The Mystery of the Mother of God

The 15th of August is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (her death). Orthodox Christians fast for two weeks prior to this great feast and celebrate it with great solemnity. A question was recently placed by a reader about the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. I am offering this small post to address that question and to look at the place of the Most Holy Theotokos in Orthodox faith and life.

I am always hesitant to write about the mystery of the Mother of God. There are few things within the Orthodox Church that are held more dearly while at the same time being misunderstood and occasionally vilified by those outside the Church.  Originally these doctrines and devotions were not part of the most common kerygma (public preaching of the Church). Mark and John have no narratives of the birth of Christ (even though John contains some of  the most deeply significant material with regard to the Mother of God). St. Paul seems to have but a single reference to Mary (Galatians 4:4).

The early Church made a clear distinction between its kerygma (public preaching) and those things which were held as mysteries. The mysteries were largely unspoken – though accepted as true and embodied in the life, prayer and liturgy of the Church. The reason for the mysteries as mysteries were varied. In some cases, certain teachings were held quietly lest they cause too much of a scandal in the preaching of the gospel. In other cases, some teachings were unspoken because they were very hard to speak – they were beyond words. Among these latter teachings would be the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While absolutely foundational to the Christian faith, this teaching was implied frequently throughout the writings of the New Testament, but never declared in a forthright and definitive manner until the 4th century. Orthodoxy holds that the doctrine was not the product of development nor of evolution, but was known from the beginning, even if the language in which it was expressed was as yet unknown. The Church could not have recognized Arianism as a heresy had it not already known the truth as found in Orthodoxy, nor could it have recognized the truth as spoken in the Nicene Creed and by saints such as Athanasius had the truth not already and always been known.

Having said this, I offer some cautious observations on the Orthodox dogmas and devotional understandings concerning the Mother of God. A question was posted earlier today on the Orthodox doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the problems raised by Matthew 1:25 “[and Joseph] did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn child.”

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity (that she remained a virgin throughout her life), interestingly, was almost universal in its acceptance within the early Church, and was defended even by John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, and Martin Luther. The key word [heos] in Matthew 1:25 is generally translated as “until” in English – which many modern readers take to mean that “after she brought forth her firstborn child she had relations with Joseph.” However, the same Greek word is used in Matthew 22:44 “Sit Thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies Thy footstool.” There it clearly does not mean that Christ will cease to be at His father’s right hand after His enemies are defeated. The word has the clear sense that Mary had no relations with Joseph before the child was born (the issue in the passage is His virginal conception) and is consistent with the Church’s belief that she had no relations with Joseph at any time thereafter.

That Mary remained a virgin for her entire life, as noted above, was a generally accepted teaching of the Church, found in the writings of the fathers, and consistently proclaimed in the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church.

The liturgical life of the Church makes frequent use of Old Testament images as prefiguring Christ’s virginal conception and birth. The bush which is on fire and yet not burned is a frequent image of Mary. The passing through the Red Sea on dry foot is another such image; Aaron’s rod that budded; the fleece of Gideon, etc. Indeed, the space needed to list all of the Old Testament images used as such prefigurements exceed the space I generally use for a posting.

The sense of all these images is of God being born into the world without a human father. The barrenness of Mary’s virginity is the human counterpart of the fruitfulness of God. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. The manner of her  birthgiving is synonymous with the manner of our own salvation. It is the work of God from Whom life alone can come. Our role is like her role, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.”

That Mary remained a virgin both before, during and after the birth of Christ is the common understanding of the Orthodox fathers and of the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church. The Theotokos is always presented with three stars on her veil in her icons. They represent her virginity “before, during, and after the birth of Christ.”

There is also a “common sense” argument for Mary’s perpetual virginity (or so it has always seemed to me). Joseph understood what was to take place within Mary according to the witness of Scripture. It strains every Biblical understanding of piety to believe that Joseph having such knowledge would then take Mary into the common practices of marriage. The Orthodox tradition is that the “brothers and sisters” of Christ mentioned in Scripture are children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

But the Biblical witness is extremely important within Orthodoxy. However, it is a witness that is not readily apparent to the eye of literalism. As noted by the fathers in their use of Biblical imagery: Mary is the “Gate which no man shall open.”

And the LORD said unto me: ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, neither shall any man enter in by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it; therefore it shall be shut” (Ezekiel 44:2).

Such verses are not used as “proof-texts,” just as many of the verses traditionally cited by Christians for Christ’s messiahship are not proof-texts. The reality of who Christ is and His death and resurrection are known to the disciples before they understood the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). In the same manner, the Church knows of these matters within Holy Tradition and finds that Tradition upheld and revealed within the Scriptures.

