“Awake, O My Harp, Your Chords,
In Praise of the Virgin Mary!
Lift Up Your Voice and Sing
The Wonderful History of this Virgin,
The Daughter of David,
Who Gave Birth to the Life of the World!”
— St. Ephram the Syrian
As Biblical history has recorded, St. Mary is the central figure in the two Gospel accounts of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. The “Mother of God” is seldom mentioned in the New Testament outside of the birth narratives in the opening chapters of St. Matthew and St. Luke. The name of St. Mary is mentioned only once in the Holy Gospel of St. Mark and the Holy Book of Acts. The Blessed Virgin is never explicitly named in the New Testament Letters. The name of St. Mary is only “referred to” in two episodes written by St. John in his Holy Gospel.
Why then has St. Mary carried a name that has long been remembered as the JOY OF GENERATIONS? It is through her enduring example of obedient faith, strong will, and spiritual purity that we come to understand why she is REJOICED OF ANGELS. It is through the Lord Jesus Christ’s love for His mother and her complete trust in Him that we are capable of realizing the true meaning of, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” With these thoughts in our hearts, let’s explore the inspiring, heavenly nature of the Blessed St. Mary.
Despite the Virgin’s few Biblical references, we learn that she experienced many emotional peaks and valleys within her sixty years of life. We are told of many hardships the Blessed Mary faced in her lifetime– the possibility of a divorce, a long, long journey to Bethlehem while great with a child, giving birth to her Son in a shelter for animals, placing her newborn child in an animal’s feeding trough for His first bed, angelic warning that King Herod the Great wanted to kill her infant, and finally watching her only Son being taunted and crucified on a cross.
St. Mary also experienced many joys in her life. Among them were: shepherds proclaiming the angelic hosts’ announcement of the Messiah’s birth; two aged and devout prophets in the Temple exalting her Son; wise men from the distant East kneeling down to worship the baby Jesus; and witnessing our Lord Jesus Christ’s first miracle at the Wedding Feast. We further know that St. Mary was present at the Day of Pentecost and filled with the Living Flame.
There is no known documentation that alludes to St. Mary as being depressed, of her complaining due to the challenges present in her life, nor to boastfulness as having given birth to the Son of God. Rather St. Luke gives us insight into St. Mary’s quietness, of strength and character. He writes, “St. Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Due to St. Mary’s obedient and positive response to the Annunciation, our salvation through her Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, became possible. Through her will and faith, she voluntarily submitted to the will of God. As stated in the book, St. Mary in the Orthodox Concept, “Her freely willed agreement with the Divine Plan announced by the angel was a fundamental and necessary condition of the union of God and man in Christ. The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of His power and His spirit; it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin.” Therefore when our Orthodox Church honors the “Mother of God” it is not just because God chose her but also because she herself chose submission to the will of God. St. Mary said, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be according to Your word” (Luke 1:35-38).
Along with her obedient faith and strong will, St. Mary was also profoundly perceptive. Although she was young at the time of the Lord Christ’s birth, the Blessed Virgin Mary was deeply aware of her “low estate” which had been elevated by a blessing from God that all generations would henceforth come to recognize and remember. The humble, quiet, Mother of Emmanuel intertwined her own personal experience with her belief that God was now helping “His servant Israel” since He had “scattered the proud” and “put down the mighty” while He exalted “those of a low degree” and “filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:48, 51-53). Therefore we are able to recognize the free grace of God because St. Mary played an active role in conceiving Jesus Christ. The Divine Incarnation was realized because she perceptively and faithfully accepted obedience.
The Blessed Mary’s virginity can and should be viewed as far more than a physical state. Her virginity should also be thought of as a special state of inner, spiritual holiness or purity. Spiritual purity is a total consecration to God and permanent union with Him through our Lord Jesus Christ. It represents virginity of heart and soul, which Christians can receive by acceptance of the Holy Spirit into their lives. St. Athanasius describes St. Mary’s spiritual purity:
“She was a lady wise and filled with the love of God. She had a harmonious disposition and a love for good works. She remained continually at home, living a retired life and imitating a honeybee. Her speech was calm and her voice was low. She generously distributed to the poor what was left over from the works of her hands. She prayed solitarily to God for two things; not to let a bad thought take root in her heart and to grow neither bold nor hard of heart.”
St. Ambrose reinforces this description of St. Mary emphasizing that she was humble, silent, moderate in speech and unsullied in reputation. She was devout and faithful in reading the Scripture. He further states she was modest and had great respect for others.
