By ARCHIMANDRITE JOHN AZAR, Commentary | Published January 3, 2013
On Jan. 1 the Roman Catholic Church honors Mary as the Mother of God. The pastor of St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church in Atlanta reflects on this title of Mary as part of an ongoing series on Mary and the Year of Faith in The Georgia Bulletin.
In this Year of Faith, proclaimed by His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Pope of Rome, we look at the Mother of God through the lens of the Eastern Church.
She, from the very moment that she was chosen by God to be the vehicle to reveal his Son to humanity, was the epitome of a faith-filled person.
To begin, we need to clarify many unfortunate misunderstandings that some, outside of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, have of her. It is important to state respectfully but apophatically that she is not a co-Redeemer nor is she a co-Savior. She is not another God or even treated as one.
The high respect or veneration given to her is not worship, which alone is reserved for God Himself, but due and extended praise for her particular role in accepting the daunting announcement by the Archangel Gabriel. She is the Mother of God. Her cooperation with the Divine Incarnation has earned her a position matched by none. By her willingness to be overshadowed and led by the Holy Spirit, she became a “partaker of the divine nature,” to which we are all called, as urged by the holy Apostle Paul. We too will share in the theological tenet expressed by St. Athanasius: “God became man so that man could become God.”
Although not the center of our faith, as is Her Son, yet, she is special, chosen by God and given to us. We know, observe, understand and support our loving respect for her and the imitation of her faith through many avenues, some of which are: the Holy Scriptures, Church Councils, Tradition, Iconography, Hymnology, traditions, etc.
For us as Christians, the Holy Scriptures offer us the first recording of historical events and serve as a basis for our understanding in viewing her. The prophecies of Isaiah that a virgin would give birth set the stage for a future realization of a wondrous birth. Much time later, the apparition of the archangel to this young girl, being raised in the Temple, was a special visit by God to one of His creatures. She was singled out from all of the other young girls in the Temple as one finding favor with God. Her response, not one of shirking from the news and intention that the angelic messenger was bringing her, was rather one of questioning how the conception was to happen. Her second response, “Be it done unto me according to thy word” was an immediate acceptance in faith and trust.
Early Church Gave Mary This Title
Unfortunately, heresies of the past, and yet still continuing today, led some to sway from the earliest traditions of the Church Fathers in how they understood the Holy Virgin. Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and others who followed him, had been teaching the disunity of Christ’s natures and therefore, she was only Christokos, which means Bearer of Christ.
Finally, in their deliberations, the Fathers of the First Council of Ephesus, A.D. 431, concluded that she was Theotokos, Mother of God, or more specific and linguistically, Bearer of God.
Councils are but one source of how the Church views its beliefs. They offer not only decisions to the issues of the day but share with us paths for our own growth to holiness. As St. Gregory Palamas taught, “we move from glory to glory.” The Holy Virgin gives us that example in her life on earth, guiding her Son in His early life and later watching His ministry unfolding. This was her “theosis”… her becoming divinized. The term, properly understood, is in no way a link to New Age philosophy. It is an ancient and perfectly accepted Church teaching of the Eastern Fathers. Continuing to trust in God to protect Him and even throughout the Passion, her trust and belief in His special calling was her own growth that became an example for those who surrounded her.
We believe that those who followed the words of His teaching would undoubtedly come to her for guidance. St. John the beloved disciple, who by tradition, lived with her for a time, assuredly would have been edified by the faith of this special woman. Palamas’ teaching of that growth process is believed to continue in the afterlife. We hold that even the Holy Virgin herself continues to grow in the Light of Christ.
Icons Rarely Show Mary Alone
Iconography is another source for Church teaching about the Theotokos, depicted via the various iconographers. Her role was not one of personal importance to be accorded to her alone but always in relation with and connection to her divine Son. Rarely do icons portray her by herself. Even in the icon of the Annunciation, where there seemingly appear figures of only her and the archangel and yet, there are rays emanating from the heavens, illustrating the power of the Divinity overshadowing her in the conception of God’s Son. In other icons of the Holy Virgin and Son, there are normally three stars on her veil: one on the forefront of the veil and one each on her shoulders. The iconographer is artistically portraying the belief taught to the early Christian community that she is “ever-virgin”: a virgin before Christ’s birth, during His birth and after His birth.
