification; 

This deification is a mirror of our original deification. 

In a word, today there is begun the transfiguration of our nature, 

And of a world that had grown old.'”

(John A. McGuckin, Illumined in the Spirit, pp. 30-31)

The Human, The Male, The Theotokos

Man is called not to the implementation of rules but to the miracle of life. Family is a miracle. Creative work is a miracle. The Kingdom of God is a miracle. 

The Mother of God does not “fit” into any rules. But in Her, and not in canons, is the truth about the Church.

Inasmuch as a man is only a man, he is, above all, boring, full of principles, virile, decent, logical, cold-blooded, useful; he becomes interesting only when he outgrows his rather humorous virility. A man is interesting as a boy or an old man, and is almost scary as an adult; at the top of his manhood, of his male power.

A man’s holiness and a man’s creativity are, above all, the refusal, the denial of the specifically “male” in him.

In holiness, man is least of all a male. 

Christ is the boy, the only-begotten Son, the Child of Mary. In Him is absent the main emphasis, the main idol of the man – his autonomy. The icon of the infant Christ on His Mother’s lap is not simply the icon of the Incarnation. It is the icon of the essence of Christ. 

One must know and feel all this when discussing the issue of women in the Church. The Church rejects man in his self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertion. Christ proclaims: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 272)

In Praise of the Virgin Mary

She was a person of discernment, full of the love of God, 

because our Lord does not dwell where there is no love. 

When the Great King desired to come to our place, 

He dwelt in the purest shrine of all the earth because it pleased Him.

He dwelt in a spotless womb which was adorned with virginity, 

and with thoughts which were worthy of holiness. 

…Since a woman like her had never been seen, 

an amazing work was done in her which was the greatest of all. 

A daughter of men was sought among women;

she was chosen who was the fairest of all.

The holy Father wanted to make a mother for his Son, 

but He did not allow that she be his mother because of his choice. 

Maiden, full of beauty hidden in her and around her, 

and pure of heart that she might see the mysteries which had come to pass in her.

This is beauty, when one is beautiful of one’s own accord;

glorious graces of perfection are in her will.

However great be the beauty of something from God,

it is not acclaimed if freedom is not present. 

The sun is beautiful but is not praised by spectators, 

because it is known that its will does not give it light.

Whoever is beautiful of his own accord and possesses beauty,

on this account he is truly acclaimed if he is beautiful. 

Even God loves beauty which is from the will; 

He praises a good will whenever this has pleased Him.

(Jacob of Serug, On the Mother of God, pp. 24 & 25)

Mary: The Face of the World

The Son of God comes to earth, God appears in order to redeem the world, He becomes human to incorporate man into His Divine vocation, but humanity takes part in this. If it is understood that Christ’s ‘co-nature’ with us is Christianity’s greatest joy and depth, that He is a genuine human being and not some phantom or bodiless apparition, that he is one of us and forever united to us through his humanity, then devotion to Mary also becomes understandable, for she is the one who gave Him His human nature, His flesh and blood. She is the one through whom Christ can always call Himself ‘The Son of Man.’ 

…She is the New Eve because of God’s request that she answered, ‘I am the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to his word.’ At that moment all human ‘structures’ which originated in man’s alienation from God -freedom and authority, rights and obligations, etc. – all this was transcended. The new life entered the world as life of communion and love, not of ‘authority’ and ‘submission.’ Thus, being the ‘icon’ of the Church, Mary is the image and the personification of the world. When God looks at his creation, the ‘face’ of the world is feminine, not masculine.”

(Alexander Schmemman, Celebration of Faith: Sermons Vol. 2, p. 23 & 65)

Feast of the Dormition (2019)

The Latin word “Dormitory” is about the same as the Greek word “Cemetery” both meaning a  sleeping place or a place to lie down to rest. It is from these words that we get the title for the Feast of the Dormition (whether in Greek, Latin or English)  – the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary, her death.  In John 11:11, Jesus says “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.”   Jesus means Lazarus has died.

4512795206_cce8570712

What was Jesus’ reaction when He came to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus – Jesus wept.  Even knowing what He was going to do – raise Lazarus from the dead – even knowing that death was but a sleep, still Jesus wept at His friend’s tomb.  It was a very human reaction, as all of us, who have suffered grief when a loved one dies, know.

