THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY IN THE SYRIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
How greatly appealing the discourse about the Mother of God, the Holy Virgin Mary is! Our Holy Church fathers had had extensive scrutinizing studies of her biography; inspired ecclesiastical poets wrote beautiful poems in glorification of her; celebrated artists sculpted the most beautiful statues of her and skillful painters filled the world with her splendid portraits. The Virgin Mary is the Patron Saint of the most magnificent Cathedrals the faithful have erected for her worldwide.
Ever since its existence our Syrian Orthodox Church has incessantly extolled the Virgin Mary’s virtues and canonized her as a patron saint of the church, repeating her Holy name in church prayers day and night. Our church has set commemorative days for the Virgin Mary to be celebrated all the year round.
It was a common practice in the church to celebrate commemorations of saints and martyrs after their departure to heavenly abodes following the termination of their spiritual struggle on earth. The Holy Virgin Mary and St. John, however, were excepted.
The Syrian Orthodox Church usually celebrates the nativity of the Virgin Mary on Sept.8. It used to celebrate the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s presentation in the temple, in addition to three others; the Feast of the Virgin Mary for the blessing of the crops, the Feast of the Virgin Mary of the sowing and the Feast of the Virgin Mary for blessing of the vineyards.
Syrian poets called the Potters attribute setting these feasts of the Virgin Mary to John, the Evangelist. Those poets are quoted saying: “With dew and drizzle the land of Ephesus was sprinkled when St. John brought to it the messages of the Virgin Mary commanding that the blessed Feasts of the Virgin be celebrated three times a year. The Feast of the Virgin Mary of the sowing is in January. In May is the Feast of the Virgin Mary for blessing the crops and in August is her Feast of the blessing of the vineyards, which are the symbol of the mystery of life”.
These three Feasts are on the fifteenth day of the three aforementioned months. Assumption of the Virgin Mary replaced the Feast of the Virgin Mary for blessing the Vineyards, which falls on August 15th. Due to the sacredness of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the church instituted that the faithful should go on a fast in preparation for the celebration of this fast. It is called the Virgin Mary’s Fast. In the past this fast used to last for fourteen days starting on August the first, during which the faithful used to have one Meal a day. This meal was free of meat, eggs or dairy product. It consisted mainly of vegetables and beans usually taken in the evening.
The faithful also refrained from having any drinks. Nowadays the church has become more tolerant by limiting the fast to five days starting on August 10th and permitting two or three meals a day and having fish and seafood. The church also celebrates a commemoration day of the Virgin Mary on the second day of Lord Jesus’ Nativity, which is called the Feast of the Glorification of the Virgin Mary at the Lord’s birth; and one on the day following the Resurrection of the redeemer and His rising from the dead. On June 15th the church celebrates also the feast of the first church built after the Virgin’s name.
The most celebrated and greatly significant feast in Christendom is the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, which falls on March 25th.
At the beginning of the Liturgical year the Syrian Orthodox Church observes the Sundays, usually known as the Sundays before the Nativity of Christ, which include Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the Sunday of the virgin Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, the Sunday of St. Joseph’s Revelation, on which Gabriel affirmed to Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, the Virgin’s innocence and revealed the divine Mystery, that the conception was of the Holy Spirit.
Church fathers praised the Virgin in poetry and prose while celebrating her feasts and set rites included in huge volumes called (Fanaquith). The book of daily offices repeated weekly and called (Shehimo) includes hymns in poetry and prose sung daily in the morning and evening. The themes of these songs are the declaration of the Orthodox doctrinal concept of the Virgin Mary and the confession of faith in her. These Hymns are meant to show the exalted position of the Virgin in the hearts of the faithful and in the church at large, in addition to manifesting the intercessory and supplicatory character of prayers addressed to her. Some excerpts are quoted from the book of daily offices and stated hereinafter: in relation to the feasts of the Virgin Mary and the aim of celebrating these feasts the prayer of the first office on Monday night reads: “Oh, Virgin Mary, Mother of God, may your name be a source of blessing. May you answer the prayers of those, close and others far away. May you heal the sick and beseech (your son) to give courage to the oppressed. May you expel the evil within those tormented. May the power of your intercessory prayers have mercy on us, hallelujah, and may your prayer support us”.
The prayer said on Monday evening reads:
“May the commemoration of the blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, be eternal, because in her virginity she gave birth to Jesus, the king, the savior of the whole universe, hallelujah. May her prayer be with us”.
A hymn sung on Thursday evening reads:
“Oh, blessed Virgin, who became the Mother of God in chastity and holiness and without the seed of a man, may you, on this commemoration day of yours, have mercy on us so that the dead will have rest and the living may have hope…Though you are so far away from us in the flesh, yet your prayers are always with us. So may you implore the hidden power (the Son), who descended from His throne and dwelled in you, to forgive us”.
The prayer said on Friday evening includes a Litany by Mar Jacob of Serugh (+521) that reads:
“How beautiful and pleasant the commemorative day of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who became the Mother of the Son of God, is! May you, Oh God, through the intercessory prayer of hers, keep wrath away from all those who, in faith, seek refuge in her”.
