The Mystery of the Most Holy Mother of God

14 August 2023

‘Set a rampart about my mind, O my Saviour, for I make bold to sing the praises of Thy most pure Mother, the rampart of the world.’[1]

Once again we have a feast, and every feast is a great opportunity to express our gratitude to God, rendering Him thanksgiving for ‘the benefits with which He daily loadeth us’.[2]

As we approach the greatest feast of the Mother of God, her Dormition, we thank the Lord for the great signs and wonders He has wrought in the person of His Most Pure Mother and for His ineffable dispensation for the salvation of mankind which He has fulfilled through her. The mystery of the holy Virgin, interwoven with the Incarnation of God the Word, constitutes the ‘great mystery of godliness’,[3] and is encompassed in the name Theotokos – ‘she who gave birth to God’.[4]

In Holy Scripture and in the early years of Christianity this mystery remained ‘kept secret’[5] and the most holy Mother remained in obscurity. Amidst ‘shadows and dark sayings’, the Old Testament contains prophecies about her, whose ‘seed’ was to ‘crush the head’ of the wicked serpent,[6] and about the virgin birth of the Messiah.[7]

The Gospels inform us about the Annunciation of the Mother of God and the Nativity of Christ, but further references to her, especially after the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, are quite sparse. The Evangelists do not present her beside the Lord when He was performing miracles, when the multitude was acclaiming Him, or in the splendour of His glory at Tabor, but when the crowd could not stand His hard words and wanted to stone Him, and especially during His extreme humiliation when he was reviled on the Cross.

After the Resurrection, although she was the first to whom the Lord appeared, as Saint Gregory Palamas proves,[8] the Evangelists refer to her in a veiled way as the ‘other Mary’.[9] However, after the first two Ecumenical Councils, in which the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ was unshakeably formulated and instituted, the honour of the most holy Mother was also established irrevocably. The faithful loved her with infinite gratitude ‘for she gave birth to the source of all joy (and of salvation)’[10] and the face of the earth was covered with chapels and icons dedicated to her.

Never was there born and never will anyone be born like her – the most blessed Lady who became the Mother of God, of our Lord Jesus Christ. God created man in His image and likeness. He adorned him with exceptional gifts and breathed into his nostrils ‘the breath of life; and man became a living soul’.[11] Man could reflect the perfection of God to the created world as he combined the material and the spiritual world in his person.

The enemy envied the indescribable grandeur that God bestowed upon man and instigated the disobedience and fall of foolish Adam. But divine love is unchanging and the bowels of divine mercies are searchless. God ‘left naught undone’ to free man from the bonds of sin and death and restore him ‘to the likeness’, to ‘form anew the ancient beauty’ in him and grant him the ‘fatherland for which he longs’, Paradise.

Adam and Eve bore two sons, Cain and Abel. In Abel, the grace that remained in his parents prevailed and he followed the way of righteousness and the fear of God. In Cain, the element of the apostasy of his parents prevailed. He became ferocious and killed his brother Abel. From these two came forth two currents that flowed through the history of mankind: First, the stream of the righteous, in whose memory hazily shone the light of the primordial grace of Paradise, so they strove to lead a life well-pleasing to God; and secondly, the stream of the giants, that is, those in whom the passions assumed gigantic proportions and who were alienated from the covenants of God.

Through the stream of the righteous, God was prophetically preparing His way. At times He gave them revelations and fiery words, which they made known to their generation so that godliness might be preserved on earth. God had His eyes fixed on them, to see, ‘if there were any that did understand, and seek Him’,[12] ‘if there is anyone that doeth good’ in a perfect and inimitable way. And this person was found in the most holy virgin Mary.

The virgin Mary was the fruit of the prayer of the holy and righteous Joachim and Anna. Her conception was not without seed, but without passion by the immaculate seed of Joachim.[13] She was full of grace from the moment of her birth because in her person she distilled the holiness of all previous generations. She was dedicated to the temple from a tender age, where she lived in hesychia, prayer and study of the Scriptures.

The godly child Mariam was distinguished by an unusual love for God, and she longed for communion with Him through prayer. Of course, Her inclination towards prayer was considered strange by the standards of the fallen world, although it is essentially an expression of the natural state of man created in the image and likeness of God.

