“Blessed Rather?” Contemplating Blessing, Honor and Humility on the Nativity of the Theotokos

Readings: Phil. 2:5-11, Luke 10: 38-42, Luke 11: 27-28, Isaiah 45

Both the readings for Western Christian communities for this coming Sunday, and our readings for today in the Orthodox Church have to do with humility. On Sunday, many Western Christians who follow the Common lectionary will be reading the words of the apostle concerning St. Paul’s rescue from degradation: “And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy (1Tim 1:15-16 RSV). Alongside this example of humility, they will contemplate the Lord’s parable about searching for the lost sheep. Even the great apostle Paul remarks upon his fragility; every one of us can identify with the prospect of being lost!

Those of us who worship according to the Eastern tradition are of course remembering on this day the Nativity of Holy Mary, the Mother of our Lord. I have been Orthodox for 7 years now, and have been worshipping with Orthodox for 20 years, but I am still surprised by the selection of verses for all the feast-days associated with Mary. We read that dramatic Christ-hymn, Phil. 2:5-11.  We contemplate Mary, the sister of Martha, sitting at the feet of Jesus, whose humble position of learning will not be taken from her (Luke 10:38-42).  And we hear the voice of the woman in the crowd talking about the “blessed womb” that bore Jesus, only to hear him retort, “Yes, but blessed rather is the one who hears my word and obeys it” (Luke 11:27-28).

How very odd! There are so many other possible readings that could have been offered by the Church to mark these holy days. Why not read the passage in Luke where she offers praises to God—“henceforth all generations will call me blessed”?  Why not read the story of Mary at Cana, when Jesus’ mother tells the servants to “listen to him?”  Why not read about our Lord’s dying care, his final act on the cross, when he gave her over to the beloved disciple as his mother? All these passages highlight the significance of the Theotokos, and it is truly meet to call her blessed and to praise her!

Instead, the Church prescribes for us two passages unconnected with the God-bearer: a marvelous passage about our Lord Jesus, and another one about a different Mary.  The third passage, which does speak about the blessed womb and breasts, closes with words that might, in some interpretations, seem to slight her, to dismiss her importance: “Blessed RATHER is the one who hears my word and keeps it.”

But when I consider the role of Jesus’ mother more carefully, I am not so surprised at the selection of passages. Like John the Baptist, our Lady does not call attention to herself in the gospels.  As in our liturgy, so with the gospels.  We remember her, and then we turn immediately and commit ourselves to Christ our God.  In the same way, the gospel writers consistently picture her so as to highlight the importance of her son: she treasures those things that she has learned about him in her heart, and models this for us.  Let us, then, consider these three passages. As they express the faith and faithfulness of our Mother in Christ, may they also instruct us today!

Philippians 2:5-11 is probably one of the earliest hymns of the Church. There are many reasons to think that it pre-dates St. Paul, who quotes it to the Philippian congregation, which is having trouble with unity and with humility. Because of its grandeur, we sing it in various forms even today. Consider its particular shape: The One who rightly could have claimed equality with the Father gives up all, taking on human flesh, going even to the death of a cross.  He is then raised on high, and given the name of LORD, YHWH, the Name above every name.  Perhaps you think I have taken some liberties there.  After all, the NT does not use the Hebrew YHWH, the name that means “the Existing One,” Ho On.  It uses the Greek title Kyrios, a title that was sometimes used in common parlance as an honorific title for a human being, like “lords” and “ladies.”  Unlike the strange name YHWH, it does not of itself imply that Jesus is God.  (By the way, though, the Hebrew equivalent, Adonai, IS read out as a substitute for YHWH by Jewish lectors, because God’s own name is so holy.  In early manuscripts of the NT, the name KYRIOS was also not written out in full, but given a short form in order to suggest its holiness.)  But in Phil 2:5-11, something else tips us off that the hymn is not simply calling Jesus by an honorific title, like “sir.”  It is the WAY that the Holy Name is mentioned, and its context that show us that the whole passage is making stupendous claims about Jesus.

