If, like the Prophet Moses instructed, that one who curses his father or mother is put to death (Ex. 21:17, Matt. 15:4, Mark 7:10), then whoever praises them will have the benefit of life. If our natural parents are to enjoy such benefit from us, how much more then should we praise our spiritual parents, who have taught us by their words and deeds, who are “repositories and pure dwelling places of God,” as St. John Damascene writes, whose souls are in the hand of God (Wis. 3:1), and whose death is precious in the sight of the Lord (Ps. 48:9,10; 115:15), as the Psalmist says.1
Today we honor the Mother of God, the Theotokos, who was born to barren Anna. Her honor comes not only from the height of her virtuous life but also on account of being chosen by God to give birth to God in the flesh.
It was she who, as St. Gregory Palamas said, stands “between God and every race of men, she made God the Son of man, and men the sons of God.”2
In this manner, then, we can understand what Elizabeth meant when she says to her cousin “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42). And Mary responded, “behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”(Luke 1:48).
II. THE ACCOUNT OF THE BIRTH OF THE MOTHER OF GOD
How was it that Mary’s birth came about? Many of us already know so let me answer in brief.
Her parents were Joachim and Anna. Joachim descended from the tribe of Judah, and was of kingly succession. Anna descended from the line was of Levites, and of priestly succession, her father being a priest. When both were approximately seventy years of age, they had not born any children and were senselessly reproached by their fellow citizens for the same because it was considered disgraceful and a curse from God. In their reproach, both prayed that they would be childless no more. God, whose mercy endureth forever, heard their cries. As Joachim was standing in prayer, he heard a voice which said, “You will receive a child who will be a glory not only for you but for the whole world.”3 While Anna was in the garden praying, an angel of God appeared to her and said, “God has heard your prayer, and you will give birth to the cause of joy, and you will name her Mary, through whom the salvation of the entire world will come into being.”4 Such is the story of the grandmother of our Lord whose miraculous childbirth preceded the even more miraculous birth of God the Word.
III. A NEW DAY HAS DAWNED
Today, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, is the Eve of Eves. The birth of Mary inaugurates the birth of God the Word. Her birth is pregnant with the coming of the Messiah. In the birth of Mary, the Old Testament is coming to an end.
Through Eve, all men have become captive to sin, but through Mary captivity is lead captive and gifts are given to men;
Through Eve, darkness came to the human race but through Mary a light that enlighteneth the whole world;
Through Eve, the doors of Paradise were shut but through Mary, the gates are opened wide;
Through Eve came murder and much vice but through Mary came the life of the world.
IV. COMMENTARY ON THE SCRIPTURAL PASSAGES FOR THE FEAST
If we do not realize that the Old Testament alludes and has prophecies regarding our Lord’s Mother, apart from Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son”(7:14), then perhaps we would not understand as we should the honor which is due her.
In the Scriptural readings for last evening and today, we move from the Old Testament, read during Vespers, to the New Testament, read during the Divine Liturgy, which denotes a progression in what is revealed.
During Vespers, we read three passages, the first is known as “Jacob’s Ladder” and therein we are taught that the Mother of God is “the dreadful place,” “the house of God,” “the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17). In the second passage, taken from Ezekiel, we find that she is that gate facing East which is shut because it shall only be entered by Christ “the prince” (44:2-3). In the third passage, which is from the Proverbs of Solomon, the Wisdom of God, that is Christ, has built a house, which is the Theotokos. She has “mingled her wine” and “set her table” which alludes to conceiving Christ in her womb who is the sanctification of men.5
In the Scripture reading for today, in Philippians, we heard of the humility of Christ seen in His self-emptying in order to become man. In the Gospel reading from St. Luke, we read of Martha and Mary and, by extension, the Holy Mother of God, who chose “the good part.”
Therefore if there are prophecies about her should we not honor her appropriately? Though veiled in the Old Testament, it has become unveiled in the New through the fulfillment of those prophecies. Therefore because God has shown her so much honor are we not obligated to offer our own few mites?
V. THE HONOR DUE THE MOTHR OF GOD
i) We must note, however, that we praise her not because she was more than human or super-human because she truly does bear the same human nature as us. For instance, St. Epiphanios writes, “Yes, of course, Mary’s body was holy, but she was not God” and “[Mary] was surely not born other than normally but of a man’s seed and a woman’s womb like everyone else.”6 Because the Mother of God and all the saints have the same nature as us and are not some abnormal or super-humanity, then they deserve our praise. Having the same nature, they accomplished every kind of virtue, therefore may we rouse ourselves to emulate such examples showing our love for them.7
ii) Her greatness does not lie only in her birth, in her life, or in her death but in being found worthy to be the Mother of God. What can be greater than to be called the Mother of God? Moreover, herein is a great mystery, a mystery of which even the angels long to look into because through her the angels will bend down towards the lowliness of the newborn child—Christ, while human beings will be elevated towards the glorious dignity of God.
iii) It is impossible to speak of the Mother of God apart from Christ or to speak about Christ apart from His mother because it is from His mother that He took His human nature. This is why we can sing in today’s troparion:
Thy nativity, O Virgin Theotokos, hath proclaimed joy to all the world;
for from thee hath shone forth Christ our God, the Sun of righteousness,
Who, having annulled the curse, hath given His blessing,
and having abolished death, hath granted us life everlasting.8
It is principally Christ which makes her honorable, which brings her glory, which causes us to praise her.
He who was before time as God, was born in time as a man;
He who is unoriginate as God is now originate in the flesh;
He who is very God of very God is now become true man; and
He who is the Creator of the world is now created in Mary’s womb;
What are we to do then my fathers, brothers, and sisters? How can we honor the Mother of God on this glorious day of her nativity? St. John of Damascus writes regarding the Mother of God and the saints that we should honor them by setting up monuments and visible images, and, what is more, “let us ourselves by the imitation of their virtues become their living monuments and images.”9
And, what is more, let us recall the woman in today’s Gospel who shouted, “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked,” and our Lord’s response, “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.”
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF THE MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
1 Cf. Chase, Frederick (trans.). Saint John of Damascus; Writings. (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1958)367-368.
2 Veniamin, Christopher (ed.). Mary the Mother fo God: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas. (Mout Thabor Pubishing, 2005), 19.
3 Shoemaker, Stephen J. (trans.). The Life of the Virgin by Maximus the Confessor. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 39.
5 The commentary of these verses and the few following come from Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nakpaktos. Hesychia and Theology: The Context for Man’s Healing in the Orthodox Church. (Levadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2007), 217-218 and 227.
6 Williams, Frank (trans.). The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis (New York: Brill, 1994), 2:624, 625.
7 Cf. In beatum Philogonium, PG 48.747-49, Hom. 36, Enconium in sanctum apostolum Paulum, PG 63.839, and Hom. 18, In Gordium Martyrem, PG 31.492AB, 493A in Greenfield, Richard P.H., Niketas Stethatos’s, The Life of Saint Symeon the Theologian. (Cambridge: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2013), 193-197.
8 Troparion of the feast in Tone IV at the Blessing of the Loaves.
9 Saint John of Damascus; Writings, 369.