Malankara World

St. Mary- Theotokos - Virgin Mary - Mother of God

The presence of the THEOTOKOS in the Economy of Salvation - an Orthodox Approach

by Rev. Fr. Dr. K. M. George

Some Preliminary Remarks

1. The term Mariologia is a relatively recent discovery of the Roman Catholic Tradition, It implies that the systematic study of the person and role of Mary in the divine plan of salvation constitutes a distinct and special branch of Theology. On this assumption were developed the two ‘Marian dogmas’ of Immaculate Conception and Assumption declared ex cathedra in 1854 and 1954 respectively and a vast literature on "Mariology.’ Although this view is being re-examined in the post-Vatican II period, it has penetrated deep into the Latin tradition.

2. The Eastern tradition does not know any ‘Science of Mary.’ It recognizes that the earliest references to Mary were in connection with theological attempts to explain the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Church. These mysteries do not yield to easy definition or become the objects of any "Science", though for the sake of convenience we sometimes say Christology or Ecclesiology. Mary is never spoken of in isolation from the mystery of Incarnation or of the Church.

3. The Orthodox tradition is reluctant to reduce the position of Mary to a merely functional role of assisting in the birth of Christ. The word ‘presence’ in the title of this paper is deliberately used instead of ‘place’ or ‘role.’ The Theotokos is a presence in the Church. In the Orthodox ethos one tries to feel this presence rather than to prove or disprove it by the use of well-built arguments.

4. In the Orthodox Church, theology is inseparable from liturgical adoration and devotion. In other words dogma is essentially doxa, adoration of the Triune God. The use of poetic language and rich variety of symbols, colours, fragrance and gestures is part of this doxa. Since the mystery that is being celebrated is too profound to be articulated, one resorts to flowery language teeming with fine figures of speech. In the Orthodox Syrian liturgy, Mary’s person is clothed in a metaphorical language almost completely evolved out of the Biblical types, symbols and ideas. Since they all point to the mystery of Incarnation, there is no attempt to attain propositional or rational clarity. The Orthodox feel that the Cartesion clarity as the ideal of the knowledge of truth had penetrated deep into Latin theology long before Decartes, and had emptied theology of its real significance.

The Biblical Typology and the Mother of God in the Liturgy

One cannot possibly make at this point a thorough a study of the use of the Bible in the Orthodox liturgical veneration of Mary. The simple reason is that an exhaustive use of both the Old and the New Testaments is made in the liturgy. Liturgical reference to Mary is nothing but biblical and always related either to Incarnation or to the Church. A quick reading of the liturgy of Christmas, Annunciation etc, will reveal this fact. But contrary to our modern method of taking only those N.T. passages which refer explicitly to Mary, the poet-theologians who composed the liturgy go back even to the slightest allusion or type in the O. T. and relate it with the N. T. theme of Incarnation and Mary’s part in it. For instance, the theophany in the burning bush (Exod, 3:2 ff) prefigured the Incarnation. As the green bush remained unaffected though the burning fire was present in it, Mary, an ordinary human being, remained unhurt by the indwelling of God who is "burning fire", and the seal of her virginity was unbroken. In the story of Gideon (Judg 6:36 f), the dew that appeared on the fleece of wool laid on dry ground as a sign of salvation for Israel is symbolized as the Incarnate Christ and fleece of wool as Mary. Again the fiery Chariot which Ezekial saw or the thicket in which Abraham found the ram while trying to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:13) is the symbol of Mary.

These are some of the examples for the typological exegesis of the Bible found in the Orthodox Liturgy. The emphasis is always Christological, but in order to bring out the mystery and parade of Incarnation the symbol of Mary is used. Often Mary’s individuality fades as she becomes the symbol par excellence not only of the Church but of the whole creation which was given the incredible privilege of bearing the Person of Christ, the Creator and Lord of all. The Church along with Elizabeth calls her "the mother of my Lord" and addresses her daily saying "Blessed are you among women." (Lk. 1:42, 43). The method employed in the above typological interpretation is to look at the whole Bible from the vantage point of the Apostolic experience of the mystery of Incarnation and not vice versa, that is to look at the incarnate Christ and the whole economy of salvation from the point of view of Biblical witness alone. That is why even the slightest allusions to Mary in the Bible bear great prophetic and Messianic significance in the eyes of the early theologians.

