The Blessed Theotokos

Icon of the Mother of God "Of the Passion"

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

By Father John Anthony McGuckin

The title Theotokos.

Mary's status as the Mother of God proclaims prophetically to the Church that her Son is no less than the Divine Word, and that He, eternal in the Father's own being has now come among humanity as a true child of the Jewish Virgin of Nazareth. Again that which is to be seen is more than can be seen by mere eyes. It is the eyes of faith alone that can see the Jewish maiden as truth Theotokos; just as it is the illumined heart alone that can see her Son as the Living Word of God. When the Church confesses her (a word that rightly means to join in prayerful praise to celebrate the wonders of God) it confesses, therefore, the essence of the mystery of redemption in Christ. The praise and confession of Mary is, to that extent, entirely a celebration of the fundamental kerygma of our salvation that God Himself came into our midst as Emmanuel, to rescue us.

The Council of Constantinople II stressed the doctrine of Nicaea more firmly in 553 AD, to afford her the title Aeiparthenos, meaning 'Ever-Virgin'. It is axiomatic to Orthodox belief that the Blessed Virgin was not merely virginal before the conception of Christ but remained so for all her earthly life and heavenly witness afterwards (for as it is with the greatest of Saints and Angels, Orthodoxy understands her to be active and powerful in the guidance and help of the earthly Church even to the present). For this reason Orthodoxy understands the New Testament references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus to signify His immediate family in the wider kin-group, but not the biological children of Mary, as if conceived after Him (and this is something which is certainly in accordance with the biblical idiom and not in contradiction of it).

Again, in the iconic tradition, in almost all the images of Mary that one finds throughout history, she is depicted wearing three stars on her maphorion (or the garment that covers her head and shoulders). These stars are the artistic evocation of her threefold virginity: before, during and after the birth of Christ.

"Wise orators stand mute as fish before you Theotokos; for they are unable to explain how you could remain a virgin and yet give birth. But we who marvel at the mystery of faith can cry out to you: All hail, you who are the chosen vessel of God." [Akathist Hymn]

The Virgin Mary stands not only as a Christological bulwark, epitomizing the ultimate 'scandal of our faith' that if she is called the Theotokos, her Son must be confessed (God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God, as the Creed has it). But in many ways she is a 'Bronze Gate' in a contemporary world abounding in reductionist and faithless exegesis. She who treasured all these stories and tales of wonder about her Son in her heart, as the Evangelist tell us, is still one who refuses to allow the sacred kerygma of the Gospel to be watered down and made palatable to the tastes and conceptions of those who are far from being deeply rooted in the strange and paradoxical ways of a God Who, with the world's salvation in the balance, chose a simple and innocent heart which was ready to say to Him: "Let it be done in me, as I am Your servant."

The titles of the Blessed Virgin given to her in the faith life of the Orthodox Church reflect this whole mystery of ongoing transfiguration. We have noticed the two 'conciliar' and dogmatic titles [Ever Virgin, and Theotokos] but the common name for the Holy Virgin in Orthodox countries is the 'All-Holy' (Panagia). In the liturgical services of the Church she is often called upon in prayer. Each time, as if in a formal act of acknowledgement and honor, she is given a full roll of her titles, and never referred to informally simple as 'Mary'. She is always, 'Our Holy, Immaculate, Most Blessed, and Glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary.'

The celebration of the Mother of God as immaculate (achrantos), is a clear and universal recognition of her exceptional and iconic sanctity. Orthodoxy did not follow the path of Roman Catholicism in moving towards a confession of her Immaculate Conception. This was a late (19th century) decision and was not welcomed by the Orthodox hierarchs of the time who saw it as an example of 'over-elaboration' of the faith tradition…The Orthodox acclaim the Blessed Virgin as Achrantos, the Immaculate One, without teaching the doctrine of the Immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary.

