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)

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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)

The Theotokos: A House Built By Wisdom

Divine Wisdom

One of the Old Testament readings which is commonly read on the eve of feasts of the Theotokos is Proverbs 9:1-11.   The reading begins with the Divine Wisdom building a house for herself.

Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids to call from the highest places in the town, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who is without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” He who corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.

There are several images which come together in the very first line of the above text.  Wisdom was sometimes construed as being with God and working with God in creating the world (Solomon 9:9).  Many interpreters believe the description of the world being created by God from the beginning is that God actually was creating for Himself a temple for His creatures to worship Him and in which He could dwell with them.  Thus wisdom building for herself a house of creation also becomes a metaphor for what both God and humans wished:  a place in which God could dwell with His people.  Certainly Solomon who is guided by wisdom has such a desire to build such a house for God.  But as the New Testament reveals, the temple or house for God turns out not be be made of stone, but rather is a living temple, and that temple is the Theotokos in whom God comes to abide in the incarnation.  But even further than this, Christ Himself is the real house or temple of God for God dwells permanently in and with Christ.

The text from Proverbs 9:1-11 is read on the Eve of the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8).  St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 384) connects the Proverbs 9:1 verse directly to Christ.  It is Christ in whom, according to St. Gregory the house not made by hands in whom god dwells.

“When the Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, the new man was formed in her. He is called new because he was fashioned by God, not in the usual human way, but differently, so that he would become a dwelling of God, not made by human hands. For the Most High does not dwell in places made by hands; not, that is, in dwellings built by human effort. Then, Wisdom built herself a house (cf. Prov. 9:1), and the overshadowing power formed within it an image as a kind of sign. Then, the divine power mixed itself with both the elements of which human nature consists; I mean to say the soul and the body, mixing itself equally with the one and the other. Both of these elements are subjected to death because of disobedience: for the soul, death consists in separation from true life; for the body it is corruption and dissolution. Of necessity, I say, death had to be driven out through the reuniting of these two elements with life. For just as divinity was united to both of the elements of man, so striking signs of a superior nature will be manifest in both elements.” ( in Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero, p 154)

The Trouble With Martha and Mary

The Gospel reading for the Liturgy of many Marian Feasts includes the verses from Luke 10:38-42.  This is true of the The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos  celebrated on September 8 in the Orthodox Church.  This Gospel lessons reads:

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.

Fr. Lev Gillet offers some comments that help illuminate the Gospel’s lesson for us all.

“Jesus eludes those who want to make Him king. He is unwilling to give His opinion about the conflicts between Israel and Caesar. He refuses to help a man who asks Him this, in a disagreement about inheritance. He who has come to cut the roots by which these things hold us captive, would not encourage us in our search for them. ‘One thing is necessary.’ Mary left all things in order to listen to the word: she has chosen ‘the best part.’ And yet the word can be expressed in every earthly question provided that it is the Saviour’s word which we look for in it.  In this way human questions are transformed in Christ. Let us consider Martha and Mary. Jesus does not blame Martha for attending to domestic cares. What He reproaches her for is for being ‘careful’ and ‘troubled’ about ‘many things.’ She allows herself to be distracted from hearing the word. But it is possible, in the midst of inevitable daily preoccupations, even while serving, to sit down, as it were, at the Lord’s feet and listen to Him. The most intense activity does not exclude a glance in the Saviour’s direction, cast directly on Jesus. If Martha had realized it, she would have – without stopping to serve – chosen the best part – no less than Mary had done.” (A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Saviour, pgs. 52-53)

 

See also the blog The Nativity of the Theotokos (2013)

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2013)

The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos “was known in the East by the eighth century, and was referred to in Rome by Pope Sergius in the late seventh century. It was only in the eleventh century that the Feast was generally observed in the West.” (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pg.16)

While a specific feast celebrating the birth of Christ’s mother developed rather late in history, it emerged out of a long standing tradition of honoring the Virgin Mary which was prophesied in Luke’s Gospel in Luke 1:48, “Behold all generations will call me blessed...”

From the Church Fathers of the post-Apostolic period we find numerous references to the Virgin Mary in the meditations of the early Christians.   Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD ) writes:

“[Eve] having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary…by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race…And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”

Tertullian of Carthage  (d. ca 220AD) writes:

“For it was while Eve was yet a virgin that the ensnaring word had crept into her ear which was to build the edifice of death. Into a virgin’s soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced.”

( both quotes from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Volume 56, Number 2, pg. 140)

See also the blog The Trouble with Martha and Mary