The Feast of Dormition of the Virgin Mary became common in Orthodoxy only in the late 5th and early 6th Centuries.  Relatively speaking it occurs late in Christian history.  That is true because it is a Feast based in theology more than history.  It is based in the highly developed theology of Christianity that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Mary is the Theotokos, the human through whom the incarnation, our salvation, became possible.  It is in the light of the theology that the Feast is born.

The theology led people to reflect on if Jesus wept at His friend Lazarus’ death, how did He react to His own mother’s death?  For at her death He was no longer just walking on earth but was glorified in heaven – the Pantocrator.  And at Mary’s death it is from heaven that Christ comes, no longer weeping at death, but triumphing over it.  So in the Feast, the theologically image (icon) is Jesus triumphing over death.  The death of the Virgin is recast theologically as her resurrection from the dead because Her Dormition is turned into Christ’s triumph over death.

NOVATEK CAMERA

Jesus is glorified as Lord, God and Savior of the world, of everyone, and so His Mother is viewed as the Mother of the Savior of the world.  Not just the savior of the Church.  His Mother thus has a role in all creation and for all humanity.  In this sense she is a cosmic figure as well.  Salvation, after all, as we profess in the Divine Liturgy, is for the life of the world and for all mankind.

In the hymns of the Church, when Mary is portrayed as the earthly mother of Jesus, the focus is often on her sorrow as she stands by the cross on which her Son is crucified.  She grieves at the mystery of the death of her Son, the savior of the world.  The emphases of these hymns when they focus on the maternal nature of Mary is frequently her love for Christ as He dies for the world and because of the sins of the world.   Her sorrow is maternal, pure love.  It is a sorrow that causes her to weep for all people, that our lives, our sins, mean Her Son must die on the cross for us.  Her grief, her weeping over her Son’s death, is the end result of all of our sins.  Her grief is directly caused by our sin – the connection between the sting of death and sin is made most clear in the images of Mary weeping over her murdered son.

8708954522_29226d084c

But Mary who is so frequently portrayed as weeping and lamenting at the Cross is also called “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”.  The Virgin is the symbol of all who sorrow because of the world and the sin of the world is also the symbol of all of those who know the great joy of God’s promises fulfilled.

Every Sunday in the Divine Liturgy when we sing the Beatitudes in the 3rd Antiphon, we sing “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Mary is the image of the one who mourns who now stands eternally comforted by God.

Abba Longinus from the desert fathers said:  “In the beginning, God did not make man for sorrowing, but so that he might have joy and gladness, thus glorifying him in purity and sinlessness like the angels.  But when man fell into sin, he needed tears, and so it has been ever since.  On the other hand, where there is no sin, there is no further need for tears.”

33308633900_6c8c8a9f42

Mary is the one in whom sin is overcome and who needs no tears for sin because she knows her son has triumphed over sin and death.  We have these images from the book of Revelation:

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  (7:17)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (21:1-5)

8187086762_8a60fefbf8

In our Church, Mary, the Theotokos is a symbol of that adorned Bride coming out of heaven bringing God’s comfort to all who mourn.

In the Orthodox funeral service there is a hymn which asks, “What earthly joy is unmixed with grief?”  This hymn reflects a thought of St John Chrysostom who writes:

“The joy of this earth is necessarily mixed with sadness; you will never find it in a pure state.  The other joy of eternal life is true without deceit; it contains no threat of disappointment, no mixture with a foreign element.  That is the happiness which we must enjoy, and which we are to pursue.  Now there is no other way of obtaining it than the habit of choosing in this world what is profitable rather than what is pleasant, of accepting small hardships willingly and of bearing all the accidents of life thankfully.”

Chrysostom goes on to say that if we can remember that this world has sorrow in it ever since the first sin of Eve and Adam, and that death is now part of this world, we can learn not to get so attached to the things of this world, even the good and beautiful things, but rather we can learn to desire the things of the world to come which are not mixed with grief but are pure joy.  He said this knowledge – that this world has grief and the world to come is pure joy – should lead us to true mourning and weeping, a sorrow not over one’s death, but over the fact that the world is corrupted by sin.  The true mourning is the beginning of repentance for our own misdeeds as well as a desire for and a love of life in the Kingdom which is to come.

