Thursday, July 28, 2011

My understanding of Mary's story...

In response to my previous post about the ever-virginity of Mary, a fellow on one of the forums I frequent asked:
I'm wondering why Mary would choose to get married if she took that vow of virginity.

Here is my response, the historical bits of which I drew from On Orthodox Veneration of Mary, by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. I also include my own speculation about the motivations of the priests, and several other things, based on the facts of the historical bits.

/begin forum post answer

This is a very good question, and one that is not answered in the Scriptures. It is, however, answered by the teaching of the Church.

Here is the answer, as best as I understand it:

According to the Tradition, Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, were aged and barren. They asked God for a child, and an angel informed them that they would bring forth a daughter. Overjoyed, they promised to consecrate their child to God, as Samuel was consecrated by Elkanah and Hannah in ancient times, under the same circumstances.

Like Samuel, Mary was delivered to the Temple service at age three. Upon arrival, she walked straight into the Holy of Holies, taking the grace of God which rested upon her into the Temple, which until then had been without grace. (This was the newly-built Temple into which the glory of God had not descended as it had upon the Ark of the Old Covenant, and on the Temple of Solomon.)

While she was given a place in the quarters specifically set aside for the virgins such as herself, she spent so much time in prayer in the Holy of Holies that one might say she lived in it. (Note that this is totally appropriate, if she is, as I have shown above, the Ark of the New Covenant.) So that nothing might distract her from prayer and heedfulness to herself, Mary gave to God a vow of virginity, in order to please only Him her whole life long.

Now, officially consecrated Temple service such as this ended at 12, so that the young ones might take their place in society. Once she reached that age, she was no longer permitted to stay in the Temple. Normally, for a female, the priests arranged a marriage to someone with good prospects, etc., like the parents would have if she were still under their care. If the parents were still living, their wishes would be taken into consideration as well.

However, the priests knew of Mary's vow. Because of it, they understood that she could not enter into a normal marriage. They also knew that they had to marry her off so that she would be taken care of according to both law and custom.

What to do, what to do?

They would solve their dilemma by betrothing her to an elderly widower (with his permission and understanding, of course). The two would be married for society's (and the law's) sake, but remain physically separate for her vow's sake.

But whom to choose?
[Edit: here is where I begin my own speculation]
Now, the priests knew several things. First, they knew that according to the Scriptures, Messiah would come from the house of David. Second, they also knew that according to the same Scriptures, He would be born of a virgin. Third, they knew that the time for that to happen, according to the prophet Daniel, was upon them.

They also had this fellow, Simeon, who had been told that he would see the Messiah in his lifetime, which was already dragging on a bit.

Additionally, because of the promises to the fathers, geneologies were some of the most important records they kept, and they kept them quite fastidiously. (Where else did you think Matthew and Luke got their information? After all, also according to tradition, Matthew's younger brother was a priest, with full access to the archives.) So they knew that any offspring of Mary was "first in line", if you will, for the throne of David, as far as the lineage from Nathan was figured (the secondary line).

They also knew from their records that Joseph was "first in line" for the throne, as far as Solomon's line -- the main line in the first place -- was concerned. And -- oh, look! -- he happens to be an elderly widower, too!

The priests were not stupid. They had "connected the dots" already -- probably as soon as Mary walked straight into the Holy of Holies without being killed, if not before.

How much of all this the priests bothered to tell Mary is not known. I assume not much, since they she seems to be rather clueless when Gabriel makes his announcement to her.

(Joseph doesn't seem particularly surprised. In fact, he seems somewhat hesitant, which would seem to indicate that he knew and believed what was going on. He maintains this humble hesitancy up to the point where Gabriel shows up and tells him to knock it off. This only makes sense if he knew way more than we initially tend to assume, based solely on Scripture. Which would make sense -- how else would he have agreed to this whole thing, unless the priests filled him in?)

But still, Mary and Joseph's ignorance notwithstanding, something tells me the whole birth of the Messiah thing wasn't that much of a surprise to the priests. Well, to a few of them, anyway.

They had all the ingredients in place. The only thing left to do was actually betroth the second in line (Mary, a virgin to boot) to the first in line (Joseph, who also "just happened" to be an elderly widower), and voila! out pops the Messiah. And so they did. And He did.

Suddenly a lot of things make way more sense (to me, anyway). It explains why the priests later on got so upset when Jesus didn't turn out to be quite the kind of Messiah they were hoping for -- they had put a lot of time and effort into setting the whole thing up!

Additionally, the sting of Jesus' rebukes of the scribes and Pharisees seem even more justified with this view in mind. Not only could they have figured out Who He was -- they themselves had set up the circumstances for Him to come! He wasn't condemning them for lazyness -- e.g. "You guys need to get off your duff and figure this out!" No, they knew Who He was. And they still rejected Him.

This scenario also answers one of the nagging questions I had about His visit to the Temple at age 12. How is it that a 12 year old boy from a backwater town is even given an audience among the most learned doctors and scribes of the day? Because they knew even then Who He was.


