The Vindication of the Mother of God

At Christmas time, the Virgin Mary gets a bit of attention in the wider culture. A woman gives birth in difficult circumstances: Mother, baby, ox and ass, the manger. It’s a very touching scene. She quickly fades from the scene however, with some five centuries of culture desperately afraid that she will get too much attention.

In that vein, she is pretty much absent from Easter. We have eggs, chocolate, bunny rabbits, and the resurrection of Christ (along with new dresses and such), but Mary has no place in our culture’s Easter imagination. Some of this is undoubtedly the result of 500 years of a dominantly anti-Catholic Protestantism. You have to mention Mary at Christmas, but she can conveniently be forgotten at Easter.

Unless you’re Orthodox.

In Orthodoxy, there is essentially no teaching regarding Christ that ignores His mother. There is no teaching regarding Jesus that ignores His humanity and His humanity requires that we remember her. When the Council of 431 (3rd Ecumenical) declared Mary to be “Theotokos” (“Birthgiver of God”) it was on account of its concern that the full truth of who Christ is not be distorted. The mystery of the Incarnation (rightly understood) makes it possible to speak the paradoxical title of “Birthgiver of God” (not just “Birthgiver of Christ”). Christ is fully God and fully man. The one born of Mary was God and man. God was born of her.

This is echoed as well in the prophetic word that was spoken to Mary when she brought Jesus to the Temple 40 days after His birth (in concordance with the Law). Simeon the prophet, holding the child in his arms, said to His mother:

“Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)

His words speak of a “sword.” This is far deeper than a hint that what is to happen to her Son will make her sad. He didn’t say, “It will cause you grief.” The suffering of Christ on the Cross is equally the sword that pierces the soul of Mary. Mary is the first Christian, the first to believe the word concerning her Son. His suffering is her suffering. His suffering is to be our suffering as well. If you have been united with Christ on the Cross, then, in some measure, your own soul has been pierced by the sword that pierced the soul of Mary. St. Paul says,

“I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live. Yet, not I, but Christ lives in me, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Mary is the first of those who have been crucified with Christ.

Our ignorance of such things (or our forgetfulness), encourage us to forget that our discipleship is marked by the Cross and defined by our communion with the Crucified Lord. Too easily, the resurrection of Jesus comes to mean nothing more than a promise of life after death. “Jesus died and was resurrected so that I could go to heaven.” While that is sort of true, it represents a serious diminishment of the gospel.

As Christ was on the Cross, His thoughts turned to His mother. He endures the suffering and the shame of the crucifixion. She shares in the shame and, in that, a sword pierces her own soul. Christ gives her to the care of St. John, “the disciple whom He loved.” He does not merely ask John to care for her, but says, “Behold your mother.” John must now be her son. Incidentally, this supports the Church’s teaching that the “brother and sisters of Christ” are not children of Mary. It would have fallen to them to take of her had that been the case.

As the Church enters into the depth of Holy Week and approaches the Lord’s death and resurrection, the Theotokos is ever present on its mind. At what becomes a liturgical climax the Church gathers around the funeral shroud icon (epitaphios) in the center of the Church. Following its commemoration of Christ’s suffering and death, the burial shroud had been placed there for the faithful to venerate. They have offered their lamentations.

At this last moment, as the priest stands before the image, we hear these verses from the choir:

Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify thee in faith and in love.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee!

I escaped sufferings and was blessed beyond nature at Thy strange birth, O Son, who art without beginning. But now, beholding Thee, my God, dead and without breath, I am sorely pierced by the sword of sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee!

By my own will, the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble at seeing me clothed in the blood-stained garments of vengeance; for when I have vanquished my enemies on the cross, I shall arise as God and magnify thee.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Let creation rejoice, let all born on earth be glad, for hateful hell has been despoiled, let the women with myrrh come to meet me, for I am redeeming Adam and Eve and all their descendants, and on the third day shall I arise.

Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify thee in faith and in love.

The verses are a dialog between Christ and His mother. It gathers her whose heart had been pierced with the sword of shame and grief into His own compassion. He encourages her with the promise that He will rise and vindicate her. He will be glorified and will magnify her. Her faithfulness, humility, and obedience will be justified before all the world. “All generations will call her blessed.”