7033808069_07693777f3

As we celebrate the Dormition we see the Virgin Theotokos as the one who knows the greatest joy of God’s promise and the depths of sorrow caused by the sin of the world.

We learn the truth of a world corrupted by sin, yet saved and made whole by the love of God and the death and resurrection of Christ.  The Virgin’s death becomes for us the symbol of hope, for Christ no longer weeps at death, not even His mother’s death, but overcomes death in, through and with His heavenly Kingdom.

A Brief History of the Feast of the Dormition

The history of how the Dormition of the Theotokos became one of the Major Feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar year is an interesting one.  Historically,  fascination with and reverence for Mary as Theotokos grew as the theologians of the Church reflected on and marveled at the divinity of Christ.  The incarnation of God (which is the salvation of humanity!) is only possible through the Theotokos.  As the centuries passed, the Church emphasis on Christ’s divinity increased and His humanity was subsumed into His divinity,  Christ became revered ever more as the eternal pantocrator.    The focus on Jesus became of Him as Lord, God and Savior, a  heavenly person.  Mary too became more drawn into heaven as its queen.  As a consequence, Mary’s place in the Church grew and she became larger than life and took a unique place in the divine pantheon – More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.  As the Dionysian celestial hierarchy became the common cosmology, Mary’s role as beyond that celestial hierarchy grew.   The effect on piety was that  less and less could the theologians countenance that Mary’s death could have been an obscure and unrecorded event.  They assumed in later centuries the fact that there was no tomb with a body meant that something miraculous must have happened to her body.  It didn’t seem possible that such a great personage, an almost divine figure for them, could have been ignored by earlier generations.  So they were ready to accept stories of her miraculous death as being true.  The appearance of the Dionysian corpus in the 6th Century was the welcomed proof of the earliest origins of the Feast of the Dormition.

We learn a great deal about the history of the Feast of the Dormition in the book ON THE DORMITION OF MARY: EARLY PATRISTIC HOMILIES.

The story of Mary’s glorious end, which was to become common coin by the end of the 6th Century, appears in a variety of earlier forms that are difficult to date with certainty.  Most scholars agree that the oldest extant witness to the story is provided by a group of Syriac fragments … a narrative usually dated to the second half of the fifth Century.  The earliest Greek accounts… usually dated to the late fifth or early sixth century.”  (p 7)

By the second half of the sixth Century, it is clear that the story of Mary’s transition from earth to heaven had come to be accepted as part of Christian tradition in both the Chalcedonian and the non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East.”  (p 9)

The oldest known accounts of the Dormition come only from the second half of the Fifth Century (after 450AD).  This means many of the great Patristic writers of the 4th-5th Century would not have known of the story, which is why they don’t mention it.  Liturgically celebrating the stories of Mary’s death gain popularity rather late in Orthodox history becoming common in the Fifth and Sixth centuries.  The story of the Dormition seemed to be a crowning proof of the incarnation, resurrection and salvation of humanity which was understood as union with God.  There was some resistance to the rising popularity of the Dormition Feast as the Church was aware that most of the information about her death came from spurious sources that were not only non-canonical but in some cases suspected as heretical.

The Western Church did not accept the feast into its calendar until the end of the seventh century, and a Latin version of the narrative of the Mary’s Dormition had been listed among the apocrypha of heretical  origin in the Decretum Gelasianum, an official list of canonical and uncanonical  works composed either during or shortly after the time of Pope Gelasius 9 (492-496).  (p 68)

As early as Origen (d. 253AD), however, Christian scholars were aware of the mythical and often Gnostic character of many of the acts of the apostles.  (p 68)

For a conservative church that prided itself on keeping tradition, explanations had to be found for why earlier generations did not know of or keep the Feast of the Dormtion. Fourth Century Epiphanius of Salamis notes:

“one will find neither the death of Mary, nor whether she died or did not die, nor whether she was buried or was not buried … Scripture is silent, because of the exceeding greatness of the Mystery, so as not to overpower people’s minds with wonder.”  (p 5)

