Needless to say, I am not a woman who can speak with confidence about female matters in a convincing sort of way. I was raised to have the utmost respect for those persons about whom I know very little or nothing at all, never to judge them based on my own perceptions and stereotypes that I may have formed in my own mind and heart. In life, man is typically an observer and an interpreter but very rarely a participant. Yes, we hear about or witness the plight of another as outsiders and indeed we formulate opinions based on our observations, but we can only know about the other and his problems but not them fully. Theologically speaking, unless we can “incarnate” ourselves in the very reality of another human being, unless we become the other person, to not only share his pain but to assume it completely as our own — and if at all possible — to exempt the other from his suffering, we can never know the full impact of Christian love or Christ Jesus our Lord in the fullness of His divine eros, or “passionate love”, for the cosmos.
On the other hand, ignorance can not only be bliss in certain adverse circumstances, as the popular adage goes, but a catalyst for insights that most people simply take for granted. Allow me to explain. Many years ago during my tenure as a doctoral student in Europe, I ran across a profound passage that made quite an impression on me. While I don’t readily recall the source, the content struck a chord within me. “If you want to know what motherhood is, never ask a mother; ask her child. The one who gives maternal love can never understand the impact of her actions because she gives freely, openly, and unhesitatingly. The one who receives it alone appreciates a mother’s value and her actions because he can neither be a mother nor love like one. Thus, certain things we can know better than anyone without ever being able to become that which we know!
The month of August in the Orthodox Christian Church is dedicated to the Mother of mothers and Queen of queens, our All-Holy Lady and Ever-Virgin Mary — the Theotokos. It is common in Greece on the eve of August 1 to wish one another, “ΚαλὴΠαναγιά! A blessed month of Panagia!” No one saint in the Church, not even Christ Himself, has been bestowed as many epithets as the Panagia. The hymnological tradition of the East (especially following the sixth century AD from the Monastery of St. Savas in Jerusalem to the Studios Monastery of Constantinople and culminating with the communities constituting the monastic federation of Mt. Athos) has supplied our services with countless allegorical descriptions that refer to the Theotokos as “ladder”, “paradise”, and “true vine.” And all of these references derive predominately from the Spirit-filled ranks of the Church Fathers, who saw the Mother of God as their own Mother standing in the midst of the community in place of her Offspring, drawing the attention of billions and billions of Christians throughout history to her Son and God.
Why does the Panagia draw us to God so selflessly and intensely? Why does the Church look upon her as the ἁγία ἁγίωνμείζων — the Holy One greater than the Saints? Can we conclude that her sole importance is what she did at the Annunciation, namely, consenting to bear in a mysterious manner the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity? I will radically submit to you that it goes a little deeper than this accomplishment. It is not only what she did but predominantly who she was, which gave life to what she did.
In the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 10:38-42), we read the familiar passage of yet another Mary, the sister of St. Lazarus, who sat at the feet of Christ and listened to every word He spoke with attentiveness and devotion. Her sister Martha, a typical Type-A personality for her day, busied herself with house chores that were left undone despite the presence of their friend and guest. What we have here is a “doer” and a “be-er”, essentially two differing approaches to life. Martha thrived daily on doing things that she convinced herself were top priority and gave her a sense of worth and purpose. Her laid-back sister Mary knew that work had to get done around the house but she prioritized her relationship with God. She was perfectly content just to be with God, to spend time with Him, to listen to His teachings, to find peace for her aching heart, to leave the world temporarily — to retreat from it — in order to understand it and her role in it, in order to love it more and fill it in the future with the same joy and purpose she possessed by sitting at the Lord’s feet.
This Mary is like her namesake, the Panagia, who likewise did not seek to do things without realizing the reason why she was doing them. And this is the reason why Panagia draws us, the Church, to God: so that she can share with us the joy of “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), which can never be taken away from us by anyone or anything, regardless of life’s difficulties or problems or trials or failures. The secret to the life in Christ, which the Theotokos experienced fully is, quite simply, to be with God, as He is with us. Every mother seeks to make her children independent for the future, but not before she prepares them through her counsel and prayers, to supply them with the lessons of life that will forever accompany them in their individual journeys throughout life. This is the extreme and self-sacrificial love of a mother that a mother can never fully understand because such love (whether we call it ἀγάπη, στοργή, or θεϊκὸν ἔρως) is never rationalized before it is distributed abundantly to its recipients. And so the Theotokos looks to her children within the Church, you and me, to teach us the most important lesson of life, to bestow upon us the most valuable tool and weapon without which our lives will fail and possess no significance: quite simply, to remember always to be with God, to share fellowship with Him every day, every hour, every moment. Beyond this truth, nothing else in this transient life matters. For what we do can quickly become undone by others; what we are can never be reversed by anyone except by ourselves. And she reminds us that whatever we do, unless we share our lives with God, will come to naught, for man is a worthy creator only in synergy with the Creator.
However, can we share fellowship with God if, for whatever reason, we have a gripe with Him or we disagree or are confused or have negative feelings? Indeed we can, for God, knowing our pain and suffering better than we do and aware of the powerfully suggestive illusions the demons seek to pass off to us as reality, welcomes us with compassionate desire for our wellbeing and salvation, always respecting our free will. Can a child ever stop being an offspring of his or her parents, despite disagreements or arguments within the family? Is the proper love of a parent erased as soon as voices are raised or a fight ensues? Of course not, if the parent models their parenthood after the Lord Himself! So the Theotokos, upon leaving this transient life which we celebrate this month as her Dormition, or Falling Sleep, gives not only herself to us, her children, but gives us God in His fullness, the gift of fellowship with Him and the reminder that we alone can secure this fellowship with God. He is always with us but in our inner heart, are we with Him? The difference between these two statements is major; the sooner we understand this distinction, the sooner our lives will begin to make sense and become more beautiful.
So, my dear people, the key to life’s happiness is not to succeed by what we do but to succeed by understanding and accepting who we are — God’s children created in His image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26). And this creation means we emulate Him in His relational characteristics, for to imitate Him in the magnanimity of His works is virtually impossible. Remember that God’s Name in the Old Testament, as revealed to Moses at the Unconsumed Bush in Exodus is YHWH (“I AM WHO AM”), not “I DO WHAT I DO.” We live because we simply are, because we are His own, because we derive our being from Him. And what we are will assist us to do wonderful things, which will come back to define who we are and whose we are.
Now aren’t you glad you listened to a man to tell you what motherhood is? Through the prayers and example of the Theotokos and Mother of Life, may we emulate her in embracing the only One we will ever need. Amen. (+)
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