January 22, 2021

Lady Days

icoana_001The first fifteen days of August the Orthodox Church dedicates to Mary, the Mother of God.  There is a fast, the Dormition fast, that lasts from the first of the month to the fifteenth, which is the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God.  On this day, the 15th of August, we celebrate the death of the Mother of God, and the translation of her body into Paradise to be with her Son.  I do not know whether the Roman Catholic Church teaches that she died before being translated, but we do.  I think this one of the bones of contention between us.  So we fast for 15 days.

Even though the Dormition Fast is not as extended or as severe as Great Lent, it is a beautiful and restful season in the time of the Church, and it comes at a time when there isn’t much going on in the secular calendar.  Summer is winding down, and schoolchildren are preparing to return to their studies.   There is little to distract from the precious person of the Mother of God.  Extra services are scheduled.  For some reason unknown to me, the Orthodox Church uses the Fast of the Dormition for her most concentrated efforts at intercession.  Parishioners are encouraged to bring all the concerns of their families and friends, great and small, to the attention of the priest and the deacons, or in my case the president of the Parish Council.  A list is drawn up, and in the middle of the Paraklesis Service, we pause and read off this list of petitions.

The list is very long, and it takes a lot of resolution to force myself to be volitional about praying for the endless repetitions of Costases  and Nicks and Panayiotas and Dafnis and Helens and Georges and their bouts of arthritis, their broken legs, their throat infections, their struggles with college, but there are more serious concerns as well.  One couple is facing divorce, another has a grandson on heroin, another has a husband and father soon to be deployed to Afghanistan, a priest is struggling with same-sex attraction.   By the time we arrive to my fine Anglo-Saxon and North European gene stream, I realize that “many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord” has promised to deliver “him from them all”.  All of these concerns are tied up with liturgical strings at the end and are presented to the Most Holy Mother of God for her consideration.

For some reason, no one seems to provoke more booklordery, logomachy, or biblechuffing than Mary, our Lord’s mother.   In the interest of the irenic tone of this board, and invoking the spirit of Michael Spencer the most ecumenical of Baptists, I would like to preempt some of the gurgling I can already hear in some of your guts when I say that we pray to the Mother of God.  If you invite an Orthodox Christian to write for you, he is eventually going to tell you he prays to the Mother of God.  It’s inevitable.  Please keep this one thing firmly in mind: As a Christian gentleman I do not view arguments against the Theotokos’ role in our salvation as right or wrong as much as I consider them deeply discourteous, an affront against a very great lady.

That said, I believe it would be highly salutatory for Protestants to have an intramural discussion among themselves about the role of the Theotokos in their church life.  As a former Protestant, and especially as a former Calvinist, it hasn’t been easy for me to appreciate or properly honor Jesus’ mother, from whom alone He acquired our nature and united it to His Divine nature.  There is always the memory of the bearded jealous fiend who rent Jesus on the cross to satisfy his inflated sense of honor, and who, having by creating created an ontological abyss even He cannot bridge, flies into paroxysms of rage if one iota of that honor is appropriated by another.   Nevertheless, most of this disappeared like a morning fog at midday when I began to learn something of the Orthodox tradition of the Mother of God, who in her own person recapitulated the career of Israel and became the tabernacle of God, the dwelling place of His glory.  “Of thy body a throne He made; He made thy womb more spacious than the heavens. All creation rejoiceth in thee, O Full of Grace: glory be to Thee!”

The story that convinced me was the beautiful story of when St Joachim and St Anna took her to the Temple when she was three years old.  The Protoevangelium of James reports that “he [St. Joachim her father, I imagine] made her to sit upon the third step of the altar. And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her.”  Upon hearing that, the image of a tiny dark-haired girl dancing for joy before a row of solemn, bearded priests leapt unbidden to my mind and I too loved her.  I loved not the Booklordish concept of the Mother of God, which title really speaks more about Her great Son, but I loved her, the tiny joy-filled girl she was, the tender and obedient mother she became, the church matron beyond and behind all church matrons for whom she served as the first and greatest; the archtype of all the yiayias, matushkas, abuelitas,  nanas and grandmuttis who pray so ardently for the salvation of their children and grandchildren, and finally, the ancient, wizened old lady St. John cared for, demanding as all aging parents are demanding.

So, enjoy the Lady Days, as I have come to call them for myself.  Give your hearts and your stomachs a rest, and rejoice in her whose obedience reversed the disobedience of Eve, whose candor brought to completion the deceptions of Tamar and Rahab, whose perseverance crowned the loyalty and patience of Ruth.

Thou who art truly the Mother of God, we magnify you.



  1. We don’t definitively teach that she died before being assumed into heaven; it’s one of those areas we permit a little mystery because although most accept she did undergo natural death, some held that she was not subject to death as “the wages of sin”, the punitive effects of Original Sin because she was free from that due to her Immaculate Conception.

    All that is stated in MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS, the document setting forth the definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, under the exercise of infallibility, says:

    “44. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

    “Having completed the course of her earthly life” leaves it open to whether or not she underwent physical death or was taken up while still alive. I haven’t heard anyone preaching or saying she did not undergo death as the common course of humanity, but there may be some who still stick on this point.

    I think the larger part of any differences between East and West in this case are more due to the different understanding of Original Sin and, of course, exercises of papal authority 🙂

    Canticle of Canticles 4:7 “Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee.”

