The Mother of God, the Theotokos, and her role in God's plan for our salvation.
We know very well that the veneration of Mary goes back to the very earliest Christian times, that her perpetual virginity was already professed by Tertullian in the middle of the 2nd century in Africa, but we are also not unaware that some Marian dedications, inspired by love of the mystery of the Incarnation, still need to be identified more precisely. I want at once to point out to those who are not familiar with this liturgical tradition that Mary is never separated from her Son, either in the hymnological domain or in the pictorial. It is so unusual to find an icon of the Mother of God either without her Son or not representing one of the so-called feasts of the Lord, that it is possible to assert that iconography has no cult in which Mary is contemplated alone.
I am not ignoring the linguistic or symbolic influence of the pagan cult of the Virgin Mary. But cannot mythology be seen as a sort of evangelical preparation among the gentiles? We have said elsewhere that the Old Testament is not, for us, exclusively the "type" of the New, but the prototype, for "Christ sleeps in the night of religions". In the same way, a collective archetype could lead us to see the cult of the Mother behind that of Mary. But Mary does not turn us earthward. She saves us from this, being that newly-blessed one who has received the divine seed. It is both legitimate and imperative, the Orthodox say, to preserve a cosmic sense while bringing it into Christ's flesh. The Lord does not destroy matter; he exorcizes it and baptizes it. By the same logic, Christ does not efface either the femininity of the earth or that of Mary. He confirms it in the reality of his body, which is challenged from the moment of the Incarnation right up to his ascension and his taking his place at the Father's right hand. This is why I do not believe that the "eternal feminine" is borne in the heavens in the figure of Mary, and that there thus exists no cult of the feminine. Mariology, like Christology, of which the former is a part, remains truly apophatic, negative theology. We are here in the realm of the nameless, of the ineffable, even if our feelings, made up of human and historical reality, remain legitimately open to the "one who alone is fair among women", as the Song of Solomon puts it.
Orthodox piety sees that God's design, "hidden through the ages and unknown to the angels, was accomplished when Mary's life began in Anna's womb, she being prepared to be the abode of the king". Before creation began, God chose her whom he had predestined to be his Mother. Mary was elected for the Son. This follows the idea of vocation in the Old Testament. She is chosen as the spouse of the Father, and becomes, in this way, the Mother of the Son. This is the source of Mary's sanctity. This is why she is called the Divine Graciousness.
It is obvious that God is the sole effective source of salvation, and this is why Orthodoxy does not accord the Virgin the title co-redemptrice. But, named the New Eve, she makes with her incarnate Son a couple who work for our salvation. Looked at from this angle, it is legitimate to sing to her in the eucharistic liturgy: "hyperagia theotoke, soson imas", that I would translate thus: "O Mother of God, who transcends all human sanctity, save us". Salvation must here be understood as freeing from the passions.
Mary makes an end of Adam's curse and is, in this sense, placed at the right hand of the king of glory, the only mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. Because of her apatheia (passionlessness) and her utter interior freedom, she was free of the pains of childbirth. Thanks to her participation in the mystery of the Incarnation, she was victorious over the death she underwent and the corruption that she did not know. This is the mystery represented by the feast of the Dormition, celebrated on August 15th. "Thou dost appear as the healer of human nature when thou healest the burden of Adam and Eve". Humanity was restored in her. It is in her that God saved his image and restored us to our primal beauty, that he brought about our second creation. All tradition contemplates the mystery of Mary in the Old Testament. "The shadows of the Law and the Prophets proclaim thee as the Mother of the Redeemer". Mary is Jacob's ladder, she is prefigured by the burning bush, by the fiery furnace of Babylon. The crossing on foot of the Red Sea becomes the symbol of the birth of Christ without the intervention of man. Mary's signs are the Tabernacle of the Covenant, the Ark containing the tablets of the Law, the place of propitiation, the table, the candelabrum, the altar of incense, the golden urn of manna, Aaron's staff. The symbols of the Song of Songs, the door of Ezekiel, the Mount of Sion, the House of Wisdom were seized on by our singers as prophets of the mystery to which Mary is linked. This brings to mind typological exegesis the new-testament idea that the Old Testament was the shadow of realities that were to come in Christ. Once more, the meaning of these images will be more easily understood if the concept of mediation is kept in the context of the communion of saints.
What is the significance of the juxtaposition of the Pantocrator and his Mother? When the Apocalypse joins the Spouse to the Spirit in their common call to the Son at the end of time, they add something to the Spirit as the calling subject, where are we still in a regime of spiritual orders coordinated the one with the other to constitute together the Body of Christ? No-one else has spoken like the great mariologist, St Nicolas Cabasilas, of the immediate presence of Christ in each one of us. If Christ is the only source of salvation, then no less is our divine milieu composed of prayer, in a communal life in the Holy Spirit.
