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What shall we call you?: Mother Mary

What shall we call you?

The Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God in the Orthodox Church

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Mother Mary

When we enter an Orthodox church, we pray to Christ and the Mother of God by venerating their icons, in preparation for church services. The name that each person uses to silently call upon the Mother of God when they kiss her icon, or light a candle, can vary according to cultural background. Her primary name is Theotokos, which means ‘the one who gives birth to God’ or ‘Birth-giver of God’, while ‘Mother of God’ is used as an English translation.

The Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God is such a popular form of thanksgiving that it is sometimes just called ‘The Akathist’. It is uncertain who composed The Akathist, which means ‘standing’ as we stand throughout the service, just as we might stand when someone of importance enters a room. Although The Akathist celebrates Mary’s virginity calling her ‘Bride without Bridegroom’, the poem’s focus is the great Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.

‘Every angelic being was amazed

at the great work of your incarnation.

For they saw the One who is Unapproachable as God,

as a mortal approachable by all,

living his life among us.’

 

Each verse tells the story of Christ’s birth and is followed by a chorus that begins with ‘Hail’, or in some translations ‘Rejoice’, which is the greeting used by the angel Gabriel to the Mother of God.

‘Rejoice, height hard to climb for human thoughts,

Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down,

Rejoice, bridge, leading those from earth to heaven.’

 

Some of the most beautiful poetry is in the salutations that use metaphors from Creation.

‘Rejoice, vine with a branch that does not wither,

Rejoice, orchard of fruit that bears no taint,

Rejoice, mother of the star that never sets.’ 

Here you can see that the salutations point to Christ, and this is true of all Orthodox prayer to the Mother of God. When we pray to the ‘Queen of Heaven’ to ask for help, it is to ask her to pray for us to her Son, because his ear is always close to the voice of his mother. We do not believe that the Mother of God alone has power to save us, but rather that she can help us through her intercession.

‘Rejoice, acceptable incense of intercession,

Rejoice, propitiation for the whole world.’

 

Do these great attributes that we give the Mother of God lose sight of the young, Jewish woman called Mary? Do they create a distance and make it difficult for us to form a personal relationship with her? Icons usually represent her as a strong and mature woman, but if we take a look at the icon of the Nativity of Christ, we see details that remind us of the humanity of Saint Mary, as she is called in the Coptic Church.

 

Along with the familiar elements of the story of the Nativity, at the bottom of the icon there are two figures of old men on the left, and some women washing a baby on the right. Who are these people and why are they included in the icon?

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On the left is Saint Joseph bent over in troubled doubt about the Incarnation, and looking towards him is the ragged figure of the devil, or ‘The Old Man’ as he is often called, tempting Joseph into disbelief. In some icons Mary looks away from Christ towards Joseph. She is not portrayed pleading with him to believe, but as praying for the grace for him to overcome his doubt. On the right are the midwives who are helping Mary after the birth by washing the infant Jesus. These details come from the apocryphal Gospel of James, or the Protoevangelium of James as it is called in the Orthodox Church.

Another example of her humanity is in the icon of the Annunciation. Mary is depicted as spinning a yarn for the veil of the Temple, which in Orthodox hymnography represents the skin of Christ. Here the Mother of God is represented as a village woman who spins and weaves, which was an activity of great importance to the identity of Greek and Middle Eastern women. We shall probably never know if these details are historically accurate. The importance is that they create images of the life of the Holy Family that enable us to picture them as human beings with whom we can identify.

 

The Mother of God is a guide for us; a light that shows us a selfless, loving Way to Christ. Each of us has our own individual relationship with her and will respond to a particular way in which she points to Christ. For me, that has been her example of prayerful silence,

Rejoice, faith in things that demand silence.’

This contemplative silence sometimes means keeping verbally silent, as the Mother of God did after the birth of Christ, ‘But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19), but sometimes it means speaking out for the sake of others, for example, at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-10) where she persuaded Christ to perform his first miracle. She is the first person to know her son as the Son of God, and we can hardly imagine the emotional discipline and silent prayer to God that she must have had throughout her life, in order to support her son and his disciples.

What shall we call you? No one name is adequate for the Mother of God; she surpasses all classification. Perhaps the most appropriate way to call upon her is within the silence of prayer, asking for her help that we all may become birth-givers of God, in our heart and our lives. f

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Mother Mary is an Orthodox nun who lives alone at Saint Sunniva Skete, in a small island in the Shetland Isles, northern Scotland.