  2. IF we are wrong about Mary’s body having been translated to heaven at the end of her life, then here is something to think about. We read and hear so much about The Holy Grail and what that is or was. How about this? Perhaps it is the body of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I have heard of the Holy Grail being associated with Mary Magdalene among other things, but I don’t know if I have heard anyone besides me saying maybe it was the body of Jesus’ mother. Think how special having that body would be to the Church. Her body parts would never get divided up as relics the way so many other saints’ body have been divided up. The location of her body would be kept secret so that it would never be tampered with.

    I have no problem with her having been taken into heaven, body and soul. Neither do I have a problem if that did not happen. I believe she loves, inspires and helps all those who seek to know and love her Son.

    And even though Paul McCartney says the Mother Mary in his song, Let It Be, is his actual mother named Mary, these lines are still inspirational and I think we can think of Jesus’ mother when we hear them:

    When I find myself in times of trouble
    Mother Mary comes to me
    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
    And in my hour of darkness
    She is standing right in front of me
    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
    Let it be, let it be
    Let it be, let it be
    Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

    Jeff or Chaplain MIke…if this is too far off-topic, feel free to delete.

    Mule Chewing Briars…great post and I am enjoying your writing very much!

  3. Adrienne says

    My question goes a bit off topic I know but I was asked this yesterday in my Bible Study group. Are there descendants of the 12 Apostles living today? Any info would be appreciated.

    • It’s technically possible, Adrienne. We know that St Peter, for one, was married (his mother-in-law is mentioned in Luke 4: 38-39) and pious tradition (read: ‘legend’) gives him a daughter, Petronilla, and it’s very likely others of the Apostles were married as well.

      We don’t have any direct bloodlines or descendants (despite the best efforts of Dan Brown and the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”) so we don’t know any families that could be their descendants.

      But it’s not impossible, just as there must be descendants of David’s line in the world today, given Solomon (for one of his sons) and his many wives 🙂

    • Hmm…”Descendants of the Twelve”…me-thinks this would make a great title and plot device for Dan Brown’s (Da Vinci Code) next book! Someone should suggest it to him…NOT!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Or a name for a band — “Descendants of the Twelve”, right alongside the Left Behind-inspired punk band names “Fetuses of the Damned” and “Steaming Piles of Fresh Produce”.

    • Through the power of large numbers, namely that the number of ancestors you have doubles every generation you go back, when your talking about people that our two thousand years old they either have no surviving descendants, or basically everyone in the western world is descended from them. So if they had any your overwhelmingly likely to be one them unless your background is aboriginal Australian or something.

  4. “The Protoevangelium of James”? Can’t really comment further without it sounding really snide.

    • It won’t hurt my feelings.

      Proto-James is a product of church tradition, not a source of it.

      • Mule Chewing Briars, I do not understand your sentence 🙁

        • I think what he means is that the church does not believe stories about Mary because of the Protoevangelism, rather the Protoevangelism contains stories of Mary (and the infant Jesus) that the church already had in its tradition.

          This sets it a different from canonical books which are a source of tradition and beliefs.

          Does that help?

          • Michael Bell,
            “the Protoevangelism contains stories of Mary (and the infant Jesus) that the church already had in its tradition” And where can I find this sources of tradition?
            I do not understand why Mule Chewing Briars mentioned the Protoevangelium of James if it is not a source of tradition. Is not it easier to quote directly from a source of tradition to justify a teaching?
            It will be because of my ignorance, but “tradition” seems to me a very nebulous word in its use.
            I speak as a man of twenty-first century, but is there any way to check what is a “tradition” and what is not? When I’m in front of an ancient Christian text, how do I know if the text is “source of tradition” or a “product of church tradition”? Is there any “objective”, “verifiable” criterion?

          • I have a great-great grandfather of whom the only “objective” “verifiable” documentation that exists is his marriage certificate. No other documentary evidence of his life exists. Nevertheless, the stories my grandmother tells about him I have passed along to my children, the most important being about his imprisonment in Andersonville during the American Civil War.

            The Andersonville prison has no record of him. Does that mean he wasn’t there? No, it means that I will have a harder time convincing you of my family’s stories about my ancestor. If your granddaughter marries my grandson, though, your great-grandchildren will learn about my ancestor and theirs.

            The sources of tradition are the people who keep it. What you believe is generally a function of who you believe. If you are a wary, suspicious sort of person who has been deceived a lot in the past, you probably won’t believe much apart from what can be ‘proven’ in a court of law. If you are an amiable, easy-going sort of person, you will probably believe too many things, and they will be contradictory.

          • I remember one time that the Latin teacher had us do an experiment. Three students read a short story. Each of them told another classmate what they had read. Those who had heard the story, told it in turn to other classmates. So until you get to five. The last three people had to put in writing the story they had heard. The results were shocking. The stories differed much from the original story, but also between them.
            I do not want to disappoint you, but what you think you know about your ancestor is now halfway between the legend and the actual events.
            Borges, the great Argentine writer, said he did not remember the child he had been. He said to remember only the story in continuous transformation that gradually he was created every time he recalled his childhood.
            If your beliefs about what is true about Mary are based on oral stories passed down from generation to generation, then we are no longer talking about history, but we are talking about the often very beautiful legend.
            Some will object that the Bible contains stories that have the flavor of the stories handed down from generation to generation. It is true. But this is another story.