The explicit references to Virgin are not numerous in the N. T. However, the gospel passages referring to her are at the origin of the special honour accorded to Mary by the Church. Among these, the Annunciation passage is of course, the most important (Lk. 1:26-38). The Church repeats daily the angelic salutation "Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you" coupled with the greeting of Elizabeth. Two of the most usual titles of Mary in the Orthodox tradition, Ever-Virgin and Blessed, are derived from this passage: Mary’s voluntary assent to the Proto-evangelion was at the root of Incarnation. In that she was acting on behalf of the whole human race.

Texts like Jn. 2:3-5 and Jn. 19:26-27 reveal the special concern Jesus had for his mother and they inspired the Church to exalt the mother of God above all saints.

The Orthodox interpretation and liturgical use of the two controversial texts regarding Mary is quite interesting. Mk. 3:31-35 (Matt. 12:43-45) and Lk. 11:27:28, In the first one Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting outside to see him. But Jesus, apparently ignoring them, replies that whoever does the will of god is his mother and brother. In the second text, a certain woman cried out that the womb that bore Jesus and the breasts that he suckled were blessed. But Jesus says, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it."

Apparently, Jesus attaches no importance to his mother in these texts, and they were often quoted against the special veneration given to Mary. But the interesting thing is that these Gospel portions are arranged to be read in the Church on all the feast days of the mother of God. They are read along with Lk. 10:38 f where is mentioned the example of Mary, the sister of Lazarus who sat at the feet of Jesus to hear the word of God. Jesus appreciates the choice of Mary in contrast to that of Martha. This text is read obviously to higlight the fact that Jesus, in fact, appreciates Mary, his mother and does not belittle her in any way; for in responding to the Word of God that came through the angel, it was she who heard the Word of God and kept it in a unique way.

Theotokos, a Christological Title

Apart from the biblical titles mentioned above, the most common title of Mary is Theotokos - the God bearer inadequately translated as the mother of God. Although the word could be traced as early as to the time of Hippolytus of Rome (200-220) its precise use in a Christological context is seen during the latter half of the fourth century. Athanasius and the three Cappadocians make use of it in a Christological context. Appollinarius was said to have ignored the perfect humanity of Christ by saying that the human mind in Jesus was substituted by the divine Logos and that the humanity of Christ was existing even before his conception in the womb of Mary. Mary’s person is brought in as a safeguard against this kind of Apoliinarian distortion of the humanity of Christ. In replying to the allegedly Apollinarian heresy the fathers made it clear that the body of Jesus, i. e. his humanity was taken from the body of Mary. Thus Jesus’s humanity is our own humanity. But that Jesus from the first moment of his conception was the eternal Word of God, God himself. Therefore, the mother of the infant Jesus is really the bearer of God. So theotokos became the watchword for a sound Christology against Apollinarian or Nestorian misrepresentations. Gregory Nazianzen (+390) writes:

"If anyone does not believe that the Holy Mary is Theotokos, he is severed from the Godhead. If anyone should assert that he passed through the Virgin as through a channel, and was not at once divinely and humanly formed in her (divinely because without the intervention of a man; humanly, because in accordance with the laws of gestation), he is in like manner Godless.’ (Letter to Cledonius the Priest. Epist. 101).

The expression Theotokos gained the authority of a conciliar decree at Ephesus 431. Cyril of Alexandria’s (+ 444) third letter to Nestorius contained the Christological statement on Theotokos, which the council officially accepted as part of its decision. It runs thus:

"If anyone does not confess Emanuel to be very God, and does not acknowledge the Holy Virgin consequently to be Theotokos, for she brought forth after the flesh the Word of God become flesh, let him be anathema" (Cyril, Ep. XVII).

It is obvious from these examples how intimately related is Mary’s person to the essential christological affirmation of the Church. The Eastern theological tradition had never swayed from this original understanding of the Christological significance of the Mother of God, and had been consistently opposed to all proliferation of "Marian dogmas" on the one hand and on the other hand to the total silence about her presence in the Economy of salvation.

