Marin Mihalache 

The Creed of the Orthodox Church states that Jesus Christ “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary and became man”. According to Luke’s Gospel (I, 26-38) and Church Tradition, nine month before the birth in the body of Jesus, God sent the angel Gabriel to a virgin whose name was Mary announcing her that she will conceive and give birth to a son who will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel revealed to Mary “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. ”

The doctrine of the Orthodox Church teaches that the virgin birth is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. The Savior of this world cannot be one born of the flesh only like all the race of Adam. As long as the man must be saved, he alone cannot save himself and the world, but only God can save both the world and the man himself. At the same time, the Savior must be human to share with man the human nature, though He is God also. To accomplish God’s plan to save the man, the Savior of the world must therefore be fully God and fully man.

Christ's incarnation by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary was the fulfillment of the hope of all mankind and the election of the Virgin Mary is the culminating point of Israel’s progress towards reconciliation with God. Salvation needed “new root” (God the word made flesh) and the Virgin Mary was His “temple”. The Byzantine theology praises the Virgin as “fully prepared”, “cleansed” and “sanctified” for this moment and mission from God. However, this is not understood as a false idolization of virginity, or in direct relation with sexuality. Mary was indeed a mortal being, in the line of her genealogical tree of ancestors.

Jesus Christ was born as a true man “since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature (being) made like His brethren in every respect…” (Hebrew, 2:14-17). Mary, “the Ever-Virgin” is also called “Theotokos”, ( “the one who gives birth to God” ). Her child is the eternal and divine Son of God in human flesh. Mary was not only “Christotokos” or “Anthropotokos”, but Theotokos, who gave birth to the Son of God, who did not cease to be God in His full divinity, while becoming a perfect man in full humanity.

There are a few Orthodox theologians like Genuadios Scholarios (+1472) who accepted to think in the Western categories and concept of original sin and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He wrote: “The grace of God delivered her completely just as if she had not been conceived bodily (“sic”)…Thence, because she was completely liberated from the ancestral guilt of punishment – a privilege which she is the only one of the human race to have received – her soul is altogether inaccessible to the clods of (impure) thoughts, and she became, in body and soul, a divine sanctuary”. However, the official and canonical understanding of the Orthodox Church concerning the virgin conception of Mary finds its basis in the decree of the Council of Ephesus and the theology of Saint Cyril of Alexandria which called Mary “Theotokos” or “Mother of God”.

To understand the difference between the Orthodox and Catholic understanding of the virgin birth, a distinction should be made, however, from the beginning between mortality and guilt. Mary was a mortal being but this does not mean that she also was necessary “guilty”, or in bondage of the original sin. For this reason, the Western Christendom’s dogma of Immaculate Conception of Mary can be accepted only if we accept the Western’s doctrine of original sin. For although Mary responded to the angel’s good news about her status as “the new Eve” who will give birth to a “new race”, this does not imply or mean that at the Holy Annunciation she also had received a special grace of immortality; rather the Virgin Mary has not inherited the guilt but only the effects of the original sin.

It seems, however, almost impossible to figure out the dogma of virginal conception if we don’t relate it to the true understanding of the person and nature of Jesus Christ and His Incarnation. There is no separation between the Son of God and the Word of God, Jesus Christ “begotten of the Father before all ages” and Mary’s son. There is the personal, hypostatic identity of Jesus Christ with the pre-existent Logos. God became our Savior by becoming man. But this “humanization” of God came through Mary who is thus elevated in God’s secret “oikonomia” of salvation. Mary is the mother of “somebody” “not something”. She is the mother of the Incarnate Logos. From here the conclusion seems rather clearer. Since Jesus Christ is the salvation of man Mary represents a real participation of man “in Christ”. Then everybody who is “in Christ” is part of Mary also, and therefore Mary becomes the mother of the whole body of Christ. Christ is the Head, Mary is the Body of the Church of all those who are in Christ ( “Total Christ, totus Christus, caput et corpus” ).

Thus, the Virgin Mother of God became the mother of all manhood. The popular piety of the Virgin Mary in the Orthodox Church could be explained by the closeness of Mary with Christ, of Christ with the Church, a simple faithful way to acknowledge the doctrine of hypostatic union in Christ of divinity and humanity. The whole dogmatic understanding of Virgin birth of Mary could be figured out in Mary’s two names: “Mother of God” and “Ever-Virgin”, although these names cannot be found in the Holy Scripture. But the biblical statements ( “Incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” or “Born of Virgin Mary” ) are confessions of faith not only historical facts.

“Theotokos” this “mariological” term is the key for the whole Christology or “certain the full mystery” of the Incarnation in the words of Saint John of Damascus. A wise explanation of this term leads to the right understanding of Christology and vice-versa. To ignore or to misinterpret the meaning of “Ever-Virgin” or “Theotokos” is to be deprived of the right understanding of Christ Himself. In other words the dogma of “ever-virginity” is included and in direct connection with the dogma of Incarnation. Mary did not carry in her womb just “a common man, but the true God, yet not naked, but incarnate”. Or the Only-Begotten of the Father, “in the last days” was born of the Virgin “without any change” (Saint John of Damascus).

Concerning the mystery of divine motherhood of the Virgin Mary, it can be said that a “new” person came into being when the Son of Mary, the Eternal Son of God was incarnate. Motherhood means a personal relation between two persons, in this case a mother and a child, not something abstract, but rather very real because indeed the Word of God “was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) and Mary was the true mother of her child and between them was a genuine relation of love as between any mother and her child, both biologically as well as spiritually, unique and mutual maternal love. The essence of this relation was also both affection and love.

