Perichoresis: God and His mother
Even though the veneration of the Theotokos is old-fashioned and obscure in the modern world, this veneration and supplication for her intercession lie at the very heart of the Christian faith. Our fellowship with the Virgin and our communication with her are realities that exist at the center of life.
There is no such thing as Christian faith without regard for the Virgin Mary. Our supplications to the Theotokos cannot be optional or secondary. The reason why Orthodox Tradition gives so much devotion to the Mother of God is not because it is superstitious or obscure. It calls us to venerate the Theotokos, and to call upon her intercession simply because Orthodoxy is so completely Trinitarian and so fully Christological. We are Marian in the Orthodox Church because we are “conservative” in the best sense of the word – we maintain a deep fidelity to the Apostolic witness of the “theanthropos,” the “God-manhood” of Christ.
The Christian faith, which is fully realized in the Orthodox Church alone, is not merely a set of beliefs and propositions. Orthodoxy is better described as a “relationship” – and even this modern word is inadequate. It is better to use the old word perichoresis, or “co-inherence.”
This old Patristic term describes the current of love which flows within the Tri-Hypostatic Union of the Godhead, wherein the Father begets the Son, Who adores the Father and is glorified by the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds eternally from the Father. That Trinitarian love is the opposite of self-absorption. Instead, Trinitarian love proceeds in Grace, through an infinity of Names, to create the spiritual and physical universe, to redeem that which is lost in sin and death, and to set life upon the way of infinite perfection and communion. Trinitarian love is the source of all beauty and truth.
There is no determinism in the Divine plenitude of love. The Archangel Gabriel announced to the Theotokos, as the very first essentially Christian proclamation, “With God nothing is impossible!” (Luke 1.37). This crucial affirmation is the great theme of all prayer, supplication and intercession. Prayer is possible, simply because “with God all things are possible.” The future is not a prison in the apostolic testimony of the Orthodox Church – it is a mystery charged by the brightness of redemption, an endless set of possibilities that are always changeable by prayer.
That theme of “co-inherence” also describes the relationship of the Virgin Mary with her Son, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It describes the mutual surrender and the gift of self to the other. Thus, it beautifully depicts the profound and life-long surrender of the Theotokos to her God, her Son and Saviour.
When there is this deeply psychic exchange of life, Mary represents her Son to humanity. She becomes the pre-eminent icon of the Christian, the example to us all in how life should be lived, and how holiness should be pursued.
But there is another side to the exchange. Jesus, in turn, represents His Mother and all humanity to the Godhead. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit respond to human need and concern. God responds because the Holy Spirit moves His creatures to pray – and the one who is most sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit is the Virgin Mary herself. She prays best, because she knows God best – more than any other saint, more than even the angels. She was the first to receive Jesus into her heart, and she bore Christ God in her womb, and suckled the Son of God in the Manger.
She knows God better than the Angels, because she knew Christ in His humanity. She knows God better than the rest of mankind, because she knew Jesus in His divinity. She adores her God Who is also her Son. Jesus, the Son of God, loves His Mother, who is also His creature.
In that singular perichoresis between God and the Theotokos, there is the tenderness of Mother and Son … there is also the compassion of the Infinite God for His creature, and the awestruck adoration of the deified Virgin Mary for the Everlasting God.
It is that singular relationship we appeal to whenever we pray. Our prayer to God is founded and rooted in this very first Christian “co-inherence.” Our supplications to the Theotokos rely upon the primacy of the Virgin Mary over all humanity, in her ability to intercede in her “maternal boldness,” with her Son Who is also God.
This we see portrayed in tender warmth in the very first of the Gospel miracles, the Wedding at Cana. In this homely and familiar story, we see the Mother of God become aware of a very human, humble concern. The problem strikes us as unworthy of a miracle. It is a wedding party, after all, and the problem seems not to be as serious as later needs for the miraculous intervention of Christ. The need is for wine, as it ran out prematurely. That does not seem so important as the need for healing or exorcism. But despite the smallness of the need, the Virgin Mary presents this request to her Son.
And despite the apparent priorities of the ministry of Christ, Jesus is moved by His mother’s maternal boldness to respond to the need. And, as is always true of His miracles, His intervention results in an excess of Grace. His miracles are always “more than enough.” There is never mere “efficiency” in Grace: the Trinitarian radiance of Love can never be characterized as “just enough.” There are always leftovers in the aftermath of the Power of God. There is too much wine. There are twelve baskets of bread. There is 153 fish in a net. There are aliens, Canaanites and Samaritans who are accidentally healed, despite historical strictures. There are Messianic secrets that are always broken. Animals speak, the rocks cry out, entire storms are soothed into Peace.
This was always true in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Now that Christ has ascended, and now that Christ has assumed His Mother into His fellowship in Paradise, the miracle of the Wedding of Cana is repeated over and over again. It is replayed, afresh, beautiful like the first time, established in truth in a myriad of enactments, every single occasion when we call upon the Virgin Mary for her help and intercession.
She is present with us, borne upon the wings and breath of the Holy Spirit. While she is not omnipresent and omniscient, the Holy Spirit certainly is. The entirety of the Theotokos’ intercessory ministry is enabled by the inspiration and fullness of the Spirit of God. It is by the Grace and Power of God that the Theotokos hears our supplication. It is by this same Grace and Power that she responds. And it is by her relationship with her Son – a relationship that is the example for all human adoration of God – that our prayers are answered.
I say all this, not only because of the moment this day’s Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, but mainly because the intercessory ministry of the Virgin to us in the twenty-first century is crucial, and cannot be done without.
Can this be doubted? Are you surprised that I emphasize so strongly the necessity of the Virgin’s prayerful assistance? It is a symptom of the age, and how myopic and dark it has become, that it is possible to even consider that we could do without the intercessions of the Theotokos.
There is no such thing as Christian faith without regard for the Virgin Mary. Here, at the conclusion, I would go one step further. It is impossible to continue on as an Orthodox Christian in this age of idols and confusion, without the intercession of the Virgin. It is impossible to even “be” a Christian at all anymore, without the intercession of the very first and best Christian, who is the Virgin Mary and Mother of our God.
There are many today who try to be Christian on their own, in their own little self-enclosed, existentialist envelope. They try to live for Christ without appealing to the Saints and the Mother of God. Theirs is a desperate struggle that will grow all the more difficult as the years pass by, and as the future rushes toward the Day of Judgment.
As time goes on, I want you remember this: the coldness of unbelief, and the darkness of the modern age, will boil down the Christian options of civilization into only one hopeful possibility – and that will be the Holy Apostolic Church, charged with liturgy, hiearchy, sacraments and tradition, eternal order, and filled with the veneration of the Theotokos.
And the main reason for this single possibility is mainly because of the tender, maternal affections of the Mother of God, whom we glorify this day.