Synaxis of the Theotokos

Beginning with this day of the Synaxis of the Theotokos I would like to dedicate a good portion of the coming year to her, that is, Mary, the Birth-giver of God. I will primarily be apologetic and shall probably repeat some things I have mentioned in some earlier posts. I shall also make references to a book on the Theotokos called, O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee, which is available from St. Tikhon’s Monastery. It is unfortunate that there is a need to be apologetic but in our day we have had in our Church speculative teachers, we have had teachers who believe they have bright ideas and follow their own thoughts, and we have had teachers who have been influenced by education outside of the Orthodox Church. So let us begin with the “Foreword” to the above mentioned book:

We, as Orthodox Christians in the Americas, find ourselves in an atmosphere in which we are challenged. We are a Church which is in dispersion. We are a minority among those who call themselves Christians, and engulfed by a multitude of philosophies and religious systems as odds with our Faith. Our Faith is challenged. It is unfortunate, yet not undeniable, that challenges to the Orthodox Faith are occurring not only from without but also from within the Church. Therefore in this small book, we have both a pastoral view in mind, and an apologetic aim of expressing certain truths we confess. It is reference to God’s human instrument of the incarnation of Christ that we shall speak. We want to speak about the most significant woman in the history of the human race: Mary, the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anna, who gave birth to the eternal, uncreated God.

There are truths we as Orthodox Christians acknowledge about Mary, the Birth-giver of God, which may appear problematic to the fallen rational mind. There are truths which some see as mythological and difficult to accept, such as her ever-virginity—that is, physically continuing as a virgin before, during and after giving birth, her sinlessness, or her being the highest of all creation. These may indeed be difficult to accept when they are evaluated by the mind acting according to the human reason habitually used for the function of life in this fallen world. As the Apostle Paul says, the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (ICor. 2:14). Yet the mind has the capability to be trained to act in another way, in a contemplative way, which leads to “direct apprehension of truth through grace” (1), and it is ‘by faith that we have access to this grace” (Rom. 5:2). When the mind functions in this capacity it is in its natural place prior to the fall, which is the heart. (2)

Since in our world today we are so well educated, and from youth trained to be rational and logical, we must say a few words of response to our reason. When we reflect upon Mary, the Mother of God, we must always consider her in the context of Christology and the history of salvation. This approach is summarized in the Anaphora prayer of St. Basil the Great. In his masterpiece of liturgical prayer, he addresses God the Father:

When Thou didst create man by taking dust from the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God, Thou didst set him in a paradise of delight, promising Him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessing in the observance of Thy commandments. But when man disobeyed Thee the true God Who had created him, and was deceived by the guile of the serpent, becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself…He was God before the ages, yet He appeared on earth and lived among men, becoming incarnate of a holy Virgin; He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being likened to the body of our lowliness, that He might liken us to the image of His glory. (3)

This is the “mystery which hath been hid from the ages and from generations…which is Christ in you” (Col. 1:26-7). We have indeed been chosen “in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). Our salvation through the Incarnation of Christ has been foreordained by God even before the creation. So then, what was the will and desire of God the Father for God’s human instrument of the incarnation of Christ, the most significant woman in the history of the human race? Is it not logical that He wanted her to be the highest of all creation, ever-virgin—a virgin in conceiving, in giving birth, and after birth-giving and sinless? Is it possible for the Almighty God Who brought all things out of non-existence into being to do this for the woman who would give birth to His Son? It is not only possible, but it is logical. It is the logical phenomenon that God would effect.

So then, it is with such an approach that we will consider the truths that we as Orthodox Christians confess concerning the Most Holy Theotokos. In doing so, we hope to come to this conclusion: How can we fail to believe that Mary, the Mother of God, is the highest of all creation, that she forever remained a virgin, and that she was not touched by the taint of sin? How is it possible that we could fail to believe these truths?

May our Lord Jesus Christ, “the true light Who enlightens and sanctifies every man that comes into the world”: (4), open the eyes of our minds to the comprehension of the truth He makes accessible to us in this world; so that acknowledging Him as true God and true Man, we may, in an Orthodox, magnify her who gave birth to Him.

(1) Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, p.37
(2) St. Ignatius Brianchaninov expresses this opinion as follows: “The separation of mind from the heart, and their opposition to one another, have resulted from our fall into sin.” The Arena, p. 85
(3) Translation taken from Service Books of the Orthodox Church, Volume II, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, pp. 71-3
(4) This is a prayer which the priest reads at the end of the First Hour. It is a paraphrase of John 1:9

Chrysostom on Reading the Gospel


This will be the last post in the series of excerpts of homilies of St. John. Here we have sections of the first two homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Chrysostom first tells us how the earliest Christians had such grace that a written word was not needed. Next he presents the Gospels as something interesting and exciting, surpassing all the things of this world we believe to be so.