The Aeiparthenos: Prototype and symbol of the Church

St. Paul’s drawing of the antithesis between the first Adam and the second Adam had great appeal to the patristic mind. The antithesis was extended to Eve and Mary. As the first Eve by her disobedience was at the origin of the Fall of man, the second Eve, Mary by her free assent to the Word of God stood at the origin of the salvation of all through Jesus Christ. This theme was fruitfully elaborated in various ways by the poet-theologians of the Syrian tradition. Mary’s virginity was crucial to them. She was a virgin before giving birth (ante partum), a virgin in giving birth (in partu) and a virgin after giving birth (post partum). In his commentary on the Diatessaron St. Ephram would say that Mary could not conceive another child born under the curse on Eve, once the birth of Christ had taken away that curse. As Christ left the tomb without breaking its seal or entered the room with closed doors, so was he born without breaking his mothers seal of virginity. Though the Oriental Orthodox Churches did not participate in the council of Constantinople 553 which officially conferred the title Aeiparthenos (Ever-Virgin) on Mary, it was already part of their tradition.

The Christological significance of the person of Mary did not isolate her in any way from the rest of the Body of Christ the Church. The Church taught without any hesitation that she was a member of the fallen humanity, that she also was saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that she is now within the redeemed community along with other saints, the faithful departed and the Church living on earth. In his hymn on Nativity St. Ephrem says that by giving a second birth to the eternal Son of God Mary herself was born again, Christ put on the garment of his mother, that is his body, while his mother, received his clothing of splendour, the garment of Incorruption (de Nativitate 16, 11). In giving Christ her own humanity, and receiving in turn the glorious garment of incorruption Mary was representing the Church and the whole human race.

The mother of God is given the highest honour in the Church and in the liturgy but she is always placed along with the saints and the faithful departed. As the Eucharistic liturgy makes it clear, they are believed to be "praying with us and for us’, and the Church on earth prays for them also. The underlying reality is, the living Body of Christ whose head is the risen Christ. Biologic death and separation have meaning here. The communio sanctorum in the Orthodox tradition is rooted in the resurrection of Christ the living reality of the Church which lives in the Holy Spirit which is not limited to space, time and individual human consciousness.

St. Basil (4th cent.) had made a distinction between kerygma and dogma. Kerygma was the public preaching of the Church, the Apostolic witness to Christ. Dogma belongs to the inner reality of the faith of the community which is already initiated to the mystery of Christ through kerygma. The uninitiated world is unable to grasp the full significance of this inner reality of the faith of the Body of Christ. This distinction does not imply any esoteric gnosiology, but points to a profound awareness of ‘the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God" (Rom. 11:33) and of the "power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge,’ (Ephes. 3:18). Modern Orthodox theologians like V. Lossky have pointed out that the the teaching about the Mother of God belongs to this inner dogma of the Church and not to the public kerygma.

Mary is the first member and prototype of the redeemed community - Although her status as the human agent of Incarnation is unique, the glory she acquired through Christ could potentially be attained by all members of the Church.

For the Church the memory of Mary is like a sweet fragrance that fills the whole Body of Christ. The mystery of Incarnation includes the mystery of her person. The Fathers who composed the liturgy constantly wonder at the mystery without trying to offer any easy explanation. The mystery is that God has become man and an ordinary human being has been enabled to bear in her womb her own creator, the very God of very God. She saw the glory and was glorified. Her experience is a foretaste of the glorious Kingdom the Church awaits. All creation longs to be resplendent with the uncreated light manifested in her only begotten son, Jesus Christ our only Saviour.

See Also:

St. Mary, Mother of God (B. C. 14? - A. D. 66?) by Rev. Fr. Dr. Mani Rajan Corepiscopo
All Christians accept St. Mary as a model to emulate. The early Church at Jerusalem had a close association with St. Mary. Protestant theologians content that Mary was a passive instrument in the salvific act of Jesus Christ.

The History of the Term Theotókos by Fr. O'Carroll
Theotókos (a Greek word meaning God-bearer) is the ancient Eastern title for Mary, Mother of God, prominent especially in liturgical prayer in the Orient down to our time. It was formally sanctioned at the Council of Ephesus.

Theotokos - The Mother of God by Jacob P Varghese
The designation and depiction of Mary as 'Theotokos' is ancient and venerable, beginning from the second century, gaining firm establishment by the fourth and fifth centuries.

The Holy Virgin Mary in the Syrian Orthodox Church by His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas

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