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)

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)

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).

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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Is the Assumption of the Virgin Orthodox Dogma?

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

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

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

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

The Theotokos: Icon of All That is Good

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

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

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

God’s Kingdom Springs Forth from the Theotokos

“My Lady Mary–

What knowledge bedecks you, what chastity crowns you!

Just as sin once brought the Kingdom of Death to power,

So your grace makes the Kingdom of Justice spring forth.

Just as the Sunrise dispels the shadows of the dawn,

So too the light of faith in your Son dispels the darkness of sin.

Blessed is he who seeks after your love,

Whose footsteps tread the threshold of your house at break of day;

Such a man will be satisfied with your blessings, filled to abundance.

(Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory: An alphabetical Hymn of Praise for the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, p. 52)

Tell Us, Mary, Of Your Experience

St Silouan the Athonite poetically writes about Mary, the Theotokos:

“O holy Virgin Mary, tell us, your children

of your love on earth for your Son and God.

Tell us how your spirit rejoiced in God Your Savior,

Tell us of how you did look upon His fair countenance,

and reflect that this was He

Whom all the heavenly hosts wait upon in awe and love.

Tell us what your soul felt when you did bear

the wondrous Babe in your arms.

Tell us of how you did rear Him,

how, sick at heart, you and Joseph sought Him

three long days in Jerusalem.

Tell us of your agony

when the Lord was delivered up to be crucified,

and lay dying on the Cross.

Tell us what joy was yours over the Resurrection.

Tell us how your soul languished after the Lord’s Ascension.

We long to know of your life on earth with the Lord but

you were not minded to commit all these things to writing,

and did veil your secret heart in silence.

(St Silouan the Athonite, p 391)