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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The Nativity of the Theotokos (2018)

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St. Photios the Great (d. 877AD) writes:

Thus, while each holy festival both affords the enjoyment of common gifts and lights up its particular glow of grace, the present feast honoring the birth of the Virgin Mother of God easily carries off the glittering prize of seniority against every competitor. For, just as we know the root to be the cause of the branches, the stem, the fruit and the flower, though it is for the sake of the fruit that care and labor are expended on the others, and without the root none of the rest grows up, so without the Virgin’s feast none of those that sprang out of it would appear. For the resurrection was because of the death; and the death because of the crucifixion, and the crucifixion because Lazarus came up from the gates of Hell on the fourth day, because the blind saw, and the paralytic ran carrying the bed on which he had lain, and because of the rest of those wondrous deeds (this is not the time to enumerate them all) for which the Jewish people ought to have sent up glory and chanted praise, but were instead inflamed to envy, on account of which they perpetrated the Savior’s murder to their own destruction.

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And this because Christ, having submitted to baptism, and having released men from their error, taught the knowledge of God in deed and word. The baptism was because of the nativity; and Christ’s nativity, to put it briefly and aptly, was because of the Virgin’s nativity, by which we are being renovated, and which we have been deemed worthy to celebrate. Thus the Virgin’s feast, in fulfilling the function of the root, the source, the foundation (I know not how to put it in a more appropriate way), takes on with good reason the ornament of all those other feasts, and it is conspicuous with many great boons, and recognized as the day of universal salvation.

(The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, 165)

Be Mary, or at Least be Martha

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”   (Luke 10:38-42; the Gospel lesson for the Nativity of the Theotokos)

St Theophylact of Ochrid comments:

Understand that Martha represents active virtue, while Mary represents divine vision. Action entails distractions and disturbances, but divine vision, having become the ruler of the passions (for Maria means mistress, she who rules), devotes itself entirely to the contemplation of the divine words and judgements…therefore, whoever sits at the feet of Jesus, that is, whoever steadfastly follows and imitates Jesus, is established in all active virtue. Then such a man will also come to the listening of the divine words, that is, he will attain to divine vision. Mary first sat, and by doing this she was then able to listen to Jesus’ words.

Therefore you also, O reader, if you have the strength, ascend to the rank of Mary: become the mistress of your passions, and attain to divine vision.  But if you do not have the strength, be Martha, and devote yourself to active virtue, and by this means welcome Christ.

(Hillarion Alfeyev’s Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 453)  

Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

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“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.

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This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2017)

On September 8 we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

“The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it ‘For us men and for our salvation’ is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the other of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.

The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore, is a glorification of Mary’s birth, of Mary herself and of her righteous parents. It is a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. For the ‘Vessel of Light,’ the ‘Book of the Word of Life,’ the ‘Door to the Orient,’ the ‘Throne of Wisdom’ is being prepared on earth by God himself in the birth of the holy girl-child Mary.” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 2, Worship, p. 132).

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)

 

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2016)

Nativity of the Theotokos Icon
Nativity of the Theotokos Icon

REJOICE, PEOPLE!
THIS IS THE DAY OF THE LORD!
THE PALACE OF THE LIGHT, THE SCROLL OF THE WORD OF LIFE TODAY COMES FORTH FROM THE WOMB!

THE GATE FACING THE EAST IS BORN.
SHE AWAITS THE ENTRY OF THE GREAT HIGH PRIEST!

SHE ALONE ADMITS CHRIST INTO THE UNIVERSE FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR SOULS.

The above hymn is taken from Matins for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos.  The images of Mary as Theotokos are wonderful: Christ is the Light of the world, Mary becomes His throne.  Christ is the Word of God, Mary is the scroll upon which the Word becomes visible.  Mary is the gate of heaven and of the temple through which the high priest enters into the world.  She is the unique Mother of God – through her alone does Christ come into His creation.  Salvation for each of us comes into the world through the Virgin Mary, whose birth we celebrated today.

 

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)

 

The Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos (2015)

Today we celebrate the birth of our Lord’s Mother, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.   I wish a blessed feast to all.   St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1439AD) writes about the Feast:

“This sacred feast and holiday that we are keeping is the first to commemorate our recall and re-creation according to grace, for on it all things began to be made new, enduring precepts began to be brought in instead of temporary ones, the spirit instead of the letter, the truth instead of shadows. Today a new world and a mysterious paradise have been revealed, in which and from a new Adam came into being, re-making the old Adam and renewing the universe. He is not led astray by the deceiver, but deceives him, and bestows freedom on those enslaved to sin through his treachery.

Today a paradoxical book has been made ready on earth, which in an indescribable way can hold, not the imprint of words, but the living Word Himself; not a word consisting of air, but the heavenly Word; not a word that perishes as soon as it is formed, but the Word who snatches those who draw near Him from perdition; not a word made by the movement of a man’s tongue, but the Word begotten of God the Father before all ages.[…]Thus Christ took sin’s prisoners to live with Him forever, justifying them by faith in Him, but He bound the prince of sin with inescapable bonds, and delivered him to eternal fire without light.

Today, as prophesied, out of the ‘stem of Jesse’, a rod has come forth (cf. Isa. 11:1), from which a flower has grown with knows no wilting. This rod recalls our human nature, which had withered and fallen away from the unfading garden of delight, makes it bloom again, grants it to flourish forever, brings it up to heaven, and leads it into paradise. With this rod the great Shepherd moves His human flock to eternal pastures, and supported by this rod, our nature lays aside its old age and feeble senility, and easily strides towards heaven, leaving the earth below for those who, devoid of support, are plunging downward. But who is the new world, the mysterious paradise, the paradoxical book, the inspired tabernacle and ark of God, the truth sprung up from the earthy, the much – extolled rod of Jesse? It is the Maiden who before and after childbearing is eternally virgin, whose birth from a barren mother we celebrate today.” (The Homilies, pp 334-335)

The Birthday of the Mother of God

A joyous feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos to all.

“But you, O sacred audience, who listen to my words, my human flock and field in Christ, offer your exercise of the virtues and your progress in them as a birthday gift to the Mother of God: both men and women, elderly people along with the younger ones, rich and poor, leaders and subjects, those of absolutely every race, age, rank, profession and branch of learning. Let none of you have a soul which is barren and without fruit. Let nobody be unloving or unreceptive to the spiritual seed. May each of you eagerly accept this celestial seed, the word of salvation (cf. Luke 8:11), and by your own efforts bring it to perfection as a heavenly work and fruit pleasing to God. Let no one make a beginning of a good work which brings no fruit to perfection (cf. Luke 8:14), nor declare his faith in Christ only with his tongue. ‘Not every one’, it says, ‘that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 7:21), and, ‘No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:62).” (Saint Gregory Palamas – d. 1359AD, The Homilies, p 336)