Not your typical Marian devotion …

So, my big sis is posting over at In the Mist of the Becoming about this band The Swirling Eddies right now. Each post is the lyrics from a song, some of her thoughts, then a YouTube video playing the song. Pretty cool.

I thought I’d share with you this one, about the BVM. Go read, listen, and enjoy!

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Why should I listen to Vincent of Lerins?

It’s all very well, I suppose, to say (as I do here) that St. Vincent recommends we turn to Scripture and tradition to learn what orthodoxy is, and all very well to figure out how to do this in today’s context.

But why should we listen to him?

I had originally envisaged this post beginning with a brief reminder the fact that most, if not all, Christians call upon us to listen to the voice of Scripture, and then moving on to a brief summary and discussion of the venerable line of teachers who call upon us to heed tradition, a venerable line beginning with Paul and moving through such luminaries as St. Irenaeus and St. Leo the Great, within which St. Vincent of Lérins stands.

But, really, tradition is a bit of a hairy beast.

Seriously.

I mean, it’s true that tradition includes the prayerful application of human resources to the Scriptures out of which can come beautiful things like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae or the Cappadocians’ Trinitarian thought or the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or a Tridentine Mass or the Daily Office or stained glass in cruciform Gothic churches.

But some of the things that come down the pipeline in tradition leave me scratching my head at times; they certainly help keep me on the Protestant side of things.

  • Caves full of wax babies offered to an icon of the Theotokos by people suffering from infertility.
  • Stories involving talking beasts who get baptised.
  • Prayers and invocations of saints.
  • Transubstantiation (in the West).
  • The sacrifice of the Mass.
  • The Assumption of the BVM.
  • The Perpetual Virginity of the BVM.
  • Crowning the BVM Queen of Heaven (in the West).
  • Purgatory (in the West).
  • Also in the West: the Pope.

These are just off the top of my head, mind you. Some are not necessarily deal breakers — I am willing to concede the possibility of the Mother of the Lord having been assumed into heaven or having been a perpetual virgin; I simply refuse them as being necessary beliefs. Just because something is traditional, why ought I to believe it?

This, then, I guess, is where Augustine Casiday’s quotation about tradition being a creative fidelity to one’s origins is so compelling — it includes room for creativity. It leaves space for reason. It also means taking tradition as handed down (entrusted being our other definition) to us seriously.

Thus, I am a traditionalist enough to enjoy Conciliar Triadology and Christology, but partly on the basis of prayerful reason and some knowledge of the Arian, Nestorian, Miaphysite positions, thus believing that it is orthodoxy because it is the most biblically faithful and philosophically coherent position. No doubt the Arians, Nestorians, and Miaphysites would hotly contest this position — it would take a book, not a blog, to expound why and how I feel and believe and think this way.

I am a cautious traditionalist, though; not all new liturgies or translations are necessarily bad (they often are, if only on aesthetic grounds). New hymns can go to the same depths and heights as old ones (not that they always do). New theologians can expound fantastic, glorious truths about God and the universe (contemporary theologians I like? NT Wright and Miroslav Volf if we aren’t bringing the Orthodox or the dead into this). New religious art can bring vibrancy and truth to darksome places, to places where the traditional is no longer comprehended (but I do love stained glass and icons!).

Noah’s Ark & the Annunciation of the BVM

I think that the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM is one of those feasts that a lot of low(er) Protestants avoid because BVM = Blessed Virgin Mary = obvious Papist connexions. This is silly. The Annunciation is the first feast of the earthly life of Christ. Furthermore, unlike, say, the Dormition (Assumption), the Annunciation is a biblical event. And we all know how much we Protestants love the Bible!

This Feast is on March 25, and I celebrated it by popping in at my local Orthodox Church and standing around through the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Not that I could receive the Sacrament, but it was good to be there.

One of the Old Testament readings for this Feast was the end of the tale of Noah’s Ark, where he sends out the dove. According to The Orthodox Study Bible:

The dove foreshadowed the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:10), who caused the Holy Virgin to conceive Christ in her womb, and the olive leaf speaks of the Virgin herself (Lk 1:35, Akath).

That abbrev. ‘Akath’ = Akathist Hymn. The Service of the Akathist Hymn is a beautiful service of the Orthodox Church that takes place over the first five Fridays of Lent, the full Service occurring on the final; the hymn itself was possibly composed by Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century. It is a hymn all about the Theotokos (Mother of God, see here for why that’s an important title).

Anyway, I noticed neither during the service nor later when I read through the Akathist hymn myself this particular piece of typology (on the fourfold sense of Scripture, read here). It was not, however, the first piece of typology I thought of.

In Noah’s Ark, as all good Sunday School children know, were the entire human race and all the living animals as well. In the belly of the ark (fun fact: the Greek for belly and hold are similar). These humans and animals were saved from destruction in the terrible Flood by taking refuge in the Ark.

