I really don’t intend to get into a discussion of Mariology, but after publishing the previous post I saw a reaction on Facebook that typifies the sort of views that are common in some circles. They see the early Church’s understanding of the Mother of God as rooted in a sort of pagan longing for a mother goddess. By making Jesus God, so the logic goes, the Church had made Him remote and inaccessible and so natural pagan longings re-emerged and made His Mother into a goddess.

Now I wouldn’t really bother engaging this, except that such views are actually quite widespread in certain circles, including in some academic circles that should know better. But this reaction did remind me of a letter I wrote a couple of years ago in response to a newspaper article that made similar claims. It was never published, but I thought it would be worth hauling it out and quoting it here:

… To suggest that Mary was declared Theotokos because of a sort of proto-feminist pressure for a mother goddess makes absolutely no sense to anyone familiar with the patristic texts and with the sort of theological debates that were raging in the century preceding the Council of Ephesus.

That Christian theology did not arise in a vacuum is clear and there is some evidence that at a popular level some people may have misunderstood the teaching to be simply replacing one goddess with another. But to suggest that popular longing for a displaced mother goddess gave rise to the Council’s decision can only be done by ignoring three things. Firstly, one would have to ignore the intense debate on Christological issues that had preceded it. Secondly, one would have to ignore the conciliar texts themselves. And, thirdly, one would have to ignore the liturgical hymnography that resulted from them and that is permeated by a profound awareness of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in one person who is both God and human.

Moreover, while the Christian Church was influenced by the social and religious context in which she developed, this did not happen in the straightforward manner that some people like to suggest. The Church also rejected and/or transformed elements of both Jewish and pagan religion, and indeed of Greek philosophy. Thus, while other religions had mother goddesses and female priests, Christianity rejected these, not because it was a patriarchal religion as feminists like to claim, thereby ignoring the evidence of female leadership in the early Church, but because the fertility symbolism associated with these undermined the very message that she was proclaiming, which is that in Christ the limitations of biological life have been overcome. In the Incarnation of Christ we find the meeting of the divine and the human, which enables the healing and the transformation of our humanity. And, by enabling that meeting, the Theotokos plays a far more important role than she would have played as any mother goddess.

To be honest, the more I encounter such voices but also the views of some Christians, the more I realize that the Incarnation has really made very little impression on some people’s understanding of Christianity. Granted, we cannot grasp the Incarnation, but it is precisely this overwhelming “ungraspability” that is witnessed to in the Church’s faith and worship – and which undergirds everything that she says about the Holy Theotokos.

The feast of Christmas is the feast of the mystical Body, for it is through the Incarnation that men have become members of Christ. Whatever theological interpretation we give to this great scriptural and patristic affirmation of our incorporation into Christ, we must believe that with the Incarnation, an ineffable union – that passes all understanding – began, in human flesh, between Jesus Christ and men. Beyond the particular historical event which took place at Bethlehem and through which the Son of God took on a visible human body, another event took place that concerns the whole of the human race: God, in becoming incarnate, in some way weds and assumes the human nature which we all share and creates between himself and us a relationship which, without ever ceasing to be that between the Creator and his creature, is also that between the body and its members. There is union without confusion. Christmas allows us to become most deeply conscious of what is our true nature, human nature, regenerated by Jesus Christ.

Father Lev Gillet, The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, 70-71.

A blessed Christmas to all, whenever you celebrate it!

