Mary, One of Us
by Natalie Ashanin
From a talk originally given March 25, 2001
When I learned that I was to talk to you on the great feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear God’s son, I wondered what in the world I could say that countless theologians had not already said. Perhaps there is nothing new I can say, but as I studied the Platytera Icon behind our altar, it occurred to me that perhaps, because of all the honor and devotion given to her, we may have lost sight of the fact that Jesus’ mother, Mary, the one we call Theotokos, birth-giver of God, is actually one of us.
The Roman Church subscribes to the doctrine of original sin—that is, when Adam and Eve sinned, they passed this stain of sin to all their descendents. Because of this doctrine, the Roman Church had to develop the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary, which means that when she was born of Joachim and Anna, she was not tainted by the original sin that stained all other humans from birth. This made her a special case, not quite like the rest of us. Hence, she was a fit vessel to bear the Messiah.
The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, teaches that although we are not born tainted with the sin of Adam and Eve, we do suffer the consequences of that sin since we too are shut out of paradise by their action. So we struggle to regain that paradise. Mary was born to this struggle, just like every other human being. This makes it even more wonderful that she became the mother of our Lord. Because she was found worthy to bear Christ, it means that we too can aspire to be worthy to bear Him, if not in body as she did, then in our heart and soul.
When the Angel Gabriel gave her the momentous news that she would bear the Son of God, she did not argue or seek to test God, as did Gideon in the Old Testament; she only asked how this was possible, then humbly acquiesced and said,
“Let it be to me according to thy word.”
When we see her depicted in icons, when we sing her praises in the Akathist, it is all too easy to forget that she was a human being just like us. And because the child she carried was fully human as well as fully God, she must have experienced all the discomforts of pregnancy—the morning sickness, the backache, the swollen ankles, the pangs of giving birth. She raised her son the best she knew how and, at one time, so scripture tells us, was even baffled by His activities, as so many of us are by our children. And she suffered what we, as parents, pray we will never have to see, the cruel death of her Son. Yet she stayed there, at the foot of the cross, giving Him her love to the very end, just as we suffer when our children are in pain.
It is precisely because Mary is part of humanity that she is such a comfort to us. If just one human being attained to the holiness that she did, there is hope for the rest of us. We ask her to intercede for us, to pray for us before the heavenly throne, precisely because we feel the kinship. She is one of us and she was worthy of bearing Christ. This gives us hope and encouragement as we struggle to achieve holiness in our own lives. Yes, as we sing in the Akathist, she is the “much-talked-of Wonder of angels, the Flower of incorruption, the Door of hallowed Mystery,” but she is also human. We human beings gave to God the most precious thing on earth—a mother. One of my favorite videos is an old 1950’s film, The Miracle of Marcellino, which tells the story of a foundling left on the doorstep of a monastery. Unable to find a family they feel would love the boy, the monks bring him up themselves. Although Marcellino loves his 12 fathers, he yearns for a mother and focuses his search on Jesus’ mother. Like Marcellino, we all need a mother in our life. Many of our social problems today are caused, I believe, by the devaluation of motherhood in our society. When God became incarnate He knew He needed a mother and chose Mary, a humble Jewish girl, to be His. In doing so, He made her our mother as well.
When I was young, I was very frightened of the atom bomb, which was a very new and terrifying invention at that time. I feared the world would be destroyed before I had a chance to live, or—worse yet—I would have to live in a world rendered unrecognizable by atomic warfare. I agonized over the fate of the human race. Then, one night, I had a dream in which I was traveling in a spaceship with refugees from a shattered earth (and this was a full decade before the moon landing), and we were scared and didn’t know where we were going. Finally the ship landed on a strange and foreign planet. We crowded out the door and huddled together at the foot of the stair, frightened by the desolate landscape. Over the horizon we saw a distant figure approaching us, arms outstretched. Then the middle-aged woman who stood next to me turned toward me and said, her face peaceful and glowing with love, “Don’t worry, my son will take care of us,” and I recognized the approaching figure as Christ. After that, I never worried about the fate of the human race.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is like that. She travels with us on our journey. She reassures us of her Son’s love. She intercedes for us because she is not only His mother, but she is ours. She is our link with heaven because though she is “wider than the heavens,” she is still one of us. That is her glory. That is our glory, that we share our humanity with the One who gave birth to our Lord and Savior.
May she continue to watch and care for us and to intercede for us.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!