          • Lector –

            No me disilusiono. Trabajo constantemente con gente positivista, que siempre me piden prueba, que siempre quieren saber la verdad. No quieren estar engañados, porque a veces la difusion de dinero depende en que narrativo gana. Yo entiendo.

            Si, algunas creencias de la iglesia ortodoxa dependen en cuentos transmitidos oralmente. Lo admito. Nuestra regla de ayuno es un ejemplo. ¿Pero no era Borges mismo que dijo que no habia facta nuda, o sea que no habia nada que era ni verdadero ni falso sino que primero se encuentra en el narrativo correcto? [¿O que era Philip K Dick?]

            Es que no soy pensador cartesiano. Empiezo con la fe, no con la duda. La diferencia entre ‘la historia’ y ‘la leyenda’ es la diferencia entre una foto y un eikon. Vea Juan 12:27-29. Si habia gravadores de cinta en este enotnces, ¿que habria gravado? ¿Trueno? ¿Un angel? ¿O la voz de Jehova? Depende mucho el estado del corazon del que escucha.

            Tr. I’m not disappointed. I work with logical positivists every day. They always want to know what ‘really’ happened. They don’t want to be deceived, because quite often a lot of money rides on which narrative carries the day. I understand.

            Many beliefs in the Orthodox Church are based on stories that have been transmitted orally. I’ll admit that. [Our fasting seasons are one example] But wasn’t it Borges who also sait that thas was no such thing as ‘brute fact’, and that nothing was true or false until it was set in the proper narrative? Or maybe it was Philip K Dick.

            I am not a Cartesian. I prefer to start with faith, not doubt. the difference between “history’ and legend’ is like the difference between a photograph and an icon. See John 12:27-29. If there had been tape recorders in that day, what would it have recorded? Thunder? An angel? Or the voice of the Father? So much depends on the heart of the one who is listening.

          • Mule Chewing Briars,

            I’m sorry, but I’m not able to translate this in a decent way.

            Yo no creo que la fe y la razón se excluyan mutuamente, o que haya que tratarlas como si fueran incompatibles. Al contrario, un recto uso de la razón debería apuntar a la fe (Rom.1:20). La duda es legítima si proviene de un recto uso de la razón. La incredulidad no tiene nada que ver con la duda, porque es una actitud del corazón, no de la razón.
            Creo, por ejemplo, que es razonable creer en el testimonio evangélico. Y tengo la impresión de que no es casualidad que, especialmente en Hechos de los Apóstoles, se insista tanto en la autoridad de los “testigos oculares” de la vida, muerte y resurrección de Jesús (“Por tanto es preciso que uno de los hombres que anduvieron con nosotros todo el tiempo que el Señor Jesús convivió con nosotros, a partir del bautismo de Juan hasta el día en que fue llevado de entre nosotros al cielo, uno de ellos tiene que ser con nosotros testigo de su resurrección” Hechos 1:21-22, Biblia de Jerusalén). Me parece razonable creer en el testimonio de esos testigos. Yo creo que como atestiguaron aquellos hombres: Jesús es el Mesías que Dios resucitó de entre los muertos (1Cor.15:3-8).
            Ahora bien, Vd. convendrá conmigo en que muchos de los elementos que acompañan a la figura de María son tradiciones posteriores y que contienen muchos elementos característicos de los relatos populares.
            Y a propósito de iconos, Jesús es el gran icono de Dios 🙂
            También creo que los “hechos desnudos” no tienen sentido, son como una piedra que nadie ha visto nunca. El ser humano es un ser fabulatorio: da sentido a las cosas poniéndolas dentro de una narración. ¿No es acaso la Biblia un gran relato, una gran historia que enmarca y da sentido a una historia humana que, de otra manera, sería absurda y llena de sufrimiento inútil?

          • I will translate this for those of you who don’t read Spanish. Lector made some great points. He didn’t convince me but his arguments deserve a wider audience than just me 🙂

          • MCB,
            Thank you very much!!!

          • I don’t believe that faith and reason are mutually exclusive, or that you have to treat them as if they were incompatible. To the contrary, one of the right uses of reason ought to be to uncover (?) faith. Doubt is legitimate if it proceeds from a correct use of reason. Incredulity has nothing to do with doubt (is not the opposite of doubt), because it is an attitude of the heart, not of the mind.

            I believe that it is reasonable to trust in the testimony of the Gospels, and I have the impression that it is no accident that, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, that there was such emphasis put on the authority of those who were eyewitnesses of the life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus (“Out of the men who have been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was living with us, from the time when John was baptising until the day when he was taken up from us, one must be appointed to serve with us as a witness to his resurrection.” Acts 1:21-22 NJB) It appears reasonable to me to believe these witnesses, and I believe that to which they testified: Jesus is the Christ whom God raised from the dead.

            Well, then, I’m sure you would find agreement wit me that many of the elements that accompan y the figure of Mary are later traditions and contain many elements characteristic of folklore or popular stories. Tr. I do agree, but this doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers him. and speaking of icons, Jesus is the great icon of God Yes. God is the first iconographer.

