Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS AND IS AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ. ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
THE EVER VIRGIN MARY AS THE TRUE ARK OF THE COVENANT AND AS THE PAR EXCELLENCE THE 'BURNING BUSH'
In the 3rd century writer Hyppolytus of Rome writes that she is the true Ark of the Covenant made of incorruptible wood. To other writers she is par excellence the 'burning bush' wherein the Lord appeared to Moses at Sinai. Ancient Christians always understood the epiphanies of God in the Old Testament to be revelations of the Divine Logos (Word) And so it followed, that the Logos (Word) Who inhabited the form of fire in an ordinary acanthus bush which He did not consume, thereby gave a 'type' (a mystical symbol) of His Incarnation from the womb of the Virgin. She bore the fire of the Godhead but was not consumed by it. As this revelation of God's Name through the sign of the burning bush inaugurated the Covenant, so it was with Mary, who typologically stands as the door to the inauguration of the new Covenant, when God does not come merely in epiphany to mankind, but comes bodily and personally present through the Virgin. By the 4th century, in poets such as Saint Ephraim the Syrian (especially his splendid Eighteenth Hymn on the Blessed Virgin) or the sixth-century poet Romanos the Melodist, her titles are expanded in popular liturgical songs.
One of the longest of these, perhaps the most famous of all, is the Akathistos or Akathist Hymn. The word means 'not sitting down' and refers to the fact that it was one of the processional hymns to the Virgin that were regularly sung in the church of Constantinople. This is one of the greatest of all the Eastern Orthodox Christian hymns to the Mother of God, and is still regularly recited by many of the faithful today, as well as being liturgically sung in a special service during the Fridays of Great Lent. The rich variety of the many forms of the holy icons of the Ever-Virgin spring either out of the Holy Scripture themselves, or the Apocryphal work know as the Proto-evangelium of James (which gives many popular legends about her childhood), or from this great hymn of the Akathist. The initial stanza of the Akathist can be taken, briefly, as an example of its finely crafted style. The poem at large consists of a series of salutations all beginning with chaire (all hail!), introducing a whole list of honorific titles, with the recurring refrain of 'hail, unwedded bride'. It is almost as if the Angel of the Annunciation is stammering out praises, unsure of what to say. The reason for this is given in the opening stanza:
"An Angel of the highest rank was sent from heaven above To say to the Mother of God: All Hail! And seeing you, the Lord, taking bodily form, He stood in awe, crying aloud to her, with His bodiless voice, And saying such things as these:
All hail to you through whom joy shone forth. All hail, you through whom the curse was blotted out. All hail, you who are the restoration of fallen Adam. All hail, you the redemption of the tears of Eve. All hail, you who are a height hard to climb for human thought. All hail, depth impenetrable even to the eyes of Angels."
The Annunciation is presented in a new slant. This manner of telling the Biblical story over again paraphrastically and from a novel angle is an ancient Semitic technique (originating from the church of Antioch and the Syrian Christian poets) known as Midrash. Here in the Akathist, the Divine Logos (Word) has commissioned His Archangel, Gabriel, to give the Virgin a simple message: 'Hail, highly favored one''. But He does not seem to have let the Angel in on the secret of what was to happen. Accordingly, as Gabriel starts to deliver his instructed message, he sees his own Divine Lord, the Logos Himself, Who has beaten him to earth as it were, assuming flesh in the Virgin's womb right in front of the Archangel's 'bodiless' eyes. This puts him into such a state of shock (the whole mystery of the Incarnation is beyond the imagination of Angels since it is the unfathomable compassion of God Himself worked out in the flesh) that he forgets his original message and begins to stammer out a massively long series of 'praises'. These liturgical hymns were very popular indeed in Byzantine times, and today remain a central feature of Orthodox liturgical services, where they are sung as verses and responsorials, sometimes by a double choir.
The Blessed Virgin's status as 'higher than the Angels' is celebrated in what is perhaps the most popular of all Orthodox prayers to the Theotokos:
"More honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, inviolate you gave birth to God the Word. Truly the Theotokos we magnify you."
