The Blessedness of Mary

Jesus replied:  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  (Matthew 12:48-50)

The great Orthodox poet and hymnographer St. Ephraim the Syrian in one of his beautiful poems has the Virgin Mother talking to her child, Jesus about jealousy.  Mary is often aware in Orthodox hymns of the theology of her child – she understands Him to be the incarnate God and Lord of the universe.  Knowing Him to be Lord of all, is she jealous that everyone has a relationship to Him, not just her?   Does she regret that she will always have to share His love, attention and affection with every single human on the planet – and so will she?  Mary shows her humanity in reflecting on the passion of jealousy, but also how she rises above human passion, pathos, sin and hubris – which is why she was chosen by God to be Theotokos.  She rises above the limits of her own humanity to share in the common humanity of all people.  Her role in human history is unique, yet it is what connects her to all humans who will ever live.  God could see her love for all which reflects God’s own love for the world.

I shall not be jealous, my Son,

that You are with me, and also with all people. 

Be God to the one that confesses You,

and be Lord to the one that serves You,

and be Brother to the one that loves You,

that You may gain all!  

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3100-3102)

The hymns reflect an idea that Mary is Jesus’ mother not just because she physically gave birth to Him, but because she embodied God’s love for all humanity.  God chooses Mary not for her body but because of her soul and heart.  It is not only her womb which was heaven and able to contain the uncontainable.  Jesus Himself reflects this thought in response to something a woman once shouted at Him.

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  (Luke 11:27-28)

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Jesus recognizes in His Mother that is her having heard God’s word and kept it when enabled her to be Theotokos.  Her role in salvation is both physical and spiritual – she indeed is a bridge between these worlds.  As is sung in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel;
Rejoice, faith of silent beseechers.
Rejoice, introduction to Christ’s miracles;
Rejoice, consummation of his doctrinal articles.
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven.

Rejoice, marvel greatly renowned among the Angels;
Rejoice, wound bitterly lamented by demons.
Rejoice, for you gave birth to the light ineffably;
Rejoice, for the “how” you taught to no one.
Rejoice, surpassing the knowledge of scholars;
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of believers.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

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)

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)

A Theology of Woman

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From one of Cyril [of Jerusalem]’s statements, we might cull a starting point for a theology of woman:

At first, the feminine sex was obligated to give thanks to men, because Eve, born of Adam but not conceived by a mother, was in a certain sense born of man. Mary, instead, paid off the debt of gratitude: she did not give birth by means of a man, but by herself, virginally, through the working of the Holy Spirit and the power of God.

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Cyril seems to want to say that the Blessed Virgin restored woman’s dignity, reestablishing her position of equality with regard to man and ennobling her role as mother. Mary’s response to God, who spoke to her through the mouth of an angel, reminds women that they, too, are partners, not only of men, but of God himself.

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The prestigious catechist of the Jerusalem Church, through his simple, spontaneous, and lively style, tries to make his disciples understand that the figure of Mary is essential to understanding the mystery of Christ. God, incarnate and made man, appears in all his mysterious divine-human reality and in his glory as the Savior of men only if he is presented alongside his Mother, from whom he received the body that made him Emmanuel, God-with-us.”

(Luigi Gamero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 139)

Did Moses Foresee the Theotokos?

It seems to me that, already, the great Moses knew about this mystery by means of the light in which God appeared to him, when he saw the bush burning without being consumed (cf Ex 3:1ff). For Moses said: “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision.” I believe that the term “go up closer” does not indicated motion in space but a drawing near in time. What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once an intermediate space of time had passed.

As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted. Nor should you consider the comparison to the bush to be embarrassing, for it prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin.

(St Gregory of Nyssa, in Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 155)

Most amazing in the quote is that St. Gregory is way “ahead of his time” in thinking that Moses is able to foresee the incarnation in the Virgin because of a miraculous condensing of time which enabled him to experience a prefiguring in the burning bush of what was to happen in the womb of the Virgin.  It is not that Moses got closer physically to the burning bush, but somehow he crossed through time to get a glimpse at what God was planning.  This relativity of time that St. Gregory describes predates Einstein by 1500 years.

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)

Through the Prayers of the Theotokos

“‘She is the leaven of our new creation, the root of the true vine whose branches we have become, by virtue of the germination proper to baptism. She is the point of arrival of the reconciliation of God with men, on which occasion the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven; peace on earth and good will toward men” (Lk 2:14).

For this reason the recollection of the Virgin wakes up our souls, making them consider how, by his intervention, we have been called from such a great irreconcilable enmity, from a situation of war, so to speak, to such a great peace, to divine familiarity, to a marvelous association.’ (Severus of Antioch)

This role of Mary continues even in the time of the Church, seeing that she intercedes before God on our behalf. Our author is certainly convinced of this, since he exhorts his audience to take advantage of her intercession:

‘We implore her who is the birthgiver of God and pray her to intercede for us, she who is honored by all the saints.'” 

(Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 315)