25 March 2019

Glorified and honoured in the highest

For us Orthodox, the Annunciation of Christ’s birth to the Mother of God has a particular and deep significance. This sudden feast in the midst of the most solemn period of fasting in the Church catches us, if I may paraphrase Fr Paul of St Herman’s OCA a bit, off our guard. It throws us off-balance. If we are ever tempted in the Lenten season by thoughts of self-importance or sufficiency unto ourselves in the fast, this feast (which normally falls right in the middle of the great fast) on which the Mother of God herself at first refuses to believe what she hears on account of her own humility cannot and should not but put us to shame a bit. The feast isn’t just a day inviting us perhaps to enjoy a tuna salad sandwich or two, but also a day which calls us to ‘check ourselves before we wreck ourselves’.

In a certain sense, this episode – this sudden, unannounced, unexpected visitation – plays a central rôle in the history of human salvation. This young child herself unlooked-for, this oblate, this last flower of a kingly house long faded into obscurity and povertythis child was chosen by the Most High to bear the Messiah, to be sure. But there is more to it than that. From the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke:
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
This last ‘be it unto me according to thy word’, that willing, knowing ‘yes’ from Mary, is one of the central events, if not the central event, in the human drama which has to this point shaped up to be, not truly a tragœdy, but a bitter and cruel farce of self-destruction. Mary’s ‘yes’ in St Luke 1:38, her willing coöperation with the grace of God, is the eucatastrophe of the New Testament: the means by which the disobedience of Adam and Eve and all of its ramifications came undone. The philosophical ramifications of this are seen in the writings of Saint Irenæus, who goes so far as to call Mary the second Eve, the mother through whom all of humanity is reborn. More than that: Mary’s ‘yes’ is the model that serves for the rest of us fallen, sinful human beings – the only way by which salvation can work within us is if we too can bring ourselves to say ‘yes’ to God with the same simplicity, the same here-hood (that is to say, doyikayt) and the same degree of forgetfulness of self that the Mother of God had.

But note what is required, if we are to accept this ourselves. The Ever-Blessed Virgin occupies a position in the divine drama which is very difficult, if not impossible, to define by the means of the mere discursive reason alone. The Mother of God is not just another woman (with all that that phrasing can be taken to imply) as the misogyny of certain sixteenth-century French and German ‘reformers’, and those who follow them, would have it. Nor is it quite right to say she was somehow specially and metaphysically set-apart, as if in an experimental test-tube, from the rest of wicked and sinful humanity – as the Latins, especially after 1854, hold. Both of these distortions unfortunately warp not just the understanding of Mary but that of God Himself.

After all, what does it say about God, if Mary was indeed ‘just another woman’? If Mary was not blessed with a particular degree of humility and simplicity, and if any woman at all would have done to bring forth Christ, why would God have waited so long? Why would God not have chosen to save humanity through the wife of Cain, or the wives of Enoch, or the wife of Seth? For what possible purpose would God have allowed so many countless generations of humanity to founder – to lie, cheat, exploit and destroy each other – before any shred of eschatological hope could be offered to them? And although our separated Latin brothers and sisters come closer to the truth in holding fast to the doctrines set forth at Chalcedon regarding Mary as the Mother of God, still the doctrine of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ has some profound and unfortunate consequences. If it was within God’s power to preserve Mary from original sin from before her birth, why would he not do so for any other woman – for example, the wife of Cain, the wives of Enoch or the wife of Seth? The German distortion, denying Mary her honour, deliberately lessens the greatness of her virtues; the Latin, seeking misguidedly to heap upon her greater honours than she ever sought, lessens her freedom as well. Both distortions would make God into something of an arbitrary tyrant. But it is not a tyrant who comes and speaks with Mary through His servant Gabriel in the Gospel of Saint Luke, but a God who is willing to wait for her freely-given ‘yes’.

I have written along these lines before, but it bears repeating. We can affirm that Mary was special; following the witness of the Fathers we can affirm that she was virgin in perpetuity, and the grace which was imparted to her by becoming the Birthgiver of God was indelible and divine. But notice that her virtues – her obedience to God, her tenderness, her self-effacement, her utter lack of guile, her sisterly affection, her hospitality, her solidarity with the poor, her self-giving love for her Son in those passages of the Gospel where she appears in person – these things are wholly and truly human. Though it does not efface her fundamental humility or openness to God, we can even see in this passage of Saint Luke a trace of the disputatiousness which is typical of the Hebrews in their relation to their Creator. Yes, Mary, glorified and honoured above the very highest of the cælestial powers, truly is one of us.

Perhaps we are not meant to approach the Mother of God with our analytical, discursive brains at all. After all, would we approach our own birth-mothers this way? Perhaps we would – but that wouldn’t say very good things about us as sons and daughters, would it? But, as Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco (to whom I am indebted for much of the content here) put it: ‘There is no intellect or words to express the greatness of Her Who was born in the sinful human race but became “more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim”.’ Instead, we need to approach the Mother of God at the level of the heart. Do we ‘worship’ Mary? Do we merely ‘venerate’ her? These questions betray a preoccupation with rhetoric, semantics and sophistry which profoundly misses the mark. We Christians love Mary, not only because she is the Mother of God – though she is very much that! – but because as the ‘second Eve’ and the one who gave birth to our Saviour, she is also our Mother.

Пресвятая Богородица, спаси нас!
Today is the beginning of our salvation,
The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
Hail, O Full of Grace,
the Lord is with You!

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