Honoring the Nativity of the Theotokos

Honoring the Nativity of the Theotokos

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Sometimes in the Divine Services, we may be graced with a moment of clarity. Something touches us or we, at last, come to an awareness about something in our life. It’s only for a moment. We feel God so close to us. We may sense His mercy intensely for us. We may even be overcome with the impulse to do good, and we actually believe that we can! The Hungarian/British philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi (+1976) was concerned with these revelatory moments, these special “intrusions” or “touchstones” to the deeper part of the human person. He also called them “hunches.”

He wrote, “We do not accept religion because it offers us certain rewards. The thing that religion can offer us is to be just what it is itself—a sense and awareness of greater meaning in ourselves, in our lives, a greater grasp of the true nature of things.”

We may never have paid attention to those momentary revealings of God. These intruding realizations can come unannounced and without forethought. They seem to automatically “hit us” when we least expect or when we are in desperation or crisis and need it most. Yet however momentary and unexpected they are or how briefly they last—God is speaking to us in those suspended seconds, those flights of awareness that assure us, give us even timid hope, and bolster us to fervently utter the credal words, “I Believe in God….” when all we really want to cry out is “God, where have you gone?”

Where do these special insights originate? What are we to make of them?  There are two clues. (Polanyi’s thought is greatly concerned with deciphering the clues in our life so as to plumb the depths of ultimate meaning and of the Ultimate One, God.) The first clue or hunch comes from the Epistle to the Philippians and the second comes in the Birth of the Holy Theotokos, whose feast we keep on September 8. It is mind and Mary that become signposts for our deeper journey within.

His Eminence Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh wrote, “If a man looks at himself not in relation to his surroundings but goes deeper into him/herself, he will then discover such an expanse, such depths, that the whole created world is too small to fit in it.” (Sermon on the Nativity of the Theotokos) 

The Epistle to the Philippians 2: 5-11 reveals the secret, “Have that mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied Himself and took the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death—death on a Cross.”

We greet in these words the “Kenotic (κένωσις) Christ,” the self-emptying Christ—the Christ who, though all was rightly His, gave it up for our sakes, to show us that the secret of Christian living is humility and self-giving. Christ was not a “grasper.” He journeyed to the absolute deepest part of His Divinity-Humanity and told us that only in giving up and letting go will we gain, only in surrendering will we triumph, only in living the life of genuine Christian humility can we reach what the ancient hymn tells us “are the heights to which we are called.” 

This is the mind which was in Christ Jesus! Only by letting go and living deeper will we succeed in living higher. This reveals Polanyi’s secret. It exposes the motivations of countless Christian disciples. It shines a brilliant beacon on the most Blessed Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary and the purpose for which she was born. She too was born to “let go.”

In the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, God provides a “Temple for His Holy Son,” a fitting place where He enters, grows, and becomes the first human glimpse of the hitherto unseen God who was known only as the enigmatic “I am Who Am.”

Mary becomes that fleshed-Temple, that touchable house of worship in which dwells the One who is Holy of Holies, Creation’s mystic Lord and Son, not in the form of sacrificed goats and lambs but in the burgeoning human person inside her whose blood would be spilled, whose life would be surrendered in the agonizing gasp of His last breath, whose passing caused the curtain of the Temple to be wrought asunder and the doubting minds of human people to look away, or flee in fear, or virtually reject what they were certain was impossible.

As the Stichera at Matins of the Feast proclaims, “This is the Lord’s Day, O people, be filled with gladness! Behold! The bridal chamber of Light and the book of the Word of Life has come forth from the womb. The Temple Gate that faces east has been born, and she awaits the entry of the Great High Priest. She introduces Christ to the whole world, for the salvation of our souls.”

Mary is the Temple and the Temple’s gate. She will take unto herself the mind of Jesus her Son. She will defer to Him in her living. Her hidden presence in Jesus’s life will reveal her humility. Her selfless giving in coming to visit St. Elizabeth reveals a mind of caring. Her gentle correction of the lost 12-year-old Jesus, who was in the Temple teaching, reveals her patience. Her intercession on behalf of the newly married couple at Cana, who had run out of wine with the admonition “Do whatever He tells you,” reveals her concern for those in embarrassment or trouble. Mary was a deeply feeling giver who knew that complete self-fulfillment was found in spending and being spent for others.

Finding Self-Fulfillment in Emptying

Mary’s ultimate witness to the fact that she had in herself that mind which was in her Son was her silent vigil at the foot of His Cross. There she could not help but wonder what had happened. She could not make sense of how such a great lover was treated as a criminal, how life could be taken from the Lord of life.  Yet she stayed because she shared His mind and therefore shared His suffering generosity.

She stayed in complete silence and let the sounds of His dying gasps catapult to the ends of the universe to teach it that it too, had to let go. In those moments she participated in Christ’s redemptive act through her witness of it and by virtue of her faithful letting go, she too was forever redeemed. Mary knew Christ’s mind and took it as her own. The true abandonment of the Cross was not the Father abandoning His Son, but the Son letting go of all in human life that kept Him from the Father. Christ was an emptier.

When we stop to think who or what is in our minds everyday, do we answer “The Lord Jesus?” The fact is that if we desire to re-orient our lives, to change our life priorities, and to take our discipleship seriously, we need to have the mind of Christ in us. Not to have that mind in us would be to “play” at being Orthodox Christians.  The cost of having Christ’s mind in us is that we, too, will need to surrender our strong-willed ideas. We will be called, like Mary, to “ponder things in our heart” in silence and prayer.

Our daily lives will have to be spent supporting Christ’s Word, witnessing His Gospel, and giving beyond the little we are asked to give. This is the difference between us having espoused values in our minds and lived values actually executed everyday in practice.  We can satisfy our shallow egos by attempting to live espoused values, but we can never genuinely come close to Jesus unless we turn those good intentions into praxis—words into deeds, promises into fulfillment. The mind of Christ Jesus is one that lets go of the unimportant and grasps the eternal.

St. Simeon the New Theologian, one of the great mystics of Mt. Athos in the 11th century, summarized each of us becoming Temples of the Lord in our lives.

“I look upon this corruptible body, upon this frail flesh, and I tremble because I have been united with Christ, I am overflowing with the Holy Spirit…these powerless hands have become the hands of God, this body has become a body that God has taken possession of…I am a living Temple of Christ and must always have His heart.”

Most Holy Theotokos inspire us to make Christ’s mind our own!

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Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas

Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.