In the Incarnation God enters into human history. God enters into the becoming and the destiny both of mankind and of the cosmos. He takes complete, full, crucifying responsibility for His original act of creation and for all that has ensued. On the one hand, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man; on the other hand, the Word of God becomes flesh, so that the fulness of God is seen in the flesh, is present in the created world, visible, tangible, yet more unfathomable than before. In the Incarnation God enters into history. It means that He not only launches the process of history, not only watches it, intervening in it by grace through the men who know Him, the prophets and the patriarchs, and the saints and the angels, not only waiting for its end, but that entering into it He accepts becoming somehow part and parcel of this becoming of mankind and of the world. He is incarnate once and for all. He will never cease to be the Son of God who has become the Son of Man. And after His resurrection, when He ascends into Heaven, He does not shed the flesh He has received from the Virgin, but this flesh, still bearing the marks of the nails, still pierced at the side by the spear, still bruised on the shoulder by the carrying of the cross and on the forehead by the crown of thorns – this flesh is taken by Him into the very heart of the divine mystery, and it is the incarnate Son of God who is at the right hand of the Father. In that sense the whole of history, the whole of human becoming is already, in an exemplary way, fulfilled, realised and revealed to us now already. And this is why St. John Chrysostom said, “If you want to measure the greatness of man, look up towards the throne of God, and you will see a Man seated at the right hand of glory”. And moreover, the glory of God is this victory won by man, not by a man called Jesus Christ, but in Him, through Him together with us, by man, again in an incipient, germinal way now, which will be revealed in its fulness when the time comes, so that in the end, in the words of St Irenaeus of Lyon, the glory, the splendour, the resplendence of God is man fully alive, fully realised.

So we see that in the Incarnation God enters into the world of men, becomes one with us, not pedagogically and not temporarily, but by a union, a commitment which is for ever. And He enters into a world which at times is a world of horror, and is there in the anguish and tragedy of mankind, never escaping it.

You probably remember from the Old Testament the story of the three children thrown into the furnace – the three young men. And the Assyrian king, looking at the furnace into which three young men tied have been thrown, says, “Didn’t we throw three men into the furnace and lo, they are walking about in the flames, and I see a fourth one whose face is that of the Son of Man.” Wherever man is, God is present.

Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, here.

It was not things non-existent that needed salvation, for which a bare creative word might have sufficed, but man – man already in existence and already in process of corruption and ruin. It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument and by that means unfold Himself to all.

You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less. Naturally, therefore, the Saviour assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore he put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And, indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death?

Saint Athanasius the Great, The Incarnation of the Word of God, 44.

Since, then, there was needed a lifting up from death for the whole of our nature, He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate humanity, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole human being. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this Member, as though the whole of humankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature. What, then, is there beyond the bounds of probability in what this Revelation teaches us; viz. that He Who stands upright stoops to one who has fallen, in order to lift him up from his prostrate condition?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 32.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘It had been better for me, had I not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power; He has shattered the gates of brass, and as God He has raised up the souls that once I held.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner and with Him I shall lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all the ages; but see, He is raising them all.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom I once ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I have cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs; the power of death has no more strength.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Holy Saturday Vespers, The Lenten Triodion , 655-656.

Since posting on my reaction to evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement theory, I have been reflecting on how very fundamental the Incarnation of Christ is to an Orthodox understanding of salvation. As a friend said to me recently, while western Christians may well believe in the Incarnation, the liturgical texts of the Church tend to rub our noses in it the whole time! I think that it was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) who wrote somewhere (I can’t remember where) that whereas the West, and certainly evangelicals, tend to see salvation as Christ doing something for us, the East tends to see it as Him doing something in us. In conquering death, the Cross of Christ renews our human nature, restoring the Image of God within us. Or, as the texts for Small Compline on Palm Sunday put it, “He who suffers for us heals our passions by His Passion; for willingly He undergoes in our human nature His life-giving sufferings, that we may be saved.”

The Nativity of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
(Icon: Novgorod school, late fifteenth century, photo courtesy of Jim Forest).


The descriptive part of the icon corresponds to the Kontakion of the festival: “The Virgin to-day bringeth forth the Transubstantial, and the earth offereth a cave to the Unapproachable. Angels give glory with the shepherds, and the wise men journey with the Star; because for our sake is born, as a little Child, God the Eternal.” Two other scenes, based on Tradition, appear in the lower corners.

