Kneeling Beside Mary through Byzantine Imagery: The Mystery of the Incarnation

Feast of the Translation of the Image of our Lord & God & Savior, Jesus Christ

THE VIRGIN Mary has been embraced and esteemed by the Church ever since her encounter with the archangel Gabriel and his glorious annunciation: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you” (Lk. 1.28). Elizabeth’s exclamation that followed shortly thereafter – “Blessed are you among women” (Lk. 1.42) – and Mary’s prophetic response in the Magnificat – “henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk. 1.48) – have proven true over the centuries; or at least mostly true, as Jaroslav Pelikan reminded his audience of the historical realities of church history in his address titled “Most Generations Shall Call Me Blessed” (“Most Generations Shall Call Me Blessed: An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Liturgy,” in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Mary, Mother of God [Grand Rapids, MI & Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004], 1-18.).

Not only have ‘most’ Christians historically honored the Virgin Mary, but they have done so in various ways. In addition to defending her doctrinally, Christians have liturgically celebrated certain events from her life (e.g., Annunciation, Nativity, Entry into the Temple, and Dormition), sought her intercessions in their prayers, and composed poems, hymns, and homilies in her honor. However, the liturgical poetry and festal homilies of early Byzantium offer particularly poignant Marian imagery that merits special attention. Hence, following a discussion of the Christological nature of an orthodox Mariology and the fundamental role images play in Christian this paper will conclude by turning to the imagery employed by St. John of Damascus in his homilies and canon on the Dormition of Mary, highlighted by similar imagery from the Akathist Hymn and its accompanying canon. The aim is to provide incentive for all of us – not just most of us – to echo Elizabeth’s exclamation and fulfill Mary’s Magnificat.

In his introduction to a collection of early patristic homilies on the Dormition of Mary, Fr. Brian Daley notes that it was not until the fifth and sixth centuries that “the figure of Mary emerged like a comet in Christian devotion and liturgical celebration throughout the world” (On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998], 6.). While the roots of Marian devotion date back to second-century references to her role in the mystery of salvation by Christian writers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, the fourth-century hymns and homilies of St. Ephrem the Syrian set the stage for an explosion of Marian imagery in the following centuries. Indeed, St. Ephrem’s poetic style, his bold use of scriptural imagery, and his deep devotion to Mary were supremely influential upon the Church in ensuing years (See Sebastian Brock, Bride of Light, Hymns on Mary from the Syriac Churches [Kottayam, India: St Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 1994.]. By the fifth century, Byzantine preachers such as Proclus of Constantinople, Hesychius of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, and many others, had all fallen under his spell, resulting in a whole new genre of Marian imagery and a marked increase in the public veneration of Mary (Ibid., 2-3). It is important to recognize, however, that this developing Marian devotion was not only a manifestation of popular piety.

Devotion to Mary was partly (if not primarily) the fruit of the early Church’s Christological reflections. Although the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus (AD 431) officially chose the Cyrillian title Theotokos (“God-bearer,” or more commonly translated as “Mother of God”) over the Nestorian title Christotokos (Christ-bearer), its use had already been long established in the Church as a Christological safeguard. In addition to finding it in the third-century writings of Origen, Archelaus of Mesopotamia, Eusebius of Palestine, and Alexander of Egypt (For references, see John Henry Newman, The Mother of God [A Letter Addressed to the Rev. E.B. Pusey, D.D., on his recent Eirenicon], ed. Stanley L. Jaki [Pinckney, MI: Real View Books, 2003], 57.), the first conciliar proclamation of Mary as Theotokos was made at Antioch in AD 324, a year before the First Council of Nicaea (See note 6 in Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 101 to Cledonius the Presbyter in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, tr. Lionel Wickham [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002]). This title became so prominent that less than forty years later, in the early 360’s, the Emperor Julian complained about Christians continually calling Mary the Theotokos. By AD 382, nearly fifty years before the Council of Ephesus, St. Gregory of Nazianzus boldly asserted in his first letter to Cledonius that anyone who “does not accept Holy Mary as the Theotokos has no relation with the Godhead” (Ibid., 156). Thus, for the early Church, Mary’s role in the incarnation was clearly not a matter to be taken lightly.

