ON THE INCARNATION: SHE IS THE LADDER BY WHICH GOD DESCENDED TO EARTH by Kevin Elphick

This is the second article in our On the Incarnation series for the Nativity Fast.

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As we prepare for the great Feast of the Nativity, our focus narrows increasingly to our faith’s foundational mystery, the Incarnation—God become man. Like St. Athanasius, St. Maximus the Confessor explains the impetus for the Incarnation in this manner: “God became human and humanity became God unchangingly.” The reason for the whole of creation is revealed: “God became a human being and heaven and earth were joined.” This revelation is what we celebrate in the Feast of the Nativity.

For St. Maximus, the Virgin Mary is the catalyst through which this great mystery is effected. He explains that “she had been chosen by the Father and prepared by the Holy Spirit to contain in her womb the only-begotten Son…and to become the cause of the Incarnation and his dwelling among human beings.” Maximus writes all these reflections in his book, The Life of the Virgin.* He pens a high Mariology commensurate with her exalted role in conceiving the Logos in her womb. For Maximus, “She is the ladder that reaches to heaven, by which God descended to earth. […] She is the one who received the uncontainable God. […] She is the cause of divine mercy toward humanity. […] She is the tent of the Word of God.” The holy Theotokos is clearly pivotal in creation, salvation history, and the renewed creation.

But Maximus’ portrayal of Mary’s life expands her actions far beyond what the New Testament records. He writes: “You are above all the imitator of your Son.” And as the perfect imitator of her Son, “She held authority: as the Lord did over the twelve disciples…so did the holy mother over the other women who accompanied him. …[S]he encouraged them and was his surrogate in their labor and ministry.”

After his Ascension, Mary is described in an active and central role. Emboldened by Pentecost, she became “a teacher of endurance and ministry to the blessed apostles…she was also a co-minister with the disciples of the Lord. She helped with the preaching….” Not as meek and mild women, Maximus offers a contrasting view of the earliest female disciples in which, together with John the Beloved, the Theotokos “went forth to go and preach, and Mary of Magdala and the other myrrh-bearing women went with them.” Clearly not keeping silent in the church, “she would lead the believing people and direct the church in Jerusalem with James…who was appointed as bishop there.” Maximus offers a fascinating vision of early church leadership and co-ministry. “She was a leader and a teacher to the holy apostles…they accomplished everything according to her direction. […] And again they went forth to the work of their preaching, armed with her prayers and teaching.”

How does Maximus explain this ministerial parity? He points back to the Incarnation itself. Maximus had laid the groundwork earlier in his narrative. At the Annunciation, God “united the two natures in one hypostasis and was united with human nature by grace. He built the temple of his flesh himself as he saw fit. Nevertheless, these same words [of the archangel Gabriel], ‘the Lord is with you,’ were also the destruction and annihilation of the primordial curse that had been placed on women: for man had been appointed the lord of woman… But when the archangel said to the holy Virgin, ‘The Lord is with you,’ all debts of affliction were erased. ‘The Lord is with you,’ and there is no longer lordship of man over you….”

By virtue of the Incarnation—Emmanuel: God is with us/The Lord is with you—God has joined with and deified human nature, both male and female humanity. Maximus goes on to explain that the archangel’s salutation to Mary: “Blessed are you among women” means that all “women were made worthy of blessing by you, as is man by your Son, and even more, the natures of both men and women are blessed by both, by you and your Son.” The Incarnation elevates and glorifies all humankind, “because the divine will was for the salvation and Deification of all.”

For many people, this high Mariology demonstrated by Maximus might be incompatible with their own belief system. However, it is possible to read Maximus’ Life of the Virgin without hearing it with our own biases for biography and literal, historical truths—looking for the “Mary of history.” Maximus himself offers this interpretive key. Including Mary Magdalene in the narrative, he gives the facts of her life and then adds: “But she [Mary Magdalene] was also a symbol of human nature,” going on to interpret the larger meaning of the seven demons cast out from her.

The Virgin Mary also is a symbol of human nature in Maximus’ writing—she stands in for us and human nature in the narrative. The ever-expansive grace of the Incarnation is modeled and prefigured for us in the life of the Virgin.  What she has become, so also we shall be. Writing of her holy Dormition, Maximus explains that “thus our nature was raised up to heaven in the eternal kingdom not only by her Son, but also by the immaculate mother.” Offering an eschatological model of gender symmetry, Mary prefigures full humanity, male and female, entering into the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. “Now our nature had been raised to Heaven by the ascension and translation of the holy Virgin, as before by the Ascension of her Son.” A necessary complementarity is realized in her likeness to the death and resurrection of her Son. “She was buried as one of the dead according to the order of nature, and she was translated as the Mother of God, in order to confirm and make credible the Resurrection of the Lord born from her and the assumption of the nature that he had put on from her, and to confirm our ascension and incorruptibility that will truly come later.”

Thus as we move forward to the great Nativity feast, let us journey together with the Virgin Mary, marveling at the all-holy Incarnation gestating within.

She is the beginning of our renewal. She is the cause of divine mercy toward humanity.

*All quotes from Stephen J. Shoemaker’s 2012 translation, Yale University Press. 
See our call for articles if you would like to write for our On the Incarnation series.

Kevin C.A. Elphick holds a DMin from Graduate Theological Foundation with a concentration in ecumenism. Earlier he obtained an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University and an MA in Religious Studies from Loyola University in conjunction with a joint studies program at Spertus College of Judaica. He is a Companion of New Skete, and works as a supervisor with a suicide prevention hotline serving veterans and active duty members.

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