            I as well believe that “plain facts” don’t make sense. They are like a rock that nobody has seen. (reference to Catholic teachings on Peter, maybe?) Man is a storyteller. He makes sense of things by placing them in a narrative. Isn’t the Bible itself a great narrative, a story that frames and makes sense to a human history that would otherwise be absurd and full of senseless suffering?

            I love Spanish. I don’t know how educated Spanish can be so Latinate, even more so than Italian.

          • MCB,
            Thank you so much again!
            To finish this interesting dialogue, I would like to clarify some concepts.
            – I think the reason directs us, such as a road sign, to faith. This was the sense of “la razón apunta (point to) la fe” The reason point to faith (it is a comprehensible sentence in English?).
            -Incredulity does not come from reason (if used well), but from the heart.
            -When I say that man is a “ser fabulatorio”, I mean that the most intuitive way to organize information is to tell a story. Our view of ourselves and our view of the world around us has a narrative form. It is no coincidence that Jesus preached telling stories, and not developing systematic theologies!
            -I believe that Mary, in the Orthodox and the Catholic narratives, has changed role in the story. And I think this new story, has arisen from additions, changes of emphasis, cultural adaptations, and it is in essence a different story.

      • Still, the pseudopigraphal books are not part of the Eastern or Western canons of scripture…

  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only statements about Mary that the Orthodox Churches recognize dogmatically are those of the first millennium, that is, before the East-West Schism:
    -The virgin birth of Jesus (Gospel)
    -Mary as Theotokos (at the beginning was a Christological title refers to the human and divine nature of Jesus (Council of Ephesus, 431)
    -the perpetual virginity of Mary (Second Council of Constantinople).
    As far as I know, the differences between Catholics and Orthodox respect to the doctrine of Mary, even if the West we tend to minimize them, are anthropologically and theologically very relevant, and reflect the diversity of sensitivity and theological approach.

    • In fact, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is related to the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin. The Eastern Churches do not accept the doctrine of Original Sin as well as received the Western Churches, and consequently can not even accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma dependent on Original Sin. Obviously, the Assumption of Mary is closely linked to the two previous dogmas, because if Mary was preserved from original sin by the grace of God, could not even suffer death, because death is a consequence of sin.
      I’m simplifying a lot in my horrible English, but the discussion is fascinating.

      • And the dogma of the IC wasn’t made dogma until the 19th c. in the West, so…

        (btw, Lector, I think your English is far from “horrible”! I wish I could write in another language as well as you do.)

        • Numo, thanks for the encouragement. Google Translate, if used with caution, is really useful. 🙂

          • You’re right about “used with caution” – I have gotten some very strange results from it!

          • I once used a free translation tool to translate “stock portfolio” into french and then back again. I ended up with “standard briefcase”!

          • Lector – many years ago, I tried getting some program to “translate” a few song lyrics and phrases for me.

            Let’s just say that I quit when “un caballero de fina estampa” was rendered as “a very thin letter opener.” (I am not joking! ;))

      • The Catholic Church agrees that death and sickness are the consequence of original sin. (Original sin does not say that we assume personal guilt for Adam and Eve’s sin, it says we have clouded the divine image we were created with and that now we are subject to hard work, sickness and death).

        The Church does not say that Mary (while free of original and personal sin) did not die. Most people would say that Jesus, the sinless God-Man, died and so his mother probably died too. The servant is not greater than the master.

        Officially the Catholic Church states that we have no idea whether Mary died before her assumption. It’s a mystery and people are free to think what they want about it.

        • Rick,
          thanks for the clarification.
          “The Church does not say that Mary (while free of original and personal sin) did not die. Most people would say that Jesus, the sinless God-Man, died and so his mother probably died too. The servant is not greater than the master”
          However, the parallels between the death of Jesus and Mary are dangerous, because Jesus died for our sins, Mary did not.

          • Hi, Lector. It’s very controversial, but yes the Catholic Church says that all of us, not just Mary, can cooperate in the work of redemption. It’s a bit of a riff on St. Paul’s statement that, “I make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” By saying “fiat” we share in some insignificant way in the redemptive work of the cross. Or is it significant since by baptism we enter the Body of Christ?

        • Rick,

          “(Original sin does not say that we assume personal guilt for Adam and Eve’s sin, it says we have clouded the divine image we were created with and that now we are subject to hard work, sickness and death)”

          Maybe I’m missing something, but if Mary was preserved from original sin, namely, perfectly preserved the image of God, she was not subject to hard work, sickness and death.
          Why did she have to die if it has been perfectly preserved from sin?
          I’m saying nonsense?

          • ERRATA: Why did she have to die if SHE has been perfectly preserved from sin?

          • Sorry if I made a parallel between the death of Jesus and Mary. There is none: Jesus is Lord, and Mary is a disciple just as we are. I also believe that I share in the death and resurrection of Jesus–but I am very clear that there no parallel between us!

            My only response is that Mary worked, suffered and died because Jesus himself was not exempt from sickness, hard work and death. The servant is not greater than the master.

            I don’t know if she “had” to die. The Catholic Church doesn’t try to answer that question. We are free to think what we want since there are arguments and traditions on for both alternatives. One argument is that she was free of original sin (for example remaining a virgin even after Jesus passed through the birth canal), and the other argument is that if Jesus died it makes sense for the servant to also die. Who knows what happened?

