Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Posted: February 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Dormition of the Theotokos

This feast, celebrated on August 15 following a fourteen day fast, is the last Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year. I find it interesting and fitting that their liturgical calendar begins and ends with a feast of Mary. Dormition means ‘falling asleep’ using the Christian term from the New Testament for death. The term reflects our belief that death has been defeated by Christ; the metaphorical gates of Hades or Sheol have been burst asunder and death no longer enslaves humanity.

Tradition holds that the apostles were miraculously summoned and, except for Thomas, were all present when Mary reposed. Thomas arrived a few days later and desiring to see her one more time, convinced them to open the tomb. When the tomb was opened, it was found empty. This event is seen as one of the firstfruits of the resurrection of the faithful.

The feast is celebrated as the Solemnity of the Assumption by the Roman Catholic Church and focuses on her bodily assumption rather than her death. In fact, the dogma is phrased in a way that leaves open the question of whether or not Mary experienced death at all and many Catholics believe she did not. Pope Pious XII made the Assumption a dogma of the Catholic Church on November 1, 1950 as follows.

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

As with other such dogmas established in Catholicism as acts of Papal Infallibity, the Orthodox perceive this as another addition to the faith by the Catholic Church, widening the schism between the two. In this case, unlike the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox essentially agree on the event itself. But the Orthodox believe it is preserved in the faith through the liturgical life of the Church and not as a dogma.

Below is a recording of an ancient hymn of the feast in English.


Mary 17 – Synaxis of the Theotokos

Posted: February 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 17 – Synaxis of the Theotokos

This is an Orthodox feast held each year on December 26. A synaxis is a feast day  in honor of a saint with special services (matins, vespers, etc.) written for that day. It typically occurs following a major feast day and recognizes a saint that participated in the event of that feast. So, for instance, the Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner falls on January 7, the day after Theophany. The Synaxis of the Theotokos, fittingly, occurs the day after the Nativity of Christ. This feast is likely the oldest feast of Mary within the Church and the beginning of her formal veneration in the liturgical cycle of the Church.

The Akathist to the Holy Virgin Theotokos by St. Romanos the Melodist is normally done each Friday during Great Lent, but this post on the Synaxis seems like an appropriate time to share it.

You can read one translation of the service here and another one here.

Frederica Mathewes-Green reads her own translation of the hymn in this podcast.

 


Mary 16 – Our Lady of Guadalupe

Posted: February 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Our Lady of Guadalupe

 

I’m a Texan. I’m not sure that it’s possible to grow up or live in this state and not absorb some knowledge of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose icon from the 16th century is pictured above. She appeared to St. Juan Diego,  a poor Aztec peasant, at Tepeyac, northwest of present-day Mexico city. In that appearance in 1531, a decade after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, she is reported to have said the following.

“Know and understand well, you the most humble of my son, that I am the ever virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live, of the Creator of all things, Lord of heaven and the earth. I wish that a temple be erected here quickly, so I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help, and protection, because I am your merciful mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love me, invoke and confide in me; listen there to their lamentations, and remedy all their miseries, afflictions and sorrows. And to accomplish what my clemency pretends, go to the palace of the bishop of Mexico, and you will say to him that I manifest my great desire, that here on this plain a temple be built to me; you will accurately relate all you have seen and admired, and what you have heard. Be assured that I will be most grateful and will reward you, because I will make you happy and worthy of recompense for the effort and fatigue in what you will obtain of what I have entrusted. Behold, you have heard my mandate, my humble son; go and put forth all your effort.”

The Bishop, however, requested a sign. So St. Juan returned and Mary told him to gather flowers he would find on the hill in mid-December. The flowers were Castillian roses, which could not have been found at that time of year in that place. St. Juan Diego gather the roses in his tilma, a cloth made from cactus fiber. The flowers were arranged by Mary and when he had presented them to the Bishop, the image above had miraculously appeared on the tilma.

Tilma is a poor quality cloth and normally lasts no longer than 15-20 years. The icon above, however, has survived for centuries. Many other miracles are associated with it as well. The Basilica of Guadalupe is the most visited Christian shrine in the world.


Mary 15 – Annunciation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 

Annunciation of the Theotokos

 

This feast, celebrated on December 8, is called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception within the Roman Catholic Church. The feast in both traditions celebrates the conception of Mary. However, it’s not one of the twelve Great Feast in Orthodoxy, but it is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, which places a greater emphasis on the feast.

The Catholic feast name actually marks a point in dogma (at least since 1854) on which the Catholic church differs pretty significantly from the Orthodox. Here is the Catholic definition of the dogma from Ineffabilus Deus issued by Pope Pious IX.

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

The Orthodox have no issue with the idea that the Theotokos lived a blameless life and that she lived a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, lies in their difference with Catholicism over the definition and meaning of the ancestral sin. Notably, they do not believe that the ancestral sin is passed along genetically as a burden of guilt as the doctrine of original sin requires. As such, in the Orthodox perspective all infants are born blameless and untainted by any guilt. However, we are all born mortal, subject to death and all the evil and brokenness in the world.

Once you understand that view, it’s easy to see that it is necessary that Mary and later Jesus be born fully as one of us.  As an often-quoted saying about the Incarnation of our Lord states, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus inherited the fullness of our nature from his mother. He became sarx or flesh. It’s not the general term for body, which was soma.  From what I understand, it could be translated meat. He became mortal and subject to everything we suffer. Because he was also God before the Ages, the Incarnate Word, he was able to remain faithful where we fail and thus heal humanity and grant us the possibility of union with God.

I’m not Orthodox, but it’s my understanding that the Orthodox perceive the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as something Catholics have added to the faith and, as such, it’s a problem for them. Despite the doctrinal difference, the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos is still an important Orthodox feast even though it’s not one of the Great Feasts.

One thing I’ve noticed about many Protestants is that they almost seem to view Mary as little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. It’s as though they believe Mary simply served a biological function and any other vessel would have sufficed. In other words, if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just picked another vessel to bear the Word. (In reality, I believe that was actually a part of one of the ancient heresies that’s found new life today.) There’s no indication anywhere that’s true. Mary’s ‘yes‘ to God heals Eve’s ‘no.’ Nowhere is there any hint that God had a Plan B. Moreover, Mary did not merely give birth to Jesus. She raised him. She taught him. She loved him as his mother and shaped his human formation. That’s simply amazing if you allow yourself to think about it. We see in Jesus’ first recorded proclamation in the synagogue echoes of the Magnificat.

No, if Jesus is important to us, then Mary has to be. I don’t see any alternative.

 


Mary 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple

This feast is also called The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Orthodox tradition and The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition. It commemorates the entrance or presentation of Mary as a child at the Temple in Jerusalem by her parents to serve as one of the Temple virgins. It’s celebrated on November 21.

It’s not clear to me exactly where this feast ranks in Catholic tradition, but it’s one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical year. (Four of the Great Feasts commemorate the Theotokos; this is the second one. As a note Pascha is not one of the twelve Great Feasts. Rather, it is considered the Feast of Feasts and stands alone and above all other feasts.)

Fr. Thomas Hopko has an essay online about the feast that’s well worth reading. As he notes, a central theme of the feast revolves around Mary entering the Temple to become herself the living Temple of God. As such, her entrance into the Temple celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God.


Mary 10 – Nativity of the Theotokos

Posted: January 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 10 – Nativity of the Theotokos

Next in the series, I plan to write briefly about the major feasts of Mary in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Many of the main ones are common to both traditions (which is hardly surprising since they were mostly one tradition for a thousand years). The Roman Catholic Church today has many more Marian feasts than Orthodoxy. I’m not familiar with all the Roman Catholic feasts, so I won’t even try to write about each and every one, but I will try to cover the major ones.

This feast is the first major feast of the traditional Church year on September 8th on both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendar. (I won’t discuss differences between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars in this series.)  In the Catholic Church, this feast is called the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast celebrates the birth of Mary to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna.

Here’s a short Orthodox hymn for this feast.

Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from You, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.

And a recording of the above troparion as well as some other hymns for this feast.


Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

Posted: January 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

The oldest surviving complete text containing the even older oral tradition of the life of Mary is the Protoevangelion of James from the second century. There appear to be some older works that are quoted in later writings, but none of those have survived. The Protoevangelion of James is about the life of Mary up to the events surrounding the nativity. It’s not written by James, of course, which is why the Church did not include it in the canon lists of the New Testament. The only texts considered Scripture by the Church were those surviving texts written by an apostolic author — someone who had seen and been sent by the risen Lord. However, while some works were rejected completely and were not to be read at all, there were in the ancient world (as continues to be true today) many works that were considered valuable to read even though they were not Scripture. The Didache (often considered to have been distilled by those who were ‘traditioned’ the faith by Paul and/or Barnabas) and the Shepherd of Hermas are such works from the first century. This is one from the first half of the second century. If you’ve never read it, it’s not very long and worth taking the time to read.

The writing also describes a couple of events that are celebrated as major Feasts within the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. It describes the Nativity of the Theotokos, born to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna. And it describes the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the West).

I happen to find some of the things people use to reject the protoevangelium interesting. For instance it describes Jesus being born in a cave as is depicted in the icons of the Nativity. If you look around online, you’ll find some people attributing the reference to a cave as Mithraic in origin and a reason to reject the account. Ironically, modern archeology has revealed that animals in that region at that time were often kept in naturally insulated rock-cut caves. It’s an instance where an ancient tradition that had been discounted by many is now known to be pretty likely. And that makes sense. Many of the people who preserved the text lived in that region. If the text (or the older oral traditions it captured) had been discordant with things they knew, they wouldn’t have accepted and preserved it.

You’ll also find people who reject the tradition because of its description of temple virgins. They attribute those references to the pagan Roman vestal virgins. However, there’s ample evidence in the text of Scripture and in extra-biblical sources like the Mishnah for a liturgical role for specifically Jewish temple virgins. Moreover, the document and the oral tradition it captures date from a time when many Jews were still converting to Christianity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was not some distant event. It was still recent. And, at least according to apologists like Justin Martyr, Jewish leaders were trying to stem the conversions and discredit the Christian claims. If the description of temple virgins had had no basis in reality, there would have been no ground for the tradition to take root. That should be easy to see with just a little bit of historical imagination.

I have to admit I find it odd that so many people who don’t hesitate to read modern commentaries, theological, and inspirational books, reject out of hand ancient works that fall into the same category. You do have to be discerning, of course. But in a modern landscape filled with the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, and Bishop Spong you have to be pretty discerning in what you choose to read today as well.


Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

Posted: January 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

The other common modern scriptural objection to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is found in Matthew 1:24-25.

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

This is actually a pretty weak objection. With ’till’ or ‘until’, sometimes the condition leading up to the event changes after the event and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s easy to illustrate with just a couple of examples, but there many examples of both usages in the New Testament.

And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. (Acts 23:12)

The above is an illustration of a usage where the condition (not eating or drinking) is expected to change after the event (killing Paul). That’s pretty obvious from the context.

For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. (1 Cor. 15:25)

I think most Christians would agree that Christ will continue to reign after all enemies are under his feet, but that’s incidental to the point being made. In this case the condition (Christ reigning) continues after the event (putting all enemies under his feet).

The whole point being made in Matthew is that Mary conceived as a virgin and gave birth to a son who was conceived by the Spirit and then immediately moves to his name, which is an important one, Jesus. Matthew is saying nothing about what happened between Mary and Joseph after the birth of Christ. All that can really be said from the context is that there is not information to conclude whether or not the condition (Joseph not knowing Mary) changed after the event (the birth of Jesus). There’s certainly nothing in the text that refutes the long-standing and ancient tradition of the Church.

And once again, it’s not as though some modern Protestants suddenly discovered a new text in Scripture that the ancient Church knew nothing about. They were certainly familiar with Matthew and were more closely connected than us to the language, culture, and customs that formed the context for the text. Why would we assume we understand the text better than they did? That attitude puzzles me.


Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

Posted: January 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

It came up in the comments on Elizabeth Esther’s post, so I felt I ought to write something about this belief. It’s not actually a belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus and then God restored her hymen, though I frequently saw it characterized that way in the comments. Rather, it’s a belief that Mary gave birth without pain and without any physical damage to her body, including her hymen.

It’s primarily a theological point. As I understand it, many have seen in Mary’s ‘yes’ to God the beginning of the healing of creation. And since one of the things described in Genesis 3 as a result of our mortality is that ‘in pain you shall bring forth children’, Jesus being born without pain or physical damage is seen as one of the early signs of that healing and restoration.

I tend to disagree, but not because I find the concept incredible. After all, how is such a delivery any more incredible than a virginal conception? Rather, I lean toward a different theological perspective. Jesus became flesh, or sarx, which means he assumed everything it means to be human in our mortal state. And so I believe he was born as we are born. The healing and restoration of all creation flows from him, but he began life fully and utterly one of us.

Ultimately, though, I think we all have to confess we have no way to know which is true.