She replies, recalling the mystery of her Son’s “strange birth.” Though she now sees His body lying “dead and without breath,” she urges Him to arise.

He responds that He is “covered by the earth” by His “own will.” He is no one’s victim but is doing the very thing He was born to do. And now He is clothed in the “blood-stained garments of vengeance.” Vanquishing His foes by the cross, He will rise and magnify her.

He closes, repeating the initial verse. At the repetition of “I shall arise,” the priest takes up the funeral shroud and bears it into the altar. The doors are shut and every light, every candle in the Church, is extinguished. In silence the Church waits. Mary waits. All creation holds its breath.

Quietly, the priest begins to sing, “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing…” He will shortly come forth bearing the newly kindled light which spreads to all. And the Paschal procession begins around the Church (I’m describing the Slavic practice).

His resurrection is a vindication of His mother. Equally, it is the vindication of every believer. For we, too, have stood silently by the tomb, venerating His dead body. We, too, have had some share in His shame, either from others or cast upon us by our own unfaithfulness and doubting. Was I wrong to believe in, O Lord? Have you forgotten me? I am surrounded by my enemies and they mock me. Where are You, Lord?

“I shall arise,” Christ says.

Mary saw Him. Mary Magdalen saw Him. Peter and John saw Him. Then the twelve. Then James the Brother of the Lord. Then by over 500. And even to St. Paul He appeared, as if to one born out of time.

And they began the procession that continues to circle the earth singing, “Enable us on earth, to glorify Thee in purity of heart.” At the head of our procession is His Mother – now vindicated and magnified by all. She told the truth. She gave birth to God the Word. We call her blessed.

27 comments:

  1. Glory to God for all things indeed. What a beautiful and erudite exposition on the central place of the Theotokos in the Christian ethos. Perhaps all of us converts to the one true faith are especially touched by the intimate and profound relation between the God man and his Most Holy mother. Truly we magnify thee, O Theotokos!!!

  2. Thank you, Fr. Stephen. As a Protestant who loves (and is drawn to) the Orthodox faith, I’ve been nourished by your writing for some time now. This entry is no different. Blessings and peace.

  3. Glory to God in all things! Oh Most Blessed Theotokos, pray for us!

    So many thanks for this, Father.

  4. Father,
    thank you !
    I know of a lesser-known, yet truly holy disciple of saint Sophrony, who was fond of praying the entirety of these lamentation-verses during some difficult times of his ‘subjective’ God-forsakenness. He said he had acquired a personalised understanding of them while doing this: they had become a bereavement poem/dialogue, all about the loss of Grace.
    The verses were prayed as a dialogue between Grace and between the soul who has lost Grace. So Grace encourages the loyal soul with the promise that it will revisit her and that it will once again magnify her. The lamentation of the soul in mournful, repentant prayer, takes on a “Theotok-ial” characteristic in this. He had a special, mystical relationship with the Theotokos.

  5. Dear Fr Stephen. Thank you! The difference pointed out is clear. I appreciate her role in your tradition wishing it were more prominent in ours. Once again, thank you!

  6. As a mother, and with Mary as my Saint, tears of pain and joy ran down my cheeks. I loved this. It touched my heart as a mother and as one who loves Mary. We all suffer with and for our children, and She suffered so much. How much more her joy was magnified in His reserection. This was beautiful. Thank you

  7. Fr. Stephen: Thank you for this most beautiful and thoughtful writing.
    I am a convert from the protestant church and I try to understand Theotokos’ place in the Orthodox Church teachings.

    I can never explain it to other non-Orthodox and this troubles me. For example: I attend a weekly reading group which is made up of various protestants, one of which is an Anglican Pastor.

    He stated last week that he doesn’t understand why we would pray to Theotokos or any Saint because they can’t hear all of us praying to them because only God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, plus they can’t do anything for us, only God can.

    Of course I couldn’t explain this very well. I think I said we should look to Hebrews which tells us there is a “great cloud of witnesses” and that God is the God of the living.

