Is the Theotokos “more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim”?

A friend, exploring the Faith, particularly in relation to the Theotokos, presented some concerns about her role and work as viewed, expressed, and experienced by the Church. Here is a summary of his concerns:

  1. There is one Mary in Scripture who was a humble woman that was chosen by God to bear Jesus and she accepted God’s will to be the mother of His Son. Then I see a second Mary in the modern church, and there are Bible verses that I see as contradictory to the statement that Mary is more glorious than the Seraphim and more honorable than the Cherubim (e.g. Ps. 8). Humans are “lower than the angels.”
  1. Prophets and Church councils say things, and those are valid if they can agree with the data of Scripture.
  1. There are also practical questions like, how can Mary (or the Saints) hear two people during Paraklesis that are simultaneously praying to her if the two persons are on two opposite sides of the Earth? How can they hear millions of people all over the world at once? God is omniscient and omnipresent, but are Mary and the Saints also omniscient and omnipresent? Maybe there is a way they can hear, but I am not aware of that “valid data”.

Here’s some preliminary responses:

JoyofAllWhoSorrowFirst, I think some good reading in Church history would be helpful. So I will give you a list at the end towards that purpose. The reason is that, in this particular topic, you say that there is a disconnect between the Theotokos in Scripture (and presumably the first few centuries) and the Theotokos of the “modern” church. Nothing can be further from the truth.

The earliest Church Fathers – beginning most clearly with Irenaeus – had a very rich theology of Mary as the Second Eve.

In redemption, the Father sends the second Adam in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about union again. The divine Logos comes and takes residence in a womb that becomes “more spacious than the heavens.” The Father sends the Son in the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the new Temple and the new Ark of the covenant in the Theotokos. The Ark now contains the true Manna – the very Flesh and Blood of God, the Bread from Heaven – the true eternal Word, and the true Aaron’s staff that budded.

As the first Eve had received the words of death from the angel of death, turning from the Spirit in disobedience, so now the second Eve receives the words of life from the angel of life (Gabriel) and becomes the dwelling place of the very Word of God, as she submits herself in love and wonder by her fiat to the Holy Spirit who comes upon her.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in the center of the garden (paradiso) became the tree of death, its fruit the fruit of disobedience, disunion and death; and in redemption, the cross, the tree of death in the garden of death (Golgotha) becomes the tree of life, as death is trampled upon and destroyed, because the Fruit of the tree is the Son who offers himself to the Father and to creatures. Paradise is regained.

The Resurrection consummates the deification, the Ascension consummates the objective union in heaven, and at the same time starts the impartation of this work, in the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost. Eve was the mother of all living who became the mother of all who are dead while living. The Second Eve, who bore the Second Adam (1 Cor 15:45, Rom. 5:14) becomes the mother of all truly living because she is the mother of the Living One, the One Who Is.

As the platyteras of Orthodox temples depict, usually behind the altar, Christ is born in the center of the Theotokos, the God Bearer – which then becomes true for all who are united to him in faith; Christ is “formed in us” objectively through baptism, subjectively through faith, and this is rooted in his objective birth in creation and restoration of union effected in the Holy Spirit. We become God bearers in the Holy Spirit, icons being restored to the image of the Son.

Platytera at St Paul's Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine

Platytera at St Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, CA

The Theotokos is not the main subject of the Gospels. The Incarnation, life, work, death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God is. Therefore, it is expected that one would read of the “maidservant of the Lord” and not about the one who is more glorious than the highest order of angels. Just like it is expected that we don’t read fundamental Christian belief in theologically developed forms (such as the Trinity properly defined, or the hypostatic union) in the Gospels or the epistles.

We begin to learn about definitions of fundamental Christian belief and theology when the Church (1) had the ability to discuss such things, after the cessation of persecution in the 4th century (no earlier) and (2) was challenged to do so because of significant heretical movements.

Not surprisingly, we learn about those things which such movements questioned, but not so much about other fundamental beliefs which were not challenged. For example, which council defined infant baptism? Prayer to the saints? Justification by grace through a living faith which includes the working of love? The Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Christ? Etc.

