The Nativity of the Theotokos (2019)

“The great eighth-century liturgical poet Andrew of Crete composed a panaegyris of a feast for Mary’s Nativity (Sept. 8), which resumes ancient themes of how she recapitulates all creation in the pristine splendor God had first imagined for it. It is typical of the lofty themes that are engaged in the liturgical troparia of this era: 

‘Today there is built the created Temple of the Creator himself…

Today…Adam, offering firstfruits to the Lord for us and from us,

Selects Mary as the firstfruits on behalf of all our defiled mass.

She alone remained unspoiled.

From her the bread was made for the redemption of the human race…

Today the human race is pure and nobly born.

It receives the gift of its original and divine creation,

Returning to its former self. 

All the beauty and loveliness which had been darkened

By humanity’s birth in gloom and evil. 

Nature is now resumed in the Mother of the Supremely Beautiful, 

And at her birth it receives new shape: high exaltation and loveliness divine. 

This new shaping is restoration indeed: the restoration of our deification; 

This deification is a mirror of our original deification. 

In a word, today there is begun the transfiguration of our nature, 

And of a world that had grown old.'”

(John A. McGuckin, Illumined in the Spirit, pp. 30-31)

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)

A Brief History of the Feast of the Dormition

The history of how the Dormition of the Theotokos became one of the Major Feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar year is an interesting one.  Historically,  fascination with and reverence for Mary as Theotokos grew as the theologians of the Church reflected on and marveled at the divinity of Christ.  The incarnation of God (which is the salvation of humanity!) is only possible through the Theotokos.  As the centuries passed, the Church emphasis on Christ’s divinity increased and His humanity was subsumed into His divinity,  Christ became revered ever more as the eternal pantocrator.    The focus on Jesus became of Him as Lord, God and Savior, a  heavenly person.  Mary too became more drawn into heaven as its queen.  As a consequence, Mary’s place in the Church grew and she became larger than life and took a unique place in the divine pantheon – More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.  As the Dionysian celestial hierarchy became the common cosmology, Mary’s role as beyond that celestial hierarchy grew.   The effect on piety was that  less and less could the theologians countenance that Mary’s death could have been an obscure and unrecorded event.  They assumed in later centuries the fact that there was no tomb with a body meant that something miraculous must have happened to her body.  It didn’t seem possible that such a great personage, an almost divine figure for them, could have been ignored by earlier generations.  So they were ready to accept stories of her miraculous death as being true.  The appearance of the Dionysian corpus in the 6th Century was the welcomed proof of the earliest origins of the Feast of the Dormition.

We learn a great deal about the history of the Feast of the Dormition in the book ON THE DORMITION OF MARY: EARLY PATRISTIC HOMILIES.

The story of Mary’s glorious end, which was to become common coin by the end of the 6th Century, appears in a variety of earlier forms that are difficult to date with certainty.  Most scholars agree that the oldest extant witness to the story is provided by a group of Syriac fragments … a narrative usually dated to the second half of the fifth Century.  The earliest Greek accounts… usually dated to the late fifth or early sixth century.”  (p 7)

By the second half of the sixth Century, it is clear that the story of Mary’s transition from earth to heaven had come to be accepted as part of Christian tradition in both the Chalcedonian and the non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East.”  (p 9)

The oldest known accounts of the Dormition come only from the second half of the Fifth Century (after 450AD).  This means many of the great Patristic writers of the 4th-5th Century would not have known of the story, which is why they don’t mention it.  Liturgically celebrating the stories of Mary’s death gain popularity rather late in Orthodox history becoming common in the Fifth and Sixth centuries.  The story of the Dormition seemed to be a crowning proof of the incarnation, resurrection and salvation of humanity which was understood as union with God.  There was some resistance to the rising popularity of the Dormition Feast as the Church was aware that most of the information about her death came from spurious sources that were not only non-canonical but in some cases suspected as heretical.

The Western Church did not accept the feast into its calendar until the end of the seventh century, and a Latin version of the narrative of the Mary’s Dormition had been listed among the apocrypha of heretical  origin in the Decretum Gelasianum, an official list of canonical and uncanonical  works composed either during or shortly after the time of Pope Gelasius 9 (492-496).  (p 68)

As early as Origen (d. 253AD), however, Christian scholars were aware of the mythical and often Gnostic character of many of the acts of the apostles.  (p 68)

For a conservative church that prided itself on keeping tradition, explanations had to be found for why earlier generations did not know of or keep the Feast of the Dormtion. Fourth Century Epiphanius of Salamis notes:

“one will find neither the death of Mary, nor whether she died or did not die, nor whether she was buried or was not buried … Scripture is silent, because of the exceeding greatness of the Mystery, so as not to overpower people’s minds with wonder.”  (p 5)

Epiphanius is struck by the complete lack of reliable witness to what happened to Mary at the end of her life.  Absolutely nothing is recorded in the official tradition which he knew in the 4th Century.  He will make an argument from silence about what it means: the mystery of her death is so great that people piously avoided writing about it as the faithful were not prepared to contemplate the mystery.  This explanation lends itself to then focusing on the miraculous elements of the story: the ancients were silent because of the great mystery, so the preachers decided to elucidate the greatness of the mystery so the faithful would understand why earlier generations didn’t even speak about it.  This was all compounded by the rhetorical tendency of the preachers to elaborate the theme and find new and greater ways to praise the mystery.  That is obvious throughout the book’s collection of sermons on the Dormition – each preacher wants to outdo all the previous ones in praising the amazing events, and so they embellish the praise, taking it to ever greater rhetorical heights.

