...are the ones that make the biggest difference

10.19.2005

The Untrodden Portal - II

In light of the Reformation, one of the central questions of Christianity is predestination - do we have any say in our salvation? Where does our own will factor in? In a similar vein, what will did Mary have? Did she have a choice in becoming the Theotokos? Yes: "The mystery [of Mary and the Incarnation] could not have existed as a divine plan without her free disposition and consent...Mary was 'full of grace,' the grace of the Holy Spirit, a condition that began even from her mother's womb. But this is not to say that she was born without free will, or that an enormous tide of grace overwhelmed her and made her powerless to resist this unique calling by God." In this, Mary typifies Orthodoxy's rejection of Calvinistic predestination. Gabriel quotes Theodoret of Cyrus' Commentary on Romans: "Let no one say that God's foreknowledge is the cause of men's acceptance of the calling to salvation. His foreknowing them does not cause them to become what they sall be. From afar [outside of time], He has seen beforehand the things that are to be."

Thus Mary's freely-chosen Incarnational "yes" becomes the prototype of our own freely-chosen salvific yes. As Mary responded to God in accepting his desire for her, so we too can respond to God in accepting his desire for us. Those desires, while driven by the same love, obviously mean different things in each of our lives - God has something different in store for each of us and though our role will never match that of the Virgin's, we can rest assured that we all have our part. In his discussion on this, I think Gabriel is starting to point to the prototypical role that Mary plays in Orthodox Christian thought. Much of the Church's thinking about humanity is reflected in its consideration of Mary - her responses, her qualities, her characteristics, her faith - all show us what our ideal responses, qualities, etc, should be. She is the ideal human, though not because of her own merit or her own work. She is the ideal because she has completely submitted to God as Adam & Eve should have, as all of humanity was designed to do, and through that submission she was transformed by God. God's activity in her is the only reason for her veneration.

Some of that last paragraph is not any argument presented by Gabriel, at least not in what I've read so far, but is the amalgamation of my other reading and consideration of Mary in light of the Liturgy & Orthopraxis. If I have come to any incorrect conclusions, I would ask that any Orthodox reading this offer their correction as I want to be as clear in my thinking as I can be. Which, as an aside, is why Gabriel's book is somewhat disappointing - overall the writing is not very clear. The sentences are lengthy and frequently contain too many clauses. Its almost as if the work is a translation.

From this point, Gabriel begins to present things that, to put it lightly, I find highly troubling, so I'm hoping for some help or clarification from my readers. Gabriel says:

"From her earliest years, she gave herself to God as no other man or woman was able to do. And she was chosen as no other was chosen by God's omniscience. She left her parent's house at the age of three to dwell in the temple's holy of holies in order to be nurtured by the angels and made into the living temple of God."

The only source Gabriel provides for this rather astonishing claim are 2 hymns; one from the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos and another from Great Vespers. I realize the High Priest only entered the Holy of Holies once a year, but I would have to think he would have spotted a young girl camped out in there when he did. I realize that this may not be a doctrine, perhaps just a pious belief, but I still find it very unsettling, particularly the lack of attributable source. I can work with the lack of discussion about Mary in the early church for the reasons presented in my previous post, but this seems to be going far beyond that.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Quite honestly, I don’t know what to make of some of the historical details that the Church preserves about the early life of the Theotokos, such as mentioned in that passage you quoted. I know that there are a couple early Christian documents, non-canonical, mind you, that attest to some of the traditions that the Church preserves in this regard (the ‘Protoevangelion of James’ is one) and there’s no denying that these elements exist in the tradition. However, I doubt that the absolute historicity of these details (e.g. Mary living from the age of 3 in the Holy of Holies) requires fighting over. Just as the truth of a Biblical passage does not *always* lie in its claim to absolute historicity -regardless of any historical content it may or may not have- I wonder if the truth of what tradition preserves here is something other than the bare historic, but perhaps the truth content has been clothed in historic dress by way of illustration: the new Holy of Holies and place of the Presence of the God of Israel (Mary, her womb as the place of the Incarnation) takes the place of the old (in the Temple’s Holy of Holies). I make no claim either way in this regard, mind you. I just wonder. The truth is that within the Orthodox Church you will find a variety of opinions and convictions, all held with various shades of caution or certainty, on questions like Mary’s early life, the details of her Dormition, and even the question of her sinlessness (whether it was life-long, achieved at a certain point in time, etc). Regarding the latter, it’s no secret that Sts John Chrysostom and Basil assumed that she had committed sins of her own in her lifetime, and yet their orthodoxy is hardly impeachable.

For my part, I acknowledge the tradition on these points and respect it as it is. I hope it doesn’t make me sound wishy-washy or get me into trouble, but I just don’t concern myself with whether or not the Church insists on a purely historic understanding of these details; I concern myself rather with what Tradition says about who Mary is in relation to her Son and how her life and assent to God, and intercessions for the Church, are all wrapped up in the story of our salvation in Christ.

Here’s an approach I found interesting – I was listening to a recording of a talk given by Fr Thomas Hopko recently. The bulk of his discussion centered on the Orthodox understanding of sin, what Adam’s sin (primordial sin) means to us, the idea of generational sin, and the Orthodox understanding of personal sin. It’s a great talk, really, but at one point he made an interesting statement about Mary that kind of clicked for me. He was talking about generational sin, how we can pass an inheritance to our children that can make it harder or easier for them to live in union with God, through our devotion to God or lack thereof, through our actions, our sins, our virtues, how we love others, and especially our children, or how we fail to love them. Anyway, Fr Hopko drew an image of Israel as a school of virtue and the remembrance of God necessary and preparatory to the coming of the Messiah, a path that found its culmination in the person of Mary. Though she bore the consequences of primordial sin, brokenness, bring prone to death and decay, etc, she carried –as the finest fruit of Israel- a lighter weight of generational sin, which allowed her the inspiration and strength to resist –out of love of the God of Israel- the personal sin that might defile her body as the temple and fount of His Incarnation. I hadn’t quite considered this perspective before and found it interesting.

This idea, along with a bit of what you wrote about Mary being emblematic of humanity at its best and of what it is called to be and made able to be in Christ, reminds me also of a passage in one of the hymns or readings near Christmas in which we ask the question to God: What can we offer You? What are we, your creatures, capable of offering You to whom all things belong? The answer is given: All the fruit of humanity and the most that ages upon ages of struggle with sin and the devil in light of the Law could offer was summed up in Mary, and was, in fact, accepted by God: “All we can offer You is a Virgin Mother.”

Anyway, just some thoughts, pardon my rambling, but I love the topic.

-Doug

William said...

Thanks so much for making this series, I really wanted to read that book but until I get the money this is as good as it gets.