The Theotokos at the Cross
Since we are in the week of the veneration of the Cross and have just celebrated the Annunciation–on the Old Calendar–I have decided to post something on the Theotokos at the Cross. This will be in two posts and the endnotes will be in the second of these. What follows is an article in the book, “O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee”.
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. In addition, she saw that as time passed, life continued under the inherited curse and grew ever worse, God’s creature made in His image was estranged from the Creator and became more and more closely associated with the one who had evilly schemed to crush him….No one was capable of putting an end to this impulse which brings destruction on all men alike, or to the uncheckable rush of our race towards hell. 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, to constrain Him who is above compulsion, and quickly draw Him towards us, that He might remove the curse from among us, halt the advance of the fire burning men’s souls, weaken our enemies, answer our prayers, shine upon us with the light that never sets and, having healed our sickness, unite His creature with Himself.
Having thought over these things so revelant to her, 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 their 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….to be continued