Through prayer and study of the word of God the energy of grace was accumulating in her heart. Grace was enlarging her heart so that God and man could be encompassed in her. The moment came when the traces of grace reached a certain fulness and generated the consciousness within her of her ontological connection with all mankind from the beginning to the end. This grace also accomplished the ineffable event of the union of created man with the uncreated God in one, the union of her heart with the Spirit of God. Henceforth, though young in age, she was afflicted on the one hand due to the wretchedness and ignorance of men and on the other hand, from thirst for the living God of Her Fathers. In a natural way, she began to intercede and beseech God on behalf of every man born on earth.

While she was studying Holy Scripture, ‘a fire burned in her heart’[14] when she encountered the prophecy, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.’[15] With unquenchable desire for God, Who would come to earth to save His people ‘from their lawlessness’,[16] she began to pray that she might be worthy to be the handmaid of the Mother of Emmanuel. In the fervour of this prayer the Archangel appeared to her and proclaimed that she would not become the servant of the Mother of the Messiah, but that she herself would lend her flesh to He Who was born without a mother from the Father and without a father from His Mother. The Most Holy Virgin conceived the Son of God supernaturally by the Holy Spirit and her giving birth to Him was beyond nature.

Of course, for a person to receive any spiritual gift, there must be some correspondence between the gift and the content of their heart. And in the case of the Most Holy Mother of God, this correspondence is found in Her humility, which was prophetically the image of the indescribable humility of her Son and her God.

Giddiness perplexes the mind at the ‘incomprehensible miracle’ that has taken place and with awe we confess: ‘In thee, O Virgin without spot, the bounds of nature are overcome: for childbirth remains virgin and death is betrothed to life’.[17]

‘Childbirth remains virgin’ because the most holy Mother was a Virgin and remained a Virgin at the birth and after the birth of the Lord Jesus. Scripture testifies to her virginity before the conception of the Lord. The wise Joseph received her pure from the Holy of Holies and was troubled when he saw that she was with child. The Israelites were accustomed to miraculous interventions of God, but a virgin birth was unprecedented in sacred history. The young Maiden was silent and did not defend herself, even though she faced the danger of death by stoning because of her strange child-bearing without a man. But God spoke to Joseph’s heart, informing him of the miraculous event. Therefore, the Mother of God was a Virgin before the birth.

We know that the Mother of God remained a Virgin when she gave birth through the experience of grace. During the earthly sojourn of the Lord, ‘the whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all.’[18] Even a touch of grace heals and restores integrity to the mind, soul and even the body. How could the Son of God pass through the womb of the pure Virgin and leave any wound? Thus, the Mother of God remained a Virgin during the birth.

We also know that the Mother of God continued in her virginity after the birth of Emmanuel from the age-old spiritual experience of a cloud of faithful believers, especially monks, who receive the small grace of their calling, and feel such a fulness in their hearts that they do not take any account of the passion of the flesh for the rest of their lives. The love of God is ‘a consuming fire’[19] that burns ‘every corrupt thought’;[20] makes the soul of man languish and faint ‘for the courts of the Lord’ and his heart, and even his flesh, rejoice ‘in the living God’.[21] Consequently, the Mother of God remained a virgin after the birth.

However, although many preserve physical virginity, they are not automatically saved, as we are taught from the parable of the foolish virgins.[22] The only thing that gives meaning and value to physical virginity is spiritual virginity, that is, purity of heart and mind, abiding in the Divine Presence, staying or rather submerging the mind in the depths of the Spirit of God.

‘The king’s daughter is all glorious within: Her clothing is of wrought gold.’[23] The ‘hidden man of the heart’ of the Holy Mother of God was very beautiful, ‘not corruptible, a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price’.[24] Her beauty is radiant with the virtue of humility and adorned by her spiritual virginity.

Her heart was wholly and undividedly given to God; her mind never departed from the memory of His Name; her love for Him was never shared with any other love of this world; her will never wavered from His counsels.

The Most Holy Mother of God remained invulnerable to sin throughout her life, because her heart was burning with ‘an abundance of life’, with the fire of the fulness of grace.

Of course, as a human being she may have made sinless mistakes. Even these, however, were according to the dispensation of God, so that later generations might come to know new mysteries. For example, when the Holy Virgin and Joseph took the road returning from Jerusalem, they thought that the twelve-year-old Jesus was with the other pilgrims travelling with them and did not notice His absence until they had walked a day’s journey. In great anguish, they sought the child Jesus, and on the third day, they found Him in the temple conversing with the teachers of Israel and interpreting the Scriptures.