Leaping forward to the eighth century, in one of the first summaries of the Christian faith, On the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus argued that it is appropriate for us to call Mary the Theotokos because it “expresses the entire mystery of the Incarnation” (Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., The Fathers of the Church Vol. 37 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958; 1999 reprint], III:12, 294.). Twentieth-century patristic scholar Georges Florovsky made a similar point by noting that the title Theotokos, far more than a mere name or honorific title, is instead “a doctrinal definition – in one word” (“The Ever-Virgin Mother of God,” in Creation and Redemption, Collected Works Vol. 3 [Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1976], 171–172.). If Florovsky and the Damascene monk are correct – and I believe they are – then any substantial reflection upon the Mother of God should necessarily give rise to Christological considerations.  

This is precisely Florovsky’s point and he continues his reflections on the Virgin Mary by emphasizing the necessity of contextualizing all Mariology within Christology. According to Florovsky,  

to ignore the Mother means to misinterpret the Son. On the other hand, the person of the Blessed Virgin can be properly understood and rightly described only in a Christological setting and context. Mariology is to be but a chapter in the treatise on the Incarnation, never to be extended into an independent ‘treatise’. Not, of course, an optional or occasional chapter, not an appendix. It belongs to the very body of doctrine. The Mystery of the Incarnation includes the Mother of the Incarnate (Ibid., 173).

However, as Florovsky readily admits, there have been times when “this Christological perspective has been obscured by a devotional exaggeration, by an unbalanced pietism” and he thus concludes that “[p]iety must always be guided and checked by dogma” (Ibid.). Or, in the words of the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, “dogma should throw light on devotion, bringing it into contact with the fundamental truths of our faith; whereas devotion should enrich dogma with the Church’s living experience” (In the Image and Likeness of God [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001], 196.). This is exactly what occurs in the liturgical poetry and festal homilies of early Byzantium. Before turning to this Marian imagery, however, a few words should be said about the role of images in Christian faith and theology.


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Humans have always struggled to express the inexpressible, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to utter the unutterable. Plato understood this difficulty well, as expressed in the dialogue Timaeus where he says that the creator of this world is beyond comprehension. Even if we were able to comprehend him, Plato continues, it would be utterly impossible to express this understanding with words (The Collected Dialogues including the Letters, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002], 1161–1162.). Over a millennium later, St. John of Damascus affirmed Plato’s conclusion: “it is clear that God exists, but what He is in essence and nature is unknown and beyond all understanding” (De Fide, I:4, 170.). Indeed, in the face of the immensity of the mystery of the Godhead we are left speechless. But this is precisely where images and symbols become so important.

Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras argues that the apophatic dimension of Christianity “leads Christian theology to use the language of poetry and images for the interpretation of dogmas much more than the language of conventional logic and schematic concepts” (Elements of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Theology [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991], 17.). The slightest familiarity with the scriptures proves Yannaras’s point. Whether one looks at the proclamations of the Old Testament prophets or the New Testament teachings of Christ and His apostles, scripture constantly appeals to images, symbols, metaphors, and parables. Thus, recognizing our inability to fully explain the Trinitarian existence of God and his relationship with humanity, any approach to Christian theology will necessarily rely heavily upon imagery (cf. Constantine B. Scouteris, Ecclesial Being: Contributions to Theological Dialogue, ed. Christopher Veniamin [South Canaan, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2005], 110–111).

We can very briefly delve even deeper into the role of images by turning to another important work penned by St. John of Damascus: his Three Treatises in Defense of Icons. In the first and third treatises, St. John enumerates the various types of images, six in all (the sixth is added in the third treatise). First and foremost, images are inherent in the Godhead itself, for the Son is a natural image of the Father (Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003], I.9, 25 and III.19, 96–97.); second, there are images in God of things to come, “paradigms of what he is going to bring about, that is his will that is before eternity and thus eternal” (Ibid., I.10, 25 and III.19, 97.); third, “there are images of invisible and formless things, that provide in bodily form a dim understanding of what is depicted” (Ibid., I.11, 26 and III.21, 98–99); fourth, there are images of the future which describe things to come “in shadowy enigmas” (Ibid., I.12, 27 and III.22, 99.); fifth, there are images of the past such as miracles or virtuous deeds that can be recalled and used to inspire one to “flee what is evil and be zealous for what is good” (Ibid., I.13, 27 and III.23, 99–100.); and finally, the sixth image is “brought about by God through imitation,” that is, humans are created in the image of God (Ibid., III.28, 99.).

