Yesterday was, for Orthodox on the new calendar, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, one of the twelve major feasts of the Church. The feast commemorates the “falling asleep” (death) of the Mother of Jesus and her bodily translation into heaven as the first among humans, after her Son, to experience the Resurrection.
Many Protestants, particularly evangelicals, don’t understand why Roman Catholics and Orthodox make such a big deal out of her. Unfortunately, some Protestant polemics grossly distort the traditional doctrines and biblical witness about Mary to serve their particular ends. But rather than assume the back and forth of debate, I thought I would simply offer some basic beginning points of understanding and trace out some clear implications and let the partisans on the various sides of the divides lob their munitions at one another.
Let’s start first with the fact that she’s the mother of Jesus.
The Mother of Our Lord
I will leave aside for now such doctrines as Mary’s perpetual virginity, the question as to her sinlessness (and what is meant by that), whether or not she had any other children besides Jesus (and thus the debate over the terms adelphos/-e), and so forth. Many Protestants, and certainly most evangelicals, would ascribe to the virgin birth, even if not Mary’s perpetual virginity, so I’ll not start with even that solid biblical point. Rather, I simply want to start with the question as to who it is she is mother of, if she is mother of Jesus.
The sorts of Protestants and evangelicals who would object to Mary’s perpetual virginity and would press the literal meaning of “Jesus’ brothers” would nonetheless agree with us Orthodox that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. And as the fifth century Christians at Ephesus affirmed, in that Jesus is God, and Mary is his mother, then Mary is the mother of God. Indeed, did not Elizabeth so greet her? “And why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
So when it comes to Mary, we start, as we always must, not with Mary herself, but with her Son. Who is he? The answer to that question leads us to the identity of Mary. That is to say, Mary is the Mother of God, because she is the Mother of Jesus, and Jesus is God.
From this fact, this starting point, flows everything else.
The First Christian
It can be said, then, that Mary, above all, was the first Christian. What the prophets had seen, what Abraham had rejoiced to see, had now come to pass. But only to Mary was it given to carry God within her womb, to give to God of her own flesh and blood, to give to God his humanity. You see, Mary was no magical chute down and into which God slid from heaven into our world, temporarily using Mary’s womb as a connecting terminal to earth. That sort of view was condemned as a heresy before the end of the second century. No, Christ got his DNA from Mary, took the food she ate into his own body, ingested her antibodies, shared her very life as the one who himself gave her life. We could speculate as to whether or not God could have created the man Jesus as he had created Adam and incarnated himself in this adamic sort of creation. But the facts of history cut off all such speculation: God took from Mary the very flesh in which he dwelt among us. And, precisely in view of the Dormition of Mary, the very flesh he took from Mary, is the flesh in which he ascended into heaven and sits at God’s right hand. Yes, a man sits on the throne of God. A God-man, to be sure, but nonetheless a man, and a man whose flesh was given him by Mary.
She was his first teacher as well as his first disciple. Like the other disciples, she did not fully understand the revelation about him, as we see when she and Joseph seek the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem and the Temple. But Mary did not cease believing in him. She did not deny him, as did Peter. She did not flee him as all the rest save John did. Rather, in Christ’s death we see her with Jesus just as she was with him in his conception. As she gave her blood to him for his human life, he at last gave his blood for her for her eternal life.
When Jesus responded to the woman who cried out a blessing on the woman who nursed him, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it; they are my mother, my sisters, and my brothers,” he was hardly repudiating his own mother. For who else among humanity could have been said to have heard the word of God and obeyed it than the only woman in the world who was given to say to Gabriel: “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is doubly Jesus’ mother, both as the giver of his biological life and as one who taught him to hear and herself heard the word of God and obeyed it.
But just as we start with Jesus in terms of Mary’s own identity as the Mother of God, we also start with Jesus as we trace our other implications. Jesus, being himself God, is completely holy and pure. In that Mary communicated to Jesus her own physical life, Jesus communicated to Mary his own holiness. That is to say, Jesus, as the utterly holy God, sanctified Mary bodily by his very presence in her womb. That is to say, in that God took on flesh to save us, he did not simply declare Mary holy, he made her so. His very presence within her sanctified her.
We would do well to sit with that a bit. Due to the dominant juridical paradigm of salvation that obtains in the West and particularly among Protestants, it may seem strange to think of Mary’s sanctification as a bodily one, that Jesus’ divine life communicated, through the shared human life he had with Mary, and his quite literal physical indwelling in her body, the divine holiness to Mary. But that is in fact what happened. (I would hasten to add parenthetically that as Christians our own sanctification is bodily as well, which is why, for example, Christians don’t intentionally cremate their dead.)
We would also do well to think of instances of God’s holiness and the striking ramifications of it revealed in the Old Testament. Think of Uzzah stretching out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenenat so that it would not fall to the ground–and being struck dead for his temerity. We might debate that well of course the Ark had been proscribed for carrying by Levites and not by an ox cart, so one error followed another. Or we might think, well, gosh that seems a bit harsh. But the fact is that the Ark communicated the holiness of God and you didn’t treat it like any other object, whatever your best intentions.
With this in mind, then, we see how it is that the Church has, since the earliest centuries, taught that Mary was not only a virgin prior to Christ’s birth, but remained one afterwards. One doesn’t want to be crass, but put rather starkly, given that Joseph knew about Gabriel’s declaration and had witnessed Christ’s miraculous birth himself, and given that he was a righteous Jew who well knew the Old Testament and stories like that of Uzzah, is it even remotely conceivable that he would have thought it at all appropriate to seek conjugal relations with Mary after Jesus’ birth?
That is to say, put simply, it is Jesus’ identity as God that gives us cause to call Mary the Mother of God, and it is Jesus’ identity as God that also gives us cause to believe the ancient testimony about Mary that she remained a virgin after Christ’s birth.
This post has already become somewhat lengthy, but it should be obvious by now the methodology by which one comes to the other teachings about Mary that Christians have held from the earliest centuries. It is not about Mary, rather, it is all about her Son. It is because of who Jesus is that we say the things we do about Mary.
I realize that we Orthodox, loving Mary as we do, might often confuse and even scandalize our Protestant friends. When Jesus gave Mary, his mother, to his disciple John, he was, in effect, giving his mother to the Church. She is, in a very real sense, our mother, too. When we Orthodox receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion, we partake mystically in the same flesh and blood that Jesus has, and which he received from his mother. Let me be careful to say that it is Jesus’ Flesh and Blood alone which gives us life (John 6:54-56), but since Jesus has such a close relationship to Mary, we, in union with him, do as well. That is to say, in loving him, we love his mother. And she us.
So, perhaps we may be forgiven a bit if we say big things about Mary. When one loves, it’s not the literal that fuels our song. But perhaps when it becomes clearer that what we say about Mary we say because of Jesus, what we say about her may seem less strange, less confusing, less scandalous. And perhaps you will come to love her a little bit more, too.