In the prayer of the first office, said on Saturday night St. Jacob says:
" Let us venerate the day of the blessed (Mary), glorify it with extreme love, with faith, “watchfulness” and long vigil, and by going on giving alms and praying, for (the virgin) doubles the reward of those who venerate her".
May you, Oh Holy Saint, distribute, on your day, your gifts among our gathering who are thirsty for your prayers and litanies.
May the Lord be the fence that protects all those who venerate you, and may the Lord keep all blows and wrath away from them…. The power that strengthens you is that which empowers us so that we become able to praise you. This power calls on us, through your prayers, to join the abodes of light May the Lord count all those, dead and alive, who venerate your commemorative days and seek you as a refuge, among the Choir of Angels. The congregation raises to you, Oh Lord, on the day of your mother, genuine praise sung to sweet melodies. May you draw the sign of the Cross on their highly elevated gates and keep them away from distress. Glory be to you, your father and to the Holy Spirit.
The prayer said on Saturday morning reads:
" May the commemoration of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the Holy in her virginity, whose virtues found favor with the king of kings that He descended and dwelled in her womb, be celebrated in churches and monasteries".
The Virgin Mary in the Prophecies of The Holy Scripture
Throughout our study of the biography of the Holy Virgin Mary and our elaboration on her Holy life, we have had to depend on the books of divine inspiration and on the extensive exegesis and hermeneutics of the Holy Book that our church fathers have left for us. According to the teachings of these church fathers dozens of prophecies declared by the divine inspiration and stated in prophetic books in the Old Testament have been fulfilled in the Virgin Mary. Church fathers saw as well, in some characters of the Holy Book and in some events in it symbols and signs of the Virgin Mary. She is the woman referred to in God’s promise of salvation by saying: " Her seed shall bruise thy head" (Gen. 3:15). Her seed is Jesus Christ who was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of the seed of a man. She is the new Eve and her son Jesus is the new Adam. In the same way God took a rib from Adam and created Eve, the first woman, the incarnated God, the second Adam, was in the renewal of creation, born of the virgin, who is the second Eve. She is the Virgin, Prophet Isaiah (8th century BC) referred to in his famous prophecy: " Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name (Immanuel). (Is 7-14), " which being interpreted is, (God with us) (Mat 1:23).
Church fathers tackled these prophecies, symbols and signs in their writings and some of these symbols and signs were included in prayer books. You find hereinafter part of what has been put down in the weekly (office) prayer book (Shhimo).
The prayer of the first office, said on Wednesday night, reads:
“Sadducees of old gave Mary, the daughter of David, the Holy virgin, beautiful and glorious names. Ezekiel, the son of exile, called her a shut gate and Solomon called her a locked paradise and a sealed spring. David called her a city in which Jesus grew to be the grass without sowing and to be the meat for all the people. On his birthday Jesus freed us from curse”.
The prayer said on Tuesday morning reads:
“The bush that Moses beheld on Mount Sinai, symbolizes you, oh, Holy Virgin. It represents your holy body, its leaves, which did not burn stand for your virginity Hallelujah, Hallelujah; and the fire in the bush is a symbol of God who dwelled in you”.
The prayer said on Wednesday evening reads:
“The chariot, the chosen Prophet Ezekiel beheld, is way behind your beauty, for the animals, tied to it, while the cherubs are blessing, and the images of the four figures, that is the lion, the ox, the eagle and man, are different from one another. Whereas your knees, oh blessed Mother, have become a chariot for him, and your arms a wheel and your mouth, in glorification, hymns”.
The prayer said on Saturday evening reads:
“Moses’ bush, your father David’s Ark of the Covenant, Gideon’s fleece, the ladder of Jacob, the Sadducee, by means of which the human race ascended to heaven were all symbols of you Mary”.
A litany by Mar Jacob in the prayer said on Wednesday morning reads:
“May you be blessed oh, Mary; for the Ark of the Covenant, made by Moses as a pattern, is an implicit symbol of you, for it included the two tables written by God and you were the dwelling of the real bread of life”.
The prayer said on Saturday morning reads:
“The rock out of which the rivers in the wilderness sprang is a symbol of you oh, Holy Virgin Mary. From you the Son of God, who is the rock of righteousness, according to St. Paul, shone forth. It’s you, Oh Virgin, who are full of beauty that king David predicted saying: the daughter of the king stood (to the right of the king) in glory and holiness and the king was so enchanted by her beauty that he descended and dwelled in her womb”.
Some fathers discerned other symbols that stood for the Virgin such as the thicket found on Mount Moria, under which, there was a ram which delivered Isaac from being slain and Aaron’s rod that bloomed and yielded almonds.
The Genealogy of The Virgin Mary
The Holy Virgin Mary descended from the tribe of Judah. She is of the house of David and a relative of Elizabeth, the mother of John, the Baptist. In the Holy Gospel Elizabeth is called "the virgin’s cousin (L.1: 36). It is reported that Elizabeth is her aunt. Salome, the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John is a relative of the Virgin Mary as well (Mathew 27:56, 19:25). It is in the Holy Gospel that we read about the genealogy of Jesus Christ on the side of Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary (Mat. 1:16, Luke 3:23, Act 2:20, Rom 1:3). The Virgin and Joseph belong to one tribe. The Virgin Mary is the descendant of priests, kings and prophets. She is the daughter of David. For this reason the angel said unto her upon Annunciation of the divine conception: “Thou shalt conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son…. He shall be great, and shall be called the son of the Highest …and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever”. (Luke 1-31-32).