    Is there something I can read to understand better? This pastor is the type that says, “if it’s not in the Bible then we don’t do it”.

    Thank you again for your writings,
    Anna

  8. Anna,
    It is indeed frustrating to try to explain certain things to those outside. But, as you noted, they already have a set of blinders in place (“bible only” or whatever) that rules out receiving the Orthodox faith. It means they will continue in the same blindness that has given us some 30,000 different Protestant denominations (and counting).

    But, to the objections:

    You did a good job, pointing towards the “great cloud of witnesses.” But his rules simply make those “witnesses” just witnesses to an “impersonal” view of the battle at hand. Where is it written that the saints are not omnniscient, omnipresent? Of coure, God alone is omnipotent – but where is it written that they can do nothing for us? These are simply made-up rules that are no deeper than the anti-Catholic prejudices of the last 500 years of Protestantism – and they were wrong at the beginning just as they are wrong now.

    Two thousand years of Church history and practice and experience simply demonstrate that Protestants are wrong on this matter (and much else).

    I had to chuckle about one of the group members being an Anglican pastor. It’s a very new group of Anglicans these days who think such things. His (it is a he?) own tradition has held otherwise for quite a long time.

  9. In Catholic practice, every Saturday is observed as a special commemoration of the Mother of God, precisely because she was the one who kept watch for the Resurrection on the Lord’s Day. We have many similar practices around Holy Week and Easter emphasizing Our Lady’s share in the Passion and a strong iconic tradition of her joy at the Resurrection.

    Thank you for your teaching, Father.

  10. Fr. Stephen: Thank you for your response. You make good points about where is it written that the Saints can’t do anything for us.

    Your reply made me think about how we are “hid in Christ” and that we all were “baptized into Christ and have put on Christ”. Furthermore, I can’t remember the phrasing of St. Paul maybe where he says that we have “resurrection power within us”.

    Since we have put on Christ, etc then it seems to me that the Theotokos and all the Saints in Heaven have this resurrection power even to a greater extent than we do so they have more abilities than we do.

    The Pastor is a male, somewhere in his late 50s but he turned away from his Baptist upbringing and was an atheist for a while then returned to the church and became an Anglican. He is conservative in his church views such as no women priests, stick to liturgical worship, etc.

    He also made the statement that “none of the Church Fathers” advocate for praying to the Saints so I didn’t say anything because I haven’t read the Fathers, just some snippets here & there. But instinct tells me that he hasn’t really read many Fathers because as an Anglican they would emphasize other things.

    Father, should I be reading something to become more learned in this topic?

    Anna

  11. Dear Father,
    Thank you for this article and the inclusion of the hymn we sing. Indeed, we enter into the moment with Mary. Awaiting that moment when Christ our God arises. Such as it is in each of our hearts. We wait for Christ’s arising from hades with the Theotokos. We wait for His return, in our hearts, and in this world.

    In my world, spring has truly just arrived. Small seedlings on the earth lift their delicate leaves to the Sun. The birds sing and call to one another. The bees are flying to their forage. The trees have come alive and open their light green buds. The very earth itself takes in its first breath of Spring. Within the King of all, all the Life of the world arises. And we, standing with and in the embrace of the Theotokos His mother, together we sing Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

  12. Anna, oh my. It’s the Fathers who taught us to pray in that manner. But be patient with them. Enjoy the company of others and let them see how you love Christ. That tends to be the best witness and calms concerns they might have.

  13. The intriguing fact to me is there is so much literature on the intercession and communion of the saints that it is mind boggling in the Bible itself.

    I have close friends who have experienced it first hand, it is not theoretical to them. Still, suffering does not go away always. It is shared.
    IMO the characteristic vanity of modernity is that we are alone and can do all things of our own will. Even know God.
    Anna, sharing your response, simply, as you have brings hope to my heart.
    Thank you.