Chrysostom on Reading the Scriptures

It would indeed be proper for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be as though books to our souls; and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course. For that the former was better, God has made manifest, both by His words, and by His doings. Since to Noah, Abraham, and to his offspring, to Job, and to Moses also, He discoursed not by writings, rather He Himself, finding their mind pure. But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tablets, and the admonition which is given by these.

And this one may perceive was the case, not of the saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For God did not give anything in writing to the Apostles, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit. For “He,” our Lord said, “shall bring all things to your remembrance.” And that you may learn that this was far better, hear what He said through the Prophet: “I will make a new covenant with them, putting My laws into their mind, and in their heart I will write them,” and, “they shall be all taught of God.” And Paul too, pointing out the same superiority, said, that they had received a law “not in tablets of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” But since in process of time they made shipwreck, some with regard to doctrines, others as to life and manners, there was again need that they should be put in remembrance by the written word.

Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honor, and are come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy. For if it be blameworthy to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance. On the contrary if we treat what is written with neglect, as though it was cast forth without purpose, and at random, we shall bring down upon ourselves an increased punishment. So that no such effect may occur, let us give strict heed unto the things that are written.

Now we are on the point of entering into a city (if God permit) of gold, and more precious than any gold. Let us then mark her foundations, her gates consisting of sapphires and pearls; for indeed we have in Matthew an excellent guide. For through his gate we shall now enter in, and much diligence is required on our part. For should the Lord see any one not attentive, He casts him out of the city. Yes, for the city is most kingly and glorious; not as the cities with us, divided into a market-place, and the royal courts; for there all is the court of the King. Let us open therefore the gates of our mind, let us open our ears, and with great trembling, when on the point of setting foot on the threshold, let us worship the King that is therein.

For have one leading us with the eyes of the Spirit—Matthew the Publican, who offers to show us all; where the King sits and His host who stand by Him. He will show us where are the angels, where the archangels; and what place is set apart for the new citizens in this city, and what kind of way it is that leads there, and what is the manner of portion they have received, who first were citizens therein, and those next after them, and such as followed these. Let us not therefore with noise or tumult enter in, but with a mystical silence. For if in a city, a great silence is made, when the letter of the king is to be read, much more in this city must all be collected, and stand with soul and ear erect. For it is not the letters of any earthly master, but of the Lord of angels, which are on the point of being read.

So today we set foot within a holy vestibule. Let us consider, the Jews, when they were to approach “a mountain that burned, and fire, and blackness, and darkness, and tempest,”—or rather when they were not so much as to approach, but both to see and to hear these things from afar—were commanded for three days before to abstain from their wives, and to wash their garments, and were in trembling and fear, both themselves and Moses with them. Therefore, much more should we who are not to stand far from a smoking mountain, but to enter into Heaven itself, show forth a greater self-denial; not washing our garments, but wiping clean the robe of our soul, and ridding ourselves of all mixture with worldly things. For it is not blackness that we shall see, nor smoke, nor tempest, but the King Himself sitting on the throne of that unspeakable glory, and angels, and archangels standing by Him, and the tribes of the saints, with those never-ending myriads.
For such is the city of God, having “the Church of the first-born, the spirits of the just, the general assembly of the angels, the blood of sprinkling,” whereby we are all knit into one. Heaven has received the things of earth, and earth the things of Heaven, and that peace has come which was of old longed for both by angels and by saints. Herein the trophy of the cross stands glorious, and conspicuous, the spoils won by Christ, the first-fruits of our inheritance, the booty of our King; all this we shall see in the Gospels. If you follow along with befitting quietness, we shall be able to lead you about everywhere, and to show where death is set forth crucified, and where sin is suspended, and where are the many and wondrous offerings from this war, from this battle. You shall likewise see the tyrant here bound, and the multitude of his minions led captive. You will see his hiding places, and the dens of his robbers, broken up now, and laid open.
But do not be weary, beloved, for if anyone was describing a visible war, and trophies, and victories, you would feel no satiety at all; no, you would not prefer either to eat or drink to such an account. But if that kind of narrative is welcome, how much more this. For consider what a thing it is to hear, how on the one side God from Heaven, arising “out of the royal thrones, descended” (Wis. 18.15) unto the earth, and even unto hell itself, and stood in the battle array; and how the devil on the other hand set himself in array against Him; or rather not against God unveiled, but God hidden in man’s nature. And what is marvelous, is that you will see death destroyed by death, and curse extinguished by curse, and the dominion of the devil put down by those very things whereby he did prevail. Let us therefore rouse ourselves thoroughly, and let us not sleep, for lo, I see the gates opening to us; but let us enter in with all seemly order, and with trembling, step straightway within the vestibule itself. But what is this vestibule? “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham.”