A very different picture of St.Mary emerges in the Acts of the Apostles. The post-resurrection phase presents us with a St.Mary who by now is a confirmed believer in Jesus and active in the early Christian community. And along with the Apostles and other disciples, she experiences the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of the Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). After this episode she fades from the accounts of the Acts of the Apostles. Her end is not narrated in the New Testament and is found only in the annals of the Church’s traditions. According to the main substance of this account, all the Apostles, with the exception of St.Thomas, were summoned to St.Mary’s bedside in anticipation of her death. In the blessed company of the Apostles, St.Mary breathed her last. One Church tradition has it that her body was taken up into heaven and St.Thomas managed to catch a glimpse of her as she was taken up. In proof of this encounter, St.Thomas was given the girdle and kerchief that St.Mary was using. The other disciples were astounded that the tomb where St.Mary had been interred was found to be empty. It was left to St.Thomas to end their consternation with the news of her body being taken up into Paradise, in proof of which he displayed her kerchief and girdle.
The increase in the respect and reverence to St.Mary in consequence of her developing faith, which is seen in Acts of the Apostles, is continued in the early Church. And it is on the basis of the popular devotion to her that the Second Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in A.D. 431 declared that St.Mary be addressed as the “Mother of God” (theotokos). It must be borne in mind that St.Cyril of Alexandria’s opposition to Nestorius’ advocacy for the use Mother of Christ (christotokos), the controversy that consitututes the background for this ecumenical council was based not only on this popular piety, but also on the sound theological principle that what was in question was more than a mere use of a term. What was at stake was the very foundation of the belief that God had become man. In pursuing the belief that Christ was fully God and fully man, the Alexandrian Church father stressed that to address St.Mary as merely the Mother of Christ alone sundered this unitive concept.
This high reverence for St.Mary forms the underpinnings for the Orthodox Church’s hymns which extol her as the Second Eve and a second heaven. Many of the hymns use the events of the Old Testament to interpret the mystery of how God could have become a human through the agency of St.Mary. For instance, a favourite event is to interpret the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush as a type of how Christ was incarnated; just as God appeared as a fire in the bush, but the bush was not consumed, so also Christ was born of St.Mary without consuming her. And since Christ is borne by the Cherubim in heaven, so also St.Mary is figured as a second heaven because she bore the Son of God. In all these instances, what is stressed is St.Mary’s obedience and submission to the will of God, thus reversing the disobedience and self-oriented character of the first Eve which paved for humankind’s fall into sin.
The Orthodox Church holds it as part of its faith article that St.Mary continued to be a virgin all her life, addressing her as the Virgin Mary or the Virgin Mother. It believes that the Holy Scriptures do not contradict this belief and interprets the statements in the New Testament to the brothers and sisters of Jesus as either referring to brothers and sisters born to Joseph through a previous marriage or his cousins. Indeed, the New Testament could be seen as very supportive of affirming the continued virginity of St.Mary. When Joseph and Mary go up to Jerusalem and inadvertently leave Jesus behind in the Temple, there is no mention in the gospel to any of his siblings who accompanied them. And in the Gospel of St.John, Jeus hands over charge of his mother Mary to his Beloved Disciple, a situation which would have been unwarranted if Jesus had other brothers or sisters.
However, it must be also stated that in the devotion of the Orthodox Church to St.Mary no role or description is made other than her being the Mother of God. In the iconographic tradition of the Church, St.Mary is usually presented as holding in her arms the child Jesus. Similarly, in the hymns which focus on St. Mary, she is asked to intercede to her Son, affirming the biblical principle that there is only one Mediator between God the Father and humankind. In fact, constant stress of the Church is on the fact that there is only one person, Jesus Christ, who has been exempt from the taint of humankind’s sin. It can, therefore, be inferred that the Orthodox Church does not believe that St.Mary was immaculately conceived or that she has a special mediatory role alongside Jesus Christ in the salvation of humankind.
In thus developing a devotion to St.Mary the Orthodox Church extols her who exemplifies what it means to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. No doubt St.Mary symbolizes what it means to find favour with God. And in so praising her, the Church recognizes that it fulfills St.Mary’s prediction given in the Magnificat:
“For, behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed ” (Lk 1:48).
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