Those who argue for various positions of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) abandon the pattern of the New Testament itself. The mystical life of the Church is confirmed repeatedly – but in a manner which is known within the heart and not in the manner of hard science. God is not a passive object such that He can be studied like a lump of dirt. The truth of the faith is living and active and makes itself known (rather than being the object of our discovery).

The mystery of the Mother of God can be known and becomes the source of rich understanding in the life of grace. But it is not a subject for argument (certainly not for me). Were someone to erase the entirety of tradition and begin with the bare text of Scripture, it is quite likely that the result of their thought would be something other than the thought of early Christians and the Orthodox faith as it has been taught and received.  The multitude of interpretations that would result from such an experiment are readily apparent in the modern chaos of Sola Scriptura Christianity. Indeed, the role and function of Tradition are often rapidly replaced by various streams of modern culture.

The mystery of the Mother of God is at the very heart of Scripture – but only the heart would know that. And the mystery goes much deeper than the questions of virginal conception, birth and the like. Far too few Christians take the time to ponder the mystery of grace and our salvation.

Our salvation is not an afterthought: “The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8).

St. Maximus the Confessor writes of the Incarnation of Christ: “It is the cause of all things and caused by none of them” (Epistle to Thalassius, PG 90, 620-621). There is no incarnation of Christ apart from the womb of the virgin. It is from her that He took flesh. Thus, though Mary is a creature born into history, she is nevertheless present in the eternal counsels of God.

The Lord said to my Lord…I have begotten Thee from the womb before the morning (Psalm 110:1,3).

The statement, according to the Fathers, refers both to Christ’s eternal begetting from the Father, but also contains reference to His incarnation (“from the womb before the morning”). All of this refers to that which is prior to creation.

Just as Adam is understood as the “first man,” so Christ is understood as the “Second Adam” – the one who is the true “image of the invisible God.” In the same manner, the Fathers refer to Mary as the “Second Eve,” for the life which is made ours in the Incarnation of Christ is a life that is also “bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.”

In the Incarnation, the Uncreated is united to the created. Heaven is united to earth. And all of such statements begin with Christ took flesh of the Virgin.

There is a cosmic dimension to our salvation. Those who confine their thoughts only to the historical moment of Christ’s sacrifice, do neither justice to Scripture nor to reality. Regardless of the fact that literalists may quibble over misinterpretations of Scripture, the reality of our salvation and its greatness, cannot be considered without reference to the Mother of God.

Orthodoxy does not, and will not accept modern language such as co-redemptorix, put forward by some zealous Roman Catholics: Christ alone is our redemption. But neither can we tell the story of redemption without reference to her. She is indeed, our most holy, most pure, most glorious and ever-blessed, Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.  This is a great mystery. May God make it known to all His children!

Comments

  1. Mrs. Mutton says

    You do like to do battle with lions, don’t you? ;-) Something that took me a long time to grasp was the notion that salvation comes *through* the Thaotokos — I was mixing that up with the idea that salvation comes *from* Christ alone — till I grasped that it comes “through” her because there could have been no salvation without the incarnation of Immanuel, and that incarnation could only have come about as a result of His human Mother.

    The other stumbling block for me was the Orthodoxy prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us” — what helped in that regard was reading the Canons of Compline, which make reference to her intercession in saving us from, among other things, the Moslems (!). Eternal salvation does come from Christ alone, but salvation from fire, flood, death through the sword, and a host of other things does come *through* the intercession of His Mother for us. Whew! Got it!

  2. James the Brother says

    Father Stephen,

    Could you help me get the connection of Mary to the burning bush? I’ve heard that often but just don’t get it. I fully embrace the church’s entire teaching on the Theotokos, but just don’t understand this concept.

    Thanks as always for your blog!

  3. says

    This is GREAT!!! Would you mind if I reposted, with credits to you, on my blog? I was wanting to do a write about the Theotokos for the Dormition, but why reinvent the wheel?

  4. says

    Could we liken the Virgin Birth of Christ in Mary, to a sort of reverse virgin birth of Eve in Adam? In both cases, birth occurred without the opposite gender; and in both cases, one gender gave birth to another gender.

  5. yannis says

    The Theotokos and her mystery is an aspect of Orthodoxy that is frequently questioned and even ridiculed.

    Part of the problem is an intellectual approach and another part is that a spiritual path is fequently thought of as something that can be approached and explained as a scientific theory would – however none is true; for an approach to the spiritual is an appraoch that all the levels of the Self are called into particiaption and not just the intellect, while walking a spiritual path is like being on a road to somewhere one has never been before: we cannot tell what is to come, we can only keep on track by following the signs – questions and answers do not take place at the same time.

