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by His Grace Bishop Basil
Mary the Theotokos is very close to my heart, and, I am certain, close to the hearts of all who love her Son, Jesus. I can hardly think of her name without tears. When God, in the fullness of time, because of His great love for His creation, sent His Only-Begotten Son to save us sinners, He chose to do so in a way that is at once simple and tender, and profound, beyond our comprehension. He came to find a bride.
And God the Father, who is above all and in all and over all, chose to unite Himself, through the Person of the Most Holy Spirit, with one of us: the only daughter of Joachim and Anna, the young woman of Nazareth who had been prepared from all ages to become the bride of God. She is our boast. She is like us in her earthly beginning, and she is like us in her earthly end. She is at once our sister—a daughter of Adam, just like us—and also our mother.
To begin the betrothal of Mary with God, an archangel was sent, one of those who stand perpetually around the throne of God and sing His praises. An angel, beneath whom mankind was created, was sent to the house of Joseph, the betrothed of the Virgin, and began the relationship of betrothal and marriage, an unwedded marriage, between God the Father and the young virgin of Nazareth, with the word, “Rejoice.”
The hymnography of our Church says that when the Archangel was sent he came in awe and wonder, and he stood in confusion in this humble abode in North Palestine, announcing to a creature on a scale lower than his own that she was to become the Bride of the Father, the Mother of the co-eternal Son. Her relationship with God is our cause of rejoicing. She is our offering, our oblation, our prosphora [Eucharist bread], offered to the Father, from which the Lamb of God will come forth—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In a very real way, she became the first to receive Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She alone among all humanity can say that she not only received Jesus into her heart spiritually, but she housed Jesus in her womb, in her body.
To imagine Mary’s response to that news of the Archangel Gabriel is beyond our comprehension. We have become so accustomed to hearing the account of the Annunciation that we forget the power and the wonder and the godly fear that must have overcome this young virgin. She was only about fourteen years of age when she said “Yes,” and when all creation began its rejoicing at its salvation.
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sings. She becomes a prophetess when she says, “Behold, all generations shall call me blessed.” She whom all generations call blessed and she in whom all rejoices was our offering to God. We see this in a well-known hymn from the Nativity of Our Lord:
The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens, a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother.
When it came time for God to send His Son and take flesh on this earth, all of His creation wanted to offer a gift. The earth offered a warm cave, and the heavens offered a star—not just any star, but a brilliant star such as the world has never seen and may never see again. The bodiless hosts offered a glorious hymn, the most glorious hymn with the most glorious message ever heard on earth. Even the animals offered a gift. They offered their food trough, the manger. And beyond that, tradition tells us that they offered their breath to warm the newborn Child.
The poor shepherds could offer nothing but their wonder, but they offered that. They came and knelt in that very strange cave that was the temple. Magi who traveled from afar came and offered their best gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And we, humanity, offered God our best gift, a Virgin Mother.
Her relationship with Christ was a unique relationship, something that no one else can have. It gives her a unique place in salvation history. Until the coming of the Archangel Gabriel to the dwelling in Nazareth, the people of God would make pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, to worship God who was present there, and to revere the very stones of the temple. Yet at a moment in time, in an obscure Palestinian village, in a young virgin, that temple became passé and irrelevant. She became the temple, and it is for that reason that we venerate her. She became the temple, a unique thing that gives her a unique position in our salvation. It was from her blood that God took blood, blood that would become the fountain for our immortal life. It was of her flesh that God took flesh, the flesh that is now offered to us as the food of immortality.
Who but Mary breastfed Him who feeds all of creation? Who but Mary carried in her arms as mother Him who sustains and upholds all the universe? It was Mary who upheld God, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, as He took His first steps on this earth. She offered her little finger for a tiny hand to grasp. When the child Jesus, as He must have done, scraped His knee or was hurt by some unkind words of a playmate, and wept and came running to mother, it was Mary who kissed the wound and made it feel better, or took Him in her arms and assured Him that the unkind words and the sadness He felt would pass, that everything would be all right. She brought comfort to God. And when God wept, when Jesus wept, it was His mother, like every mother, who wiped away His tears. Mary wiped away the tears from the face of God.
