This past weekend was celebrated the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos. For all of Greece, and in fact for all Orthodoxy, this feast is considered a second Christmas. It always gives me a pause to reflect on this looming figure in our culture—the Theotokos, the God-bearer. Walk into most traditional Byzantine churches and there she looms, the center point above the sanctuary, the Queen of Heaven sitting on a jewel-studded throne, sweeping red and lapis lazuli robes open in a giant act of embrace, the Infant Christ on her lap He himself in a serene pose of benediction upon the congregation. For someone who is barely mentioned a handful of times in the Scriptures even less by name and only once or twice gives direct testimony (“The Song of Mary” upon the meeting with her cousin Elizabeth), she is an over towering figure.
The reverence we hold the Virgin Mary in our Church gives me much to ponder. Paradoxically she seems to be who does the most by “doing” least. When we are introduced to Mary in the Bible as narrative, she is a young maiden at prayer. The Desert Fathers believe Mary never held an impure thought, not even once. Grace had been perpetually with her and that is why she was deemed worthy to be the God-bearer, not an easy task as the vessel that carries fire must be of sturdy mettle to bear its potency. There was even one apostle who upon meeting the Virgin in Jerusalem admitted that had he not known about Christ, he would have believed she was God. So holy did he feel in her presence. (Imagine to be so graced with the Holy Spirit that a dark thought or an evil word never flitting through your head!)
The Theotokos stands like an anti-role model in certain ways. She never gave a long speech, never gave witness to Christ in a forceful way as the other apostles and martyrs, she never founded a church or a charitable institution. You can see her as a highly passive figure, even secondary in her closet role. But paradoxically, it is her reticence, her solitude, her reclusiveness, her absence that makes the most impact. Her work was focused on the internal landscape. Generating a quiet prayerful life of inner stillness, focusing mental and emotional energies on God, turning introspectively instead of outwardly is perhaps one of the toughest jobs there is. And there is not much you can show for it on the outside, not much you can see or put your finger on as a point of pride or achievement. Had she not cultivated that inner heart, if she had not put so much emphasis on keeping her spiritual center centered on Christ and God the Father, she would not have been deemed able to bear the Holy Spirit in the form of the God Man. If one can stop and think of this for a minute, one will come to understand the incredible miracle, a miracle that our bounded minds cannot really fathom, that of being so pure she could bear God. No man was ever worthy of that honor—only a woman could be so pure.
So many times the belligerent feminist in me fights against the poetic allusions to the Theotokos as “the ladder” “the bridge” “the throne” “the vessel”. In my mind, she is depicted as this passive object whose only use is to make room for the Masculine. But with age and spiritual maturity, even against my most forceful feminist arguments pointing their many fists in a corona around my head, I have come to see that the Feminine, in the guise of vessel, is of the utmost importance. We as a society downgrade the Feminine, the bearer, but in her metaphysical truth, she is above the saints and is on the same pedestal as Christ and the Father. Her worth is taken for granted just as the foundation underneath the most awe-inspiring architectural marvels is. How can you have a feast without a banquet table? Where do you put the dough if not for the pan? By focusing on the things that are invisible, the things we take for granted, is what the example of the Theotokos tries to do. To lead a blessed spiritual life is harder than erecting a skyscraper. Look how many times a day you judge, or grumble or swear or worse. To control the mind and heart and keep it in a state of blessedness so that by your very being you bring about the greatest miracle, the salvation of humanity—that is truly remarkable. She reminds me that it is the acts of unseen benevolence, the quiet prayers, the repetitive routine, what could be described as “boring” of faithful routines, what has been eternally described as “woman’s work” that is most worthy of admiration. Her very essence, the mystery of mysteries of the heart and soul, is what we revere—not her physical works. The greatest miracles I think have been created invisibly and imperceptibly. They hide their power until they are revealed and recognized mystically.
So with all the faithful the whole world, visible and invisible, let us cry out:
Hail Mary full of Grace,The Lord is with thee. Blessed art Thee among women , And blessed is the fruit of thy womb,For thou hast borne the savior of our souls.
It is truly meet to call thee blessed oh Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure and the mother of our God, more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word. Truly oh Theotokos do we magnify.