            Sorry to be trite, but it’s a mystery! We see in the glass darkly.

          • Hi, Lector. Here is an answer I found to your question. The link is at the end.

            “But,” some ask, “if Mary was immaculately conceived, and if death was a consequence of Original Sin, why did she die?” Although she was wholly innocent and never committed a sin, she died in order to be in union with Jesus. Keep in mind that he did not have to die to effect our redemption; he could have just willed it, and that would have been sufficient. But he chose to die.

            Mary identified herself with his work, her whole life being a cooperation with God’s plan of salvation, certainly from her saying “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), but really from the very start of her life. She accepted death as Jesus accepted death, and she suffered (Luke 2:35) in union with his suffering. Just as she shared in his work, she shared in his glorification. She shared in his Resurrection by having her glorified body taken into heaven, the way the glorified bodies of all the saved will be taken into heaven on the last day.


          • Rick,

            “My only response is that Mary worked, suffered and died because Jesus himself was not exempt from sickness, hard work and death”
            Yes, but Jesus suffered and died to overcome sin and to defeat the power of death. Jesus suffered, died and was raised by the Father from the dead to win salvation for us.
            I do not see the connection between the suffering and death of Jesus and the suffering and the (hypothetical) death of Mary. Maria did not have and could not overcome the power of sin and death. Jesus did it. Maria benefited (before his birth, according to the Catholic dogma) of the redemption of his Son. She did not have to save the world from its sins. She was preserved from Original Sin through the suffering and death of his Son! How could Mary suffer because of the sin from which she had been preserved?
            Anyway, thanks for the answer. Topic closed for me.

          • Rick,
            “Mary identified herself with his work, her whole life being a cooperation with God’s plan of salvation, certainly from her saying “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), but really from the very start of her life. She accepted death as Jesus accepted death, and she suffered (Luke 2:35) in union with his suffering. Just as she shared in his work, she shared in his glorification. She shared in his Resurrection by having her glorified body taken into heaven, the way the glorified bodies of all the saved will be taken into heaven on the last day”

            This means that Mary was associated with Jesus in his saving work? Mary was also the co-author of our redemption?

          • Rick,
            “Keep in mind that he did not have to die to effect our redemption; he could have just willed it, and that would have been sufficient. But he chose to die.”

            And then the death and resurrection of Jesus were not necessary for our salvation?!
            I’m not Catholic, but I am convinced that this is not Catholic doctrine!

          • Robert F says

            I’m afraid it is Roman Catholic doctrine to say that the method of atonement that God chose in Jesus’ death and resurrection was not a necessary means and that God could have provided for the redemption of humanity without Jesus going to the cross; that much I remember from my childhood catechism classes. Reasons are given in Roman Catholic theology for why God chose Jesus’ sacrifice instead of any other means, but I can’t remember what those reasons were. But the point is that the Passion of Jesus was God’s choice in RC theology, not the only means he could have chosen to work human, and cosmic, redemption, but his preference.

          • Lector, there are several “theories of the atonement” that are accepted by the Catholic Church. All of the theories reveal some aspect of the atonement, but none fully explains it.

            One theory put forth by the Franciscans is that the incarnation of Jesus was not an after thought because of the fall, but the eternal plan of the Trinity. The atonement could have happened in other ways, but the Cross was freely chosen by God to show just how completely he loves us. I love you and forgive even though you kill me. The Franciscans refer to the Incarnation and Death of Jesus (as well as the Eucharist) as the kenosis and poverty of God. Out of love for us, He totally emptied Himself. The Incarnation and Crucifixion are primarily about God’s love not our sin. The Franciscans also reject the idea of the wrath of God. God did not pour out his wrath on the Son as he hanged on the cross. By the cross the Trinity poured out it’s love on all people even though people poured out their wrath on God as he suffered and died on the cross.

          • Rick and Robert F, thanks for your answers. There are many starting points for reflection.

        • donald todd says

          I believe I heard that Mary had died. Per the Jewish and Christian custom, her burial site was noted. When a basilica was built to house her remains, the grave was opened and she was not there. The pious custom is that her Son brought her to be with Him. Given His nature is both God and Man, He is fully capable of doing exactly that, and in doing so, He fulfills His commandment to “honor your Father and your Mother.”

  6. An interesting question to discuss, MCB, if you are so inclined, is how the Protoevangelium of James and other pseudopigraphal books are seen by the Orthodox. They have always seemed, to me, too magical and disconnected from real life, very much in contrast to the down-to-earthness of the Bible itself.

    • You mean like Daniel and Judges?

      It goes way down to a very real difference in the way the Scriptures are treated in the Orthodox Church as opposed to the way they are treated in the Protestant world. I do not know enough about the role of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church to offer a judgement.

      Protestants, and I was one for 55 years, appear to treat the Scriptures as a vein of ore to which you apply the reagents of reason, grammar, and archeology (aka “exegesis”) and are rewarded with the bullion of TRVTH. I am still figuring out what the Orthodox view of the Scriptures is. I remember early in my career of moving to Orthodoxy, I asked the parish priest why he didn’t announce the chapters and verses of the Scripture readings in Church so that we could follow along with our dutifully-carried hand Bibles. He just stared at me, then light glimmered in his eyes: “Oh you me’n what you protestants did so you could find t’ings in the Bible.” The Orthodox Church predates chapter and verse divisions by at least a millenium.

