The Mother of God

england-trip-153.jpg

One aspect of Christmas (including Protestant Christmas) that I always enjoyed was the increasing attention given to the Mother of Jesus. Christmas cards feature her; hymns of “Mary, meek and mild” are sung. And even though such popular treatments will fall far short of the theological fullness of the one who gave birth to God the Word, it has always, nevertheless, been comforting to hear her get at least some public mention.

In the Orthodox world public mention is the least of the matter. There is a recognition of the radical implications contained in the phrase, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be done unto me according to Thy word.” These implications grew in the Church – they are already there in Scripture for those who had the eyes to see – finally to a point where they spilled over into the prayers and praises of the people of God. At some point, at least by the early 4th century, she was being hymned as the “Theotokos,” the “one who gave birth to God.” It was the only fitting title, if Christ was who the Church said He was, fully God and fully man. There was no lack of subtlety in the Church’s understanding. Anyone capable of writing on the exact nature of the hypostatic union is also capable of being quite precise about the meaning and limits of the word “Theotokos.”

But a clear understanding developed: there could be no incarnate Word of God that was not accompanied by the Mother of the Word. No incarnation is possible without the “yes” of Mary. And this yes is significant and not accidental.

Fathers of the Church, studying Scripture saw not only what was said in the New Testament, but saw as well what was “almost said” in the Old Testament. That the Word would become Man and dwell among us is largely hidden in figure and allusion in the Old Testament. Its meaning never becomes clear until it is reread in the light of Christ Jesus. So, the language of Mary would not be clear until read in that same light.

If He was the Light of the World, she was the Lampstand (as in the Temple). Indeed if He is God among us, she is the Temple. She was the Bush who was on fire and yet not burned – in that she was the Virgin who gave birth and yet remained a virgin. She was the Ark of the Covenant containing not the tablets of the law, but the Law of God incarnate.

And the figures go on. Orthodoxy does not worship Mary. She is not God, she is not such as can be worshipped. But among all of God’s created order there is nothing, no one, like her. Her obedience and humility are a fitting throne for God. Her devotion at the Cross was what the devotion of the brave disciples should have been. This woman, was “bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh” or rather, “He was bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.

In some small ways our culture will acknowledge her this year. They are small ways because without the fullness of dogma she cannot be properly extolled.

But every week, every day in the year, she is remembered in the Orthodox Church with the ancient hymn, Axion Estin.

It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos,

Ever blessed and most pure and the mother of our God.

More honorable than the cherubim,

More glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,

Without corruption you gave birth to God the Word,

True Theotokos, we magnify you!

26 comments:

  1. Hi fatherstephen!
    Thanx for this important blog. Ur subject is right, but as a protestant I feel that it is more important that we focus on Jesus, especially in christmastime!

    Merry Xmas!

  2. Kritzoffer,

    Thanks for your response. The Orthodox do not ever turn their focus away from Jesus – but the Jesus whom we know, the Incarnate Word of God – is also the Son of Mary. There is no distraction from Christ by giving honor to one whom the Scriptures make clear “all generations will call blessed.”

    Indeed, Orthodox experience (which is of 2000 years) is that neglect of the Mother of God, frequently leads to false understandings of Christ. Indeed today, there are evangelical leaders whose doctrine of the Trinity has begun to deviate from the classical understanding of the Church.

    The teaching of the faith is a fullness. If something is true, then to speak it does not diminish the fullness. To give proper honor to Mary does not diminish her Son, instead, it rightly points to the Truth of Who He Is.

    She was the first to say, “Do whatever he commands you,” (at the Wedding in Canaan). And even though it was “not yet His time” he worked His first miracle.

    If she is not going to be honored at this time of year (when we remember His birth) what time of year would you suggest she be remembered? I do not think that God failed to remember her at this time, nor should we. Indeed, the Orthodox understanding is that she should always be remembered in the proper confession of Christ as God made man. There is no “made man” without Mary.

    Thanks for the note.

  3. I have deleted a protestant posting on this subject, first because he added nothing new to the typical anti-Mary diatribe that you can find elsewhere on the net, and secondly, referring to the devotion of the Church (and it’s material manifestations) by a slang term is simply disrespectful and not according to the rules of the blog. If anyone can’t remember those rules I remind you of them again:

    Glory to God for All Things, has been up for a little over a week. We’ve been blessed with very good readership (around 8,000 views). I am moved and grateful.

