This week, except in the usage of the Greek Church which transfers the feast to 28th October, Greek Independence Day, we celebrate the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. I am not going to talk about her protection this morning though but concentrate rather on those two titles for Our Lady, “Ever-Virgin” and “Theotokos.”
People who are not Orthodox are surprised when they are told that we only have two doctrines concerning the Blessed Mary in spite of the prominence she is given in our worship. The first concerns her virginity and follows on from the revelations in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, both of which are explicit on this subject. The Church teaches consistently in accordance with the witness of the Gospel writers by proclaiming Mary to be “Ever-Virgin” by taking her own words, “all generations shall call me blessed” as the starting point. Her blessedness was not confined to the moment of her acceptance of her divine calling to be the Mother of God, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ but extended to her whole life thereafter lived in exclusive obedience to the Lord, her Son. “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5) are not the words that fall naturally from a mother’s lips concerning her child but here they reflect the Virgin’s obedience to her Son, an inversion of the natural order of mother-Son relations. When detractors of the Ever-Virgin Mary protest that Jesus, according to the New Testament had “brothers” they reveal their considerable ignorance not only of Church doctrine but also of the culture of antiquity.
Most of the earliest commentators on the New Testament were of Middle Eastern origin and likewise saw no difficulty in the Gospel referring to the “brothers” of the Lord Jesus as many heterodox commentators do. Still today in parts of the world, Melanesia, for example, most families have what they call in English a “cousin-brother” – amusingly they use this term whether the child is male or female. What they mean by this is, that the person so-called is not their mother’s child, and in exactly the same way, we believe that those named “brothers” of Jesus in the Gospels are not Mary’s children, but Joseph’s by his former wife. This is born out by the hostility of these so-called “brothers” to Jesus during much of His preaching ministry, though mostly this attitude changed after His Resurrection.
For what it is worth, those who are uneasy with the doctrine of Mary remaining Ever-Virgin, are not looking at the question from the Panagia’s point of view. She was quite sure of whose Child she had borne. She was quite sure that all generations would call her blessed and that any further children could never match the Unique Child born to her in Bethlehem. Blessed indeed are those who recognize that their hour of greatness has come, and passed, and cannot be repeated. Mary, we believe, rightly remained Ever-Virgin.
The second dogma is summed up by the Greek word “Theotokos” but in using that word we are not being deliberately obscure, (for non-Greek speakers of course!) It is really a matter of expediency in that there is no single word in English to translate it. The word was chosen by the Fathers of the third Ecumenical Council which met in Ephesus in 431 and their intention was to safeguard the position and place of the Blessed Virgin certainly, but also, and perhaps more importantly, of Our Lord Himself. The best translation in English is “birth-giver of God.” (“God-bearer” is inaccurate for that would be “Theophoros” and would apply to certain other saints such as St. Ignatios of Antioch). More often used in the West is “Mother of God”. Rightly understood this phrase is Orthodox but it could be misunderstood if, for example, it was thought, wrongly of course, to refer to the mother of our Heavenly Father. Neither the Father nor the Spirit has a Mother, only the Son. But, and this is what the heretic Nestorius got wrong, the Son is God and He is one Person, Jesus Christ. You can read about the error of Nestorius in the bulletin this week. I have included an extract from the letter of St. Cyril of Alexandria to the heresiarch at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 431. So, even in English, I believe that we should stick with “Theotokos” in the original Greek.
The doctrine of the virginity of Mary relates to her person and her privacy. The doctrine of the Theotokos relates to her, but also to the Son whom she bore.
This is the means by which the Church protects the faith that God the Word (as St John describes Him in the fourth Gospel) became flesh and dwelt among us. In that description the word “flesh” is all important. It means that in the Person of Jesus Christ, God was joined to man from the moment of His Conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and that being perfect man He is also, Perfect God. St Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in 108, declared: “our God, Jesus Christ, was in the womb of Mary” and “God took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”
In the Creed put together at the first two Ecumenical Councils, Jesus is described as being of “one essence with the Father” and “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and became Man”. In this neat way God is described as becoming Man as well.
So, the Council of Ephesus merely ratified the teaching of the earlier Councils and sought to end any enduring doubt or controversy by declaring Mary to be “Theotokos,” the Birth-Giver of God.
It is important to recognise that the objective of the Councils, was not to glorify the Blessed Virgin Mary in her own right as a rival to Christ. Their intention was, to protect the Person and place of Jesus by stating clearly and un-equivocally the person and place of His Mother. It is unfortunate that in the medieval Latin church, the cult of Mary often separated her devotionally from her Son in the prayers of believers. This helped among other controversies to bring on the Protestant Reformation which brought even more heresies about Our Lady into the mix, eventually declaring her to be an unremarkable woman of no account, a heresy strangely reminiscent of the Monophysite doctrine that at the Incarnation Mary was merely a pipe, a conduit for the coming of Christ – to which the Orthodox say “Anathema!”
By contrast, we are fortunate in Orthodoxy that our worship and also our iconography, hold both the Son and His Mother together and this gives both of them their rightful place. Our icons show Mary usually holding her Son and pointing to him in a way which reminds us of her command to the stewards at the Wedding Feast at Cana: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2.5) And there is an important distinction in our worship where we are urged to “Call to remembrance our all holy, immaculate and glorious lady, Theotokos and ever Virgin Mary” but then to “commend ourselves and each other and our whole life, unto Christ our God.” We remember, gladly, the love and obedience of the Theotokos. But we commit our lives to Christ our God. In these ways, the true faith of the Church in her Creeds and Councils is preserved in perfect balance.