      We also don’t have Bibles per se in the local church. We have liturgical books that contain the readings. And we don’t have a canon. We have books we use in the Church. Wisdom. Let us attend.

      I guess if you could reduce the Orthodox viewpoint to a Reformation sola it would be sola traditio. The Bible is actually the biggest humming, seething mass of Tradition in the whole hive of Christendom. Without Tradition, you’d have to refer to One Two Three and Four rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, nd yd hv t lrn t rd wtht vwls

      As far as the pseudopigraphal books are concerned, we don’t use any of them liturgically, and certainly not to define dogma. Although we have precious little dogma. Among the Apocrypha, there is the consensus that the Maccabees are more historical and Tobit is more fanciful.

      For some reason, we don’t have any problems with some of the stuff in the Bible never happening at all. I’ll be honest and tell you that still baffles me. I’ll get back with you all when I get a better handle on it.

      • Mule, I hope you can write a post on this, as it’s a very interesting subject.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room;
        Christian dreadeth Christ who hath a newer face of Doom;
        Chrisitan hateth Mary whom God kissed in Gaililee…”
        — G.K.Chesterton, “Lepanto”

        The Orthodox Church predates chapter and verse divisions by at least a millenium.

        Someone on this blog coined the term “Zip Codes” for chapter & verse numbers; I’d like us to generally adopt the term. Especially since come churches don’t even bother with the actual text, just announce the Zip Codes.

        Without Tradition, you’d have to refer to One Two Three and Four rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, nd yd hv t lrn t rd wtht vwls

        You’d have to learn Texting?

        Among the Apocrypha, there is the consensus that the Maccabees are more historical and Tobit is more fanciful.

        When the Book of Tobit was first described to me, I had this image of a rabbi telling a story to a group of kids.

      • Mule,
        Unless you are reading Hebrew you still have vowels. As I understand it the Orthodox use the Septuagint so it is all Greek for them. However, youwouldhavetolearntoreadwithoutdivisionandwithoutpuncuation

      • Several of you, including even Mule, have been using the word “pseudopigrapha” but there is no such word.

        The word is pseudepigrapha”…I’m just sayin’

      • Thanks, Mule. I would second the request for a post just on the Orthodox view of Scripture/Tradition.

        I meant mostly to compare the non-canonical Gospels with the canonical ones. Jesus’ miracles in the 4 Gospels are generally pretty useful: healing people, feeding people, etc. as opposed to making birds from clay. He faces a lot of opposition, even from his family, even from his mother. In the non-canonical Gospel you cite, it doesn’t quite pass the “smell test.” Anyone even born without original sin, must less being born as the world’s savior, would encounter immense opposition. It’s not clear from the 4 Gospels that Mary does, but she does leave her family to stay with her cousin, she and Joseph go to Bethlehem alone, etc. So there seems to be a very human element of magical, happy thinking in the non-canonical Gospels that is not nearly as present in the canonical ones.

    • The way my priest introduced the Protoevangelion of James to me in catechism was as a writing derived from the same oral traditions about Mary that our oldest hymnography of some of her feasts did. The protoevangelion is obviously not the original article, but we don’t have the original, so if you want to read some context to that hymnography, you don’t have a lot of other choices.

      Personally, it comes off to me a lot like a greco-roman retelling of a jewish story.

  7. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for a helpful article.

    But, the Proto-Evangelium of James? A fun read, and maybe (just maybe) it got it right about Joachim and Anna being Mary’s parents. But, it’s considerably down stream, historically, from the events described. And, there are some odd stories indeed about Jesus that come form other infancy gospels. Your point about it being the product of tradition and not its source is helpful, but that raises a question: If tradition can be compared to a garden, who weeds the garden? If the purpose of Tradition is to “grow” faith, how do you keep superstitious weeds out of the garden?

    As a Catholic Protestant, I’ve gotten as far as “Blessed art thou among women” and “Theotokos.” Beyond that, things puzzle me. I picked up a book on Mary by Karl Rahner a year ago, but could make nothing out of it—at all!

    Again, thanks for the article.

  8. Greg Flagg says

    As a Protestant who has grown to appreciate, rather than write off, more and more the traditions of both Catholic and Eastern churches this explanation “the role of the Theotokos” is very eye-opening and encouraging to me. I’ll definitely be using some of your statements the next time somebody tries to discredit Catholic or Eastern traditions by pointing to the whole “praying to Mary business”. Especially the themes of Mary as tabernacle, as a reversal of Eve’s actions, and as an essential element of Christ’s humanity. I can definitely resonate with those themes.

    Thank you so much for this.

    • Greg Flagg’s positive comments caused me to remember some statements made by an EO guy I often interacted with at a discussion forum.

      For non-RC’s and non-EO’s, Marian doctrines appear to be a crazy-funhouse-mirror focus on Mary. That, in fact, is not the case. All, and I mean *all*, Marian doctrines are about who Jesus is.

      The easiest example: theotokos. This designation, settled at an Ecumenical Council, was set out not to say anything about Mary’s identity, but to make a Christological claim: that Jesus is God. If Jesus is God, then Mary, in giving birth to Jesus, gave birth to God. She is, theotokos. Similarly, if Jesus is God, and Mary is his Mother, then Mary is Mother of God. It is just that simple.