None, of course. Because all those things have always been proclaimed (in the Liturgy, the prayers, the common life of the Church) and practiced, taken from granted from apostolic times; and it crossed the mind of no one to challenge those things until 1,500 years later and only in the West. Similarly, we learn of the controversy related to the “Theotokos” only because the Patriarch of Constantinople (Nestorius) was striking at the heart of Christology, and thus of salvation. Not because honoring her was a new thing.

The problem with applying the model you describe, where the statements of a “prophet” or a “council” are then compared to the “data” (of Scripture) in order to be validated, is that first, of course, there are no singular or independent “prophets” in the Church defining dogma. Second, and most importantly, you seem to be confusing the hierarchy of revelation here. Remember that:

  1. When you use “Scripture” as something against which to compare anything, you are already assuming the ultimate authority of the Church. Simply because there is no “Scripture” apart from what the Church has said is Scripture. In other words, the fact that writings (technically, anonymous) about the life of Jesus were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and canonized as the Gospels of Scripture, makes evident that this was done by the authority of the Church in whom indwells the Holy Spirit. The same goes to the fact that the epistle of James, or the Apocalypse, etc. are “Scripture;” and say, the Didache or Clement’s letters, or the Shepherd of Hermas (or other early writings) are not. Councils defined the Bible, not the other way around.
  2. This same authority that writes and canonizes Scripture is the authority that interprets it. Given my years of work in biblical and systematic theology, as well as being proficient in Greek and Hebrew, I can personally attest to the fact that Scripture, in its totality and in each of its parts, can be interpreted in many different (and even contradictory) ways in a plausible, scholarly fashion. For every given passage, 4 scholars can give you 5 plausible interpretations, following the strictest rules of hermeneutics and exegesis. At the end of the day, however, it is the Church (whom Jesus instituted and builds, she who never falls because the gates of hell will never prevail against her) the one who determines what the Scriptures mean, in conjunction with the fuller orbit of the life of the Church – which precede Scripture (the prayers, the liturgies, etc.) and of which Scripture is a part.

Arius, Nestorius, and many others, who knew Scripture by heart, were rebuked and condemned by the Church when they came up with their own interpretations – they could and did use many “verses” to support them, and yet they were in conflict with the whole mind of the Church.

The Councils’ definitions of the Trinity, of the hypostatic union, etc., are not found in verses of Scripture. There is nothing said in Scripture about three co-equal and eternal Persons sharing one Essence. Nothing there about one divine Person uniting two natures “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.” To keep to those two examples, Arius and Nestorius came up with all kinds of verses and passages that plausibly supported the ideas of a lesser god or two separate natures. Their interpretations did not conflict necessarily with the “data,” (as you say).

There are many other examples. It might seem trivial to us that statements like “the Father is greater than I” or the fact that there were things Jesus did not know, only the Father, etc., do not affect in the least Christian definitions of the Trinity or the hypostatic union. But that’s just because we have 1,500 years of explicit conciliar Church doctrine behind us.

And yet the Church, out of all the “data,” affirmed her doctrine based on a scriptural hermeneutic that incorporated the unbroken life and practice of the Church. The Church neither builds her doctrine and proclamation on Scripture alone (but rather, as I said, in the liturgies, prayers and Tradition of which Scripture is a part), nor does she use isolated passages exegeted in purely grammatico-historical methods when she uses Scripture. All comes together in an organic whole.

So, thankfully, it is not up to individual Christians to judge the Church’s doctrines against a Scripture that is already given by the Church; it is not up to individual Christians to judge using an independent, sovereign hermeneutic that puts oneself as the final authority on what the Bible means (and thereby what God says). I have written a short blurb on that a while ago on my blog:

https://luminousdarkcloud.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/some-thoughts-on-fundamentalism/

Once again, to address your example (that angels are higher than human beings), it is precisely the point of Hebrews 2, citing Ps. 8, that Jesus Christ became incarnate and a “little lower than the angels” (in a limited sense) so that he could, through his death, burial and resurrection, bring humanity to the very presence of God, deified, with all enemies under His feet, and thereby under the Church’s feet. It is a human nature united to a divine Person which is enthroned at the right hand of the Father, not a seraph. It is a human being who is chosen to bear God in herself, not a cherub.

