When Limitations Create Scandal
Today is an interesting day in the Orthodox Church as we celebrate the Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos. On one side, it helps that the feast has a rather obscure name; on the other side, most people I talk to become rather instantly scandalized when they start to think about Christians celebrating this day. I know I started as one ready to reject just about anything to do with the Mother of God, or as she is more popularly known, the Virgin Mary.
I do not think I have written much about the Theotokos on the blog so I would like to consider a basic premier. “Theotokos” is a term that delineates more about Christ Himself as the term emerged during the 3rd Ecumenical Council when the Church gathered to consider the Incarnation of Christ. Was there a point where Christ became the Son of God, like at His baptism, or was Christ always the Son of God? Should Mary be known as the “Christotokos” as she bore Christ as human, or should Mary be known the “Theotokos” as she bore Christ as the Son of God? Since Christ is always both fully divine and fully human (even as He dwelt in Mary’s virginal womb), we declare Mary to be the “Theotokos.”
Yet, many people seem to restrict Mary’s presence to the Nativity of Christ. Mary is always welcome in the Nativity creche, but that seems to be the only location. Often cited in people’s objections is this passage of Scripture from Luke (which incidentally is featured in today’s Gospel reading):
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him,”Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
People will quote this passage to say “Look, and even Jesus asserted Mary is no big deal!” But can we consider what Jesus actually said? “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” What is “the word of God” if not Christ Himself? Could Christ’s statement be rendered appropriately as “Blessed are those who receive the Word of God and keep Him”? Even without this rendering, we can see Mary’s willingness to “treasure up all [the things spoken about her Son], and ponder them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Additionally, she kept Christ in her womb, in her home, and in her sorrows seeing Him on the cross. Wherever we see Mary, we see Christ.
Yet, it is critically important to preserve the wonder of her uniqueness while also marveling at her commonality. If we focus exclusively on her and her motherly role of bearing and nursing the infant Christ, then we can miss the picture of the Gospel. Additionally, Mary’s commonality comes in that all have the invitation to join her as those who “hear the word of God and keep it.” Through Christ’s Incarnation, where we know Him as “Emmanuel” — God with us, we all have the invitation to receive Him. He comes through the preaching of the Gospel. We make a choice to sit at His feet, to treasure His Gospel in our hearts.
Indeed, we see just that idea in the experience of Mary of Bethany in the rest of the Gospel reading appointed today:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Mary, in sitting at Christ’s feet and receiving His teaching, chose the good portion that could not be taken away. She treasured our Lord and His Gospel. We must affirm the blessedness of all those who have received Christ. And we encounter the challenge of keeping Him, particularly as we deny Him authority in our lives to heal us of our sins. We can so easily crowd out anything and everything that matters in life. Yet, by His grace, the giver of Life calls us back to Him, quickening our spirit to seek Him as the Great Physician.
Mary, the mother of God, creates a scandal if we focus on her independent of Christ and elevate her in her uniqueness. But cannot anything or anyone create a scandal if elevated above Christ?