OF ST JOHN MAXIMOVITCH
Orthodox Veneration of Mary
The Orthodox Church teaches about the Mother of God that which Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture have informed concerning Her, and daily it glorifies Her in its temples, asking Her help and defence. Knowing that She is pleased only by those praises which correspond to Her actual glory, the Holy Fathers and hymn-writers have entreated Her and Her Son to teach them how to hymn Her. "Set a rampart about my mind, O my Christ, for I make bold to sing the praise of Thy pure Mother" (Ikos of the Dormition). "The Church teaches that Christ was truly born of Mary Ever-Virgin" (St. Epiphanius, "True Word Concerning the Faith").
"It is essential for us to confess that the holy Ever-Virgin Mary is actually Theotokos (Birth-giver of God), so as not to fall into blasphemy. For those who deny that the Holy Virgin is actually Theotokos are no longer believers, but disciples of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (St. Ephraim the Syrian, "To John the Monk").
From Tradition it is known that Mary was the daughter of the aged Joachim and Anna, and that Joachim descended from the royal line of David, and Anna from the priestly line. Notwithstanding such a noble origin, they were poor. However, it was not this that saddened these righteous ones, but rather the fact they did not have children and could not hope that their descendants would see the Messiah. And behold, when once, being disdained by the Hebrews for their barrenness, they both in grief of soul were offering up prayers to God - Joachim on a mountain to which he had retired after the priest did not want to offer his sacrifice in the Temple and Anna, in her own garden, weeping over her barrenness -- there appeared to them an angel who informed them that they would bring forth a daughter. Overjoyed, they promised to consecrate their child to God.
In nine months a daughter was born to them, called Mary, Who from Her early childhood manifested the best qualities of soul. When She was three years old, her parents, fulfilling their promise, solemnly led the little Mary to the Temple of Jerusalem; She Herself ascended the high steps and, by revelation from God, She was led into the very Holy of Holies by the High Priest who met Her, taking with Her the grace of God which rested upon Her into the Temple which until then had been without grace. (See the Kontakion of the Entry into the Temple. This was the newly-built Temple into which the glory of God had not descended as it had upon the Ark or upon the Temple of Solomon). She was settled in the quarters for virgins which existed in the Temple, but She spent so much time in prayer in the Holy of Holies that one might say that She lived in it. (Service to the Entry, second Sticheron on "Lord, I have cried,"and the "Glory, Both Now Being adorned with all virtues, She manifested an example of extraordinarily pure life. Being submissive and obedient in all, She offended no one, said no crude word to anyone, was friendly to all and did not allow any unclean thought (abridged from St.Ambrose of Milan, "Concerning the Ever-Virginity of the Virgin Mary").
"Despite the righteousness and the immaculateness of life which the Mother of God led, sin and eternal death manifested their presence in Her. They could not but be manifested: Such is the precise and faithful teaching of the Orthodox Church concerning the Mother of God with relation to original sin and death" (Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, "Exposition of the Teaching of the Orthodox Church on the Mother of God"). "A stranger to any fall into sin" (St. Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on the 118th Psalm), She was not a stranger to sinful temptations. "God alone is without sin" (St. Ambrose, same source), while man will always have in himself something yet needing correction and perfection in order to fulfil the commandment of God; Be ye holy as I the Lord your God am Holy (Leviticus 19:2). The more pure and perfect one is, the more he notices his imperfections and considers himself all the more unworthy.
The Virgin Mary, having given Herself entirely up to God, even though She repulsed from herself every impulse to sin, still felt the weakness of human nature more powerfully than others and ardently desired the coming of the Saviour. In Her humility She considered Herself unworthy to be even the servant-girl of the Virgin Who was to give Him birth. So that nothing might distract Her from prayer and heedfulness to Herself, Mary gave to God a vow not to become married, in order to please only Him Her whole life long. Being betrothed to the elderly Joseph when Her age no longer allowed Her to remain in the Temple, She settled in his house in Nazareth. Here the Virgin was vouchsafed the coming of the Archangel Gabriel who brought Her the good tidings of the birth from Her of the Son of the Most High. Hail, Thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed an Thou among women ... The Holy Spirit shall come upon Thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow Thee: wherefore also that which is to be born shall be holy and shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:28-35).