Sorry for being so long-winded, but this reads better as a story than as a straight academic answer, IMHO. :)

/end forum post answer

On the Sacrifices...

DISCLAIMER: When I ran this by my priest/pastor/spiritual father for review, he said that nothing immediately jumped out at him as incorrect. However, he did say that it reads like it is my own speculation, made without reference to the teaching of the Church. In this, he is correct. So take it for what it's worth, which is to say -- it's my so-far-uninformed opinion on the matter. :) I do look forward to delving into the teaching of the Fathers (old and new) on the Liturgy, but I haven't done so yet.
Ok, this is going to wander a bit, but bear with me.

I find it interesting that in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, prior to the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts, the offering is referred to as "this reasonable and unbloody service"; whereas after the invocation, they are referred to as "this reasonable service."

Why the difference? Because the invocation itself calls upon the Holy Spirit to
make...that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ.

Prior to this, the gifts are our offering to God as a royal priesthood, and are symbolic of "ourselves and our whole lives," and all that we have received from Him in the first place. It is "Thine own of Thine own" that "we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all, and for all."

The language around this is reminiscent of St. Paul's admonition to the Romans (12:1,2), and to use, that we "present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is" our "reasonable service."

Now, according to the prayer, we
offer unto Thee gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our [the priests'] sins and for the errors of the people.

However, as these are unbloody at that point, it is evident that they do not take away these sins themselves, for
without the shedding of blood is no remission.

No, we offer these gifts unworthily, and ask that they may be changed into bloody Gifts in which there is remission, since we cannot offer anything of ourselves that would suffice.

And so the very next sentence is:
and make us worthy to find grace in thy sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto thee; and that the good spirit of thy grace may dwell upon us and upon these gifts here offered, and upon all thy people...

This is fulfilled later, in the invocation and change of the gifts into Gifts by the Holy Spirit. The reason being that any offering by the priests is made acceptable only in and through and in conjunction with the offering of the High Priest. And Christ, being our High Priest, has offered Himself upon the Altar.

So when we offer our unworthy oblations (for we received from the Father even that which we offer), we ask that they be "for our sins and for the errors of the people", not in themselves, but in what they will become.

This becoming is not by our power or due to our worthiness, as though this were some magic ritual in which we punch the cosmic vending machine and out pops our treat.

No rather, they are fulfilled,
through the compassions of thine Only-Begotten Son, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with thine all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages.

We ought not take these things for granted!
How marvelous are thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast thou made them all.

And again,
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen!

"Therefore", as I noted above, the apostle beseeches us,
by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
And how reasonable!

Selah. [Stop and think about it.]

Ok, moving on. :)

Note that at the invocation, the request is not just that the Holy Spirit descend upon the Gifts. Rather, it is that God would
send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here spread forth...

Then comes the request regarding the gifts specifically, that they be changed by Him into the Body and Blood of Christ.

But to what purpose?
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.

Id est, the Holy Spirit makes the Sacrifice present to us so that we may partake of it, and receive it
unto cleansing of soul, unto the remission of sins, unto the communion of Thy Holy Spirit, unto the fulfillment of the kingdom of Heaven, unto boldness toward Thee, and not unto judgment or condemnation.

If the Holy Spirit is present only in the Gifts, and not in us also, we do not receive the benefit, for
It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing...

The Flesh has no power of it's own, even as it had not power of it's own before it was offered (i.e. while Christ was "in the days of his flesh").

Nevertheless, we must eat the Flesh, since it is actually what was offered (cf. Heb. 10:5-10). The saving action is from the nature of God, and not inherent to the nature of the Flesh.1 However, the Power is mediated to us by means of the Flesh, for two reasons.

1) The natures are two, true, but the Person is One, and so cannot be separated or divided.

2) We also have flesh, which is to be included in our salvation, as the author says previously,
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same...

And so we must have faith, yes, but we must also eat the Body and Blood.

Since the Holy Spirit is the superintendent (and Actor) of this whole "operation of God", we ask for Him to come down upon not only the Gifts, but us also, that we may be partakers.

This is what is meant by "the communion of the Holy Spirit".


Now, some refer to the Liturgy as the "perpetual sacrifice of Christ". Unfortunately, there is a common misunderstanding regarding this. Many propose (some antagonistically, others dogmatically) that we are "re-sacrificing Christ".

But this is an error, as I intend to show.

The epistle to the Hebrews makes this quite clear:
[Christ] needs not daily, as those high priests [under the Law], to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people's: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.

And later,
nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest enters into the holy place every year with blood of others; for then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world he has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many...

And again,
...we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once. And every priest stands daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he has perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

No, we do not "re-sacrifice Christ". Rather, by the Holy Spirit, the corruptible, "unbloody" gifts that we set forth (unworthily!) are changed into the already sacrificed Body and already shed Blood of Christ, so that we may eat the sacrifice, and thereby be included in the new covenant of which it is the seal, receiving therein the remission of sins, as was promised,
...their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.

It is "perpetual" in that we perpetually receive it, perpetually partake of it, and therefore are perpetually cleansed by it.