St. John thus demonstrates how everything is characterized by images, including both the created world and the uncreated Godhead. Patristics Professor Andrew Louth sums the point up well in his book St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology: “Reality echoes reality” and “images establish relationships between realities. . . . The image, in its different forms, is always mediating, always holding together in harmony” (Oxford Early Christian Studies [Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002], 216.). Thus, to deny the role of images, even the seemingly most mundane form (i.e., icons, which seem to merely be a painted image on a piece of wood), is to disrupt the very nature and harmony of the cosmos.

In his third treatise, St. John extends his reflection on images. First, he defines the image as “a likeness and pattern and impression of something, showing in itself what is depicted” (Ibid., III.16, 95.). He then explains their purpose: “Every image makes manifest and demonstrates something hidden” (Ibid., III.17, 96.). Hence, according to St. John, an image represents something real, not imaginary, and it helps reveal the hidden reality that it represents. Even more importantly, particularly for the purposes of this paper, Professor of Theology Constantine Scouteris notes that an “image represents truth. . . . in no way understood as an intellectual construct, as a metaphysical concept, built upon a philosophical foundation, but as a reality in which to participate.” Thus, Scouteris astutely concludes that St. John and other defenders of the icon were essentially attempting to preserve a tradition of Christianity that understood theology as “a vision, an event in which one participates, manifested as an epiphany in the Church and through the methods set forth by the Church” (Scouteris, Ecclesial Being, 111.).

When we turn to the Marian imagery of early Byzantium, we discover that the principal event upon which it focuses is Mary’s role in the Incarnation of our Lord and thus also in the drama of our own salvation. If theology is to be properly understood as “an event in which one participates,” then, in the words of Florovsky, we

cannot regard the Incarnation merely as a metaphysical miracle which would be unrelated to the personal destiny and existence of the persons involved. Man is never dealt with by God as if he was but a tool in the hands of a master. For man is a living person. . . . Christian thought moves always in the dimension of personalities, not in the realm of general ideas. It apprehends the mystery of the Incarnation as a mystery of the Mother and the Child (“Ever-Virgin,” 177, 179.).

Indeed, the very concept of motherhood necessarily implies a personal relationship between two people. Consequently, the divine motherhood of Mary and the incarnation of God cannot be treated abstractly, but must instead be dealt with in terms of a personal relationship, and moreover, one that deserves to be contemplated

Even Martin Luther understood this. According to Luther, in his exposition of the Magnificat, “Men have crowded all [of Mary’s] glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God.” Luther thus concludes that “it needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God” (The Magnificat,” Luther’s Works, vol. 21, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan [Saint Louis: Concordia, 1956], 326 – 327.). If we take Luther’s admonition seriously and reflect deeply upon what it means for Mary to be the Mother of God, we will certainly be overwhelmed by the implications. John Henry Newman, for instance, after contemplating the Christological implications of the divine motherhood of Mary experienced an overwhelming sense of wonder, as demonstrated in his letter to the Rev. E. B. Pusey:

when once we have mastered the idea, that Mary bore, suckled, and handled the Eternal in the form of a child, what limit is conceivable to the rush and flood of thoughts which such a doctrine involves? What awe and surprise must attend upon the knowledge that a creature has been brought to the Divine Essence? (The Mother of God [A Letter Addressed to the Rev. E.B. Pusey, D.D., on his recent Eirenicon], ed. Stanley L. Jaki [Pinckney, MI: Real View Books, 2003], 75–76.).

Like Newman, St. John of Damascus experienced this same sense of awe as he attempted to articulate the depth of the mystery of the incarnation and Mary’s role in it. Listen to him as he struggles to find words at the beginning of his first homily on her Dormition:

Neither the human tongue nor the mind of the angels that live beyond this universe can give worthy praise to her, through whom it has been granted to us to gaze clearly on the glory of the Lord. What, then – shall we keep silent, cowering in fear, because we cannot praise her worthily? Not at all! . . . Mingling, instead, fear with longing and weaving from them both a single wreath, let us, in holy reverence, with trembling hand and yearning soul, pay gratefully the humble first-fruits of our minds, as we must, to the Queen Mother, the benefactress of all nature! (St John of Damascus, “On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God: Homily I” in Daley, On the Dormition of Mary, I.2, 183–184).