Joachim and Hanna, The Virgin Mary’s Barren Parents
Ecclesiastic tradition, based on the teachings of the Apostles reports that the parents of the Virgin Mary are Joachim and Hanna, and that the father of Hanna is priest Mattan of the house of Levi and of the house of Aaron and the mother of Hanna is Mary of the house of Judah. Joachim and Hanna used to live in a village near Nazareth in Galilee and they were well to do. They used to donate their profits to the temple and to the poor and use the rest for their livelihood. They were barren and righteous before God, abiding by God’s laws. The Jews, however, considered bareness, as a curse inflicted by God and a reproach before people. Each Jewish girl, therefore, was so eager to give birth to Jesus, the Messiah, and kept praying for achieving that. Accordingly Joachim and Hanna kept praying and beseeching God to remove this reproach from their house. They became so old without having their request answered. It is reported that Joachim once came to the Lord’s temple to present an offering but the priest refused the offering because it came from a barren person.
So Joachim returned home grieved, disheartened and humiliated. He sobbed so bitterly with his wife Hanna before God that God answered their request and a daughter was born to them, they called her Mary.
Mary is a Syriac compound name consisting of two syllables (More) and (Yam) which means the sea of bitterness. Some say the meaning of “Mary” is the star of the sea and it also denotes light.
It is noteworthy to mention that the conception of Mary took place according to the natural law for she was of a man (Joachim) and a woman (Hanna).
Mary is the daughter of two barren persons just like Isaac, Samuel and John, the Baptist. She inherited, just like them, and like other people, the original sin of Adam and Eve, which is the sin of all humanity starting with Adam who represented his race when he committed sin so his descendents were charged with sin, which could not be obliterated from falling humanity except by the incarnation of the second hypothesis of the Holy Trinity. That’s why the Apostle Paul says:
“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed on all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom.5: 12),
and David said:
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5.). Of all those who put on flesh, it was only Jesus Christ who was excepted from the legacy of this sin. “Who took everything we have except sin” and who became the propitiator for the sins of the whole world.
“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God”. (R.3: 23,24). “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world”, so by one man it was obliterated (Rom.5: 12:15).
Just like all other people, the Virgin Mary, who was, most probably, born in Nazareth, was not without sin.
The Virgin in the Temple
When the Virgin Mary was three years old her parents fulfilled their vows and presented her to the temple. During her stay in the temple her parents died knowing nothing of the future of their daughter. Church fathers have a different version stated in church liturgy. The prayer read from the book of daily offices (Shehimo) on Friday morning reads:
" Mary became an orphan, for her parents passed away. She was left for the priests to take care of her. They took her to Jerusalem according to the command of Moses to be brought up there. The Lord of Prophets descended from high. He blessed and sanctified her. Hallelujah. May the prayer to her be a fence and protection to us".
According to both versions we notice that the Virgin Mary was brought up in the temple from childhood and was consecrated to God. She worshiped God, Almighty serving in His temple with other elderly women worshipers such as Hanna the prophetess, daughter of Phenol, who served God…night and day (L. 2:37). The Virgin Mary studied the books of Divine inspiration and kept the law.
It has to be understood that the Virgin Mary did not take a vow of lifetime virginity because it was not the custom of the Jews to take such vows and because every Jewish girl was eager that she might give birth to Messiah. Every Jewish girl looked forward to her wedding day. This is manifested when the daughter of Jephtah knew about the vow taken by her father that “Whoever comes forth of the door of his house to meet him when he returns in victory he will offer it up for a burnt offering”. She was the first to come forth and receive him, and her father had to keep his vow in her. Although taking vows was considered against the law (Deut.12: 31), “she said unto her father, let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows” (Judg. 11:37).
Monasticism was known among pagans. It was introduced to Judaism as well, and was practiced by the Essens. This was, however, a violation of Jewish religious traditions and of the teachings of the Pentateuch which considers marriage a necessity in fulfillment of the Command of God, Almighty.
“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Some prophets kept celibacy such as Elijah, John, the Baptist and others. This was, however, in fulfillment of a divine end. These celibates were considered as weird and never can weirdness be the norm.
The Virgin Mary’s Betrothal to Joseph, the Righteous
Being an orphan, who lost both parents, Mary was taken care of, at the age of fourteen, by the priests who acted as her parents. According to customs prevailing at the time, her closest kinsmen were summoned and the decision was taken by lot that Joseph, the Righteous, was to be considered the Virgin Mary’s spouse. Some suggest that Joseph was a widower and had children of his dead wife who were later called the Lord’s brethren. Some others suggest that he was a celibate. Joseph was no doubt a simple carpenter in Nazareth, stricken by abject poverty.
