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Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

The Mystery of Holy Mary, Mother of God

By Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock
Holy Transfiguration Malankara Orthodox Mission
Madison, Wisconsin

When I was a young student of the church - exhilarated by the Holy Call to service, filled with curiosity, but sure that I already knew everything - I had opportunities to meet regularly with my teacher, His Grace Bishop John. When we met, I usually asked tough questions first. He would answer in some way. Then I would ask another and another.

Once I asked, "Why do we need to believe in a virgin birth? Does it really matter?" He sighed and paused for a time, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, and, with eyes closed, looked toward the heavens, as he had done so many times before. I was delighted, for this usually meant a thorough and clear answer. This time, however, he said something that was not particularly clear nor thorough, but it changed my entire attitude and my entire approach to understanding Holy Orthodoxy. Not that I changed immediately, but his response has grown in me through the years with such gentleness that I still use his teaching to this day.

He said, "I could give you an answer, one that would satisfy your curiosity and be theologically sound, but the Truth is a mystery. As it is a mystery, it cannot be understood by the intellect alone - so you must pray for understanding and spiritually prepare for insight. And if God is merciful to you, He may give you insight into that mystery during your life." Then His Grace asked some mundane questions about the progress of my studies and did not return to the topic.

For years, I prayed for understanding and strived for spiritual progress with little insight into virgin birth. I started paying greater attention to biblical passages and references among the Church Fathers. I listened with greater intensity to Orthodox hymns and prayers written for Holy Mary, the Ever-Virgin Birth-giver of God. I do not believe that I have yet been given the full answer to my query as a young student, but I will share some of my understanding - and, as any Truth or Goodness belongs to Holy Orthodoxy for the glory of God, my human presentation may only confuse. So, I would ask of all who may read this to follow the advice of old Bishop John - "Pray for understanding." If my words assist anyone in understanding then praise be to God, but if my words bring any confusion to the mystery through my inaccuracy and faults, then I will be honored by your reliance on the Holy Spirit for discernment.

The appreciation and honor given to Mary is intimately wrapped up in the salvation of the human race, indeed the entire creation. As the worldly mother of Jesus Christ, who is fully human and fully God, she is also the earthly mother of God - the Creator becomes a creature for our salvation.

One summer in the 1990s, I was studying with a Native American tribe in Northern Wisconsin. One elder from Red Cliff, Walt Bresette, was talking about how different races needed to get along because "the white people have plenty of boats to go back to their homeland, but they ain't leaving!"

So, I asked, "How many generations in this land does it take to be Native American?"

"When you honor the earth as your mother, then you are Native American," he responded, to the pleasure of all attending that session. I was impressed with his answer and I saw something in his words that Holy Orthodoxy affirms.

Mary, a created human being, like all human beings formed from the dust of the earth, becomes a symbol of all creation. Then, at the incarnation, becomes a vessel for God to restore all creation. In our honor and veneration of Mary, we must also respect all creation, the earth and all that live here. In a sense, we must all become "Native Americans" - but more properly, we must all become as Mary, who is also called the New Eve being the redemption of the first Eve, integral to the restoration of creation from Eden's exile.

St. Justin the Martyr wrote in the Second Century, "The Son of God became man through the Virgin, that the disobedience caused by the serpent might be destroyed in the same way it had originated."

Another Second Century Father, St. Irenaeus, wrote, "Just as Eve, while still a wife of Adam, was a virgin and became by her disobedience the cause of death of herself and the whole human race, so Mary too, espoused yet a virgin, became by her obedience, the cause of salvation of both herself and the whole human race."

Holy Mary becomes, not only mother of God, but also mother to us all. Symbolically, we are also born again because of her - through her humble subordination. But this new life in Christ is a life beyond this earthly life.