Shortly thereafter, the Damascene monk is stumped yet again as he attempts to articulate a worthy title for the Virgin Mary:

What shall we call you, O Lady? With what titles shall we address you? With what words of praise shall we crown your holy and glorious head – you who are the giver of good things, the source of our wealth, the ornament of the human race, the boast of all creation, the one through whom creation itself is called blessed? Through you, it has come to hold what it never held before; [through you] it gazes “with unveiled face” (2 Cor. 5.18) at him who it lacked the strength to look on before (Ibid., I.3, 185.).

By now, you must be wondering if I am ever going to actually get around to the Byzantine imagery alluded to in the title. I assure you that I will, although probably not in the way you might have expected. If I have built up any suspense, I must apologize because most of the Marian imagery that St. John employs should already be familiar to you. Just as he assembled the orthodox teachings of the holy fathers in his work, On the Orthodox Faith, here too he draws from a repertoire of Old Testament images that by the fifth century had already become familiar types of Mary.

While St. John has frequently been criticized for his lack of originality, it is important to understand that he had no desire to be theologically creative. Standing at the end of eight centuries and six ecumenical councils worth of theological reflection and tradition, John’s primary passion was to preserve and summarize the Christian faith, as demonstrated at the beginning of the first part of his magnum opus, The Fountainhead of Knowledge, where St. John insists, “I shall say nothing of my own, but I shall set down things that have been said in various places by wise and godly men” (The Fount of Knowledge in Writings, preface, 6.).

Although John’s work does not thus seem to be original in the way we would typically understand originality, there is a sense in which he truly was original, at least according to the definition of originality given by the Greek critic Zissimos Lorenzatos. According to Lorenzatos, originality, more than anything, “means to remain faithful to the originals,” an endeavor that St. John pursued with great energy and passion (The Drama of Quality, Romiosyni Series, 16 [Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2000], 15).

Indeed, this is the only sense in which hymnographers and preachers, whether Byzantine or contemporary, ought to be original. As Elizabeth Theokritoff notes in her article, “The Poet as Expositor in the Golden Age by Byzantine Hymnography and in the Experience of the Church,” as interpreters of scripture, hymnographers and preachers should be more like iconographers who refuse to reform or invent new icons, relying instead upon an unchanging tradition of prototypes and forms and “using their artistic skill to convey that tradition . . . in a form that is memorable and compelling” (In Orthodox and Wesleyan Scriptural Understanding and Practice, ed. S.T. Kimbrough, Jr. [Crestwood, NY: St Valdimir’s Seminary Press, 2005], 259.).

As Vladimir Lossky points out, however, the Tradition that is conveyed is not simply “an oral transmission of facts capable of supplementing the Scriptural narrative.” Instead, Lossky concludes that it is

the complement of the Bible, and above all, it is the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the new, as the Church becomes aware of it. It is Tradition which confers comprehension of the meaning of revealed truth (Luke 24). . . . It is only in the Church that we find ourselves capable of tracing the inner connections between the sacred texts which make the Old Testament and the New Testament into a single living body of truth, wherein Christ is present in each word” (Image and Likeness, 198.).

Hence, the result of a long history of tracing these inner connections – seven centuries to be exact – was the development of a large catalogue of Old Testament images from which St. John was able to draw. Or, as Andrew Louth has expressed it, “the Old Testament [was] ransacked for Marian imagery” (St John Damascene, 246.). And as St. John sought to explore the Christological implications of the Virgin Mary he certainly drew freely from this established repertoire.

So, if St. John of Damascus was not original in the sense that most scholars would hope for today, and if the imagery he uses is already familiar to us, why even explore this Marian imagery? As already mentioned, any attempt to speak of the Godhead demands the use of images. As Sallie McFague argues in her work, Metaphorical Theology,

A metaphorical theology will insist that many metaphors and models are necessary, that a piling up of images is essential, both to avoid idolatry and to attempt to express the richness and variety of the divine-human relationship (Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language [Norristown, PA: Fortress Press, 1997], 19.).