What is profound about this is not just the fact that these things happened, but that Mary knew who it was that she supported with her little finger. She knew who it was who suckled at her breast, whose diapers she changed. She knew who it was whose wounds she kissed and bandaged, whose hurt feelings she comforted, and whose tears she wiped away. Mary knew.
In the Feast of the Presentation, she brought her Son to that stone building in Jerusalem that she knew was no longer needed, knowing that He was the Son of God. It was at that time that her sorrows began. Forty days after the birth of her only Son, the great sorrow that would come to her heart was foretold to her: that there would come a day when His wound would be not just a scraped knee, but nailed hands and feet, and a pierced side. That the tears He shed and the unkind words and actions He endured would be not just unkind words of little playmates, but the sentence of death from those whom He came to save. How her heart must have been pierced wanting to kiss those hands, and the feet, and the side, and the brow, to make the wounds and the pain go away, to no avail. And how she must have anticipated receiving her Son from the Cross, now dead.
Who among all humankind has offered so much to our God? She offered her flesh to become His flesh, her blood to become His blood. She offered every motherly tenderness (and there’s no tenderness like a mother’s tenderness)—who but Mary endured such pain? Our hymnographers show us Mary standing at the Cross, remembering Christ the child when He took His first steps, and when He said His first word, and when He shed His first tear, and when He laughed His first laugh, and called her “Mother” for the first time. Imagine, now, that very human Mary standing at the Cross.
The Theotokos was overcome with sorrow Seeing You crucified and dead on the Cross. She cried out, “How You suffer, my beloved Son! The sword thrust in Your side has pierced my heart. My wound burns with Your agony. Nevertheless I sing Your praise, For You willingly died to save the human race.”
“Nevertheless I sing Your praise.” In spite of all the ugliness she sees and the pain she endures at seeing her Son unjustly crucified by those He came to save, yet she glorifies Him. She knows He is God. The only thing that can balance that sorrow is the joy she had three days later, when her Son rose as victor. Imagine her joy when the angel came to her and said, “Rejoice, again I say rejoice, for your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb, and with Himself He has raised all the dead. Rejoice, rejoice!”
It is not a theological proposition, but a simple fact, that God became man, He became what you and I are in everything except our sin. And for that to be possible, He needed a mother. The honors and prerogatives given to her during His earthly life must pale compared to those accorded to her now that He is seated at the right hand of His Father on the throne of glory, bearing the flesh and the blood which He took from her. Her flesh and blood given to Him, her Son, sits at the right hand of the Father and is accorded worship by thousands of angels and ten thousands of archangels—her flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of Adam, the flesh and blood which you and I share with her, and because of her, with our God.
It is no accident, then, that our Lord’s first miracle, at the wedding in Cana, was worked at her intercession. And at her intercession, although the wedding reception is nearly over, He makes over a hundred gallons of the very best wine. When His mother asks, He pours forth His grace abundantly and richly. Who would do less, at the request of his mother? Thus Mary has what the hymnographers call “motherly boldness” in interceding with Christ—and as our mother also, she is always ready to intercede on our behalf.
Mary is our boast, our cause of rejoicing, our sister, our mother, and most of all, our intercessor. Let us honor her, love her, and bring our needs before her with the innocent confidence of children who know that their mother will meet their needs with love.
She stands at His right as a real Queen, with much boldness, clad in golden garments, attired in embroidery, according to the prophetic saying. Yea, she [stands at] the royal throne glittering as the glorious Queen of heaven and earth, and shining inside and outside with the lightings of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as the ever-illuminating Bride and Mother of the heavenly King of Glory, Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour . . . she stands at the right side of the Son, embroidered in the virtues and gifts of purity, of holiness, everything beautiful, chosen, innocent, as the holiest of saints, noblest of the cherubim, and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim and all the heavenly hosts, being thus, next to God, venerated, glorified, and praised above all beings in heaven and earth.
—St. John of Damascus
Bishop BASIL (Essey) is Bishop of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.
This article originally appeared in The Handmaiden, Vol. 1 No. 1, released in the winter of 1996, having been adapted from a talk given by Bishop BASIL in Ben Lomond, California, in February, 1995. It is reprinted in Vol. 10 No. 1 as part of The Handmaiden’s celebration of the tenth anniversary of their publication.
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