The Blessedness of Mary

Jesus replied:  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  (Matthew 12:48-50)

The great Orthodox poet and hymnographer St. Ephraim the Syrian in one of his beautiful poems has the Virgin Mother talking to her child, Jesus about jealousy.  Mary is often aware in Orthodox hymns of the theology of her child – she understands Him to be the incarnate God and Lord of the universe.  Knowing Him to be Lord of all, is she jealous that everyone has a relationship to Him, not just her?   Does she regret that she will always have to share His love, attention and affection with every single human on the planet – and so will she?  Mary shows her humanity in reflecting on the passion of jealousy, but also how she rises above human passion, pathos, sin and hubris – which is why she was chosen by God to be Theotokos.  She rises above the limits of her own humanity to share in the common humanity of all people.  Her role in human history is unique, yet it is what connects her to all humans who will ever live.  God could see her love for all which reflects God’s own love for the world.

I shall not be jealous, my Son,

that You are with me, and also with all people. 

Be God to the one that confesses You,

and be Lord to the one that serves You,

and be Brother to the one that loves You,

that You may gain all!  

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3100-3102)

The hymns reflect an idea that Mary is Jesus’ mother not just because she physically gave birth to Him, but because she embodied God’s love for all humanity.  God chooses Mary not for her body but because of her soul and heart.  It is not only her womb which was heaven and able to contain the uncontainable.  Jesus Himself reflects this thought in response to something a woman once shouted at Him.

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  (Luke 11:27-28)

Image result for icon Theotokos nursing

Jesus recognizes in His Mother that is her having heard God’s word and kept it when enabled her to be Theotokos.  Her role in salvation is both physical and spiritual – she indeed is a bridge between these worlds.  As is sung in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel;
Rejoice, faith of silent beseechers.
Rejoice, introduction to Christ’s miracles;
Rejoice, consummation of his doctrinal articles.
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven.

Rejoice, marvel greatly renowned among the Angels;
Rejoice, wound bitterly lamented by demons.
Rejoice, for you gave birth to the light ineffably;
Rejoice, for the “how” you taught to no one.
Rejoice, surpassing the knowledge of scholars;
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of believers.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

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)

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).

Mary: A Spiritual Heaven

Theologically, Christmas is a Feast of the Incarnation of God, something which is easily lost in all the cookies, parties, gifts, decorations, piles of wrapping paper which have come to dominate the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.  For those Christian who take time to find that place of holy silence (“Silent Night, Holy Night!”) there is still the ability to be awed and overjoyed by the mystery of God entering into the human condition.

Toward the beginning of the Nativity Fast, we Orthodox celebrate another theological Feast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21.  It is another day for us to contemplate the mystery of God incarnate by focusing on the human side of the equation: God became human so that the human can become God.  The incarnation as God chose to do it, required a human mother from whom God received His human nature.  God does not miraculously manufacture a completely novel, virginal and sinless human nature for Himself in the incarnation – to protect Himself from being tainted by sin and the fallen world.   No doubt God could have done that.  Instead, God enters into the human condition as all humans do – through conception in a mother’s womb, growing through gestation and then being born into the world.  He receives human nature from his mother including  genes and flesh – all that makes us human.   Christ has a fully human nature including a body made up of cells and organs which formed in the womb.  Jesus, who is fully God, becomes fully human.  As St. John says it: “the Word became flesh...”

God dwells in the Virgin‘s womb, and this mystery is the inspiration for many feasts, poems, icons and hymns in the Orthodox Church.  God who dwells in heaven also dwells in the Virgin’s womb.  Her womb becomes heaven, for heaven is the place where God dwells.

One of the hymns from the Entry of the Theotokos states it even more intriguingly:

Heaven and earth rejoice, beholding the spiritual heaven, the only Virgin without blemish…

If heaven is the place where God naturally dwells, the Virgin becomes “the spiritual heaven.”  She is not the “natural” heaven which is distinguished from the rest of creation in Genesis.   God makes use of a human to create a spiritual reality.  In fact it is not possible without her.   A human, a human body, becomes a “spiritual” heaven.  This is a most wonderful turning of a phrase.  And it reflects that reality of the incarnation and of theosis:  God becomes human so that the human can become God.  We might think “heaven” is a spiritual place, but God creates an additional spiritual heaven in order to dwell on earth with us humans.

In another hymn from the Entry of the Theotokos, Anna (Mary’s mother) tells Mary:

Go into the place which none may enter: Learn its mysteries and prepare yourself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus

Again, the wonderful turn of a phrase – Mary is told to go into the place where none can enter – the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple.  But there is a mystery here, for if none can enter, then Mary can’t enter and if Mary can enter than it isn’t the place that none can enter. Lines are being crossed and blurred – which is exactly what happens in the incarnation of God the Word.

Mary is told to go into the place where God dwells in order to prepare herself for God dwelling in her. (see also The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple  2017)    The mutual indwelling of Mary (and thus humanity) in God and God in Mary (and thus in humanity) is realized in the Feast of Christmas.  This is the very concept of salvation in Orthodoxy.

The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (2017)

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Meditation on the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple.  So much of the imagery of the Feast and of the hymnology involves a mutual and mysterious indwelling between creation and Creator.  Humanity enters into the full presence of God, as God prepares to enter into humanity.

