we take refuge
petitions do not de-
spise in time of trouble
but from danger
Only Holy, on-
ly Blessed. -- Earliest known prayer to the Theotokos, (ca. 250 CE)*
You probably wouldn't have paid much attention to her if you had walked in the marketplace or to the well were a family's water was drawn. Like millions and millions of other young women, people knew her by her family, but she was just another face in the crowd when it came to anything else. The most we know about her is that she was obedient, trusting, and able to make life altering choices based on that obedience and trust despite what it might do to not just her own reputation, but to that of her family, not to mention her impending marriage. Still, she made a choice that changed the world.
Mary got her first title from the Archangel Gabriel, who, called her "Full of grace." This was when she made her big choice, to accept that God would give her a son before she was even married or even living with her espoused in a normal marital relationship. She acquired a number of titles, but this was the first, her sign of dedication to God. She was raised to be a devout person, and if God asked something of her as God did to prophets and kings, her response must be the same as theirs: "Here am I."
Over the centuries, Mary acquired a number of titles to try to explain what exactly her role in in salvation history had been or how she was perceived by faithful believers. She has been called Queen of Angels, Queen of Heaven, Immaculate, Blessed Virgin, Our Lady with any number of appendixes such as Perpetual Help and Peace. For uncounted millions of people, she is a mediatrix, an intercessor who receives prayers and supplications and adds her prayers to those she receives.
One of her most widely accepted titles is Theotokos, a Greek word meaning "God bearer" and which gives honor to her as the one who carried God the Son in the flesh. It is by this name that she is widely known particularly Eastern Orthodox churches, although Roman Catholics and Anglicans also use the term. She is seen as a mediator between earth and heaven, and many feel that "If all else fails, ask Mother."
August 15 is celebrated as the Feast of Mary the Virgin, but in Eastern Orthodoxy, it is also known as the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin, the day she "fell asleep" and was taken, body, soul and spirit, into heaven as redeemed, a sign that there is hope for all who, as Mary did, "magnify the Lord." In Anglican circles, though, the day celebrates her virginity (which is not always seen as perpetual) and her acceptance of God's plan for her.
Mary was the only person in the gospels who was a part of Jesus' life from his conception to his death and resurrection, yet we see only glimpses of her in his adulthood. Her place was in the background for the most part. At the wedding in Cana, however, when the wine was running short and the family faced mortification at a lack of replacement, she asked her son to do the impossible. He said it wasn't time for him to do things like that, but Mary simply turned to the servants and said, "Do what he tells you." Sure enough, the water became wine. I wonder – did the people at the wedding feast realize that the most excellent wine they were drinking was the greatest vintage that ever existed on the face of the earth?
Mary as Theotokos, the God bearer, was the one who carried God in the flesh within her body. It gives her a special place. But if you think about it, we are all God bearers in the sense that we carry the spirit of God within us as well as the mark of adoption by virtue of our baptism. Who is to say that the first breath we took was not the breath of God directly? It seems children carry God much better than most adults. They believe, they trust, and, mostly anyway, try to be obedient. They have been known to whisper to newborn brothers and sisters, asking to tell them about God and the angels, because they had begun to forget and the newborn could remind them.
The God bearer within each of us needs cultivation. It needs to be a visible sign of our commitment and our gratitude, not to mention our trust and obedience. We are told that the early Christians could be known by the love they showed each other, and that love is the result of being a God bearer. It is not an easy job, any more than being pregnant is an easy one. There are aches, pains, and discomfort, but also an inward joy and expectation.
So today we celebrate Mary, whether we only hear about her only at Christmas and Easter and maybe if the preacher decides to preach on the miracle at Cana, or whether she is a daily presence in our personal and corporate pieties and devotions. We are encouraged by the church to emulate her trust and obedience, but in our personal devotions we can also find courage and strength in making hard decisions.
If I say a rosary or just look at the tiny copy of the icon of the Annunciation that is on the corkboard over my desk, Mary has become a more important part of my life, not just for her meekness and obedience but for her courage, strength, and her devotion. Maybe one day I'll get to the point where if all else fails, I'll just ask Mother.
*Found at Trisagion Films, accessed 8/9/15. Line breaks correspond to the English translation from the Koine.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 15, 2015.