It was to no angel (as again, the author of Hebrews states) that God has ever said “you are my Son, today I have begotten you.” And yet this God deified human nature. In the same way, to no angel, cherub or seraph, has God ever said, my Spirit will come upon you because you are the Chosen One to bear the infinite God in your womb and become God’s Mother. To no other creature God has given the full measure of the Holy Spirit so that her own soul, flesh and blood are united forever with the eternal, incomprehensible, infinite God. No seraph ever burned brighter than the true Burning Bush that contains the living God and is never consumed. Not all the angels of creation, together, could become more spacious than the heavens to contain God himself as she did.

Further, from the totality of Scripture (see, e.g., Rev. 12) and Tradition, no creature has ever been blessed and honored as the Theotokos. She is not called blessed by all generations merely in the sense of one more blessed person out of myriads. She is the blessed one because she is the chosen one. And she chooses back. She submits and reverses the curse, unties the knot.

She is described as the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is indeed Mother and Bride, because she is the Mother of God and the embodiment of the Church.

You objected that to be Mother and Bride at the same time would be a weird confusion of categories; but in fact, this is basic Christian theology. Jesus Christ is our Brother and our Bridegroom. We are his brothers and his Bride. She is his Mother and our Mother – “behold your Mother!” She is the Mother of the King, and thereby the Queen, the lowly maidservant elevated to the highest heavens, just like lowly fallen human nature has been deified. She is the one lower than the angels who is turned into the very dwelling place of the Most High. She was there at Pentecost, but she did not even have to be.

You also state that, in practice, worship and veneration often become the same thing. I think that is a very bad misunderstanding, if it ever happens; one that has been clearly and exhaustively addressed many centuries ago in the Church. This strikes at the heart of Christian life and worship. If one either mixes the two, or thinks the veneration of the Saints is idolatry, one is not really Orthodox, because then one would reject the life of the Church in the communion of Saints.

PentecostChrist has destroyed death, and those who have died in Him are alive. As universally attested by all Christians since the first century, beginning with the martyrs, those who are recognized by the Church as being Saints with a capital “S” are those who have united themselves to the Trinity in the fullest way in this life (a life of holiness and self-giving love) and now live to intercede and assist the rest of the Body just as they did in their earthly lives (except that now they are glorified and have no hindrances, fully transfigured and linked to the rest of the Church in the Holy Spirit). We venerate them as holy, as models, as inspiration, as helpers, as intercessors, as loved ones.

They are our Fathers and Mothers. They are not our buddies and fellow beggars. They are not beset by sin anymore, and they are no longer limited by human frailty. They don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t forget. We don’t just “like” them and hang out with them. We venerate them. We bow before them, much like the Old Testament people (and modern people in many parts of the world) bow before their fathers, their prophets, their kings. Except that the Saints are much more than those people. We bow and venerate them. That is by no means polytheistic worship. It is Christian love and unity in the Holy Spirit. And only one of them is the one who has given soul, flesh and blood to God as his Mother – the one before whom the demons tremble and flee.

You said Mary did her work already. Nothing is further from the truth. First, she is not simply “Mary” – she is the Theotokos. The Mother of God. That’s how Christians address her. She is not merely one more of us, for all the reasons I stated above (and these are not merely my own personal views, but an attempt at a summary of what the Church affirms). Her work is not done, in the same way that the work of the Saints is not done. We join them and they join us on “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

The work of the Church is never done – even in the eschaton it won’t ever be done. The work of help and intercession continues now uninterruptedly, along with the unceasing worship and the continuing process of deification and conformity of finite creatures to the infinite energies of God, which will never end. And yes, they can hear a virtually infinite number of people at any time, anywhere. Why? Because they do not hear with the physical ear, nor do they process physical sounds in the brain. They are connected to us in the Holy Spirit.

