Christian devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus goes back a very long way, well before the Council of Ephesus in 432 where she was defined as Theotokos, the ‘God bearer’ or as the Orthodox theologian Nicholas Zernov translated - ‘the one who gives birth to the one who is God’. However, the early ways in which Mary was venerated aren’t clear to us, except that it was always in the context of Jesus, and that’s important because it links Mary clearly with the incarnate Christ, the Son of God born of Mary, in time, as one of us. It immediately takes away from her any suspicion that she invested with qualities of a quasi-divine being, she is the very human mother of the Word made flesh and dwelling amongst us!
I very much like one of her titles as ‘first amongst the saints’, a reminder that through her Jesus shares our finite life in all its aspects. All her ancient feasts, particularly those of the undivided tradition of East and West, reflect the story of salvation found in Christ, for in these feasts of Mary we find a proclamation of faith in Jesus.
Some of you may know that in the Byzantine tradition of the Church no icon of Mary is portrayed without Christ unless it is one belonging to a set where she is pointing to another icon of Christ, she always points way from herself to Jesus.
There is something wonderfully healthy in a robust and loving devotion to Mary the Theotokos based on these ancient feasts where the intimate connectivity between her and her son is very clearly understood. They are very deeply Christological!
But her feasts also place her on our side of the fence so to speak, she is after all just one of us, a handmaid of the Lord who accepted and lived out God’s call to the full. This feast, ancient and eastern in origin, reminds us that the role of `Mary in salvation’s song needs to be better understood as a feast that joins her firmly to us, for she is very much a mother figure for all the disciples of Christ! Not for nothing did the Anglo Saxon veneration of her in England lead to that most evocative of titles, ‘Our Lady’, for truly that is who she is, one of ‘our’ family of God.
Fr Robin Gibbons is an Eastern Rite Chaplain for the Melkite Greek Catholics in Britain.