    The Theotokos’ motherhood, and her iconic depiction as such, is a very important part of it in my own opinion, that gives clues to one in entering her mystery. It is no accident that in various spiritual paths the maternal attitude to children is used as an example of selfessness, giving up the self for others. Mothers have been, time and again, able to do things that others – and even themselves – would ordinarily not be able to, for the sake of their children.

  6. greg says

    I might add that the ever-virginity of the Mother of God was also professed by the early evangelicals – John Wesley stated “I believe that He
    was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person;
    being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born
    of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought
    Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”

    I really don’t think American protestants understand that the ever-virginity of Mary says something very profound about the person of Christ. At least I know that I didn’t.

  7. says

    Since Joseph and Mary understood that this Child was the Son/Seed of the Edenic Promise (Gen. 3:15) whose coming their people anticipated, conjugal relations between them without purpose.

    “The Orthodox tradition is that the “brothers and sisters” of Christ mentioned in Scripture are children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.”

    It is also possible that the brothers and sisters were by Joseph’s other wife and that he had 2 wives. This was common among the priestly lines and Joseph was of a priestly line.

  8. says

    Fr Stephen:
    Father bless! How would you explain to a Protestant inquierer,
    the following passage from St Gregory Palamas?,
    “She transmits grace to the saints ‘in order that as in charge of the office where holiness is given, she may convey gifts of holiness to all without exception, without leaving anyone without a share, even of the hidden things of the universe, that is to say of those inaccessible things” St Gregory Palamas in Homily 53, Ibid. p.295. “and so also in the coming unending age every advance in divine illumination and every revelation of the most divine mysteries and every idea of spiritual gifts is impossible to contain without her. She, having first received the fullness of that which fills the universe, made it containable to all, bestowing on each according to
    the ability and measure of his purity. The Panagia is both treasury and office for granting the wealth of the divinity” St Gregory Palamas in Homily 53, Ibid p.296
    “She also is a cause of those before her and patron of those after her and a cause of things eternal; she is a promise of the prophets, foundation of the Apostles, support of the martyrs, platform of the teachers, she is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of all creation; she is also the principle and source and root of the ineffable good things, she is the summit and completion of every saint” St Gregory Palamas in Homily 53, Ibid p.297
    I would really appreciate your comment on this. Thanks
    David

  9. says

    Jay, re kerygma and mysteries, see this selection from Fr. Georges Florovsky’s “On Church and Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View”:

    “Of the dogmata and kerygmata, which are kept in the Church, we have some from the written teaching (εκ της εγγραφου διδασκαλιας), and some we derive from the Apostolic paradosis, which had been handed down en mistirio (εν μυστηριω). And both have the same strength (την αυτην ισχυν) in the matters of piety” (de Spir. S., 66). At first glance one may get the impression that St. Basil introduces here a double authority and double standard — Scripture and Tradition. In fact he was very far from doing so. His use of terms is peculiar. Kerygmata were for him what in the later idiom was usually denoted as “dogmas” or “doctrines” — a formal and authoritative teaching and ruling in the matters of faith, the open or public teaching. On the other hand, dogmata were for him the total complex of “unwritten habits” (τα αγραφα των εθνων), or, in fact, the whole structure of liturgical and sacramental life. It must be kept in mind that the concept, and the term itself, “dogma,” was not yet fixed by that time, it was not yet a term with a strict and exact connotation [See the valuable study by August Deneffe, S.J., Dogma. Wort und Begriff, in the ‘Scholastik,’ Jg. VI (1931), ss. 381-400 and 505-538]. In any case, one should not be embarrassed by the contention of St. Basil that dogmata were delivered or handed down, by the Apostles en mistirio (εν μυστρηω). It would be a flagrant mistranslation if we render it as “in secret.” The only accurate rendering is: “by the way of mysteries,” that is — under the form of rites and (liturgical) usages, or “habits.” In fact, it is precisely what St. Basil says himself: τα πλειτα των μυστικων αγραφως ημιν εμπολιτευεται [Most of the mysteries are communicated to us by an unwritten way]. The term ta mistika (τα μυστικα) refers here, obviously, to the rites of Baptism and Eucharist, which are, for St. Basil, of “Apostolic” origin. He quotes at this point St. Paul’s own reference to “traditions,” which the faithful have received (ειτε δια λογου ειτε δι επιστολης 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2). The doxology in question is one of these “traditions” (71; cf. also 66) — οι τα περι τας Εκκλησιας εξαρχης διαθεσμοθετησαντες αποστολοι και πατερες, εν τω κεκρυμμενω και αφθεγκτω το σεμνον τοις μυστηριοις εφυλασσον [The Apostles and Fathers who from the very beginning arranged everything in the churches, preserved the sacred character of the mysteries in silence and secrecy]. Indeed, all instances quoted by St. Basil in this connection are of ritual or liturgical nature: the use of the sign of the Cross in the rite of admission of Catechumens; the orientation toward East at prayer; the habit to keep standing at worship on Sundays; the epiclesis in the Eucharistic rite; the blessing of water and oil, the renunciation of Satan and his pomp, the triple immersion, in the rite of Baptism. There are many other “unwritten mysteries of the Church,” says St. Basil: τα αγραφα της εκκλησιας μυστηρια (c. 66 and 67). They are not mentioned in the Scripture. But they are of great authority and significance. They are indispensable for the preservation of right faith. They are effective means of witness and communication. According to St. Basil, they come from a “silent” and “private” tradition: απο της αδημοσιευτου και μυστικης παραδοσεως εκ της αδημοσιευτου ταυτης και απορρητου διδασκαλιας [From the silent and mystical tradition, from the unpublic and ineffable teaching]. This “silent” and “mystical” tradition, “which has not been made public,” is not an esoteric doctrine, reserved for some particular elite. The “elite” was the Church. In fact, “tradition” to which St. Basil appeals, is the liturgical practice of the Church. St. Basil is referring here to what is now denoted as disciplina arcani [The discipline of secrecy]. In the fourth century this “discipline” was in wide use, was formally imposed and advocated in the Church. It was related to the institution of the Catechumenate and had primarily an educational and didactic purpose. On the other hand, as St. Basil says himself, certain “traditions” had to be kept “unwritten” in order to prevent profanation at the hands of the infidel. This remark obviously refers to rites and usages. It may be recalled at this point that, in the practice of the Fourth century, the Creed (and also the Dominical Prayer) were a part of this “discipline of secrecy” and could not be disclosed to the non-initiated. The Creed was reserved for the candidates for Baptism, at the last stage of their instruction, after they had been solemnly enrolled and approved. The Creed was communicated, or “traditioned,” to them by the bishop orally and they had to recite it by memory before him: the ceremony of traditio and redditio symboli. [Transmission and Repetition (by the initiated) of the Creed]. The Catechumens were strongly urged not to divulge the Creed to outsiders and not to commit it to writing. It had to be inscribed in their hearts. It is enough to quote there the Procatechesis of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, cap 12 and 17. In the West Rufinus and St. Augustine felt that it was improper to set the Creed down on paper. For that reason Sozomen in his History does not quote the text of the Nicene Creed, “which only the initiated and the mystagogues have the right to recite and hear” (hist. eccl. 1.20) . It is against this background, and in this historic context, that the argument of St. Basil must be assessed and interpreted. St. Basil stresses strongly the importance of the Baptismal profession of faith, which included a formal commitment to the belief in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (67 and 26). It was a “tradition” which had been handed down to the neophytes “in mystery” and had to be kept “in silence.” One would be in great danger to shake “the very foundation of the Christian faith” — το στερεωμα της Χριστον πιστεως — if this “unwritten tradition” was set aside, ignored, or neglected (c. 25). The only difference between dogma (δογμα) and kirigma (κηρυγμα) was in the manner of their transmission: dogma is kept “in silence” and kerygmata are “publicized:” το μεν γαρ σιωπαται, τα δε κηρυγματα δημοσειυονται. But their intent is identical: they convey the same faith, if in different manners. (http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/church_tradition_florovsky.htm)

  10. says

    Dharmashaiva, I read something in the Fathers recently that drew a parallel between the virgin birth of Adam without a mother, the virgin birth of Eve from Adam without a mother, and the virgin birth of Christ without an earthly father. I can’t find it though. I think it was in Holy Apostles Convent’s “The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos”.

    I also remember reading somewhere of a tradition that saw Adam’s rib as being somehow ‘retained’ through the generations and that this is the ‘stuff’ from which Christ became incarnate in Mary’s womb. It is definitely a minority opinion, but it is an interesting image, at least.

  11. says

    David,
    It’s strong language from St. Gregory. I would go to the doctrine of the communion of saints. Look for my articles on prayer as communion. It’s not, btw, something I would put in front of an inquirer. There’s so much that has to be learned (not necessarily by intellect) before such statements can be grasped at any level.

