September marks the beginning of the liturgical year on the Orthodox calendar. The church calendar, of course, is built around the birth, life, death, resurrection, enthronement cycle of our Lord Jesus Christ. But as I’ve said in various essays, in order to make the doctrine of the incarnation absolutely clear, that Christological cycle is “incarnated” into his mother Mary’s life. Thus the church year begins with her birth and ends with her death, and within those two earthly and human bookmarks the story of God’s incarnation unfolds.
Mary as the God-bearer is one of those utterly fundamental theological principles, enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which describes the full extent of the incarnation. It moves the doctrine beyond a mere idea and places squarely into the flow of history (in much the same way the phrase “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate” places his death in the historic0-political stream). In popular Orthodox piety the Roman Catholic term “Mother of God” is often used synonymously with the more theologically accurate phrase “God-bearer.” (While it is certainly true that by definition Mary is the “Mother of God,” it is a term that has some unfortunate and dangerous theological freight associated with it in the Roman Catholic tradition, so it tends not to be used in formal Orthodox settings.)
But there’s always a danger with fundamental theological terms such as “God-bearer” and the closely associated term “Mother of God.” When we think of a relational word such as “God-bearer” as a theological statement, it’s easy to forget the existential dimension of the term. Jesus has a mother! He grew up in a loving human family! While I don’t want to turn this into a romanticized recital of Jesus’ human lineage, the fact is that because of the vital theological principle rooted in Mary and the birth of Jesus, the more existential side of the story is often forgotten.
It therefore surprises me that one of the descriptions of Joachim and Anna (Mary’s parents) had completely passed me by in all the years that I’ve prayed the liturgy. But in the hymns sung this time of year they are occasionally referred to as the “grandparents of God.” What a felicitous phrase to describe the existential joy of God not only entering into human flesh, but entering into a human family.