Epiphanius is struck by the complete lack of reliable witness to what happened to Mary at the end of her life.  Absolutely nothing is recorded in the official tradition which he knew in the 4th Century.  He will make an argument from silence about what it means: the mystery of her death is so great that people piously avoided writing about it as the faithful were not prepared to contemplate the mystery.  This explanation lends itself to then focusing on the miraculous elements of the story: the ancients were silent because of the great mystery, so the preachers decided to elucidate the greatness of the mystery so the faithful would understand why earlier generations didn’t even speak about it.  This was all compounded by the rhetorical tendency of the preachers to elaborate the theme and find new and greater ways to praise the mystery.  That is obvious throughout the book’s collection of sermons on the Dormition – each preacher wants to outdo all the previous ones in praising the amazing events, and so they embellish the praise, taking it to ever greater rhetorical heights.

John of Thessalonica (d. 649AD) puzzles over why the great Orthodox city of Thessalonica was only in his day (7th Century) beginning to celebrate the Dormition which he mistakenly believes was an event known in Christian antiquity.

“… some people committed to writing the wonderful things that happened in her regard at that time.  Practically every place under heaven celebrates every year the memory of her going to her rest, with the exception of only a few, including the region around this divinely protected city of Thessalonica. Why is this? … Our forebears, then, were neither heedless nor lazy; yet although those who were present then [at Mary’s death] described her end truthfully, we are told, mischievous heretics later corrupted their accounts by adding words of their own, and for this reason our ancestors distanced themselves from these accounts as not in accord with the catholic Church.  For this reason, the feast [of her Dormition] passed, among them, into oblivion.”     (p 47-48)

John has already come to accept as tradition that the stories of Mary’s Dormition were written about the time they actually happened.  He assumes the stories of her Dormition are historically accurate and reliable.  He either has heard or assumes that virtually all other cities in the Empire celebrate the Dormition except a very few and his own city is one that does not.  He doesn’t conclude that Thessalonica is thus keeping and defending the more ancient tradition, rather he has a very pious explanation – their city forefathers were aware that heretics had altered the stories of the Dormition and to protect the city from false teachings had decided to stop commemorating the Dormition.  Apparently he thought in his day they now had the true version of the Dormition story so they could celebrate the feast.

Whereas earlier generations of Christians shied away from the Dormition stories because they saw them coming from heretical, Gnostic or suspect sources,  John thinks the sources are true but later generations of heretics altered them and so by going back to the sources they are embracing the correct tradition.  It is a wonderful twist of logic.

Orthodox scholar Carrie Frederick Frost says that today, “The tales included in the Book of James are not considered by Orthodox to be historical and incontrovertible fact, but instead are understood as meaningful reflections on the life of Jesus and his mother.” (MATERNAL BODY, p 7)

St Andrew of Crete (d. ca 726AD) writing even later in history is still struggling with why the Dormition which by his day was a well established Feast throughout Orthodoxy is not found in the canonical scriptures or in the witness of many of the great Fathers of the Church.  It does strike him as unbelievable that the apostles and eyewitnesses of Christ didn’t write about such a great event as the Dormition.

“Someone truly eager for knowledge might well wonder why none of the sacred writers, as far as we know, wrote about the immaculate, supernatural passing of the Mother of God, or left us any account of it at all, in the way they composed the divine book of the Gospels or gave us other revelations of the mystery of God.

Truly for Andrew it is hard to believe no one in the ancient church bothered to record the spectacular events of the Dormition.  He will offer several possible explanations as to why this might be true, but he doesn’t commit himself to any of them.  Because the Feast has become so popular, he doesn’t even entertain the idea that maybe the ancients didn’t keep the Feast because they in fact didn’t know about it.  But he knows there are some serious questions about the veracity of the events being celebrated.   His mental dissonance is relieved by several different possible explanations, but then he has an ace card in the end which assures him of the truthfulness of the Feast.