John of Thessalonica (d. 649AD) puzzles over why the great Orthodox city of Thessalonica was only in his day (7th Century) beginning to celebrate the Dormition which he mistakenly believes was an event known in Christian antiquity.

“… some people committed to writing the wonderful things that happened in her regard at that time.  Practically every place under heaven celebrates every year the memory of her going to her rest, with the exception of only a few, including the region around this divinely protected city of Thessalonica. Why is this? … Our forebears, then, were neither heedless nor lazy; yet although those who were present then [at Mary’s death] described her end truthfully, we are told, mischievous heretics later corrupted their accounts by adding words of their own, and for this reason our ancestors distanced themselves from these accounts as not in accord with the catholic Church.  For this reason, the feast [of her Dormition] passed, among them, into oblivion.”     (p 47-48)

John has already come to accept as tradition that the stories of Mary’s Dormition were written about the time they actually happened.  He assumes the stories of her Dormition are historically accurate and reliable.  He either has heard or assumes that virtually all other cities in the Empire celebrate the Dormition except a very few and his own city is one that does not.  He doesn’t conclude that Thessalonica is thus keeping and defending the more ancient tradition, rather he has a very pious explanation – their city forefathers were aware that heretics had altered the stories of the Dormition and to protect the city from false teachings had decided to stop commemorating the Dormition.  Apparently he thought in his day they now had the true version of the Dormition story so they could celebrate the feast.

Whereas earlier generations of Christians shied away from the Dormition stories because they saw them coming from heretical, Gnostic or suspect sources,  John thinks the sources are true but later generations of heretics altered them and so by going back to the sources they are embracing the correct tradition.  It is a wonderful twist of logic.

Orthodox scholar Carrie Frederick Frost says that today, “The tales included in the Book of James are not considered by Orthodox to be historical and incontrovertible fact, but instead are understood as meaningful reflections on the life of Jesus and his mother.” (MATERNAL BODY, p 7)

St Andrew of Crete (d. ca 726AD) writing even later in history is still struggling with why the Dormition which by his day was a well established Feast throughout Orthodoxy is not found in the canonical scriptures or in the witness of many of the great Fathers of the Church.  It does strike him as unbelievable that the apostles and eyewitnesses of Christ didn’t write about such a great event as the Dormition.

“Someone truly eager for knowledge might well wonder why none of the sacred writers, as far as we know, wrote about the immaculate, supernatural passing of the Mother of God, or left us any account of it at all, in the way they composed the divine book of the Gospels or gave us other revelations of the mystery of God.

Truly for Andrew it is hard to believe no one in the ancient church bothered to record the spectacular events of the Dormition.  He will offer several possible explanations as to why this might be true, but he doesn’t commit himself to any of them.  Because the Feast has become so popular, he doesn’t even entertain the idea that maybe the ancients didn’t keep the Feast because they in fact didn’t know about it.  But he knows there are some serious questions about the veracity of the events being celebrated.   His mental dissonance is relieved by several different possible explanations, but then he has an ace card in the end which assures him of the truthfulness of the Feast.

Our answer is: she whom God took as his own fell asleep much later [then the events of the Gospels] – for it is said that she had reached extreme old age when she departed from this world.  Or perhaps the times may not then have favored a full account of these events; it was not appropriate for those sowing the seed of the news of God’s saving plan to speak in detail of these things, at the same time they were writing the Gospels, since these events needed another, specific and very deliberate kind of treatment, not possible at that moment.  If, on the other had, the reason for their silence is that the inspired writers were only telling the story of God’s plan of salvation up to the end of the Word’s presence among us in flesh, and that they simply did not [choose to] reveal anything that happened after Jesus was taken up from the earth, I can accept this as well.

Andrew does not fully embrace any one explanation for why the ancient tradition of the church is silent on the Dormition.  His comments – ‘or perhaps’ and “‘if the reason is’ and ‘I can accept this as well’ – seem to me to be an acknowledgment that none of the arguments in themselves convince him, but since there are several possibilities he is willing to accept that one of them probably is true.  He is comfortable enough with there being different possibilities, even it no one of them is completely convincing.  He is not completely sure which of the arguments actually settles the case. He goes on:

But lest some wonder why  we have so much to say, while tradition is completely silent about today’s mystery, I think it would be good to add to my own words what I have been able to find [in the tradition], to support and confirm what I propose for your reflection.  For even it the mystery appears only obscurely in the sacred literature, it has not remained completely unmentioned in their pages.    It was, in fact, referred to by a man learned in sacred doctrine, who, they say, investigated holy things with wisdom and erudition… The man was Dionysius.”    (pp 126-127)

