The Eighth Day Word: On Mary the Theotokos

Feast of St Julian the Martyr of Tarsus

Mother___Child_Square.jpgELDER JOSEPH the Hesychast asserts that the stories of saints increase the fervor of our souls; he says they incite our souls to ardently desire Jesus. Two weeks ago, C. S. Lewis and Fr. Dumitru Staniloae described these soul inspiring saints as divinely illumined reflections of God. There are countless stories of such luminous lives, holy people in whom we can see the splendor of God. We offered a small sampling of those who physically emanated God’s unfading Light (e.g. Abba Arsenius, St Seraphim of Sarov, St Symeon the New Theologian, and Fr Sergei Bulgakov). This past week we turned from those who reflected Christ in the mirror of their souls to the one who bore Christ in her womb.

As the Church struggled to understand the nature and person of Christ in the first eight centuries, she was compelled to reflect on Christ’s mother. Ultimately, a Mariological term was selected by the Third Ecumenical Council (431 A.D.) as the test of Christological orthodoxy. The term Theotokos—God-bearer or Mother of God—was put forth against Nestorius to defend the incarnate Christ as a single hypostasis, one divine and human nature. St John of Damascus says the title Theotokos contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation. To know Christ, then, requires knowledge of His Mother. To be devoted to Christ requires devotion to His Mother. Or, as Fr. Georges Florovsky (d. 1979) puts it, “to ignore the Mother means to misinterpret the Son.” Fr Florovsky asks: Have you ignored God's Mother? Read the full passage.

St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) is the great defender of the hypostatic union. In a homily preached in Ephesus against Nestorius (in a church dedicated to Mary), Cyril marvels at the wonder of the virginal birth of Christ, for it is through Mary that “the only begotten Son of God shone forth as a light upon those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death.” The miracle of a womb containing Him who cannot be contained enraptures Cyril: “Who among men is capable of celebrating Mary most glorious?” St Cyril of Alexandria asks: Do you celebrate Mary? Read the full passage.

The Church celebrates the life of Mary through a cycle of annual feasts: her Nativity, her Entrance into the Temple as a child, the Annunciation, and her Dormition (falling asleep). In a homily on her nativity, St John of Damascus (d. 749) sounds like St Cyril in his celebratory wonder of the Virgin Mary: “She will do away with the accusation against the female sex. . . . Kings of nations will venerate this female, offering gifts. . . . O marvel above all marvels! A woman has become higher than the seraphim since God has been seen ‘made a little less than angels’!” The Damascene monk also contemplates Mary’s role in the economy of salvation: “You lived for God, on whose account you have come into life, in order that you may assist in the salvation of the whole world, and in order that the ancient plan of God for the incarnation of the Word and for our deification may be fulfilled through you.” And so he exults in the Theotokos: “O desired and thrice-blessed female! . . . O divine, living image in whom God the Creator has rejoiced, possessing a mind which is governed by God and which is devoted to God alone.” St John of Damascus asks: Is your mind governed by God? Read the full passage.

St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) also ponders Mary’s role in the economy of salvation. His conclusion echoes the Fathers before him: “When the time came, this treasure was to be used to enrich and adorn both heaven and earth, as indeed came to pass. . . . As for us, understanding the salvation which was begun for us through her, may we render as much thanksgiving and praise as we can. . . . How can we do other than extol and bless without ceasing the Mother of the Bestower of salvation, the giver of life, celebrating her conception, her birth, and now her coming to dwell in the Holy of Holies?” In this homily on Mary’s entrance into the temple, Gregory also considers God’s selection of Mary, according to His foreknowledge, that culminates in His choice of Mary’s parents: a chaste and virtuous couple from the line of David named Joachim and Anna. But first, he considers the sons of Adam: “Note the starting-point of God’s selection. The excellent Seth was chosen by God from among Adam’s children. By his orderly conduct, his control over his senses and his magnificent virtue, he showed himself to be a living heaven, and so he became one of God’s chosen, from whom the Virgin would appear as a chariot of fire to bear God who transcends the heavens, to call men back to adoption as sons of the heavenly Father.” St Gregory Palamas asks: Have you shown yourself to be a living heaven? Read the full passage.

Reflecting on the ascension of Christ, St Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) naturally turns his thoughts to the Virgin Mary. He says her later life was more exalted than her earlier life, except for “her awesome and ineffable conception and giving birth, for this mystery is exalted beyond every order and concept of nature.” She saw her Son crucified, she saw Him resurrected from the tomb, and she watched Him ascend “into heaven with the nature that He had received from her.” “After all this glory,” Maximus says, “she did not win an easy and effortless life and was not made carefree from all labor and ministry.” What did she do? According to Maximus, she “was the model and leader of every good activity” and “through many actions she showed unvanquished triumphs over nature and routed the enemy of humanity entirely.” St Maximus the Confessor asks: Are you routing the enemy of humanity? Read the full passage.

St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) tells us “the beauty of Mary’s chastity and her exemplary virtue,” like the lives of luminous saints, “shine out as from a mirror.” In the life of Mary, Ambrose continues, “you may well receive instruction on how to lead a life in which virtue, instructed by example, shows you what you must do, correct, or avoid.” Ambrose puts her forth as a model of virginity. And he makes an important qualification, especially for those who are married: “She was a virgin, not only in body, but in her mind as well.” Her life is therefore a model of virginity, both for the celibate and the married. According to Ambrose, her “life alone is sufficient to instruct everyone” and “whoever desires her same prize may imitate her example.” St Ambrose of Milan asks: Do you imitate Mary? Read the full passage.

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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