Our answer is: she whom God took as his own fell asleep much later [then the events of the Gospels] – for it is said that she had reached extreme old age when she departed from this world.  Or perhaps the times may not then have favored a full account of these events; it was not appropriate for those sowing the seed of the news of God’s saving plan to speak in detail of these things, at the same time they were writing the Gospels, since these events needed another, specific and very deliberate kind of treatment, not possible at that moment.  If, on the other had, the reason for their silence is that the inspired writers were only telling the story of God’s plan of salvation up to the end of the Word’s presence among us in flesh, and that they simply did not [choose to] reveal anything that happened after Jesus was taken up from the earth, I can accept this as well.

Andrew does not fully embrace any one explanation for why the ancient tradition of the church is silent on the Dormition.  His comments – ‘or perhaps’ and “‘if the reason is’ and ‘I can accept this as well’ – seem to me to be an acknowledgment that none of the arguments in themselves convince him, but since there are several possibilities he is willing to accept that one of them probably is true.  He is comfortable enough with there being different possibilities, even it no one of them is completely convincing.  He is not completely sure which of the arguments actually settles the case. He goes on:

But lest some wonder why  we have so much to say, while tradition is completely silent about today’s mystery, I think it would be good to add to my own words what I have been able to find [in the tradition], to support and confirm what I propose for your reflection.  For even it the mystery appears only obscurely in the sacred literature, it has not remained completely unmentioned in their pages.    It was, in fact, referred to by a man learned in sacred doctrine, who, they say, investigated holy things with wisdom and erudition… The man was Dionysius.”    (pp 126-127)

The Byzantines were rhetorically profuse, Andrew recognizes this and reflects on the fact that “while tradition is completely(!) silent about today’s mystery [the Dormition]” he and others have plenty to say about the Dormition.   Interesting that he says the tradition is completely silent about the Dormition but then he brings forth that Dionysius, the supposed 1st Century bishop, is the witness from antiquity which makes the whole Dormition true, acceptable and believable.  What he probably is recognizing however is that the Fathers of the earlier centuries never mentioned Dionysius.  That was a mystery that was harder to solve in a church which loved to quote ancient sources to prove the authority of beliefs.   They were not into innovation and so needed tradition to prove the rightfulness of a doctrine or practice.   The early generation of holy patristic luminaries never quoted or mentioned this Dionysius.  The reason as is commonly believed among Orthodox scholars today is that the Dionysian corpus of writings was falsely ascribed to the First Century bishop while in reality it was written only in the 6th Century.  Thus we often see today it referenced as being written by the Psuedo-Dionysius.  As reported in Orthodoxwiki:

Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo writes that it is “now recognized as indefensible” that the author of the Dionysian writings could be the first century disciple of St Paul. “The first clearly datable reference to the Dionysian corpus comes to us from …532….” Bishop Alexander’s own suggestion is that the real author of the works was the fifth-century theologian Peter the Iberian.

The Patristic writers of the 6-8th Centuries were true to their conservative nature that all theology needed to be supported by the writings of earlier Church Fathers.  They were handing on an ancient tradition not innovating new practices.  The absence of any recognized tradition related to the Dormition was a dilemma since the Feast fit in so well with the rest of established dogma and in many ways was a crowning of that doctrine of the incarnation and theosis.   The sudden appearance in the Sixth Century of documents claiming to be from a First Century witness, made it possible for the Dormition to be accepted as a traditional Feast in the Orthodox Church.  It proved to the bishops and theologians that the Feast was authentic and ancient.   Their own desire to be conservative and hold to tradition rather than innovation led them to accept as tradition something which was not.

The development through the 6th-8th Centuries of the Feast may show the dubious historical and factual truth of the events being celebrated.  However, they don’t change the theology of what is being celebrated.  The Dormition of the Theotokos is not needed to establish the truth of the incarnation or the resurrection or of theosis.  Rather the Dormition relies on the theological truth of Christ to have any meaning.  The Dormition of the Thetotokos is not foundational to the teachings about Christ, but just further pious meditation on them.

Honoring the Theotokos

Mary, Theotokos, we salute you. Precious vessel, worthy of the whole world’s reverence, you are an ever-shining light, the crown of virginity, the symbol of Orthodoxy, an indestructible temple ,the place that held Him whom no place can contain, Mother and Virgin. Because of you the Holy Gospels could say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We salute you, for in your holy womb was confined Him who is beyond all limitation. Because of you the Holy Trinity is glorified and adored; the Cross is called precious and is venerated throughout the world; the heavens exult; the angels and archangels make merry; demons are put to flight; the devil, that tempter, is thrust down from heaven; the fallen race of man is taken up on high; all creatures possessed by the madness of idolatry have attained knowledge of the Truth; believers receive Holy Baptism; the oil of gladness is poured out; the Church is established throughout the world; pagans are brought to repentance.