The custom of the day usually required an interval of one year of betrothal before consummating marriage union. It was during this interval that the angel of the lord, Gabriel was sent unto a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to Mary who was espoused to Joseph. The angel saluted her and annunciated the divine conception saying:
“Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women …thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” And the angel answered and said unto her: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God”. And Mary said in humility: “behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word”. (Luke 1: 26-38). The moment Mary yielded to God’s Command, the Holy Ghost came upon her absolving her of sin and sanctifying her (Luke 1:35). Divinity dwelt in her womb and of her blood a full man was created initiating, thus the mystery of Divine Incarnation without the seed of a man “before they came together”(Matt 1:18).
The Lord had the complete human nature of his mother, that is a real body with articulate human soul (Luke 23:46 Matt 26:38), resembling us, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).
So the holy thing which shall be born of the virgin shall be called Holy and the Son of God. (Luke 1:35).
The event of Annunciation of Divine Conception marks the beginning of the two mysteries of Incarnation and Redemption. In honor of the Holy Virgin Mary Syrian Church Fathers instituted that the faithful read the angel’s salutation at the end of daily offices morning and evening, and even at the end of individual prayers at their will.
The Magnificent reads:
“Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women. Blessed is he, who is conceived in your womb, Holy Mary, the Mother of God. May you pray for us, we the sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen”.
In reference to Annunciation, the prayer said on Tuesday reads:
“Gabriel flew with spiritual wings. He hailed Mary and conveyed the salutation forwarded to her saying, hail be to you, the Lord is with you, The savior of the universe shall shine forth from you…your virginity astounded Gabriel, oh Mother of God. He folded his hands and prostrated in adoration before you and hailed you because he beheld His Lord dwelling in your womb. You were equal to the chariot carrying the bearer of mankind.”
The prayer of the third hour said on Wednesday includes the following lines of poetry by Jacob of Serugh:
“With amazement and wonder I speak of the great status the daughter of mankind has attained. Was it the grace that made the son of the highest descend onto her, or was it she who desired to be the mother of her only son? It is clear that God descended to earth by Grace. Mary, who was so godly, yielded and he beheld her humbleness and innocence and dwelled in her, for it pleases the Holy to dwell in those who are humble… “Only in the humble and innocent I dwell”. He saw that she was the humblest of mankind, those who are born to women. None has ever been more humble than Mary. Neither has anyone ever been more exalted than her. Glory be to the Father, who chose her for her humility and adoration be to the son who descended in humility (from high) and dwelled in her. Thanks are due to the (Holy) Spirit who is pleased to dwell in humble ones. Glory be to the one nature of the Trinity…May you, oh, Son of God, through the prayer of Mary, who bore you nine months, keep wrath away from us".
The Virgin Mary Visits her Cousin Elizabeth
The Virgin Mary heard the angel saying to her:
“Behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she has also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.”(Luke 1:36), and Mary is filled with joy for the Great News and feels so happy for her cousin- a sentiment which reveals great love. Mary leaves Nazareth and heads towards the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth, the wife of Zecharia. Elizabeth saluted her by a prophetic hymn in which she said:
“Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy…blessed is she that believed: For there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord”, to which Mary replied by a more magnificent hymn with eternal prophetic words the church repeats every morning in her prayers in which she says:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and Holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation (Luke 1: 42-50).
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months, and some say she stayed until Elizabeth gave birth to John. Some others argue that Mary left the house of Zecharia before Elizabeth’s birth of her son, John, lest the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, might be thought to have served her cousin, the mother of John, who later said that he was not worthy to bear Lord Jesus ‘shoes.
How beautiful the terms used by the fathers in description of the meeting of the Virgin Mary with Elizabeth are!
The prayer said on Wednesday morning reads:
_"Elizabeth, the mother of John, the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus are two bastions that stand for barrenness and virginity, chosen by the king. The babe leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. The new encountered the old who saluted his master saying, come in peace, for your peace shall prevail in the universe"._
The prayer said on Friday evening reads:
“Mary and Elizabeth are two miraculous vessels heading towards the harbor. Elizabeth gave birth to the preacher and Mary gave birth to the savior of the world Hallelujah…their prayer invigorates us”.
The prayer said on Saturday morning reads:
“Who has beheld two vines planted in the vineyard of the Lord and the whole universe enjoys the wine squeezed of their clusters? The two vines are symbols of Mary and Elizabeth and the two clusters are Jesus, the bridegroom, betrothed to the holy church and John is the best man …at the betrothal.
Joseph’s Suspicions and Reassurance
When the Virgin Mary returned to Nazareth, her pregnancy was apparent, It was only Joseph, who was betrothed to her, who suspected her. Their betrothal was performed according to Jewish customs, which entitled the man, within the interval of one year of betrothal to a girl to be actually married even though she might still be living with her family, and before wedding festivities after which she takes residence in her husband’s house. Accordingly, no one was suspicious of Mary except Joseph who wished to divorce her privily. Others, however, thought that Mary and Joseph consummated their union and Joseph was the father. So Mary was considered as betrothed to Joseph because marriage vows were taken but without marriage festivities; and she was also his wife having been espoused to him by a marriage contract. When the angel appeared to him confirming Mary’s Chastity, the angel called her his wife saying:
“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. (Matt. 1:20).