  12. says

    Juliana,
    It refers to the belief that she suffered no damage in giving birth to Christ. In that way, yes His actual birth was miraculous. So we sing, “Without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word, true Theotokos, we magnify you.” Read the Protoevangelium of James for an early account of this miracle.

  13. says

    Prudence,
    No effort to dissect the mystery – or at least no intention to do so. Some questions go further than I would care to go. But what has been asked can easily be found in our modern informational world. I understand your concern. My effort is not to explain the mystery but to point towards it and explain in a small way how the Orthodox approach the mystery and its importance for us. Actually the word “mystery” is derived ultimately from a Greek word that meant “deep.” The mysteries cannot be spoken in their depth because of that depth. Even speaking of the Divine Trinity (which is certainly a mystery) does not and cannot go to its depths. What is presented here is simply the slightest outline of the “mystery” of the Mother of God, not it’s dissection. It is an effort to point towards a depth unknown to many, and yet a very important part of the public liturgies of the Church. I’ve taken the liberty of removing some of the “bolder” questions and answers. Thanks for your words.

  14. easton says

    thank you for this, father stephen. when you speak of mystery and the meaning of depth, it is signifigant to me…. i find the most wonderful blessings i have experienced in my life can not be put into words. my childhood was one of those blessings, but i cannot speak about it. the few times i have tried to share it with someone, it was futile. there are no words to describe it. some things can not be expressed…

  15. says

    For me, it was common sense that made me understand the truth of the Theotokos’ being ever virgin….somoeone pointed out to me that if Mary had other children, why did Jesus, from the cross, have to ask John to take care of her? Learning that was an “Aha” moment for me and helped me embrace Orthodoxy….Thank you, Fr Stephen, for this post…

  16. says

    James, when people say that she remained virgin they aren’t just talking about what she did or didn’t do. When women give birth their bodies are often broken and they bleed. For sinners this is a way of following Christ and sharing his passion, if it’s done with faith and love, because by doing it a woman gives life to another.

    However in the case of the Theotokos, no physical damage occurred to her because of giving birth to Christ. There was no change in her physical state. Thus something that is physically harmful in the sinful order of things miraculously appears without doing any physical damage when Christ enters the world. Likewise, fire in our order of things does damage, but divine fire can enlighten people without consuming them (like the miraculous fire in Jerusalem at Pascha – or the burning bush.)

    Christ did not take from his most pure Mother even the physical emblem of her purity.

  17. says

    Virginity, like fasting, is about more than the physical, too.

    The Theotokos, even in the midst of childbearing, remained viriginal in spirit – she did not sin. Heck, I’m pretty sure my wife sinned giving birth to our son – not the birth itself, but the understandable but still impure thoughts, language and actions one can end up doing because of the travail. The Mother of God did not, even ‘during birthgiving’.

  18. NW Juliana says

    orrologian, having given birth to seven babies, your post at 11:25 made me involuntarily laugh out loud — not because sin is funny, but because of the truth of what you said. It is indeed difficult to give birth without sinning, and I’d never thought of it this way before. Thanks to all for helping me understand Mary remaining a virgin during birth better.

  19. says

    I wasn’t trying to explain what something is “about.” I was trying to provide information to someone on a specific point about which they were understandably confused.

  20. NW Juliana says

    AR, 1:29 p.m. — please forgive me if I worded something poorly. I’m not following the dialogue, or if there was a misunderstanding, but hope I did not offend.

  21. yeamlak fitur says

    Thank you Father for this.

    Our Holy Mother is above all the Saints. She intercedes with her son with all love. All her miracles are witnesses. When you read the lives of all the holy saints and Fathers before us, they daily prayed through her.

    In Ethiopian Orthodoxy, whenever the Lord’s Prayer is said there is also the prayer for the Theotokos said right after. She is the backbone, the ladder of our faith, and she cries and understands our sins like no other.

    Glory to GOD!

  22. says

    St. Maximus has some very interesting observations in regards to Christ’s Virgin birth in terms of generation of the Second Adam without pleasure, pain and death. After Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, the generation of mankind was through pleasure and in pain, terminating in corruption and in death of man. In contrast, we see Christ’s generation from the Theotokos without pleasure, pain and death. Life has been restored.

    The pleasure/pain/death connection has been neglected in most Christian traditions.

  23. says

    Thank you, Father. I’m glad I wasn’t off.

    Juliana, you did not offend in the least! Gosh, I’m sorry I worried you. No, I had an idea orologion was responding to my statement about the physical, and I wanted to clarify that my statement was not meant as a general statement about the Virgin’s sinlesness, but something very specific. I guess I should have addressed my statement to him.