We remember the Saints at their birth into the everlasting life by celebrating the day of their departure from this life, the day of their earthly death. So we also remember Holy Mary at her departure. We remember and celebrate the mystery of her, whose very flesh was the very flesh of Jesus Christ, who ascended to heaven after rising from the dead in that human body and who we call the first born of the dead at Easter. (Another mystery.)

"The source of life is laid in the grave and her tomb becomes a ladder to heaven," sing the Greek Orthodox on the holy day of St. Mary's assumption into heaven. Her soul is portrayed in ancient iconography as being carried to heaven as a child in the arms of her Son and her Savior, Jesus Christ. This image comes from the story passed to us in Holy Orthodoxy as a vision of the Apostles who gathered at her tomb. It is not dogmatic, but has within it spiritual affirmation of the eternal nature of Truth.

Eternity is a cycle. The circle is a symbol of eternity. Tracing a circle can proceed without angular interruption. With Holy Mary, we are given profound closure in circular patterns.

In her birth-giving of God, she is the New Eve, the closure of our time in exile from Eden. A circle is closed as the old Eve and the new Eve, Mary, were each asked an angelic question: one answered to the expulsion from paradise and the way back was lost; the other answered and the way to paradise is restored. Eve's punishment was to labor in human childbirth. Mary labored in childbirth and bore God in the flesh, our very Lord and Savior.

Jesus Christ is the Salvation of Holy Mary as much as for any of us and so it is the completion of a circle that she would be carried in the arms of her Lord to heaven, not having to wait. It is also a circle completed in that Holy Mary Mother of God would be the first in heaven before Christ's return when all human beings will be judged by their life in this world and the promise of everlasting life is complete.

Let us run to the arms of Holy Mary, Mother of God, mother of all those who follow the Truth, asking her to pray for us - for no flesh was closer to the Divine than hers, and her relationship to Christ closer than that of any other human.

We believe that the places closest to Christ in this world are the Orthodox churches. Here is the wondrous use of symbolism - that church building is also a symbol of Mary, she who is called by the Fathers "the throne of God." The altar, or thronose, is a place where the mystery of incarnation is re-enacted regularly and we partake of the Holy Communion with Christ by approaching that altar.

So we ask Holy Theotokos to pray for us and we hold her above all others in commemorations. Theotokos is the Greek word that translates to Mother of God or God-bearer. Aren't all churches to be theotokos? Aren't we all to be theotokos, that is, temples of God?

Recalling the admonition of honor by that Native American Ojibwe elder, Walt Bresette, I am reminded of the words of St. Cyprian, written so long ago, that state plainly, "No one can take God as his Father unless he takes the Church as his mother."

May we all be guided to the understanding of the Truth wrapped in the mysteries preserved for us by Holy Orthodoxy. May we honor all mothers as those that emulate creation and which can, because the assent of the virgin Mary that changed all of creation, bear the very essence of our salvation. May we have boldness as children of God through Christ, and ask Holy Mary to pray for us and help us.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

(Originally written for the occasion of the silver jubilee of St. Mary's Orthodox Church (Detroit) August 2004 - a version of this article published in their anniversary souvenir book)

See Also:

Annunciation to St. Mary
Annunciation reminds us that Mary obeyed God and willingly submitted to God's will and helped to take away the curse that hasbrought about suffering and death. She became the WOMAN whose son took away the sins of humanity and abolished death. So Mary provided a body to Godwho is spirit, so that he can suffer on our behalf and die.

Virgin Mary, Mother of God
In this ground-breaking work, Cicily Sunny presents the results from her life-long search for Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. It contains information, that was not known before or was not widely known. There are detailed visions of the end of the world and the shape of the coming Kingdom.

Answers to God's Mysteries
The author of this important spiritual work, says that the Holy Spirit helps us to unfold mysteries through selected spiritual people such as prophets in old testament times. These mysteries are revealed mostly through visions and dreams.

The Merit of Joseph
Joseph was not ashamed to honor his old father by owning him before his master. Not only was he willing to identify with his old father, but he honored him.

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