The Virgin Gives Birth to the Incarnated God
The Virgin was espoused to Joseph, took residence in his house in Nazareth. They went together to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4-20) to be taxed according to the decree from Ceasar Augustus.
In Bethlehem Mary gave birth to her first born son in a stable annexed to the inn. She remained virgin during conception and until after birth. Due to the greatness of the Incarnation of God, the word, Mary remained a virgin before birth, at birth and until after the birth of Jesus. The miraculous virgin birth of the Lord was similar to the penetration of sun’s rays through glass without fracturing or breaking it. Just as the Lord entered the upper room and appeared to his disciples while the doors were shut; and as he rose from the grave while still sealed, He was born and the seal was intact. No wonder, therefore, that the virgin kept her virginity after the birth of her first son, Lord Jesus. It was she who said of herself: “For he that is mighty hath done to me great things”. She was to behold these miracles that almighty God made in her and for her. For this reason she was called the ever virgin and the mother of God because she gave birth to the incarnated God (Luke 1:49, Gal. 4: 4 Is 7:14).
The prayer of the first office said on Monday night reads:
“I know not what attribute to give you, oh, daughter of David. I know not what name to give you, oh, Mary. Shall I call you the virgin? And behold a son is suckling from you! Shall I call you a mother! And your virginity is confirmed! I shall call you the Mother of God and let contenders, who dare argue and investigate about the mystery of your son, hallelujah, be ashamed and let the one who attempts to fathom this mystery be Anathema”.
The prayer of the first office said on Wednesday night reads:
“The virgin gave birth to a miraculous child. Let’s go and behold the swaddled baby, who is older than ages. Behold the man of old being born of a virgin. The mighty, the great and steady as mountains held in (Mary’s arm). Behold the suckling infant giving bread to the poor. The eternal son with no beginning, willed that he, the eternal, have a beginning. A beginning he had and was born. He, the eternal, who is infinite”.
The prayer said on Wednesday evening reads:
“Confiding to her son Mary said: you strengthened me to bear you, and when I gave birth to you in a manger in the stable you revealed your glory to me. Behold the fire embracing the little manger and the Seraphim with their six wings fluttering over it. May you command them to stop fluttering so that I may be able to enter, kneel in adoration before you and suckle you, giving you the pure milk you favor… Mary said, I am poor; I own no house on earth, no resting place and no bed. I wrapped him, He, the oldest of all, and in a manger I placed the Lord of creation, the son whose father in heaven is one, and his mother is peerless on earth. He is the Lord betrothed to church and I am his maidservant”.
The prayer of the first office said on Thursday night reads:
“When the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, she addressed him saying: I know not, son, what to call you! Shall I call you a child and you are older than ages? Or shall I call you an old man and you are a child? I shall call you a ray, shining forth from the Father, illuminating all creations, Hallelujah. Blessed be your light, blessed be your brightness, and adoration be to your Father, who sent you for our salvation.
Mary said to her virgin friends:
I am rejoiced and joyful because I bear the bearer of mankind, who is served by the angels. I coo to Him, who taught melodies to mankind. Ranks of illuminators surround His glory, Hallelujah, and hail Him saying, Holy, Holy is the Lord and blessed is His Sanctity".
The prayer said on Monday morning reads:
_"The Lord shone forth from the Father and the daughter of David (gave birth) to the Savior and Bethlehem (granted) the bread of life to the peoples who had faith in Him. Adoration be to the Father, who sent His son, and Blessed be Mary, who gave birth to Him, Blessed be the church that embraced him, singing (hymns) of glorification to Him…
I was going through Bethlehem when I heard the voice of Mary in the stable cooing to her son and saying:
Blessed me, oh, son, because I became your mother and suckled you… Never shall I approach you unless you permit me"._
Behold the virgin, the Mother of God, with everlasting virginity. The first born of first borns and the virgin of virgins, who gave birth to the Incarnated Lord. She remained virgin until after the birth of Jesus as stated before. When Mathew, the Evangelist, referred to the Virgin saying " And knew her not till she had brought forth her first born son (Matt. 1:25), he meant to confirm to us that she was a virgin before the birth of Jesus, remained a virgin during childbirth and until after the birth of Lord Jesus and that she conceived her son of the Holy Spirit without the seed of a man.
Mathew did not refer to Mary’s virginity after Jesus’ birth and the affirmation that Joseph did not know Mary physically and that they did not consummate their union before the birth of Jesus, does not imply the confirmation that he knew her after Jesus’ birth. The term (unto) is not always used to denote inapplicability to what follows afterwards. This can be clearly understood, based on the use of the term in other contexts in the Holy Book such as: “Therefore Michal, the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death” (2 Sam (6:23). Who would ever infer that she gave birth to children after her death?
The phrase "did not know her "might have meant Joseph did not know how venerable she was and how great her spiritual status in the eyes of God was until she gave birth to her first born son, and he beheld the miraculous virgin birth and the angels surrounding the manger. To sum up, Joseph did not consummate their union and Mary is ever virgin.
