Monday, September 07, 2009

Getting to Know Our Mother

“Thy womb has offered to Christ, the Lamb of God, our substance to be His fleece; therefore in our hymns we all honour thee on this day of thy nativity from Anna.” (Canticle one, second canon, 4th verse, from Matins for the Birth of the Mother of God, by St. Andrew of Crete)

Many converts to Holy Orthodoxy have trouble making a personal connection with Mary, the Theotokos. They understand and accept the theology and the reasons why she is venerated and called upon for intercession, but on a personal, intimate or emotional level, there is not much connection. Part of the problem, I think, is that many have not come to an Orthodox understanding of nature/substance and person.

In the western theological tradition, substance is something that exists, and from which persons are derived. That is, substance precedes person. For example, it could be imagined that the substance of man existed before the first man was created. It is as if the existence of “humanness” necessitated the creation of humans, who are manifestations or examples of human substance. (May all philosophers please forgive my imprecise wording, but I think this catches the general western tendency of thought.)

In the Orthodox Tradition, you might say person precedes nature (nature and substance are synonyms in this context: nature coming from Greek works and substance in works derived from Latin), although this is not quite correct either. There is no person without nature, nor nature without person: There is no humanness without actual human beings. And so you might well ask, “What has this to do with my relationship with Mary?”

Take a look again at the verse above from Matins of the feast for the Birth of the Mother of God. In the Incarnation, Christ takes on human nature/substance to be his “fleece” from the womb of a person: Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anna. Christ didn’t pull human nature out of the air. He didn’t take on “general” humanity (as though such a thing could be imagined). He took the humanity of a particular, specific person: He clothed himself in the fleece that Mary’s womb offered. Notice that it was offered.

Mary participated in the incarnation not only in her biology but also in her intention. She offered herself to God and thus became worthy to bear God. God comes and dwells in those who invite Him, who offer their whole lives to Him. That is, God’s works among men are synergistic, works of cooperation: man’s (or woman’s) “yes” makes possible the works of God among men. Most especially the great work of salvation, the incarnation of the Word of God, was possible only through the “yes” of the daughter of Anne.

And this woman, Mary the Theotokos, whose birth we celebrate today now stands at the right hand of Christ as his Mother and Bride where she continues to offer herself to her Son and Lord (see Psalm 44 LXX). And here is a great mystery, in as much as each of us is in Christ, she too is our mother.

Heaven is a crowded place. Somehow many western people imagine a heaven where they alone commune with God alone. This is more a description of hell than heaven (for hell is always described as a lonely place). Certainly the Bible and Church Tradition know of no such lonely heaven. The biblical language always likens heaven to a crowded place, like an imperial court, with ranks of angles and seas of people led by elders who are likened to judges and (especially in Old Testament images) to gods. But this heavenly court is not presented as a modern court of law, where impersonal law is supposed to reign supreme. Rather this is the court of the King of kings, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, a human and divine person who asks for advice (although he doesn’t need it—see 3 Kingdoms 22: 19-23, for example) and is moved by the intercessions of His fiends (Abraham and Moses, for example) and especially the intercessions of His Mother (see John 2, the wedding in Cana).

When we pray, we do well to remember that we are presenting our selves before the heavenly court, not just the King, but the whole “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us. And since this is not a court of law (except in the sense that the King is the Law), but the court of the King of kings who is willing to be entreated by His friends, we do well to get to know His friends, the Saints and most particularly his Mother, whose “yes” opened the door for the world’s salvation.


Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

Thank you for this helpful post. You have a way of describing things that is very visual and a blessing, and I love learning through you. But I still have this question..Even if I understand and accept the orthodox theology of the person (and I say if, because I know it is very mystical), will the right ideas or theology ever be enough to lead me into a relationship with the Theotokos that is personal and intimate? I wonder about all those who haven't had an opportunity to read the Fathers and elders, or are ill-equipped to read them, but still venerate her with sincere prayers and hymns, and a strong desire to be connected. I am most connected to her when we sing St. Nectario's Hymn to the Mother of God, or when I stand before her icon. I feel that I must just persevere in my veneration of her as the only way.

Your post also makes me wonder about Godforsakeness. When God chooses to conceal Himself from us, does he take his whole court with Him?

I love learning and I love ideas, but they bring such small comfort when I am confronted with a crisis - either my own or a loved one's.

PS Fr. Sophrony believes that it is the divine image in us that is eternal or "without beginningness", rather than our humanness.

Sorry for the "mixed bag" of thoughts. Your post sent me in a lot of different directions :)


Fr. Michael said...

Dear Barbara,
You are right, relationship, knowledge of, has nothing directly to do with knowledge about. We can know the Mother of God and the Saints and understand very little doctrine. Understood correctly, theology is merely the prayer, or the outflow of intimate knowledge and relationship with God. Where God is, His saints are. There is no separation for a saint (a divine-human person)is filled with God, so how could God be away from God?
Regarding the experience of Godforsakeness, this too is part of the knowledge of God. Moses entered the Thick Darkness to meet God. Part of the our way passes through the darkness: we feel that God has abandoned us. And there, in spite of that feeling, we do not abandon God. We wait patiently for His deliverance. We stand quietly and meekly, praying and asking the "Court" to pray, waiting for our deliverance from on high.
Perhaps a kind of darkness that those of us who are good at collecting "knowledge about" must pass through is the darkness of not understanding. In this darkness we are forced to know at a level that does not submit to rules of order and logic, but is perhaps more real, more Godlike. Like learning to swim, you must first learn to trust the water to hold you up even when your feet cannot touch the ground. That's not a very peaceful experience if you have spent your whole life grounding yourself on the concrete of communicable knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

Thank you for your response. Right to the heart as usual. I read this morning about what Fr. Sophrony said is expected when grace is withdrawn or hidden. The persona (I think he uses the term differently than you do in your post about masks) is expected to act in the same way as if grace were present..."following everything that grace has ever taught." I need to become a better listener and swimmer :)