Orthodox America


 The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos 


by Fr. Alexey Young

The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, written and compiled by Holy Apostles Convent; published by Holy Apostles Convent and Dormition Skete, 1989; 615 pp., illus.; hardcover, $28.50.

 

Even a zealous and life-long Orthodox Christian will admit that one lifetime is not enough to exhaust the spiritual riches and treasures of Orthodox Christianity-whether it be Scripture and patristic commentaries, Lives of Saints, hymnography, or the sacred art of the Church. Orthodoxy-because it is divine-is an abyss of sapience, of "knowledge of things human and divine" (as Cicero once said).

This is perhaps particularly true of the All-Holy Theotokos or "Birthgiver of God," our Mater Dei (the dogmatic title by which she was known in the pre-schism West)-the true Mother of God.   All Orthodox Christians possess icons of her; we sing her praises in Canons and Akathist Hymns; we celebrate her feasts.  If we are in a parish where we have access to the full cycle of divine services in a language that we understand, then we know how often the Church invokes her intercession under many noble and inspiring titles.

And yet, in spite of our devotion to the Mother of God, many of us know surprisingly little about her.  Some of us may have unconsciously absorbed at least part of society's Protestant avoidance of her. Others are fearful of Roman Catholic excesses.  And so, outside our churches and homes, we say little, and perhaps even have some embarrassment about how much she really means to us.   Most have assumed that there isn't much more to know about her other than what is contained in the New Testament and in the divine services for her Feast Days.  This is an error that need stand no longer.

 

The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos is a massive work of scholarship and compilation, yet highly readable and wondrously informative-and such a wealth of detailed information about every phase of the Virgin's life!  It is not a work of imagination or fancy, nor is it based upon the "private revelations" of adolescents (such as is common in the Roman Catholic Church).  Rather, this is a mature and comprehensive examination of the subject at hand.  This is the real Virgin Mary, rather than a distorted and pale imitation!

As the editors tell us, this book presents the Mother of God "within the framework of Sacred Scriptures, Holy Tradition, Patristics and other ancient writings, together with the Liturgical and Iconographic Traditions of the Holy Orthodox Church."

Thus, the editors drew upon the authoritative writings not only of pre-Nicene and Apostolic Fathers such as Saints Ignatius of Antioch (+110)-who knew the Apostle John-, Justin Martyr (+165), and Irenaeus of Lyon (+193), but many later Eastern as well as Western Fathers who recorded traditions faithfully handed down to them.

There is no English-language equivalent of this book, although various aspects of the Mother of God's life-especially those events which took place after the close of the New Testament (for example, her Holy Dormition or "falling asleep")-have been at least partially treated in articles and studies elsewhere.  Therefore this volume comes at a propitious time-not only because it enriches our understanding and increases our love for the Mother of God, but because it can dispel a great deal of just plain ignorance about her, even among many Orthodox.

For example, this reviewer remembers when, several years ago, a priest of a traditional Orthodox jurisdiction admitted privately that he considered the Virgin's sojourn in the Temple at Jerusalem (and consequently the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple) to be nothing but "a pious but impossible myth bordering on superstition"! Yet one chapter in this book presents and thoroughly documents this period of time in her young life.  One would have to be very proud indeed (not to mention the heresy involved) to reject such authoritative sources.

The exceptionally good footnotes are relegated to the back of the book so as not to be a distraction to the reader.  However, they should not be neglected, as they contain much valuable information.

This reviewer has only two small reservations-which should not at all discourage anyone from obtaining the book.  The first is that the book lacks a subject or name index, rendering the text difficult for easy reference.

Secondly, more that 600 icons are reproduced in black and white in the text.   Some of them are of extraordinary beauty, and rarely seen in the West.  In this, the editors have done the reader a great service.  However, most of the reproductions are small and it is difficult to appreciate their rich detail; the overall effect is one of "clutter" rather than the majestic simplicity that befits a work of this kind.  It would also have been nice to see more icons from the Russian tradition.

 

The book is suitable for reading aloud in the family circle.  Various events from this Life can be retold by parents to their children at bedtime. Priests can draw from it material for sermons.  And it is an especially appropriate gift for Roman Catholics, who have a very wrong view of the Mother of God.   No Orthodox library-whether in the parish or at home-should be without this inspiring and educational book

Fr. Alexey Young

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