Let’s talk about Mary, a prominent character in the Christmas story. The Orthodox Church believes without her, Christmas wouldn’t have been possible. That wasn’t the impression I had while growing up.
I remember asking a pastor once, what would God have done if Mary had said ‘no’ to becoming the mother of Jesus. The pastor basically replied, somewhat offhandedly, “the angel would have made the same offer to the next Jewish virgin. No big deal.’
Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve realized it is a very big deal.
As a Protestant, I’d never learned much about Mary. She was mentioned a few times, always at Christmas because the baby needed a mother and again at Easter, weeping at the foot of the Cross for the death of her son. Other than that, her presence was insignificant.
Sure, she went looking for her son when he was 12 and rebuked him for worrying her, but Joseph could have done that all by himself. Mary just didn’t seem to be very important and isn’t mentioned very often in the scriptures. Even though in the New Testament, she sings ‘all generations will call me blessed’, in the Anglican Church we only ever called her blessed at Christmas when we sang the Magnificat.
Growing up in the Christian community, I recall no female role models mentioned by any pastor. As a young woman in mainly male profession, I needed feminine inspiration in Christianity and I wasn’t finding it.
The advent of female priests in the Anglican Church and female pastors elsewhere, initially attracted me but created questions. Men could symbolize Christ but who did the women symbolize? As more women entered church leadership positions, the call was made for inclusive language in the Bible. This gender neutral or, in some cases, female-centric theology felt wrong. Even more so when I learned some female leaders in mainline churches had introduced a form of goddess worship. What these women were doing and why they felt they had to do it, implied there was something missing from the Christian church as I knew it.
The first time my family attended an Orthodox service, an icon of Mary holding Jesus caught my attention. It was a permanent fixture at the front of the church and I wanted to know why. When I discovered the reverence and understanding the Orthodox Church had for Mary, I knew I had found what was missing.
In the Orthodox Church, Mary is known as the Theotokos which means ‘God-bearer’. Since Mary was the Mother of Christ, if we believe Christ is God, then she was the earthly mother of God Himself. She was the first Christian, knowing the purpose of the incarnation. She contained the uncontainable as the Creator of all resided within her womb. She gave Him form and nurtured the Almighty as a little child.
I learned about the prophetic presence of Mary in the Old Testament. She is the unburnt bush from which the voice of God spoke to Moses. She is the Tabernacle where the Glory of God dwelt. She is the urn of life-sustaining manna, Aaron’s rod which bloomed, the censer in the temple carrying prayers up to heaven, Jacob’s ladder joining heaven and earth, and the eastern gate of the Temple which remains sealed, through which only the Lord has passed. She is the life-giving spring from which the living water flows. She is the Throne upon which Christ, the King of All, rested.
Here was the female inspiration for which I had been looking, the feminine side of Christianity. She was a crucial part of God’s plan of redemption for all of creation. Her preparation was thousands of years in the making. If she had refused her destiny, then thousands of years more might have been required to prepare another. Christ would not have been born when He was and the incarnation might still not have happened to this day.
Mary was the bridge between heaven and earth over which God crossed to enter His creation. Through her obedience, she undid the disobedience of Eve, becoming the second Eve and the Mother of all Christians.
Let all generations call her blessed, now and for always.
Anastasia Bartlett is a member of St. Aidan’s in Cranbrook and author of Glimpses of Glory, published by Synaxis Press.