A hymn from the Matins canon of Akathist Saturday
Rejoice radiant dawn who alone bearest Christ the Sun; rejoice, dwelling place of the Light. Thou hast dispersed the gloom and utterly destroyed the demons of the darkness. (The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware, p. 428)
A Sermon on Akathist Saturday
Beloved of God, in the liturgical cycle of this day when we read the Akathist to the Theotokos it is like a second Synaxis for her, we k now that the day after the Nativity of our Lord is the feast of the Synaxis to the Theotokos when we honor her through whom He came into the world, Mary, the virgin mother of God. And, as I said this day is like a second Synaxis. So today let us honor her by considering the honor and glory that God has bestowed upon her, the mother of God the Son according to the flesh. In particular, let us reflect upon two things that we know and confess as Orthodox Christians, which are, that she is the highest of all creation, and she is ever-virgin.
Let us first consider her place among created beings in God’s kingdom, and then her ever-virginity. When the Apostles James, and John asked our Lord to be at His right hand, and left in His kingdom, He answered, “it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father” (Matt. 20:23). Who has this honor to be at the right and left of our Lord Jesus Christ in His kingdom? Our iconographic tradition shows us what the Church teaches; we often see in triptychs the Theotokos at His right, and St. John the Baptist at His left. We can especially see this in an iconostasis that has multiple rows, which include Christ enthroned in the center, here again, the Theotokos is on Christ’s right. The Psalmist also prefigures this when he says, “At Thy right hand stood the Queen, arrayed in a vesture of inwoven gold, adorned in varied colors” (Ps. 44:8). And in the proskomedia, a priest utters these words of prayer, when he places the particle of prosphora taken out in memory of the Theotokos to the right of the Lamb, which becomes the Body of Christ. It is so natural and logical that this would be so. Whom among the race of men would God, the Father, honor more than the one through whom His pre-eternal Son, in time, became man? No one! It is inconceivable that anyone would be given more honor than she who conceived His Son in her womb, and gave birth to Him according to the flesh, Mary, the Mother of God.
So then Mary, the Mother of God, is the highest of all creation. She is more spacious than the heavens, for she contained within herself God, Whom the heavens cannot contain. She has pre-eminence over all the heavenly hosts, for as a loving mother–the Mother of God, according to the flesh–she held in her embrace, and looked upon Him at Whom they dare not gaze. She is indeed more honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious than the Seraphim, for without defilement, that is, as a virgin, without knowing the touch of a man, she gave birth to God the Word. So she is the one through whom God has wrought our salvation. She is our Mediatress through whom the Son of God became our Mediator, therefore she is a bridge which joins earth to heaven. She was foretold by many figures and prophecies. She is the bush that burned without being consumed which Moses beheld (Ex. 3:2), for she received within herself the fire of Divinity yet her human nature remained intact. She is the living ark of God made golden by the Divine Spirit, who contained not the tablets of the law and the pot of manna, but rather Christ-God, the Lawgiver and bread of Life (Ex. 25:10-11, Heb.9:4). She is the rod of Aaron that budded forth (Num. 17:8), not a simple flower of this world, but the flower of immortal life, Christ our God. She is the ladder that Jacob beheld (Gen. 8:12), by whom God descended to become man. She is the fleece of Gideon wet with dew (Judges 6:37-40); for as dew comes upon the earth so quietly and inconspicuously, thus did she in an unnoticed and modest manner conceive and give birth to Christ our God. She is the light cloud (Is. 19:1), upon whom the Lord sits as the Prophet Isaiah said. She is the closed gate (Ez. 42:2), of which the prophet Ezekiel wrote, by whom the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered. She is the unhewn mountain that the prophet Daniel saw (Dan. 2:45), from whom our Lord Jesus Christ proceeded. She is the overshadowed mountain seen by the prophet Habakkuk from whom the Holy One would come (Hab. 3:3 Sept.). In short, she is the mother of our God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnate, therefore whom among created beings can be compared to her?
Let us now move on to pondering the ever-virginity of the Theotokos. When we speak of her “ever-virginity” there are several aspects of her virginity to discuss. First of all she gave birth without knowing a man, as the prophet Isaiah foretold: “A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). For the conception was of the Holy Spirit, and it was God, the Son, the second Person of the Holy Trinity Who took flesh from her and became incarnate for our salvation. As the Archangel Gabriel disclosed to her when she questioned her conception and birthgiving, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee” (Luke 1:35).
