An archangel was sent from Heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And beholding Thee, O Lord, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to Her such things as these:
Rejoice, Thou through whom joy will shine forth:
Rejoice, Thou through whom the curse will cease!
Rejoice, recall of fallen Adam:
Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!
Rejoice, height inaccessible to human thoughts:
Rejoice, depth undiscernible even for the eyes of angels!
Rejoice, for Thou art the throne of the King:
Rejoice, for Thou bearest Him Who beareth all!
Rejoice, star that causest the Sun to appear:
Rejoice, womb of the Divine Incarnation!
Rejoice, Thou through whom creation is renewed:
Rejoice, Thou through whom we worship the Creator!
Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!
This excerpt is from the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos (the Mother of God), a work of great beauty by Romanos the Melodist, a saint of the late fifth/early sixth centuries. It is so treasured by the Orthodox Church that we have multiple services during Great Lent to sing it. The present fast (of the Dormition) is another good time to revisit it as well. In particular, I’d like to focus on the refrain at the end: “Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!”
There is an interesting historical/traditional quibble possibly present here. The Christian East, relying on an older tradition traceable to the Protoevangelium of James, holds that St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary, though betrothed, were never married. Joseph did not “put her away,” but he also never formally married her, which traditionally would presume (but not require) consummation. The reason for this is theologically significant, but at the moment I’d like to focus on something else entirely.
The other sense of the phrase is far more theological and mystical: the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, through her virginity dedicated herself to God. In this way she is both Mother and Bride of God, as she gave birth to the Son of God in the flesh and kept herself a virgin for the sake of dedication to him. It’s the sort of weird language that can only make sense in a religious context.
I remember a priest once telling me a (perhaps apocryphal) story about a visitor to Russia that saw an icon of the Theotokos holding Christ and asked, “Who is this child? And who is this woman?” To which he received the following response from his guide: “Oh, that’s God. And that’s his mother. She’s a virgin.” Bewildered, the man responded, “You Russians have a strange religion.”
Our sensibilities immediately recoil at the thought of someone being both bride and mother of the same person, but then when we realize that person is God the recoil itself draws back to reveal something at once perfectly pure and infinitely more scandalous.
When the Son of God became incarnate of her, so the Scriptures teach and the fathers affirm, Mary became the Mother of our Lord (cf. Luke 1:43). Such a phrase, which on the face seems to require a complete condradiction, is resolved in the mystery of the incarnation. It is tempting to say that she gave birth only to Christ’s humanity, and thus she might be better termed the “Mother of Christ,” but that’s been proposed before, however.
Long story short, the phrase, with that meaning, would be inaccurate. Just as when a man dies we do not say that only the body of a man dies though his soul lives on, or more to the point, just as we do not say a woman is only the mother of a man’s body and not his soul, so also we cannot say that Mary is merely the Mother of Jesus but not the Mother of God. To do so requires unnaturally dividing one person into two separate parts that are, in reality, both essential to the whole person. They can (and ought) to be distinguished, but not divided. I am both body and soul, and their separation (death) is wholly anti-natural. The body and soul of Jesus Christ, furthermore, is the body and soul of God incarnate. To be the human mother of God incarnate makes one the Mother of God. And so, Christians have always honored her as such.
But what does all this have to do with asceticism?
Mary is the Theotokos (lit. “Birthgiver of God”) because she found favor with God, that is, because of God’s grace. God could choose someone for anything for any reason, but it turns out that Mary is known for her righteousness and, specifically, her chastity.
For a long time it always puzzled me why ancient Christians seemed so obsessed with this point. Why virginity? We all know that it does not per se make someone holier than anyone else. Oddly this was my thought in my early twenties. Looking back I see how mistaken I was.
Virginity is an achievement. This has been true at all times of history but perhaps even more so today. Indeed, even a return to a virginal way of life for those who have already fallen to temptation takes great struggle. I remember once asking a married friend what it was like when he and his wife were dating: “like holding back a tidal wave” was his response.
Abstinence itself is no easy task, but the fulness of virginity—true possession of the virtue of chastity—that can seem like a mountain to move, even for those who have the best intentions. Even so, however, there is hope: “[A]ssuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as [little as] a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).
This passage dovetails nicely with another. When the archangel Gabriel (the one referred to in the hymn) appears to announce the incarnation to the Virgin Mary, she asks, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34) Like many, Mary sees her virginity as something of an inadequacy. But Gabriel responds that “with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). For centuries the Jews had been waiting for the promised Messiah. Though they had hints (cf. Isaiah 7:14), not everyone expected him to be born of a virgin. Surely he would be the “Son of David” and thus the son of a great man, a king even! Yet that was not God’s plan. As it turned out, the Messiah already had a Father.
The Gospel story concludes with a hymn of Mary’s own, but just before that we read the words to Mary of her relative St. Elizabeth: “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). What did Mary have to offer? Her virginity—her dedication of herself to God—and “faith as [little as] a mustard seed.”
And so, during this fast, I hope my readers might be encouraged to persevere in chastity, no matter what station of life they are in, no matter if they have not always sustained the same dedication as the Theotokos. Through making oneself a bride of God, one finds paradoxically that God is ever born into one’s own heart. Virginity and chastity can take all the discipline a person can muster, but it is a comfort to remember that it only takes a mustard seed of faith for nothing to be impossible.
To those who labor, in the midst of this sacred season: rejoice, O brides unwedded!