This is contra the Protestant error which says that "the blood is applied by faith alone", and their other error of "once saved always saved." If these were not errors, then we would either not need the Eucharist at all (in direct contradiction to the command of the Lord), or need to partake only once (also in direct contradiction to the command of the Lord).

This is because the Sacrifice cleanses the sins that are past (Rom. 3:25), but not those that are not yet committed. This is indicated by the quotation of the promise of the new covenant by the author of the letter to the Hebrews (10:16, 17):
'"This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days," saith the LORD, "...their sins and iniquities will I remember no more."'

and by his conclusion based on this:
Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. ... For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins...

This is scary! It seems that if we sin willfully after our baptism and first communion, "there remains no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries."

And yet no man is without sin, and so we must "find the way through repentance", confess our sins, and partake (again) of the sacrifice, and so be cleansed (again) from all unrighteousness.

That is why the author included the word "willfully". We must take the context of the letter into account. First, he writing to Jews, who were being tempted to return to Judaism. Pursuant to this, he makes it clear (10:29, 38, 39) that he is referring to a willful rejection of the Christian Faith, not the incidental sins which we may commit "whether voluntary or involuntary, of word or of deed, in knowledge or in ignorance" due to the weakness of the flesh.

He is not referring to the sincerely repentant sinner, but to "a man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition..., knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sins, being condemned of himself", whom we are to "reject", seeing that God already has done so (Hos. 4:6).
1See Hippolytus, "Against Beron and Helix", beginning at the part (Fragment V), which reads:
For lately a certain person, Beron, along with some others, forsook the delusion of Valentinus, only to involve themselves in deeper error, affirming that the flesh assumed to Himself by the Word became capable of working like works with the deity by virtue of its assumption, and that the deity became susceptible of suffering in the same way with the flesh by virtue of the exinanition; and thus they assert the doctrine that there was at the same time a conversion and a mixing and a fusing of the two aspects one with the other.

Which doctrine was also condemned at Chalcedon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On the Mary's continued virginity after the birth of our Lord...

There are some (I used to be among them) who say that Mary did not remain a virgin after the birth of our Lord, but rather consummated her marriage with Joseph and had several other children by him.

The tradition of the Church is that she was raised as a virgin in the Temple, in accordance with the Law, and was betrothed to Joseph as a protector who was much older (and had several children by a previous wife who had died), and that she preserved her virginity according to her vows even after their marriage.

I converted to the Church's viewpoint on this based on the fact that I thought the Scriptures were ambiguous about it (they do have explanations for those passages that might seem to indicate that she did not remain a virgin), and it did seem to be the majority (actually, the only) viewpoint until the Reformation — there was no reason to disbelieve it. But I didn't hold it dogmatically; just as a "Ok, whatever you say, as long as it's not actually contradicted by Scripture".

However, I recently realized something that has brought me from the "Ok, whatever, Scripture is ambiguous about it" viewpoint to the "I actually believe that this is what Scripture teaches" viewpoint.

So what was this epiphany?

It's rather simple. I realized that Mary's response to Gabriel's initial announcement makes no sense unless she had in fact taken vows of virginity, and had zero plans to change that, in spite of her pending marriage.

Think about it. In the Jewish world, due to the expectation of the Messiah, the gift of having children was seen as a great blessing — you, young lady, might just be the one who bears the Christ! Young Jewish wives who didn't have children were looked down on as rejected of God or some such.

So here comes Gabriel, saying, "Rejoice, Mary, you're going to be blessed with a child, and He will be the Messiah!"

If she was planning at all on consecrating the marriage with sexual intercourse, her response would/should have been something on these lines: "Wonderful! Hallelujah! We'd better get to work straight-away after the wedding! Have you told Joseph yet that he's gonna be the father of the Messiah?"

But she didn't say that. Even nowadays, her response only makes sense in the light of a vow of chastity. How much more so then, when she was already betrothed? If she was planning on having a normal physical relationship with Joseph, then her statement "seeing that I know not a man" as the reason behind her question ("how?"), was not even true, because even if she hadn't "known a man" up to that point, she was certainly planning on it. So there would be no basis for her to ask "how", because the answer would be obvious: by the normal means.

But she wasn't planning on ever participating in the normal means. So she asks: "How, since I know not a man?" In other words, "Well, I know how that would happen normally, but my vow precludes me from that. What means, then, is left?"

Now some might object that she was merely asking how this would be, since it was to happen before she got married. But notice that Gabriel's announcement does not mention a time period. We know from the narrative that it happened before their marriage. But there is no mention of this in the announcement itself, so Mary wasn't reacting to that. Indeed, there is ample evidence in the Scriptures (with which she was quite familiar) that sometimes the promises of God for the bearing of a child would not happen for many years (10, in Sarah's case).

So it's obvious that her response was not triggered by a statement that it would happen before she was actually married to Joseph. No, she was under a vow of virginity, as the Church has always held. And she did not break that vow, even after their marriage ceremony.