15 August 2017

To be sure

At the Divine Liturgy for the Dormition of the Theotokos earlier this morning, the reading was from the Gospel of Saint Luke. It was the story of Mary and Martha, and a segment afterwards from when Jesus healed a dumb man possessed by a dæmon, that a ‘certain woman from the crowd’ praised Jesus highly, by way of praising His mother the Theotokos: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!

From my time as a Mennonite and then as an Anglican, I have been accustomed to hearing Jesus reply to the woman from the crowd with a kind of rabbinical rebuke – a sort of pietistic tut-tutting to an all-too-worldly woman who would be so gauche as to mention wombs and breasts in her praise of Him. Jesus would always say to her, ‘rather’ or ‘but’ or even ‘on the contrary’! It was as if Jesus was attempting to deny or to downplay the biological facts of His birth, the particular place and person from which He came – in favour of a more ‘spiritualised’ and otherworldly understanding of what it means to be ‘blessed’. But that was not what I heard today from the Gospel as it was read aloud at Saint Herman’s! This time, Christ replied to the woman:
To be sure, and blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!
To be sure!’ The Greek word μενουν can mean ‘but’, but it very rarely occurs at the beginning of a sentence the way it does in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Christ was not contradicting or correcting or rebuking the woman from the crowd. Still less was He denying His mother or ungratefully downplaying her care for Him. The μενουν here means ‘and moreover’ – the KJV comes closest to the meaning with the phrasing ‘Yea, rather’. ‘To be sure!

I have to admit that that was a bit of a shock to my system. Jesus’ relationship with His mother was kind of transfigured there, just as He himself was transfigured a week ago. There was a much greater warmth in Jesus’ words this morning, not just to His mother, but also to the ‘certain woman from the crowd’ who praised Him (and her also). Jesus was adding to her praise, glorifying His mother for the one act by which she brought Him into the world. Because she had heard the word of God, and she said ‘yes’ to it! ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.

But she was no angel, no cælestial power or principality, no goddess nor demi-goddess of the sort the Greeks were used to acknowledging, nor was she at all like Leda or Europa or Alcmene or any of the other mortal consorts (mostly unwilling or unwitting) of Zeus. Like them, though, she was a mortal human being, a woman in every meaningful way like the woman from the crowd who praised her Son and blessed her womb and breasts – though one who was a virgin and remained one even in childbearing. But she was no passive agent, no mere consort. She was not hoodwinked. Her free will was never violated in any way. Through that freely-given and knowing ‘yes’ of hers, in bearing God Incarnate unto the world, she had – in some mysterious sense, a sense defying the logic of time and space and the reality of death – some hand even in the first Creation. In that way, to be sure, being the Mother of God she is the Mother of us all, the Mother of Life itself.

But because she was no angel nor any sort of cælestial being, but every bit as much a woman as the ‘certain woman from the crowd’ who called out to Jesus – that is to say, every bit as much a human being as any of the rest of us her children through Christ – there is something of a warning and a reminder in that ‘to be sure’: to us, to warn us from thinking wrongly of the Theotokos. That is why we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, rather than the Assumption. We do not hold that Mary was somehow more than human in nature. Her advantage over us sinners, is that she actually did hear the word of God and kept it; and then went on to bear Christ, to care for Christ, to feed Christ, to love Christ the Son of God as her own son. She was not preserved from toil or weariness or worry or the bitterness of sorrow, seeing her Son crucified on the Cross and suffering the death that every single one of us is subject to. And at her end, she was not preserved from falling asleep herself.

They speak wrongly, and unworthily, of the Theotokos who say that she was transported to Heaven without first falling asleep. To be sure, she was taken to Heaven, living in body and spirit. But by making the Ever-Virgin Mary something ontologically more-than-human, they lessen her humanity and they lessen (every bit as much as the predestinarians) the honour which is rightly due to her, that she freely chose to hear the word of God and keep it. By ‘forgetting the body’ of the Ever-Virgin Theotokos in the wrong way (and thus daring to do what Christ did not, in correcting or contradicting the woman from the crowd), they actually do her a grave injustice. It then becomes all-too-easy to forget that she was Jewish; that she was a woman of Nazareth; that she was working-class; that she was a subject of the Roman Empire and their Herodean client kings; that her father and mother Saints Joachim and Anna remembered the Hasmonean Kingdom with fondness and no doubt prayed for its restoration. In short, in forgetting the Dormition it becomes easier to forget the Theotokos as she was: an obedient daughter, a loving mother, a humble woman magnified by her love.

To be sure: she was every single one of those things.
Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos,
The unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection.
As Mother of Life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb
Transposed her to life.

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