Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
'BEYOND ALL HOLINESS'
Saint Nicholas Cabasilas on the Mother of God
Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia
"She is the cause of all beauty and magnificence, and of everything that mankind honors with hymns. All praise is to be ascribed to her alone. Indeed, she has even to be regarded as the cause of our very existence as human beings. And not only that, but it is moreover because of the Blessed Virgin that heaven and earth, the sun and the whole universe, have come into existence and attained well-being...Christ chose her to be His Mother not only because she is the best of mothers, but because she is, in an absolute sense, the best of all" (St. Nicolas Cabasilas)
Such are the striking words of Saint Nicolas Cabasilas who expresses his profound sense of awe and wonder before the person of Mary the Mother of God. A lay theologian, and diplomat, contemporary and friend of St. Gregory Palamas, St. Cabasilas is chiefly remembered for his two writings on sacramental theology, Life In Christ and Commentary on the Divine Liturgy. But his three homilies in honor of the Holy Virgin also constitute a significant contribution to Orthodox religious thought. Indeed, by virtue of these homilies he may justly be regarded as one of the foremost Marian theologians in the Greek Patristic tradition, surpassed in importance perhaps only by Saint John of Damascus.
Saint Cabasilas' two major works, the Life in Christ and the Commentary, are both strongly Christological in character. So also, albeit in a less obvious way, are his three homilies in honor of the Holy Virgin. This Christocentric perspective may be identified as a first and fundamental point in his Marian theology. When he glorifies Mary, this is never solely for and in herself. He views her not in isolation but always, either explicitly or implicitly, in terms of her relationship to Christ her Son. If she is highly praised, in words that may sometimes appear extravagant to a modern Western reader, this is specifically because she is Theotokos, Birthgiver of God. The Mother is honored because of her Child. For St. Cabasilas she is first and foremost Hodigitria (Directress)-not that this actual term occurs in the three homilies--the One who points towards Christ, who shows us the way and leads us to Him. She is, as he puts it, "the path and door to the Savior."
Another primary element in the Marian theology of St. Cabasilas is the way in which he regards the Blessed Virgin as the connecting link and the bond of union between the Old Testament and the New, who in her own person ensures the continuity of sacred history. She is, as he expresses it, at one and the same time both 'the fruit of the Law' and 'the treasure-house of Grace'. She is the Daughter of Israel, summing up in her own person all the sanctity of God's Chosen People under the Old Covenant, and at the same time she is Mother of Christ, through Whom the New Covenant was brought to pass. Emphasizing her roots in Judaism, St. Cabasilas applies to the Virgin language taken from the Mosaic Law: she is 'the true tabernacle of God', 'the ark and encampment of Moses', 'the holy of holies'.
Saint Cabasilas is totally convinced that to be human is to enjoy liberty of choice, and this centrality of freedom is to be seen pre-eminently in the life of the Mother of God. She was not simply a passive tool in God's hands but, to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus, "She co-operated with the Economoy." Saint Paul's words, "we are co-operators with God" (I Corinthians 3:9), apply first and foremost to her. As St. Cabasilas puts it, she acted as God's 'helper' and 'co-operated' with the Creator in the work of refashioning the creation. When we seek to fathom the meaning of synergeia, of the mysterious interaction between God's grace and human freedom, we should look above all at Mary.
The chief moment when the Theotokos exercised this co-operation through the employment of her human freedom was at the Annunciation, when she replied to Gabriel, "Behold, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word" (St. Luke 1:38). God did not simply announce the divine plan to her through the intermediary of the Archangel, but he waited for her voluntary response. And this response was not merely a foregone conclusion; Mary was indeed chosen by God, but for her own part she also made a decisive act of free choice. In the epigrammatic phrase of St. Cabasilas, 'The Word of God is formed through the word of His Mother'.