However, God allowed the most holy Lady to make this blameless ‘mistake’ in order to teach us that we will not find Christ amidst our friends and kinsfolk; when we lose the ardently longed for sensation of the Presence of Christ, it is impossible to find it anywhere except in His House, in the Church, where His Spirit overshadows the faithful.

The Virgin Mary had infinite love for God and unparalleled humility. Moreover, she was fully surrendered to the divine will, even if it entailed a crucified life, constant self-emptying, inner martyrdom. She served the Lord Jesus, her Son and her God, throughout her life, selflessly and without being seen. If in order to keep a little grace, we have to strive with great self-denial, how much more so did the Blessed Mother of God in her ministry need to be perfectly dead to the world and to her own self, to bear the fulness of grace, to carry God incarnate in the innermost parts of her being, to serve His will for the salvation of the whole world.

Bearing this in mind, the shadow begins to be lifted from the paradoxical verse: ‘Death is betrothed to life.’ The Most Holy Mother of God ‘died daily’.[25] She went through the life-giving death of her every desire to make the will of God the sole law of her existence. She cleaved with her heart and with her ears listening to the Lord. She cherished His ‘words of eternal life’[26] in her heart. She forsook all kinship in this life and renounced all human consolation. Even beside the Cross of Her Son, when Her maternal bowels were rent apart, the Most Holy Mother of God, as a perfect ‘likeness of Christ’, did not cease to intercede for the salvation of all, even those who killed Christ in their folly. The death that she went through was transformed into the precursor of indestructible life.

In one phrase, ‘Death is betrothed to life’, the hymnographer expresses a great mystery. The abundance of life presupposes a taste of death, ‘the fulness of self-emptying precedes the fulness of perfection’,[27] the Resurrection presupposes the Cross. Voluntary death for the sake of the commandments brings forth the earnest of eternal life and the inheritance of the incorruptible glory of God.

The Virgin Mary never sinned, not even in a single thought. Therefore, since death is the ‘wages of sin’, it had no dominion over her.[28] However, by divine dispensation the Holy Virgin was allowed to die so as to reveal the fact that she partook fully in human nature, but also that she would become a perfect imitation of Her Son, walking His path to the end. The Mother of God passed away, remained in the tomb for three days, and on the third day she rose from the dead. Her ‘soul full of light’ was delivered ‘into the immaculate hands of Him Who was made incarnate of her without seed’.[29] Her unjust death, in the image of the unjust death of the spotless and blameless Christ, became a supra-cosmic victory on the level of eternity and the condemnation of the death of mankind.

Death can be the greatest, even the most beautiful event of life, when man is well prepared and fulfils certain conditions. Whoever has already cultivated from this life a strong and indissoluble bond of love with Christ, the Saviour ‘of all men, specially of those that believe’,[30] ascends to the other life on the wings of divine love and there, in the day of the Kingdom that knows no eventide, he becomes a partaker of the beloved Lord ‘more distinctly and fully’.

We usually celebrate our birthday as the day of our coming into the world and avoid reflecting on the day of our departure. In essence, however, the death of those who belong to the Lord, marks their birth into His eternity. Then ‘there is joy in heaven’, ‘for a man is born into the world [of the eternal Kingdom]’ of God.[31]

The Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God is her Passover, her passage from temporary life to eternal life, Her transition from ‘things very sorrowful to things most pleasant, to gladness of heart, to rest and joy.’[32]

‘Even the rich among the people entreat the favour of the Queen of Heaven.’[33] The feast of the Mother of God is celebrated in a godly manner by the ‘poor in spirit’, the humble yet rich in spiritual gifts. Whoever is of the same kind as the Mother of God, ‘kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another’,[34] ‘meek and humble in heart’,[35] virgins in mind and spirit, surrendered to divine Providence even when it allows afflictions and trials in their lives, will honour and bless Her as is meet.

Among those born upon earth, righteous Elizabeth was the first to exclaim words of gratitude to the Holy Virgin, when she received her salutation. Elizabeth exclaimed: ‘Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’[36] Her prophetic word became the source of another prophetic word, this time from the Holy Virgin herself, who in her own thanksgiving hymn magnified the Lord, confessed her nothingness and prophesied: ‘Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.’[37]

But how can we honour and express our gratitude to Our most holy Lady, we the last of Christians, the poor, the dregs of all time? How can we fulfil Her prophecy? How can we give any value to the hymns and prayers that we send forth to her either when we are alone or in our common services in the Church?