In its content the icon of Christ’s Nativity has two fundamental aspects: first of all, it discloses the very essence of the event, the immutable fact of the Incarnation of God; it places us before a visible testimony of the fundamental dogma of Christian faith, underlining by its details both the Divinity and the human nature of the Word made flesh. Secondly, the icon of the Nativity shows us the effect of this event on the natural life of the world, gives as it were a perspective of all its consequences. For according to the words of St. Gregory the Theologian, the Nativity of Christ “is not a festival of creation but a festival of re-creation”, of a renewal which sanctifies the whole world.

“The Nativity of Christ” by Leonid Ouspensky in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 157.


A quick glance at the icon of Christ’s Nativity now gives us a better idea of the significant parallels existing between the two feasts: both of them can be called “Pascha.” The Child-God is born mystically in the heart of Hades. “Torch-bearer of Light, the flesh of God beneath the earth dissipates the darkness of Hades,” proclaims the liturgy of the Nativity, which is echoed again at Matins of Holy Saturday: “You descended to earth to save Adam and not finding him, O Master, you went down into Hades to look for him.” The Nativity thus heralds the Resurrection; in a way, it even includes it. Does not the Divine Child lie in the cavern wrapped in swaddling bands which are similar to the bands of Lazarus who was raised from the dead? The dark cavern is an image of hell, which we find again in the icon of the Baptism of Jesus, where the Jordan River is transformed into a watery tomb, an element of the cosmos which is purified by His body. Nor should we forget the black grotto we see beneath the Cross in the icon of the Crucifixion.

Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom, 142-143

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it today! I apologise for the relative silence of this blog, and hope to make amends in the coming week!

Central to the vision of the Greek Fathers is their sense of the paradox of God’s distance and his closeness, his majesty and his nearness. On the one hand, God is utterly beyond anything we can know or imagine: he is transcendently unknowable – they would have applauded the opinion of the pagan Greek philosopher, Damascius, who said, ‘we do not even know whether he is unknowable.’ On the other hand, God, as the source of all being, as the source of our being, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

But for the Greek Fathers this is more than just an intellectual paradox about transcendence and immanence. For in Christ the transcendent God has become a human being just like us: the intellectual paradoxes of the infinitely distant and infinitely close are historically true of the of the one the gospels call Jesus of Nazareth, the one born in a stable, the one who died on a cross. The paradoxes intensify as the source of life comes into being in the womb of Mary, the ‘Bearer of God’, and life succumbs to death on the cross, only to be manifest as life triumphant over death in the resurrection. ‘Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled on death, and to those in the tombs given life!’ – as Greek Christians, Orthodox Christians, sing, with inexhaustible joy, as they celebrate the resurrection at Easter.

But the paradoxes do not end there either. For the Greek Fathers ‘theology’ is not an intellectual exercise, whether practised on matters philosophical or historical: it is an experience, realized in prayer, made possible through responding to God’s self-emptying love in the incarnation by our own attempts at ascetic struggle and self-denying love. The experience is transforming, transfiguring: its fruits are the virtues of faith, humility, serenity (or ‘dispassion’), but what we become in our transfigured state is God himself. So to the paradox of incarnation – God became a man – there corresponds the paradox of deification – the human person transfigured by, and into, God. And all this is celebrated in the services of the church, the liturgy, preeminently the Eucharistic Liturgy, in which the whole material creation – bread and wine, water and oil, smells and colours, music and shape, the beauty of creation and the art of human creativity – is drawn into the celebration of God’s transfiguring love for the whole of his creation.

Father Andrew Louth, “Introduction” to The Wisdom of the Greek Fathers(Lion Publishing, 1997), 6-8.

I’m normally a little hesitant about these sort of anthologies designed for the “spirituality” market! But considering the combination of Father Andrew Louth, the Greek Fathers, my looking for accessible things to provide a slightly different view of Christianity to that which most of my family and friends see as the norm, and my search for suitable quotes for making little books, and I thought this would be worth looking at. And reading Father Andrew’s introduction, I thought that it was defintely worth posting.