Astonishingly, this very early hymn of the Church attributes to Jesus a verse from Isaiah that refers exclusively to God almighty: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that he is LORD.”  Not only that, but this verse is taken from Isaiah 45, a passage where God is insisting that he alone is God, and should be worshipped.  At the very climax of God’s call that His people worship him alone comes that phrase, that “at my name, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess me to be LORD.” Early Christians took this OT verse, and applied it to Jesus.  They said that the Holy Name had been given to Jesus, and that whenever they called Jesus “LORD,” they were not committing idolatry, but actually glorifying the Father! Worship is the only proper response to his mysterious person, to his divine actions, to his identity as God among us. Here, then, is the shock of this passage:  it teaches us to adopt humility because God himself did.  God became a human being who died the most horrible death imaginable: that is his great love, and his great glory!

In your mind’s eye, imagine how much of a learning curve this must have been even for the all-pure and faithful Mother of God. She accepted, though she did not understand Gabriel’s message that she should bear a child in an ineffable manner. But the stretching did not stop there, and she was warned about this by the prophet Symeon, who told her that her son would be a “sign spoken against’ and that a “sword would pierce her heart,” too.  Probably she knew that things would be tough even before he worried her by remaining behind in the Jerusalem Temple at age 12. Even later in his ministry, we hear that she feared for his sanity, and went to try to rescue him from the alternately adoring and critical crowds.  It must have been very difficult for this one, who had been told by the angel that her Son would be Messiah, to accept that the “Son of Man must suffer at the hands of evil men and die.”  Perhaps she had heard Symeon’s words about “falling and rising” as metaphorical, and it took some time for her to understand the full implications that He would be rejected by his own people. But at some point, it is clear that she embraced the fuller truth: for she is found faithfully with the women at the cross, at the tomb on the resurrection morning, and with the disciples as they met, waiting for Pentecost.  Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles singles her out, naming her, and then speaking of “the other women.”  Here is New Testament evidence that even by the time that the apostle Luke wrote, she had been given a special honor in the Church.  Luke could have singled out St. Mary Magdalene, but he mentions, at the time of Pentecost, the Theotokos. There is not a good deal more in the Scriptures about her, but we are grateful for Holy Tradition, which tells us of her continued influence over the apostles, and of the way that the Lord especially remembered her at her Dormition and Translation. It is meet for us to call her blessed, and to celebrate that she has become more honorable than the cherubim and seraphim:  for she bore God in her womb.  But her greatest influence, beyond becoming his mother, was to pass on the things that she had treasured in her heart, and to tell the disciples and us, as she had the servants at the wedding, to “listen to Him!”

The second reading, Luke 10:38-42, shows another Mary doing exactly that. Listening to him.  My middle daughter, who is by nature one who likes to serve, says that her sister Martha of Bethany gets a bad rap.  Martha, after all, was busy attending to the needs of the Lord and his disciples.  Her complaint to Jesus, that Mary has left her to do all the work, is congenial to any mother who has spent Sunday afternoon preparing a meal and cleaning up, while the others engage in festivities!  It is not, of course, as though the Lord actually reprimands Martha for her chosen occupation.  But he does put things in perspective: blessed rather is the one who has chosen this “better part” of listening and learning.  This was, of course, a bit counter-cultural, for in their day the study of Torah was reserved mostly for men—think of the scandal that Yentl causes in the film, and multiply that!  Even the intimate setting of a woman at a man’s feet would have raised eyebrows.  And it is not as though Martha was doing something unusual—in fact, she was bringing honor to her kind by serving so well.  Perhaps that is part of the trouble.  She is so busy getting about her work, fulfilling her human role, that she does not see the extraordinary thing happening right under her nose.  In this sense, she is like those who criticized the woman who anointed Jesus, those to whom Jesus responded, “the poor you have with you always.”  Of course Jesus was not saying it didn’t matter if you care for the poor—everything else that he taught goes against that kind of dismissive or careless attitude.  But he WAS reminding both the critics, and Martha, that in their human sense of self-importance they had missed the great visitation of God in their midst.  Both the moralist who puffs up his self-importance by speaking of the poor, and the woman who says, “look how busy I am!” are indicating how important they are by human standards.  The first fancies himself a watch-dog for the poor, the second an active person who gets things done. And both show their importance by criticizing someone else—someone else whose utter devotion to Jesus they do not quite understand.  “Social justice” is important; service to others is important.  But the best thing of all is to commune with the LORD and to learn from him.  Without this “first thing,” the secondary things become tyrannical, and can lead to arrogance.

