In discussions between Christians of the Apostolic, ancient traditions and those of the reformed, modern traditions no individual outside of Christ may exuberate more debate than St. Mary, His mother. Referred to as the Theotokos (God-bearer), the person of Mary is in many cases reduced, for better or for worse, to a dogma or a devotion, without regards to whom she exemplifies in our understanding of Christ. The purpose of this writing is to explore the Orthodox presupposition of St. Mary through Scripture as a key component into our understanding of Christ Himself.
As Gregory of Nazianzus asserted, “If one does not acknowledge Mary as Theotokos, he is estranged from God” (Epist. 101). This bold assertion might cause the casual Christian of many traditions to be amazed or bewildered, particularly living in an age highly influenced by Sola-Scriptura (Scripture alone). However, as mentioned earlier the understanding of Mary ties strongly to the understanding of her Son. More than a metaphysical god, or an unnamed deity, the God of the Christians has a history that spans several millennia. The eternal God whom we first recognized since the Creation narrative and further throughout the history of Israel has brought forth His presence in the flesh through the divine Incarnation by proceeding from the womb of the Blessed Mother. The latter part draws into question the purpose of picking such a person to house a deity and provide Him to the world through the process of childbirth. However, the key significance of this act and more importantly, this person, has been understood since the early days of the Church. The term, Theotokos was already in existence when Nestorius debated it. The Third Ecumenical Council was focused on Christological dogma and did not create any special Mariological doctrine in response to the false Nestorian assertions. Although this word does not occur in Scripture, the Church councils were not articulating or expounding a new article of faith. As the late Eastern Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky says, “An ‘unscriptural’ word was chosen and used, precisely to voice and to safeguard the traditional belief and common conviction of ages.” St. John of Damascus in his discourse states Mary “contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation”, and she did not bear “a common man, but the true God.” Without a definitive teaching about the Mother of Christ, Christological doctrine can never be truthfully and sufficiently expressed.
The Incarnation was a personal work of the Living God, the “coming down” of a divine Person. Mary was not just a mere “channel” through which the Lord came, but the one from whom He took his humanity. Again referring to the words of St. John of Damascus, He did not come “as through a pipe,” but has assumed of her, a human nature consubstantial to ours. St. Luke shows she was not simply an instrument, who allowed herself be used for the Incarnation, but rather a person who sought to realize, in her own consciousness, the meaning of the fact of her divine maternity.
The scriptural statement, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Gal. 3:4), establishes an intimate spiritual relation between the mother and the child. This unique relationship reciprocates Jesus’ love for His Mother in the fullest sense. For the Incarnate Lord there is one particular human person with whom he is in a very special relation, that not only is He the Lord and Savior of, but also Son. Scripture also points out a verse that not only is a precursor to Christ’s suffering but shows Mary’s direct role in His suffering as well: “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
The Incarnation was not only a sovereign act of God, but more importantly exuded His fatherly love and compassion. God wanted man to have his active share in the mystery. Mary was representative of the whole race, exemplifying in her the whole of humanity. Mary responded to the divine call, responding in humility and faith: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Divine will is accepted and responded to as Mary’s obedience offsets the disobedience of Eve. For this reason Mary is the Second Eve, as her Son is the Second Adam. Although Mary herself needed to be redeemed, she was actively engaged in the mystery of the redeeming re-creation of the world as she bore “the second man”, “the last Adam”, who “is the Lord from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). As the Creator used the words, “Let there be” which brought creation into existence, Mary uttered humbly, “Let it be”, in her obedience to God.
Those who are against the designation of St. Mary as Theotokos cannot be Christians to the fullest extent, as they oppose the true doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word. According to St. Gregory of Nanzianus:
“If the teaching about the Mother of God belongs to Tradition, it is only through our experience of life in the Church that we can adhere to the unlimited devotion which the Church offers to the Mother of God; and the degree of our adherence to this devotion will be the measure of the extent to which we belong to the Body of Christ.”
Devotion or tradition pertaining to the Virgin Mother can be found in the Old and New Testaments that will supply the Church with texts to glorify the Mother of God. The Great Kings of Old Testament had an inclination to grant their mothers’ request. One example is that of King Solomon. When he sees her he honors his mother by bowing before her as he puts her in higher regard than any other person on earth. When Bathsheba petitions for Adonijah in 1 Kings 2:19-20 Solomon acknowledges he will not deny her even before knowing the request. However, further into the story we see Solomon was not able to grant this request simply because it threatens his throne. In the same sense Christ who is in the same lineage of Solomon, follows a similar tradition. We petition to Mary to intercede for us; we are not praying to her but instead asking her to pray for us. Our Scriptural basis is John 2:1-11, in where Mary is a key figure in Jesus’ first miracle. The passage reports that while Jesus was attending a wedding in Cana with his disciples the hosts ran out of wine. Jesus’ mother told Jesus, “They have no more wine,” in which Jesus replied, “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.” However, self-assured of Jesus’ response His mother then said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:3-5).
The importance in glorifying Mary cannot be overlooked as Scripture itself says, “all generations will call you blessed” (Luke 1:48). However, one important example in the gospels which is used to refute glorification of Mary is one in which Christ Himself publicly opposes the glorification of his Mother. When a woman in the crowd proclaims, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked,” Christ replies back by saying “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28). However, what St. Luke is doing is not depreciating, but showing the significance of those who receive and keep the divine revelation, as in the case of Mary. This keeping of the words heard concerning Christ in an honest and good heart that Christ exalts above the actuality of physical maternity is attributed in Gospel to no individual except the Mother of the Lord. St. Luke insists of it, as it is mentioned twice in the Infancy narrative: “But Mary kept all these things pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). For this reason the Church exalts the Mother of God since she was the one who “hears and keeps” the words of the revelation.
The name of the Mother of God contains all the history of the divine economy in this world. Between the two Eves lies all the history of the Old Testament which cannot be divided. Her participation in the work of the Incarnation was a choice that followed and concluded a whole series of other chosen ones who prepared the way for it. The Roman Catholics take Mary’s own birth to the extreme with the Immaculate Conception. However, according to the Orthodox understanding, the Holy Virgin was born under the law of original sin, and she shared with all the same common responsibility for the Fall. But this sin has not overcome her person, as she was the one who willfully obeyed God.
The Orthodox Church has not made Mariology into an independent dogmatic theme as it remains integral to the whole of Christian teaching. A strong foundation of the Orthodox faith is based on how the name Theotokos stresses the Child whom Mary bore was not a simple man, not a human person, but the only-begotten Son of God. Theologians from Protestant circles have little or in most cases no interest in this matter. However, to ignore the Mother means to misinterpret the Son. The Mystery of the Incarnation includes the bearing the Eternal Son of God who was made man, as well as the Motherhood of the Incarnate, and more importantly the Mother herself. This Christological perspective has been in many cases obscured by a devotional exaggeration or by an unbalanced pietism. This causes many to turn away from Mariology and Marian devotions as they deem it unnecessary to the person of Christ. However, within the context of the Church in its entirety, Mary is an essential figure in understanding the fullness of Christ.