Psalm 44 (Hebrew text 45), Song of Solomon, and other OT passages
The dismissal Theotokion in the second tone, sung during the liturgy for the Forerunner John the Baptist this week, is both exalted and intimate. It is sung both as a paean of praise to our Lady, and a song of great love to our Mother. The song begins by addressing her in her great splendor, then describes her in terms of purity and preserved virginity, then moves on to speak about knowing her, and finally asks for her intercessions. As with all the hymns to the Theotokos, her glory is in relation to the Incarnate Word, our LORD, not something she possesses by herself.
Let’s consider some of the depths of this simple hymn of adoration and love. We will look at how the OT helps us to understand her mysterious glory, the notion of “knowing” her, and the request that our “souls” be saved.
Here is the hymn, translated literally (and thus not so beautifully as many versions), without the worry of fitting the English to music:
All beyond thought, all beyond most glorious
Are your mysteries, O Theotokos!
In purity sealed, and with virginity guarded,
You are known to be the mother, free from all deceit,
Who gave birth to the True God.
Entreat Him to save our souls!
She is “all beyond thought and glory!” From the OT we learn a great deal about radiant or glorious mysteries. First, there is the burning bush, which has become a potent symbol of the Virgin Mary to us, who held within herself the divine Son, and was not consumed. Moses approached the bush with reverence, removing his shoes because it was “holy ground,” and so too do we, in this hymn, approach its “antitype,” its personal fulfillment, giving reverence to holy Mary. Again, in Psalm 44 (MT 45), which is traditionally read in terms of the Theotokos, we encounter another image of glory:
At your right hand stands the queen in vesture wrought with gold, and arrayed in varied colors.
Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house;
and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him;
The people of Tyre will sue your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth. The princess, full of glory, is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king…With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king….
They shall make mention of thy name from generation to generation: therefore shall the nations give thanks to thee for ever, even for ever and ever. (Ps 44/5:9-17)
Of course, in its original historical setting, this is a description of the marriage of a non-Jewish princess to the King of Israel or Judah, in which she is enjoined to forget her past, and assume the glory that she now will have as the Queen of God’s chosen people. But there are several reasons why this psalm has been read as pointing forward to our Lady.
The most obvious is the last verse, in which her eternal memory and the ongoing thanksgiving by the nations are emphasized. We think immediately of the virgin Mary’s prophetic words, “All generations shall call me blessed.” The second detail to note is that her glory comes from her alliance with the King. In the historical case, this woman’s marriage to the king endows her with glory; but in the theological sense, it is holy Mary’s intimate relationship with Jesus, her Son, that gives her the honor as Theotokos, and Mother of God. As the angel Gabriel spoke to this young, pure, woman, she (using the language of the Psalm) “inclined her ear,” and “bowed” to the Almighty’s will for her, saying “Be it unto me.” God desired “her beauty,” a beauty because she was “full of grace” and readily responsive, so undoing the curse brought by Eve. Holy Mary’s beauty was an inward beauty, a glory that went beyond mere clothing. And there is something else, too, about this Psalm. It speaks of her being accompanied by her companions, others who are pure. Symbolically this refers to all of Mary’s companions, those of us who, with her, say yes, and with her, “bear” Christ within. We, too, find a place in the royal house!
Then among the OT images, there are those found in the mystical book of the Song of Solomon. There we hear of one who is a “sister” and a “spouse,” who desires her lord, and who remains like a hidden garden, meant for him alone. We read this imagery with great care, understanding that it applies to the mystery of marriage, but also to God’s yearning for us, as Christ loves the Church and nourishes her:
My sister, my spouse is a garden enclosed; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed (Sol 4:12)
I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spices; I have eaten my bread with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, O friends, and drink; yea, brethren, drink abundantly. (Sol 5:1).
Here the Song of Solomon speaks of innocent love as something particular, as an “enclosed garden.” But the intimate meeting of those who love is also the occasion for great joy and celebration for others. This is true, also, when we read this poetry mystically, in reference to Holy Mary in particular, and to the Church in general. There is something unique about how God the Son became incarnate in the womb of Mary, and how she “kept all these things in her heart.” Yet we also know that the glory afforded her is a sign to us of the great glory promised to those who are in Christ. Each of us, and all of us together, may present a garden for Christ, may be a cause of celebration for the whole cosmos. In Ephesians 3:10, we hear about how, through those who are in Christ, the “many-colored wisdom of God” is being proclaimed even to the unseen angelic powers! And this is because holy Mary, in saying her simple “yes” to God, made a place for God, in his great and unforeseen wisdom, to become incarnate—a great surprise to the angelic beings! And so, as our Nativity Hymn puts it, the cave became Heaven, and the Theotokos became “the throne of the cherubim”—enshrining and enthroning the LORD God himself! Similarly, the Psalmist looks to the people of the LORD to “enthrone Him” on their praises: “Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Ps 22:3). For Christians, this enthronement is even deeper than under the Old Covenant, because of what Holy Mary first did, and because of the Holy Spirit in our midst, who helps us to praise as we ought.
