THE EVER-VIRGINITY OF THE THEOTOKOS by Giacomo Sanfilippo

 

With this brief reflection the editors wish our readers a blessed and joyful feast of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.

burnbush

Η Φλεγόμενη Βάτος – The Burning Bush

Liturgically in the Orthodox Church we address the Theotokos—Θεοτόκος, Богородица, Născătoare de Dumnezeu, “Birth-Giver of God” (Dei Genitrix in Latin)—not only as the Virgin Mary, but as the Ever-Virgin Mary: ἀειπάρθενος, приснодева, pururea fecioara.  

The ever-virginity of the Mother of God, iterated and reiterated times without number in the lex orandi of the Orthodox Church, thus comprises an indispensable element of our lex credendi. This is to say not only that the Theotokos remains ever-virgin before, during, and after giving birth to the God-man Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit without male intervention—the meaning of the three stars on her forehead and shoulders in her icons—but that it must be so. It cannot be otherwise. Her ever-virginity constitutes not only a dogmatic imperative, but first and foremost a scriptural imperative.

Scripturally, Mary and the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed could not possibly have gotten down to the business of sexual intercourse and having children after the pre-eternal God of the universe, Who called all things visible and invisible from non-existence into being, Who dwells in unapproachable light, Who walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob Who spoke as the nameless and unnameable One-Who-Is (ὁ ὤν in His halo) from the burning bush, Who sits enthroned upon the cherubim, before Whom the seraphim cover their faces in holy fear as they fly back and forth crying aloud Holy! Holy! Holy! had come forth from her virginal womb as a newborn human child—her own Creator, cradled in her arms and suckling at her breasts—making her and her body “more honourable than the cherubim” and “more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.”

He Whom the heavens cannot contain comes to be fully contained in a virgin’s womb: He made your body into a throne, and your womb He made more spacious than the heavens. All of creation rejoices in you, O Lady Full of Grace! Glory to you! 

flight-into-egypt-01

St. James as an adolescent, the Mother of God, St. Joseph as an older man, Jesus as a toddler.

Over against the objections of our Protestant friends it is easy to show that “brothers and sisters” very often does not mean the other sons and daughters of one’s mother, neither in the Bible nor in traditional Semitic cultures even to this day; that “until” does not have the same sense in Semitic languages and Greek that it has in English; that the doctrine of Christ as not only the only-begotten of His Father in heaven, but also as the only-begotten of His Mother on earth, was never questioned until the Reformation. Icons of the flight into Egypt depict St. James “the Brother of God” as much older than Jesus, perhaps the same age as his 16-year old stepmother.

When Moses approaches the burning bush, the Lord commands him to remove his sandals, “for the place where you stand is holy ground.” When the people of Israel gather about the base of Mount Sinai to await the Lord’s theophany to Moses, any man or beast who so much as touches the mountain is to be put to death. Later, in the days of David, the Lord strikes Uzzah dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant to prevent it from toppling to the ground when the oxen stumble. 

At Vespers on the eve of the Nativity of the Theotokos we hear from Ezekiel (44:1-4):

Then [the Lord] brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. And He said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the Prince may sit in it to eat bread before the Lord; He shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way”…and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord, and I fell upon my face. 

For this reason the vesperal hymnography for the feast praises the Mother of God in these words, for in coming to dwell in her womb in all the fulness of divinity He makes her body into a temple and takes His human flesh from her flesh: The gate that faces the East is born and awaits the entry of the High Priest…. She is the only gateway of the Only-Begotten Son of God, who passed through this gate, yet kept it closed….

Repeatedly throughout Scripture, a thing once set aside for God’s use, and especially one that has borne the Divine Presence, not only cannot be used for any other purpose, it cannot be so much as touched.  

The undivided Church of the first millennium—both East and West—understood that the full divinity of the Son of Mary has enormous reverberations unto all eternity for her uniquely unrepeatable identity as Woman, Mother, New Eve, Collaborator with God in bringing to birth a new heaven and a new earth. 

The New Testament bears witness to this. The Archangel Gabriel calls both her and her divine-human Son blessed. “Who am I,” her much older cousin Elizabeth marvels in humility, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed,” the young Mary foretells of the Church.

Her voluntary Fiat mihi—her “Be it done to me according to your word”—saves and deifies the world. In the depths of her virginal-maternal body and soul the curtain separating heaven and earth, God and man, the Uncreated and the created, begins to be torn in two.

For this reason it seems so natural to us Orthodox to exclaim in prayer and in song: Most-Holy Theotokos, save us! Υπεραγία Θεοτόκε, σώσον ημάς!  Пресвятая Богородице, спаси нас! Preasfântă Născătoare de Dumnezeu, mântuieşte-ne pe noi!

Your nativity, O Virgin,
has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of righteousness, Christ our God,
has shone from you, O Theotokos.
By annulling the curse,
He has bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal life.

____________

By your nativity, O most-pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
“The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life.”

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

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