The Orthodox Church has just commemorated the death of Mary, Jesus’ mother, known as the Dormition of the Theotokos (God-bearer or Mother of God). This event is not found in the Gospels, but in the ancient traditions of the church. It is one of our major feasts, beginning Aug. 1 with a two-week fast that ends on Aug. 15, the Feast Day on Aug. 15 and continuing to Aug. 21.
Recognizing this day speaks to the importance and place of Mary within the church, as well helping us to understand the nature of her Son.
After we became Orthodox, we continued to work with a protestant youth program. One evening was a “dress up as your favourite Bible character” night. One of our daughters chose to dress as Mary. When it came time for everyone to say who they were, she said she was, “Mary, the Mother of God.” She was quickly corrected by another adult worker, “You mean Mary, the Mother of Jesus.”
Early Christians believed in the Trinity: God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church defines the Trinity as three divine persons who share one essence and are coeternal. There never was a time when any of the persons of the Trinity did not exist. God is outside of time and yet the three natures act within time and throughout history.
God created man in His image, so man has three natures; body, soul and spirit. Our body is comparable to the Son. Our soul is comparable to the Father and our spirit is comparable to the Holy Spirit. Each of us is one man with three natures.
The concept of the Trinity is not readily understood by many. (The Orthodox acknowledges this and call it a mystery of God, one of many.) Some say Mary gave birth to the man Jesus who was later endowed with the Christ Spirit. Others will call Jesus a great teacher or prophet, someone with special insight. Others will say He is only the Son of God, believing Jesus to be separate from God and venturing into dangerous territory of polytheism (Christ as a lesser god). All these vague understandings make Christ more than a man but less than God.
Mary gave birth to a child who was fully man, but also fully God. Jesus appeared to be a great teacher and prophet because He was God speaking directly to His creation. Jesus was the Son of God because everyone has both mother and father and He had no earthly father.
The term Theotokos, God bearer, had been used unofficially in the early years of the church. It was officially recognized in 431 at third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, to counter Nestorius, then patriarch of Constantinople, who said Mary should be called Christotokos, meaning “Christ bearer”. This restricted her role to being only the mother of “Christ’s humanity” and not his divine nature.
Nestorius’s view was condemned by the council as heresy, since it was dividing Jesus into two distinct persons, one who was Son of Mary, and another, the divine nature, who was not. The council concluded although Jesus has two natures, human and divine, these are eternally united in one personhood. So since Jesus is God incarnate, Mary was known as the Mother of God and entitled Theotokos.
This does not suggest Mary was coeternal with God or that she existed prior to God. The title says more about the nature of Christ than it does His mother.
Even so, Mary was the means God chose to enter His creation. God took flesh from a woman and became man. As the ancient Church hymn states, “He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.”
Mary helps define the church. Mary’s role in God’s plan for salvation refutes complete patriarchal and masculine authority. She is the second Eve, who did not disobey God. She is the first Christian and mother of all Christians. She is one of the first to know of His resurrection and tradition says she was carried into heaven by her Son at her Dormition. She invites all into the love of Christ.
“True Theotokos, we magnify you.”