The typology I thought of was that the BVM is like the Ark because she carried the salvation of the world in her belly as well — she carried our Lord Christ, God Incarnate, without Whom we would all be lost, inside her womb. The Annunciation, celebrated nine months before Christmas, is the starting day of our salvation, as the priest noted to us in his homily that day.

The Orthodox Study Bible confirms this, citing once again the Akathist Hymn. It, however, was not my first place to turn but my second. My first place to turn was the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and there I found only typologies for the Ark as the Church, wherein the human race is saved. This typology also works.

Nonetheless, I like this old, forgotten way of reading the Bible. While I’ll never abandon the historical method, to have this more spiritual approach alongside adds greater depth to my reading. The Ark is the BVM. Cool.

Nikolaos, Part II

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

That night Nikolaos drifted to sleep in his prison cell to the sounds of the night life of Nikaia. He was awakened after what seemed to be a most refreshing — but brief — nap by a Light flooding the chamber. He opened his eyes, and the yellow sandstone seemed to glitter as gold. A sourceless radiance was filling the room. His mortal eyes had trouble adjusting, but he thought he saw a figure. No, two figures.

In an instant, Nikolaos was prostrate on the ground. He had indeed seen a Figure, a most glorious Figure, dazzling in brilliant raiment. Konstantinos paled by comparison. All earthly things, all creation, paled in comparison of the One Who Himself was Light.

“Woe to me!” he cried aloud at this Vision of the Magnificence. “For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips! And I have seen the Lord Himself!”

And then the Figure laughed. Not a patronising laugh. Not a laugh of mockery. The laugh of an old Friend, glad to see His comrade. “Nikolaos, faithful servant, you may look upon me.”

Nikolaos, living by faith alone, dared to look upon the glory of the Anointed. He seemed to be the Source of the Light, although not as light radiates from a flame. Nikolaos could never properly put it into words in the years to come, and whenever friends would say him, “Father Nikolaos, tell us about the time you saw Jesus and His Mother,” he would decline comment. But His face was kind, His eyes ageless, brown and timeless like a slice from the heart of an ancient oak tree. He was smiling down upon Nikolaos, his very teeth radiant and pale like the moon.

“Nikolaos,” said a feminine voice to the left of the Anointed, “you may rise.”

Nikolaos stood, and only glanced briefly at the Mother of his Lord. She smiled at him with kind eyes. But was impossible not to look at the One she accompanied. And this was how the Virgin would have it.

“Your zeal for My Name and My honour is like Elijah’s, Nikolaos. If all overseers of My Assembly had such zeal and respect, then you would not all be here in Nikaia arguing about Me!” The Anointed smiled a sad smile.

“My Son and I have brought you gifts,” Holy Mary said. “Here is the stola of an overseer, for we confirm you as an overseer in the Assembly.”

Nikolaos took his eyes off the Anointed Jesus only long enough to receive the gift. “Thank you,” he uttered.

“And here is the book of the Good News, telling the story of my dwelling upon earth. For as overseer, you have done well in the task of bringing this Good News to the people; you have upheld the virtue of your office, and shall continue to do so,” the Glorious One handed Nikolaos a golden Book.

When the guards came to wake Nikolaos in the morning, he was found clutching these two objects to his breast as he slept; his office as overseer and his understanding of the Anointed confirmed, he was allowed to rejoin the gathering.

Nikolaos sighed a little, for he knew that, between the vision of the Majesty and that miracle involving the money for the poor girls, he would become a celebrity in no time. His name would live forever, and all he really wanted was for the Name of Jesus, the Divine, Eternal Word to live forever. He chuckled to himself, thinking they might even slap the word holy in front of his name.

An Alternative “Toast tae the Lassies”

My more traditional option here.

Robert Burns, the Scots Bard, is well-known for his love of women, a love that got him into trouble at Ayr’s local kirk and produced at least one bastard child.  As a result, it is a tradition common to the dinners held in his honour at the commemoration of his birthday across the world to provide a toast to the “fairer” sex.

Yet might I take a moment to toast not just lassies in general, who are certainly a species of creature worth toasting, but to those lassies most worthy of a toast?  Might I turn our attention from the more carnal taste of Burns to the more spiritual taste of the saints?

Indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, strong women have been a force to be reckoned with.  They have been on the front lines of evangelisation, of work amongst the poor, of medicine and hospitals, of hospitality, of generosity, of pilgrimage, of mysticism.  Yet too often they are forgotten — indeed, even I have failed in over a year of “Weekly Saints” to make a female saint the topic for the week.  Nevertheless, the power of women in Christianity is something not to be forgotten, from the Blessed Virgin our “Champion Leader” to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Let us toast first, then, the Mother of Our Lord, St. Mary of Nazareth.  She stands out not only as the only person to carry God in her womb, but also as the first person in a series of biblical calls to avoid making excuses and say in response to God’s call, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  Faith and obedience to God’s call are our lessons from the Supersaint Godbearer.  To Mary!

