Arthur W. Collins
Last month, Jerry Pittsford and I took my confirmation class on a field trip to All Saints Orthodox Ch, down on Fairfax Rd., to give them a look at one of the most ancient forms of Christianity. We found lots of things that were different in appearance, but upon closer examination were very familiar: words, rituals, symbols. Perhaps the most unfamiliar thing was the emphasis placed upon Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the liturgy. Which was even more emphasized on this occasion, since it was the Festival of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple by her parents – an event that is not recorded in Scripture, but is part of the tradition concerning Mary.
We Protestants don’t pay a lot of attention to Mary, especially in our liturgy – a consequence of the Reformation, in which the huge emphasis placed upon the saints by the medieval Catholic Church was swept away for a more naturalistic, less devotional, understanding of their function. It was felt by the Reformers that enlisting the prayers of the saints on one’s behalf inhibited one from exercising the privilege we have of going directly to God through Christ, without the need of any other intermediaries. So, instead of helping us see Jesus and place our trust in him, the saints obscured Jesus and diverted our attention from our Savior; at least, that was the fear of the Reformers.
In other ways, our worship language is very traditional. Methodists stand in the long line of the English Church Tradition that stretches back beyond Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer to the earliest days of Christianity in England, to the time of Sts. Cuthbert and Dunstan. Indeed, so unchanged is our witness that I could celebrate a Sarum Mass (in English) from AD 1300 or so and most people wouldn’t notice anything strange, except for the many references to the Virgin Mary in the liturgy. That was what was swept away by the Reformers; that was what seemed so strange in the Orthodox Liturgy we attended at All Saints.
Now, I have thought for a long time that we’ve gone too far in this direction, of de-emphasizing the saints, including Mary, to the point where we are not paying proper attention to what deserves our attention. A proper understanding of Mary and her role in bringing the Christ into the world requires us to see Mary as something more than merely a good example of obedience and faithfulness.
Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out that Mary and the other women who were followers of Jesus – especially that band of women who went to the tomb on Easter morning to anoint his body – were as central to the definition of the Church, in their way, as the apostles were. Right after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles returned to Jerusalem, and in Acts 1:14, we read, All these [meaning the apostles] with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. The women, including and especially Mary, were part of the core leadership group of the early church, vital witnesses to the life, teaching, and resurrection of the Son of God, on the same level as the apostles.
Mary remained an important figure in the Jerusalem church up until her own death. Luke, the only non-Jewish writer in the New Testament, is supposed to have interviewed her when it came time to write his Gospel, which is why he has the stories of the birth of John, the annunciation, the visitation to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the birth at the inn, the shepherds and angels, and the presentation in the temple – not to mention the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. These are things that only Mary was in a position to remember and pass on. (Matthew, writing from official sources, has all the court gossip about Herod and the wise men, as well as Joseph's encounter with the angel and the flight into Egypt.)
After her passing, Mary remained very important in the consciousness of the early church – so much so, that in AD 431, there were riots in the streets as the Council of Ephesus debated giving her the title she has been known by ever since: Theotokos, which means “the God-bearer.” This was the title that popular devotion demanded for her, but it was also a title that settled an important theological controversy in the days when the great Councils were defining just who Jesus was and how he was related to God.
The Latin translation, Mater Dei, “Mother of God,” seems a little over-done to us Protestants, and indeed, Theotokos is a very careful definition, more subtle in Greek than in Latin. For Mary is not the source of Jesus’ divinity, she is not the Mother of his godhead; in that case, her title would be Theogene or something. But she is something more than just another witness to our Lord, someone who “bears” him to others, in the sense of “carrying” him to us; in which case, her title might be Theophora. Theotokos (from theos, “God,” and tokos, “birth”) means she bore a son who is also God; and while she is only the source of his human nature, yet the divine and human natures of this child cannot be separated. So, since the child she bore is as much Son of God as Son of Man, she is rightly called the one who gives birth to God.
And why does this matter? Well, because there was a great controversy over how we should regard Jesus in those early centuries. Was he really God, or just “goddish?” What did it mean to say he was the Son of God, or God Incarnate?
