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!