Saints on this earth already can know and hear others who are physically separated from them; they can see their souls, know their hearts. Why? For the same reason. They know in the Holy Spirit in whom they live because of their close communion with Him. There is no temporal or physical barrier. This is the universal experience of the life of the Church on earth from the the beginning to this day; one needs only to read the life of saints past or present, even living ones. Better yet, have the privilege to meet one of them.

So much more, beyond compare, are the Saints in heaven. They know us and hear us in the Holy Spirit. They live entirely in the Holy Spirit now, to begin with. They intercede for us, speak to us, and help us. My own patron saint has appeared to more than one person that I personally know. And he is alive and continues to work on my behalf and on behalf of those who ask for his help. This is the universal doctrine and practice of the Church, East and West, since the first century.

In this way, the supplicatory prayer of the Small Compline says,

“O undefiled, untainted, uncorrupted, most pure, chaste Virgin, Thou Bride of God and Sovereign Lady, who didst unite the Word of God to mankind through thy most glorious birth giving, and hast linked the apostate nature of our race with the heavenly; who art the only hope of the hopeless, and the helper of the struggling, the ever-ready protection of them that hasten unto thee, and the refuge of all Christians . . . as the Mother of God Who loveth mankind, show thy love for mankind and mercifully have compassion upon me a sinner and prodigal, and accept my supplication . . . at the time of my departure taking care of my miserable soul, and driving far away from it the dark countenances of the evil demons . . . O my Sovereign Lady, most holy Theotokos, in virtue of thine intercession and protection, through the grace and love to mankind of thine only begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, together with His unoriginate Father, and His Most Holy and good and life creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

This is why we affirm, in every single Divine Liturgy (of St John Chrysostom) celebrated since at least the fourth century (hardly a modern concept!):

It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!

 

Hope this helps. Here’s a short list of books on Church history, and a few others with overviews on the Church’s history and theology, from which you can read the relevant sections:

http://www.amazon.com/Early-Church-Penguin-History-v/dp/0140231994

http://www.amazon.com/Early-Christian-Doctrines-J-Kelly/dp/006064334X/ref=pd_sim_b_6/182-9643628-1295620

http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Tradition-Development-Doctrine-Emergence/dp/0226653714/ref=pd_sim_b_9

http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Tradition-Development-Doctrine-Christendom/dp/0226653730/ref=pd_sim_b_3

http://www.amazon.com/Orthodox-Veneration-Mary-Birthgiver-God/dp/0938635689/ref=la_B00J3EPDEC_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409682355&sr=1-2

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103322.htm

http://www.amazon.com/The-Life-Virgin-Maximus-Confessor/dp/0300175043/ref=pd_rhf_se_s_cp_8_YC9X?ie=UTF8&refRID=13KR5MKEV38T8312DSTB

http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Mother-God-Sermons-Gregory/dp/0977498301/ref=la_B001JS17R2_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409687930&sr=1-4

http://www.amazon.com/Celebration-Faith-vol-III-Virgin/dp/0881411418/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409687972&sr=1-7

 

Of Nestorianism and the Theotokos

I don’t believe so. And here’s why.

TheotokosIf one has thought carefully about the issues (i.e., one is not just in ignorance) and one still chooses to not honor and venerate Mary, one is choosing to consider her not as she is – the Mother of God himself – but one or another kind of contingent means for God’s plan.

Mary is the Second Eve. That’s how the Fathers saw her because, as apostolic successors, they understood that the evangelists recorded her with that in mind.

As Eve received the word of the fallen angel, and through the fruit and the tree brought death to the world, so the Second Eve, Mother of the Second Adam, also received the word of the angel – this time the words of life from the angel of God – and through the fruit of her womb, brought life to the world. As Eve stood by the tree of life and brought death, the Second Eve stood by the tree of death which brought life. Mary reverses Eve’s curse.