    I took the liberty of removing a couple of comments today, including one of mine, and am taking this opportunity to state what I will maintain as some groundrules for this site.

    First, this is my site, not the public’s, so that freedom of speech is not the rule. Comments are welcome but only if they are kind to others and show mercy. God, Scripture tells us, is kind “to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). And we are commanded to be like Him in these very things. The internet is full of judgment and unkindness (so is the world around us). If people have a need for that sort of thing, they do not lack opportunities – but they will not have the opportunity for it on this site.

    I believe that we are able to say, with St. John Chrysostom, “Glory to God for All Things,” because God is good and His will for us is good. If something troubles you, there are kind ways to address it and merciful ways to treat any subject. Such comments, even if they are disagreements with postings, are welcome.

    I hope in my postings to be edifiying and thought-provoking, in the best sense, and at least worth reading. If that is so, then this blog will be worth taking time to create and to read.

    If these groundrules are observed (kindness and mercy), we will all have avoided some sin and temptation and that itself is a good thing.

    May God bless you as you visit, and forgive me if I give offense at any point.

    Fr. Stephen Freeman

  4. Ah, Father Stephen, I see what you mean.

    Good choice.

    I miss the old days when there was a decorum and dignity that motivated public discourse. But I guess when everything is a fight all you get are fighting words.

    Sad.

    Most holy Theotokos, pray for us that we too might conceive in our bodies the Lord Jesus, and that we might also attain unto God.

    Amen

  5. A note to my prostetant detractors. It’s truly not a matter of listening to the truth – you can’t tell me something I’ve not already read in a far more sophisticated manner many years before. I’ve been at this for quite some time, and did not come to Orthodoxy lightly, as a teenager, nor before having served for 18 years as a protestant minister.

    But, Mary is due honor, (not worship) which strangely, most protestants would gladly give to the President, the flag, or all kinds of flawed human things. But they refuse to honor she whom all generations should call blessed. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a great Russian saint, once said that there are some things about Jesus you can’t know if Jesus doesn’t show you. If you grew up Catholic and rejected all that I understand to a little degree, but don’t assume that Orthodox are simple Eastern Catholics – we are not. This is the Church founded by Christ and has kept the faith as delivered to us pure – from the beginning. We we dying for this faith when most of our ancestors were worshipping trees. Today, when most of us were concerning ourselves with how to buy the newest car, Orthodox Christians behind the Iron Curtain were dying by the millions to bear witness to Him who Was and Is and Is to Come. And the faith has sustained us. The Orthodox Church is not perfect, it’s just the Church Jesus founded. And the faith that it’s taught is bettered heard and listened to than to a hosts of radio preachers and men who have invented churches in their own name, and built universities to their own glory, and created over 28,000 different denominations with their Bible preaching. I stand with the Orthodox faith, and say, “Peace on earth, good will towards man.” If that’s unbearable then so be it.

  6. I’m almost to the point where I can stop commenting on how timely your posts are to conversations I’m having and just leave that understood. Having said that….

    Last night, as I was taking a student (specifically, a high school junior) home after going out to eat with youth and students from my former church, I gave him the story of my journey to Orthodoxy. I mentioned that there were some obstacles. One of them was the Ever-Virginity of Mary.

    I recounted my conversation with you regarding that, where you talked of the Jewish understanding of holiness. You ended with “If I’m Joseph, and I keep the feasts and fasts, go to the Temple, etc., and I understand and respect holiness….if my wife just bore God…yes, God the Son, but God nonetheless….how can I put this delicately?…I’m…not…going there.” I then went on to tell him how that struck me as a very jarring thought.

    He seemed unmoved by it. But, then he said something that surprised me.

    “I’ve always thought that. I just couldn’t make sense of why Joseph would sleep with her after she gave birth to Jesus. It simply didn’t seem right.”

    Then we conversed about how, in the Liturgy and everywhere else in Orthodoxy, they use the Greek word “Theotokos.” I told him that one day, when I told her that I was starting to kind of semi-understand the whole Mother of God thing, Joanna Heuer said to me, “Okay…who did she give birth to?”