Indeed, it has often been said that there is a special bond between the Theotokos and the Holy Spirit, who rested over her, and by whom the LORD Jesus was conceived. Some have found the Person of the Holy Spirit difficult to understand: for many Christians, He remains the shadowy person of the Holy Trinity. This may be because we have not come to know those in whom His inspiration is most evident. It seems that the Holy Spirit is best known in His works. And so we come to the idea of knowing this mother! Many of the versions of our hymn say that she has been “revealed” as mother, which is true. But that is not exactly what the original of the Theotokion says. It says she has been perceived or personally known to be mother—a true mother, a mother without any pretense, deceit, or affectation. (Remember, the Greek here says “without falseness”). It is not simply enough to know about the role of this great woman; we are invited to know her, as we come to know others who are dear to us.
Here the OT can also help. Its language of “knowing” is very personal, even to the point of being used to refer to marital intimacy. When applied to a person, the word does not simply mean knowing about them, but implies a personal bond. We hear, for example, of the tragedy when the Egyptians no longer “knew” (remembered and celebrated) Joseph: slavery came to his progeny (Ex 1:8). But God, we are told “knew” the sufferings of his people (Ex. 3:7), and came to their aid. Later God assures Moses, “I know you by name” (Ex 33:17). The book of Judges speaks with sorrow of those who “did not know the LORD” (Judges 2:10); Job, on seeing a vision of God, declares “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee”(Job 42:5); the prophet tells us that God knows His people’s sitting down and going out and coming in (Isaiah 3:28), even when they are rebellious. Finally, the prophet Jeremiah looks to a (to him, future!) time:
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).
Knowing God, then, is one of the joys of being in Christ, as is truly knowing our brothers and sisters. And even knowing a person is something deep and inexhaustible. After all, we are made in the image of God, and each one of us is a kind of microcosm of reality, bringing together body and soul (which we share with the animals) with spirit (which we share with the angels and with God). We are most blessed because there are, in our company, those who have already been glorified: we can see the wonder of God fully embodied in them. We have the opportunity in Orthodox worship to know God in his Saints: “He is glorious in His saints,” as the hymn puts it. Knowing a person does not come automatically, but gradually, as we speak with him or her, and spend time in that one’s presence. We engage in this process of learning both with God, and with His saints, who have known Him before us, and who are now with Him in eternity. We need time to get to know Him, and them, as well.
We may be tempted to think of this acquaintance in a domestic and sentimental way, as with the song, “Getting to know you! Getting to know all about you!” But we need to remember that truly coming to know a glorified person, as with coming to know God, can be an awe-inspiring and even discombobulating experience. If a glorified human being did not reserve some of his or her glory in meeting with us, we would be terrified! Yet their presence also for our building up. Jesus comforted his beloved disciple by telling him, “Here is your mother,” while Mary was told, “here is your son.” As we, too, are beloved ones, we can turn to this true mother for wisdom, for consolation, for guidance. Many things may reveal her to be the true Theotokos, including our hymns and the words of the theologians. But we want more than a “knowledge that” something is true. We want to know this one whose beauty is within, and who is wondered at even by the hosts of angels, for she bore God the Word. Such knowledge will come only as we talk with her.
Above all, we plead for her intercession. This is not because she stands as a heavenly bureaucrat, blocking the way to the Word, or as an extra step to slow us down. No, she is as a ready Companion, with arms out to show us Her Son, and hands out to speedily help us. On top of that, when we ask her to pray that the LORD will save our souls, we are not simply asking for a spiritualized, non-corporeal salvation. After all, the hymn does not say, “ask Him to save our spirits.” No, the ancient word “soul” was often used as a short-form to refer to the whole person who was alive—body, soul and spirit. This holy one, who held Jesus within her body, and who gave Him nourishment from her breast, is well aware of bodily strengths and needs. She required protection from the elements and enemies, offered to her by Joseph, by the guest-room made ready (simple though it was), by the donkey on which she rode, by the hospitality of her cousin Elizabeth. She knows well the vulnerability of the flesh, for she watched in sorrow as her perfect Son was nailed to a cross, humiliated, and left to die. Her birth and her death were wholly human events—though glory-tinged! As Orthodox we do not proclaim that she was preserved in a special way from the ancestral curse, nor do we suggest ever that her body did not die. Her love, therefore, is not a detached nor merely religious concern for her children, but one that knows well our common human weaknesses, and all that it is to be human. Mothers may come to know her in a special way, as they plead for their own children before the one who bore and raised the only Holy Child! Fathers may emulate both her pluck and her tenderness, as they remember her conversations with the LORD, and her role in the first miracle, when she told the servants to “do whatever He tells you.”
When we ask for salvation “for our souls,” then, we are asking her to pray for us in every way possible, that every part of us may be made whole. As the one human being who is now, body and soul, with her LORD in heaven, we can be sure that she will understand our needs, and pray for us, her children, with earnest desire and love. She is a mother without a tinge of falsehood—and she prays, for our sake, to the One who is truly God, and truly Man!