Mary received the angelic good tidings humbly and submissively. "Then the Word, in a way known to Himself, descended and, as He Himself willed, came and entered into Mary and abode in Her" (St. Ephraim the Syrian, "Praise of the Mother of God"). "As lightning illuminates what is hidden, so also Christ purifies what is hidden in the nature of things. He purified the Virgin also and then was born, so as to show that where Christ is, there is manifest purity in all its power. He purified the Virgin, having prepared Her by the Holy Spirit, and then the womb, having become pure, conceived Him. He purified the Virgin while She was inviolate; wherefore, having been born, He left Her virgin. I do not say that Mary became immortal, but that being illuminated by grace, She was not disturbed by sinful desires" (St. Ephraim the Syrian, Homily Against Heretics, 41). The Light abode in Her, cleansed Her mind, made Her thoughts pure, made chaste Her concerns, sanctified Her virginity" (St.Ephraim the Syrian, "Mary and Eve") "Once who was pure according to human understanding, He made pure by grace" (Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, "Exposition of the Teaching of the Orthodox Church on the Mother of God").
Mary told no one of the appearance of the angel, but the angel himself revealed to Joseph concerning Mary's miraculous conception from the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:l8-25); and after the Nativity of Christ, with a multitude of the heavenly host, he announced it to the shepherds. The shepherds, coming to worship the new-born one, said that they had heard of Him. Having previously endured suspicion in silence, Mary now also listened in silence and kept in her heart the sayings concerning the greatness of Her Son (Luke 2:8-19). She heard forty days later Symeon's prayer of praise and the prophecy concerning the weapon which would pierce Her soul. Later She saw how Jesus advanced in wisdom; She heard Him at the age of twelve teaching in the Temple and everything She kept in Her heart (Luke 2:21-51)
Even though full of grace, She did not yet fully understand in what the service and the greatness of Her Son would consist. The Hebrew conceptions of the Messiah were still close to Her and natural feelings forced Her to be concerned for Him, preserving Him from labours and dangers which it might seem, were excessive. Therefore She favoured Her Son involuntarily at first, which evoked His indication of the superiority of spiritual to bodily kinship (Matt. 12:46-49). "He had concern also over the honour of His Mother, but much more over the salvation of Her soul and the good of men, for which He had become clothed in flesh" (St.John Chrysostom, Commentary on John, Homily 21). Mary understood this and heard the word of God and kept it (Luke 11:27,28). As no other person, She had the same feelings as Christ (Phil. 2:5), unmurmuringly bearing the grief of a mother when She saw Her Son persecuted and suffering. Rejoicing in the day of the Resurrection, on the day of Pentecost. She was clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). The Holy Spirit Who descended upon Her taught (Her) all things (John 14:26), and instructed (Her) in all truth (John 16:13). Being enlightened, She began to labour all the more zealously to perform what She had heard from Her Son and Redeemer, so as to ascend to Him and be with Him.
The end of the earthly life of the Most Holy Mother of God was the beginning of Her greatness. "Being adorned with Divine glory" (Irmos of the Canon of the Dormition), She stands and will stand, both in the day of the Last Judgment and in the future age, at the right hand of the throne of Her Son. She reigns with Him and has boldness towards Him as His Mother according to the flesh and as one in spirit with Him, as one who performed the will of God and instructed others (Matt. 5:19). Merciful and full of love, She manifests Her love towards Her Son and God in love for the human race. She intercedes for it before the Merciful One, and going about the earth, She helps men.
Having experienced all the difficulties of earthly life, the Intercessor of the Christian race sees every tear, hears every groan and entreaty directed to Her. Especially near to Her are those who labour in the battle with the passions and are zealous for a God-pleasing life. But even in worldly cares She is an irreplaceable helper. "Joy of all who sorrow, and intercessors for the offended, and feeder of the hungry, consolation of travellers, harbour of the storm-tossed, visitation of the sick, protection and intercessor for the inform staff of old age, Thou are the Mother of God on high, O Most Pure One" (Sticheron of the Service to the Hodigitria). "The hope and intercession and refuge of Christians", "The Mother of God unceasing in prayers" (Theotokion of the Third Tone). "She day and night doth pray for us and the sceptres of kingdoms are confirmed by Her prayers" (daily Nocturne).
There is no intellect or words to express the greatness of Her Who was born in the sinful human race but became "more honourable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim." "Seeing the grace of the secret mysteries of God made manifest and clearly fulfilled in the Virgin, I rejoice; and I know not how to understand the strange and secret manner whereby the Undefiled has been revealed as alone chosen above all creation, visible and spiritual. Therefore, wishing to praise Her, I am struck dumb with amazement in both mind and speech. Yet still I dare to proclaim and magnify Her: She is indeed the heavenly Tabernacle" (Ikos of the Entry into the Temple). "Every tongue is at a loss to praise Thee as is due; even a spirit from the world above is filled with dizziness, when it seeks to sing Thy praises, 0 Theotokos. But since Thou art good, accept our faith. Thou knowest well our love inspired by God, for Thou art the Protector of Christians and we magnify Thee" (Irmos of the 9th Canticle, Service of the Theophany).