      Similarly with perpetual virginity. If one focuses on the person of Mary, then, yes, why not espouse that she had an active sex life with Joseph? (I find it interesting, by the way, that it is only in our own sex-saturated era that we find it inconceivable that two married people would refrain from sex. Previous eras would find our obsessions unhealthy. But I digress.) On the other hand, if we focus on the person of Jesus, who is the all-holy, sinless one, and whose very presence is holiness and sanctifies (Moses and the burning bush), then the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb sanctifies Mary, body and soul, and sets her apart in ways no other human being could know. If Jesus is God, then it makes sense that Mary is so unique in her vocation and ministry that she would not fulfill normal spousal relations (and what husband, especially Joseph, would demand his rights in such a circumstance?).

      And so on, through the Marian doctrines.

      Part of the reason Marian doctrines look strange to non-RCs/non-EO’s is that they’re looking through the telescope the wrong way, from the “Marian” end and not from the “Christ” end.

      • I have no problem with the concept of Mary as Theotokos, but perpetual virginity is something else entirely.

        (UnReformed Lutheran here.)

        • Numo — I’m convinced about Mary’s perpetual virginity after many years of being skeptical and looking into the controversy. Here are some of the ideas that changed my mind.

          First I heard about the Hebrew concept of dedicated vessels not be subjected to common use after use in the Temple. I can’t imagine that Joseph (and Mary) would not have partaken of the same sensibilities concerning her womb.

          People often raise the issue of Jesus’ “brothers.” In my experience overseas, I would say that hugely more cultures called non-nuclear-family members “brother” and “sister” than don’t. Many languages need to use a specific word to modify “brother” or “sister” in order to convey that they are children of the same parents — it isn’t assumed at all. (“Same ma, same pa” in Liberian English, “of one birth” in Kyrgyz, for example.) I’m not saying that proves conclusively that Jesus had no immediate siblings, just that our Western way of insisting that the words mean nuclear family members is the odd and unusual way, not the one to take for granted.

          Finally the most thought-provoking and convincing insight I’ve heard about the perpetual virginity of Mary concerns Jesus’ action at the crucifixion (John 19:26). Would Jesus have commended his mother to an unrelated person’s care if she had other sons to care for her? I imagine that if Jesus had had brothers and then publicly told John to care for Mary, he would have been dealing those brothers an intolerable insult.

          • Damaris, I too struggled with this as a cradle Catholic [Roman]. For a long time, I felt that the emphasis on her virginity was a slap in the face to “normal” married women, who loved their husbands with their bodies and hearts and from this union produced children in the usual manner. It seemed to be a cheap trick to make even open and sacred marital sex somehow still “dirty” or at least “less than” the other option. In all truth, I was also a younger married woman and had vast trouble imagining loving my husband without sex in the equation!!

            As I have gotten older and I hope a bit wiser, I no longer see sex in marriage with the same level of intensity, especially since health issues have led us to long periods of being celibate without our love suffering for it.. More importantly, I can see the Blessed Mother as the Ark of the New Covenant, and her body and soul a place set-apart for having housed God Himself. Finally, the maternal and selfless love of unmarried women such as Mother Teresa and others like her have shown me although the marital bed and the sacrament of matrimony helps MOST of us raise our children in love, that it is not necessary for all women who come under the special Grace of God…..and Mary is the pinnacle of this protection and uniqueness!

          • Points taken, although I think that perpetual virginity is (perhaps) being read back into the Gospel accounts without taking into account the fact that nobody – no even Mary, it seems – really knew who Jesus was until after the Resurrection. (Keeping in mind that even the Transfiguration did not convince James, peter and John.)

            I am not sure that being told one’s son would be messiah – and that he would save his people from their sins – meant the same thing to a 1st c. Galilean as it means to us, with over 2000 years of distance from place, time and firsthand experience.

            That said, I can see that some people might be largely abstinent for many reasons, but not necessarily for the ones usually cited. I think our flesh and blood is every bit as holy as more “spiritual” things, and I am not at all certain that abstinence would be required of a married couple – even when one of the is the Theotokos. I do not see how abstinence automatically makes a person more “holy” (even though I’m unmarried and celibate and have been for longer than I care to think about!)

            But hey, none of us know this for certain; it is a matter of belief, and not one that’s a make it or break it kind of thing (I think, anyway).

          • If anything, the incarnation and resurrection of Christ make it very clear (imo) that our bodies – and all material things in nature – are holy; hallowed once by the Creator, hallowed a second and final time by his Son.

          • Dana Ames says


            You won’t find any more staunch defenders of this:

            “If anything, the incarnation and resurrection of Christ make it very clear (imo) that our bodies – and all material things in nature – are holy; hallowed once by the Creator, hallowed a second and final time by his Son.”

            than Orthodox Christians.

            What we say viz. Mary is not that “abstinence automatically makes a person more ‘holy'” but rather that Mary’s “set-apart-ness” is more significant than the sex act is, and both Mary and Joseph knew this much, at least.

