Motherhood

While today is Mother’s Day in the United States, in Orthodoxy references to mother often bring to mind the Mother of God, Mary the Virgin.

Fr. Georges Florovsky writes, “She [the Virgin Mother] was not just a ‘channel’ through which the Heavenly Lord has come, but truly the mother of whom he took his humanity…Motherhood, in general, is by no means exhausted by the mere fact of a physical procreation…  In fact, procreation itself establishes an intimate spiritual relation between the mother and the child. This relation is unique and reciprocal, and its essence is affection or love…  or could Jesus fail to be truly human in his filial response to the motherly affection of the one of whom he was born…” (Christos Yannaras, Against Religion, p. 128)

 

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)

 

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)

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.

The Nativity and The Resurrection

All of the Orthodox Feasts are in one way or another connected to the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  St. Ephrem the Syrian writing in the 4th Century says:

“Two utterances that were different, have I heard from him, even this Isaiah.  For he said that a virgin should conceive and bring forth (Isaiah 7:14); and he said again that the earth should bring forth (Isaiah 45:8).

But lo! the Virgin has brought Him forth, and Sheol the barren has brought Him forth; two wombs that contrary to nature, have been changed by Him; the Virgin and Sheol both of them.

The Virgin in her bringing forth He made glad; but Sheol He grieved and made sad in His Resurrection.”

(Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc. 1898-1901)

The Nativity of Christ: The Incarnation of God

“All these changes did the Merciful One make,

stripping off glory and putting on a body;

for He had devised a way to reclothe Adam

in that glory which Adam had stripped off.

Christ was wrapped in swaddling clothes,

corresponding to Adam’s leaves,

Christ put on clothes, instead of Adam’s skins;

He was baptized for Adam’s sin,

His body was embalmed for Adam’s death,

He rose and raised up Adam in his glory.

Blessed is He who descended, put Adam on and ascended! (Nativity 23:13)

The Most High knew that Adam had wanted to become a god,

so He sent His Son who put him on in order to grant him his desire.”

(St Ephrem the Syrian, The Luminous Eye, pp 85,  102)

 

 

Mary: The Living Temple

While singing to your Son, O Theotokos, we all praise you as a living temple.

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For the LORD who holds all things in his hand dwelt in your womb; he hallowed and glorified you and taught all to cry to you:

Rejoice, tabernacle of God the Word!

Rejoice, saint greater than the saints!

Rejoice, ark made golden by the Spirit!

Rejoice, inexhaustible treasury of life!

Rejoice, precious crown of pious kings! 

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2495-2499)

Mary: the Mother of our Regeneration

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“This relationship of the believer to God is thus more than that of being created, or that of obeying the Law, but that of a son to the Father. Incorporated by Christ by baptism, regenerated in the Virgin, believers share in the sonship of the Son of God, ‘for it was for this that the Word of God was made human, and the Son of God, the Son of Man, that the human being, having been taken into the Word, and receiving adoption, might become a son of God’ [St. Irenaeus of Lyons].  Becoming ‘sons of God’ in this manner, believers can themselves be called ‘gods’” ‘God stood in the congregation of gods, he judges in the midst of these gods’ (Ps. 81:1) [this text] speaks of the Father and the Son and those who have received the adoption, for they are the church.’” (John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyon, p 177)

Mary: Channel or Essential?

St. John Chrysostom makes it very clear that the incarnation of God, and thus our salvation, is an act of synergy between humanity and divinity.  Specifically it is an act of synergy between the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit.  Even the Nicene Creed says “of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.”  It is not just the power of the Holy Spirit or the Will of God.  The free ascent of Mary is part and parcel to the incarnation of God.  Mary was not, as Chrysostom notes, a mere channel through whom God passed to enter into the world.  Christ receives His humanity – a fallen humanity – from her,  He doesn’t create a new perfect nature but receives human nature and renews it (as in Revelation 21:5, Christ doesn’t make all new things but makes all things new).    She is the humanly essential person in the Word becoming flesh – without her the incarnation and our salvation does not take place.  Our salvation depends on and results from her willing participation in the incarnation.  Her pregnancy is not the result of rape, or of her being overwhelmed by God.  Rather, she  willingly and freely agrees to give her own humanity to God’s plan of salvation – the mystery from all eternity (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 1:9, 3:9).  Chrysostom writes:

“Neither the angel Gabriel nor the evangelist Matthew can say anything except that the birth of Christ was the work of the Holy Spirit, but neither of the two explains how the Spirit did this, since such a mystery is totally beyond words. Do not believe that you have understood the mystery, just because you hear the words ‘of the Holy Spirit’. For even after we have learned this, there remain many things we do not know about. For example: How could the Infinite be contained in a womb? How could the Virgin give birth and continue to be a virgin? Tell me, how did the Spirit fashion that temple? How did he take from his Mother, not all of her body, but only a part that he augmented and formed? The evangelist clearly states that Christ came forth from the Virgin’s body in these words: ‘That which is conceived in you’ (Mt. 1:20), and Paul does the same: ‘Born of a woman’ (Gal. 4:4), in order to stop the mouths of these who say Christ passed through his Mother’s womb as if through a channel.” (in Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero, p 174)