Other hymns call her the 'garden enclosed', or 'the sealed well' applying to the mystery of her virginity. Once again virginal motherhood is not simply presented as a biological paradox, but rather as a mysterious symbol of mystical faith. It is not without meaning that Jesus' reaction to her suggestion at Cana is to associate her alongside Him in the revealing of the time of the 'hour of revelation. Such is the meaning of His question to her when she asked Him to multiply the wine: "Woman what is this to you and to Me?--For My hour is not yet come." That is, why do we concern ourselves with peripheral matters when the advent of the Kingdom is about to be announced? From the Gospel itself, the Virgin is shown to be intimately associated with her son's redemptive work: she is someone who is expected by her Son to know the mysteries of the Kingdom in a way that the Disciples cannot yet attain. And in the immediately following passages of the Gospel of St. John, their groping path to understanding is contrasted implicitly with her serene comprehension. As Saint Gaudentius of Bresca put it:
"The most Blessed One…understood the mystical sense of His question…otherwise she would never have said to the attendants: 'Do whatever He tells you.' This was because, after her Divine child-bearing, she remained full of the Holy Spirit, and so knew the meaning of Christ's answer, and also foresaw the entire course of His making the water into wine. What could be hidden from the mother of wisdom, from one who was able to contain God Himself, one who was the very temple of such great power?"
This last reference of Saint Gaudentius' is to the Greek title of the Virgin as 'Platytera', another paradoxical concept the Greek Fathers loved to employ. Platytera means 'wider than the Heavens'. Icons of the Virgin Platytera are often found in the apses of Orthodox churches over the altar area. The theological point the icon and the title are making is that God the One 'Whom the Heavens could not contain' and who could certainly not be held within the small space of a temple sanctuary, was now (in the Incarnation) contained snugly in the womb of the Virgin Mother of God. The Theotokos is thus clearly 'wider than the heavens'. Saint Cyril of Alexandria gave voice to this in a famous sermon on the Mother of God, in which he says:
"Hail to you who contained in your womb, One Who cannot be contained, you through whom the Holy Trinity became glorified and adored throughout the world. You are one through whom Heaven rejoices; through whom Angels and Archangels are made glad. Through you the demons are put to flight, and all creation that was once held fast in the delusion of idolatry, has come to the knowledge of the truth."
In a famous fifth-century homily delivered at Constantinople (the centre of the weaving in the eastern Roman world) Saint Proclos called her:
"The awe-inspiring loom of the Incarnation on which the weaver, the Holy Spirit, ineffably wove the garment of the hypostatic union. The overshadowing power from on high was the interconnective thread of the weave; the ancient fleece of Adam was the wool, the undefiled flesh from the Virgin was the threaded wool; and the shuttle--no less than the immeasurable gracefulness of her who bore Him. Over all stood the Logos (Word), that consummate artist."
Perhaps the most revealing, and most celebrated, of all the many Orthodox acclamations of the Blessed Virgin, however, are those which she is most commonly known by the faithful in prayer: "She who is ever ready to help", and "Theotokos, the joy of all creation".
Please note: It is most alarming and regrettable that so many of our Orthodox Christians do not know enough of the Ever-Virgin Mary and Theotokos. I had one of my parishioners ask me some time ago if we regarded the Ever-Virgin Mary as highly as the Roman Catholics. Unfortunately he is not the only one who does not understand her importance in our Church and in our personal salvation. The strange thing is that there is no Orthodox liturgical service that she is not mentioned and where we do not seek her holy intercessions.
Please make a concerted effort to learn more about your Orthodox Christian faith and Tradition. We as your priests can encourage, teach and make information available to all of you but we cannot force anyone to learn who does not want to learn. I am sure you have heard the old expression, 'you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink'. If a person was to remain in the dark all of his/her life that is his/her choice, but how sad?
Make every effort to attend and participate in the Paraklesis holy service as often as possible and come and allow our Panagia, our Heavenly Mother, to embrace you with her love and compassion.
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God