Mary’s role in Orthodox Theology
The pre-eminent role of Mary in the salvation of humanity is evidenced throughout Holy Scripture, beginning with the book of Genesis and culminating in the book of Revelations. Just as the entire Old Testament prefigures Christ Our Lord, the second person of the Divine Trinity – not by direct reference to His name, but rather through “symbolism, imagery, and prophecy” – so too, Mary is prefigured through “symbolism, imagery and prophecy” in the Old Testament. The scriptures prepared us that Mary was to precede Christ in bringing forth the Savior. She is the mystical Eastern Gate through which the Messiah enters the world that was prefigured by the prophet Ezekiel (43:1-5; 44:1-3).
The following readings refer to Mary as outlined in the Orthodox Study Bible (“Types of Mary” p.1228) beginning from Genesis and ending in Revelations. The Orthodox Church has always considered these as symbolic references in the Old Testament that “prefigure”, or prophesy, about the Theotokos in the Divine Plan.
1. The Garden of Eden: Referring to Genesis 2:9, the hymnology of the Church sees Mary symbolically as the Garden of Eden “Rejoice ….O living Paradise, having the Lord, the Tree of Life in your midst” (Akathist Hymn).
2. Jacob’s Ladder : Genesis 28:12. “And he (Jacob) dreamed there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” Here Mary is seen as the ladder that bridges the Most High with mankind again, when she bore Emmanuel through whom we were all reconciled.
3. The Burning Bush: Exodus 3:1-6. “He (Moses) looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” The burning bush beheld by Moses in the wilderness is one of the most mentioned references to Mary. The burning bush is seen as a prefiguring of Mary who conceived of the Holy Spirit. “She is the Bush springing from barren ground and burning with immaterial fire that cleanses and enlightens our souls” (Small Vespers, Nativity of the Theotokos)”. The burning bush is an image of God’s Mother.
4. The Jar of Manna: Exodus 16:33. So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omer (a measurement) of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.” The jar containing manna, food to preserve and sustain life, is Mary, the mother who contained the Bread of Life.
5. The Ark of the Covenant: Exodus 25: 10-22. : The ark was a chest, overlaid with gold, in which the two tables of the law were to be kept. These two tables were called “the testimony”; in them God testified His Will. This ark was placed in the holy of holies; the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled, and the incense burned, before it, by the high priest; and above it appeared the visible glory, which was the symbol of the Divine presence. In church literature Mary is depicted as the Ark of the New Covenant, made of the purest gold, who carries the Word of God inside of her.
6. The Tabernacle in the Wilderness: Exodus (25:1 -27:19). “The Tabernacle that is to hold God, the sanctuary of the glory, has chosen to dwell in the holy temple” (Matins, Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple).
7. The Holy of Holies: Exodus 26:33, 1K8:6. (Matins, entry of the Theotokos into the Temple) Holy tradition tells us that when the child Mary is brought to the temple of Jerusalem by her parents, Joachim and Anna, the high priest Zacharias takes her and leads her into the Holy of Holies – the place where God Himself was mysteriously present, the place which no man could ever enter except the high priest, who went in only once a year and not without sacrificial blood. And it is precisely this place, the Holy of Holies, which the Virgin Mary enters, invisibly carrying within herself a new, living sacrifice – the forthcoming Christ, Savior of the world, who will sacrifice Himself in order to deliver all men from sin and death.
8. Aaron’s Rod: Num17:16-23 “Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant law. The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” Aaron’s rod bloomed – it was the only one that brought forth Life out of dry wood like the Virgin who brought forth true Life out of a dry humanity.
9. The Dewy Fleece: Judges 6:36-40 Then Gideon said to God, “In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so.
“Gideon looked into thy conceiving before its time, and David interpreted thy birth-giving, O Theotokos; for the Word in thy womb was like dew upon a fleece”.
“O Virgin pure, immaculate / O Lady Theotokos
“O Virgin Mother, Queen of all / and fleece which is all dewy” – Agne Parthene –
10. The Tongs that held the Live Coal: Isaiah 6 Mary, the tongs holding Jesus, the living fire, within her. “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.” We know that the Seraphim are the highest order of angels in heaven that are “round about “ God and that “the tongs holding the living fire” were taken directly from the altar (of God).
11. The Gate Facing the East: Ezekiel 43:27; 44:1-4 – One of the most prominent images of Mary is found in Ezekiel, the only Old Testament passage read at all four of the of the major Feasts of the Theotokos. The reading tells us about the East Gate of the heavenly temple remaining shut and He alone, goes in and out through it. The Lord, having entered through the gate of Mary proclaims her as the “Gate that looks toward the East”.
Ezekiel 43:1-5; 44:1-3 “Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory. The vision I saw was like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision that I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.”
“Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.”
12. The Mountain from which comes the Stone Cut Without Hands: Daniel 2:24-35 – This image in Daniel foreshadows the Theotokos as the mountain out of whom a stone (Christ) is cut “without hands”, referring to Christ’s birth from the Virgin untouched by a man.
13. The Fiery Furnace: Daniel 3:19-50 – Pre-figuring Mary, the womb that was to be the Lord’s dwelling, the hymnographer St. Cosmas of Maiuma wrote, “The furnace moist with dew, was the image and figure of a wonder past nature. For it burned not the Virgin’s womb into which it had descended” (matins, Nativity of Christ). Standing in a fiery furnace and yet being alive is seen as a type of the Virgin Mary, whose womb was a “fiery furnace,” when our God, who is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), was incarnate within her, yet she is not consumed, but preserved. Ode 7 “We the faithful recognize in you, O Theotokos, the spiritual furnace, and just as He saved the three youths, the Most high has renewed the entire world in your womb. For He is the Lord, the God of our ancestors, worthy of all praise and glory.”
Ascribed to Mary after the Birth of Christ
14. The Annunciation : Luke 1:26 – 38
15. The Magnificat: Luke 1:39-56
16. The New Eve: Eve conceived disobedience and death, whereas, Mary, a virgin, conceived the Word in obedience and brought forth Life. Mary thus became the New Eve. She fulfilled this calling at the time of the crucifixion when she gave her Son so that the world might be saved. She denied herself (through her complete submission to God’s Will) her Son – the “fruit” of her womb – thereby canceling the disobedience of the Old Eve, who instead, satisfied herself of the fruit and disobeyed God.
17. The Mother of all Living Things – John 19:25–27 – “Woman behold your Son. Then he said to the disciple, Behold Your Mother”. Having fulfilled her obedience to God, the Virgin Mary becomes the “mother of all living things”, the New Eve, who is the beginning of the second Creation or re-creation of humanity through the Redemption.
18. The Great Sign: Revelations: 11:19- 12:10 – “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule[a] all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. “
In Revelations we see reference to Mary in several places. As the Ark of the Covenant, she appears preceding of the final battle. Once the temple of God was opened and “the Ark of His Covenant” was seen within His temple, the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars, appears (the description of Our Lady of Medjugorje).
As discussed earlier, Mary is depicted symbolically as the Ark of the Covenant and as the true tabernacle. Mary is a figure for the New Jerusalem at the end of Revelation. How is the New Jerusalem described? As a bride that is pure and yet also being a mother of God’s children (Rev 12:17, 21).
19. The Gate Facing the East: The Messiah passes through the Eastern Gate in Holy Scripture. The early Fathers, therefore, refer to Mary as the Eastern Gate since it was through her virginal womb that Jesus entered the world.
Ezekiel describes in his vision what Jesus told His disciples when warning them to guard against false prophets who claim the Messiah has arrived – that he is in this place or that place. “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’[a] or ‘There he is!’—do not believe it.” Matt 24:23.
We know that Jesus comes to us through Mary. Mary was, is and always will be the portal, the Eastern gate.
Ecclesiastic year in the Orthodox Church begins and ends with feast days of Mary.
“Mary, as depicted in church typology is the Ark of the Covenant. We have already presented Mary the Ark of the Covenant. We have Mary the true tabernacle. We have in Mary a figure for the New Jerusalem because at the end of Revelation, how is the New Jerusalem described? As being a bride that is pure and yet also being a mother of God’s children Well, how is it that you could be at the same time virginally pure and maternally fruitful? It seems impossible in human nature, but not for Mary, not only in mothering Jesus, but in John 19 at the cross and also in Revelation 12 where we read at the very end of the chapter, verse 17, we discover that Mary becomes by grace the mother of all God’s children.” (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theotokos)
1) The Garden of Eden/the New Eve: Genesis 2:8-25
2) Jacob’s Ladder: Genesis 28:10-22
3) The Burning Bush: Exodus 3:1-14
4) The Jar of Manna: Exodus 16
5) The Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:1-17
6) The Ark of the Covenant: Exodus 25:10-22
7) The Tabernacle/the Holy of Holies: Exodus 26
8) Aaron’s Rod: Numbers 17:16-28
9) The Dewy Fleece: Numbers 6:36-40
10) The Tongs that held the Live Coal: Isaiah 6
11) The Gate Facing East: Ezekiel 43:1-5; 44:1-3
12) The Mountain from which comes the Stone Cut Without Hands: Daniel 2:24-35
13) The Fiery Furnace: Daniel 3:19-50
14) The Annunciation: Luke 1:26-38
15) Magnificat: Luke 1:39-56
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