Since we are celebrating the Sunday in Great Lent dedicated to the Cross and two days later is the Annunciation I thought would combine these two and speak about the Cross as an event in the life of the Theotokos. Therefore I am simply going to post a Chapter from the book, “O Full of Grace Glory to Thee.” And since many hymns to the Theotokos will be quoted I will not begin with one in this post.
The Theotokos at the Cross
What did the Theotokos experience at the Cross of her Son and God? This is the question we want to ponder in this article. The Scriptures, together with historical information from apocryphal sources, and other early Christian writings have said nothing directly about this. There is no doubt that an exact answer has not been revealed to us, as St. Silouan the Athonite acknowledges:
The Mother of God committed to writing neither her thoughts nor her love for God and her Son, nor her soul’s suffering at the Crucifixion, because we could not have understood, for her love for God is stronger and more ardent than the love of the Seraphim and Cherubim, and all the host of angels and archangels marvel at her. (1)
Some of our Church Fathers, however, have contemplated this question and expressed opinions on this topic. These opinions cannot be termed dogma. That is because a reply to this question has neither been revealed in the historical record available to us, nor has it been formally investigated and articulated by the Church. Consequently, we also can only set forward an opinion on this theme.
In responding to this issue, we must first consider what knowledge was revealed to the Theotokos concerning her Son. What did the Theotokos know and think about her Son? When she stood at the Cross of our Lord, in addition to the fact that she knew He was her Son according to the flesh, whom did she believe Him to be? Let us begin our inquiry by considering the time she spent in the Temple in Jerusalem as a child and examining what St. Gregory Palamas says about this part of her life.
St. Gregory writes of the Theotokos:
With profound understanding she listened to the writings of Moses and the revelations of the other prophets when, every Saturday, all the people gathered outside, as the Law ordained. She learnt about Adam and Eve and everything that happened to them: how they were brought out of non-being, settled in paradise and given a commandment there; about the evil one’s ruinous counsel and the resulting theft; about their explusion from paradise on that account, the loss of immortality and the change to this way of life full of pain….When the holy Virgin Maid heard and understood this, she was filled with pity for humanity and, with the aim of finding a remedy to counteract this great affliction, she resolved at once to turn with her whole mind to God. She took it upon herself to represent us,..the Virgin full of grace interceded for all humanity in an amazing way defying description. (2)
It is quite logical and natural that the one of whom God would choose to be born would ascertain this. The notion that the Theotokos, even during her life in the Temple, would understand the catastrophe of the fall of man along with the need of a Savior, and therefore become our advocate before God, fits, just so precisely, perfectly, and beautifully into God’s intricately woven plan for our salvation. Mary, who was to give birth to God, went above and beyond the mainstream of Judaic thought, which was expecting the Messiah to be an earthly king. She was able to perceive the true role of the Messiah to be the One who would heal the effects of the fall. And so the young girl, Mary, “interceded for all humanity in an amazing way defying description.”
In continuing our inquiry, we shall now turn to accounts from the Scriptures, beginning with the Annunciation. The young maiden Mary, who had lived in the Temple from infancy, expressed a desire to keep her virginity; therefore she was put into the care of the elderly Joseph and espoused to him. And the Archangel Gabriel being sent from God came to Mary and said,
Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women…behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:28-35)
One of the great Archangels of God appears to Mary, informing her that she shall bear a child without the touch of a man, Who shall inherit the throne of David, Whose kingdom shall have no end and Who shall be called the Son of God. Mary knew the Scriptures very well; such things were never seen in the history of Israel. A woman to conceive without the seed of a man – this was to be the prerogative of her who would bear the Messiah (cf. Is. 7:14). And a man being called the Son of God – this appellation was not known to apply to any born of man; it was only the One Who joined the three young men in the Babylonian furnace Who was thus called (cf. Dan. 3:25). Who then, was this that was to be born of her?
As we know, soon after the Annunciation, Mary visited her cousin Elisabeth. And when Mary greeted her:
Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. (Luke 1:41-44)
In his Gospel St. Luke tells us that Mary abode with Elisabeth about three months and returned home. This would have been until the time of the birth of St. John the Baptist. St. Luke records in his gospel:
And his [John the Baptist’s] father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham. (Luke 1:67-73)
And concerning his son, Zacharias continues to say,
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us. (Luke 1:76-78)
And so Mary, who was to become the Theotokos, was conscious of all this. Let us reiterate: from the time of her life in the Temple, she discerned from the Scriptures the need of a Savior who would deliver the race of Adam from the consequence of the fall in paradise. She desired this and prayed for it with her whole heart; it was the focal point of her life in the Temple. She is told by the Archangel Gabriel that she would bear a son without the touch of a man who shall be called the Son of God and of His kingdom there shall be no end. Elisabeth says to her, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Then the priest Zachrias prophesies calling the Son to be born of her, “an horn of salvation”, and signifies Him as the One whom the prophets foretold. As he continues, he speaks of salvation through remission of sins. Mary knew all this, who did she believe her Son would be?
