(With help from Jeremiah 31, Genesis 3, Isaiah 6)
The dismissal hymn for the Theotokos this week (in tone three), though quite brief, prompts many questions for those who are not Orthodox. It also suggests some points for deep meditation even for those who have been following in the Orthodox way since birth, or for a considerable time. Since it is one of the eight resurrectional hymns (of the group addressed to the Theotokos), of course the New Testament sheds light on its meaning. But there are some places at which the Old Testament also offers help to us!
Though there are numerous renderings of this hymn in felicitous English (both using the “thou” and “you” forms), let me offer a literal translation of the hymn from the Greek, in which I keep, as much as possible, the word order and the emphasis, without worrying about adapting it to the melody:
You who were the mediatrix of the salvation of our race, we hymn, Virgin Theotokos! For in the flesh, that very flesh taken from you, your Son and our God, because he had embraced the passion of the cross, redeemed us from corruption, as the Lover of humankind.
Let’s consider three questions. Why is holy Mary given the role of mediatrix, and what does it mean? Why does the song speak of “our race”? And what is it to be “redeemed from corruption”? Each of these discussions could fill a whole book, of course!
So, first, for the term mediatrix. The hymn addresses holy Mary, beginning with the pronoun “you.” Its first line is particularly interesting to me at the current time because I am working on the draft of a book, tentatively called Mediation and the Immediate God. In it I tackle one of the mysteries of our Christian faith: in the new covenant, each of us is promised a direct relationship with God, each of us is filled with the Holy Spirit, each of us is promised illumination. As the prophet Jeremiah promised, “And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34). In prophesying about the age in which we live, the righteous Jeremiah caught a glimpse of a time in which all of God’s people would see, and not be kept in the dark, or have less knowledge than the anointed prophets, priests, and kings, on whom (under the old covenant) the Holy Spirit almost exclusively fell. All of God’s people now would enjoy God’s direct presence!
And yet, in the new covenant we still care for each other, still pray for each other, still teach each other, still help each other, still bear each other’s burdens. And so it is that the ancient Church kept the office of priest, and anointed bishops who succeeded the apostles, those who had seen the risen Jesus with their fleshly eyes. Moreover, those of us in the ancient Church celebrate the holy Birthgiver and Mother of God, as one of those who especially helps us: “Holy Birth-Giver of God,” we cry out, “come to our aid!”
“Mediatrix,” then, in the feminine form (taken from the Latin word), is added to the term “Mediator,” as part of the Christian family vocabulary. It is not, of course, found specifically in the NT. But neither is the word “Trinity.” It is described there, however, and prefigured in the Old Testament at various points. It should be emphasized that the term “mediatrix” and the title “Redemptrix” are very different: the Orthodox communion is not tempted to call Mary our “redeemer,” unlike some pious Roman Catholics who have appealed (so far, unsuccessfully!) to the Pope several times to add this title to her. As this hymn expresses it, Mary has mediated for us in a particular and powerful way, but it is the Son alone who “redeemed us” through the cross.
Yet it is holy Mary who historically brought this One into our midst, for He took flesh from her alone (without a human father), and in that flesh suffered on the cross. In that distinct sense, she mediated our salvation: the hymn puts her major action in the past tense! The prophet Isaiah, it seems, saw a symbolic preview of her mediating role in a vision. In chapter six of his prophecy, we hear about how he saw the ineffable God high and lifted up, and how one of the angels of God’s presence flew to him with a living coal held in tongs. This coal the angel applied to his lips, cleansing him, and preparing him to speak. In our hymnody, this visionary image is likened to the great honor of St. Simeon, who received the “living Coal”—Jesus, the divine Child—in the Temple, given to him from Holy Mary’s arms, arms “like tongs” that offered this cleansing child to the righteous old man. In like fashion, Mary offers to the whole human race her Son, as we see her in the dominant image in our Church apse—holding Him out to us in her arms.
It is as if she is saying to us, as she said to Simeon, “Here he is!” As if she is saying to us, as she did to the servers at Cana, “Do whatever He tells you!” As if she is saying to us, as she did to Elisabeth, “My soul magnifies God my Savior! You rejoice, too!” Her greatest act of Mediation, then, comes by virtue of who she is: the mother, bearer, and birth-giver of God the Son. Those of us who come to know her as mother (like St. John the evangelist), though, realize that her mediation is not limited to this historical role as the one from whom Jesus took flesh, but is ongoing. She is the leader of that great host of witnesses we hear about in Hebrews 12, and helps us to stay the course as she lives in the presence of her Son. Luke makes it clear that she is with the Apostles in those early days of the Church, in the upper room, at Pentecost and at the Ascension. And holy Tradition tells us that all the apostles were present—though St. Thomas was delayed—at her falling asleep, honoring her. This we celebrate each year when we remember her Dormition and Glorification in the presence of God. In her very person she is an icon of what we can hope for as those who are redeemed: the entire human race, all who are baptized into Christ’s death, can hope for resurrection and glory, and holy Mary, at Jesus’ right hand, is a tangible sign of this.
“The human race!” Isn’t it interesting that we still use that phrase. But “race” more typically has a restrictive sense today, referring to a particular tribe or ethnic group. This is true of the Greek word genos, used in this hymn, which can refer to descendents, to a family, to a nation or people, but also to a “class” or “kind.” Words like “the human race” or “mankind” or “humankind” remind us that, despite the abysmal biblical illiteracy of our day, and despite the dramatic burgeoning of “diversity” and individualism as philosophies, we instinctively think of human beings as organically linked, as “one,” in a certain sense.