More importantly, she is not the Mother of Jesus only, as if she is the only mother of his human nature. She is not the mother of a human nature. No one is a mother or father of a nature. She is the Mother of a Person, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Therefore, one can only deliberately choose not to venerate Mary if one does not consider her one’s own Mother. And one can deny that she is one’s own Mother only by being a Nestorian and thinking of her as a mere pipe through which some human nature comes to the world for the use of the Son of God.

Rather, she is the chosen one by whom God takes up humanity to himself. She is the one in whom Divine and human natures are united in One. She is not a random or contingent means, a mere conduit pipe. She is the one whom God filled with the Spirit more than any other being in history, before or after. She is the one to whom God gave the salvation of man to depend upon her fiat. She is the one whose womb became more spacious than the heaven of heavens, because it contained the uncontainable God.

When we are mystically united to Christ, we are mystically united to her. When we are mystically united to his body and soul, we are mystically united to the one who gave him his body and soul. To the *only* one who gave him that. She is his Mother, and if we are both his children and his brothers, she is also our Mother. As she loves her Son, so she loves us because we are his and therefore hers too. And so she suffers with us, prays for us, and helps us, as she did with her son.

She is the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is the one upon whom the Creator of the universe depended to live, by his own choice. She is the chosen one of all the human race to be eternally called the blessed one, by all generations. She is the one full of grace more than anyone else will ever be. She is our model because God was born in her, literally – and so He calls us to imitate her by “Christ being formed in us” as well.

The early Church revered all saints and martyrs. From the first century, the places of repose of Christian saints were places of prayer, where their relics were revered and their prayers sought. There is no tomb of Mary. There are no relics of the body of Mary. Why? Because the Son of God did not leave the relics of the Theotokos here in this world. He took her, body and soul, to be with Him.

Also, no one in history ever claimed to be a child or descendant of Mary (which would have been unthinkable that Christians would not have known them and traced them throughout the centuries). We also know that for the rest her days she lived with the apostle John, not with any supposed children. There is no tomb of anyone who claimed to be her children.

When St John records that Christ gave her to him as his mother, and him to her as her son, as the Church always understood, he was also giving her to the Church as her mother, and the Church to her as her children.

He gave her to John because she had no other children to care for her. Jesus did not have any brothers or sisters born of her that would have been obligated (by law) to care for her in her widowhood. That’s why none of them were with their mother and their brother when he was crucified. They abandoned Mary and Christ because they were not even really directly related to them.

And so there is also no record of the bloodline of Christ, through supposed brothers and sisters who would have had the same flesh and blood as he did. No record, no tombs, no relics, nothing.

Simply because she was the Ever-Virgin Mother of only one Person: God himself. She was sanctified by God and could not be of common use. She was the Ark of the Covenant in whom dwelt the Word, the Manna, the One who is the budded staff of Aaron.

No one can love a person who loves his mother, and at the same time hate that person’s mother, or consider her of no special account. No one in his sane mind does that with one’s own mother either.

One can only consider Mary to be anything less than the Mother of God – the one who reverses the curse, the one before whom heaven and earth bows down in veneration and awe, and our Mother –  if one is infected in one way or another by Nestorian ideas that have joined other errors in Protestantism.

That’s why one who deliberately does not venerate the Mother of God is a Nestorian.

St Hannah and the Theotokos

Today, December 9, we commemorate the Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos, as well as St Hannah the Prophetess.

The connection between Anna and Hannah (same name, Greek and Hebrew forms) and Hanna and the Theotokos is obvious in some ways, but also evident in some wonderful, more subtle ways.

Grace Without Grace?

hannahWe read in the first two verses of the book of 1 Samuel that there was a man named Elkanah, from the hill country of Ephraim, who had two wives – Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

Elkanah went yearly to Jerusalem to fulfill the requirement of the Law, which stipulated that the covenant people of God were to appear at the central sanctuary three times a year. During this time, before the monarchy and before the construction of the temple, the tabernacle was at Shiloh, and it had been there for a long time, since the days of Joshua, and through the time of the judges.

