The Marian Necessity
Dr. Clark Carlton · September 9, 2011
In commemoration of the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Clark takes a break from his "Naked Public Square" series to offer a few words on Mary's significance today.
Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be as red as crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, you shall reap the good of the Lamb.
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. This week’s topic is the Marian Necessity.
I still have a few more things to say in the series on The Naked Public Square, but this being the Feast of the Nativity of our Lady, I thought I would offer a few words on her significance today. Look for part six, “Put Not Your Trust in Princes,” in the coming weeks.
It is surely significant that the first major feast of the new Church year, which began on September 1, is the Nativity of our Lady on the eighth. It is equally significant that the last major feast of the Church year is the Falling Asleep of our Lady. From birth to death, the Church year liturgically recapitulates the life of the Theotokos, and in doing so, sums up the totality of our own lives. For, in a real sense, the story of Mary is the story of us all, if we would but follow her example.
Perhaps the one thing about Orthodoxy that frustrates Protestants the most is our devotion to our Lady. Needless to say, if you wanted to introduce a Protestant friend to Orthodoxy, the vigil of a Marian feast would probably not be the best place to start. And yet, the question as to why we venerate the Virgin can easily be turned around. Why do others not venerate her, especially when our Lady herself said that every generation would call her blessed?
Let’s go back to the time when Marian devotion first became controversial. Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople in the early part of the fifth century. One day, he invited a bishop named Proclus to give a sermon. Proclus chose to preach on the Virgin, and extolled her in such a lavish manner that Nestorius felt the need to offer rebuttal right then and there. The struggle was on.
Now, Nestorius was prepared to tolerate a certain amount of poetic license when it came to encomiums of the Virgin, but for some reason, he found Proclus’ reference to the Virgin as the temple of God to be a step too far. You see, Proclus had ascribed to Mary the title that Nestorius ascribed to Christ. To his way of thinking, Proclus’ Mariology was impinging on the doctrine of Christ himself.
Nestorius seems to have taught that one can, at least theoretically, make a distinction between the man, Jesus Christ, and the Logos of God, the second Person of the Trinity. I say “seems” because there is a small cottage industry dedicated to proving that Nestorius was not really a Nestorian. Most of this is based on a very strange book he wrote late in life called The Bazaar of Heracleides. It has always struck me as peculiar that modern scholars, who almost never take the Fathers at face value—there always has to be some secret meaning or hidden political motive for everything they say—almost always take the self-serving ravings of heretics at face value. I consider the Bazaar to be a bizarre, eleventh-hour attempt at self-rehabilitation on Nestorius’ part, and I seriously doubt that it can serve as a useful guide to understanding his earlier works, but I digress.
For Nestorius, Christ is the temple of God, that is, the human being in whom God the Logos dwells. Our salvation is accomplished as a result of this divine indwelling and the moral relationship of obedience between Christ-the-man and the Logos that this doctrine implies. When asked, “Who died on the Cross?” any honest Nestorian would answer, “The man, Jesus, suffered and died on the Cross, but the Logos is the Lord of glory.” Thus salvation is wrought, not by the power of God, but by the moral cooperation between Christ-the-man and the Logos.
Needless to say, this is completely at odds with our understanding of salvation. We are not saved because the man Jesus was obedient to the Logos unto death, thereby releasing us from the penalty of our disobedience. We are saved, because the Logos incarnate was obedient to his heavenly Father, even unto death, sharing with us the penalty of our disobedience, so that that penalty might be completely obliterated.
As Orthodox Christians, we confess what some refer to as a “single subject” Christology, that is, we believe that while Christ was fully human, possessing both a human body and mind (or soul), the subject of all of Christ’s actions, whether he is said to eat or touch or heal or die on the Cross, the subject of all of these actions is not some separate human being called Jesus Christ, but the second Person of the Trinity, who for us and for our salvation became man.
The clearest and most concise exposition of Orthodox soteriology is found in the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. Basil. I won’t read it all, but the climax is this:
Giving himself a ransom unto death…
Notice to whom the ransom is paid: not to God the Father, but to death.
...wherein we are held, sold unto sin, and by the Cross having descended into Hades, that he might fill all things with himself, he loosed the pains of death, and being risen again on the third day, he made a way for all flesh unto the resurrection of the dead, because it was not possible for the Author of Life to be holden of corruption.