Thus, the immensity of the ineffability of God’s mystery requires the use of a wide array of symbols that can not only explore and evoke the various aspects of the divine mystery, but can also push us “toward the total mystery which goes beyond any image or concept” (Nicholas Cachia, The Image of the Good Shepherd as a Source for the Spirituality of the Ministerial Priesthood, Tesi Gregoriana Serie Spiritualite 4 [Roma: Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 1997], 19–20.).

The real genius of St. John of Damascus, then, as Louth has observed, is his ability to express “his faith in terms of imagery, though . . . not at the expense of precise conceptual terminology; rather the two forms of expression complement each other,” particularly in his liturgical poetry and festal homilies (St John Damascene, 223.). As we shall soon see, or more accurately, as we shall hear in a final florilegium of image-filled meditations, a sort of lectio divina, St. John has an uncanny capacity, again in the words of Louth, to “turn doctrine into images, images into poetry, teaching into doxology, and confession into praise” (Ibid., 282.).

The Marian imagery in the liturgical poetry and festal homilies of early Byzantium offers us an orthodox Mariology, one in which, according to Andrew Louth’s short but masterful meditation, Mary and the Mystery of Incarnation,

the dogmas of our Lady are derived out of, and retain their significance in the context of Christology. They disclose Mary’s role in the mystery of redemption. Mary is not independent; she does not stand by herself. She is the Mother of God, deriving her meaning and significance from our Lord; and she is herself, a woman, one of us. As Mother of God she discloses . . . to us the mystery of the revelation of the unknowable God. Mary, the Mother of God, is an integral part of that mystery. As we seek to contemplate the glory of the Word made flesh, we kneel beside her whose willing assent made it possible, and who herself “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Mary and the Mystery of Incarnation: An Essay on the Mother of God in the Theology of Karl Barth [Oxford: SLG Press, 2002; reprint of 1977 ed.], 22–23.).

Let us end, then, by contemplating the glory of the Word made flesh in the womb of His Mother Mary. And as we meditate on the Mystery of the Incarnation, let us leap with joy, as John the Baptist did in the womb of Elizabeth during his first encounter with the Virgin Mary. Indeed, after praying through an array of Old Testament images articulated by St. John of Damascus and the Akathist hymn and its canon, let us echo Elizabeth and fulfill Mary’s Magnificat by declaring the Theotokos “blessed.”


FLORILEGIUM OF MARIAN IMAGERY

MARY AS SPIRITUAL EDEN / PARADISE:
“You are called the spiritual Eden, holier and more divine than that of old; for in the former Eden the earthly Adam dwelt, but in you the Lord from heaven.” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.8, 192)

“Fiery chariot of the Word, hail, Sovereign Lady, living Paradise, having in your midst the Lord, the Tree of Life! His sweetness gives life to all who partake with faith, who had bowed beneath corruption.” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 5, Troparia)

“Today the Eden of the new Adam welcomes the spiritual Paradise where our condemnation has been cancelled, where the tree of life is planted, where our nakedness is clothed again. . . . The only Son of God, who is God and of the same substance as the Father, formed himself into a human being from this virgin, from this pure soil; and so I, who am human, am made divine – I, who am mortal, have now become immortal, and have stripped off my tunic of skin. For I have taken off corruption, and put on the robe of divinity.” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily II.2, 205)

MARY AS NOAH'S ARK:
“The ark prefigured you (cf. Gen. 6.14), in that it guarded the seeds of a second world; for you gave birth to Christ, the world’s salvation, who overwhelmed <the flood of> sin and calmed its waves.” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.8, 192)

MARY AS TEMPLE OBJECTS:
Ark of Law: “Lift up your eyes, O people of God – lift them up! Look! The ark of the Lord God of hosts is in Sion, and the Apostles stand bodily around her, paying final respects to the body that is our source of life, the vessel of God.” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily III.4, 236)

