BASIC DOGMATIC TEACHING
An Orthodox Handbook
by Protopresbyter Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos (1931 – 1996)
Dr. of Theology, Dr. of Philosophy
Chapter 11 – The All-Holy Mother of all the world
1. The Virgin Mary in the Old Testament
As we have already mentioned, the entire period of the Old Testament is a period of expectation, for the «offspring of the woman» (Genesis 3:15).
The Prophet Isaiah receives an instruction from God to speak to Achaz, the king of the Judeans and warn him to take precautions, but without being afraid of any attack on Jerusalem by Kings Phakee and Raasson:
«…“for when my fierce anger comes, I will heal again”…», i.e., when the justified wrath of My anger is realized, I again shall protect you, said the Lord (Isaiah 7:4)
Per God’s instruction, the Prophet tells Achaz to «Ask for yourself a sign of the Lord your God, in depth or in height» (Isaiah 7:10-11) – that is, miraculous proof – either in the depths of the earth or even in the heights of heaven – in order to be reassured of the veracity of the prophetic word.«But Achaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I put the Lord to the test.” Then he said: “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to provoke a fight with mortals? How then do you provoke a fight with the Lord? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and you shall name him Emmanuel…”» (Isaiah 7:12-14). The name Emmanuel meant “God is with us”.
The meaning of this «sign» has, of course, a double reference. God was announcing in this manner the salvation of Jerusalem and the punishment of her enemies, but, at the same time, it was testifying about the person of the Theotokos – the Mother of the Lord and Savior of the new people of God – the new Jerusalem.
«So, all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet (Isaiah), saying: “Behold,the virgin shall be with child and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”» (Matthew 1:21-23) “God is with us” were the words that the Angel of the Lord said to the righteous Joseph, who was having doubts on account of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy.
The woman, therefore, that God spoke of to the first-created people (Genesis 3:15) and to King Achaz, was the Virgin Mary (cmp. also Isaiah 9:1-2, Matthew 4:14-16, Micah 5:2).
The prophetic word of the Old Testament speaks of the Theotokos Mary in many other places also. We quote here one more excerpt, from the Prophet Ezekiel, which prophesied the ever-virginal state of the Theotokos:
«And he turned me by the way of the outer gate of the holies that looks to the east, and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: “This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall go through it, because the Lord, the God of Israel, shall enter through it, and it shall be shut. Therefore, the leader—he shall sit in it to eat bread before the Lord; he shall enter by the way of the ailam of the gate, and he shall go out by this way”» (Ezekiel 44:1-3).
This again pertains to the ever-virginal Theotokos; She is the Gate, which, even before the birth of the Lord but also after the birth, remained sealed and no-one passed through it. That is why the hymn of our Church mentions:
«Rejoice – thou, the only Gate, whom only the Logos passed through; thou, who, by your birth labours crushed the locks and Gates of Hades. Rejoice – thou, the divine entrance of those wanting to be saved, the all-praised One».
In accordance with the Prophetic word, the Virgin Mary remained a Virgin – before, during and after the Birth (see also Luke 1:26-38, Matthew 1:18-25). That is why She is portrayed in iconography with three stars – on Her forehead and Her shoulders: to symbolize precisely Her ever-virginal state.
2. Why we honour the Virgin Mary
The Holy Bible informs us that the Angel who appeared to the Virgin Mary on the day of the Annunciation addressed Her as “full of Grace“, telling Her that the Lord is with Her; that She is “blessed among women” and that She has “found favour with God”. (Luke 1:28-30). She is also informed that the Holy Spirit will descend upon Her and that She will be overshadowed by the power of the Lord on high; that She will bear a Son, Who shall be great and shall be called “Son of God” and that «He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end”» (Luke 1:33).
The same Evangelist mentions that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, «…the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”
And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed» (Luke 1:41-48).
These words of the Holy Bible bestow immense honour to the Virgin Mary. God Himself characterizes Her as “full of Grace”; Elizabeth – guided by the Holy Spirit – addresses Her as “blessed among women” and “the Mother of my Lord”; John the Baptist – while still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth – leaps for joy at the visit of the Theotokos; the Virgin Mary Herself glorifies the Lord and prophesies that She will be glorified and be called “blessed” by all the generations of mankind.
“So, if Christ is the Saviour, why do you bestow such honour to the Virgin Mary?” we are asked by heretic persons.
This is not difficult for one to understand. The renewal of the bonds with God, the renovation of mankind’s nature by the divine nature of Christ, and the partaking of human nature in divine life, were realized with the incarnation of Christ – inside the womb of the Virgin Mary. Whatever honour we people might bestow on the Virgin Mary will never reach the honour bestowed on Her by God Himself: to acquire flesh within Her womb, and render Her the “Theotokos” (=who gave birth to God).
Faith in the God-human status of Christ obliges us to also honour the instrument of His incarnation, that is, the Theotokos. If we do not do this, how can we possibly believe in a God-human Jesus?
But the Holy Bible itself – as we have seen – also testifies about this honour. The Virgin Mary perceives this honour as something self-understood, and ascribes it to the Godman Jesus Who was born of Her (Luke 1:48): «…He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed…».
