Wednesday 4 December 2013

M is for Mary

Mary, Queen of Heaven

Mary is mentioned by name less than twenty times in the New Testament, and once or twice, she was given short shrift even by her Son. The early church followed suit until confusion began to creep in among many of the faithful as to whether Christ had a human nature at all. Many suggested that Mary was either an ‘empty purse’ (1) briefly carrying the wholly Divine ‘Gold’, or a vessel for the human aspect of Christ only. Over time, this confusion and the resulting heresies provoked a two pronged dogmatic response:

At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Mary was declared Theotokos, or Christ-bearer.  The council affirmed that Christ was born of woman, and was not merely a Divine boarder for nine months. This was a vital point. In the theology of the Orthodox Church, Christ, from the moment of conception, was fully God and fully man. Mary’s wholly human nature and Christ’s assumed humanity meant that human nature could be restored once more into the fellowship of God. By assuming flesh, Christ saved mankind from the original sin of Adam and Eve.

Her second dogmatic title “Ever Virgin” (Aie-parthenos)  was awarded at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. It has interested scholars as well as skeptics ever since.’ Some have suggested that the word ‘virgin’ was  in fact an error, a Greek  translator’s misreading of the  Hebrew word for “young woman” in Isaiah.(7:14 ).  Even if that were true, it does not explain why this virginity had to become perpetual. It necessitated a fandangle around the other brothers of Christ mentioned in the New Testament. Orthodoxy got around this by suggesting that brother meant cousin or that she had step-children. A  belief involving the combination of both mother and virgin seems to detract somewhat from the insistence on her humanity in the Council of 431.  Then again, the idea of virginity and purity has had a long run.

A student of myth would suggest that a god visiting a virgin and producing a demi-god is part of an age-old archetypal pattern and a pretty common one at that, but these god-visited virgins  most often went on to couple with humans as well. A psychologist might dig deeper and suggest that in Greco-Roman society sexually active women were not merely frightening, but somehow defiled, even in marriage. It is a strange masculine mind set which sees as degrading an act which only men themselves perform. Such a mind set creates the corollary that virginity is akin to purity. There are many examples in paganism. Pallas Athena, Athens’ titular goddess, was a virgin and, taking the idea a step farther, the myth claims that she was not born of woman at all. She emerged directly from the forehead of her father- Zeus, a strange pathology indeed.

 In the New Testament, of course, Mary had to be married not only because any account of an unwed mother would have offended the moral sense of the world she lived in, but also to fulfill the prophecies. It was her husband Joseph, not her, who fulfilled the House of David prophecy in the Old Testament, no matter how illogical that might seem since he so clearly had no part in the child’s conception(2).

 There  seems to be a tension and ambivalence about Joseph in Greek thinking, at least on the popular level. His depiction in the wonderful Nativity Icon is telling. Mary with the Christ child is central and Joseph sits on the edge of the tableau looking rather glum. Other explanations for his demeanor are put forward but it does suggest a man not comfortable with his role having been usurped even by God or with a wife destined to be forever beyond his conjugal reach. Greeks who have traditionally given their sons the name of biblical heavy weights or saints have not traditionally invested heavily in the name Joseph.
Joseph in the Nativity Icon

 The Important thing to note, however,  is that after these two Councils, the Virgin Mary, or  Panagia, (All Holy in Greek), became a powerful figure in the Church  as well as the mighty  protectress of the Byzantine empire.

Her Icon

  Iconically, Mary  is depicted with a red cloak and is given three prominent gold stars, two on her shoulders and one centrally placed on her head covering, the three symbolic of her virginity before Christ’s conception, during her pregnancy, and after, -  a constant reminder of the Council of 553.  Apocryphal texts such as "The Nativity of Mary" and proto-Evangelion of James, although never incorporated into the Bible, provided details of her conception life and death and are considered to be true histories by the Church.

The Orthodox Church has not gone quite as far as the Roman Catholics who declare that she herself was free of sin at conception. In fact this doctrine seems to be gilding the lily and taking Mary yet another step away from the concept of her full humanity. The Orthodox do believe, however, that she was sinless in life and unlike other dead mortals who have to await resurrection at the Second Coming, was assumed into heaven bodily after her death. Unlike the Roman Catholics the Orthodox Church shies away from making this a dogmatic Assumption although she is always depicted wearing a red cloak (immortality) over a blue tunic (her humanity) so the idea seems implicit symbolically. The event is called her Dormition or ‘Falling Asleep'.  It is one of the four great Orthodox feast days held  in her honour  and is celebrated on August 15,- the most important  holy day in Greece, after Easter.

Mary as mediator

 Mary’s important role as mediator between suffering mankind and Christ is not altogether explicable by her role in the Incarnation.  Protestants, for example, prefer to speak to God directly, and Mary has never had a large role in their prayers. Was she simply the natural choice of worshippers in a world where powerful patrons were almost always approached indirectly through intermediaries?  Or was it the precedent of the pagan worship of Isis who as both mother and wife of the god Osiris interceded on the behalf of those who prayed to her? In the same era that Mary was declared Theotokos,  temples to Isis were in disrepute and closed. She inherited all of Isis’ epithets, including the rose, light of the world and so on (3)

 Of course, Saints could intercede as well, but Mary, as Christ’s mother, was deemed a surer pipeline to the top. There is a lovely story told by Greeks that goes like this: a poor man was stealing from the offering box left in the church and the priest, who had observed that when the poor man took the money, he always looked towards the large icon of Mary in the church, crossed himself, and asked for forgiveness. One evening, the priest positioned himself behind the icon and as the thief spoke to Mary, he intoned in a deep voice: My son, why are you taking my money?” Not missing a beat, the irate thief replied: I wasn’t talking to you; I was talking to your mother. Over majority of monasteries in Greece and innumerable churches are dedicated to Mary, so the dialogue is continuing.

In spite of her heavy program in Heaven, Mary has shown a willingness to travel. Sometimes this is personal appearance, but even more often in Orthodoxy, she has expressed her wishes or given her blessings through icons.

Her Icons take many forms, a subject in itself. In the iconic program she has the place of honour in the conch of the apse. A major symbol of Mary is  the Burning Bush; she is also depicted as the second Eve who, unlike the first, brings the hope of redemption

(1) It was a common ancient belief that women were merely the bearers of children, not that they actually contributed to the makeup of the Child genetically. When asked a favour one too many times by his mother Alexander the Great famously commented that she wanted a lot  in return for nine  month’s rent!

(2) There is one branch of Biblical scholarship that traces Mary back to the House of David as well.

(3)  Her epithets number in the thousands: All Merciful, Queen of Heaven, Mary of Just About Anywhere). My personal favorite is Panagia Kapsadematousa, Mary the Hay-burner. Behind this one, as behind every one, there is a story (I will tell in the Mani), a belief, a hope, or a locale sacred to Her or an action pertaining to Her.

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