now, let us reason together, saith the Lord. Though your sins be as
scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be as red as
crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, you
shall reap the good of the Lamb.
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. This week’s topic
is the Marian Necessity.
I still have a few more things to say in the series on The Naked Public
Square, but this being the Feast of the Nativity of our Lady, I thought
I would offer a few words on her significance today. Look for part six,
“Put Not Your Trust in Princes,” in the coming weeks.
It is surely significant that the first major feast of the new Church
year, which began on September 1, is the Nativity of our Lady on the
eighth. It is equally significant that the last major feast of the
Church year is the Falling Asleep of our Lady. From birth to death, the
Church year liturgically recapitulates the life of the Theotokos, and in
doing so, sums up the totality of our own lives. For, in a real sense,
the story of Mary is the story of us all, if we would but follow her
Perhaps the one thing about Orthodoxy that frustrates
Protestants the most is our devotion to our Lady. Needless to say, if
you wanted to introduce a Protestant friend to Orthodoxy, the vigil of a
Marian feast would probably not be the best place to start. And yet, the
question as to why we venerate the Virgin can easily be turned around.
Why do others not venerate
her, especially when our Lady herself said that every generation would
call her blessed?
Let’s go back to the time when Marian devotion first became
controversial. Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople in the early
part of the fifth century. One day, he invited a bishop named Proclus to
give a sermon. Proclus chose to preach on the Virgin, and extolled her
in such a lavish manner that Nestorius felt the need to offer rebuttal
right then and there. The struggle was on.
Now, Nestorius was prepared to tolerate a certain amount of poetic
license when it came to encomiums of the Virgin, but for some reason, he
found Proclus’ reference to the Virgin as the temple of God to be a step
too far. You see, Proclus had ascribed to Mary the title that Nestorius
ascribed to Christ. To his way of thinking, Proclus’ Mariology was
impinging on the doctrine of Christ himself.
Nestorius seems to have taught that one can, at least
theoretically, make a distinction between the man, Jesus Christ, and the
Logos of God, the second Person of the Trinity. I say “seems” because
there is a small cottage industry dedicated to proving that Nestorius
was not really a Nestorian. Most of this is based on a very strange book
he wrote late in life called The
Bazaar of Heracleides. It has always struck
me as peculiar that modern scholars, who almost never take the Fathers
at face value—there always has to be some secret meaning or hidden
political motive for everything they say—almost always take the self-serving
ravings of heretics at face value. I consider the Bazaar to
be a bizarre, eleventh-hour attempt at self-rehabilitation on Nestorius’
part, and I seriously doubt that it can serve as a useful guide to
understanding his earlier works, but I digress.
For Nestorius, Christ is the temple of God, that is, the
human being in whom God the Logos dwells. Our salvation is accomplished
as a result of this divine indwelling and the moral relationship of
obedience between Christ-the-man and the Logos that this doctrine
implies. When asked, “Who died on the Cross?” any honest Nestorian would
answer, “The man, Jesus, suffered and died on the Cross, but the Logos is
the Lord of glory.” Thus salvation is wrought, not by the power of God,
but by the moral cooperation between Christ-the-man and the Logos.
Needless to say, this is completely at odds with our understanding
of salvation. We are not saved
because the man Jesus was obedient to
the Logos unto death, thereby releasing us from the penalty of our
disobedience. We are saved, because the Logos incarnate was obedient to
his heavenly Father, even unto death, sharing with
penalty of our disobedience, so that that penalty might be completely
As Orthodox Christians, we confess what some refer to as a “single
subject” Christology, that is, we believe that while Christ was fully
human, possessing both a human body and mind (or soul), the subject of
all of Christ’s actions, whether he is said to eat or touch or heal or
die on the Cross, the subject of all of these actions is not some
separate human being called Jesus Christ, but the second Person of the
Trinity, who for us and for our salvation became man.
The clearest and most concise exposition of Orthodox soteriology is
found in the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. Basil. I won’t read it all,
but the climax is this:
himself a ransom unto death…
Notice to whom the ransom is paid: not to God the Father, but to death.
we are held, sold unto sin, and by the Cross having descended into
Hades, that he might fill all things with himself, he loosed the
pains of death, and being risen again on the third day, he made a
way for all flesh unto the resurrection of the dead, because it was
not possible for the Author of Life to be holden of corruption.
Christ saves us, not because he has effected some sort of
legal transaction—one righteous life given for a world full of sinners—but
because he is God incarnate: God on
the Cross, God in
Hades, destroying death and the dominion of the devil, from the inside.
When Proclus proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the temple of God, Nestorius
understood rightly, I think, that Proclus was ascribing things to Mary
that rightly belonged to Nestorius’ conception of Christ.
A few years ago, I did an article for St.
Vlad’s Quarterly in
which I argued that [in] the development of Marian hymnography during
the so-called “Byzantine Period,” there was a deliberate attempt to
ascribe things to Mary that Nestorius would prefer we ascribe only to
Christ. I used the hymnography of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the
Temple as a prime example. I think I even did a podcast on this. In a
very real sense, the Church’s Mary is actually Nestorius’ Christ.
Why would the Church do this? Well, first of all, to make
it clear that we do not accept
Nestorius’ Christology. We believe not in an assumed man, morally
conjoined with the Logos of God, but rather confess oneincarnate
Lord: Jesus Christ, God and man at the same time.
But there is another reason why we emphasize the role of
the Virgin Mary. Heretics are never wrong about everything. As I’ve said
before, heresy is usually a case of trying to reduce the faith down to
something that is rationally acceptable,
but in so doing, there is always an element of truth that gets distorted.
In Nestorius’ case, he was certainly correct in seeing an important human role
in the drama of salvation. God does not simply save us against our will.
God requires that we become his co-workers.
Nestorius’ mistake was to split our Lord up into the
obedient human and the divine Logos. Ironically, in doing so, the human
element actually gets swallowed up by the action of the divine in
Nestorius’ thought. For those of you interested in technical historical
details, Fr. John Romanides has argued that Nestorius was actually the source for
the later heresies of Monophysitism and Monoenergism.
Be that as it may, by exalting our Lady as man’s yes to
God, as the obedient servant of the Lord, as the human temple of the
Logos, the Church underscores the active role that humanity plays in the
drama of salvation. The Virgin is, in a very literal sense, the stand-in
for all of humanity. It is she who utters, on our behalf, the fiat: “Let
it be unto me according to my word.”
But, you ask, does this not impinge upon the uniqueness
of Christ and his work? Only if you have a Nestorian Christology. The
Virgin Mary is the one human who cooperates completely and fully with
God. It is she who undoes the disobedience of Eve by her obedience.
Remember, I said a couple of weeks ago that the only sense
that an Orthodox Christian can speak about human progress is the
progress from Eve to our Lady. The Virgin is the apex of human progress.
And yet, there is a limit even to
what a perfectly obedient human can do. Mary could and did say yes to
God in the most perfect way possible, but that yes by
itself could not save man from death. She herself died. Only God, God
made flesh, a crucified God, as the Fathers put it, could destroy death
from the inside and make a path for all to the resurrection from the
So we see that the Orthodox veneration of the Virgin Mary
is necessary to preserve both the uniqueness of Christ, that is, the God-man’s
work of salvation, while at the same time preserving the absolute
necessity of human cooperation
with God. Christ is our one and only Savior, but Mary is our role model.
More than that, Mary sums up what it means to be truly human. That is
why the liturgical year begins with her birth and ends with her death
I was reminded of this last week at the Dormition of our beloved
Archbishop †Dmitri of Dallas. He died in the wee hours of August 28,
which happens to be August 15 on the Old Calendar. In reading the
accounts of his falling asleep, I was reminded of the words to the
troparion of the Dormition:
birthgiving, thou didst not forsake thy virginity, and in falling
asleep, thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. As thou art
the mother of Life, thou was translated unto life, and by thy
prayers, thou dost deliver our souls from death.
The archbishop was cared for around the clock by his parishioners and
spiritual children. His passing was, by all accounts, painless,
blameless, and peaceful, the kind of death we all entreat of the Lord
for ourselves. How fitting, that he was translated unto life on the
Feast of the Dormition. By the way, though he served on the New Calendar,
he would have been received into the Church and ordained on the Old.
You see, Mary’s story is our story,
or at least it should be and can be,
if we, like her and like Archbishop †Dmitri of blessed memory, are
willing to hear the word of God and keep it. That is
the Marian necessity.
May our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of
St. Innocent of Alaska and of the Blessed Elder Sophronius Sakharov and
especially, on this day, through the intercessions of our most holy Lady,
the Mother of God, and ever-Virgin Mary, have mercy upon us all and
grant us all a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.