We can take things for granted in Orthodoxy. One of the ideas we just slip past is the very idea of God having a mother. The Panagia, the Ever-Virgin Mary carried God within her; but just consider how enormous a challenge that really was.We know, even more than the ancients, how big creation really is, and what a small speck of matter the Earth is within it. The example I am using here came from Harvard University. “Our galaxy is big enough for light to take 100,000 years to cross it. Imagine that our entire Milky Way galaxy was the size of a CD. On this scale, the nearest spiral galaxy, Andromeda, would be another CD about eight feet away.The furthest galaxies we have ever seen… would be CDs about nine miles away. The edge of the observable Universe, the furthest we can possibly see, is another mile beyond that.” #
Simply the Universe we know about is mind bogglingly big. Yet God is far greater than that! The Theotokos is also called she whose womb is more spacious than the heavens, because she carried God with her. She has been compared to the burning bush Moses saw, containing fire yet not consumed.She is called Theotokos. This means she gave birth to God. She did not bring God into being, but she did carry one of the persons of the Trinity to birth. This issue matters since the argument was once made that Christ was somehow not fully God. There was one version of this heresy called Nestorianism. Accepting it would have meant that Mary would have carried a child who was Christ but not Christ as God. Christokos not Theotokos.
The definition of her status was fixed by the third Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus, in 431. St Cyril of Alexandria’s letter to Nestorios was endorsed by the council. He wrote “the holy Virgin bore in the flesh he who was God hypostatically ( in His person) united to the flesh, this is the reason that we say that she is also Mother of God [Theotokos]. This does not mean that the nature of the Word took a beginning of its existence from flesh, for “It was in the beginning and the Word was God, and the Word was with God” [Jn. 1.1], and is Himself the Maker of the Ages, co-eternal with the Father and the Creator of all things. No, what it means, is that He personally united human nature to Himself and underwent fleshly birth from the very womb. This was not done out of necessity or for the sake of something His own nature required, as if needing a temporal birth in the last times of the world; no, it was done in order to bless the very beginning of our being. It was done so that once a woman bore him united to the flesh, the curse against our whole race could finally be stopped, that curse which sends our earthly bodies down into death.”
The teaching may be summed up as “God became man so that man might become a god” (St. Athanasius). Now Christ was, and is, sinless and perfect. The Roman Catholics have had to deal with their own logic which would have us all marred with “original sin”. The result of that is that Mary as His mother must (they say) have been free from original sin in some way lest she infect Christ with that taint. That is what is meant by Immaculate Conception. It is not Christ’s conception that is in issue, it is hers. This teaching is not Orthodox. We do not have this notion that ancestral sin is transmitted from one generation to the next by reproduction. We all sin, and we say that living in a world that is also fallen, we have a tendency to sin from the environment as well as from our own hearts. We do not however have any belief that we are damned from birth by reason of the fall. Our status with God depends on His Love and also us and our own choices and actions.
Saying Mary is somehow spared the normal human nature or life would be to make Mary the Theotokos both something superhuman and in a sense impoverished. The point is exactly that God takes flesh from a normal human being. He shares the totality of our humanity, not some sanitised version of it. Yes the Theotokos is immaculate, she is without sin. But that happy state is a consequence of her choices. Her obedience and holiness of life means she attained union with God because she wanted it, she was obedient and she worked with divine grace to achieve holiness.
Her birth was to elderly parents, after their prayers. She was already a blessing at her conception, at least to her parents, and she was to spend time in the Temple of course. But what makes her great is exactly that she did what Christ said in the Gospel reading for today. When a woman in the crowd said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” He replied “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” I do not think the woman in the crowd was wrong. But Christ was right in His assertion. Blessedness comes in hearing and keeping the word of God. His Mother did just that. In the Incarnation of God a normal woman bore Him. She was obedient to God, in a way we ought to be. She was, however, fully a part of mankind as much as any of us.
The scandal to many though does not concern her origins, which are ours, but rather the fact that God is united to our humanity in Christ, in His birth and flesh. We are not dualists. We do not say flesh and spirit cannot mix. We believe the whole of our humanity can be sanctified. The body and holiness are not at odds with each other.
The Theotokos is an example to us then, in her obedience. She is a very great Lady, and we adore her but she is always human. We have her icon over the altar not just as an example, as a model for us all. Her prayer is with us and supports our prayer. She is also representative of the whole Church. Like her we have Christ within us. Every time we receive Holy Communion we take God physically inside ourselves.
Now a lady, born of elderly parents and human as much as any one of us stands as a fervent and much loved intercessor. I am not denying any of her special attributes. What most of all strikes me is that she is a vast challenge. She is a contrast to Eve who disobeyed. She was simply obedient to God. The challenge and the invitation is there for us to do likewise.
This wonderful day, Our Lady’s birthday is upon us. It would be foolish to sing Happy Birthday to her, but we can truly be grateful for her example and her prayers. She shows us humanity can be more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious than the seraphim. As she said “All generations shall call me blessed,” She is a wonderful blessing to us all.
To Him who was born of her, be all glory now and forever and to the ages of ages