“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)
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 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)
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.”
“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.”
“The historical origins of the Feast appear to be linked with the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary the New in Jerusalem on 21st November 543; by the late seventh century it was celebrated throughout Jerusalem and in Constantinople by the early eight century. The observance of the Feast spread in the West during the Middle Ages; it was suppressed and then reinstated during the sixteenth century, and has survived recent revisions of the Roman Calendar, albeit in a rather attenuated form.” (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pg. 18)
“In fact, through the Gospel reading assigned for most Marian feastdays, the Church herself refutes those who emphasize the Theotokos’ significance as biologically and gender-defined. The Gospel reading is the Martha and Mary story from Luke 10:38-42, where Martha, the dutiful hostess, complains to Christ about Mary’s not helping her. Christ gently rebukes her for misplacing her priorities and says that Mary ‘has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.’ As if to drive the point home, the Church in her wisdom does not end the reading there, but appends verses 27-28 of the following chapter: ‘While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”’ The Church’s message is clear: the Theotokos is venerated not just because she is Jesus’ mother, but because she was attentive to God, which made her appropriate to become God’s chosen vessel.” (Valeria A. Karras in Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, pg. 151)
Mary, the Theotokos, was born under the Old Covenant, and she gave birth to the New Covenant. She, humanly speaking, more than Father Abraham links all those of the household of faith together. She fulfills the promises and prophecies of God by humbly submitting herself to God’s will. She does for the world what Israel and the temple were supposed to do: she becomes the very point at which God makes Himself present in His creation.
“… because Mary was… ‘of the house and lineage of David,’ she represented the unbreakable link between Jewish and Christian history, between the First Covenant within which she was born and the Second Covenant to which she gave birth.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, MARY THROUGH THE CENTURIES, P 25).
“The monk Gregory Kroug, who rediscovered the soul and spirit of those master iconographers of the great Tradition, states in his Notebook of an Icon Painter, ‘The Birth of the Theotokos is the final preparation of humanity to receive the Divinity.’” (Michel Quenot, The Icon, pg. 51)
In the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin we recognize the movement of God throughout time and in our universe towards His goal of the salvation of the world. The Feast is about theology, and what God is doing for us and through us as His people. The Feast celebrates salvation and reveals to us that truth cannot be equated to or limited by history. For God who is greater than history and who lives outside of history acts on our behalf and for our salvation in history thus imbuing the future which does not yet exist with meaning. The historical details of the Virgin’s birth are not found in our Scriptures, but the meaning of her birth is. The significance of her birth is not found in the historical details of her birth, rather the significance of her birth is found in Christ.
We all realizes for ourselves the original sin of Adam by our personal sin. It was into this state of polarity that the Mother of God was born, and if she is sinless, then she is sinless in this fallen world. The personal sinlessness of the Mother of God is therefore different from the sinless state that Eve lost: “First-formed Eve did not know the weight of original sin, which pressed on the Virgin Mary herself. For this reason, too, the primal sinlessness of Eve remained untested, unjustified, free; in contrast, the freedom from personal sin of the Virgin Mary manifests not only her personal victory [podvig], but also the victory of the whole Old Testament Church, of all the forefathers and fathers in God, that is of the summit of the ascent of the whole human race, of the lily of paradise that blossomed on the tree of humanity.” (Fr. Sergii Bulgakov) The sinlessness of the Mother of God is not then some natural state miraculously created by God (as Bulgakov understood the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to assert), but the result of God’s providence, working through the history of salvation, and culminating in her personal faithfulness. It is such that Mary is glorified by all Christians. (St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1-2, 2005)
In what I think is a very interesting interposing of the idea of prefiguring and fulfillment, the New Skete Monastery’s Sighs of the Spirit prayer book links Eve, the Fall and death to the Theotokos, the tree of the Cross and the death of Christ in one of their prayers for the Nativity of the Theotokos.
“O heavenly Father: Just as the first woman, the first tree, and then death became symbols of our defeat, so this other woman, this other tree, and this other death are symbols of your victory. In your goodness, make us worthy of sharing in the gifts of that victory, by the prayers of the Theotokos.”