This was a time of darkness and apostasy in the land, and as we will see in the next chapter, Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli who assisted him in the tabernacle, were wicked priests. Israel’s central sanctuary was a reflection of the state of the nation: lack of discernment, idolatry, wickedness and corrupt leadership.

As Elkanah would bring his family to the appointed feast at the tabernacle, we see the contrast between his two wives:

And her rival [Peninnah] used to provoke her [Hannah] grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.

Barrenness at that time and in that society was not only a source of disappointment, but also of shame and disgrace. A barren wife was perceived as one whom God had cursed, since it was thought that the Lord would close the womb only of those whom he hated. Fruitfulness was a blessing promised in the Law, and barrenness a curse.

Bearing no male heir was bad enough, but bearing no children at all would set a woman on the course of eventual destitution. There was also the shame that the family line could not be continued through her, but only through her rival.

However, Hannah’s circumstances here connect her immediately to two other women who were in a similar predicament in redemptive history. Sarah was barren, and Abraham had a son with her maid Hagar, who became a rival to her. Rachel also was the loved one who was barren, while her sister Leah was having Jacob’s sons and disdaining her.

Now Hannah is barren while being the one her husband loves.

One of the ironies of this is that the name Hannah means “Grace,” or “the favored one.”

Was Grace without grace?

At this point, grace is the least thing that is apparent in the Hannah’s life. It seems as though the one who had received grace and favor from the Lord was Peninnah, who is described here as receiving portions with all her sons and daughters.

Yet, as redemptive history indicates, God is pleased to help those who cannot help themselves. It was from the barren womb of Sarah that God was pleased to bring forth Isaac, the son of promise with whom he chose to establish the covenant. It was from the barren womb of Rachel that God brought forth Joseph, the one before whom the whole family eventually would bow, as he became their deliverer in Egypt.

Now, Hannah stands as a barren woman who is opposed by her rival, and experiences great shame and sorrow, hoping that one day the Lord would shine his grace upon her and cause her truly to be a “favored one.” As she suffers year after year, we read that she lived a life of tears, despite the love her husband had for her.

A Picture of Israel

Hannah is presented here in the beginning of the narrative as a picture of Israel. Hannah was the “favored one,” but she was barren. Israel was also loved by YHWH, and yet it had become barren. Hannah was barren through no fault of her own, but Israel was barren as a result of their wickedness and idolatry.

The people had by and large forsaken YHWH, the priests were greedy and wicked. As we read 5 times in the book of Judges – including the last verse, which summarizes the whole book – “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

We read in verses 9-11 that after their sacrificial worship and meal, Hannah, deeply distressed, went into the tabernacle to pray and weep bitterly.

 “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Hannah was weeping in deep sorrow, but as we will see, her very tears would water the barren ground and bring forth fruit from God. Notice how many times she repeats in her prayer that she is the servant of the Lord. Hannah’s attitude is one of utter humility and dependence upon YHWH, which is exactly the heart condition the Lord delights to bless.

And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put away your wine from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.

Hannah had not been pouring in the wine, as Eli thought, but she was pouring out her very soul to the Lord. Eli’s misunderstanding seems like a mere interesting detail to the narrative, but in fact it highlights the very spiritual condition of Israel – confusion and lack of discernment.

 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.”

This is a key passage in the narrative because God is beginning to pull off the veil of deceptive appearances. Hannah was not a worthless woman, but she was seeking God. Eli pronounces a blessing upon her, and she responds by humbly saying “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.”

The word “favor” is the Hebrew word chein, grace, from which the word/name Hannah comes. The one who seems disgraced – even though her name means grace – is actually the favored one who seeks grace and is about to receive it.

And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”

inp114God remembered Hannah as he had remembered Sarah and Rachel in their barrenness. The same would happen to a barren woman in the New Testament named Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist as the son of promise in her old age.