    I answered, “Jesus.”

    She said, “Yes, but, who did she really give birth to?”

    “Ummm…the Son of God.”

    “So, Jesus was God the Son, right?”

    “Of course.”

    “Then how is she not the Mother of God?”

    “Ahh…I see. haha”

    I told him that she later said,”If you say she isn’t the Mother of God, then that would mean that you’re changing the definition of who Christ was, and then we have a huge problem.”

    He laughed along with me at the obviousness of that statement and didn’t protest one bit. He seemed to understand. And this is a guy I’ve known for years. In fact, my dad had him in school. If he didn’t agree with something I said, he’d let me know.

    All that this:

  7. Dear Father Stephen,

    I have been enjoying your blog for the last week or so. I would consider myself an evangelical, theologically trained in that “tradition”, but find myself at odds with it in many respects, mostly in its outward manifestations of spiritual life and worship (I won’t elaborate further on that here, but I’m not surprised to find that many comments you have deleted probably come from those that would call themselves “Evangelical”. It is from them that I wish to disassociate myself).

    Anyway, I just wanted to make a quick comment and to pose a genuine question about the Orthodox theology of Mary.

    First, my comment.

    I would find it humorous if it were not so sad, that in our self-centered, therapeutic culture, where many within the church (Evangelical anyway) find themselves laying on a couch talking to the therapist, the most important issue is, “who is your mother and father? What were they like? How did they relate to you in your formative years?” Yet, when it comes to God Incarnate, there are those that find it anathema to properly venerate His mother, let alone try and learn of Him by knowing his mother, even though the scriptures teach us about her.

    Second, my question.

    It is my understanding that Orthodox theology teaches that marriage is a sacrament (or at least sacramental/sacred), and that it is an image, or “type” of both the relationship within the Trinity and of Christ and his church. While I understand that tradition/early church fathers and much of church history teaches that Mary is ever-virgin, I am wondering if you can elaborate on the theological importance of the teaching. In other words, is there some importance to the teaching that falls outside of the importance of tradition?

    Respectfully submitted

  8. Father Stephen,

    I know that your blog is not fundamentally an apologetics site, although you do often offer contrasts between Orthodox doctrine and that taught in other Christian communions. Would you mind offering some thoughts on why the Orthodox might be wary of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception or Assumption? Might the resolution of these doctrines revolve around understanding “original sin” as the curse of death (“from dust to dust”)? Did Mary have to die?

  9. Stupid touchpad. haha I submitted before I finished. Anyway….continuing on…

    All that to say this:
    The more conversation I have with students, and the more I look at what’s going on and being said by some of the leaders in student and college-level ministry, the more I have hope for the younger generations discovering the fullness of the faith and coming home to it. (Not that I’m into proselytizing…it’s pointless and gets you nowhere. Besides the fact that it’s arrogant as can be.)

    I see a lot of students who are going headlong into life with a total abandon for finding the Truth about God and worshiping Him in light of that Truth. If that is, in fact, the case, then that excites me about the future of the Church.

    It’s so sad that a well-meaning post such as this one draws so much hostility. But, hopefully, those who are hostile toward all of this will eventually dwindle in number.

  10. In answer to Fellow Sojourner:

    I think in the early Church, part of the notion of ever virgin was to insist that she was virgin, pure and simple. Ever virgin only underlined that fact. As time went on the understanding of her evervirginity also had to do with her complete commitment to God. She stand as an image and model of the Church, and of Israel. In the Old Testament, Israel’s faithfulness is contrasted to the unfaithfulness of a fallen woman. Mary is faithful to God as the Church and Israel should be faithful to God – as the one and only. I’m not sure that I would draw much more than that.

    To Jack: Some make a strong distinction between the Orthodox doctrines concerning Mary and the Roman Catholic, particularly with the Immaculate Conception. I think sometimes this distinction is drawn too strongly. But that Mary died, is distinctly part of the Orthodox teaching, and that she was resurrected (God did not allow his mother to rot on earth to be frank) is also taught. But her mortality seems to be an important part of Orthodox teaching. This would also emphasisize (since sin and death are always joined in Orthodoxy) that although we believe that she is without sin (by grace) and most pure, she is still subject to the death we are all subject to. She is not exceptional, except as she relates to God.

