My mother has always been generous in her sharing of me. She always allowed me to form friendships with women who became mentors, who also became mothers of my heart. And oh, how I needed them! I needed them to become. I needed them to be more truly who I am.
I have always admired Mary. In my early days, I thought of her as a teenage mom who was quaking in her boots as she said 'yes' to God. She was an example of how I should say 'yes' to the foolishness of God instead of the wisdom of the world.
In the 90s, when "Breath of Heaven" and "Mary, Did you Know?" came out, it added emotion to my intellectual respect for Mary. I became increasingly aware of the bravery it must have taken to say yes. The strength of her answer to the angel: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord" and "be it unto me according to thy word." Because she for SURE spoke in King James. And not even Joan of Arc can rival the sheer audacity and derring-do of Mary's willingness. Her obedience provided my salvation. I was always thankful to her for that. But for me, Mary was always a seasonal character. She came out around Christmas with the shepherds and wise men; much like a cuckoo clock shows forth woodworks in its time and then closes the doors again.
Not so in the Orthodox Church. The thought of her is not merely seasonal.
The first day that I darkened the doors of the Orthodox Church just so happened to be on one of Mary's feast days, the Dormition. It is (in August, of all months!) when the Orthodox commemorate her death. Definitely not a Christmastime theme. Not at all. Fr. Paul O'Callaghan teaches that even though the Theotokos is talked of
all the time in the Church, she is important only in her relation to
Jesus. Then again, it could be said that all the importance that any of us can muster comes from Jesus.
When I was taking instruction in the Orthodox Christian church, I was fortunate to be at a women's retreat led by Dr. Jeannie Constantinou on The Theotokos and Orthodox Women. Separating Life from Legend
and Theology from Piety: A Scriptural, Theological and Iconographic
Journey. (The word "Theotokos" means God-Bearer, and is how Mary is
often referred to in the Orthodox Church.) It was immensely helpful to
this Protestant theology student to be able to sit down with an Orthodox
woman who is a scholar and hear her perspective. Even better was
being able to ask all of my questions in one place, on one weekend. And there were many.
From that weekend, I started to put Mary in perspective in a new way. No longer merely seasonal, I began to see her as an example. Dr. Jeannie showed us how she was an example of so many things: obedience, motherhood... of course. But also womanhood in many myriad forms. A teenager. A wife. A refugee. The mom of a precocious child. Bereaved. A leader of the early church in Ephesus. She is all these things and more. As my understanding of the communion of saints and the great cloud of witnesses grew, I came to understand her as an intercessor.
All of this is well and good. But even after I became Orthodox, my appreciation of the Theotokos was remote, removed from the core of who I am. Though it is possible (possible, I say) that Mary herself brought me to the Church on one of her feast days, for the most part she remained a theoretical abstract.
Until that day.
I had walked in to my favorite bookstore. One of my friends who worked there was stomping around and buzzing like an angry bee. He threw a book at me, and said, "LOOK at this! Just look at this. What do you think when you see this!?"
There was a print of a woman who was slumped down by a tiled wall. The wall was golden, but had seven especially golden tiles above her. A dark shadow, maybe blood, pooled beneath her. Her mouth, open. Her eyes, lifeless.
She was dead.
Or so she looked to me. My friend thought it looked as if she had been raped. It was clear that some involuntary act of violence had been done to her. I had no context for it. I could not think of what this picture represented or who she was.
"The THEOTOKOS!!!" he railed. "THIS is a picture of Mary being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit!" I was shocked. I couldn't see Mary in the way the picture had presented her. Because she was brave. Because she had free will. Because she had agreed. The angel had come... and she had said YES. Yes to that most inconceivable of conceptions: that God would become man. That her knees would become His throne.
"They can't do that to her, they can't picture her that way!!! She's my MOM!!!!" my friend thundered.
And with that, I was taken aback. And with that, my life has not ever been the same. She's Mom. She's my mom; the mother of all of us.
11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.[a] 12 He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.”[b]
And this is not just a metaphysical truth, it is a physical truth. When Christ came and took on flesh, it was Mary's flesh that he took on. Her DNA lived in his body; this body that is fully human and fully God. Not long after this conversation with my friend, I went to a place in town that has bones of Joachim and Anna. They were Mary's parents, which makes them Jesus' grandparents. Both my body and my heart knelt and kissed the bones that begat the bones that begat the bones of God.
And with that, I knew who she was. Because she is generous with me, she is generous with us. She is my mom. And oh, how I need her! I need her to become. I need her to be more truly who I am.