The Barren Womb and the Virgin Womb

All these point to another womb – not barren but virgin – that would give birth to the ultimate Son of promise, Jesus Christ. God’s blessing and deliverance comes not by power and by might, but in God’s blessings by the Spirit through faith. God not only delivers his people in their weaknesses, but in Christ he is pleased to take upon himself that very weakness.

The same God who says, “Let there be light” and brings it out of darkness is the God who brings life out of death. Hannah is being carried from bitterness to joy, as Israel would be delivered by Samuel who would eventually anoint king David. The road to deliverance was long and painful, but God is faithful and would not allow his people to perish.

At the time of the Judges, the answer to the barrenness and death of Israel was not, as one would expect, a great warrior ready for battle – but a child, Samuel. It was a helpless and innocent child that would become the vessel of God’s blessings to his people, because he delights in saving those who cannot save themselves.

The barren wombs of the Old Testament point to a virgin womb in the New Testament, and the children of promise of the OT point to the child Immanuel, who would be anointed king to reign and deliver his people forever.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

Once again, the Lord provides the deliverer not in the figure of a great warrior, as the Jews were hoping and expecting, but in the incarnation of God’s Son as a helpless child in the virgin womb of a poor and lowly maidservant of the Lord.

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Behold the maidservant of the Lord, Mary says. As Hannah humbled herself before YHWH, Mary now becomes the mouthpiece of all those who will inherit eternal life: she says yes to God’s word, plan, and promise – “let it be to me according to your word,” she says, humbling herself as his lowly servant who cannot do anything but receive his grace and favor.

mother-of-god-full-iconAnd thus the one who humbles herself as the handmaid of the Lord becomes more honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim – without defilement giving birth to God the Word.

As she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the barren woman who had become pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Blessed indeed is she who in her humble submission and simple trust becomes the very one who will give birth to the seed of the woman promised in Genesis.

As Satan, the fallen angel, spoke to Eve in the garden, she said yes to his seducing words. The fruit of rebellion, through her, caused Adam to fall, and with him the whole human race. Now, as the angel of God speaks to Mary and she says yes to God’s words spoken through him, the fruit of promise and righteousness comes into the world through her, reversing the curse, turning around the course of history, and bringing the New Adam who will save his people from their sins.

And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.

Blessed is barren Hannah who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what she had prayed for as she received the blessing of the high priest. Blessed is the Theotokos who believed the promise of God and submitted to his will. Blessed are all those who in their weakness commit themselves to the Lord as his lowly servants, and trust in him to bring victory, light and life out of defeat, darkness and death.

We are like Hannah in that we go through this life looking and often feeling barren, because of the suffering we still have to endure here. Yet if we belong to Christ, our name is indeed Hannah, for we are the favored ones with the grace of God.

And Hannah said,

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation . . . the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

No doubt the Mother of God was thinking about this when she said,

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

Is Mary the Mother of God?

The Annunciation

It is a curious fact that many modern Evangelicals (if not their majority, not to mention folk from more historical Protestant bodies) would not want to refer to the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God (neither as “Blessed Virgin” for that matter, even though the Holy Spirit, trough the lips of Elizabeth, tells her “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”)

Apparently they are unaware that refusing to do so is to embark in a serious Christological heresy that was refuted by the whole Church over 1,600 hundred years ago – not to mention that it is to reject the Christology espoused by all the Reformers of the 16th century (Reformation from which Evangelicals come) and the theology of their confessions of faith.

The Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431

The Third Ecumenical Council took place in Ephesus in 431 with 200 bishops being present. The council was to address the teachings of Patriarch Nestorius, who overemphasized the distinction between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ, to the expense of the hypostatic union – therefore dividing him into parts that were hardly united in one Person.

As one of the consequences of this heresy  (among many, including making our salvation impossible if we cannot be united to God through the Person of Christ, but only to his human nature), Nestorius argued that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a man, Jesus Christ, not God the Logos. The Logos only dwelt in Christ, as in a Temple, and the Virgin Mary should be called Christotokos (“Mother [or Bearer] of Christ”) and not Theotokos (“Birth-giver of God”).