In a homily on the Annunciation St. Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea, points out that the ever-virginity of the Theotokos was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. Thus he writes:
‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph.’ Hear what the prophet says about this man and the virgin: ‘This book that is sealed shall be delivered to a man that is learned.’ What is meant by this sealed book, but just the virgin undefiled? From whom is this to be given? From the priests evidently. And to whom? To the artisan Joseph. As, then, the priests espoused Mary to Joseph as to a prudent husband, and committed her to his care in expectation of the time of marriage, and as it behoved him then on obtaining her to keep the virgin untouched, this was announced by the prophet long before, when he said: ‘This book that is sealed shall be delivered to a man that is learned.’ And that man will say, I cannot read it. But why canst thou not read it, O Joseph? ‘I cannot read it’, he says, ‘because the book is sealed’. (1) For whom, then, is it preserved? It is preserved as a place of sojourn for the Maker of the universe. (2)
So she was the unwedded bride of God who never knew the touch of man. And when we call the Theotokos, “ever-virgin” this does not only mean that she never knew the touch of a man, but also that she physically remained a virgin. She was virgin before, during, and after birth. This teaching of our Church has also been incorporated into our iconographic tradition. The three stars which are upon the forehead, and two shoulders of the Theotokos, indicate that she was a virgin before, during, and after childbirth. The seal of her virginity was never broken. Is this difficult to believe? Yet it is so natural and reasonable that Christ God would do this for His Mother. It fits so beautifully into God’s dispensation for the salvation of man, and life in His eternal kingdom, that Christ God would have His mother according to the flesh as ever-virgin, and the highest of all creation. This was a small thing for our omnipotent God to do, yet infinitely glorious.
So in concluding, let us not omit anything that could enhance our honoring Mary, the Mother of God, this day. Let us briefly first contemplate what manner of person she was, and what quality of character she possessed, and afterwards offer her a short eulogy. The former we can find in the following excerpt from a letter of St. Ignatius the God-bearer, to St. John the Theologian:
But Salome also, [the daughter of Anna, ] whom thou lovest, who stayed with her five months at Jerusalem, and some other well-known persons, relate that she is full of all graces and all virtues, after the manner of a virgin, fruitful in virtue and grace. And, as they report, she is cheerful in persecutions and afflictions, free from murmuring in the midst of penury and want, grateful to those that injure her, and rejoices when exposed to troubles: she sympathizes with the wretched and the afflicted as sharing in their afflictions, and is not slow to come to their assistance. Moreover, she shines forth gloriously as contending in the fight of faith against the pernicious conflicts of vicious principles or conduct. She is the lady of our new religion and repentance, and the handmaid among the faithful of all works of piety. She is indeed devoted to the humble, and she humbles herself more devotedly than the devoted, and is wonderfully magnified by all, while at the same time she suffers detraction from the Scribes and Pharisees. Besides these points, many relate to us numerous other things regarding her. We do not, however, go so far as to believe all in every particular; nor do we mention such to thee. But, as we are informed by those who are worthy of credit, there is in Mary the mother of Jesus an angelic purity of nature allied with the nature of humanity. And such reports as these have greatly excited our emotions, and urge us eagerly to desire a sight of this (if it be lawful so to speak) heavenly prodigy and most sacred marvel. (3)
— thus St. Ignatius wrote of the Theotokos. (4)
Finally, in closing, let us offer us our eulogy to the most pure Mother of God with the words of St. Gregory the Wonderworker:
Thy praise, O most holy Virgin, surpasses all laudation, by reason of the God who received the flesh and was born man of thee. To thee every creature, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, offers the meet offering of honour. For thou hast been indeed set forth as the true cherubic throne. Thou shinest as the very brightness of light in the high places of the kingdoms of intelligence; where the Father, who is without beginning, and whose power thou hadst overshadowing thee, is glorified; where also the Son is worshipped, whom thou didst bear according to the flesh; and where the Holy Spirit is praised, who effected in thy womb the generation of the mighty King. Through thee, O thou that art highly favoured, is the holy and consubstantial Trinity known in the world. Together with thyself, deem us also worthy to be made partakers of thy perfect grace in Jesus Christ our Lord: with whom, and with the Holy Spirit, be glory to the Father, now and ever, and unto the ages of the ages. Amen. (5)
(1) The complete verse referred to reads as follows: “And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed” (Is. 29:11).
(2) Saint Gregory, Bishop of Neocaesarea, The Third Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, The Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325, ed. The Rev. Alexander Roberts, D. D., and James Donaldson, LL. D., Vol. VI, Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p.66.
(3) Saint Ignatius, The Epistle of Ignatius to St. John the Apostle, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Writings of the Fathers down to 325 A. D., ed. The Rev. Alexander Robert, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL., D.D., Vol. I, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Grand Rapids, Michigan, WM. B Eerdmans publishing Company, 1956, p. 124
(4) Although this letter has been attributed to St. Ignatius the exact authorship is uncertain.
(5) Saint Gregory, Bishop of Neocaesarea, The Second Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, The Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325, ed. The Rev. Alexander Roberts, D. D., and James Donaldson, LL. D., Vol. VI, Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956, p. 65