Theotokos

The Ever Virgin Mary: My Bull’s- Eye Theory

“Failure is not the problem.  The problem is low aim.” — Dr. Benjamin Mays

Yes, I believe that Mary was a virgin through-out her life.  This belief was central in early church doctrine, continued (though somewhat skewed) in Roman Catholicism, and was unchallenged by the first wave of church reformers.  It wasn’t until the more radical reformed churches came into being that the perpetual virginity of Mary was questioned and rejected.  Many make this error based on the scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters with His mother waiting to speak to Him even though in that culture one’s cousins were also counted as siblings.  Others are misled by the text where Joseph did not know (as in carnal knowledge) Mary until she bore her son and named him Jesus.  This is a translation problem for in the same Gospel, Jesus declares He will be with us until the end of the age.  By that logic, after the end of the age, Jesus will no longer be with us.  Also, if Jesus did have blood siblings as we define them by our western standard, why is it that he left the care of His mother to a disciple rather than one of the children she supposedly gave birth to?

O Virgin Pure

Perhaps the most disturbing and failed excuse for rejecting Mary as ever virgin is that “she was still human.”  Yes, I believe and the Church teaches that Mary was fully human.  But, is it wise to believe that the natural state of humanity is to wallow in desires of the flesh, or to pursue purity and unity with God? If we aim for the best standard of physical pleasure, sex in heterosexual marriage, we aim for what God has ordained under the Old Covenant, which is good.  As humans, we have a chronic tendency to fall short of our goals.  Pursuing pleasure often distracts us from our goals.  In fact, we tend to excuse personal fulfillment of pleasure as a greater good (“all is fair in love and war”).  Combine aiming for the lesser goal with our tendency to fall short of our goals and the distraction of pleasure and you have a recipe for a society doomed for sexual failure.  It is like a darts thrower who never aims for the bull’s eye.  If there is no central point that he seeks, he will barely reach the inner circle where there is great value.  Instead, his darts will land on various parts of the board (at best) and may even stray far away from the board and hit by-standers causing injury.

But, let a society pursue the purity of an ever virgin Mary.  There is an unusual purity to aim for; to be human and offer one’s sexuality as a sacrifice as a celibate.  It was through the Virgin that the Savior was born and He was also celibate as he was fully human as well.  Mary becomes the bull’s-eye the dart thrower aims for.  With a central target, the thrower will still not make his goal all of the time.  But, he can hit the safe and valuable inner circle of holy matrimony.  A darts-man who hits this circle with regularity is as admired as the one who hits the bull’s-eye.  Novices at darts that constantly strive for the bull’s-eye will improve from hitting the wall, to hitting the outer areas of the board, to hitting either the highest targets of monasticism or matrimony. And this may be the root of why our modern society is engulfed in sexual immorality; rejecting the ever virginity of the fully human Mother of God has taken away the spiritual bull’s-eye that we should strive for in our sexuality.  We don’t see that supreme holiness can be born in us and in one another.  If we cannot see this possibility, then it is difficult to see ourselves and one another as much beyond potential sex partners.  We dehumanize each other in the worst ways.  Men are seen as lovable but brutal.  Women, especially in modern pornography, are treated in ways that if they really were dogs, the PETA would break every law in the world to protect them.  Even outside of porn, our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are too frequently thought of,  referred to, and treated as less than the icon made by  God that they are as we men are.

This is not to say that those of us who hold Mary to be Ever Virgin are perfect in obtaining sexual purity.  We are probably as bad as, and in some cases worse than anyone else.  But, holding her as one who abstained from sex even after giving birth gives us an example to aim for.  And if one constantly aims for the bulls-eye, the result will be to the better.

The Journey Continues: The Dormition Fast

One of my frat brothers posted a photo of himself being led out to “the block” on the first day of the pledge line on Facebook.  I am not sure who took the photo of me the same day.  But, I put this up on my page as well.

Beginning the Journey (@ John Gresham)

Back then, to pledge a Greek-letter organization was a journey.  The big brothers would place all sorts of challenges and obstacles before us as test to see if we had the mettle to strive for our goal.  The aim was to complete the 4 to 6 week pledge process, participate in the rituals, and become brothers of the fraternity.  I am very glad that I “crossed the burning sands” to become a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American college fraternity.  So, what does my pledging Alpha have to do with the journey that I am on now?  My desire to become an Orthodox Christian (which will not happen this or next year) does come complete with some burning sands of its own.  Among these is maintaining a fast that no good Baptist would even think about observing.

To us of the Calvinist line, the Virgin Mary’s significance is pretty much spent after she gives birth to Jesus.  We may mention that Christ told John to take her into his home as his mother at the crucifixion.  Other than that, we see where the 12 -year-old Son of God had to be about His Father’s business in Jerusalem rather than keep up with His earthly parents.  We also see where any elder woman who does His Father’s will is His mother.  So, for us to voluntarily surrender eating meat, dairy, fish with bones (save the feast of the Holy Transfiguration on Aug 6th), and marital sexual relations for two weeks in her honor is a very tall order.  To make a special effort to improve our prayer lives, scripture reading, and love for others in remembrance of this woman instead of her Son seems to shift the focus of our devotion to someone other than God.  Besides, black and white Baptist churches in my part of the world begin holding Homecoming and Revival Services where we feast on spirit-filled preaching, anointed singing, and plenty of good food.

What we ignore is that in John taking Mary as his mother is that the ageing faithful are to be cared for as directive of Christ.  Frederica Matthews-Green brings up an interesting point in her podcast on the Dormition Fast.  We don’t mind taking care of a helpless infant as much because the baby will grow and be able to take care of it’s self.  Taking care of an elderly person who becomes more and more helpless is a far greater challenge as they will eventually die.  Death is our common destiny.  The love of Christ extends as a baby to his youthful mother.  It also extends as a dying man to a mother who will also die.  Thus, this season is to remind us to have tender love for one another as we are all on a journey that leads us to the end of this life.  By following the Light that gives Life to all, our journey will lead to eternal life with Him.

Dormition of the Theotokos

In the frat, we learned the organizations history, “steps,” and traditions through repetition and enduring hardships.  Those critics on the outside ridiculed us saying that we shouldn’t have to go through all that just to wear “some letters.”  Sometimes the lessons of Christian living are best learned by enduring some sort of challenge or obstacle that reminds us to rely on God and his mercy rather than our own understanding and will.  There is no doubt in my mind that Mary was greatly loved by the first Christians.  Her loss was mourned, and then celebrated as the Mother of God (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God – John 1:1) was accepted into heaven.  Thus, the ancient church fathers and mothers began the practice of fasting and ending the fast with a great feast in her honor.  I see the purpose and wisdom in this observance and voluntarily embrace it.

On To Pentecost: Accepting Mary the Theotokos

As a teenager, I once raised my voice in disrespect to my mother.  My Father was in the house.  My parents were (are, as they are still alive) old school when it came to corporal punishment.  In my childhood, I knew that when I did wrong, I would get a spanking.  An hour or two afterwards, all was forgiven.  I never thought that they hated me or were going to kill me, no matter how much I angered them.  That time, as I look back at it, I praise God that daddy only fussed at me.  If he would have laid one finger on me, he would have killed me.  That is the angriest I had ever seen my father until this very day.

So, I can’t help but to wonder how we anger God the Son when we Protestants vocalize similar disdain and disrespect toward the woman who brought Him into the world.  “MARY DOES NOT SAVE YOU!  ONLY JESUS SAVES YOU!  YOU NEED TO READ YOUR BIBLE!”  Of course, ultimate salvation comes from believing in Jesus Christ.  He and He alone came down from heaven, was crucified, and rose from the grave.  The Holy Trinity that we worship is the three persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Mary was a human being and cannot be included in the divine Godhead.  Anyone who proclaims anything different is a heretic that needs to be corrected.  Yet by her very character, role in our salvation, and the meaning of her presence; Mary should be honored and respected by all Christians.

 

The late Patriarch Paulos  of Ethiopia.  This man has studied the Bible in Geez, Amharic, Greek, Slavonic, and English.

The late Patriarch Paulos of Ethiopia. This man has studied the Bible in Geez, Amharic, Greek, Slavonic, and English.

 

First of all, that Mary was a virgin.  She was pure and untouched through any lawful or unlawful sexual contact.  We are taught by the Apostle Paul to think of things that are pure and praiseworthy.  In our over sexed society where even our ministers are engaging in illicit activities, it only makes sense that we would uphold someone who has kept herself from human intercourse.  In our society, women are frequently refered to in rather unflattering terms (need I give you examples?).  Here is one woman who cannot be regarded with such vulgar labels.  Which is more that God the Father confirmed her character by sending Gabriel to her with these words;

Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!  (Luke 1:28)

If God the Father favors and was with this pure woman, why then shouldn’t Mary be a part of our Christian living?  And what has been the result of not making her and her virgin character a part of our Protestant pursuit of holy living?  It is no wonder that Satan has had an easy time convincing us to disregard sexual purity.  When the blessing and favor of celibacy is ignored, we readily succumb to fornication as a way of life.  Without the iconic example of being clean, we frequently turn to the mild filth of sexually suggestive comedy and drama, horrific crimes of child molestation and rape, and everything in between the extremes.  This is not to say that venerating an icon of the Theotokos will instantly cure lust (oh, how I wish it would).  But, reflecting on the story of her purity and devotion to the One she gave birth to is a way to refocus our minds on the right way to look at our selves sexually. 

Old Time Religion

As I preached at Trinity Baptist Church yesterday, Mary was a virgin not only with her body.  She was virginal in her close associations as well.  She was betrothed to Joseph of the house of David and  spent three months with her cousin, Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias the priest.  Perhaps she had one or two shady acquaintances.  But, her loving ties were with people who knew how to walk with God.  Furthermore, Mary had to have a pure relationship with God.  When Isaiah was in God’s presence, he fell on his face and cried out “woe to me.”  Eve tried to hide herself from God because of her sin.  In the company of Gabriel (who had previously appeared only to a prophet and priest), Mary was troubled about the greeting and wondered what he meant.  Isn’t this what we want of our kids, spouses, and ourselves?  Don’t we want pure bodies, close friendships with God-fearing people, and a secure walk of faith?  And if so, what is wrong with giving honor (not worship) to the woman who embodies these blessings and gave birth to our Savior?

As a Baptist pastor, I cannot and will not just walk in the church with an icon of the Theotokos and tell everyone to venerate and make prostrations.  But, in my private prayer life, I see the beauty, theology, and value in giving her proper honor as taught in the Orthodox Church.