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

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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!

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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!

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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)

The Ancestors of Christ the Lord

On the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, we read the Gospel of the genealogy of Christ found in Matthew 1:1-25.

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

“Although the Virgin, of whom Christ was born according to the flesh, came from Adam’s flesh and seed, yet, because of this flesh had been cleansed in many different ways by the Holy Spirit from the start, she was descended from those who had been chosen from every generation for their excellence. Noah, too, “a just man and perfect in his generation,” as the Scriptures say of him, was found worthy of this election.

Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then Zerubbabel, those in between them and their ancestors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God. By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion.  Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.

See how Noah clearly foreshadows Him Who was later to be born of the Virgin, for Whose sake the election was made. For Noah was shown to be the saviour, not of all the race of men in general, but of his own household, all of whom were saved through him. In the same way, Christ too, is the Saviour of the race of men, not of all men in general, but of all His own household, that is of His Church; not, however, of the disobedient. Furthermore, the name Noah can be translated to mean “rest” (cf. Genesis 5:29). But who is true “rest” except the Virgin’s Son, Who says, “Come unto Me through repentance, all ye that labour and are heavy laden with sins, and I will give you rest” (cf. St. Matthew 11:28), bestowing freedom, ease and eternal life upon you.

(The Homilies, pp. 471-472)

The Door Through Which Christ Passed

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.   (Revelation 3:20)

“The door through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was his love for man.  It is this divine love that St Symeon the New Theologian addresses, asking that it may be for us too a door bringing Christ close to us:

‘O divine love, where are you holding Christ?  Where are you hiding Him? …  Open even to us, unworthy though we are, a little door, that we may see Christ who suffered for us…  Open to us, since you have become the Door to His manifestation in the flesh; you have constrained the abundant and unforced compassion of our Master to bear the sins of us all…  Make your home in us, that for you the Master may come and visit us in our lowliness, as you go before us to meet Him.’

The door of love through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was opened by the Mother of God.  Her holiness attracted divine mercy to the human race.  Through her ministry in the mystery of the divine economy, the Mother of God became the ‘Gate that faces east’ (cf Ezek 46:1, 12); the ‘Gate that looks towards the east’  from which life dawned for men and scattered the darkness of death.”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY , p 36)

Through Mary All Women Are Blessed

Through Mary, a special blessing descended upon all women, and Proclus sets out to determine this by using biblical characters as examples:

‘Thanks to her, all women are blessed. It is not possible that woman should remain under her curse; to the contrary, she now has a reason to surpass even the glory of the angels. Eve has been healed; the Egyptian woman [Hagar] has been silenced; Delilah has been buried; Jezebel has fallen into oblivion; even Herodias has been forgotten.

Today, a list of women is admired: Sarah is acclaimed as the fertile field of the peoples; Rebekah is honored as the able conciliator of blessings; Leah, too, is admired as mother of the ancestor [Judah] according to the flesh; Deborah is praised for having struggled beyond the powers of her womanly nature; Elizabeth is called blessed for having carried the Forerunner, who leapt for joy in her womb, and for having giving witness to grace; Mary is venerated, because she became the Mother, the cloud, the bridal chamber, and the ark of the Lord.'”

(Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 256)

God Conceived of Mary Before the World was Made

It is obvious that the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is a very theological feast in Orthodoxy.  Few historians would give it any factual credibility and recently even some Orthodox scholars acknowledge its importance is far more theological than historical.  It is a theological meditation on the incarnation of God, and all of the events which led to the incarnation.  Many Orthodox writers and saints through the centuries have treated it as a historical event, but that isn’t what makes the Feast significant.

So consider somethings we can glean from this Feast as well as from other Feasts of the Theotokos and the Lord:

Long before Mary was conceived on earth, God had conceived of her – for God’s plan for all humanity involved the incarnation,  which means it required a woman to be mother to the God who entered into the world.  God conceived of a Mary,  chose motherhood and willed her existence before the world was made.  Before God created anything, God knew the need for a mother, Mary, to fulfill His plan for humanity.  From all eternity God knew what was needed for our salvation.  The incarnation is not an after thought, a reaction to sin, but rather the plan hidden from all eternity revealed in Jesus Christ(Ephesians 3:9-13, Colossians 1:25-27).  If there was to be an incarnation in which God became fully human, there had to be a mother in which the incarnation would occur.