The Byzantines were rhetorically profuse, Andrew recognizes this and reflects on the fact that “while tradition is completely(!) silent about today’s mystery [the Dormition]” he and others have plenty to say about the Dormition.   Interesting that he says the tradition is completely silent about the Dormition but then he brings forth that Dionysius, the supposed 1st Century bishop, is the witness from antiquity which makes the whole Dormition true, acceptable and believable.  What he probably is recognizing however is that the Fathers of the earlier centuries never mentioned Dionysius.  That was a mystery that was harder to solve in a church which loved to quote ancient sources to prove the authority of beliefs.   They were not into innovation and so needed tradition to prove the rightfulness of a doctrine or practice.   The early generation of holy patristic luminaries never quoted or mentioned this Dionysius.  The reason as is commonly believed among Orthodox scholars today is that the Dionysian corpus of writings was falsely ascribed to the First Century bishop while in reality it was written only in the 6th Century.  Thus we often see today it referenced as being written by the Psuedo-Dionysius.  As reported in Orthodoxwiki:

Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo writes that it is “now recognized as indefensible” that the author of the Dionysian writings could be the first century disciple of St Paul. “The first clearly datable reference to the Dionysian corpus comes to us from …532….” Bishop Alexander’s own suggestion is that the real author of the works was the fifth-century theologian Peter the Iberian.

The Patristic writers of the 6-8th Centuries were true to their conservative nature that all theology needed to be supported by the writings of earlier Church Fathers.  They were handing on an ancient tradition not innovating new practices.  The absence of any recognized tradition related to the Dormition was a dilemma since the Feast fit in so well with the rest of established dogma and in many ways was a crowning of that doctrine of the incarnation and theosis.   The sudden appearance in the Sixth Century of documents claiming to be from a First Century witness, made it possible for the Dormition to be accepted as a traditional Feast in the Orthodox Church.  It proved to the bishops and theologians that the Feast was authentic and ancient.   Their own desire to be conservative and hold to tradition rather than innovation led them to accept as tradition something which was not.

The development through the 6th-8th Centuries of the Feast may show the dubious historical and factual truth of the events being celebrated.  However, they don’t change the theology of what is being celebrated.  The Dormition of the Theotokos is not needed to establish the truth of the incarnation or the resurrection or of theosis.  Rather the Dormition relies on the theological truth of Christ to have any meaning.  The Dormition of the Thetotokos is not foundational to the teachings about Christ, but just further pious meditation on them.

Honoring the Theotokos

Mary, Theotokos, we salute you. Precious vessel, worthy of the whole world’s reverence, you are an ever-shining light, the crown of virginity, the symbol of Orthodoxy, an indestructible temple ,the place that held Him whom no place can contain, Mother and Virgin. Because of you the Holy Gospels could say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We salute you, for in your holy womb was confined Him who is beyond all limitation. Because of you the Holy Trinity is glorified and adored; the Cross is called precious and is venerated throughout the world; the heavens exult; the angels and archangels make merry; demons are put to flight; the devil, that tempter, is thrust down from heaven; the fallen race of man is taken up on high; all creatures possessed by the madness of idolatry have attained knowledge of the Truth; believers receive Holy Baptism; the oil of gladness is poured out; the Church is established throughout the world; pagans are brought to repentance.

(St. Cyril of Alexandria, Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion, p. 100)

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)

Praying the Annunciation

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An archangel was sent from heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And seeing you, O LORD, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to her such things as these:

Rejoice, for through you joy shall shine forth!

Rejoice, for through you the curse shall cease!

Rejoice, recalling of fallen Adam!

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!

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Rejoice, height hard to climb for the thoughts of men!

Rejoice, depth hard to scan even for the eyes of angels!

Rejoice, for you are the throne of the King!

Rejoice, for you hold him who holds all!

Rejoice, star causing the sun to shine!

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Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!

Rejoice, for through you the creation is made new!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2509-2517)

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)

The Ancestors of Christ the Lord

On the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, we read the Gospel of the genealogy of Christ found in Matthew 1:1-25.

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

“Although the Virgin, of whom Christ was born according to the flesh, came from Adam’s flesh and seed, yet, because of this flesh had been cleansed in many different ways by the Holy Spirit from the start, she was descended from those who had been chosen from every generation for their excellence. Noah, too, “a just man and perfect in his generation,” as the Scriptures say of him, was found worthy of this election.

Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then Zerubbabel, those in between them and their ancestors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God. By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion.  Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.

See how Noah clearly foreshadows Him Who was later to be born of the Virgin, for Whose sake the election was made. For Noah was shown to be the saviour, not of all the race of men in general, but of his own household, all of whom were saved through him. In the same way, Christ too, is the Saviour of the race of men, not of all men in general, but of all His own household, that is of His Church; not, however, of the disobedient. Furthermore, the name Noah can be translated to mean “rest” (cf. Genesis 5:29). But who is true “rest” except the Virgin’s Son, Who says, “Come unto Me through repentance, all ye that labour and are heavy laden with sins, and I will give you rest” (cf. St. Matthew 11:28), bestowing freedom, ease and eternal life upon you.

(The Homilies, pp. 471-472)