We therefore honour the Virgin Mary because She was first honoured by Christ Himself, and because this is a command of the Holy Bible. Naturally, we believe that the Virgin Mary is not the source per se of salvation; Christ is our Redeemer. Christ assumed human nature and He healed it, and He became for mankind the «new Adam», or «new root». But this root sprouted inside the womb of the Virgin Mary. That was the reason Saint John the Chrysostom called the feast-day of the Annunciation of the Theotokos «the feast of the root».
The Holy Mother, therefore, became the cause for human nature to partake of the divine life – the bridge that re-connected man and all of Creation with the Trinitarian God – because all three Persons of the Holy Trinity participated in Christ’s Incarnation: the Son – Who was sent by God the Father – acquired flesh, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit inside the body of the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin Mary is the «Bridge» that linked heaven to earth, and recalled all of Creation back to the bosom of God’s love. That is why the Birth of Christ by the Virgin Mary is not celebrated by mankind only, but by all of Creation: the heavens and the stars, angels and mankind, the earth and the cave, the Magi and the shepherds… everyone rejoices with the event of the renewal of the betrothal of the celestial Bridegroom to the Church. It suffices to observe an icon of the Nativity to become aware that with Christ’s Birth, all of Creation is transformed.
As such, the honoring of the Virgin Mary is always linked to the Person of Christ. In other words, She is always honored as «Mother of the Lord» (Luke 1:43), Who was – for Her also – «God and Saviour» (Luke 1:47).
It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary is not exempt of the ancestral sin. She too had inherited the sinful nature of Adam, except that She was exempt of personal sins, because She was the «chosen vessel» and «full of Grace».
The Virgin Mary was therefore a genuine child of this world – a world groaning within sin – which is why She represents it in its entirety, and can restore its communion with the Saviour of the world, Who took on flesh inside Her. And that is why our Church offers Her the following, exquisite hymn:
«More precious than the Cherubim, and more glorious incomparably than the Seraphim, Thou, who incorruptibly gave birth to God the Logos – Thou, the truly Theotokos – we magnify Thee».
3. Who became in the flesh through the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin
The Virgin Mary belonged to the people of God who awaited the Redeemer Lord.
However, the very Son of the Virgin was Himself the Redeemer. He alone did not inherit the sinful nature of Adam. The reason for this was because He was not a descendant of Adam. He was born of the Virgin Mary, by the Holy Spirit.
That is the reason we believe that the Virgin Mary remained a Virgin during and after the birth of Christ – in other words, She was ever-virginal. This is not a mere detail; it is a basic teaching of the Church that secures salvation.
Christ is the «new root»: He cannot possibly be a descendant of the «old root» – namely Adam. For this reason, in order for Mary to be the Theotokos She had to be a Virgin.
4. The person of the Theotokos
But, one might perhaps think, if Mary was simply a «chosen vessel» and everything came from God, then what is Her personal contribution to the salvation of the world?
Well, God respects the freedom of even a sinful person – even the person of the Fall and of deterioration. That is why God would never save the world without the consent of the world itself. In view of this, the Virgin Mary became God’s collaborator in the opus of salvation of the entire world. Her words «“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to Your word.”» (Luke 1:38), were not just Her own consent; they were the consent of the entire world. The mouth of the Theotokos became the mouth of all Creation and – at the same time – the instrument of the world’s salvation.
On the other hand, the Virgin Mary is also an offering of the whole world to God. Mankind, in the Person of the Theotokos, offers God its purest offering, and God accepts it and renders Her the vessel – the place of His Birth – and the Mother of the human race and the entire world. This is what the following words of the Lord to His beloved disciple, John, signified: «Behold, your Mother!» (John 19:27).
5. The delusion of heretics
Whoever denies the Virgin Mary’s personal participation in the opus of our salvation and whoever does not bestow the appropriate honour to the Theotokos, is not moving within the space of the new root of Christ and the new Creation, but instead remains in the era of the Fall and of deterioration and is linked only to the root of the old Adam, who is the root of sin. To a person like that, it is as though Christ was never born.
In other words, whoever does not acknowledge the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos is also denying the Godman status of Christ and can not be benefited in any way by reading the Holy Bible and by observing Christ’s commandments. The reason for this is that it is not the Holy Bible that saves us; it is Christ Himself, Who was announced by the Bible. (cmp. John 5:39). The “whole mystery of divine providence” is dependent on the characterization of Mary as “Theotokos”, according to saint John of Damascus, “because if she who gave birth is the Theo-tokos, then the One born of her must be God (Greek “theos”), as well as a man“.
Thus, whoever recognizes the Virgin Mary as Theotokos and believes in the divine-human status of Christ must bestow the appropriate honour to Mary and acknowledge Her as his own mother, per the wish of the Lord (John 19:27).
The splendor of the Virgin Mary, which was bestowed on Her by God Himself, is specially described in the divinely inspired book of Revelations by John:
«Then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days» (Revelations 12:1-6).
It is quite obvious, that this «sign» refers to the new people of God, the Church; to the persecutions, but also to the splendour and the final victory of the Church against the forces of the devil (cmp. Micah 4:10, Isaiah 66:7-8). But, at the same time, it includes the glory and the splendour of the Theotokos, who is the beginning and the portrayal of the whole Church – of course always in relation to the One Who is «the fruit of her womb» (Luke 1:42).