How common it is for us to celebrate the birth and milestones in the life of our friends and those whom we hold dear. We enjoy celebrating their birthday and achievements expressing our camaraderie in their triumphs along their life’s journey, rejoicing when they rejoice. Is this not even more natural for us to do within the Church? There are many saints whom we are drawn to (or, more correctly, they draw us to themselves) and we, therefore, make a point to be aware of the day that their feast is celebrated, take time out to read their life and works, prepare and commune at the Divine Liturgy and honour them recognizing their place in the wider Church as well as in our own lives. Therefore, today is no different, and yet it is, due to the greatness of the one we are celebrating: Mary, the Mother of God.
Where are we to begin in extolling her greatness and with what tongue can this be done? St. Gregory Palamas, says of her whom all the ages expectantly awaited:
[God] graciously willed to create this ever-virgin Maid, His palace, if I may use the expression, who was shown to be capable of holding the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9) on account of her utmost purity, able not simply to contain Him but – Oh marvelous wonder! – to bring Him to birth and to form for all men, before and after her time, ties of kinship with God.
We find her revealed in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Therein, we find many prophecies which speak of her virtue, her continued virginity and the greatness of her giving birth to God the Son. St. Theodore the Studite enumerates twelve of these but we will only mention a few. In his oratorical and poetic style, he says:
- Rejoice, ladder set up from earth to Heaven, on which the Lord came down to us and returned to heaven again, as seen in the vision of the great Patriarch Jacob (Gen. 28:12)!
- Rejoice, miraculous bush where the angel of the Lord appeared in flames of fire, where the flame burned without consuming, as Moses realized, who alone saw God face to face (Ex. 3:2)!
- Rejoice, shining golden lamp radiating light, from which the inaccessible light of God has shone out on those in darkness and the shadow of death, according to the inspired Zechariah (Zech 4:2; Luke 1:79)!
- Rejoice, “light cloud where the Lord dwells,” according to Isaiah, who spoke the most sacred things (Is. 19:1)!
- Rejoice, locked gate, through which the Lord God of Israel comes in and out, according to Ezekiel, who gazed on God (Eze. 44:2)!
- Rejoice, unquarried mountain-peak, higher than human hands, from which that rock was cut which became the corner-stone, according to Daniel, that great teacher about God (Dan. 2:45; Ps. 117:22)!
Further, we find St. Maximus the Confessor, interpreting Psalm forty-four, wherein is described prophecies about Christ which are immediately followed by the beauty of His mother. The Psalmist writes:
Daughters of kings are in your honor; the queen stood at your right in gold-woven clothing, decked out in many colors. Hear, O daughter, and see, and incline your ear, and forget your people and the house of your father, because the king desired your beauty, because he is your lord… Of a king’s daughter – all her glory is within, decked out with golden tassels, in many colors.
Her “spiritual adornment” consists of a diverse array of virtues which, when seen together, is of surpassing beauty. Therefore, “the king desired her beauty” and He dwelt within her.
Given this background, we can understand the gravity of the words of the Archangel Gabriel when he came to Mary and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God” (Luke 1:28,30).
She found favour with God and had fulfilled these prophecies. It is not as though the Son of God was going to be born from an ignoble and immoral virgin. As St. Gregory Palamas writes,
[Christ’s] sublime purity beyond our understanding could not, however, become one with defiled human nature. Only this is impossible for God: to be joined in union with something impure before it has been cleansed. A completely undefiled and most pure virgin was needed to carry in her womb and give birth to the Lover and Giver of purity.
When she rejoices with Elizabeth in the glorious news of her conception, Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary responds saying, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). In truth, this is so. As St. Gregory extols,
Indeed, to express the honour of the Virgin Bride as is her due, she did not just act as a mediator for certain chosen races, but, standing between God and every race of men, she made God the Son of man, and men the sons of God. She alone was shown to be the natural mother of God in a supernatural way, and by her indescribable child-bearing she became the Queen of the entire Creation in this world and beyond, for “all things were made by Him” who was born of her, “and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).
From the beginning of the Christian era when the Apostle Luke was painting her icon, to our contemporary times wherein the Mother of God visits us through her myrrh-streaming icons, the Theotokos has been present in the Church in an especial way due to her relationship with her Son. Therefore, we are not surprised to find her nearness to us.
Saint Porphyrios writes:
I very much love our Panagia. When I was young on the Holy Mountain I very much adored her. I had a small icon of the Panagia under my pillow. Morning and night I embraced her. I lived with her night and day. Whatever happened to me, I resorted to her. What can I tell you? She is better than a mother. There was nothing I wanted more. She had everything.
Who here does not recall in the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, how after he had fallen from the belltower, he venerated the Kursk-root icon of the Mother of God and was healed of his injuries. Throughout his life he was visited by her and other saints. Is this not the same icon which is our protector in the Russian Diaspora, showing how the Theotokos is with us and guarding us?
In the Russian land we have the miraculous Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God which has worked miracles throughout the Russian land and a copy of which was always present in the icon corner of each of the Elders of Optina and there remains one to this day in the cell of Elder Ambrose.
Do we not remember the stories pertaining to the four portions of the Mother of God on earth where she gave a promise of her special protection in Jerusalem, the Holy Mountain of Athos, Kiev and Diveyevo and others would include Georgia.
Therefore, on this auspicious day let us rejoice and say, “It is truly meet to bless thee, the Theotokos, ever-blessed and most blameless, and Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word, the very Theotokos, thee do we magnify.” Amen.
Let us come to ourselves like the prodigal; let us, like him, speak firm words of resolve to our own souls: “I will arise and go to my Father”; and the Gracious God will perfect our small intention.
He knows that we do not know the way to Him, or the manner in which to traverse it; but, hearing us say: “Ready is my heart, O God, ready is my heart”, and seeing us begin our journey towards Him, He will then rush out to us, falling on us, and kissing our neck: He will send His All-Accomplishing Holy Spirit upon us, and guide us into all truth, not only in our understanding, but in all our deeds, all our life.
Yesterday, Christ was born; today, He is baptized. Yesterday, God immersed Himself in our flesh; today, our flesh is immersed in the Most Holy Trinity. Yesterday, the Timeless Son of the Virgin-Father was begotten in time of the Virgin-Mother; today He gives birth to us as sons of God forever.