Christ saves us, not because he has effected some sort of legal transaction—one righteous life given for a world full of sinners—but because he is God incarnate: God on the Cross, God in Hades, destroying death and the dominion of the devil, from the inside.
When Proclus proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the temple of God, Nestorius understood rightly, I think, that Proclus was ascribing things to Mary that rightly belonged to Nestorius’ conception of Christ.
A few years ago, I did an article for St. Vlad’s Quarterly in which I argued that [in] the development of Marian hymnography during the so-called “Byzantine Period,” there was a deliberate attempt to ascribe things to Mary that Nestorius would prefer we ascribe only to Christ. I used the hymnography of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple as a prime example. I think I even did a podcast on this. In a very real sense, the Church’s Mary is actually Nestorius’ Christ.
Why would the Church do this? Well, first of all, to make it clear that we do not accept Nestorius’ Christology. We believe not in an assumed man, morally conjoined with the Logos of God, but rather confess one incarnate Lord: Jesus Christ, God and man at the same time.
But there is another reason why we emphasize the role of the Virgin Mary. Heretics are never wrong about everything. As I’ve said before, heresy is usually a case of trying to reduce the faith down to something that is rationally acceptable, but in so doing, there is always an element of truth that gets distorted. In Nestorius’ case, he was certainly correct in seeing an important human role in the drama of salvation. God does not simply save us against our will. God requires that we become his co-workers.
Nestorius’ mistake was to split our Lord up into the obedient human and the divine Logos. Ironically, in doing so, the human element actually gets swallowed up by the action of the divine in Nestorius’ thought. For those of you interested in technical historical details, Fr. John Romanides has argued that Nestorius was actually the source for the later heresies of Monophysitism and Monoenergism.
Be that as it may, by exalting our Lady as man’s yes to God, as the obedient servant of the Lord, as the human temple of the Logos, the Church underscores the active role that humanity plays in the drama of salvation. The Virgin is, in a very literal sense, the stand-in for all of humanity. It is she who utters, on our behalf, the fiat: “Let it be unto me according to my word.”
But, you ask, does this not impinge upon the uniqueness of Christ and his work? Only if you have a Nestorian Christology. The Virgin Mary is the one human who cooperates completely and fully with God. It is she who undoes the disobedience of Eve by her obedience. Remember, I said a couple of weeks ago that the only sense that an Orthodox Christian can speak about human progress is the progress from Eve to our Lady. The Virgin is the apex of human progress. And yet, there is a limit even to what a perfectly obedient human can do. Mary could and did say yes to God in the most perfect way possible, but that yes by itself could not save man from death. She herself died. Only God, God made flesh, a crucified God, as the Fathers put it, could destroy death from the inside and make a path for all to the resurrection from the dead.
So we see that the Orthodox veneration of the Virgin Mary is necessary to preserve both the uniqueness of Christ, that is, the God-man’s work of salvation, while at the same time preserving the absolute necessity of human cooperation with God. Christ is our one and only Savior, but Mary is our role model. More than that, Mary sums up what it means to be truly human. That is why the liturgical year begins with her birth and ends with her death and translation.
I was reminded of this last week at the Dormition of our beloved Archbishop †Dmitri of Dallas. He died in the wee hours of August 28, which happens to be August 15 on the Old Calendar. In reading the accounts of his falling asleep, I was reminded of the words to the troparion of the Dormition:
In birthgiving, thou didst not forsake thy virginity, and in falling asleep, thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. As thou art the mother of Life, thou was translated unto life, and by thy prayers, thou dost deliver our souls from death.
The archbishop was cared for around the clock by his parishioners and spiritual children. His passing was, by all accounts, painless, blameless, and peaceful, the kind of death we all entreat of the Lord for ourselves. How fitting, that he was translated unto life on the Feast of the Dormition. By the way, though he served on the New Calendar, he would have been received into the Church and ordained on the Old.
You see, Mary’s story is our story, or at least it should be and can be, if we, like her and like Archbishop †Dmitri of blessed memory, are willing to hear the word of God and keep it. That is the Marian necessity.
May our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the Blessed Elder Sophronius Sakharov and especially, on this day, through the intercessions of our most holy Lady, the Mother of God, and ever-Virgin Mary, have mercy upon us all and grant us all a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.