Today at church we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity (Birth) of the Theotokos (Mary). Fr. Stephen pointed out that the liturgical year begins on September 1, and the first feast of the church calendar is Mary’s birth. The last one, celebrated on August 15, is her death (called “Dormition” in the Orthodox Church). Thus, we begin and end every liturgical year with Mary. A human. A human who said yes to God. A woman who brought God into the world. A woman intricately connected to the Incarnation, and thus, to our salvation. The first Christian, if you will.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, “What the Mother of God’s image gives us first of all is a woman. Christ’s first gift to us, the first and most profound revelation of his teaching and call, is given to us in the image of a woman.”
I have been thinking a lot lately about women and their power to create. Not just the power to create babies; after all, some women can’t do that, and some don’t want to. I am talking about the mystical power of growth, mercy, and renewal. I wonder if all women have some mysterious ability to renew the world. Maybe all of our everyday labors – from changing diapers to scrambling eggs to performing surgeries – can be redemptive. In our small ways, we bless those in our lives, we show that we care, and we put good out into the universe. Maybe each small act of a woman is a seed planted that sprouts and grows and becomes part of this beautiful vine that reaches across the earth. Maybe we are, each in our own way, life-givers.
I’ve been trying to pray more. I know in my last post I preached against all those formulas. I’m trying to see prayer not as a formula, but as a movement towards God. I’ve always thought our mornings are far to busy and hectic to fit in time for Morning Prayers. It turns out I was wrong. Sometimes I gather the children around the altar with me right after breakfast. Sometimes I finish making lunches and have five minutes to spare before I wake the kids up. Sometimes I leave five minutes later than usual so I can pray. (And I haven’t been late to work yet.)
Anyway, I noticed something this week that I’ve missed in all these years of praying (and not praying) Morning and Evening Prayers. In the Troparia to the Holy Trinity, each section ends with, “Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O God. Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.” Though the prayer is directed to the Trinity, the mention of Mary is there each time, right next to the mention of God Himself.
How does God have mercy on us? By becoming a human baby, by entering the world through a woman, by showing us Love, by dying and resurrecting.
How does God have mercy on us? Through the womb and breast and body of His Mother.
How does God have mercy on us? Through the prayers and intercessions of the first believer.
How does God have mercy on us? Through the life-giving and creative power of a woman, Mary, the God-bearer, the Theotokos.
While I do sometimes criticize my church for not allowing women to be priests, I am floored by its adoration of and exaltation of Mary. Sometimes I want to shout, “LOOK! Look at this beautiful celebration of a woman who is an inspiration and intercessor for us all! Look at how we open and close kairos time each year: with Jesus’ Mother! Look at this friend to all women, life-giver to us all!”
Like the angel Gabriel, I want to rush to her side and proclaim:
“Hail! Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, O Virgin Theotokos. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast born the Savior of our souls!”
But I don’t shout. I don’t proclaim. Most days I whisper. I look at her icon, I look into her eyes, listening for her creative spirit to speak to me. Sometimes I think I feel her strengthening me. And I pray:
Have mercy on me.
Make me a good mother.
Let me love others.
Pray for my children.
Bless those who are hurting.
Have mercy on the world.