(St. Cyril of Alexandria, Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion, p. 100)

The Motherhood of Every Believer

Fr Alexander Schmemann held to particular ideas about the differing natures and roles of women and men.  His ideas about what it is to be male and female were certainly based in the world in which he grew up (and this socialization created his “man box” some would say).  Indeed, some today have questioned his assumptions (see for example Vol 16 of The Wheel) and have offered some justifiable criticism of his assumptions about what it means to be male or female.  In quoting him here, I’m not defending his assumptions about the nature and role of women.  I do think it is possible, to bracket those criticisms, accepting them as valid, and to read Schmemann for the point he was making even if his assumptions and perspective no longer satisfy the ideals of the 21st Century.  In the quote below, I think his point is that all humans to be fully human must be capable of being receptive to God’s action, so all humans need what he considered to be a feminine quality.   Whereas he attributes this receptivity to being a feminine characteristic, nevertheless his point is still that all of us, females and males, need this characteristic in order to respond to God’s salvation – in order to be fully human.  In effect, we all need to learn “motherhood” in order to be fully human and Christian.  And so naturally he sees the Virgin Mary as being a model for all Christians as the perfect human, not just a perfect woman.  In his thinking she shows us what this perfect motherhood is – being receptive and obedient to the Word of God.

Fr Alexander wrote:

True obedience is thus true love for God, the true response of Creation to its Creator. Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.

But in the “natural” world the bearer of this obedient love, of this love as response, is the woman. The man proposes, the woman accepts. This acceptance is not passivity, blind submission, because it is love, and love is always active. It gives life to the proposal of man, fulfills it as life, yet it becomes fully love and fully life only when it is fully acceptance and response. This is why the whole creation, the whole Church—and not only women—find the expression of their response and obedience to God in Mary the Woman, and rejoice in her. She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience—only when we accept the essential womanhood of creation—do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as “males” and “females.”

For man can be truly man—that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God’s creativity and initiative—only when he does not posit himself as the “owner” of creation and submits himself—in obedience and love—to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a “female” when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God, the one whom, in the words of the Song, the king will bring into his chambers, saying: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee” (Ct. 4:7). (Fr. Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World, found in Building an Orthodox Marriage, p. 25)

If we can lay aside our concerns about whether Fr Alexander’s prejudices about the nature of male and female are correct, it is possible to hear his message about what it takes for each of us to be fully human.  All of us need to be receptive to God’s Word and salvation.  He is calling us to rise above the limitations which he himself understood to be true about the nature of males and females.  Only when we receive God into our lives can we also incarnate Christ by becoming members of the Body of Christ.  Then we bring forth the spiritual fruit like Mary the Theotokos did.

Whether or not Fr Alexander’s ideals of what it is to be male and female are current or correct, he still makes a point about what it takes to be human.  Mary is the model human in her obedience to God and accepting God’s Word.  She receives the Word into herself and incarnates that Word.  Her life becomes the model for every human who wants to love God.  When we each follow Mary’s lead, we transcend the limits of male and female and become the humans God intends us to be.  The feminine and motherhood are thus categories which transcend gender and belong to our shared humanity.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.   (Genesis 1:27)

there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.   (Galatians 3:28)

Praying the Annunciation

21625561492_25870118e8

An archangel was sent from heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And seeing you, O LORD, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to her such things as these:

Rejoice, for through you joy shall shine forth!

Rejoice, for through you the curse shall cease!

Rejoice, recalling of fallen Adam!

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!

31637013692_6d61b27773

Rejoice, height hard to climb for the thoughts of men!

Rejoice, depth hard to scan even for the eyes of angels!

Rejoice, for you are the throne of the King!

Rejoice, for you hold him who holds all!

Rejoice, star causing the sun to shine!

8270219835_6592e553c1

Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!

Rejoice, for through you the creation is made new!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2509-2517)

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)