Today, just a week into the Church New Year, is the Nativity of the Theotokos. It’s the birthday celebration of the Virgin Mary, the very Mother of God.
For the first decade of my vocation as a Christian I ran in distinctly Protestant circles. Many, many circles. I ran a pretty thorough gamut, though I admittedly leaned heavily into the most charismatic and fundamentalist of the denominationary buffet.
There were years of incredible music. There were storefront services. There were youth groups and altar calls and wildly experimental forays into the ‘gifts of the spirit.’ Coffee-cup worship, pepper-shunning potlucks, and powerful messages. I dappled in light liturgical fare and dove headlong into house churches. I was all-in, and I was all-out. I challenged and I surrendered. I experimented and I regretted. My life was sprinkled with a million fine folks with depths of faith as varied as the vehicles I’ve driven—from my very first Renault Encore—the French Pea—to a fifteen passenger Club Wagon. I dined on lusty fares of fanatical right-wing righteousness and violent bible-thumping rhetoric. There were conspiracy theories a-plenty. Emotional experiences worthy of televangelists. Theological disasters and questionable encounters.
But never was there mention of the Mother of God.
In the Church today we celebrate a life, but it is not just any life. We celebrate the life of the birthgiver of God, the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. She is the gate through which Christ entered our humanity, the ladder linking heaven to earth, the very house of God Himself. The vessel set apart for the most sacred of duties.
Seventeen years ago, I dare not tell a lie, this very Theotokos was the #1 obstacle to my entry in the Orthodox Church. If there was one thing I ‘knew’ about Mary, it was that the Catholics worshipped her, and shame on them for such blasphemy and heresy and naughtiness. And this church, the Orthodox Church, no matter how I studied it, seemed to trip themselves up on the very same stumblingblock, and I wanted nothing to do with it. It was shocking, really.
Thanks be to God, the people of the Church sucked me in. This faith that they professed was radically different from every manifestation of Christendom I’d encountered, in terrifying ways, in arguable ways, and mostly in all the right ways that I had no power to kick against. The people drew me, but what truly drew me was the faith they held.
It wasn’t long before I took that leap of faith headlong in to the arms of Orthodoxy, even before my questions were answered. It was a very unProtestant thing to do. Even before my qualms about Mary were soothed. I was out of control.
It took me a few years to shed enough of my prior programming to really understand not only the subtle yet essential difference between worship and veneration, but the absolutely critical role that the Theotokos has in the life of the Church. That her ‘job’ wasn’t complete 2,000 years ago.
The reactionary hissing I once breathed towards Mary’s very mention soon subsided as I melted into the hymnography and liturgy of the Church. The ancient faith of these people spoke gently and genuinely, and patiently cut through the racket of many year’s of spittle and froth. And one day, I got it. One day, I let the love of the Virgin, the love that coddled my Savior, sink into me, and I didn’t even grimace.
Today we celebrate the twilight that dawns in the East, the harbinger of the Messiah, the voice crying in the wilderness before John was a twinkle in Elizabeth’s eye. She marks the beginning, and is fitting that her birth is re-lived at the very start of the Church calendar.
Today we venerate the only one in this fallen world who didn’t turn her back, even in the darkest hour. The birthgiver and the caregiver of God the Word.
May all of us follow in her footsteps,