Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Theotokos in the Orthodox Christian Faith by Dr Philip Kariatlis

The Orthodox Church celebrates the great feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on 15th August, and so in our Church the month of August is specially dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos.  Orthodox Christians have always honoured the Mother of our Lord with special veneration. Countless icons depict her with the infant Christ, and thousands of hymns praise her. In today's talk, Dr Kariatlis focused on the place of the Theotokos in our Orthodox Christian Faith.

The following hymn is said by the priest in our church services many times:

Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.

This hymn really captures what life in the Church is all about. The focus is always Christ, not only giving our whole selves to him but also one another. The centre of our worship is the Divine Liturgy, the worship of the Church as a whole community. This community includes all of us, and also the Theotokos and all the saints, whom we commemorate and set before ourselves as examples.

This hymn also includes many names that we use for the Virgin Mary. Although our church had never really formed any dogmas concerning the Virgin Mary, the names that we give her in our daily worship contain many teachings about what we believe about her and indeed about Christ.

The first name is "Παναγία", which means "All-holy". This term is the most common name given to Mary, and has been in use since the 2nd Century AD. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Mary was truly "all-holy",  that because of the constant overshadowing presence of the Holy Spirit over her life, she was free from actual sin. In 1854, the Roman Catholic Church formed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, stating that the Virign Mary was immaculately conceived. The Eastern Orthodox Church is uncomfortable with this doctrine, because in a way it sets her apart from the rest of humanity. We believe that Mary was conceived naturally from both a man and a woman, just like every other human being. This is why she is the ultimate example for us because being human just like us, she reached perfection in this life, being free from actual sin throughout her whole life, and was worthy to become the bearer of the Son of God. 

The second name is "αειπάρθενος", "ever-virgin". The great miracle of Christ's incarnation is that Mary remained a virgin even though Jesus was conceived in her womb and she gave birth to Him as a human infant. However Christ was not conceived from a male seed, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we say in the Creed, "was incarnate of the Holy Spirit." In other words, Jesus had no human father. This is because Jesus, although fully human, was not an ordinary human being, but the Son of God, none other than the second person of the Holy Trinity.

And the final and most important term is "Θεοτόκος". This literally means "the one who gives birth to God". Some of the Protestant faiths are uncomfortable that we actually give such a huge power to Mary, who was a human being. However, the term "Theotokos" has enormous theological significance, and must be understood correctly. In fact it is really saying what we believe about Christ himself. In the 5th century, the patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius disagreed with this term, arguing that it is inconceivable and blasphemous to claim that Mary actually gave birth to God himself, proposing instead the name "Christotokos." This sparked an enormous controversy in the Byzantine empire, with faithful Christians who had always paid special reverence to the Virgin Mary speaking out against the claims of Nestorius.

In order to settle the controversy, the Third Ecumenical Council of 431 AD was gathered in Ephesus. The Council of bishops set down the Theotokos as the accepted title of the Virgin Mary. Among other things, Nestorius believed that Mary did not give birth to God Himself, but to a mere human, over whom divinity descended at some later point in His life. This was condemned as a heresy. The fact that Mary did give birth to God is extremely important, not only for how we venerate her, but it points to what we believe about Christ Himself.

Through His Incarnation, Christ's plan of salvation for the human race was made possible by his assumption of our whole human nature. For this to take place, Jesus had to remain unchanged in His divine nature as God but at the same time to become fully human. So Mary conceived The Son of God in her womb, incarnate of the Holy Spirit, and she carried in her body and gave birth to a human person who was none other than the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Mary gave birth to God Himself. This awesome mystery, beyond comprehension for us humans, is expressed in the word "Θεοτόκος".

Through our veneration of Panagia, we are called to imitate her example, and to strive to realise our ultimate purpose in this life, which she completed in perfection: to become "theotokoi", to allow for God to be born into our very selves, by submitting our wills, just like the Virgin Mary, to His divine will.

In conclusion we look briefly at the feast of the Dormition, the "falling asleep" of the Theotokos, when she died a natural death as a human being, but as the birth-giver of God she was taken up by her Son into heaven, both body and soul, to reign with Him and to intercede for us and protect us. The greatness of this true celebration of our Church is summed up in this hymn from the Vespers service of the 15th August:

By the command of God, the God bearing Apostles everywhere were transported through the skies on clouds. And reaching your allimmaculate body, that origin of Life, they kissed it in grand veneration.
The supreme Hosts of heaven arrived with their Master. Seized with awe, they ushered your inviolate body, which had hosted God. High above the earth, they went before you, and invisibly they shouted to the angelic orders above them, ʺBehold, the Queen of all, the Maid of God, has arrived.
ʺLift up the gates, and give a formal heavenly reception to the Mother of the everlasting Light.
ʺFor the salvation of all humanity came through her. We are unable to gaze on her, and it is impossible to bestow worthy honor on her.
ʺFor her excellence surpasses all understanding.ʺ
Therefore, O immaculate Theotokos, as you now live forever with the life bearing King who is your Son, intercede unceasingly, that He guard us, your children, and that He save us from every hostile assault, since we are under your protection.
And to the ages with splendor we call you blessed.

The entire text of this service in Greek and English can be downloaded from these links:

Apart from the beautiful hymns, which contain the tradition and dogmas of our Church, there are also 3 readings from the Old Testament which are read at the vespers. In the Orthodox Church, the Old Testament is read and interpreted in the light of the New Testament. The readings from the Book of Proverbs about Wisdom, from the Prophecy of Ezequiel about the Gate of the temple which remains shut, and from Genesis about Jacob's dream of the divine ladder, all are interpreted to be foretelling the coming of the Theotokos and the huge role she will play in the salvation of the human race.

There are countless beautiful hymns and services that our Church offers to Panagia, and every day of the first two weeks of August the service of the paraklesis is chanted in ours churches. This can also be downloaded here:

We saw a glimpse today of what the Theotokos has to offer us, both as a Church and on a personal level. Let us learn from her example and strive to follow her in the road to perfection.

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