The woman in the crowd who cried out about Jesus’ mother was not arrogant. In fact, she appears to be the first to fulfill Holy Mary’s words—that all generations would call her blessed. Jesus has just been speaking about serious matters.  He tells a striking story about what happens when someone tries to take charge of his or her spiritual life, removing all the evil within, without filling that place with the One who is truly King. “The one who is not with me, scatters!” —and indeed, can disintegrate himself or herself. A spiritual vacuum, Jesus says, can leave that person in a more vulnerable spot, at the mercy of even worse demons.  On hearing this striking teaching, the woman in the crowd thinks, it seems, “Oh, to have born a son who can teach like that! I wish that MY children were as compelling, as able to reach the crowd.  That would have been something, to be able to say, THIS man is my son!”  She attends more to Jesus’ social context than to his strong words, and identifies more with the mother than the teaching.

But her longing shows a kind of humility that Jesus, I think, actually rewards. Some scholars have thought that his rejoinder to the woman is a rebuke, that Jesus is saying, “Such matters as the role of my mother are not worth thinking about. Instead, you should be thinking of how to be faithful to God.” These exegetes read the Greek as meaning, “NO!  Rather, blessed…”  But that is not the only way to take this sentence.  It can be read as a more positive redirection, ‘Yes, you are right, but blessed even more is….”  The woman did not bear Jesus physically.  Only one woman had that honour. But she could be a “Christ-bearer!”—one who hears the word of God, indeed, one who hears this Incarnate One, the Word, and who guards in her heart, like the Theotokos, what she has learned!  The woman’s humble aspiration, to be mother to a prophet like this, is replaced by Jesus with a much loftier hope—that she might be transformed by God!

St. John Chrysostom, the golden mouthed, understands Jesus’ challenge to her along these lines: “How many women have blessed the holy Virgin, and desired to be such a mother as she was! What hinders them? Christ has made for us a wide way to this happiness, and not only women, but men may tread it—the way of obedience; this it is which makes such a mother, and not the pains of childbirth.”

So, then, on this day, as we recall the wonder of God, who calls humble women—and men—to do his will, we ourselves are redirected to the One who is the Word of God. Tradition tells us that the parents of holy Mary, righteous Anna and Joachim, were aged, like Sarah and Abraham, and had despaired of having a child: the coming of this little Miriam into their life must have seemed similar to the story that broke this spring concerning seventy-two year old Daljinda Kaur, who was the beneficiary of IVF therapy.  Righteous Anna and Joachim, however, were touched not by the hands of scientists, but by God, and the beneficiaries of their happiness were not only those like their kinswoman Elizabeth, who recognized Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” No, all of us who have come to know the Lord Jesus are beneficiaries of the gift that God brought through the Theotokos.  God came to a people whose faithful remnant had been longing for his visitation, and he did it in the most intimate way possible—by entering into and sanctifying the womb of a young woman.  This he did when she submitted herself to him—“be it unto me”—and not without her consent.  A humble human acceptance of God’s will opened the door to undo the faithless acts of Adam and Eve. Like Jesus, and unlike the first Eve, Holy Mary, did not strive for the prestige of God, but put herself at God’s disposal. And the whole history of the world changed as a result.

Let us never cease to be amazed at what God can do in the heart of the humble— whether that is St. Paul who called himself “the least,” or the aged Anna who was surprised by the joy of childbirth, or the responsive Theotokos who said yes to the angel even while she did not fully understand, and who said “do what he says” to others at the wedding of Cana, when Jesus performed his first public miracle. Whenever we are tempted to show our self-importance by bragging about our business, or to envy the place of someone whose role is more flashy, or to forget the deep humility of our Savior, we have their stories to guide us. These lovers of the God-Man teach us, with them, to sit at His feet, to hear Him, and to live a new life of obedience. Thanks be to God!

Today the barren gates are opened, and there cometh forth the divine, the virginal gate. Today hath grace begun to give fruit, showing forth to the world the Theotokos, through whom the earthly and the heavenly beings unite for the salvation of our souls. Amen.

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