On Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, or Mary’s death and translation to heaven. I wanted to offer some general thoughts on Mary, Jesus’ mother.

In the Orthodox Church, our hymns are incredibly rich with two thousand years of Christian theology and devotion. The writings of the Church Fathers are full of traditional and historical doctrines, of Christian belief about Mary. But my own initial thoughts and experience regarding Mary were far less doctrinal, and much more personal. To be sure, as a Protestant, non-denominational evangelical, I had to address certain questions I had when I became Orthodox. But these never seemed all that problematic. No, my first experiences were, if you will, much more relational.

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Mary, the Mother of Jesus: Some Starting Points

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.

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The Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, the Mother of God


Troparion Tone 4
Today is the beginning of our salvation/ and the manifestation of the mystery which is from eternity./ The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin,/ and Gabriel announces grace./ So with him let us also cry to the Mother of God:/ Rejoice, thou who art full of grace!/ The Lord is with thee.

Kontakion Tone 8
Queen of the Heavenly Host,/ Defender of our souls,/ we thy servants offer to thee songs of victory and thanksgiving,/ for thou, O Mother of God,/ hast delivered us from dangers./ But as thou hast invincible power,/ free us from conflicts of all kinds/ that we may cry to thee:/ Rejoice, unwedded Bride!

From the Prolog:

When the All-Holy Virgin completed the fourteenth year after her birth and was entering her fifteenth year, after having spent eleven years of living and serving in the Temple of Jerusalem, the priests informed her that, according to the Law, she could not remain in the Temple but was required to be betrothed and enter into marriage. What a great surprise to the priests was the answer of the All-Holy Virgin that she had dedicated her life to God and that she desired to remain a Virgin until death, not wanting to enter into marriage with anyone! Then, according to Divine Providence, Zacharias, the high priest and father of the Forerunner, under the inspiration of God, and in agreement with the other priests, gathered twelve unwed men from the Tribe of David to betroth the Virgin Mary to one of them to preserve her virginity and to care for her. She was betrothed to Joseph of Nazareth who was her kinsman. In the house of Joseph, the All-Holy Virgin continued to live as she did in the Temple of Solomon, occupying her time in the reading of Sacred Scripture, in prayer, in Godly-thoughts, in fasting and in handiwork. She rarely went anywhere outside the house nor was she interested in worldly things and events. She spoke very little to anyone, if at all, and never without special need. More frequently she communicated with both of Joseph’s daughters. When the fullness of time had come, as prophesied by Daniel the Prophet, and when God was pleased to fulfill His promise to the banished Adam and to the Prophets, the great Archangel Gabriel appeared in the chamber of the All-Holy Virgin and, as some priestly writers wrote, precisely at that same moment when she held open the book of the Prophet Isaiah and was contemplating his great prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son!” (Isaiah 7:13). Gabriel appeared in all of his angelic brightness and saluted her: “Rejoice, highly favored one! The Lord is with you” (St. Luke 1:28), and the rest in order as it is written in the Gospel of the saintly Luke. With this angelic annunciation and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Virgin, the salvation of mankind and restoration of all creation began. The history of the New Testament was opened by the words of the Archangel Gabriel: “Rejoice, highly favored one” This is to imply that the New Testament was to signify joy to mankind and to all created things. It is from this that the Annunciation is considered not only a great feast, but a joyful feast as well.

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St John Chrysostom’s Sermon on the Nativity According to the Flesh of the Christ

I behold a new and wondrous mystery! My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing!
The Archangels blend their voices in harmony!
The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise!
The Seraphim exalt His glory!

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side the Sun of Justice.

And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, he had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is, is Born; and He Who Is becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became he God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassibility, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Yet He has not forsaken His angels, nor left them deprived of His care, nor because of His Incarnation has he departed from the Godhead.

And behold,
Kings have come, that they might adore the heavenly King of glory;
Soldiers, that they might serve the Leader of the Hosts of Heaven;
Women, that they might adore Him Who was born of a woman so that He might change the pains of child-birth into joy;
Virgins, to the Son of the Virgin, beholding with joy, that He Who is the Giver of milk, Who has decreed that the fountains of the breast pour forth in ready streams, receives from a Virgin Mother the food of infancy;
Infants, that they may adore Him Who became a little child, so that out of the mouth of infants and sucklings, He might perfect praise;
Children, to the Child Who raised up martyrs through the rage of Herod;
Men, to Him Who became man, that He might heal the miseries of His servants;
Shepherds, to the Good Shepherd Who has laid down His life for His sheep;
Priests, to Him Who has become a High Priest according to the order of Melchisedech;
Servants, to Him Who took upon Himself the form of a servant that He might bless our servitude with the reward of freedom;
Fishermen, to Him Who from amongst fishermen chose catchers of men;
Publicans, to Him Who from amongst them named a chosen Evangelist;
Sinful women, to Him Who exposed His feet to the tears of the repentant;

And that I may embrace them all together, all sinners have come, that they may look upon the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world.

Since therefore all rejoice, I too desire to rejoice. I too wish to share the choral dance, to celebrate the festival. But I take my part, not plucking the harp, not shaking the Thyrsian staff, not with the music of pipes, nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ. For this is all my hope, this my life, this my salvation, this my pipe, my harp. And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels, sing: Glory to God in the Highest; and with the shepherds: and on earth peace to men of good will.

