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