Often one may see pairs of Orthodox icons as in the photo above. If you are not Orthodox and know little of Orthodoxy, what do you see here? If you are flowing within certain large streams of Protestantism, which may have some bias against images and the veneration of the Lord’s mother due to that whole awkward situation with the Roman Church, what do you think of this common pairing of icons? I think some may see such pairings of icons of the same size and possibly get the uncomfortable feeling that Mary is being given approximately equal honor with the Lord Himself. If such a thought occurred at all, please look closer. The same person is featured most prominently in both. If you see the image on the right primarily as an image of Mary, you should now ask yourself why you did so. Christ is in both icons. In the icon on the right, the Lord’s mother is directing your attention to Him with her right hand. Christ in the form of a small child is God in the flesh, ruling the universe and holding it all together while His mother supports Him in her arms. It is wrong to think of Him as somehow not fully Christ the King, not fully the eternal God when He is a child.
As hard as it is to imagine how one person can be both fully human and fully God, I’m afraid we tend to find it easier to imagine this when we see him as a grown man than when we see Him as a toddler or infant. What arrogant fools we are! Do we think that we are substantially nearer to the wisdom and stature of God than an infant is to us? In fact, it is almost always the case that the little child is, in the ways that matter most, closer to God than the adult.
We love our children and don’t want them growing up so fast. Why is this? We want them to grow; part of the beauty of childhood which we enjoy so much is the steps they take in their development. I think part of the universal fascination we adults have with children comes from the fact that they are, in the most fundamental ways, better than we are. Their presence is healthy for us because of this. They have preserved something which we have lost, though perhaps it is only covered over with the gunk we’ve collected on top of it. This beauty, purity, and more that we can’t define in children is something which Christ did not lose or cover over. What is wonderful about little children was completely preserved in Him. He grew to be an adult while maintaining the beauty of childhood. He is still the child we see on the right as well as the adult we see on the left. To better understand Christ taking on the sickness of our human condition and saving us from our sin and death, I think the icon of Him as a little child is necessary. Imagine a little child, perhaps your own, discerning in his innocence and purity that you have messed yourself up and are too weak and immature to save yourself. Then, with the simple and pure love of a child’s heart, he enters into great suffering and faces death in order to help you. It’s a heartbreaking image, but it happened. That pure little innocent child was still there in full potency when Christ entered suffering and death for us.
The Lord’s mother is called “Theotokos” meaning “birth-giver to God.” In a broader sense, humanity gave birth to God so that He is “the Son of Man” as well as, in being the “new Adam,” the father of redeemed humanity. The Theotokos was told, when her Son was very young, “a sword shall pierce your own soul also.” Christians of every stripe are familiar with that prophecy and mostly think “Yes, her natural, personal attachment to Him made his suffering and death hard for her as it is hard for any mother to outlive her child.” I think it goes deeper than we may think at first glace.
At times when I have my really big worries about the future, I hope that hard times (perhaps complete collapse of civilization) will come later when my little sons are men, because I couldn’t bear to see them suffer through it as children. Children can surprise us with their strength through suffering, so why is it we can’t bear the thought of their suffering when very young? Deep down, I think it has something to do with the inherent beauty and innocence of little children. The Theotokos came to know a child in whom that quality of childhood was all the more powerful and in whom, as He grew, was never lost. When she witnessed His suffering and death, she saw that full purity and innocence despised, attacked, and tormented to the death. Still, I think there is more to the “sword” which pierced her soul.
The innocence and purity of my children often brings to mind my lack of what they have and how lamentable it is that their father is not a better man. I enjoy their presence and am nourished by it, but their purity can also be a fire that burns. Well, you can see where I’m going with this. When the great and holy prophets had clear encounters with God or the angels, they clearly found it painful. Daniel fell and became like a dead man. Peter said “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Nearness to holiness and the divine presence is painful for the sinner, though it may be welcomed. What was it like to contain in the womb the uncreated fire of God and to be there, intimately involved, as God himself was revealed in every stage of human development? When an Orthodox Christian hears the term “the burning bush” we think of her. She burned with the Eternal Fire and was not consumed. She endured a closeness of the presence of God far greater than Isaiah had in his vision making him cry out “woe is me!” but still was sufficiently comfortable to continually perform all the functions and tasks of childbearing and motherhood. She did not fall down as if dead when encountering the archangel and never told her little boy “depart from me,” though she knew Him far better than Peter did when he spoke those words.
We believe that the Theotokos must have been, by the grace of God, entirely pure when she gave birth to God. She is seen as the last in a line of Old Testament saints which increased in holiness as good parents raised even better children until one came who could bear the continual presence of the uncreated Fire within her. Jesus Christ restored the whole of human nature, male and female, old and young, in Himself. It was fitting that the image of restored humanity, male and female, should be seen at once through the God-child with His mother.
“Thou who didst carry in thy womb the Fountain of immortality, enliven me who am slain by sin.“