Lampstand & Vessel of Manna:: “We behold the holy Virgin, a shining lamp appearing to those in darkness; for, kindling the Immaterial Light, She guideth all to divine knowledge, She illumineth minds with radiance and is honored by our shouting these things: Rejoice, ray of the noetic Sun: Rejoice radiance of the Unsetting Light! Rejoice, lightning that enlightenest our souls . . . Rejoice, for Thou didst cause the refulgent Light to dawn.” (Akathist Hymn, Ekos 11)

“Hail, Lampstand and Vessel bearing the Manna that sweetens the senses of the godly!” (Akathis Hymn, Ode 4, Troparia)

“I can see in my mind this woman, holier than all things holy, sacred and venerable above all others – the sweet vessel of the manna, or rather its true source – lying on a pallet in the celebrated Holy City of David…” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily II.4, 208)

Aaron’s Rod: “Hail, Bride of God, who bore the Healer of all; mystical Staff that blossomed with the unfading Flower! (Akathist Hymn, Ode 6, Troparia)

MARY AS TENT OF ABRAHAM:
“The tent of Abraham, too, quite obviously signified you (cf. Gen. 18.6); for human nature brought to God the Word, still dwelling in the tent of your womb, its own first-fruits taken from your pure blood, as bread hidden in the ashes: bread shaped and baked by the divine fire, [humanity] existing within its own divine individuality and finally reaching the true existence of a body animated by a reasonable and an intelligent soul.” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.8, 192–193)

MARY AS TABERNACLE & CITY OF GOD:
“Rejoice, tabernacle of God the Word.” (Akathist Hymn, Ekos 12)

“Hail, dwelling place of the Master of Creation!” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 5, Troparia)

“Hail, Undefiled, spacious tabernacle of the Word.” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 5, Troparia)

“The tabernacle of the Lord’s glory, after all, is in no need of glory from us; [she is] the city of God, of whom ‘glorious things are spoken’, as holy David says to her: ‘Glorious things are spoken of you, City of God’ (Ps. 86.3, LXX). For what other city shall we understand for the invisible and uncircumscribed God, who contains all in his own hand, but her who alone truly welcomed the super-essential Word of God, in a way beyond all nature and essence – who received the God who exists in a way beyond all limitation?” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.1, 183)

MARY AS JACOB’S LADDER:
“And I almost forgot Jacob’s ladder (cf. Gen. 28.12)! What, then? Is it not obvious to everyone that it too is an anticipation and a type of you? Just as [Jacob] saw that ladder joining heaven and earth by its [two ends], so that angels could go up and down on it, and just as he saw the strong and unconquerable one symbolically struggling with him, so you, too, are an intermediary; you have joined distant extremes together, and have become the ladder for God’s descent to us – the God who has taken up our weak material and has woven it into a unity with himself, making the human person a mind that sees God (cf. Gen. 32.31). Therefore angels came down to [Christ], worshipping their God and master; and human beings have taken on the angelic way of life, in order to lay hold of heaven.” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.8, 193)

“Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down: Rejoice, bridge that conveyest us from earth to Heaven!” (Akathist Hymn, Ekos 2)

“Hail, Ladder raising all from earth by grace! Hail, Bridge that has truly brought over from death to life all those who sing your praises . (Akathhist Hymn, Ode 4, Troparia)

MARY AS ISAIAH'S ROYAL THRONE:
“You are the royal throne, around which angels stand (cf. Is. 6.1), to see their Lord and creator seated upon it.” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.8, 192)

“Rejoice, for Thou art the King’s throne.” (Akathist Hymn, Ekos 1)

“Hail, fiery throne of the Almighty!” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 1, Troparia)

MARY AS FLEECE OF DAVID & GIDEON:
“What after all, was that fleece of David (cf. Ps. 71.6, LXX; Jg. 6.36-40), on which the Son of that God who is king over all things came down like rain – the Son who is also without beginning and who reigns with the one who begot him? Was it not you, most obviously?” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.9, 193)

“From you dropped down the dew that quenched the flame of idolatry. We therefore cry to you, ‘Hail, Virgin, Fleece wet with dew that Gideon saw in prophecy!’” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 6, Troparia)

MARY AS FIERY FURNACE & BURNING BUSH:
“Did not the furnace point to you, whose fire was at once dew and flame (cf. Dan. 3.49f.), a type of divine fire that dwelt within you?” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.8, 192)

