Sermon on the Feast of the Praises of the Mother of God
(5th Saturday of Great Lent)
Rejoice, report doubtful to unbelievers!
Rejoice, undoubted boast of the faithful!
— 8th Ikos, Akathist to the Mother of God
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
Dear Brothers and sisters,
We sang these words last night as part of the Akathist to the Mother of God. They hold an especially deep meaning for us, who love and praise her but are surrounded by people who either openly despise her or diminish her role in the Divine Economy of our salvation. And yet, we also know that the true teaching regarding the Theotokos has been questioned and challenged many times throughout the Church’s two-thousand year history. Why, then, does the Church insist on the Orthodox veneration of Mary, the Mother of God? Why does the Church call Her “Most Holy” and insist on Her ever-virginity, not just before Christ’s birth but continuing for the rest of her earthly life? Why do we confess that She was the chosen vessel of God, the fulfillment of His preparation of Israel for the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ, and that no other woman could have borne this Awesome Mystery of the Incarnation?
There are two answers to these questions: First, the Church holds to these dogmas because they are unquestionably the Truth prophesied and prefigured by the Old Testament, fulfilled in Christ, and preached and recorded by the Apostles in the Gospels and Epistles. Yet some point to those same Gospels and make opposite conclusions. They cite Christ’s own words in the Gospel according to St Luke — Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it1 — and the similar passage from Apostle Matthew –Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother2 — as examples of Christ diminishing His mother’s importance. But we as Orthodox Christians know that any portion of the Scriptures must be read holistically, with the whole canon of Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Holy Fathers in mind.
These two instances must then be viewed in light of the first chapter of Luke, which tells of the Annunciation and of the Virgin Mary’s meeting with her cousin Elizabeth. Several times, we see that the Theotokos is far more than a random maiden who “fit the bill”. We see here the archangel’s greeting — Hail, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.3. In the next passage, the evangelist tells us …Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”.4 Even the Theotokos’ own reply to this salutation supports the Church’s deeply held veneration: For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.5 All are in accord: the archangel, mouthpiece of God; Elizabeth, who has been filled with the Holy Spirit; and Mary, the object of this praise.
In this context, Christ’s words in the earlier passages cannot be taken as a slight of His all-pure Mother. Rather, we see how beautifully Christ both honors His mother and makes her an example for others. For who among the human race “kept the Word of God” more perfectly than the Theotokos, who submitted herself to the Archangel’s pronouncement and remained obedient to the Good News of her Son’s Incarnation, Suffering, and Resurrection? Or who “did the will of the Father in Heaven” more perfectly than she who took part in the Incarnation of the God-Man — the fulfillment of the prophets and the salvation of Mankind? And so Christ does not allow the crowd to treat Her as special only because of her physical motherhood, a characteristic absolutely unique to the Most-Blessed One and impossible for any mortal to replicate. He instead makes of her an example to follow – if we keep the Word of God and do the will of our Father, we also can be blessed. The Theotokos is then our “undoubted boast” because she is the ideal to which we aspire, and the strongest intercessor for us before the throne of God – “for the supplication of a mother availeth much to win the Master’s favor.”6
The second answer to the questions we raised is that the Church understands that the Orthodox veneration of the Theotokos has implications for the true worship of Her Son. Any deviation from the Church’s teachings regarding the Mother of God ultimately stems from some Christological heresy. Such was the case in Constantinople in the year 428 A.D., when Nestorius ascended to the Patriarchal throne. He began to teach that one could not call the Virgin Mary “Theotokos”, but only “Christotokos”, meaning Birthgiver of Christ. St Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, immediately understood the implication — that Christ was not fully and truly God. St Cyril steadfastly countered Nestorius and several years later, the Nestorian heresy was condemned by the Third Ecumenical Council and the heresiarch himself deposed. Likewise must we preserve our love for the Mother of God in the face of all the modern world’s doubt and disbelief.
Let us then faithfully hold to the Faith of the Church, praising and venerating The Most Holy Theotokos in true Orthodox manner, never failing to make her our boast and our sure hope. By Her intercession, may the Lord God have mercy on us and save us and show us the Bright Day of His Holy Resurrection. Amen.
Deacon Peter Markevich is lecturer in Liturgics at Holy Trinity Seminary.
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