The First Born Son
“Her first born”, the phrase stated also in the Gospel of (Luke 2: 6-7) does not mean that the virgin gave birth to other children after Jesus, and consequently, she was not ever virgin. This expression “the first born” is, however, an appellation usually given to the first child whether he had brothers after him or not. This is the concept conveyed in the Holy Book where the commandment instituted that the first born be the redeemer, and he was not expected to have had other brothers to be confirmed as the first born. It goes without saying that had Jesus had brethren he would have handed his mother over to them and would not have entrusted her to John, the disciple he loved.
Many are the connotations of the phrase “the first born” used as a descriptive term of Jesus. He is the first born of the heavenly Father, the first born of Mary, and the first born of the departed…. Etc…
The Lord’s Brethren
Those, Who were called the Lord’s brethren in the Holy Gospel (Matt 13:55) were his relatives, that is his cousins on both mother’s and father’s side, because this term “brethren” is used in the divine inspiration to denote relatives and members of one tribe (Gen. 31:37, Ex. 2:11). For that reason, Abraham called Lot, who was his nephew, his brother.
The Mother of God (Theotokos)
The Holy Church called the Holy Virgin Mary “The Mother of God” as stated before, because she gave birth to the Lord in the flesh. However, in the fifth century, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, denounced this appellation given to the Virgin. He was declared anathema in the third ecumenical council convened in Ephesus 431 in the presence of 200 bishops, who declared that Jesus had one hypostasis, one nature after the union without confusion, without commixtion, without division. They also put down the introduction to the creed, which confirmed that the Holy Virgin Mary was the Mother of God stating:
“We venerate you, oh, Mother of true light and glorify you, oh, Holy Virgin, Mother of God, because you gave birth to the Savior of the whole universe”.
No wonder that the title " The Mother of God" summarizes the magnanimous doctrine of Incarnation. This title has been used by the Holy Church ever since the early ages of Christianity and was mentioned in the writings of early fathers. It was approved and confirmed by the council of Ephesus in 431. St. Cyril the Great said:
“This is the teaching carefully instituted by Orthodoxy everywhere. Our holy fathers adhered to it. They were so confident about giving this title, (the Mother of God) (Theotokos) to the Holy Virgin Mary not because the nature of the word (the physis), or divinity, was first derived from the Holy Virgin, but because His Holy body with rational soul was born of her and His flesh was united with the prosopon of God, the Word, and for this reason it was said that he was born of her in the flesh”.
The title (Theotokos), the Mother of God, given to the virgin is not meant for honoring the virgin, but for instituting a theological doctrine confirming that Jesus, who was born of the Virgin, made His Humanity one with His divinity- one physis, one hypostasis, one prosopon. We are entitled, therefore, to call the Virgin, (the Mother of God), because she gave birth to the flesh and because this flesh has a rational soul and is united in His Divinity by one Nature, one Hypostasis and one Prosopon. Mary is called the Mother of God in the same way any woman is called the mother of someone – composed of body and soul- which are created by God and not given birth by that woman. We call her, however, the mother of this person because his soul and body are united in one nature and one person, hence she is called his mother. The Virgin Mary is, likewise, called.
The prayer said on Wednesday morning reads:
_"Let everyone, who does not believe that Mary gave birth to God, be anathema. And everyone who does not confess that the one born is God and the Son of God shall be deemed as Godless and a blasphemer.
He was eternally born of the Father and shone forth of Mary at the end of ages. He, who was born of the Father and of Mary, is one and the same, to whom glorification and adoration be due. Let whoever contends otherwise, and tries to fathom his mystery be anathema"._
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389+) said:
“Whoever does not believe that Holy Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos) shall be a stranger in God’s eyes”.
Mary Raises her Son Jesus
So many events took place after Jesus’ birth during which we beheld the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, bringing up her son according to God’s law, in fulfillment of the Lord’s will. Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God, and man.
He was circumcised on the eighth day of his birth. And forty days after his birth He was presented in the temple and Mary accomplished her days of purification according to the Law of Moses (Luke 2-22:39). Simon took him up in his arms saying to Mary, his mother " yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul". This prophecy was fulfilled to the letter during the life of Mary, the grieved mother.
The Magi came and visited the newly born child, they fell down, worshiped him and they presented unto him gold, and frankincense and myrrh. The vicious intentions of Herod, who wanted to kill the child, were unveiled.
The Flight into Egypt
The angel of the Lord ordered Joseph to take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt.
One of the interesting narratives related about the Virgin while fleeing with her child into Egypt with Joseph the righteous, was that they went past a peasant who was sowing, and the virgin blessed the land, and the plants grew taller. After their departure a squad of Herod’s soldiers arrived aiming at arresting them, but they could not find them and when the soldiers inquired of the peasant whether a man and a woman with a child, had passed by, the peasant answered yes, they did. When the soldiers asked him when was that? The peasant answered: that was on the day I was sowing seeds. When the soldiers saw the crops had grown to a full height they thought the family had gone past the place a few months earlier so they were disappointed and relinquished their pursuit.
It is also reported that before entering into Egypt the Holy family was attacked by thieves who tried to assault the Virgin, her son and Joseph and rob them. The chief of the gang prevented them; God, therefore, rewarded him by allowing him to be crucified to the right of the redeemer and in repentance have faith in him. He became worthy of hearing the Lord’s promise to him “verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise”.