The Virgin Mary, who is to be the dwelling place of God, enters into the Temple, the place where God dwells.  There is a mystery of co-indwelling, God in God’s creation and God’s creation in God.

The Virgin comes to dwell in the temple to prepare herself for God to dwell in her.

The Theotokos enters the Temple to be in God’s presence, yet  God enters the Theotokos and becomes present in her.

In God we live, move and have our being.

In the world we find God’s Temple.

The Ark is in the Temple.

The Tablets/ God’s Word is in the Ark.

The Virgin is the Ark.

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God the Word is in the Theotokos

The Virgin is in the Temple

The Temple is in the world.

God is in the world.

Advent and The Entrance of the Theotokos

“There is a strange silence about the Nativity in the first few days of Advent. While we begin to prepare for Christmas through fasting on November 15, the coming Nativity is first announced in the Church’s worship on November 21 (the Entry of the Mother of God) with the Katavasias of Christmas, chanted during the Matins service: Christ is born, give glory. Christ comes from heaven, go to meet Him. Christ is on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord, all the earth, and sing hymns in gladness, O people, for He has been glorified.”  

(Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 172-76)

The Theotokos, Motherhood and Salvation

“Conqueror, adventurer, builder, man is not fatherly in his being.

An ancient liturgical text projects upon the motherhood of the Virgin the light of the divine fatherhood: ‘You have given birth to the Son without a father, the Son whom the Father brought forth before the ages without a mother.’ The virgin Mary’s motherhood is thus a human figure or image of the fatherhood of God. Here we have an explanation of why the religious principle of dependence on the beyond, of receptivity, of communion is expressed so immediately by woman. The particular sensibility to pure spirituality resides far more in the anima than in the animus. It is the feminine soul which is nearest to the sources, to the origins, to birth. The Bible presents woman as the quintessential image of human nature’s spiritual receptivity. In actuality, the promise of salvation was given to woman, for a woman received the Annunciation of the birth of Christ and it was a woman who first saw the Risen Lord, and it is a woman ‘clothed in the sun’ who is the image of the Church and of the heavenly city in the Book of Revelation.

Further, it is in the images of the beloved and the bride that God chose to express his love for us and the marital nature of his communion with us. Finally, the most important fact is that the Incarnation was accomplished in the Virgin’s feminine nature. It is she who gave the Word of God her flesh and blood. To divine fatherhood as a specific feature of God’s very being directly corresponds the motherhood of woman, her receptive capacity for the divine. The whole goal of Christian life is to make of every human being a mother, a being predestined for the mystery of birth, ‘so that Christ may be formed in you’ (Gal. 4:19). Sanctification is precisely the action of the Spirit who makes possible the miraculous birth of Jesus in the depths of the soul. This is why the Nativity symbolizes and expresses the charism of every woman, that of bringing God to birth in destitute souls: ‘The Word is constantly born anew in our hearts.’ says the Letter to Diognetus. For St Maximus the Confessor, the mystic is the one in whom the birth of Christ is manifest. In order to describe his spiritual fatherhood, even St. Paul used the image of motherhood: ‘I undergo the sufferings of childbirth’ (Gal. 4:19).”   (Paul Evdokimov, In the World, Of the Church, pp 234-235)

The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (2014)

“If a tree is known by its fruit, and a good tree brings forth good fruit (cf. Matt. 7:17, Luke 6:43-44), how could she who is the Mother of Goodness itself, who gave birth to that Beauty which has no beginning, not be incomparably more excellent and beautiful than anything good on earth and in heaven?

The …supremely good Word of the Father most high, wished in His ineffable love and compassion for mankind to put on our image, in order to recall our human nature, which had been dragged down into the inmost recesses of Hades, to renew it after it had grown old, and to raise it up beyond the heavenly heights to His kingdom and divinity. He united His person with our humanity, and, since it was necessary for Him to assume flesh that was both new and our own, in order to renew us by means of what was ours, He also had to be carried in the womb and brought forth as we are, then nurtured after birth and brought up as was appropriate. Becoming like us in all respects for our sake, He found the Ever-Virgin, whom we extol and whose mysterious Entry into the Holy of Holies we celebrate today, to be a most suitable handmaid in every way, able to bestow on Him an undefiled nature from her own. God determined before all ages that she should be for the salvation and restoration of our race, and chose he from all mankind down through the ages, not simply from among ordinary fold, but from all the elect of every age, who were admired and renowned for their piety and understanding, and who were both beneficial to all and well-pleasing to God in their ways, words, and deeds.” (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp 407-408)

Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple

In Praise of the Virgin Mary

“My Lady Mary –

Blessed arbor, most lovely among the trees,

It was you who brought forth the flower of faith,

And bore the berry of all benediction,

Ever fresh, never withering.[…]

My Lady Mary –

That House visited by God,

Whose greatness is inexpressible

Whose beautiful appearance is ineffable,

It was for you that the prophets of Israel

Built up their tower of prophecy.

O Holy One, set me back firmly

In the discipleship of your beloved Son.

Cause my enemies to flee from before my face.

May they be crushed as fine as the dust of sand.”

[Enzira Sebhat, The Harp of Glory, pg. 124, 142)