Isaiah 7; Daniel 12
For a few weeks, due to the liturgical rhythm, we have either repeated a dismissal-resurrectional Theotokion that we already considered in this series, or we have had this usual hymn replaced with something else. Considering the significance of this week, when we celebrate the entry of the Holy God-bearer into the Temple, I thought we could instead read closely a dogmatic hymn which we sing very frequently. The problem, of course, with familiarity, is that it can “breed contempt.” And so it may be that we do not notice, as may also be the case with the creed, the profound teaching that is expressed in this magnificent hymn. As one who is very affected by music, however, it was the Kievan setting (tone 6) of this hymn that first drew me into its mystery, even before I became Orthodox. Its modal sound, with repeating notes that rise to a climax, then resolve, are perfectly suited to the mysteries of the Incarnation that are explored in its lyrics:
Who will not bless you, O most holy Virgin?
Who will not sing of your most pure childbearing?
The only-begotten Son shone timelessly from the Father,
but from you He was ineffably incarnate.
God by nature, He became Man for our sake,
not divided into two persons but manifest as One in two natures.
Entreat Him, O pure and all-blessed Lady,
to have mercy on our souls!
As a dogmatikon, then, this hymn probes the Incarnation, rather than the resurrection, so emphasized in the dismissal hymns. As the Apostle John puts it, “not all the books in the world could contain” the implications of this mighty act of God. The song begins humbly enough, inviting the listener to join in the praises of holy Mary. Today, of course, especially in the West where the Christian landscape is dominated by Protestants, the first two questions are not merely rhetorical:
Who will not bless you, O most holy Virgin?
Who will not sing of your most pure childbearing?
Plenty of people, we might retort, particularly in this season when our evangelical brothers and sisters are reflecting upon the weakness, rather than the strength of our mother, as they sing, “Mary, did you know?” But, of course, these opening questions are meant to suggest that her glory is so self-evident, no one would dare not to bless and celebrate her. Holy Mary herself, speaking as a young prophetess, foresaw with joy, “all generations shall call me blessed,” and so they have. Unfortunately, with the Protestant reaction to exaggerated or distorted Marian devotion during the Middle Ages in the West, the “blessing” has been reduced to simply recognizing her as the one from whom the Messiah came. Many of our friends from these traditions, as in the days of Arius, do not recognize the profundity of that participation, and balk at calling her “God-bearer,” preferring simply “Christ-bearer,” as though the divine and human natures of Christ could be divided. But more of that in a moment.
Let’s pause for a moment over the implications of the first two lines. We name her as “holy Virgin” and speak of her “pure childbearing.” Already we should know that we are not talking about any occasion. For virgins do not conceive, and child-bearing, from the Hebrew perspective, rendered the mother “unclean” for a certain period of time. We are sent back to the Old Testament to understand these lines more fully, and are helped by some commentary in the NT.
Regarding the term “virgin,” there is an age-old controversy between Jews and Christians that involves a difference in nuance between the Hebrew and Greek texts of Isaiah. The contemporary controversy raised its head in the public scene with the publishing of the RSV in the middle of the last century. The translators understood Isaiah 7:14, with its reference to “the almah” that would conceive and bear a child called “Immanuel,” to be a reference to a historical young woman, and not specifically a virgin. So they rendered this “behold, the young woman will conceive.” However, in doing so, they were not doing anything new. We see the same debate back in the second century, when Justin Martyr penned his “Dialogue with Trypho”:
Now it is evident to all, that in the race of Abraham according to the flesh no one has been born of a virgin, or is said to have been born [of a virgin], except for this our Christ. But since you and your teachers venture to affirm that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son;’ and [since] you explain the prophecy as if [it referred] to Hezekiah, who was your king, I shall endeavor to discuss shortly this point in opposition to you, and to show that reference is made to Him who is acknowledged by us as Christ. (Ch. 43)
Justin Martyr’s major argument that follows is that it would be no special sign for a young woman to naturally conceive, since all the first-born are signs of God’s clemency to Israel. Certainly, the Hebrew word almah is not as specific as the Greek word parthenos! But almah does not exclude the concept of virginity—in the days of Isaiah, most young women were maidens. And the evangelist Matthew, in quoting this verse in reference to the miraculous conception of Jesus, certainly understood the verse to refer to an intervention from God (1:23), and Luke, who doesn’t quote it, also tells the story in such a way as to highlight the virginity of Mary. It is important to remember that by the time of Jesus, many Jews read their Bible in Greek, and so would have taken the reading parthenos (virgin) for granted! We could say that even if the original text does not commit the reader to this reading, the creation of the Septuagint (Greek) version was fortuitous, and prepared God’s people for the wonderful act that was to come.
Secondly, there is reference to the purity of her child-bearing. This is a more delicate topic. Why was it that childbirth was considered to render the woman unclean in the Hebrew Bible? There are several aspects to this, which help us to understand that it is not simply the “yuck” factor here, expressed by male priests and rabbis with little sympathy for female activities. First, there is the matter of blood, which is holy in the OT: priests themselves followed many regulations regarding the use and sanctity of blood, which has “the life in it.” Secondly, there is the matter of engaging in holy activities, rather than simply ordinary ones. Rabbis spoke of their holy books as “rendering the hands unclean.” That seems odd to us. But what they meant was that, when finishing the holy act of reading the Old Testament (Torah, Prophets, or Writings), they ceremoniously washed their hands before returning to their daily, ordinary lives. Perhaps, then, when a woman has been on the threshold of things, bringing life into the world, she is understood as engaging with God in a sacred act. Thus, purification is required. And please note that holy Mary herself came to the temple for her purification, bringing the offering of two birds to the Lord, as the Law prescribed. This is not because bearing God in the flesh rendered her impure—God forbid us to say such a thing!—but because she obeyed the Torah, as a righteous woman of Israel.
Perhaps there is something else to say about childbearing, though, in which we think of the normal, rather than ceremonial meaning of “impurity.” After all, pain and struggle in childbirth was one of the limitations imposed on women as a result of the fall—just as struggle in labor was imposed on men. As such, then, when we give birth, we are reminded forcibly of our mortality, and sometimes even succumb to it. Those of us who have been through this ordeal know that it can be, though wonderful, also the occasion of great temptation. There are all those jokes about women who curse out their husbands, whom they really do love, for putting them in this situation. Pain, uncertainty, fear, can put anyone in the dark place where God may seem far away. And so, who of us really goes through childbirth without some sin, or at least without a strong reminder of our sinful condition? (As a side-line, I would say that though perhaps some of the specific Orthodox prayers after childbirth may reflect a mentality toward women and childbearing that is less than sympathetic, I find it psychologically sound to pray for any sin that the woman may have committed during her time of duress!)
But with holy Mary this was different. God, ever the gentleman, kept her from the usual penalty—she would, instead, have the ongoing suffering of watching her son rejected, and the ultimate pain of standing by the cross in woe. A sword, too, will pierce her soul! But at the beginning, when God enters deeply into our realm, emerging with the human flesh that He has assumed from this young woman who said yes, he does no harm. For He is here to save, not to wound, and His gentleness with Mary is a sign of that. Her childbearing is wholly pure, leading to no defilement of soul or body. The first letter to Timothy (1Timothy 2:9-15) recognizes this unusual event, it seems, when its speaks about how “childbearing” is associated with “salvation.” So, too, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks about how Eve was taken from Adam, but that now every man comes from woman—and specifically, *the New Adam has come from holy Mary! Childbearing is in every case a gift from God and something to celebrate; in the case of the birth of the holy Child, the child-bearing is something that everyone is called to sing about—not simply every human being, but the angels, as well. No angel bore the Messiah, but a human woman, our holy Mary, who now leads the praises of the angels, for she understands the mystery of the Incarnation in a way that the angels never will.
The Theotokion then moves its focus, turning to the Child whom she bore. He is described, as in the creed, as “Light from Light”: “The only-begotten Son shone timelessly from the Father.” Forever the Father and the Son have been together, forever the Son is the Light, showing forth the glory of the Father. As John’s gospel interprets the first few verses of Genesis, “in the beginning was the Word. And the Word was the Light of the World.” If we can compare the glory of the Word to the glory of the celestial lights, Jesus is like the Sun itself, though not created; in comparison to His light, the lesser lights of the heavenly luminaries, the powers and principalities and archangels, are like the pinpricks of the stars. And, they were created, while He has always been and always shone.
Amazingly, though, God’s great glory is seen in his ability to enter fully into His creation while remaining God. It may help to think about how the last chapter of Daniel, Daniel 12, pictures the last days. Then, the prophet tells us, the wise shall shine “like the stars”—in Biblical imagery, that means, like the angels. Consider also how Abraham was told that his descendants would be “like the stars”—yes, impossible to count because of their number, but also shining gloriously for the whole world to see. This, says the prophet Daniel, is the hope of those who know God—to shine in the last day in this way. Jesus, however, said something even more startling. In speaking to his disciples, he told them that God aims to do even more. It is not to mere stars that we will be compared, when God is finished with us, but “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:43) What is it that has happened between the time of Daniel and the time of Jesus? Why, of course, God has taken on human flesh, to dignify it, to glorify it, to deify it. He shone timelessly from the Father, but took flesh ineffably, mysteriously, from Mary. Those who are in Christ, then, can become like Him, like the Sun, the major luminary in the heavens! This is because He joined His divine nature to ours, that we may share in His glory: “God by nature, He became Man for our sake, not divided into two persons but manifest as One in two natures.” This amazing conjunction, this One who was truly and properly God and truly and properly Man, has made it possible for us to become, as the second epistle of Peter puts it, “partakers of the divine nature.” The Incarnation of the Word provided the way by which our sins might be forgiven, yes! But even more, it provided the means for us to become everything that God has in mind for us to be.
But this becoming does not happen automatically!
Personally, and together as God’s people, we help each other to reach the goal. Our prayers, our intercessions, our actions, all play a part in this wonderful drama. And, leading the way in this godly living is our holy mother, the mother of Jesus, the Theotokos, who always prays on our behalf. And so we close this Theotokion, after gazing at the God-Man, by turning back to His mother, and asking, “Entreat Him, O pure and all-blessed Lady to have mercy on our souls!”