We must not close the subject of St. Mary’s virginity without declaring her perpetual virginity. St. Mary did not cease to be a virgin in giving birth to the Lord Christ. She continued as a virgin even after giving birth to the Savior. Her perpetual virginity can be attested to the documented early second century Apocryphal writings. “The Ascension of Isaiah” (Charles, l900, p. 74-76) states “her womb was found the same as before she had conceived.” According to the “Odes of Solomon” (Odes of Solomon 19:8), “she travailed and brought forth a son without incurring pain.” The “Protoevangelium of James” reveals that a woman called “Salome” made trial of St. Mary’s virginity soon after birth. (Protoevangelium of James, 18-20)” Early patristic thought concurs with these documents and further purports that St. Mary did not have any children save the Lord Christ.
“Brothers of Jesus” (Mark 6:33 and Matthew 13: 55-56) was not a referral to actual brothers of Jesus. Brothers in this context simply meant close relatives, cousins. Abraham called his brother’s son, Lot, his brother (Genesis 13:8). Laban used the same term for his son-in-law (Genesis 29:15). If the Lord Jesus had actual brothers why were they not included in the escape to Egypt? Why when the Book of Luke 2: 41-52 tells the story of Jesus in the temple (twelve years after Jesus birth), does the Holy Family consist of only three? St. Matthew refers to Jesus as the heir of Joseph, the son of David. If there were older brothers (previous sons of Joseph from another marriage) would Jesus have been the rightful heir? Wouldn’t the Lord Jesus Christ have left His mother in their home and not entrusted her to the care of St. John?
St. Jerome’s viewpoint is the “brothers of Jesus” were the sons of St. Mary of Clopas. St. Mary of Clopas was the wife of Alphaeus and the sister of Virgin Mary (John 19:25). Cousins could definitely be called “brothers.” Some locations in Upper Egypt continue with this tradition until today.
Finally, and of great significance, we know that the Lord Jesus Christ held His mother in high esteem. It is written that He was not particular about the kind of place in which He would be born, or the clothes which He would wear, nor the food He would eat, but He was definitely particular about the virgin who was to be His mother.
On more than one occasion, Jesus stressed the importance of the command, “honor your father and mother.” An example of His carrying out this command can be found within the first miracle He performed. According to the fourth Holy Gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ worked His first miraculous sign at a marriage feast in the town of Cana in Galilee. This wedding event is described only by St. John who tells of St. Mary being in attendance. At the wedding feast the wine has all been consumed before the feast had concluded. Fearing that the host of the party might be humiliated before their guests, she instinctively turned to her Son and requested that he “do something.” In spite of His reservations, He did as His mother requested.
St. Mary clearly and undeniably trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ. When she requested that He “do something,” she did not repeat her request. Out of assurance and confidence she told the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”
In performing this miracle, Jesus teaches us many lessons. He honored His mother and saved a humble Galilean family from humiliation. Also by manifesting His Divine Glory only to a few (the Lord’s mother, His disciples, and some of the servants) He has continued to wait for “His Hour” thus also honoring the Heavenly Father.
Honoring His mother was supremely manifested at His Crucifixion. As He was dying, He tenderly and lovingly committed St. Mary to the care of St. John. As St. Mary was standing near His cross, she was entrusted to “the disciple whom He loved” (John 19:26).
If the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, honored St. Mary, so should we. Obedient faith, strong will, and utter purity are just a few of the terms, which describe the heavenly nature of St. Mary’s, a humble handmaid of the Lord that has become the Mother of many and of the One. The richness and beauty of her nature cannot be fully described nor realized. St. Mary was not a priest, she did not teach, nor did she baptize anyone. She did not instruct the disciples. Yet the Blessed Mary was a sacred shrine chosen worthy of the Kingdom.
Through her motherhood we discover the nature of her Son as the Incarnate Son of God. The Blessed Virgin’s life attests to God’s redeeming deed and through her life’s example we can examine man’s role in attaining the heavenly life. Our spiritual love to St. Mary is second only to that of the Savior Jesus Christ.
Truly we adore St. Mary. She was wise and filled with the love of God. Her faith and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ was unsuperceded. Her purity in conduct was that befitting Heaven. May we follow her example of consecration to God and direct our hearts, minds, souls, and senses toward the Holy Spirit in preparation for the eternal wedding feast.
“O Virgin Mary, Mother of God, holy and faithful advocate of the human race, intercede for us with Christ whom you mothered, that He may grant us forgiveness of sins.”
H.G. Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States