Some fathers report that Egyptian idols fell whenever child Jesus’ procession went by their temples. The Lord entered into Egypt, lifted the curse under which Egypt was; and thus the Lord’s words " blessed be my people in Egypt" were fulfilled.
Residence in Nazereth
When Herod was dead one year after the Virgin Mary’s flight with her son to Egypt, the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and ordered him to go back to Palestine. Joseph returned to Nazareth so that the prophecy " I called my son out of Egypt" (Hos. 11:1) be fulfilled and the Holy family took residence in Nazareth.
He Virgin, The Virtuous Woman and Loving Mother
In her daily life, the Virgin Mary lived the life that good, virtuous women usually led. In her life Solomon’s verse was fulfilled “who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies” (Prov. 31:10).
Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary was a carpenter for his livelihood “and Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
Jesus might have studied the law and the prophecies with the children of his hometown and practiced carpentry in the workshop of Joseph, who was legally but not physically his father.
We have known that the Virgin Mary kept religious offices according to the Law of Moses. She went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41). When child Jesus was twelve years old they took him to the temple where all males were to appear before the Lord God. According to Jewish customs, he was considered at this age, " The son of the Pentateuch", which means being committed to all commandments of the Law which include prayers, fasting and appearance before the Lord (Deut. 16:16). When the eight days of festivities were over they returned to Nazareth with their friends who accompanied them to Jerusalem and the two male and female groups walked separately. At sunset they used to meet at a site agreed upon for staying the night. In the evening, the caravan arrived in a town called “Al-beereh” to stay the night there. Joseph and Mary, supposing Jesus to have been in the company, sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance but they did not find him. So they turned back again to Jerusalem seeking him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions. His mother said unto him, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing” (Luke 2:48) and he said unto them: “Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business?” (Luke 2:49)
The Virgin Mary, The Patron Saint in Cana of Galilee
When Jesus was thirty and he started His divine ministry in public, the Virgin Mary’s responsibilities became greater, We heard her saying to him at the marriage ceremony in Cana of Galilee:“they have no wine”. Jesus said unto her “woman what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come”. Mary saith unto the servants " whatsoever he saith unto you, do it", knowing that he never refuses a request of hers. So at Cana Jesus performed his first miracle changing water into wine before his disciples at the request of His mother.
So clear was Mary’s attitude towards Lord Jesus’ message. She had faith in her son. Could she ever be doubtful or skeptic, having had the angel annunciating His divine status? " He shall be great and shall be called the son of the highest and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever". When we read in the Holy Gospel that “His friends went out to lay hold on him, for they said He is beside himself” (Mark 3:21) we should not be misled into thinking that His mother agreed with them and disavowed her son. We also read what Mark put down: “There came then his brethren and his mother, and standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, who is my mother or my brethren? And he looked round about on them, which sat about him, and said, behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (Mark 3: 31-35).
With such a statement Lord Jesus does not mean to undervalue his mother’s dignity; on the contrary he aims at elevating the believers in him, his disciples in particular, whom he had just chosen, to her most sublime spiritual rank. What the Holy Gospel said about his mother asserts this.
“Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Every disciple therefore, and every faithful of both sexes who keeps God’s word and acts according to His will as Mary did shall have the same grace bestowed on them.
In the Holy Gospel we also read in (Luke 11:27-28) that a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice and said unto him “Blessed is the womb that bare thee.and the paps which thou hast sucked”. But he said, " yea, rather blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it". This verse includes a praise of the virgin as well.
The Virgin Entrusted to John, The Beloved Disciple at The Cross
The Virgin Mary followed her son Jesus to the Golgotha and it was at the cross that the prophecy of Simeon was fulfilled " a sword shall pierce through thy own soul"; for she saw her Holy son crucified on the Cross. She beheld him dead, and participated in burying him. She beheld him afterwards rising from the dead. She must have been with the disciples on the Mount of Olives and must have seen him ascending to heaven.
In the Acts of the Apostles (1:14), it is reported that the Virgin Mary with the disciples and the brethren of the Lord continued with one accord in prayer and supplication. She was with them at Pentecost in the upper room where they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.The day of Pentecost marks the birthday of the church, when three thousand persons believed following the address of Peter, the chief of the Apostles. They were also baptized due to the importance of baptism for salvation according to God’s words.
“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). Some might ask whether the virgin did receive the sacrament of baptism. The Holy Book is silent in relevance to this and there is no mention, whatsoever, of having the Apostles baptized or not. In the Syrian Church, in his treaties on the Apostles’ sanctification of chrism, Mar Iwannis of Dara (860+) mentions, in passing that the Virgin was baptized with the aim of giving the issue of baptism and Chrism great significance. No where else in our tradition have we ever come across a text that supports Iwannis of Dara’s view. This is not, however, a doctrine of the church, but just a view of one of the church fathers. We have no idea where the virgin dwelled after being accompanied by John, the beloved disciple. Most probably she stayed in Jerusalem.
Some historians suggested that she visited Ephesus with John and stayed there for a while and returned to Jerusalem afterwards.