No “docetical” reduction is possible, but at the same time we cannot ignore that motherhood is to be not exhausted by the fact of physical procreation. Other way, the Incarnation won’t be genuine, although the miraculous character of this case cannot be ignored either. But at the same time it is not allowed to us to vulgarize the sacred and unparalleled intimacy between the Virgin Mary and the Divine Child. Virgin Mary has not been a mere channel for the Incarnation of Jesus. For Christ didn’t come “as through a pipe”, but has assumed her, a human nature consubstantial to ours, as Saint John of Damascus described it.

Assuming the mystery of Incarnation, Mary “has found favor with God” and was chosen to be set apart, to represent the human race. Her unique and unparalleled relation with God, to the Holy Trinity was not only a problem of a certain time, but of eternity. To the Virgin Mary God had given this privilege before the Incarnation and after this in all history of mankind. Mary was to be and remain Virgin because of the special place given to her in the perspective of the eternal consummation of that decree of God. In order to restore the human nature and according with the divine plan of salvation, Jesus has taken the humanity from the Virgin Mary and sanctified her. Jesus saved Adam and the fallen humanity through the body taken from that nature. Through the Incarnation has been “The second man” which “is the Lord from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47)

As the mother of “Last Adam, Mary was deeply involved by participating in this mystery of the redemption of the world and at the same time fulfilling hers calling and been saved herself. For herself needed the Redeemer to be saved. By participating in this new sacred birth every one of us can be adopted as children of God. The Mother of God, through the Incarnation remains in solidarity with the rest of mankind. Christ’s Incarnation (and then Redemption) was announced to the Virgin Mary in a personal and mystical manner: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall ever shadow thee.” (Luke 1:35)

And after this “theophanic presence” or “anticipated Pentecost” , Mary was “full of grace (gratia plena). But Mary is not only virgin, but Virgin-Mother continuing “the human race” (past) and renewing it forever. For the Nativity belongs to the mystery of salvation. The Son of God became of the Son of Virgin, through “the synergia” of God and man cooperation. Mary prepared and ready responds to God’s call to her mission “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to they word” . Saint Irenaeus later wrote on the same theological theme that as Eve has been seduced by an angel by its speech, so the Virgin Mary has obeyed the Spirit of God. The fullness of grace was received by the Blessed Virgin in the purity preserved by the Holy Spirit. But this does not imply necessary an abolition of sin as long as the sin was destroyed only on the Cross, not even by the Incarnation itself, although the Incarnation was the beginning of the New Creation. But only through Redemption we can understand that which was “under veil” in the Incarnation. Mary kept in her soul the secret of the Incarnation, this unique experience in the history of mankind… “but Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” . Perhaps, even the Blessed Virgin didn’t grasp in all the fullness the implication of that crucial moment of human history. Because that gift of grace to bear in the womb even the Son of God was only a part from the larger mystery of salvation itself. The mystery of Incarnation is also the mystery of Mary’s existence and her “Ever-Virginity”. For the virginity is not only a physical status, but also a spiritual and inner attitude. More precisely are both and even more. For this reason “Ever-Virgin” perhaps doesn’t refer only to a Virgin Birth. The purity of mind, soul and body are in perfect correlation. And besides, we do not know what is more pure in the sight of God, or what is to be virgin in relation with Him. For we ought to remember always Peter’s vision and God’s voice warning that what He calls clean we cannot call unclean. That preserved purity and virginity, faithfulness and attachment to God are only preparation to receive the unspeakable God’s relation, in secret and silence, or rather “to see” Him. He, Himself, through the Holy Spirit might prepare us for such a mystical meeting when he puts in us the seeds that we have to bear.

In fact, in a different way every one of us can receive the holy “seed” from God, but maybe we are not enough receptive to it, or we don’t work enough to make that seed to grow and bear the fruits in the womb of our life. To be “handmaid of the Lord” , how the Virgin Mary was means probably to have that condition which enable us to receive that eternal gift of virginity. And then, nor sin, nor even death, not defilement can corrupt us or enslave to darkness as long as we are already the children of light. According to Saint Paul the virginity is proper for Mary who had all the times the Lord in her mind so that she may be holy in the spirit and the body. (1 Corrintians 7:34). Nothing can be said exactly about the mystery of Incarnation and Ever-Virginity but for somebody who lives in the Church the faith is good enough. Here the reality of that which was and the mystery is made present. And it is not a biblical teaching that faith is to believe even in the things which cannot be seen? Christ Himself blessed those who didn’t see and believed. The mother of Life is also the mother of God “who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb” as well as of the those of Christian faith at all time and places In the Church we are already incorporated into Christ and thus in the mystery of the Incarnation and “Ever-Virginity”. The mystery of Mary is in fact the mystery of the Church. For the Church like the Virgin-Mother gives birth to the New Life, the Life in Christ. For like Mary kept in her memory all the testimonies to the divinity of her Son, in the same way the Tradition of the Church preserves its mysteries. For it is Saint John Damascus who said: “The name of the Mother of God contains all the history of the divine economy in this world.” The Virgin Mary alike the Church remains in history with the sinners to fulfill their special vocation and to participate in God’s plan of salvation of the fallen man. Instead of an unnecessary complicate doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary, or a protestant silence on this subject, the Orthodox Church acknowledges through faith, worship and tradition the virgin conception of Mary, acclaiming her in a daily liturgical service as “more honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, who without spot didst bear the Eternal Word.”

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