Now let us proceed to the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savoir Jesus Christ in the flesh. The righteous Joseph sees that his betrothed is with child—the young Mary, whom he received into his care from the Temple because she wanted to preserve her virginity. As he was troubled and considered putting her away, an angel appears to him in a dream revealing the Child’s conception of the Holy Spirit. Joseph is told to name the child Jesus, “for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:21). Who was it that preserved the information of this occurrence? Nowhere do the Gospels speak of Joseph being alive at the time of Christ’s public ministry. So it is not possible that any of the evangelists could have heard this directly from Joseph. It is obvious that he must have told Mary, his betrothed. So again she hears that the Son to Whom she would give birth was to save His people from their sins. How would He accomplish this?
Then at the birth of Christ itself, the shepherds receive a revelation of multitudes of angels praising God. In coming to see the Christ-child, they inform the Holy family of it. And Magi from the orient are led to Palestine by a star. After asking Herod, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2), “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matt. 2:9). All this, far surpassed any occurrence in the history of Israel and the Scriptures – Mary was aware of all this. And so, as it is recorded in the Scriptures, forty days after the Nativity, the Church celebrates His Meeting in the Temple.
“And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, the parents brought the child Jesus to Jerusalem to the Temple” (Luke 2:22). It is then that the righteous Symeon signifies Jesus as God’s Savior, “a light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of Israel” (Luke 2: 32). He goes on to tell Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:34-35).
So again, the new born Babe of Mary is designated as Savior, this time by the righteous Symeon. He also calls the Holy Child, “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.” Did Mary know exactly who this Child was that she recently gave birth to? Greater things were spoken of Him than any of the prophets. Yet with all this good beyond any expectation, the evil and suffering to come is also foretold. For her Son is described by Symeon as, “a sign to be spoken against”, and she is told, “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
In addition to all that has been said thus far, we know that the Theotokos, along with the Apostles and the rest of the followers of Christ, witnessed the miracles of His Divine power and heard His preaching. He healed men’s sicknesses and cast out devils. He had power over the natural world, stilling the sea and winds, changing water into wine and multiplying the loaves and fish. He raised the dead, and even Lazarus after he had been dead four days. He did these things not by praying to God, as the prophets before Him, but by the word of His Own power. Yet Christ also foretold His Passion, the Cross, His death, and Resurrection on the third day.
So now, we come to the Cross. What did the Theotokos experience as she stood before the Cross of her God and her Son: her Son, Whom she conceived without seed just as she was informed by the Archangel Gabriel? Her Son, of Whom it was said, He will inherit the throne of His father David and of His kingdom there will be no end. Her Son, of Whom it was said, “He will save His people from their sins”; and Who was called “Savior”, “a light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel”. Her Son, Who performed more miracles than all the prophets combined by the word of His Own power and foretold this terrible death of the Cross which she was looking upon. This was her Son, to Whom she gave birth, Whom she held in her arms as a babe – her own Child, Whom she cared for and raised, to Whom she was a mother according to the flesh.
In considering this, let us use the hymnography of the Church as a reference point and particularly the Cross-Theotokions in the Octoechos. Mary, the Theotokos, suffered as a mother and in this was fulfilled St. Symeon’s prophecy.
Standing by the Cross, O Jesus, She Who gave birth to Thee, wept lamenting and cried out: “I cannot bear this, to see Thee to Whom I gave birth nailed on the wood. I escaped the pain of childbirth since I never knew a husband, so how am I now gripped with pain, and wounded in heart. Now is fulfilled the saying which Symeon uttered, ‘A sword shall pierce thy heart O undefiled One.’” (3)
“O my Son”, the Virgin cried out with tears, “Now hath a sword of sorrow hast rent my heart in that the assembly of lawbreakers with nails hath nailed Thee to the Cross.” (4)
And there are many places in the Church’s hymnography where the Theotokos refers to Christ in such terms as, “The fairest or most comely of all men”, and she cries out questioning, “Where hath this comliness gone?” She also calls Him, “My sweetest Child”, or “Most exceedingly beloved Child”, and she often exclaims such phrases as: “How is it (or Why is it) that Thou dost hasten to make me childless?” To illustrate her pain, the hymnographers also says that while shedding tears, she tore her hair. So she suffered terribly as a mother and as she is the highest of all creation her love was more than any creature. Therefore she suffered more than any other mother could.