The Virgin’s Assumption
The virgin longed to ascend to heaven to join her son Jesus. Her dormition was in peace. The date of her death and how old she was have always been a controversial issue among historians. Most probably that was in AD 56 when she was seventy. Her Assumption in the flesh and soul was not instituted by the Syrian Church as a doctrine. The Virgin’s Assumption is a confessional patristic tradition based on the Syriac narrative of Apostle Thomas. In this narrative we read about the gathering of the Apostles in spirit in Jerusalem for the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, and about the late arrival of Tom, his encounter with the Virgin up in the sky on the way up to heaven, and his acquisition of her girdle, which he brought to the Apostles and his request to them to reopen her grave. When the Apostles did that they did not find her holy body. Thomas declared to them the truth of her ascension to heaven in her glorified flesh and that he witnessed her procession and received the girdle from her in testimony whereof. The Apostles believed him. Syriac tradition reports that Thomas took the girdle with him to India where he was martyred at the hands of pagan priests. When Thomas’ relics were taken to Edessa in the fourth century the girdle was brought with them. Finally the girdle reached the Church of the Virgin in Homs, which has been called the Church of the Virgin’s Girdle ever since. The girdle was discovered in 1852 during the time of Archbishop Mar Julius Peter (Later Patriarch Mar Ignatius Peter 4th.). The girdle was placed in the altar. Late Patriarch Ephrem I Barsoum, of blessed memory, rediscovered the girdle in 1953. The shrine of the girdle in the church in Homs has become a source of blessing for the faithful.
The Possibility of the Virgin’s Ascension to Heaven
According to tradition, the virgin ascended to heaven. The question posed is: was paradise the abode of her soul just like all the righteous and pious? Or did she ascend to heaven soul and body? Her ascension to heaven in her glorified flesh is not something irrelevant to the Spirit of the Holy Book nor to the tolerant Christian confessional truths. If “Enoch walked with God and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah, the prophet ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11) wouldn’t the Virgin Mary, who bore the Lord nine months in her womb, gave birth to him and suckled him, rather be considered as worthy to have her body kept without corruption and to have it transformed into a spiritual one; and to ascend to heaven in soul and flesh to enjoy being with her beloved son Lord Jesus Christ? St. Jacob of Serugh, the doctor (521+) said in his Memre in Syriac on the death of the Virgin Mary,“When the virgin was on her death bed, Angels, the righteous, prophets and fathers descended on her from high upon the order of God. The twelve Apostles and Evangelists came…they buried her in a rocky cave. Glory prevailed in heaven and on earth when the angels beheld her soul ascending and flying towards abodes of lights”. The book ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagyte, the bishop of Athens (+95) relates that " upon the dormition of Mary, all the Apostles gathered together so quickly coming from the Four Corners of Earth, where they were preaching the word. They arrived in Jerusalem, the Residence City of blessed Mary, and then Jesus came with His angels. Jesus received her soul and handed it to Michael, the Archangel.
On the next day the Apostles laid the body in a grave and guarded the grave waiting for the appearance of the Lord. Jesus appeared once more and transferred her holy body to heaven on a cloud. Up there, her body was united to her soul to enjoy her everlasting joy."
The Virgin’s Intercession
The Virgin Mary is a patron saint in the Syrian Orthodox Church. Uncountable are the miracles made by the Virgin Mary in the church and for the faithful. Her girdle is the focus of honor and a source of blessing. No wonder about that, when one bears in mind that raiment used to be put on the body of the Apostle Paul and then put on the bodies of sick people in quest of healing .One may justly pose the question: wouldn’t the girdle of the Virgin Mary, which she had woven with her own holy hands, put around her waist, and most probably had had contact with the body of the redeemer himself, rather be deemed as a source of blessing?
Worship Due Only to God
It’s already been mentioned that the Syrian Church venerates the Virgin Mary and that prayers to God include interceding with the Virgin Mary, but the faithful in the Syrian Church do not worship her. Only God is worshiped. We do denounce the legend of worshiping Mary. No name but that of Jesus is in heaven, on earth, or in the underworld. To him the faithful prostrate because He is the savior of the world. The virgin is human and whoever worships her shall be a blasphemer (Acts 14:11-16). The Virgin Mary says of herself “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior. For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things” (Luke 1:47-49).
We shall have to canonize her by following in her footsteps in virtue and in keeping God’s words and pondering on them in her heart by means of true prayers. She is a good example for the Celibates and virgins, for the married of both sexes, for fathers and mothers in bringing their children up in a good way, by making them keep the law of the Lord and observe offices. May God bless whoever intercedes with the Virgin Mary and whoever sets her holy life, as a good example.
A Litany written by Jacob of Serugh would be the best statement with which to conclude our discourse about the Virgin Mary.
“Your prayer accompanies us, oh blessed. Your prayer accompanies us.
The Lord answers your prayers and forgives us. May you, who is full of grace offer up supplications to the merciful and beseech Him to have mercy on those souls seeking it, Amen".
THE SYRIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH IN JERUSALEM
HOLY MASS IN ARAMAIC - JERUSALEM (5)
ANCIENT CHRISTIANS IN SOUTH INDIA
thanks to St John's Abbey, Minnesota
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