God knew His plan of salvation, knew He needed a mother to make the incarnation possible, and God planned this salvation before Mary was ever born.

Mary, for her part, carried the Word of God in herself long before she conceived God in her womb.  She heard God’s Word growing up in a pious Jewish family, and so was prepared to recognize God’s voice and to obey God’s Word.

Mary longed for God’s Word with all her heart, which is why she found favor in the eyes of God and why she was chosen to be the mother of God’s son.  God saw His plan for the salvation of humanity realized in a woman who was capable of being the Mother of God.  Mary is, after all, the one conceived of by God to bring His plan of salvation to fruition.  She is the one God needed to carry God’s Word on earth.  She is the temple God wished for Himself to dwell on earth from the beginning.

As it turns out, the temple in Jerusalem was a mere foreshadowing of Mary who became the temple of God on earth, the one in whom heaven was united with earth to become the dwelling place of God.  The feast of the Entry is thus much more a celebration of what happened theologically, than what happened historically.  The temple was real and historical, and Mary is real and historical.  Their relationship is a theological truth to which the Feast draws our attention.

And for those who believe in  God and God’s plan for our salvation – we are God’s people, God’s vineyard.  God plants His vineyard, cultivates and nurtures it, so that it would bear fruit for Him.  God chose His people and for centuries prepared them to be the location for His dwelling on earth.  Mary is the choice fruit of God’s vineyard.  She is the best product of God’s people, for in her God’s plan is fulfilled, and brought to fruition.  God comes to dwell in His people, and begins that in the Virgin’s womb.  The Feast of the Entry is simply making for us the connection between God, the temple and our salvation.

We fulfill our task by completing the words of our Lord Jesus:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.   (John 15:4-7)

We should ask ourselves, on his Feast Day, what am I going to do today that is distinctively Christian?  What am I going to do today that non-believers aren’t going to do or can’t do or won’t do?

As Christians we need to think in those terms.

Like the Virgin Mary, we too have a distinct vocation in the world.  We are God’s chosen people.  It is up to us to hear God’s Word and incarnate that Word in our hearts and minds, in our lives, in our homes and families and in our parish community, so that the rest of the world has a chance to hear God’s Word and see God’s light.

We are the living temple of God and when we live our faith, others in the world are given opportunity to find God as well.

The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (2018)

On November 21 each year we celebrate the feast of the The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple.  The event itself is not found in the Scriptures of the Church, but represents a theological understanding of  what salvation in Christ means for the world and for each of us.  St. Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century writes of the Virgin Theotokos in this way:

By heeding the evil counsel of the pernicious angel, man transgressed the divine commandments, was shown to be unworthy, forfeited the pledge, and interrupted God’s plan. God’s grace, however, is unalterable and His purpose cannot prove false, so some of man’s offspring were chosen, that, from among many, a suitable receptacle for this divine adoption and grace might be found, who would serve God’s will perfectly, and would be revealed as a vessel worthy to unite divine and human nature in one person, not just exalting our nature, but restoring the human race.

The holy Maid and Virgin Mother of God was this vessel, so she was proclaimed by the Archangel Gabriel as full of grace (Lk. 1:28), being the chosen one among the chosen, blameless, undefiled and worthy to contain the person of the God-Man and to collaborate with Him. Therefore God pre-ordained her before all ages, chose her from among all that had ever lived, and deemed her worthy of more grace than anyone else, making her the holiest of saints, even before her mysterious childbearing. For that reason, He graciously willed that she should make her home in the Holy of Holies, and accepted her as His companion to share His dwelling from her childhood.

He did not simply choose her from the masses, but from the elect of all time, who were admired and renowned for their piety and wisdom, and for their character, words and deeds, which pleased God and brought benefit to all.

(The Homilies, p. 469)

Two hymns for the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple:

Today is the preview of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation (Troparion).

The most pure Temple of the Savior, the precious Chamber and ­Virgin, the Sacred Treasure of the Glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven! (Kontakion).

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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