Orthodoxy did, however, bring to Western Christianity after the 18th century a deep devotion to her feast of glorification, a festival which was established and popular in the East by the 5th century. Glorification, in Orthodox literature, primarily means 'canonization'. In reference to the Blessed Virgin, it signifies an ancient tradition of the Church (which by the 4th century was beginning to be developed in extended literary narratives) that after her death the Apostles buried her, and when the tomb was opened shortly afterwards, to allow a latecomer to the funeral to view her corpse, it was found empty. The Feast of the Virgin's 'Falling Asleep;" (Koimisis) as it is called in Orthodoxy, is one of the greater of the secondary-cycle liturgical festivals of the church (those not connected primarily to the cycle of the Lord's ministry and Passion). It occurs on August 15.

Theologically it is another symbol of the hope a true disciple can sustain for a heavenly glorification, after death, with the Lord. The theology of this feast is clearly set out in the icon of the Koimesis. The Mother of the Lord, asleep in death, peaceful on her bier, is wept over by the gathered Apostles, while unseen by them Christ, in the radiant glory of His Resurrection, comes down to lift up her soul (dressed in swaddling clothes like a little baby) and take it into heavenly glory. In a charming reversal of the normal icons of the Mother and Child, it is now Christ Himself Who 'shows" His mother to the Church as an object of veneration and wonder. The Icon celebrates the Theotokos in the communion of the Saints, and is widely understood in the Orthodox Church to be a consolation that our deaths (often called the moment of our last solitude) none of us will be left alone. The tenderness of the Blessed Virgin and the mercy of her Son will watch over the disciple's last journey.

Saint John of Damascus explicitly links the Koimisis to the remarkable discipleship of the Virgin. He sees it as a 'debt of honor' paid by Christ so that He would not be outdone by His Mother's gracious hospitality:

"For it was necessary that she who had entertained God the Word as a guest in the chamber of her womb, should finally be brought home to the dwelling of her Son. Just as the Lord said that He had to be in the place that belongs to His Father, so the Mother had to take up her abode in the palace of her Son, in the house of the Lord in the courts of our God."

In the early 8th century Saint Germanos of Constantinople explained the Koimisis in terms of the inability of death to keep captive a soul of such great beauty and holiness, and its powerlessness to interrupt her intercession on behalf of the Church:

"As it has been written: 'You are indeed beautiful' and your virginal body is entirely saintly, entirely chaste, entirely the dwelling place of God. Accordingly it shall be entirely free from the dissolution to dust. Rendered changeless in regard to all that is human, it is now exalted into immortal life; that very same body, now living and glorified, and sharing without loss in the perfection of life. For it was not possible that the vessel which had carried God, that living temple of the sacred deity of the Only Begotten, should be held a prisoner of death's tomb. So it is, O Theotokos, that we believe you still go about among us."

The Koimisis of the Virgin thus presents her in one of her roles as an intercessor for the soul of the believer after death. She who is with the Risen Lord body and soul in heaven (whereas the other great Saints and Apostles are present with the Lord in spirit only until the Final Resurrection) is presented to the Church as the most powerful of all intercessors for those on earth. Like the Lord, she is believed to be always ready to listen to those in distress.

Throughout Christian history the Blessed Virgin has been one of the most powerful symbols of protection for the distressed and the oppressed, for women in general, and all people of faith. Throughout long patriarchal ages, when women were even regarded to as unworthy to be educated, it has been the image of the Theotokos that has elevated the figure of a young girl, and the quiet serenity of a woman of courage, in the face of loss and adversity, to the pre-eminent position among all the disciples of Christ.

Some of the earliest Christian Fathers celebrated the Virgin's role as 'reverser of Eve'. The Theotokos as one who undoes the damage done by Eve's rebellion was becoming a standard theological theme. From the early second century, her name is found scrawled as an invocation in cemeteries and pilgrim shrines, among the recognizable known liturgical prayer to her. As one of the most common prayers to the Blessed Virgin in contemporary Orthodoxy:

"Open to us the gates of your compassion O Blessed Theotokos. In that we have placed our hope in you, may we never be confounded. Through you may we be delivered from all adversity, for you are the salvation of the race of Christians".

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George