Carrying Your Creator: The Dismissal-Resurrectional Theotokion in Tone One

Genesis 1-3, 1 Chronicles 16:8-36, Genesis 22:18

This week, we have had several feastdays, including October 31st, a day to remember the Hieromartyr John of Chicago.  His hymn, in tone one, leads to the dismissal-resurrectional Theotokion in tone one, as well. What a mysterious, provocative and joyful hymn this is!  It brings to life that great icon, frequently placed prominently over the apse, and commanding our attention. This icon, which typically includes written words, as well as visuals, shows Gabriel greeting Mary, and announcing her cause of rejoicing (God’s plan to use her in salvation), to which she responds with her “yes.”

Here are the words of the hymn:

When Gabriel uttered to you, O Virgin, the word “Rejoice!”

With that sound, the Master of the whole universe was incarnate in you—

the holy Ark, as the righteous David said!

You were shown to be more spacious than the heavens,

for you carried your Creator.

Glory to Him Who took abode in you!

Glory to Him Who came forth from you!

Glory to Him Who freed us through your childbearing!

The hymn suggests that Gabriel’s word made for Mary’s conception.  But frequently theologians have posited that it was at the very point of her agreement that the holy conception occurred:  this is almost certainly the case, since God, ever the gentleman, waits for our response.  Thus, Mary’s “yes,” matching Gabriel’s greeting, as wonderfully effective, undoing the skepticism and rebellion of Eve, along with her husband Adam.  In the Latin tradition, the word “AVE!” uttered by Gabriel (“Hail!”) demonstrates the reversal of Eve’s primal sin, for Mary is the new Eve (Latin: Eva) who is responsive and obedient.  This word play of Eva-Ave (in which the “Hail!” is literally a reverse of Eve’s name) only works, of course, in Latin:  but its truth may be seen in any telling of the two stories.

For Orthodox, Gabriel’s greeting is more often understood according to the literal meaning of the Greek word Chaire!  Chaire was, of course, the common way of saying “hello!” but it actually means “Rejoice!”  So, while Western Christians pray, “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” Orthodox sing, “Rejoice, O virgin Theotokos, Mary full of grace!”  As formal greetings, Ave! and Chaire! are synonyms.  But Chaire! also carries with it the encouragement to rejoice, and is therefore not simply an acclamation or salutation.

The wording of this hymn in tone one rings other bells for us.  The “Rejoice!” spoken by Gabriel, the mouthpiece of God, makes its indelible mark upon the world, just as God “spoke” six “words” or commands of creation in the beginning, and it was so. God is described in the hymn as “Master of the whole universe,” and the entry of the incarnate God into Mary’s womb makes it “mores spacious than the heavens”—which, the prophet Isaiah tells us, cannot, for all their vastness, contain God.  At this climactic point of our human history, the God “of the whole,” the Maker of the universe, speaks again.  His word this time is not a bare “let it be,” but an encouragement for human response.  The new Eve, with all her children, is to rejoice, that is, to respond to God’s word, and not simply to hear it and obey. It is in Mary’s response, both her “Yes!” and her hymn of joy (“The Magnificat”), that we see the human response to God’s action which He longs for in all His people. As our Lady put it, her heart brimming with joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour! … He has pulled down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek!”   Our LORD is the God of reversals, and in taking on the humble flesh of humanity, He has provided for both our redemption and our glorification.

Why does the hymn mention the “Ark”?  This object was, of course, that special moveable throne that was set first in the Tabernacle, and then in the Temple built by Solomon.  It was carefully transported on poles, and not touched by human hands, because, as the “seat” or sign of God’s enthroned presence, it was utterly holy.  There are some points in the Old Testament stories where contact with the object brought destruction to the careless mortal.  (And, of course, it is this awe-inspiring quality of the Ark that prompted the ridiculous adventure film of decades ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark.). But the point of the Ark was not simply to terrify a rebellious people.  Within it were housed priceless relics, reminders of God’s generous actions among them in the past—the rod of Aaron that miraculously budded, manna left from the shower in the wilderness, and the tablets of the commandments.

It may help to consider the joy of David in bringing the ark up to Bethlehem. (This is also where holy Mary brought herself, as a human Ark, for the advent of Jesus!) In 1 Chronicles 16:8-36, we read about the three combined psalms that David had the cantors sing before the ark, some of which point forward to the coming of our LORD among us at Nativity.  The people are told to “call upon him by name,” to “seek His face,” to “remember his wonderful works,” and the “judgments of his mouth,” and to “remember his covenant for ever…which he covenanted with Abraham.” This takes us back to God’s mysterious words to the patriarch, that “in your seed”—that is, in the son of Abraham, Jesus, would all the nations of the world be blessed (Gen 22:18).  It is because of this fulfillment in Jesus that we can sing with more understanding the song of David’s cantors before the Ark.  We can “declare among the nations his glory” (1 Chron 16:25) so that all the families of the nations” worship God as they ought, with joy.  The psalms the cantors reaches this climax, speaking of the holy presence of God: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be gladexult; and let them say among the nations, The Lord reigns” (16:31).  In this way, then, Asaph and his brothers sing before the ark, looking forward to the time of the LORD’s coming, and when the whole earth would rejoice.

How much more do we celebrate, knowing that the human Ark, our holy Mary, made her procession to Bethlehem, bringing with her the LORD of our salvation!  Our Theotokion hymn says that she “bore” or “carried” her Creator.  Indeed, the Greek is even more solemn, using a word that means “to endure,” and that Jesus uses to refer to the holy mysteries in the gospel: “”I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear (carry, endure) them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-14).  What the disciples were not ready yet to bear prior to Pentecost—the glory of Jesus’ presence—our Lady carried within her, bearing Him to His holy destination in our midst.  And she, of course, rejoiced: “All generations shall call me blessed!”

Her beatitude does not come because of her own glory or prowess, but because of the One whom she carried.  And so we join her song of praise at the end of this hymn of elation:

Glory to Him Who took abode in you!

Glory to Him Who came forth from you!

Glory to Him Who freed us through your childbearing!

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for your thoughts, so carefully and clearly expressed. You have helped me to start my day with rejoicing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *