Saturday, March 12, 2011

Praising Mary's Honor - Extravagance & Only Human But It Was Enough

These are the last two sections before the actual text of the Akathist Hymn. Do you guys want me to go over the hymn itself oikos by oikos with the Scriptural references or do you just want this book to be over? It's seriously such a tiny book but there's been so much to share it's taken this long!

- Extravagance

The Akathist Hymn, in spite of being on the surface all about Mary is really about the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus Christ and the subtle paradoxes of the Incarnation. Here's the thing about theology in regards to Mary - it only exists in order to aid us in having a proper theological understanding of Christ and the Incarnation. And again, not all of it, but only the parts that we can comprehend which is just the tip of the iceberg.

"The more Christians thought about it, the more wonder they felt at the bare fact of Mary's pregnancy. The God who made the entire universe, who holds Creation in the palm of His hand, was somehow voluntarily enclosed in the space of her womb. ('He made your body more spacious than the heavens!' another hymn would rejoice.)"

Everything human about Christ came from Mary. She was the only genetic contributor to his human body. All that is *us* in Him came from her. For this she can almost be looked at as a 'home town hero made good'. Someone from humble beginnings who did something amazing. Mary, through her obedience to God, through her simple 'yes' aided in the salvation of all.

The language of the Akathist Hymn is a contrast to the language of the Protoevangelium of James. Whereas the language in the Protoevangelium is plain, almost homey, this hymn is elaborate and glorious in its language. Mary is praised as "mother of the unsetting star", "dawn of the mystic day", "pillar of virgins", "gate of salvation", and much more.

Some people might feel uncomfortable with such language being used for Mary, who is, of course, only human. The thing to keep in mind is that the language is not used in some mistake or attempt to replace praise of God with praise of Mary. It's more along the lines of counting your blessings. Enumerating all the wonderful things that God has done for you doesn't set the things up as a rival to God. It is done to remind you of what God has done for you. So is the language used about Mary. It is done to remind us what God has done for us, in part through Mary's cooperation.

In addition, the language used about Mary is strongly typological. Mary is seen foreshadowed all throughout the Old Testament. "Mary's virgin conception, in particular, has been considered in light of the Hebrew Scriptures. In this miracle, God altered the course of nature by His own will and power. Yet He did this while preserving the delicate harmony of the female human body, His own creation. This great miracle waited on the permission of a girl, and was achieved without compromising the integrity of her vulnerable natural body."

Here's a few of the references found in the Old Testament to the (at the time) coming miracle of the Incarnation:

Gen. 28:12 - The ladder that Jacob saw, which reached from heaven to earth.

Ex. 3:2 - The bush that Moses saw, which was burning but not consumed.

Ex. 16:32 - The golden urn of manna that Moses preserved, so that future generations could see the bread God provided in the wilderness.

Ex. 17:6 - The rock that Moses struck, which then produced a fountain of water.

Num. 17:8 - The rod of Aaron, which blossomed though it was dry.

Dan. 2:34 - The stone that Daniel saw, which was cut from a mountain by no human hand.

Ezek. 43:4 - The east gate that Ezekiel saw, through which the Lord entered and which would henceforth be shut.

As time went on, the praise of Mary grew more lavish. You can see that if you look from the text of the Protovengelium to the Compassion prayer to the Akathist Hymn. But to take these honors as precise theological assertions would be a grave misunderstanding. Western Christian thought in regards to theology was shaped by the work of St. Thomas Aquinas who developed an approach that treats faith like a science. We won't debate whether that's right or wrong, or anything like that. I appreciated the attempt to treat faith like something quantifiable not that long ago. I've since come to realize that that's not satisfactory, or the way it was meant to be. Faith is faith and cannot be treated like science, where every answer can logically be known or anticipated to be known once we've advanced enough. Faith will never, and should never, be quantified. Regardless, the Akathist Hymn predates Aquinas by about 700 years, so his version of theology doesn't enter into it.

The goal here is not so much understanding God in a rational way as it is directly experiencing Him. "This worship starts with the assumption that God is present throughout Creation, sustaining our every heartbeat, hearing our every thought, perceptible in the beauty and love we encounter in the material world. And it's assumed that trying to think about this makes you trip over your own feet. As St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662) put it, 'direct experience of a thing suspends rational knowledge of it, and direct perception of a thing renders the conceptual knowledge of it useless.'"

Worshipers expect to offer this hymn, not just about Mary, but to her, while participating in an inexpressible communication with her. They do this while standing in the presence of God, in the midst of family and friends, saints and angels, seen and unseen. The encounter takes place whether we feel anything emotionally. The author points out that people tend to get 'experience' and 'emotion' mixed up when speaking about faith. The experience is of primary importance, with any emotions or thoughts that may arise being secondary and almost unimportant. The important part is to participate - to be fully there.

"So the context of these praises is a celebration, and they are a suitably glorious outpouring for that purpose, much like the language a lover bestows on his beloved. If you were to hear one of these Christians singing to Mary, 'You alone are our only hope,' you would probably ask him, 'Do you really believe that Mary is your only hope?' He might well reply, 'Of course not, where did you get that idea?' People in love say extravagant things."

-Only human - but that was enough

Mary was ardently loved by the early Christians (and is still loved today in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, I'd like to point out), respected for her holiness, but they didn't get her mixed up with God. If Jesus Himself 'in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin' (Heb. 4:15), Mary cannot have done better than that. Mary lived a sinless life, but that doesn't mean she was never tempted by sin. All it means is that she, as a person just like you or I, resisted all temptation through her faith in God and His grace.

"The whole point of her role in God's plan is that she represented us; she was an authentic human being. And though the early Christians saw in her an exemplary model of holiness, they didn't think she had magical powers, or that she knew everything in the mind of God."


  1. I've really enjoyed these posts as they have helped me learn quite a bit about the story of Mary from Tradition. As for sharing the hymn, I'd like to read that information, but if you are ready to move on, I understand. Maybe you could highlight your favorite lines if you don't want to discuss them line by line.

    I started reading a book yesterday by an Anglican priest and I was shocked in the first chapter when he told the "likely" story of Mary's pregnancy. She and Joseph met while he was in Mary's hometown doing some carpentry work. They hit it off and had sex and - tada!- there was Jesus.

    I was glad I had these posts of yours to compare what he was saying to what others have said.

    From this post, the OT examples were some I would never have considered in the same way. Quite fascinating!

    Thanks for the good lesson!

  2. Susanne,

    I'm going to post the text of the hymn, but without the reference notes. It's 24 verses/oikoi long, so that'd be a lot of typing and it'd be slow coming out. I figure if you have any questions about a phrase, you'll speak up.

    re: your new book. Should I even bother to say how wrong that theory is?

    I guess, if you don't believe that Jesus is God, and you go with the theory that he was just a political revolutionary that it doesn't matter how he came to be born. But, assuming that this priest is a practicing Anglican, last time I checked they were (nominally) mainstream Christians and therefore Trinitarian. Does he really think that God would enter the world through an act that He declared sinful?

  3. I decided to keep reading this book for whatever reason and I am not impressed with the way he is portraying Jesus. I'm eager to finish so I can maybe understand why he even became a priest. He is one of those Jesus Seminar people, I think. Not impressed.

  4. Sometimes we just have to keep reading to try and understand the other persons perspective. Even when they're really, really wrong. :)

    I hope you'll at least do a post on this book so I can get my blood pressure up!


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