In company with all the cloud of witnesses, through the resurrection of Christ that is already at work in us, the Orthodox believer lives with the saints within the risen body, not like the steps of a ladder but as the reflection of the splendour of the glory that the Father imprinted on the face of Jesus.
In this context, the Theotokos marks Mary's total openness to God, by a free "fiat" that made the Incarnation possible on man's side. According to certain Patristic thought, the image of God is the freedom of man, a freedom that reveals human nature saved and perfected in Mary. In this sense, the Theotokos makes the synergy of man and God possible, a divine-human cooperation that allows God to realize the hypostatic union. Cabasilas says of the Mother of God: "she gave her co-operation to the Artist; He added that which He had not, but He would not have formed the second element if He had not found the first". God found a woman who was the unique receptacle of his Word. This is the deep meaning of virginity. This is why the Father chose her and loved her, and made her full of grace. I believe that all that is said about the Virgin only becomes comprehensible within the idea of salvation linked to the freedom of man's response. She fulfilled this human destiny, where liberty is accomplished in the Spirit. A being that is only human, mortal, was able to live in the daily refusal of evil, not having known the vanity of the "I".
After this brief doctrinal sketch, it is necessary to trace the lines of a Marian understanding of our nature in Christ. I believe that the fundamental call of Mary, in her total detachment, is the path from seduction to virginity. The human being inherits from the first Eve; it belongs to the category of the aesthetic, as Kirkegaard says. It is in seduction that its power is exercised. There is, in sexuality, an incontrovertible element of domination. This is why a monk, who renounces genital sexuality, refuses also the use of power. Virginity, understood as the integrity of the being and submission to God, is the diametrically opposite pole to seduction. Man stands in the simplicity of his heart, aware of his nakedness. This is why poverty is essential to the exercise of chastity, both of them being linked to the refusal of power.
On this level of the stripping to essentials, the woman symbolizes welcome. Her nature, her shape, lend themselves to this. But when man, in his turn, becomes a welcome and, from this, an offering, it means he has renounced male pride and the aggressiveness that distinguishes him in the struggle between the sexes and that for power. True to his nature, to the uniqueness of that nature, while setting out on the double path of strength and gentleness, both of which are fruits of the spirit, human nature goes beyond the limits of an unredeemed femininity and masculinity.
This is only possible by the freeing of the couple to all that they consider complementary in man and woman. Remember the passage in the Psalms: "cause the light of Thy face to shine upon us, O Lord". In the fallen world, the couple bears the burden of centuries of mutual corruption. But in a world exposed to the light of Christ, the words are: "my spouse, my sister, where love becomes the song 'alleluia', a transparent openness to God through the grace by which a face contemplates another face in a virginal vision that does not penetrate nature". Agape neither destroys nor weakens Eros; it protects and directs it by its strength. Nothing can plumb the depths of the encounter of ontological femininity and masculinity, but the believer can welcome them both in his virginal soul. Every virginal soul is a new Mary, for it can bring Christ to birth in the world. We have here a patristic note, particularly underlined by St Maxim the Confessor. The Marian soul becomes an apostle. The life called "apostolic" by the Fathers is intimacy with the Risen Lord. The tradition of the Word only gives life to the person who hears it insofar as this is accompanied by humility and gentleness, the only two virtues that the Lord has called us to learn of him.
Mary, pre-eminently humble and gentle, stands under the veil of silence. She stands in the midst of the disciples, gathered with the women to await the promise of the Spirit. This is why, in the Byzantine liturgy, we commemorate her in first place after the epiclesis. It is through the eucharist that she continues, with the other saints, to receive the gifts of the Spirit. The Christ whom she gave to the world has placed her in his pleroma before the consummation of the ages. In the economy of salvation, he makes his spouse fruitful--the church, who alone becomes our mother. When the Crucified told the beloved disciple to take Mary for his mother, he took her to his own home. Every beloved disciple has a way of being with Mary, a depth of spiritual companionship that springs from his being an icon of the Lord. The most frequently-found icon of the Theotokos is the Odigitria, in which she carries the child who bears, in one hand, a roll of the scriptures while blessing us with the other. Mary stands back, and shows us the master. Jesus is revealed by a woman who has attained theosis. There is no duality here, but the mystery of the union of God and humanity, God born as man through the self-humbling of the kenosis; humanity born as God by deification.
Metropolitan George (Khodr) is metropolitan of Byblos, Botris and Mount Lebanon. In 1942 along with other young university students he founded the Orthodox Youth Movement, which to this day inspires renewal and spirituals. In 1954 he graduated from L'Institut de Theologie Saint Serge in Paris and was ordained in the same yeas as a Greek Orthodox monk of the patriarchate of Antioch.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||The Ecumenical Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
|Previous Article:||Feminist and Orthodox spiritualities: "Women's Spirituality".|
|Next Article:||Mary, Mother of God--virgin and ever-virgin (parthenos and aeiparthenos).|