            Why do people have sex, anyway? One reason is to perpetuate the species, and another is to hold back the fear of losing one’s own “life” through the loss of one’s family line. IOW, death overshadows even sex. (In French, the most intense moment is described as “petit mort”…) In the most often expressed prayer of praise of Mary in Orthodoxy, there is a phrase: “…without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word.” This does not mean that sex is something that corrupts a person. No, this is about corruption as Paul is talking about it in 1Cor – the result of death, the dissolution of a being. What this phrase means is that Mary gave birth to Jesus totally apart from anything that has to do with death – apart from the need for perpetuation of the species or of a family line, or any other need from our side to get beyond death. The Incarnation and birth actually were from beyond death, from God’s side. And ultimately the telos of Christ’s work was to destroy death so that we humans could get beyond death and sin (Heb 2.14-15). God has done everything to bring us into the Kingdom (Byzantine Liturgy). And in the fullness of the Kingdom, sex will be superfluous; there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, for we will know as we are known.

            Sex is a good, beautiful, life-engendering, union-enhancing expression of love. It is one of many wonderful expressions of love that exist. It is important. It is not the most important thing in relationships. If a relationship is without goodness, beauty, orientation toward life and enhancement of union outside the bedroom, then sex is merely copulation, or worse…


    • donald todd says

      She is actually one of the most attractive people in all of scripture. She is in Genesis, one of her positions is recognized in Kings (Solomon and Bathesheba after David’s death), in Isaiah, and even Paul recognizes her because her Son “was born of a woman.”

  9. Jack Mahkimetas says

    I am currently one of the nones. In times past, I dabbled in a strain of fundagelicalism which had its origins in the beach culture of Southern California. Their preachers never missed an opportunity to deconstruct Mary and minimize the Magnificat found in Luke’s gospel. In my opinion they’ve failed. They never have, nor will they ever be able to subtract one electron of mystery and magic from her person.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I am currently one of the nones. In times past, I dabbled in a strain of fundagelicalism which had its origins in the beach culture of Southern California.

      As in Calvary Chapel? They dominated Christianese AM radio in Seventies and Eighties SoCal.

      Their preachers never missed an opportunity to deconstruct Mary and minimize the Magnificat found in Luke’s gospel.

      Make that Calvary Chapel West Covina and RABID Anti-Catholic “Pastor Raul Rees”. Could never pass up any opportunity to trash St Mary and Catholics even if he had to create the opportunity himself. Just like “Pastor Chuck Smith” and Star Wars.

  10. It wasn’t too long ago that it first hit me that Mary is still Jesus’ mother. I don’t know why that was such a new revelation to me. He loves her as only a son can love a mother. And this made me want to love her too.

    • Clay says:
      July 31, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      It wasn’t too long ago that it first hit me that Mary is still Jesus’ mother. I don’t know why that was such a new revelation to me. He loves her as only a son can love a mother. And this made me want to love her too.

      Mark 3:31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

      • I don’t understand the point of your post. Are you saying Jesus doesn’t have a special love for His Mother?

      • This verse doesn’t prove what I assume you think it proves. Of course those who do the will of God become part of the family of God. This doesn’t mean that the relationship between Jesus and His Mother is not unique, just like every other mother child human relationship.

        • It’s good enough for me. 🙂

          I think people underestimate how radical both Jesus and the Kingdom of God are with respect to old creation “realities” and relationships.

          • You may be right, but I still believe Mary has a special place in the Kingdom of God because of her relationship to her Son. Maybe it is not so much because of her “earthly” relationship to Jesus, but more because of the fact that she submitted her will to God resulting in the salvation of mankind. That’s even more reason to love and honor her.

      • donald todd says

        What you wrote appears to be a dismissal. Do you really think He dismissed His mother?

        I remember when a Baptist lady of my acquaintance told me that “any woman would do.” Wow! I was finding hints of her throughout scripture, always in relationship to her Son, and to be told that “any woman would do” struck me as insane as well as a denial of scriptural.

  11. “I believe it would be highly salutatory for Protestants to have an intramural discussion among themselves about the role of the Theotokos in their church life.”

    Hmm. Have to admit that except for Christmas time I never give her a second thought. It is the “in church life” that I’m stuck on. Others in the Bile gave us theology, church practice, instruction, hymns, poetry, history, etc. What role should she play in church life? She composed the Magnificat and it certainly is beautiful to read, sing, and meditate on but beyond that I’m not sure.

  12. Christiane says

    thanks for writing this about the ‘Lady Days’, a title that is beautiful to me . . . since you are not fully knowledgeable about Catholic beliefs concerning Our Lady, here is something that may help with that, I hope:

    that Our Lady is precious to us, as Catholics, flows from Who her Son is . . . ‘Theotokos’ is a title for her that Catholcs also share together with the Orthodox and with St. Elizabeth who called her ‘the mother of My Lord’

  13. RE Garrett says

    My wife has several chronic medical problems, all of which seem to be getting worse recently. While none of them is life-threatening, she is in almost constant pain that is usually–but not always–relieved by medication. To me the relevance of Mary the Mother of God, the Theotokos, is that she understands what it feels like to watch someone you love suffer physical torment without being able to lift a finger to help. I would much, much rather suffer in place of my wife than to have her continue to go through the suffering that has become the center of her life, and I’m sure Mary felt the same way when she watched, helplessly, while Her Son suffered on the Cross. I see Mary as the advocate in Heaven for all those who must helplessly watch their loved ones suffer, praying to Her Son and His Father for mercy on their pain.

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