Mother of God


I recently read Father Alexander Schmemann’s little book, The Virgin Mary, in the Celebration of Faith series. I’m not going to discuss the whole book, which is a combination of helpful reflections on the feasts of the Mother of God and various papers that he had presented on “Mariology,” usually in an ecumenical context. But what struck me, and got me thinking, was his discussion on the virgin birth near the beginning of the book.

Father Schmemann notes that, while miracles are an indisputable part of the New Testament witness and of the faith of the Church, we would nevertheless do well to ask about their meaning. Jesus Christ did not “use” miracles in order to prove anything, much less to force our belief, for that would be to override our human freedom.

Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to “prove” His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: “He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: “…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). (17)

Instead of trying to “prove” anything, the miracles presented in the gospels are motivated by Christ’s compassion and rooted in His love, for “He cannot endure the suffering of a human being hopelessly imprisoned by evil.” (18)

However, this does not appear to explain the miracle of Christ’s birth and the need for the virgin birth. Father Schmemann argues that this unique miracle that is also rooted in God’s love that, out of love for us, “took upon Himself our humanity in order to save it.” (19)

But to save it from what? From its total and inescapable slavery precisely to nature and those merciless laws which reduce us to just another human species, just matter, just “flesh and blood.” Man, however, is not merely of nature. Above all, he is of God, of God’s freely given love, of the Spirit. And therefore what our faith affirms is this: Christ is from God and of God, that His Father is God Himself. In Christ, in His birth, in His coming into the world a new humanity is born that comes not from the flesh nor from our self-imposed slavery to passions, but from God. God Himself is betrothed to humanity in the person of the most sublime fruit of His Creation: the all-pure Virgin Mary. The New Adam enters the world to be united with us and to lift up the first Adam who was created not “by nature” but by God. (19)

Leaving aside a terminological quibble about the word “nature,” which I think Father Schmemann is using to mean “fallen nature,” his words reminded me of Metropolitan John (Zizioiulas) of Pergamon’s discussion on the biological and ecclesial hypostasis in Being and Communion. For Metropolitan John, it is precisely the necessity of the biological that is overcome in the person of Christ, who thereby also opens up the way for us to become truly free persons. In such a perspective, it is necessity that keeps us enslaved and a radical freedom that is the mark of human persons who reflect God’s Image. In this context, the virginity of the Mother of God, in overcoming biological necessity, becomes the herald of a new way of being, a truly ecclesial hypostasis.

Of course, this may all be totally obvious – and from an Orthodox perspective it should be obvious – and I may just be slow in coming to grasp it. But I also think that it touches on themes that are not easily understood in our contemporary western context. I sometimes have the impression that some of those who defend the virgin birth do so more out of commitment to God being able to work whatever miracles He likes than any particular meaning that it conveys. And then it becomes no big deal for more liberal Christians to sit rather lightly to the dogma, especially given the way it is often presented as tied up with negative views about sexuality – and the layers of misconception in those assumptions still need to be seriously unmasked. But the reality is that the virginity of the Mother of God is a fundamentally eschatological reality, for in her we recognise the “Bright Dawn of the Mystical Day.”

nat Theotokos 2
Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin Door of God comes forth. Today grace begins to bear its first fruits, making manifest to the world the Mother of God, through whom things on earth are joined with heaven, for the salvation of our souls.

from Vespers of the Nativity of the Mother of God

In recent months I have sometimes thought of writing on the differences between a Roman Catholic approach to the Mother of God and an Orthodox one. This is not that post, which may or may not get written, and I am a little hesitant about writing it, both because it is not a clear cut topic and would need to be written with a fair bit of nuance, and because I am unsure to what extent I am simply reflecting my own experience, and my own earlier blindness. While that certainly does play a role, I’m pretty sure that there is more to it than that, but that is another topic for another day.

But what I have been struck by in recent years – and certainly becoming Orthodox has played a large role in this – is how deeply biblical our understanding of the Mother of God is. I remember years ago having discussions with Protestants on the supposed paucity of biblical references to Mary, and the discussion then focused on the historical references in the Gospels and (fleetingly) in the Apostle Paul. But what I have realised more recently is that Scripture, rightly understood, is full of references to her, precisely because it is – again, rightly understood – entirely focused on the bringing forth of Christ to the world so that He may conquer death by death.

And today’s feast is a striking example of this. From one perspective, we do not have scriptural evidence for it – i.e. the biblical writers do not speak directly about the birth of the Virgin Mary. But from the perspective of the believing Christian, all of Scripture, or at least all of the Old Testament, speaks of it. For what is the birth of the Mother of God about if not the culmination of God’s long work of preparation in the history of Israel? In the words of Vladimir Lossky:

Like the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the birth of the Mother of God, promised by an angel after the parents had long been sterile, finds Old Testament antecedents which are habitually considered as prefigurations of the Resurrection. But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure; for in the person of St. Anna – a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate – it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace. The miraculous birth of the Holy Virgin is not due to an arbitrary action of God, entering in to break historical continuity: it is a stage of the Providence which watches over the safety of the world, arduously preparing the Incarnation of the Word, a stage which precedes the last decisive act – the Annunciation, when the chosen Virgin will assent to be “the King’s Palace, in which is accomplished the perfect mystery of the two natures reunited in Christ” [Vespers hymnography].

Vladimir Lossky, “The Birth of the Holy Virgin” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 146.