The Council decreed that Christ was one Person, not two separate “people”: fully God and fully man, with a rational soul and body. The Virgin Mary is Theotokos because she gave birth not to a mere man, nor to a mere nature, but to a Person, who is God and Man.

By virtue of this union, attributes are communicable and so we can say, for example, that God (not the divine nature) died on the cross. The union of the two natures of Christ took place in such a fashion that one did not disturb the other, perfectly united in a Person of whom she is the Mother and who is God incarnate.

The Council also declared the text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed to be final and forbade any additional change to it. It also condemned Pelagianism.

Nestorius’ argument:
“The holy virgin is more accurately termed mother of Christ than mother of God”

Cyril of Alexandria’s response:
“. . . Therefore, because the holy virgin bore in the flesh God who was united hypostatically with the flesh, for that reason we call her mother of God, not as though the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh (for “the Word was in the beginning and the Word was God and the Word was with God”, and he made the ages and is coeternal with the Father and craftsman of all things), but because, as we have said, he united to himself hypostatically the human and underwent a birth according to the flesh from her womb. . . . ”

Council’s decision:
We confess, then, our lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place.

Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy virgin to be the mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her. As to the evangelical and apostolic expressions about the Lord, we know that theologians treat some in common as of one person and distinguish others as of two natures, and interpret the god-befitting ones in connexion with the godhead of Christ and the lowly ones with his humanity.

Decree of the Council Against Nestorius

As, in addition to other things, the impious Nestorius has not obeyed our citation, and did not receive the holy bishops who were sent by us to him, we were compelled to examine his ungodly doctrines.  We discovered that he had held and published impious doctrines in his letters and treatises, as well as in discourses which he delivered in this city, and which have been testified to.  Compelled thereto by the canons and by the letter (ἀναγκαίως κατεπειχθέντες ἀπό τε τῶν κανόνων, καὶ ἐκ τὴς ἐπιστολῆς, κ.τ.λ.) of our most holy father and fellow-servant Cœlestine, the Roman bishop, we have come, with many tears, to this sorrowful sentence against him, namely, that our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, decrees by the holy Synod that Nestorius be excluded from the episcopal dignity, and from all priestly communion.

Definition of the faith at Nicaea [6th session 22 July 431]

The synod of Nicaea produced this creed: We believe … [the Nicene Creed follows]

It seems fitting that all should assent to this holy creed. It is pious and sufficiently helpful for the whole world. But since some pretend to confess and accept it, while at the same time distorting the force of its expressions to their own opinion and so evading the truth, being sons of error and children of destruction, it has proved necessary to add testimonies from the holy and orthodox fathers that can fill out the meaning they have given to the words and their courage in proclaiming it. All those who have a clear and blameless faith will understand, interpret and proclaim it in this way.

When these documents had been read out, the holy synod decreed the following.

1. It is not permitted to produce or write or compose any other creed except the one which was defined by the holy fathers who were gathered together in the holy Spirit at Nicaea.

2. Any who dare to compose or bring forth or produce another creed for the benefit of those who wish to turn from Hellenism or Judaism or some other heresy to the knowledge of the truth, if they are bishops or clerics they should be deprived of their respective charges and if they are laymen they are to be anathematised.

3. In the same way if any should be discovered, whether bishops, clergy or laity, thinking or teaching the views expressed in his statement by the priest Charisius about the incarnation of the only-begotten Son of God or the disgusting, perverted views of Nestorius, which underlie them, these should be subject to the condemnation of this holy and ecumenical synod. A bishop clearly is to be stripped of his bishopric and deposed, a cleric to be deposed from the clergy, and a lay person is to be anathematised, as was said before.

Later ratification by the Council of Chalcedon:
The Council of Chalcedon has accepted the synodical letters of the blessed Cyril, pastor of the church in Alexandria, to Nestorius and to the Orientals, as being well-suited to refuting Nestorius’s mad folly and to providing an interpretation for those who in their religious zeal might desire understanding of the saving creed [of Nicea]”.