    The complexities of original sin, tied to conception and concupiscence, etc., are not a large part of Eastern teaching, they most come down in the West and never formed a part of Orthodox dogmatic formation.

    What part they might play in later conversations between Orthodox and Roman Catholics is yet to be known. I don’t worry about them.

    She is singularly the Mother of God, pure, most holy, blessed, Mother of God the Word. I hardly know what else to say. She is also dear to my heart and my constant intercessor before God. Over the years I have come to love her as a mother and depend on her to pray for me when I might not know that my own mother would pray for me. She has never abandoned me or treated me unkind. I love her.

    For these things I need make no apology.

    For protestants I can only say that you have a friend who loves Jesus more than you ever can whose friendship you can make. She will teach you much, but mostly just point you to Jesus. She is offended by anything which detracts from him, which she in no way does.

    Think of the holiest woman in your church. Does she detract from Jesus? Does her humility create a problem? Neither does the mother of God. We do not worship her. We just love her, that’s all. And why should I love offend? I suspect Jesus loved and loves His mothe more than any of us. Really.

  11. Father Stephen,

    I’m interested in the “ever-virgin” question as well? What is the importance of the doctrine beyond Jonathan’s comments above about Joseph?

    And, this is a radically delicate question to ask about Mary so my apologies, but is the Church saying that she remained “biologically” a virgin despite having given birth? Or, is her virginity more about her chastity?

    Doesn’t Orthodox tradition teach that the “brothers and sisters of Jesus” are children of the widower Joseph’s from a previous marriage? Does this question point to the need for a tradition of exegesis instead of a “sola scriptura” method?

    Lastly, what is the right way for the Church to handle these kinds of questions?

  12. “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” -St. Paul to the Corinthians

    Mary as ever-virgin, overlooking the biological and personal sanctity aspects for a moment, is an icon of what the Church is to be: one who’s only intimate relation is with Christ.

    To be a married is to be an icon of the intimate relation between Christ and the Church, whereas to be a virgin is to be an icon of the chastity and holiness involved in waiting for that eschatological relation between Christ and the Church. Both these sacramental things, virginity and marriage, reveal something about the intimacy between Christ and the Church.

    Methinks.

  13. …and the beautiful thing about the Theotokos is that she embodies both of these ideals: She is a Virgin and yet she intimately met and conceived the Son of God. Thus the Church sings: Rejoice, oh unwedded bride.

  14. The one thing I can’t get out of my head, at this time of the year, is the hymn: “He Whom the heavens cannot contain, is contained within a womb.” Which makes this woman, His Mother, “more spacious than the heavens.” As a former Catholic-turned-Lutheran-at-LAST-Orthodox, I had a good many problems with the Mariolatry of the 1950s (and the resurfacing of this Coredemptrix thing boggles my mind). It took Orthodoxy to show me exactly who she is, and why she is so relevant to my life as a Christian. (And I might add, *she* is responsible for my becoming Orthodox!) Most Holy Theotokos — thanks.

  15. Meg,

    It was the icon of the Virgin of the Sign that clicked in my head and heart just why the Theotokos is so vital to the life of the Church.

    This icon “found” me, as it were, and it is part of my home altar to this day. It is also significant that the Church and the disciplines of the faith call each of us to become bearers of Christ as well.

    As a former Evangelical Protestant pastor, I can now joyfully say “O Virgin Theotokos, rejoice O Mary full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have born the Savior of our souls.”

    It is beyond words for me. I love this Lady and worship Christ every day for the gift of His Holy mother to the rest of His Church.

    At this time of year it especially comes home to me just how important the Theotokos is to my own soul.

    I apologize and repent publically here if I ever defamed her during my previous ministry years, and ask her most heart felt pardon, having full confidence in a mother’s love and a Son’s mercy.

    B

  16. Jack,

    It is treated as a delicate matter, but, yes, the tradition of the Church would treat her as biologically virgin after giving birth. If you notice on the mantia of the Virgin in her icons, there are three stars. One is for virgin before giving birth, the second is virgin in giving birth, the third is virgin after giving birth. She is the Eastern gate which no man can enter because God has entered there in Ezekiel’s vision of the temple in Orthodox hymnography.