A toast is also in order to Perpetua, the second-century martyress who stood firm in her faith and faced execution at the hands of Rome boldly, even wrestling with demons while she awaited her death.  Endurance and fortitude in the face of extreme unpleasantness are our lessons from St. Perpetua.  To Perpetua!

Third, I propose a toast to Amma Syncletica the fourth-century Desert Mother of Egypt, if for no other reason than this quotation: “Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.”  For encouraging us to pray and to fast in the bitter struggle against our own evil desires, a toast to Syncletica!

Slàinte mhath to St. Hilda of Whitby (my post here), who founded an abbey and used discernment to seek out the talents the Lord hid away in people like Caedmon.  May we all have true insight into the world around us.  To Hilda!

A toast to St. Clare of Assisi (my post here).  This intrepid mystic followed the call of God against the pressures of family and hearth — a difficult task for anyone whose family is Christian (to reject pagans is one thing, but to turn your back on your Christian parents another).  Would that more Christians had the boldness to follow the call of God to difficult places and a life of prayer regardless of what others think of them.  To Clare!

I propose a toast to Lady Julian of Norwich (my page here), the mystic anchorite who has shown so many of us something of the depths of the riches of the love of God Almighty for us.  May we, too, seek God’s face in prayer and spread his message of love to the world around us.  To Julian!

A toast is definitely in order to Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, who, in a household full of loud children, sought the Lord at all times — even if it was just under the kitchen table.  She also has the distinction of having raised two of the eighteenth centuries great men of faith.  To Susannah!

Given the limits of time, let us remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who demonstrated heroic virtue in seeking Christ in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, who moved beyond the confines of her nunnery to bring Christ where he was needed.  May we all be willing to go out of our comfort zones as we live for Christ.  To Teresa!

These few women and the many more who have populated Christianity from its earliest days as (allegedly) a faith of women and slaves are worthy of a toast.  May we live up to their examples of obedience to God, of faithfulness, of perseverance in prayer, of discernment, of willingness to go beyond the usual, of visions of God’s love, of the pursuit of God in everyday life, of heroic virtue seeking Christ in all places!

To the lassies of Christ!  Lang may their lum reek!

Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.

Uneasy with the Mother of Our Lord

St. Mary (a purposefully papist picture)

For those interested in medieval drama, check out my thoughts on the Chester Cycle.

My mother organises a youth musical and drama group associated with her church.  One year, she decided to try and shake things up a little, to move away from Dennis and Nan Allan and songs by Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W Smith, and to try out something medieval.  So she thought they might enjoy “The Second Shepherds’ Pageant” of Wakefield as found in the Everyman edition Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays.  At the time, this group included a number of Baptists — a God-fearing people who are also suspicious of all scent of Popery.

As I understand it, they were not chiefly uneasy with the silly plot-line about Mak casting spells on the shepherds and stealing a sheep and then pretending it was his child, but, rather, with the Blessed Virgin.  I am dumbfounded by this fact, for here are the references to the Mother of Our Lord:

“They prophesied by clergy — that in a virgin / should he light and lie, to sloken our sin” (ll. 676-677)

“Hail, maker, as I mean, [born] of a maiden so mild!” (l. 711)

“Farewell, lady, so fair to behold, / with thy child on thy knee.” (ll. 746-747)

The Virgin herself has this one line to the Shepherds:

The Father of heaven, God omnipotent, / That set all on seven, his Son has he sent. / My name could he neven, and light ere he went. / I conceived him full even through might, as he meant; / And now is he born. / He keep you from woe! — / I shall pray him so. / Tell forth as ye go, / And min on this morn.

There is nothing in this play that is not simply what the Bible teaches. Jesus was born of a virgin, the power of God conceived Him in her.  I suppose the Bible says nothing of whether she be fair or no, yet that is but a small matter.

Protestants need to wake up and realise that the unconscious anti-Marian stance is unbiblical and unwarranted.  The Mother of Our Lord belongs in any discussion of the Incarnation, and she ought to have a central role in any retelling — artistic, dramatic, narrative — of the Nativity.  Furthermore, she belongs in a good number of the Gospel stories, from the Wedding at Cana to the Crucifixion, and probably the Empty Tomb as well.  She is a figure in the life of Christ, and one upon whom the favour of the Lord rests.

If we push St. Mary to the fringes of our understanding of the life of God while He was incarnate, then we fail at coming near a complete understanding of that Incarnate Life.  Given that the Incarnation is God’s most powerful revelation of Himself unto us, to fail at understanding Jesus’ life in any way, we are failing to understand God, Who He Is, and What He Does.