Yet did the Virgin Mary at that time have hope in the Resurrection? Or did she understand her Son was dying on the Cross for the sins of mankind? During her life in the Temple she had already perceived that the Messiah would come to heal the effects of the fall on the whole race of Adam. Her betrothed Joseph was told by the Archangel that her Child “shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Christ openly preached that He would be crucified, and rise again, and that He was the good Shepherd Who would lay down His life for His sheep. Together with all this, if we accept the opinion of St. Gregory Palamas that “She flew high above all created things, saw God’s glory more clearly than Moses (cf. Exod. 33:18-23), and beheld divine grace” (5), then we should conclude that she also far surpassed the Apostles in the understanding of who her Son was, and in the comprehension of the mystery of His dispensation. So at the Cross she not only lamented as a mother but as a faithful handmaiden of the Lord she also glorified her Son and God. As the Church’s hymnography tells us, at the cross she cried out:
“Woe is me, my Child! How divine and unutterable is Thy dispensation by which Thou dost enliven Thy creation; I hymn Thy tenderhearted compassion. (6)
“The world rejoices receiving deliverance through Thee. My inner self burns beholding Thy crucifixion which Thou dost endure for the sake of Thy merciful kindheartedness, O God, most-good and sinless Lord! (7)
“Thou hast torn asunder the record of Adam’s [sin], being pierced with a spear O Master. (8)
“But I pray do not leave me in the world alone, but make haste to arise, and also raise up our forefather with Thee.” (9)
So when the Theotokos stood at the foot of the Cross, she suffered terribly, more than any of us could comprehend. She suffered as a mother seeing her Son crucified. She suffered as all the followers of Christ, seeing her Lord crucified. She suffered as a Hebrew seeing her people reject and kill Him Whom she knew to be their Messiah. She was also purer than any born of the race of Adam and all creation, and she loved more than all. Therefore she suffered terribly, more than any of us could comprehend. But what is the consequence of all this suffering? What is its fruit?
We can answer by the words which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke to St. John the Theologian as he stood at the Cross next to the Theotokos. He said, “Behold thy mother” (John 19:27). And so she is truly a mother, she is a mother to all believers. “Verily she is our advocate before God…she dwells in heaven and ever beholds the glory of God, yet she does not forget us, poor wretches that we are, and spreads her compassion over the whole earth, over all peoples.
“And this most pure Mother of His, the Lord has bestowed on us. She is our joy and expectation. She is our mother in the spirit, and kin to us by nature, as a human being” (10). She is truly our mother in Christ, she is our “hope, protection, refuge, rest and joy” (11). For, like her Son, in that [she herself] hath suffered being tempted, [she] is able to succour them that are tempted (cf. Heb. 2:18).
So let us close with a fitting hymn of praise to her. Again from the Octoechos which is foremost a work of that great dogmatician and hymnographer of the Orthodox Church – St. John Damascus:
We praise thee O Virgin Theotokos, as she who mediates for the salvation of our race. For thy Son and our God, Who deigned to receive flesh from thee, accepted the passion of the Cross, to deliver us from corruption as the Lover of mankind. (12)
(1) Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St. Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, Tolleshunt Knights by Maldon, Essex, England, Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1991, p. 392
(2) Saint Gregory Palamas, Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, edited by Christopher Veniamin, South Canaan, PA, Mount Thabor Publishing 2005, p. 41
(3) The Ochtoechos, Tone 5, Stavrotheotokion on the Friday Matins Aposticha. (All hymns from the Octoechos are original translations from the Slavonic.)
(4) Ibid. Tone 4, Theotokion on the Wednesday Matins Canon of the Cross, Ode 6.
(5) Saint Gregory Palamas, Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, p. 47
(6) The Ochtoechos, Tone 8, Friday Matins, Stavrotheotokion of the Sessional Hymns after the second reading of the Psalter
(7) Ibid., Tone 8 Wednesday Matins, Stavrotheotokion of the Sessional Hymns after the first reading from the Psalter Hymns after the first reading from the Psalter
(8) Ibid., Tone 4, Theotokion on the Friday Matins Canon of the Cross, Ode 4
(9) Ibid., Tone 4 Thursday Vespers, Stavrotheotokin on Lord I call…
(10) Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 393
(11) See Post Communion Prayers, Prayer to the Theotokos
(12) The Ochtoechos, Tone 3, Resurrectional Dismissal Theotokion