St John Chrysostom, The Nativity Sermon

The First Christian

And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!” But He said, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28 NKJV)

While these verses have been a favorite of those who would see some sort of need to “put Mary in her place,” these verses are best juxtaposed with those earlier in Luke:

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:38)

If there is anyone who can be said to have heard the word of God and kept it, it is that young girl from Nazareth, the Virgin Mary, in whom God himself lived bodily for nine months, from whom God himself took his flesh and bone, knit wondrously together in her womb. If there is anyone who can be said to have heard the word of God and kept it, it is this mother, our mother, approaching her Son and God, and ours, at the wedding and who, from her long communion with him, could with boldness tell the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” If there is anyone who can be said to have heard the word of God and kept it, it is this bereaved woman standing before the Cross, accompanied only by the Apostle John, to whom the Lord entrusts his Mother, and having given his Mother to John, he has given it to that Church of two there at Calvary, and through that Church to us.

What paltry things are the words we use to tell of this amazing grace embodied in this marvelous young woman, this Virgin Mother, the first to invite Christ into her life, body and soul. How can one begin to tell of the mystery that God himself nestled tight against her heart. What holiness transfigured every part of her body and soul as the presence of God himself within her communicated his blazing glory to all her being. All she is, she is because of her Son. We call her Mother of God because God was in her womb. We call her Queen, because God her Son is King. The flesh and bones of his resurrected and ascended body are those received from Mary and transfigured by his rising from the dead.

We implore her prayers, because the Christian God Incarnate is her Son, and her communion with him is both like and far beyond that which we know. She is, more than any of us, one who knows unceasing prayer, whose body and soul are united to Christ’s body and soul through grace and communion with him. She receives all she asks of her Son, because all she asks is one with his will. She has heard the word of God and kept it like no other on earth or in heaven. Because she is Christ’s Mother, and he is our God and hers, we honor and respect Mary like no other woman. And she always ever points us to her Son, “Hear him. Do whatever he tells you.”

There is an inexplicable sweetness about God’s Mother. She knows what it is to suffer. She knows what it is to weep with soul-deep sorrow. She has been tempered by this, is strong and invincible in her Son. But she knows too the wonder and joy of the Resurrection. Hers is the sweetness of God’s mercy and tenderness. She is, after all, a mother. She is God’s Mother. And because we are his sons and daughters she is our Mother too.

Panagie Theotoke soson emas.

The Feast of the Protection of Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary


Troparion of the Protection Tone 4
Most holy Mother of God,/ today we Orthodox joyfully celebrate thy coming among us./ As we gaze at thy icon we cry with compunction:/ Shelter us under thy protection, deliver us from evil,/ and pray thy Son Christ our God to save our souls.

Kontakion of the Protection Tone 3
Today the Virgin is standing before us in the Church/ praying for us with the choirs of Saints./ Angels worship with Hierarchs,/ Apostles rejoice with Prophets,/ for the Mother of God intercedes with the Eternal God for us.

Akathist to Our Most Holy Theotokos of All Protection

From the OCA website:

The Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos: “Today the Virgin stands in the midst of the Church, and with choirs of Saints she invisibly prays to God for us. Angels and Bishops venerate Her, Apostles and prophets rejoice together, Since for our sake she prays to the Eternal God!”

This miraculous appearance of the Mother of God occurred in the mid-tenth century in Constantinople, in the Blachernae church where her robe, veil, and part of her belt were preserved after being transferred from Palestine in the fifth century.

On Sunday, October 1, during the All Night Vigil, when the church was overflowing with those at prayer, the Fool-for-Christ St Andrew (October 2), at the fourth hour, lifted up his eyes towards the heavens and beheld our most Holy Lady Theotokos coming through the air, resplendent with heavenly light and surrounded by an assembly of the Saints. St John the Baptist and the holy Apostle John the Theologian accompanied the Queen of Heaven. On bended knees the Most Holy Virgin tearfully prayed for Christians for a long time. Then, coming near the Bishop’s Throne, she continued her prayer.

After completing her prayer she took her veil and spread it over the people praying in church, protecting them from enemies both visible and invisible. The Most Holy Lady Theotokos was resplendent with heavenly glory, and the protecting veil in her hands gleamed “more than the rays of the sun.” St Andrew gazed trembling at the miraculous vision and he asked his disciple, the blessed Epiphanius standing beside him, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?” Epiphanius answered, “I do see, holy Father, and I am in awe.”

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The Dormition of our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary


Troparion Tone 1
In giving birth thou didst preserve thy virginity;/ in falling asleep thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos./ Thou wast translated to life, O Mother of Life,/ and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.

Kontakion Tone 2
Neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos,/ who is sleepless in her intercessions and an unchanging hope in her mediations./ For as the Mother of Life she was transferred to life/ by Him Who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.

St. John of Damascus, Sermon I on the Dormition (linkpage has streaming audio and mp3 download)
A Homily of St. Gregory Palamas on the Dormition of the Theotokos (Part I)
A Homily of St. Gregory Palamas on the Dormition of the Theotokos (Part II)
A Homily of St. Gregory Palamas on the Dormition of the Theotokos (Part III)

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Appearance of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God


Troparion Tone 4
Today, like the eternal sun, / Your Icon appears in the sky, O Theotokos. / With rays of mercy it enlightens the world. / This land accepts the heavenly gift from above, / Honoring You as the Mother of God. / We praise Christ our Lord who was born of You. / Pray to Him, O Queen and sovereign virgin / That all Christian cities and lands be guarded in safety, And that He save those who kneel to His divine, and Your holy image, O unwedded bride.

Kontakion Tone 8
O people, let us come to the Virgin Queen and Mother, giving thanks to Christ God. / Let us fall before her miraculous image, and let us cry: / O sovereign Mary, your glorious image now inhabits this land. / Save all the Christians of this world, showing us the heavenly life. / To You we faithfully cry: Rejoice, O Virgin, the salvation of the world!

From the OCA website:

According to ancient tradition, the wonderworking icon of Tikhvin is one of several painted by St Luke the Evangelist. The icon was taken from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fifth century, where it was enshrined in the Church of Blachernae, which was built especially for this purpose.

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