  14. Regarding Anglicans, of whom I am one, there has been much fragmentation over the years, not least because it’s roots in the Church of England misunderstood what it was the apostle meant by ‘all things to all people’. So you can find ‘Anglicans’ of all shades and none, and increasingly few with any sense of a living tradition (things handed down)

    In my seminary we trained alongside Baptists from a local Baptist training ‘course’. Even the Baptist tutors commented on how UnAnglican so many of those Anglicans training were, suggesting that they were really Baptists 🙂 I’m thankful to God for my being a cradle Anglican- one of those the ‘Baptist’ types looked down on – it left doors open in my nous which various Biblicist teachings sought to keep firmly shut, not least with regard to Mary, but that’s another story.

    Fr Stephen- forgive me but I’m a little puzzled at your comment “ Behold your mother.” John must now be her son. Incidentally, this supports the Church’s teaching that the “brother and sisters of Christ” are not children of Mary. It would have fallen to them to take of her had that been the case.”
    Over the last few years, actually through reading an Orthodox priest, I’ve understood that Mary is the Mother of us all? The Mother of all Living? ‘Beholding’ commands are written to all those who seek to know Christ through Scripture.
    The beloved disciple’took her into his home’’ – cannot this be understood as our own taking Mary into our ‘hearts’?

    I found this a little puzzling and would welcome further elucidation.

    As to Anglicanism . . . Here in the Antipodes it’s perhaps thinner than in most places. Sadly we have no local Orthodox. The situation seems very different in the US, and in England and the US it is still possible to find Anglicans with a better appreciation of their roots. Of course, setting up a church so that the King could marry whom he wants wasn’t a propitious start . . .

    Blessings on your Celebrations

  15. Eric, I think that it is an example of typology, where the Bible narrates a historical event that serves as a sign to a deeper truth. So Jesus did indeed entrust his Mother to the care of the beloved disciple John, but John then serves as a model for all of us as beloved disciples to emulate by taking Mary for our own Mother in faith.

  16. Eric,
    My point in that paragraph (and I must admit that I wrestled a bit with how to phrase what I wanted to say – and might not have found the most felicitous solution) – but my point was certainly that Christ was specifically “giving” Mary to John as Mother, and John to Mary as Son (that’s the most immediate and obvious meaning). But that does not preclude the interpretation that John stands for all of us (just as Eve is the “Mother of all living” and Mary is the “Second Eve” – cf. St. Irenaeus – so Mary is the mother of us all.)

    But my aside – that this is Scriptural support for the traditional teaching regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary, held by the Church everywhere until sometime in the Reformation (both Luther and Calvin believed in it). Mary was the mother of Jesus, but had no other children. The “brothers and sisters” of Christ were Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage (he was a widower when he was betrothed to Mary). My point in the aside is that had Mary had other children, it would have been odd to take that responsibility away from them. But, as it is, she has no one – so then she was given John – and, of course, all of us.

    Be blessed down under!

  17. And thank you Matthew
    Yes, I have to admit to taking a lot of things typologically
    Of course all these approaches can begin to weave together in a beautiful harmony

  18. Merry’s thoughts mirror my own. This is indeed a beautiful reflection upon what are some of the most poignant and meaningful moments in our Holy Week services. Thank you.

  19. Dear Anna!
    Christ is risen!
    Take heart!
    I was originally a Baptist but am now an Orthodox priest in England.
    I have a spikily Protestant daughter-in-law who attacks me with sentiments similar to those of your Anglican friend!
    Fr David

  20. Fr. David:
    Truly He is Risen!
    Thank you for your comments. I will try to keep my chin up and cling to Christ who is everything to me.
    Anna

  21. I had an unusual introduction to the Orthodox Church from outside the main stream but it included devotion to Mary, Mother of God. I knew almost nothing of her, not really, but I did understand that she is a person. A special and unique person, but a human person nonetheless.
    That was about 50 years ago but recognizing Mary and the other saints, and Jesus too, are people. Sinless people, but people. So, I can converse with them more easily, especially Mary and St. Raphael of Brooklyn.
    That makes it easier for me to converse with them, requesting intercession and gratitude

  22. As part of the Orthodox Church, venerating and praying to Mother Mary comes naturally. Can’t even imagine not doing it.
    But the beauty of your writing was such that it filled me with awe for the Theotokos.
    Thank you Father.

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