The Nativity of the Mother of God
The Church year runs from September 1st to August 31st. It runs parallel to the Civil Year, but it has little in common with it, although of course the Civil Year incorporates certain elements from the Church Year-eg Christmas and Easter . Like everything in the Orthodox Church, the Church Year is didactic and is designed to bring us to Christ, to teach us how to live the Christian Life and how to enter into everything God has for us in Christ.
The first major feast of the Church Year is the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, which is on September 8th, The final major feast of the Church Year is the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15th. The Church Year begins and ends with the Birth and the Death of the Mother of God and it is she who guides us through the Church Year and through our lives as Christians.
The Mother of God in Relation to the Church’s Cycle of Feasts
The Feasts of the Virgin Mary are second in importance after those of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the annual cycle of festivals observed by the Orthodox Church because, after our Lord Himself, the All-Holy Virgin is the most blessed person in the Church. Mary is the archetypical Christian, it is she to whom the Angel came, when the Angel spoke the Word of God, she received it in faith. At that moment, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was incarnated and conceived in her womb. She then brought forth the Christ and presented Him to the World. It is for us to receive the Word of God and incarnate it in our lives and present Him to the World as Mary did.
In the Orthodox Church, the blessed person of the Mother of God is inseparable from the
Blessed Person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This is exactly what the name, Theotokos (i.e., the God-bearer, Mother of God, Birth-giver of God) constantly declares:
namely that the place and significance of the Virgin Mary in the Church cannot be
understood apart from her relationship to Our Lord.
This is most tangibly depicted on the iconostasis (the icon screen before the sanctuary) of any Orthodox Church. The icon of the Lord is always on the right of the Beautiful Gate-the Royal Doors, and the icon of the Theotokos is always on the left. This particular icon, depicting the All-Holy Virgin Mary holding our Lord and Saviour as a child in her arms, is the most characteristic of all icons associated with her blessed person. If you were to look to the west of a Church, you would find that Mary is on the right hand of Christ-the Right Hand is the place of honour as opposed to the Left which is the place of judgement.
Icons of the Mother of God as a general rule always show her with Our Lord. The few that do not are icons of the Mother of God during the pre-Incarnation period of her life.
Brief Resume of the Life of the Mother of God
According to the Orthodox Tradition, Mary was born to Joachim and Anna. Joachim and Anna were devout believers in God but they were barren. At that time-the Late Inter Testamental Period-it was believed that barrenness in a married couple was a sign of God’s disfavour. According to the Tradition, this faithful couple prayed for many years that God would bless them with a child. Eventually in their old age, God rewarded them with a beautiful little girl.
God gave them Mary
Because of their thankfulness to God, Joachim and Anna dedicated her to God and when she was old enough, Mary was sent to live in the Temple in Jerusalem and brought up there with a group of young girls, also sent there by their parents.
One of the skills that Mary was trained in, was weaving, and her job was to help weave the Curtain which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple Complex. The Holy of Holies was that part of the Temple which only the High Priest could visit once a year to present an offering to God for the sins of the nation. It was divided from the rest of the Temple by a thick heavy curtain which would need regular maintenance to prevent it wearing out. Mary was one of the young women tasked with that role.
The Annunciation is the name given to the important event when the Archangel Gabriel visited the young Mary-she was probably in her early teens when it happened. The Archangel Gabriel told her that she would conceive and bear God’s Son. In the Biblical account (Luke 1:26-39) Mary is in Galilee when the visit occurred. On the icon of the Annunciation, Mary is holding a red thread, because despite being away from Jerusalem, she still carried on the work that God had given her. In the Orthodox Tradition, Mary conceived at that point. On some icons of the Annunciation, Mary is shown with a smaller icon of Our Lord where her womb is to indicate this Truth. The Icon of the Annunciation is always written on the Royal Doors on the Iconostasis, because it is through the Royal Doors that we receive the Body and Blood of Christ at Communion.
Clearly Mary was at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Luke 2 v 1-7)
Mary was His Mother and brought up the young Jesus with her husband Joseph (Lk 2 v39-40) It is however important to remember that in the Orthodox Church that Joseph, the Step-father of Our Lord is known as St Joseph the Betrothed. Although Joseph and Mary would have gone through a legal Jewish wedding blessed in the Synagogue, it was never consummated, Mary remains Ever-Virgin.
Mary was with Jesus during His Ministry (John 2v 3), she was also there at His Crucifixion-John 19 v25-for her undoubtedly a most painful emotional experience, we can only begin to wonder what was going through her mind at that time.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings in Vespers and Matins, we sing a very special kind of hymn called a stavrotheotikon. Stavro comes from the Greek σταυρός meaning cross and a theotikon which is a hymn to the Mother of God, so a stavrotheotikon is a hymn or meditation on the Mother of God at the foot of the Cross.
The reason we sing them on Tuesday and Thursday evening Vespers and Matins, is that these services are the beginning of the Worship Cycle for Wednesdays and Fridays-on Wednesdays we fast to remember that Judas betrayed Our Lord and Friday we fast to remember Our Lord’s Death.
Mary was with the Disciples after the Resurrection: (Acts 1 v12-14) and was cared for by the Apostle John(John 19 v 26, 27). It is often asked why Our Lord asked John the Beloved Disciple to care for His Mother. According to the Orthodox Tradition, John (and his brother James-the Sons of Thunder) were the cousins of Our Lord, so He was actually asking His natural Family to care for His Mother-as opposed to His adopted family, the children of Joseph. Just out of interest, there is most interesting book called “The Easter Enigma” by John Wenham, an Anglican cleric and theologian, written to confute the heresies of the late David Jenkins, who had been ordained Bishop of Durham. One of the things that Wenham does is to closely examine the accounts of the Crucifixion in the Four Gospels, giving close attention to who was there. From his studies he too comes to the conclusion that John and James were cousins of Jesus! It is reassuring when the world of academia confirms what the Church teaches by faith!
