Giving Birth to God.

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 saintsĀ  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.

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6 Responses to Giving Birth to God.

  1. Excellent post, Edwin! How does the the Orthodox view of Mary differ from the Catholic view? Based on what I’ve read in other sources, it’s been suggested that the reason the Catholics elevated Mary may have been due to errors in the Latin translations. Luke 1:28-30?

  2. Ed Smith says:

    That could be a topic for fairly lengthy discussion. I know of one sense in which inadequacies of the Latin influenced Augustine and eventually led to one way in which the Catholics separated her from the rest of us. This had to do with “original sin.” In his theology, which was very influential in the West, we were all guilty of Adam’s sin. The Latin makes it sound this way, but the Greek does not. The Greek tells us we all inherited a sickness (mortality) which made us prone to sin, as opposed to being guilty of sin at birth. This problem with Latin even led Augustine to conclude that unbaptized infants would not be saved. The Roman Marian doctrine of the immaculate conception (which is really rather appalling in more than one way), resulted from a need to exempt her from this inborn contamination so that she could bear such a close presence of God within her.

    • I remembered where I had heard this about Mary. It was in the video called “Lamp in the Dark” about the history of the Bible. The video says that Erasmus said the Latin (in Luke 1) should have been rendered “Hail, oh one who has found grace!” or “Hail, oh favored one!” Other Latin texts translations had rendered it, “Hail, oh one that is full of grace!” The historian in this documentary went on to say that in Midievel times they viewed Mary as a “resevoir” of grace based on the Latin text. As you probably know, Erasmus went back to the Greek and then rewrote the scriptures in a new Latin text–based on the original Greek manuscripts. At least, that is what the video claims. I can see what you mean about the original sin problem and them having to find a way to some how exempt her from sin’s contamination.

  3. Ed Smith says:

    What you have brought up is the same kind of thing. In the RCC, there arose an idea that the saints had accumulated extra “merits” which could be applied to others who didn’t have enough and this is where indulgences came from. In Protestantism, there is the same kind of legal bookkeeping, but the change is that sinners receive directly from the main “Bank of Christ” rather than the “lesser branches” and it usually is thought to occur in a more automatic way. That is the “imputed righteousness.” It is my understanding that Catholics regard these merits as coming ultimately from Christ as well, but flowing through human conduits, in some cases. As they define the immaculate conception, Mary received imputed merits from Christ in advance of His incarnation. She ended up with more than she needed, so they could go to others.

    In Orthodoxy, there is no such legal bookkeeping. The problem is not the balancing of accounts, but fixing what is wrong–healing what is sick or wounded by evil. After the evil and the harm of evil is erased, God does not hold grudges about things which no longer exist and He wishes us to have the same attitude. In fact, until we have the same attitude, we are have rejected our own healing.

  4. greg says:

    Again, interesting. So, you mentioned that Mary arose to a certain level of purity (through godlier and godlier lineage) that eventually allowed her to be a worthy conduit for Christ’s birth. My words, not yours. But, you’re not saying she was sinless correct?

  5. Ed Smith says:

    You acknowledged these were your words and not mine, but “worthy conduit” is not something I would say. In my mind, the phrase bears the connotation of a legal position or of God not being willing to be so close to someone who is impure. Jesus never shied away from sinners or even sinful lepers. “Sufficiently healthy conduit” is more what I have in mind. It has to do with what I mentioned about some of our holiest prophets being very uncomfortable even in the presence of an angel. At least with Isaiah and Peter, this discomfort had something to do with an awareness of their own sin. So, the idea is that the Lord’s mother would have found the experience of carrying God in flesh within her to be too hard to bear if she was also carrying sins.

    As for “sinless,” you probably mean to ask whether she ever sinned. The Orthodox Church doesn’t have a dogma regarding that, though it seems that most people assume she never sinned. The Church Fathers have speculated or argued in different directions on that issue. I don’t personally know how anyone can be sure whether she ever sinned. I think it is universally assumed that sin no longer had anything to do with her by the time she became pregnant. So, it would be very much in line with the Orthodox attitude to say that it doesn’t matter whether her personal history included some sin prior to that. In the Orthodox understanding, salvation has nothing to do with erasing lines from a rap sheet or dealing with some grudge God would hold against us for our previous sins; it is about healing what has been damaged by sin. When an Orthodox Christian says “Mary is sinless,” it may have nothing to do with whether she ever sinned in her personal history, but it would mean that she is just as if she had never sinned. Notice I say “she is just as if” rather than “it is just as if,” the emphasis being ontological rather than forensic.

    The idea of anyone thinking Mary may not have sinned tends to offend the sensibilities of many Protestants and you may right now be planning to write back reminding me of the scripture saying “all have sinned.” However, you also believe the “all” to be qualified in some way. If not, I suppose it would have to indicate that anyone with the capacity to choose sin has chosen to sin. But you probably believe (why do you?) that the angels have not sinned though some from their ranks chose sin in the past. If you consider it reasonable by context to say the qualification is “all humans,” then I’ll remind you that Jesus is human and we have an exception. Additionally, I don’t believe that small children have sinned, so there are quite a few exceptions, though sin is widespread. Regardless of how an Orthodox Christian might answer that question regarding Mary’s personal history, she still needed salvation–healing of that which has been damaged by sin–whether she personally sinned or not. She inherited death and an inclination to sin, but has gone beyond it. Orthodoxy also holds that our own problem is not past sins, but death and the inclination to sin which results from death. Death doesn’t just mean physical death, but our current weakness.

    Thank you for your interest. I could go on, but my verbosity may already be greater than your interest.

    –Ed

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