by Fr. Alexey Young
Who is she
that cometh forth as the morning,
The verse quoted above is one of many Old Testament prophecies and foreshadowings of the Mother of God and the Church. Its imagery is also reflected in the Akathist to the Theotokos:
To thee, our mighty leader in battle, O Mother of God, we thy servants offer hymns of victory and thanksgiving, for we have been delivered from dangers. Since thou possessest power invincible, set us free from every peril, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, thou Bride unwedded! (Kontakion 1)
In both quotations we have splendid language that-perhaps unexpectedly-evokes images of war, of an army with banners, of mightiness, power and victory. Yet these are not the ways in which many Christians think of the Virgin Mary.
For Protestants she is largely ignored except at Christmas, when she is routinely trotted out as a prop in a Manger Scene, but without even a modicum of veneration. For most Roman Catholics she is a demi-goddess, a "unique creation" different from all humankind-as one sincere Roman priest recently said on television: "You could call her 'Mrs. Holy Ghost' "!
But for Orthodox Christians the Mother of God is neither ignored nor made into something she could not possibly be. For us she is a mortal woman, but the supreme example of cooperation with God's grace. She knew sorrow and pain in abundance, and was subject to temptation-yet she kept herself spotless and free from all sin, just as all followers of Jesus Christ are urged and expected to try to do. Blessed art thou if thou dost fear the Lord, and follow His paths (Ps. 127).
And so, why these startling images of armies in battle array that speak of the Mother of God as a warrior? They seem at first to contradict the earthly reality of a pure and obedient Virgin who, after the Wedding of Cana where she directed everyone to "Do as my Son tells you", is then wondrously silent throughout the rest of the Gospels.
There is no contradiction here.
The Lord and His disciples speak constantly of this life as a real battle-an "unseen warfare" with the powers of the air as well as with our own fallen human nature. In such a battle there can be no truce and no standing still, only victory or defeat. This is part of the unique Christian world-view, now almost completely lost outside of Orthodox Christianity.
And because this life is a battle-a war that began in Heaven between the Archangel Michael and Satan and their followers, and continues here on earth-because of this we who follow Christ are soldiers. Through Baptism and Chrismation we are enlisted in the sacred army of a King-Jesus Christ Himself. And since the Mother of God is "Queen of the Heavenly Host" (Akathist Hymn), the "general" who takes her orders is none other than the Archangel Michael himself.
Therefore, in this war she is the greatest among saints, our mighty defender and advocate, an intercessor before her Divine Son Who is well pleased in her.... Blessed art thou among women (Luke 1:28)....Behold, all generations shall call me blessed (Luke 1:48).
In the battle of life we are hedged about on every side by affliction, temptations, storms of passions, and disquietude. It is precisely because of the purity (i.e., chastity) and sinlessness of the Mother of God that, next to her Son, she is greatly feared by the Evil One, who cannot abide the brilliant light of her who is "the throne of the King" (Akathist). Her mere presence, her appearance when we call upon her in prayer, immediately puts him and his fallen angels to flight.
Thus, we pray feelingly:
By many temptations am I distressed; in search of salvation unto thee have I taken flight, O Mother of the Word and Virgin, save me from dangers and difficulties. (Supplicatory Canon)
As the protection and defense of my life have I chosen thee, O Virgin Mother of God...I know thee to be the defender and steadfast guardian of my life, who dispersest the disturbance of temptations and dispellest the devices of demons. O all-immaculate Virgin, I pray to thee always to deliver me from passions. (Ibid.)
This battle is now. It is round about us on every side, from the moment we awake in the morning until we sleep at night, and even during the night. It has never been more fierce than in these Last Times. We are ourselves exceedingly weak and defenseless. No soldier wins a war alone and without weapons and armor. Yet we need not be alone! At all times there approaches from the right a mighty army of angels, apostles, martyrs and saints. And leading them is one that comes forth, "bright as the sun," holding the unfurled banner of the Cross, ready to defend and deliver us. Never have we needed her more!
We have thee as a wall and a refuge, O Virgin
...Whose span is greater than all sorrows...! (Ibid.)