No one can quite believe that each person is an island, cut off from the others in isolation. Despite the differences even between Christians concerning ideas of the beginning of things, we are not surprised to hear that the hypotheses of “mitochondrial Eve” and a single origin are being given serious consideration among scientists. With the philosopher Terence, we reflect, “I am a human being. I consider nothing human to be alien to me.”
The ancient people understood this solidarity even more securely. One was, according to St. Paul, either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” This was possible because human beings, though possessing personal life and characteristics, have a common nature or identity. They were, to use the word genos, one kind, or type, or race. So we have Luke’s presentation of Paul’s talk in the Areopagus: “From one man He made every nation of men, to inhabit the whole earth; and He determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. God intended that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). And, of course, Paul was simply summarizing what we see in Genesis, with its emphasis upon genealogies, and its implicit theology that we are, fundamentally, one people, despite the separation that has come about because of sin and death. Before the scattering of Babel, before the alienation of Eden, there was one race. And despite the shocking violence between peoples, that oneness cannot be denied.
C. S. Lewis uses this helpful picture to help us to recapture the ancient view that we are members one of the other:
Human beings look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different. For there was a time when every man was part of his mother, and (earlier still) part of his father as well, and when they were part of his grandparents. If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing–rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other. (Mere Christianity)
Somehow, then, we are persons, distinct from each other, and also joined together, biologically and chronologically. It is this conviction (and truth) that made it possible for the earliest Christians to grasp the significance of remaining “in Adam” or being baptized into the new Adam, into Christ.
They did not have a complicated view that some human beings were different from others, more spiritual, for example, as did the Gnostics. Nor did they think that race of class or even gender mattered with regards to human identity: any person, by virtue of his or her humanity, could be baptized into Christ, or, to keep the metaphor of Lewis, become a branch in the true Vine. Though God began by teaching the Hebrew people in particular about Him, this was so that they would be a light to the whole world: Christ came for the race, and not simply for Israel. God is the “Lover of Humankind”, and as such, our hymn proclaims, He redeemed us.
But from what were we redeemed? We are told that our Representative, Jesus, completely accepted, or embraced the experience of suffering on the cross, for our sake. (The Greek is emphatic here!) Certainly his death was effective to release us from sin, and from the punishment that sin evokes—our separation from God. But we have, St. Paul declares in the letter to the Romans, TWO enemies, not just one. We are redeemed from sin AND FROM DEATH. And “corruption” is a way of speaking about the process of dying.
Some may be surprised to hear this! We are used to hearing the word used metaphorically of people or institutions that are “morally corrupt.” And indeed, the Greek word was used this way, too, but this is a secondary and derived meaning. In earlier days, the English word “corrupt” was used to speak about decay, death, deterioration, ruin, dissolution and destruction. To speak of corruption was to speak of the rot that leads to, or accompanies, or follows from, death. Our “corruption” was a theological way of speaking about the “deadly” or “dying” condition experienced by each one of us the moment that we are born. Even as children who grow to maturity, each of us is liable to disease, decay, the break-down of our bodily systems. Some have suggested that God was exaggerating when He warned, “the day that you eat of the tree of life, you will die.” He was not: the condition of dying began immediately, and was sealed as our first-parents were (in a severe act of mercy), banned from the tree of life. Can you imagine if we lived forever like this? Death, then, is our end. Yet, not inevitably! For as Jesus said to Mary and Martha, “He who believes in me…though he should die, yet will he live!” We are redeemed from the dying condition, through Jesus’ embrace of the cross. He tramples down death (including the state of corruptibility) by death.
This sheds light for us on another phrase that we frequently apply to our dear holy Mother, “without corruption you gave birth to God the Word!” We may be tempted to see in this a criticism of human sexual and generative activity, as though human intercourse in itself brings corruption, or giving birth in itself brings uncleanness to the woman. We may think that this is a reference to Mary’s moral holiness, and that she was in a state of moral purity when she gave birth to Jesus. (And of course, her holiness is beyond question!) But it would seem that the phrase “without corruption” is very specific here. We remember that Eve, as a result of the fall, was consigned by God to giving birth in pain, as a reminder of her dependence and fragility (just as Adam was consigned to labor with difficulty). Part of that “pain” involved the violation of her body, its tearing as she labored, just as Adam’s labor would bring wounds, callouses, and the like. And, of course, ever since the Fall, loving husbands and wives have shared each other’s wounds and hardships, either physically or psychologically. But our mediatrix holy Mary did not bring the Savior into the world in that way: He came as a gentleman, not harming her womb or her birth canal. After all, her pain was to come later, the sword piercing her as He died on the cross. As for His coming into the world, it happened in such a way that Eve’s woe may be seen to be undone. His mother Mary, like the myrrh-bearers, cast away the ancestral curse, and brought her firstborn, God’s Only-begotten, into the world in a moment of sheer joy, without any woe. And this was an apt picture, wasn’t it, of what was happening at the moment? The Incarnate God, the Rescuer, came to His own to redeem them, not to wound them: the suffering would be His to bear, at the appropriate time, and it would undo sin, death and corruption. This truth we see in the ineffable way that she bore Him for our sake, becoming the mediatrix of the salvation of our race, even as He had taken flesh from her, so that He could be in complete solidarity with us! Yes, you we indeed hymn, holy Lady, for “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…to redeem us…. that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal 4:4-5). You are the one who has brought into our very midst the One who is our salvation, and our redeemer from sin, corruption, and death! Praise be to God for all His gifts to us, including his mother, the mediatrix of our salvation!