Saint Nicolas Cabasilas states:
"The Incarnation of the Logos (Word) was not only the work of the Father, of His Power [the Son], and of His Spirit-the first consenting, the second descending, the third overshadowing-but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the three Divine Persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the All-Pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her His Mother and receive from her the flesh that she consciously wills to offer Him. Just as He was conceived by His own free choice, so in the same way she became His Mother voluntarily and with her free consent."
The Sinlessness of Mary. In his treatment of the Virgin as a model for human personhood, St. Cabasilas draws attention not only to her freedom of choice but equally to her entire sinlessness. She is higher in sanctity than any other member of the human race, "above and beyond all holiness." "She alone," he writes, "among all human beings, in every age from the beginning to the end, stood firm against all evil, and rendered back to God unimpaired the beauty conferred on us by Him." Not only did she keep her soul pure from every evil, but her sanctity extended from her soul to her body, so that even in this present life she possessed a "spiritual body" (I Corinthians 15:44). 'Even though some of the Holy Teachers state that (at the Annunciation) the Virgin was purified beforehand by the Spirit,' writes Saint Cabasilas, yet this does not signify that she was previously sinful; 'purification" in this context merely indicates 'an addition of the gifts of grace.' She was 'first and uniquely detached from sin once and for all'; in other words, totally pure and sinless from her birth. Saint Cabasilas even asserts that 'she never in any way needed reconciliation.'
As Father Georges Florovsky rightly observes:
"The Blessed Virgin was representative of the race, i.e., of the fallen human race, of the "old Adam". The continuity of sacred history, then, requires that Mary did not enjoy any special grace or 'inclination' derived from the future Incarnation, and not available to the rest of fall mankind. The 'pre-redemption' (praeredemption), posited by the Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, is therefore excluded by Saint Cabasilas."
The fact that the Holy Virgin inherited fallen human nature, and that as a link between the two Covenants she was, prior to the Annunciation, in the same position as the other righteous men and women of the Chosen People, does not in any way diminish her glory, but in St. Cabasilas' eyes it renders her sinlessness all the more remarkable. Her holiness was not merely passive, the result of a special gift of grace from God, but is was also active, attained "through her own zeal and strength." Here, as always, Saint Cabasilas highlights the crucial value of human freedom.
The Final Glory of the Theotokos
It is his belief that Mary underwent physical death, but that her body, after remaining 'for a little while' in the tomb, was raised from the dead and re-united with her soul, so that she was then assumed, body and soul together, into heaven. Saint Cabasilas holds that even now Mary already dwells in the heavenly places with the full integrity of her personhood, body and soul together; and this is likewise the position of Saint John of Damascus and, in the later Byzantine period, of Saint Gregory Palamas and Saint Mark of Ephesos, as it is also contemporary Orthodox Church.
The Virgin as Intercessor
Although taken up into heaven, the Virgin still remains inseparably joined to us on earth through her ceaseless intercession on our behalf. Thus her ministry of prayer constitutes a seventh and final element in St. Cabasilas' theology of the Theotokos. 'Before the coming of the paraclete, she became our paraclete to God', he writes. But if she prays for us, may we also sometimes pray for her? There is no notable occasion when it seems that we do so, in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, immediately after the Epiclesis of the Spirit upon the Holy Gifts. Here the celebrant says to God: "above we offer you this spiritual worship for those who have fallen asleep…above all for our All-Holy, Pure, Most blessed and Glorified Lady the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary." Despite, however, what might seem to be the obvious meaning of this passage, St. Cabasilas insists at some length in his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy that this is not a prayer on her behalf but simply an expression of "Thanksgiving." We do not intercede for Mary; it is she who intercedes for us.
The most valuable among these elements is surely Saint Cabasilas' understanding of the Theotokos as the Supreme Model of what it is to be a human being. So long as she is seen under Christ and in union with Him, she can indeed be regarded as a true paradigm of the ultimate potentialities of our human personhood at its highest. And what she shows us about our humanness is above all, as Saint Cabasilas eloquently proclaims, the cardinal value of freedom.
(source: Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia)