Every time I write about Mary, Jesus’ mother, I get in trouble with my Protestant friends. But because of the turn of season, I once again have been thinking about the Theotokos. Let me say at the outset that I’m not trying to prove a point. I’m simply reflecting on the way the world is from an Eastern Orthodox viewpoint and basking in the wisdom of how the ancient church viewed life and put things together.
The occasion of this essay is the new ecclesiastical year, which began Sep 1 for the Orthodox. (The Protestant and Catholic year begins on the first Sunday of Advent near Dec 1.) The year begins in earnest with the feast honoring Mary’s birth and ends with the feast remembering her death. Mary’s life, in a sense, bookends the church year. For those of us Protestants who were quite proud of the Christological character of the Protestant liturgical calendar, this state of affairs came as a bit of a shock and a certain sense of dismay until the matter was thought through. That is what this essay is about.
The story begins with Arius specifically, and the gnostic influence in early Christianity in general. Arius and company were very uncomfortable with the claim that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human. To him, the title Son of God was just that. It indicated his divine approval and that he was indeed somehow imbued with divinity, but it was blasphemous, from his perspective, to say that Jesus was actually the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
One word in the liturgy particularly galled him. Mary is called “Theotokos” (a transliteration of a Greek word that means “God-bearer.”) He opted for the term “Christotokos” (Christ-bearer). By calling Mary the Christotokos he could put some distance between Jesus Christ and God the Father. He could affirm Jesus’ divine origins without actually affirming that he was “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made …” (to quote the Nicene Creed).
At this point I will greatly simplify history. This whole debate lasted about 400 years and went through many iterations. But as decades stretched into centuries, it became clear to the church that Mary was the key to understanding the nature of Jesus. Jesus didn’t just drop out of the blue. He had a history, a context, a human birth. And if that birth was properly understood then it was much easier to correctly believe who Jesus was.
There was also an opposite danger. The radical break between Creator and creation that Arius and the other gnostics desired could simply be pushed back one generation. This error can be seen in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Some (the Roman Catholics most prominently) claim that Mary’s birth itself was miraculous. This then allowed the miraculously born (and by extension, sin free) Mary to offer up her womb for the virgin birth so that Jesus could be born in complete perfection. The problem with this view is that it puts a great deal of distance between Jesus and the creation he has come to redeem and restore. It is the opposite error of Arius. Arius tried to put some distance between Jesus Christ and Creator God. This doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception tries to put some distance between Jesus Christ and creation. (And I confess that like the above history, this is an oversimplification of the Roman Catholic doctrine.)
But Orthodoxy won’t have any of it. When Jesus (who is fully God, contra Arius) entered into this human life, he entered into the thick of it and became human to the very depths of both our humanity and our predicament (contra the contemporary Roman Catholic view). One cannot appreciate Jesus without appreciating his earthly context. He was born in the reign of Herod and died in the reign of Pilate. His mother was Mary. He grew up in the household of Joseph. There was nothing ephemeral about his humanity nor his experience. Although neither Scripture nor Tradition say anything about it, we can be quite sure that he had work-rough hands and a sun-burned neck. The incarnation is not just a doctrine, it is a statement that the Second Person of the Trinity was fully surrounded by and interpenetrated with this created order.
And this is the genius of the calendar. The Orthodox calendar is every bit as Christocentric as the Protestant calendar. The pinnacle of the year are those three days of his death (Great and Holy Friday), descent into Hades (Great and Holy Saturday) and resurrection (Pascha). The year is chock full of feasts and accompanying fasts commemorating his birth, transfiguration, death, resurrection, and ascension. But the Orthodox calendar is not only all about Jesus Christ, it is also about all of Jesus Christ, and that means it includes his human and earthly context.
So the church year is, in a sense, about a particular human that best represents us all. Mary is a picture of the church, and when we see Mary we ought to see the whole church. And the church year is about her birth, life, and death. But that is not the story, it is the context, it is the canvas, if you will, of the truly great story that is told in the church year. Upon this canvas of Mary’s life (beginning with the Feast of her Nativity on Sep 8 and ending with the Feast of her death or Dormition on Aug 15), the glorious story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, descent into Hades, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory is told.
It is indeed God’s story, but if the incarnation means anything at all, it means that this story—God’s story—is our story too. And conversely, our story is now God’s story. So Jesus’ story is not complete without Mary’s story, and Mary’s story is just another human tale apart from Jesus’ story. The two are inseparably intertwined. Because in Christ God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).
So have a happy New Year and a blessed Nativity Feast.