A young friend recently lost his mother. It has been an occasion of reflection for me, thinking about the emptiness created by such a loss. Despite all of the confusion and conundrums in our contemporary culture surrounding gender issues – they only serve to underscore the fact that male-and-female, on the most fundamental level of the human psyche, are core realities – subject to debate, but not subject to dismissal. We are created male and female and, no matter how all of that may dysfunctionally appear in someone’s life, it frames our world and our place in it. It is noteworthy, however, that these fundamental realities have often been distorted. That same distortion tends to make a culture crazy.
When the Scriptures begin the story of human beings it is as though it were written in crayon. The characters are stark, with very little elaboration. The Man is first, taken from the earth. His very name, Adam, is related to the earth (Adamah). The Woman is taken from the Man. Adam calls her “Woman” (Ishah) because she was taken out of Man (Ish). This male and female reality is magnified even more in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of St. Paul.
St. Paul describes Christ as the “Second Adam,” and draws on the imagery of Genesis to describe Christ and the Church (His bride). Various elements of this imagery will enter into other Christian writings (Revelation is a case in point). All of the gospels make mention of Mary, with St. Luke and St. John having the most material, and the most important. It is also material that is easily overlooked and suppressed. Christ told us that the “pure in heart shall see God.” The distortions within our own hearts hide not only God, but His purpose in the Theotokos as well. The Scriptures remain.
Just as Christ is the Second Adam, so the Tradition sees Mary as the “Second Eve.” The first Eve was called the “Mother of all living.” This was true in a genealogical sense. However, Mary is the Mother of us all in a theological sense. On the Cross, Jesus says to St. John, “Behold your mother,” as he gives him the charge of caring for her. The Church has seen this verse as extending beyond St. John to us all. She is Mother of us all.
When I think of my experience as an Orthodox Christian, I cannot begin to exaggerate the importance of the Theotokos in my life. She is in my prayers, my theology, my understanding of God – but, beyond and above all that, she is in my mind and heart. To live in America from the mid-20th century forward, is to have lived through a deluge of gender wars. Definitions and re-definitions have been our constant fare. It’s not that human beings have ever been really great at such things – indeed, Genesis (from the beginning) talks about enmity between men and women. We love each other, and we prey on each other. From a certain point in my 20’s, the Theotokos entered into my theological and prayer life. Initially, what I knew was largely derivative of Catholic devotions. Not until my mid-40’s did I become Orthodox and start the assimilation of the Orthodox mindset. Nevertheless, throughout all of that, Mary has been part of a stability – a spiritual stability, that has been essential to understanding my place in the world and the world’s place in me.
A great emptiness in modern culture is the lack of models. You cannot construct the psyche of a culture out of thin air, much less from the constantly changing ephemera of academic and journalistic make-believe. Children need stable structures rather than ideologies and Tik-Tok wisdom. However, it is also true that transcendent models are difficult to come by (much less transcendent models that have truth and reality behind them).
I have written a handful of articles regarding the Theotokos over the years. They are always published with a certain sense of dread. The dread comes from the rather predictable complaints from various Christians for whom Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos is anathema (or close to it). The pain of the dread comes from the tenderness that accompanies her place within my heart. It also comes from the emptiness I feel when I contemplate her absence in the lives of so many.
Dostoevsky once contemplated what he called the contrast between the “Madonna and Sodom.” The first was and is profoundly embodied in the beauty and wonder of the Theotokos. The latter is perhaps best embodied in the annals of pornography. He marveled at how the two coexisted in the human heart. Of course, he was writing from within an Orthodox culture, and he had exposure to Catholic culture as well. What he had not seen, I suspect, was the emptiness of Protestant and later secular culture, where the “Madonna” has been completely eradicated. Modern woman has been made to compete with the profane images of Sodom in our rampant pornography, with often little more than a militarized feminism and mock-masculinity to offer any push-back. Indeed, feminists are just as likely to mock the Theotokos and blame that image for much of their oppression.
I cannot point to some ideal society of the past and say, “See! It worked there!” There are no ideal Orthodox cultures, only some in which Orthodoxy has had a prominent place. Nevertheless, we have many examples of individuals within various cultures who have found sanity and healing – some are named as saints.
It is significant, I think, that the Theotokos is Woman who is not sexualized. In that fashion, she is, indeed, mother of us all. In a healthy life, our mothers are exempt from sexualization. In a healthy world, the relationship between male and female is not burdened with constant sexualization. But many have little experience of such an existence. One of the deepest insights of Genesis is that male and female do not exist without one another – they complete and fulfill one another. As such, neither can be understood apart from the other.
What we have in God’s gift of the Theotokos (and our veneration of her) is a vision of wholeness, a fulfillment of the promises made in Genesis. It is, no doubt, a troubling thing for some to read that we cannot truly know Christ apart from the Theotokos – but we have no Christ who is not made known in the Incarnation which is inherently in and of the Theotokos. And the historical revelations we have in the gospel are not mere history – facts to be noted and filed away. What is made known to us is the gateway to what is true and real and good – now.
Orthodox worship utterly focuses on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but it is sung in the “key” of the Theotokos. We do not tell the human story (even as heavenly worship) that is not also a story of male and female, the fullness of our existence in the wonder of our creation. We need everything God has given us.