The icon depicted is sometimes called “Sweet-kissing,” displaying the tenderness between Son and Mother. Her faith in the entire procession of those early events: the conception, the traveling to Bethlehem, the adoration by shepherds and royal astrologers, the Feast which we recently celebrated, is a paramount faith that we admire, hold dear to our minds and hearts and one that we try to imitate.
Another source is hymnology. The hymnographers and poets, in the composition of prayers and chants, described her according to the beliefs of the Christian Church and community. One of the most famous hymns titled “All Creation Rejoices,” is attributed to St. John of Damascus, who by tradition, could not sing well the chants of the Church but later miraculously both composed and chanted it, expressing both in word and in tone, the praise and honor due to the Mother of God.
All creation rejoices! All creation rejoices!
The hierarchy of angels and the race of men,
all creation rejoices!
O consecrated temple, spiritual paradise, glory of virgins:
from whom God, our eternal God,
was incarnate and became a little Child.
He has made your womb His throne,
making it more spacious than the heavens.
O you, who are full of grace:
All creation rejoices!
All creation rejoices!
All creation rejoices!
The complementary Byzantine icon that expresses the hymn above is called “More Spacious than the Heavens.” The All-holy one is pictured with her arms outstretched with Christ in her womb. In the Western tradition of art, a similar illustration is called “Orans” (praying). Because of her saying “yes” to the archangel, but ultimately to God, this is seen as a direct expression of her trusting faith from her residing in the Temple, where God resided, being taught the Scriptures and her being undoubtedly inspired by the voice of God Himself on a daily basis.
Eastern Church Title For Mary Is “All-holy”
We call her “All-holy” because of her closeness and further obedience to God Himself. She emptied herself and allowed the Godhead to completely fill her with His holy presence. By her faith, we ourselves are grounded in the promise of her Son.
We use her name in at least six instances within the texts of the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Church. We chant: “Higher in honor than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, you do we exalt.”
We offer her praises in the liturgical services such as the Akathist Hymn, in which no sitting is encouraged because of the respect we afford her.
Praises such as “steadfast foundation of faith,” “emblem of grace,” “you who guide the faithful towards wisdom” and “you through whom we were clothed with grace”… all support the belief that her faith was one to be emulated by the sons and daughters of the Church. She is rightly called by a multitude of poetic names for her cooperative role. The Paraclisis Service, in which we ask her intercession with her Divine Son, for comfort and consolation in our lives, gives us hope: “O Maiden, you have been given to us as a wall behind which we find refuge” … “ever-present intercessor before the Creator.”
Homes Become ‘Domestic Churches’
It was her faith throughout her life that sustained her. It was her faith that was shared with the Apostles, being with them as they received the power of the Holy Spirit. It supported her becoming divinized, her “theosis.” It will be her example of faith, if followed, that will sustain us throughout our own lives, especially in this, the Year of Faith.
In Byzantine homes, we have had in our tradition what has for centuries been known as “the domestic church.” It is here that the Year of Faith will continue to be lived and realized as we replicate items from our churches back in our homes: icons, incense, candles, prayers and hymns.
If the home is converted into a little church, each member will be hopefully converted. We must understand liturgical time in our homes by continuing the feasts and the fasts. Worshipping God at home is part of what the home is all about. We too, like the All-holy Virgin, must talk to God on a daily basis to understand His path and our purpose.
Linking ourselves to His Mother, we become renewed in encountering Him with every breath. We too need to say “yes” to Him. Our lives are lived with and for Him. Icon corners are developed in our homes with the Scriptures, prayer ropes, candles and incense. Along with the main icons of Christ and His Mother, icons of every member’s patron saints are added. Their name days are celebrated and linked to the lives of those holy ones whose names they carry.
This is renewal. This is “theosis”… steps in being divinized as partaking in the divine life of the Godhead. The home, our domestic church, is our local temple; similar to the Theotokos’ experience, this will be where God resides. This special Year of Faith will be our “moving from glory to glory” while here on earth. As the Theotokos was “at home” with God, we too, imitating her, will become at home with Him and He with us.
St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church is located at 1428 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta. The website is www.stjohnmelkite.org.