The only way to honour the Mother of God is by following her path unshakeably, humbling ourselves and offering continual thanksgiving for all things, ‘more especially’ for the ‘great things He that is mighty hath done in her’.[38] Though poor, our thanksgiving will be our ticket for our entrance into the wondrous choir of ‘the rich among the people’, the army of virgin souls from all ages who shine with inner purity and who ‘are brought with gladness to follow behind her’.[39]

If God had not borne witness by His grace to the power of her intercession across all the ages, the honour and splendour that belong to her would have faded away. Yet the orders of the angels, all generations of men, the Church and the people of God confess the Most Holy Virgin as the Mother of God, magnifying, blessing and praising her as is manifest in the words that the faithful address to her every day:

‘Mother of God and Virgin, rejoice!

Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee;

blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,

 for thou hast born the Saviour of our souls.’

When we say ‘Mother of God and Virgin’ we confess firstly that she gave flesh to One Person of the Holy Trinity and secondly, her eternal virginity.

‘Rejoice! Mary, full of grace’ is the greeting of the Archangel to her who was ‘worthy of grace’.

‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’ are the words of the woman who amidst the multitude cried out with joy, marvelling at the ‘gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth’,[40] saying: ‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which Thou hast sucked.’[41]

The final words of the prayer that say: ‘For thou hast born the Saviour of our souls’, are the words of Church expressing the gratitude of the people of God. In the beginning of creation, the Lord said, ‘Let there be’ and all things came into being. In the beginning of re-creation, the Holy Virgin said, ‘Be it unto me according to Thy word,’ and the whole of creation was renewed.

And now with the same surrendering to the holy and perfect will of God, let us say, following the example of the Mother of Heaven: ‘Let Thy will, O Lord, be done unto us,’ so that we may be worthy of a new birth ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’,[42] ‘from above’[43] and of a ‘rich entrance’ into the heavenly Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There, the Mother of God resides as Queen at the right hand of the throne of the glory of God. From there, her tender mercies are poured forth as refreshing dew on our ‘painfully burning’ soul,[44] and as an invincible rampart she protects and shelters all those who follow her and tread steadfastly in the self-emptying path of her beloved Son. Amen.

[1] Matins of the Dormition of the Mother of God, Oikos.
[2] Cf. The Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy.
[3] Cf. 1 Tim. 3:16.
[4] Cf. Saint John of Damascus, ‘The Orthodox Faith’ in Writings, The Fathers of the Church vol. 37, trans. Frederic Chase, Book Three, 12 (56), p. 292.
[5] Rom. 16:25.
[6] Cf. Gen. 3:15.
[7] Isa. 7:14.
[8] Saint Gregory Palamas, ‘On the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers’ in The Homilies, (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), Homily 18, p. 147.
[9] Matt. 28:1.
[10] Small Parakleisis, Canon, Ode 5.
[11] Cf. Gen. 2:7.
[12] Cf. Ps. 14:2; 53:3.
[13] Saint John of Damascus, ‘An Oration on the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos Mary’ in Wider Than Heaven, Eighth-Century Homilies on the Mother of God, trans. and ed. Mary Cunningham, (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008), p. 54.
[14] Cf. Ps. 39:4.
[15] Isa. 7:14.
[16] Vespers of Sunday, sticheron from ‘Lord, I Cry unto Thee’, Tone 1.
[17] Matins of the Dormition of the Mother of God, Canon, Ode 9.
[18] Luke 6:19.
[19] Heb. 12:29.
[20] Matins of Sunday, Antiphon 3, Tone 5.
[21] Cf. Ps. 84:2.
[22] Matt. 25:1-12.
[23] Ps. 45:13.
[24] Cf. 1 Pet. 3:4.
[25] 1 Cor. 15:31.
[26] John 6:68.
[27] Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), We Shall See Him as He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 2004), p. 53.
[28] Rom. 6:23.
[29] Vespers of the Dormition of the Mother of God, Lity, Tone 5.
[30] 1 Tim. 4:10.
[31] Cf. John 16:21.
[32] Vespers of the Day of the Holy Spirit, 6th kneeling prayer.
[33] See Ps. 45:12.
[34] Rom. 12:10.
[35] Matt. 11:29.
[36] Luke 1:43.
[37] Luke 1:48.
[38] Luke 1:49.
[39] See Ps. 45:15-16.
[40] Luke 4:22.
[41] Luke 11:27.
[42] John 1:13.
[43] John 3:3.
[44] Great Paraklesis, Canon, Ode 4.