“Moses perceived in the burning bush the great mystery of your giving birth, holy and immaculate Virgin; and the Youths prefigured this most clearly as they stood in the midst of the fire and were not burned. Therefore we sing your praise to all the ages. (Akathist Hymn, Ode 8, Troparia)

“Hail, Bush unburned…” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 7, Troparia)

MARY AS DANIEL'S MOUNTAIN:
“What was Daniel’s mountain, from which Christ, the cornerstone, was cut without the use of a human instrument (cf. Dan. 2.34, 45)? Was it not you, who gave birth without human seed, and continued to remain a virgin?” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.9, 193)

“This Christ, the cause of life for all people, welcomes the cave that has <not> been hollowed out – the unquarried mountain, from whom, without help of human hands, that stone has been cut, which fills the universe (cf. Dan. 2.35, 45, LXX).” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily III.2, 232–233)

“Hail, mountain not cut by human hand, depth that none can fathom!” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 5, Troparia)

MARY AS EZEKIEL'S LOCKED GATE:
“Let the divine Ezekiel come forward and show us the locked gate, passable to the Lord but never opened, which he proclaimed in prophecy (cf. Ez. 44.1f.). Let him point to the fulfillment of his words. Surely he will point to you, through whom came the God who is above all – a gate of virginity he did not open when he took flesh. For truly the seal remains eternally unbroken!” (John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.9, 193–194)

“Hail, only gate through which the Word alone has passed! By your birth giving, Sovereign Lady, you smashed the bars and gates of Hell. Hail, All-praised, divine entrance of the saved!” (Akathist Hymn, Ode 3, Troparia)

MARY AS A SPACIOUS TREASURE HOUSE:
“For the maker and preserver of heaven and of everything in and beyond this universe, the craftsman of all that has been made, visible and invisible – he who has no place, because he is the place of all other beings (if, indeed, place is defined as what contains the things within it): he has created a child in her, of his own power and without human seed, and has revealed her as the spacious treasure-house of that divinity that fills all things, alone and uncircumscribed. He has gathered himself up completely in her, without suffering diminution, yet he remains wholly beyond her, abiding in himself as his incomprehensible home. // Today the treasury of life, the abyss of grace (I do not know how I can say these things with my bold, fearless lips!) is wrapped in a death that brings life.” (St. John of Damascus, Dormition Homily II.2, 206)

CONCLUSION: MARY AS A GREAT AND BLESSED MYSTERY:
Throughout his homilies on the dormition of the Mother of God, St. John of Damascus is continuously led to praise God. His contemplation of the motherhood of the Virgin Mary causes him to stand in awe before the mystery of the incarnation. And filled with the Holy Sprit, he can do nothing else but conclude with Elizabeth’s proclamation of Mary’s blessedness, as should all – not just most – of us:

“O depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God,” I, too, wish now to say with the Apostle; “how incomprehensible His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways!” (Rom. 10.33f.). O boundless goodness of God! O love that has no explanation! He who calls what is not into being (cf. Rom. 4.17), who fills heaven and earth (cf. Jer. 23:24), for whom heaven is a throne and earth a footstool (cf. Is. 66:1), has made the womb of His own servant His ample dwelling place, and accomplishes in her the mystery newer than all that is new. Being God, He becomes a human being; in a supernatural way, He is brought into the world at the time of His birth, and opens the womb without damaging the closed portal of virginity. He, “the shining-forth of the Father’s glory, the stamped impression of His reality, who sets all things in motion by the word of His mouth” (Heb. 1.3), is carried as an infant in earthly arms. O truly divine wonders! O mysteries above nature and understanding! O virginal boasts that outstrip the human condition!  

What is this great mystery about you, O holy mother and virgin? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk. 1.28, 42). Blessed are you for generations of generations; you alone are worthy to be called blessed. Behold, all generations do call you blessed, as you have said (Lk. 1.48).” (St. John of Damascus, Dormition Homily I.8, 191–192)


*Originally presented at Archbisop Iakovos Graduate Student Conference in Patristic Studies, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Boston, MA), March 2006.

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.


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