Ezekiel 41:1-3; Psalm 130/131; Revelation 12; 21-22
Good things come to those who wait! As we have been concentrating upon the resurrectional-dismissal hymns for the Theotokos in our Divine Liturgies from both Sundays and feast-days, we have waited some time for tone five come into play! Finally, on January 18, when we remember Saints Athanasius and Cyril, it is offered to us. And what a feast! Replete with biblical and theological imagery, this hymn well befits our memorial of these deep theologians, both of whom dwelt upon the mystery of the Incarnation, and the role that our holy Lady played in it.
There are, of course, several translations of this hymn, but here is one of the best known:
Rejoice, Impassable Gate of the Lord!
Rejoice, Wall and Protection of those who run to you!
Rejoice, Unshakable Refuge!
Rejoice, you who knew not wedlock,
who gave birth in the flesh to your Creator and God!
Do not cease praying for those who praise and worship your Son!
The English translation is, for the most part, straightforward, but there are a few points where some would render this differently. The first place is the command Chaire! or Rejoice!, which we echo four times, remembering Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin. Those who have been following in this series may remember the reason for the differences that can occur in translation here. Some versions, even in the Orthodox churches, translate this four-fold acclamation as “Hail!”, which is perfectly proper, despite the distinct difference between the English words. The Greek word, translated literally, is indeed a command to rejoice, but it was also used regularly in the ancient world as a greeting, a way of saying, “Hello!” The Western church tends to translate the word in its idiomatic sense, as “Hail!” or “Greetings!”, simply because it knew mostly of the angel’s greeting through the Latin word “Ave!” which is only a salutation, and does not carry the connotation of “Rejoice!” as the original Greek does. So Latin Christians say, “Hail, Mary, full of grace!” while Eastern Christians more often say, “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, full of grace!” Both are apt, for we both acknowledge our Lady’s presence with us in the salutation, and we join with the angel in agreement that she has much to rejoice over.
Indeed, this hymn piles up those things that are a cause for joy, both on the part of our mother and among all of us. She is a mysterious Gate, a Wall and natural Protection, a Haven, and the Mother who mysteriously bore her Maker, though unacquainted with the marital act. All of these descriptions, except the final one, picture Mary in terms of her protecting strength, and are images taken either from the natural or the human world. The first, in which she appears as a Gate that is not to be passed through, is understood, in the Church’s interpretation and hymnody, by means of a strange passage from the vision of Ezekiel:
Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east. And it was shut. And the LORD said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for *the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince may sit in it to eat bread before the LORD. He shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way. (Ezekiel 41:1-3)
In this vision, the prophet is being shown, by God himself, and with God’s own commentary on the details, the future eschatological Temple. Prior to these verses, we hear that Ezekiel has seen the time when the glory of the LORD will enter by the eastern gate, and has been told to relay this event, and all the things that God has said, to the people, to give them hope for the future. They may be harassed by pagan nations round about them, but the time will come when they will be able to worship God in freedom and in joy.
In the ancient tradition of the Church, this particular passage about the eastern gate shut up after the LORD’s entrance has been interpreted as luminously pointing to the virginity of Mary, who herself was oriented always towards God, and by whom the LORD has indeed entered into the realm of His people. No one except for the LORD may enter pass through this “gate,” not even her espoused, Joseph—she is sanctified to the LORD alone. For the ancient Hebrews who read this passage, the prophecy must have been bewildering, but they would have at least understood the concept of something sanctified to God alone, to be used only by Him. The image spoke of God’s utter uniqueness and holiness, and the presence of this closed gate indicated the sanctity of the entire Temple, and of the people called to worship there. In a sense, this picture of a closed gate is similar to the mystery of the ark of the covenant, which was placed in the holiest place as a royal seat for the LORD, but had no actual figure seated upon it. When the Gentiles came and raided the Temple in Jerusalem, they mocked the Jews for having a throne and “no god” there. Little did they know! Similarly, here, there is a gate that no one goes through. EXCEPT, of course, the most important one of all—God Himself. And we have seen His glory, and rejoice with the One who bore Him!
Our Church’s joy over the Gate herself, however, is now strange not to simply pagans, but to our Protestant friends, who have lost the memory of God’s great sign of entry. We might remind them that the earliest Reformers never questioned the ever-virginity of holy Mary. Calvin, Luther, Zwingli—all three of them continued to believe what had been taught about her for centuries. No doubt they realized how unthinkable it would be for Joseph to have taken liberties with the one who bore God himself. It was only gradually that this potent sign of God’s miraculous entrance into our world was lost, as Mary was slowly demoted to simply a pious young woman used by God. Indeed, some think that she was merely an incubator, a host for God, and have forgotten that, as we say in both the creed and in this hymn, God actually took flesh from her. What an amazing story we have been told: a young virgin gave birth to her very Creator! In so doing He sanctified the womb and the female body, and showed the significance of every mother, and also of every chaste woman who, like Mary, remains celibate. Our God cares for His world in all its concreteness, and not simply for what we would call “the spiritual.” To Him, our bodies matter!
The song goes on to speak of her as a wall and a protection. The line here, in its original Greek, doubles up the image, using both a man-made symbol (the wall) and a natural symbol (for the word used here conjures up a natural protection, like a copse of trees). We may rejoice because God has provided for us everything that we need for our safety, including the presence of strong others who guard us, by their prayers, from harm. Some may think that such protection is superfluous, since we have God himself, in the person of Jesus, as our protector. But, in fact, the language of a fortress and a protection has been applied to the Church since the times of the New Testament. We might think of that stupefying picture of the New Jerusalem at the end of our canon, with its numerous strong walls and its gates. Like our hymn, that picture in the Apocalypse includes imagery both from nature and of the man-made variety: it is a garden-city. 1 Timothy 3:18 actually describes the Church herself as “the pillar and foundation” of truth. What the Church is in general, we understand holy Mary to be in person. This is intimated in Rev 12, where a sorrowing mother represents the Church, and in many fathers, including St Cyril, whose famous words of praise juxtapose Mary with the Church, and finish by saying, “We will always praise Mary, the Virgin forever and indeed the Holy Church” (Divine Homily 4, PG. 77, 996). As Christians, the protection that God offers to us is through His people, especially the glorified saints, and first of all through our Mother, Mary.
Then she is spoken about as the “unshakeable Refuge.” The literal picture here is of a harbor that is untroubled by inclement weather. This image is realistic about our human condition, recognizing that all is not always smooth sailing. But Mary has finished the course, and now is at peace, body and soul, with the LORD; for her there is no more sorrow or sighing, and in this confidence she gives us peace. It is apt to remember that wonderful image from Psalm 130 (131):2, which commends that we be humble minded, like a calm and quieted young child, and not a rebellious toddler, with its mother. The child who knows his or her place, and that he or she is well protected, will neither rage nor be fearful, but will grow and develop in safety. It is this development, too, that is part of the picture. For a harbor is not a terminal point, but a spot along the expedition. Mary is not our goal, but rather one who has done this trip before, and who provides us with a resting place for the journey—like a clement harbor in the midst of life’s struggles. The LORD is our heavenly home, and Mary and all the other saints are wonderful sign-posts and companions to that final place of glory.
What a marvelous sign we have been given—one who did not know a man brought forth the true and perfect New Man. While on earth she asked him for good things—consider her role in the wedding of Cana, where she told the servants to “do whatever He tells you,” and the result was the best wine imaginable, making glad the hearts of the guests. And now, in the closing lines of this hymn, we ask her, “Do not cease praying for those who praise and worship your Son!” Literally, the Greek says, “Never leave off acting as an ‘elder,’ or an ambassador for those who worship the One that you bore.” As with all the Theotokia, this one imprints our minds and hearts firmly with the proper place of Christ and his mother. Him we worship; her we praise because she is our elder, our intercessor, the one who, like the 24 elders in the book of Revelation, never ceases to offer her prayers and ours to the Lamb on the throne. With her, we rejoice!