  17. The Theotokos is ever Virgin because she sacrificed her virginity to fulfill God’s will for the world and God restores to us what we offer to Him in faith and humility. If you think of virginity only in anatomical terms, you miss the point entirely.

  18. Well put, Alice. Her gift is indeed her whose and complete self. But the question (delicate though it be) of biology is significant, at least in the hymnography as well. Many Protestants are unaware of the complete tradition in this matter. But she truly was totus tuus.

    Her statement, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word,” pretty much states the matter in its fullness.

    Thanks

  19. Thank you, Father Stephen, for posting this piece. It helped me to better understand the Orthodox position on Blessed Mary, ever Virgin. I have so much to learn and am grateful that our Savior does not withold His grace from the ignorant.

  20. Alice,
    To that I may only respond in my best former EP/Charismatic matter, “Amen”.
    I had a good deal of struggle with the evervirginity of the Blessed Theotokos and all the explanations about Christ’s brothers and sisters being cousins were unsatisfactory for my feeble mind. It was eventually hearing and understanding the prophcy mentioned by Fr. Stephen above that finally enabled me to understand who she was and why the evervirginity was important. Understanding her role as Ark of the New Covenant also awakened a strong awareness in me.
    To find Evangelical Protestants who have strong objections to the Church’s teachings regarding Mary comes as mno surprise to me, I remember doing the same thing. The lack of decorum of some of those making these unmerited attacks is, in my opinion, testimony to the increasing lack of respect for our fellow human beings and as such is indicative of the continued devaluing of human life and the presence of Christ in all.
    Alas, I ramble.
    In Xp,
    Eusebios

  21. I am not sure when the term “Mother of God” or “Theotokos” fell out of favor with Protestants. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin certaintly affirmed this truth. I think it may be a over reaction to Roman Catholic abuses. I don’t believe she remained a virgin after Jesus birth though I don’t have any major problems with those who do hold that view. Most early Protestants did hold to the view she remained a virgin. I am really more uncomfortable with prayers to her to be honest with you. Grace to you all.

  22. It is perhaps worth bearing in kind that the ever-virginity of the Theotokos did not start out as a doctrine or a dogma, and I don’t think it is one today.

    It started as a historical fact — that the Church knew that she had borne no other children than Jesus, and this was a tradition passed down.

    This later was seen as symbolic, and linked to the Gate in the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision, but I still don’t think it ever became a dogma (please correct me if I’m wrong). It was only in about the 17th century that someone got the idea of attributing Joseph’s other children to Mary, on what basis I’m not sure.

  23. The fifth ecumenical council referred to Mary’s ever-virginity in at least one of its dogmatic statements.

    Ecumenical Council of Constantinople II. Canon 2: “If anyone does not confess that… [Christ] came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the holy, glorious ever virgin Mother of God Mary, and was born of her, let him be anathema.”

    In context the point of the canon wasn’t to assert the doctrine of perpetual virginity, but to refute Eutychianism. Nevertheless I have seen the canon quoted to show that the teaching is indeed dogma.

  24. mrh,

    My understanding is the same as yours. It is indeed a matter of dogma, even though it was stated obliquely. But, beyond that, we say it at virtually the end of every litany. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. If you pray something often enough, there should be no doubt of its dogmatic character. We believe what we pray.

  25. Jack wrote: “Doesn’t Orthodox tradition teach that the ‘brothers and sisters of Jesus’ are children of the widower Joseph’s from a previous marriage? Does this question point to the need for a tradition of exegesis instead of a ‘sola scriptura’ method?”

    I think John 19:25-27 suggests very strongly that Jesus’ was Mary’s only child. From the fact that Jesus gave his mother into the care of the beloved disciple, we can infer 1) that Joseph was dead – otherwise he would still have been responsible for Mary; and 2) Mary had no other living children – otherwise they would have become responsible for her. We know that James “the brother of the Lord” was still alive at this point, since he appears later in Acts. If he did not automatically become responsible for Mary upon Jesus’ death, he must not have been her son.

    I recall reading an article in Bible Review a few years ago comparing various theories about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The author concluded that the Orthodox theory (often attributed to Eusebius) was the most likely, and that this belief was already extant in the late first century. The article is no longer available on-line, but I’ll see if I can dig up my copy at home.

Leave a Reply

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