Some years ago I found myself on a bright, late May day, walking around Trondheim with my friend Bill Tighe. We spent some time in the late-Gothic Cathedral, a magnificent edifice, which has fairly, though not wholly, withstood the depredations of modern nonsense that occurs in the Norwegian state church. In the sacristy chapel, the chapel of the cathedral Chapter, there were two sets of four windows on the back, east wall, set in columns in the wall, each window on top of the other, with each having a different picture etched into the glass: one was of the ark of the covenant, another of the burning bush, another of a gate in a city wall, another of Gideon’s fleece, and so forth. It took me a moment to realize that the windows in all likelihood had not been touched since the Reformation, for the chapel was dedicated to our Lady, the ever-virgin Mother of God. Norway suffered very little from iconoclasm, even less so than most other Lutheran countries. Many Protestants I know get quite uneasy about “Theotokos” and “Mother of God” language, especially when you have theological dullards like R. C. Sproul running around denouncing it. I remember a prof in college who otherwise was quite sharp saying that when growing up, his church (Free Presbyterian, he was an Ulsterman) would correct Charles Wesley’s words in “Amazing Love” to “that Thou my Lord shouldst die for me.” (Of course, given the correction, maybe we shouldn’t capitalize “thou.”) If, dear reader, you don’t make the connection, this gives the truth to why Fr. Patrick Reardon confesses an aversion to talking about our Lady with people outside the Tradition. Generally I find this wisdom unimpeachable, for it is only within the Tradition that the hypostatic union makes sense, that is, one in which the whole notion of union with God, deification or theosis, is part and parcel of the Christian life. But how this essential part of the Tradition should be handled when speaking with those outside of its confines is not my aim in this essay (admittedly the first one I’ve posted in some time: it’s been a long, long semester). Instead this post has to do with how the Blessed Virgin as our Mother, since she is the Mother of that body into which we are now incorporated (such a great word so poorly debased by modern notions of fictive entities), is also our shield and guardian, and what are some of the implications of her being “higher than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.”
I had never been someone given to what at that time I would have thought an excessive devotion to the Theotokos, but this did get me thinking, and I hope thinking still, about the place of the Virgin Mary not only in the history of redemption, but within our present life and pilgrimage. Crossing the “most holy Theotokos” threshold was one of the early challenges I faced in my emotional and intellectual problems with Orthodoxy. I was happy to admit that St. Mary properly is the mother of God, and that we should always call her blessed, and perpetually virgin (none of the Reformers balked at this in any way whatsoever). I could see why, based on the last verses of James’ Epistle we would sing “Most holy Theotokos save us,” but it was all rather part of the Vespers and Liturgy to me, not something I thought too much about otherwise, at least until that happy trip to Norway.
In the fourth ikos (stanza) of the Akathist to the Mother of God, we find these words: “Rejoice! Protection against unseen enemies.” I don’t know the origin of this akathist, but such devotion, such approbations, are replete in the early Church. I highly recommend Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, for a discussion of this very topic.The term Theotokos of course predates the Nestorian controversy, and the ancient hymn Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν (Sub tuum praesidium) from the mid third century shows that the title was in use two-hundred years before Nestorius ever insulted Pulcheria. Interestingly, the hymn occurs in Greek, but in a Coptic manuscript, that testifies to its broad use. The first time I remember using this hymn was immediately after 9/11 when we ended every liturgy with it at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, PA. And the acclamation of Mary’s exaltation above the angelic host is as least as old as the early fourth century, maybe older, for St. Athanasius uses this almost identical language in a letter.
In that our Lady was the true ark of the covenant (hmm . . . strange chapter break there between Revelation chapters 11 and 12), she bore not merely the rod that budded, the food of angels, and the tables of the law, but Him who is the true vine, the root of Jesse, the true bread which comes down from Heaven that whoever eats of It shall live forever, and He Who in Himself fulfills the Law and the Prophets. The cherubim covered the mercy seat of the old ark, but our Lady is herself the bearer of the Very God, and not merely the locus of His manifestation in cloud and fire. She has undone Eve, and in so doing reclaimed both Eve and Adam. By her obedience, her Ecce ancilla domini, she began the completion of our redemption. And in her assumption she shows us the goal of our lives, namely glorification in Christ, true theosis, true theoria (contemplation). In that she is now united to Christ in a way only adumbrated by her earthly life, she is able to be what Christ had said to the Apostles that they were, a true friend of the Bridegroom, who knows all things through that union. Dante speaks at the end of the Purgatorio and the beginning of the Paradiso of transhumanization: he was laying aside what he was, so to become that which he was created to be. Having gone through the two streams at the top of Mt. Purgatory, the one to wipe away the memory of his sins (Asperge me) and the other to restore memories of the Good, that is, to restore in him what he should have known all along, he passes through a critical phase of this process, suiting him to see Glory. Transhumanization is something that Dante, nonetheless, had been going through the whole divine comedy, preparing him to see the Face of the true Human, He who resided within the Trinity. And who, at the heights of heaven sat opposite, face to Face with this true human (or now, of course, Face to Face) but the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was Mary (and of course Beatrice, whom Dante had to learn to love properly) who saw Dante wandering through life’s forest, attacked by wild beasts of temptation, and it was the Virgin who sent Virgil to guide him through Hell.
And here we return to the line from the Akathist, “Rejoice! Protection against unseen enemies.” My parish, St. Paul’s has an actual relic of the Apostle, a small piece of bone. But the Church has no such relics of the Virgin, and this is commensurate with her teaching that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven after her death (there are two traditions to this, one linked to Palestine, the other to Ephesus, no time or place for debate). Our Lady, as believed by the Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Oriental Orthodox, now lives in a glorified body as we all shall someday live, in that union which was prepared for her before the world began, in that Love that the Father, Son, and Spirit have shared from eternity. And entering into this eternal Love, she bodily enters into the life of God, even as Her Incarnate Son exists bodily in the Life of God. This is something no angel, archangel, throne or principality, cherubim or seraphim (or any of the ranks of angels) can obtain. In that she is now higher than all of them, we must now understand that she is higher also than Satan, and thus along with St. Michael and all the other angels lives as our defender against the assaults of the enemy. But we should not marvel at this, for even in this life we also can obtain strength to oppose the demonic (for St. Paul was known to the demons), through the power of the Spirit, even though we shall always be buffeted in this world by sin, despair, distraction, and frailty. I hope for myself that someday the demons will fear me as they feared St. Paul, but until that time, Most Holy Theotokos, save us!