Some theologians were teaching that Jesus was just an ordinary human being who was possessed by the Spirit of God during his lifetime – which would make him perhaps the greatest of prophets, but not really God in any essential way. Others were teaching that he was adopted by God – made divine – at his baptism – but that would mean he was not God from all ages, that the Word (one of his other titles) was not “in the beginning with God,” He would be, in pagan terms, a demigod, like Hercules. But if he was truly God and truly Man, then this meant he was so from his begetting, and that this was not a temporary expedient: that his humanity was glorified, not dropped; and so shall ours be. This is why the doctrine matters: in order for Jesus to do what he is said to have done, he has to be truly human in order to die for our sins, but truly God in order to forgive our sins; and we are to be raised and glorified as he was raised and glorified, and that is the “blessed hope” of our faith.
But if the divine and human natures of Jesus were truly joined in him so as to be forever inseparable, just when did this come to be? It had to be within the womb of Mary, not at his birth: that’s just saying he was possessed or adopted by God, not truly incarnate from the get-go. So, from the very beginning? From the first moment of conception, which we may presume took place as soon as Mary said “Yes” to the angel Gabriel’s announcement? Yes. At no time did the human Jesus become the Son of God – he was from the beginning the Son of God. And this has two very profound consequences, quite apart from the theological definitions concerning Jesus.
First, it’s the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25th. You see, there was a tradition that the Messiah would die upon his birthday; but if he was who he was from the time of his conception, then the date of his birth is not the beginning of his earthly life. Messiah died upon the 25th of March, by the Roman calendar; assuming that that is the same date as his incarnation, then that’s why the Annunciation is traditionally celebrated on March 25th, whatever the date of Good Friday in any given year. But that would mean that his birth should be celebrated nine months later: on December 25th.
The other consequence is that the incarnation of God in Christ shaped the Christian attitude toward the idea of human personhood, including that old debate about when life begins. Pagan societies did not accord full rights of personhood to a baby until it had been accepted by the parents. Deformed or unwanted babies were exposed or otherwise killed. And this, by the way, is what some “medical ethicists” are advising today: that unwanted babies, even if they are born alive , are not really “persons” until they are certified healthy and claimed by society, and that they can be disposed of without moral qualms, extending the ethical parameters of abortion past birth, into what we have always called infanticide. Meanwhile, Jewish thought tended to see personhood beginning with the moment we call “quickening” – that moment when the mother first feels the baby move – but nobody really knew for sure.
But if God himself was uniquely and irrevocably joined to humanity from the moment of the first cell’s development, then Christians began to see life – and at least potential personhood – from the moment of conception. Which is not to say that every abortion is always unjustified, but it is to say that it is always a decision fraught with consequence, and not merely a matter of convenience, of no concern to anybody else but the mother.
So, Mary’s role as the bearer of God is important for defining the union of God and Man in Jesus Christ, as well as determining the date of Christmas and helping to shape our medical ethics. And I will end with one more thought. In the Book of Revelation, we read:
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.Who is this woman in the vision? Well, she is clothed by the sun – a symbol of the Light of God -- not coming from her, as if she were herself divine, but resting upon her, even shining through her, as a vessel that carries it. She is crowned with twelve stars: the traditional number of the tribes of Israel, but also the number of the apostles of Jesus. The moon is “beneath her feet.” Now, the moon always reminds us of womanhood; by saying it is beneath her feet, it seems to imply that she has transcended the limitations of her earthly nature. God has freed her to accomplish more than mere human nature can aspire to.
It is tempting to see this as a vision of the Theotokos, of Mary giving birth to Jesus. To be fair, we could say this is a picture of Israel giving birth to Messiah, or of the Church, or of Eve redeemed – for after all, it was to Eve that the promise was given that her son would tread the serpent’s head beneath his heel.
Of course, this being a vision, these interpretations are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are probably all fully intended. The woman in the vision is Eve, which is to say, all women, receiving the promise of God and humanity’s share in redemption. And she is Israel, the People of God, from whom Messiah came. And she is “Mother Church”; St. Cyprian of Carthage once wrote, “he cannot have God for his father who does not have the Church for his mother.” But she is also, undoubtedly, Mary the mother of Jesus, our example and our hero, who brought forth our Savior from her own body.
“Blessed is she who believed that that there would be a fulfillment of what the Lord had spoken to her” – and blessed are we when we so believe, and trust in her Son. Amen.