The Theotokos at the Cross (conclusion)
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
(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