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The Birth of Mary, Mother of God

Today we celebrate the birth of Mary. This feast has always been a big deal in the Eastern churches - in fact, it wasn't introduced to the west until the seventh century, when the Syrian Pope Sergius introduced it to Rome.

Our remembrance of Mary today is both odd and countercultural. Odd: a huge feast, a big deal out of her birth, but no record in the Bible anywhere. Source: Gospel of James, a non-canonical source tells much of the detail in Mary's life (second half of second century). The Protoevangelion’s absence from the canon does not mean that all of its material was polluted. The Greek fathers found much of this source to be trustworthy, especially stories about Mary. St. Romanos the Melodist composed the following strophe of a kontakion, which would be sung in the Church as part of the liturgy much as our kontakia are sung today:

"By your holy birth, O pure one, Joachim and Anna were freed from the curse of barrenness, and Adam and Eve from the corruption of death; your people also, who have been freed from the guilt of their sins, celebrate the feast of your birth by crying unto you: "The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, who nursed [Christ], our life."

St. Romanos establishes a pattern that only further develops in our Orthodox tradition. Take note of his claim: Adam and Eve are freed from the corruption of death and Mary's people are forgiven of their sins. We Orthodox praise Mary like this in our hymns all of the time, but do we think about the claim we are making, that Mary contributed to the salvation of humankind? It is no wonder that those who enter into the full communion of our Church often find our confession of Mary to be the greatest stumbling block, which is why I say that the way we praise Mary, the claims we make about her contribution are countercultural. A responsible Christian is supposed to attribute salvation to Christ, and not make too much of Mary.

I'm not sure how any one of us might respond to this, but it would be tempting to point to one of the miracles Mary has worked for Orthodox people throughout history. Mary's icon (Theotokos Nikopoia, the maker of victory) was carried into battle by the Byzantine Empire and remains revered to this day even though the Byzantines lost the icon to the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. The Pochaiv monastery claims that Mary appeared during a Turkish attack in the 17th century and she slayed the invaders to spare the monastery. The Russian Orthodox Church recently received Mary's Belt from the vatopedi monastery of mount Athos; in November 2011, over three million people waited in long lines to venerate the belt. Even the notorious punk band called upon Mary to overthrow Putin in 2012. Not only Orthodox venerate Mary: perhaps her most famous image is known to us as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Christians claim to have received Mary’s healing power through this image which you can display on T-shirts, boots, and tattoos. Christians throughout the world truly view her as a savior. Christians turn to Mary for one reason: when one is in trouble, they ask their Mom for help.

It would seem, then, that we should invoke Mary now to protect our fellow Syrians and Copts who are suffering from inhuman atrocities, that she would deliver peace and rain justice upon them. And indeed, we should approach her in petition and ask her to take our case before the throne of God almighty.

But we should not be disappointed, friends, if we do not receive the miracle that we seek. The reason for this is that the miracle of Mary's birth did not occur with high drama and shamanic healing and sayings. The miracle of her life is that she taught our Lord, Jesus Christ, how to carry a cross. She said yes to God as a bewildered teenager whose pregnancy shamed her in her community and caused doubt in her righteous husband, Joseph. She said yes to God when Jesus disobeyed his parents and amazed the teachers in the temple. She said yes to God when she stood at the foot of the cross and silently watched her Lord suffer humiliating death, despite being righteous. She was a model mother and Christian because she was willing to carry her cross. Think about it: in his humanity, Jesus learned how to empty himself for others in complete and utter humility. This is the miracle of Mary’s birth and her life, that her voluntary carrying of her cross, her consistency in following God, and her love of Jesus and his disciples allowed God to do his work in this world. Any wise sage of the New Testament era placed in charge of narrating Mary’s story would have written that Mary pleaded with the government and sought the assistance of powerful people to stop the injustice done to her son. This was not the case: she acted according to her appointed station and, to the best of our knowledge, loved all to the bitter end.

Even if God does not appear to intervene in Syria and Egypt, a miracle is still possible. A miracle is possible because Mary has shown each one of us how to follow God, just as she taught her son, Jesus. We too can become God's faithful followers, and by his power and grace, we can become chosen vessels through whom God will convert nations and hearts, and bring peace to those who exercise the preferential option of violence. All we have to do is listen to and imitate our mother, Mary. We can be assured that she weeps over the atrocities committed in Syria. Every day, when I drop my daughter off at preschool, I see children clinging to their moms. They want their moms to hold and hug them, to keep them safe. Mary will do everything she can to do this for her Syrian, Egyptian, American, Ukrainian, and indeed, her global children. But for us to join in her amazing “yes,” we must follow her example and obey God by loving our neighbors, even when they hate us. This is the chief reason that we have gathered today to remember the anniversary of Mary’s birth. We remember Mary’s entrance into the world in a spirit of thanksgiving, that God so loved this woman and her parents, that he granted her an opportunity to contribute to his plan of salvation for humankind. Let our remembrance of Mary be an active remembrance, one that leads us to take action in imitation of our mother. This action is to carry our cross and love our neighbor, for when we refuse to love others, all we do is exacerbate the vicious cycle of violence and division that so afflicts this world.

Today, when we sing the refrain, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us," may we remember the true miracle of Mary's life: her desire to say yes to God and to love all of her children. Because through her prayers and our willingness to follow her lead, God may yet transform and transfigure a world in desperate need of divine love (John 3:13-17) practiced by the people who claim to be God's children. May it be so, for Egypt, for Syria, and for us. Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Dn. Nicholas Denysenko, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theological Studies
Director, Huffington Ecumenical Institute
Loyola Marymount University
Author, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany

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