The Tradition of the Orthodox Church is that John cared for Mary until her Dormition. At the Dormition, Orthodox Christians believe that the Mother of God died, that the Lord took up her soul to heaven, and that her body was transposed to Heaven three days later, as some of the Fathers teach. This is a fitting end to the Life of this, the most remarkable of all women born on Earth. Even her Dormition has important lessons to teach us. After we die, we still have a hope that Our Lord Himself will come and take our bodies to be with Him in His Resurrection,
The Empty Tomb of Mary in Gethsemane
It is interesting that there are many relics of the saints found all over the World, but there are none of the Mary, Mother of God. Given her importance to Roman Catholic Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Oriental Orthodox Christians this is very surprising, unless of course her body was transposed into Heaven as the Tradition tells us it was.
The Orthodox Church believes that Mary was chosen by God to be the Mother of God-it was all part of God’s plan of Salvation. When we make plans to do something we look at all eventualities and try to anticipate what to do if something goes wrong. If we are like that, how much more unlikely is God to leave anything to chance? It seems to me that one of the things we learn from Matthew 1 v 1-17, Luke 3 v 23-28 is that God knew beforehand and had it all worked out-including Mary’s role in His Plan of Salvation.
Was Mary sinless?
Orthodox Christians do not share the Protestant objections to the sinlessness of the Mother of God, which are based on false premises. Protestant Christians, by and large, identify the Virgin Mary with the rest of humanity and fail to see the distinct qualities, and the Grace that abides in her, which make her the New Eve. They also find unacceptable the dogma of the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” which the Roman Catholic Church declared in 1950 and which not only suggests that the Mother of God’s death or dormition is not real, but also that she is Co-redeemer (co-redemptrix) and co-mediator (co-mediatrix) with the Lord. The Roman Catholic position gives priority to Mary rather than to Christ, inasmuch it suggests that He is immaculate because of her, instead of her being immaculate because of Him.
The Roman Catholics are, however, attempting to answer a difficult question: Can sinless flesh be born of sinful flesh? But West and East have differing views on Sin. In the Orthodox view Adam and Eve sinned due to immaturity-they were meant to grow into God, which is why He put them in the Garden of Eden, but instead they chose to disobey God, not understanding the consequences. In like manner we too are meant to grow into God-theosis-and we sin, not because we have to or because we have inherited something that makes us sin, but because we choose to. Mary chose not to sin, she was not immaculately born, but she chose to be holy. The lesson for us is that we too can choose to be holy-but in the case of Mary, by her being holy as God knew she would be, she was able to be the chosen vessel to bring the Saviour of the World to the World.
“The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it “for us men and for our salvation” is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the Mother of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.”
Fr Thomas Hopko
Joachim and Anna by their faithfulness in a difficult situation, and by being faithful in prayer had proved themselves worthy of the trust that God put in them by giving them Mary.
Readings of the Services of the Nativity of the Mother of God.
During Vespers, there are thee Readings-all from the Old Testament. The Old Testament period is the time of Preparation for the Coming of Messiah and so as we prepare ourselves for the Divine Liturgy on the Feast day, and we listen to Prophetic Words that foreshadow the Mother of God :
Gen 28:10-17 The account of Jacob’s Ladder, when Jacob saw the Angels of God ascending and descending (note the order of words). Mary is the Ladder between Heaven and Earth by which Christ came to the Earth.
Ezekiel 43:27-44:4 The account of the Living Temple filled with Divine Glory. Mary’s womb was filled with the One whose Glory filled All Heaven
Proverbs 9:1-11 The account of Wisdom building her house-Mary is of course the dwelling place of God. Wisdom in the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Proverbs, is generally understood as referring to God.
One reading from Mary herself
Luke 1:46-56 The Magnificat-Mary’s Great Hymn of Praise to God
The Readings for the Feast are the ones which are always read at Feasts of the Mother of God.
Phil 2: 5-11: Christ emptying Himself and taking on the likeness of a servant. These verses describe the emptying that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity had to do to become the Saviour of Mankind
Luke 11: 27-28 note a more ACCURATE translation:
||27As Jesus was saying these things, a woman called out from the crowd and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts which nursed you!” 28But Jesus said, “Yes, and more than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” (EOB)
The woman in the crowd glorifies the Mother of Jesus, and the Lord himself responds that the same blessedness which his mother receives is for all “who hear the word of God and keep it.”
The Supplicatory Prayer to the Most Holy Theotokos (part):
O undefiled, untainted, uncorrupted, most pure, chaste Virgin, Thou Bride of God and Sovereign Lady, who didst unite the Word of God to mankind through thy most glorious birth giving, and hast linked the apostate nature of our race with the heavenly; who art the only hope of the hopeless, and the helper of the struggling, the ever-ready protection of them that hasten unto thee, and the refuge of all Christians (from Small Compline)
Our Lord is the Christ, fully God and fully Man, these two aspects of Him are linked in a way which is beyond our comprehension-we are taught to “avoid difficult questions beyond human grasp” because “clever theologians soon become heretics”-the Bishop of Metilene in Armenia, 457ad. But it is something we take on by faith, that Mary played a vital part in bringing about our salvation, because it was through her that Our Lord received His Flesh. Ephesians 2 v 6 states that God raised us up with him, and granted us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (EOB). We, the Church are the Bridge between Heaven and Earth and we can only be that Bridge because Mary the Mother of God went there first.