Theotokos

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December 24, 2011 Tags: Christ & New Creation

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Theotokos

In considering images that help us think about the intersection of Christian faith and scientific thinking in a way that is particularly appropriate for Christmas, it seemed right to focus on the central miracle and mystery of the incarnation. After all, that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ is not only a defining tenet of Christian belief, but also a stumbling block to many who can not account for such a thing happening in a world they recognize as largely described (or “governed”) by materialistic laws. Can not the miracle of Christ’s birth—specifically the claim that He was born of a virgin mother—be accounted for in several other ways, none of which require the suspension of those ordinary rules of nature? Is not the miracle of Christmas only a fairy tale that conveniently covers the shame of an un-wed teenage mother? And why do Christians persist in talking about this or any “miracle” when simpler, more earthly explanations (or denials) are at hand?

Part of the “answer” to the mystery of the incarnation lies in realizing that those three are not really the right questions to be asking, for they focus merely on means rather than meaning. Rather, we should recognize that the miracles of Jesus’ life—beginning with His conception and birth through Mary—are not only or most miraculous in their physical, material aspects, but as demonstrations of His identity and calling, and ultimately of our own as those who bear His image. In contrast to the manger scene familiar to most Western Christian eyes, the image pictured above is an Orthodox icon of Mary as the Theotokos, the birth-giver of God, and it offers to us an alternate way of picturing the central mystery of Christmas that Orthodox priest, curator and art historian David Goa has described as “the Church’s great image of the human vocation and call to us to claim that vocation—who we are and how we are to then live all in one simple image of our common human experience.” For, without setting aside or attempting to explain the material aspects of the virgin birth, the continuing miracle of the incarnation is that it is as much a present reality in the lives of Christians today as it was for Mary or for those in the early Church.

In a sermon dedicating another Theotokos icon, Goa warned of the danger of living in a time when Christmas imagery has become too-familiar, "that we make a fetish of virginity and the birth of a Palestinian baby; his mother and would be father; that we fill the emptiness with the glamour offered from all quarters; that we turn this feast into a family occasion: freeze frame our familial affection.” Against those temptations, this icon does not “naturalize” Christ as a perfect human baby born in a manger, but reminds us that even within Mary’s body—and though setting aside his power for a time as a fully human infant—Christ remained the Lord of all; thus, He is shown seated on the throne of the heavens and with a scroll in His hand, emblems of both arenas of His revelation of Himself. Yet far from minimizing Mary’s role, this iconography of the fullness of God emphasizes her as a model of the way every Christian can and does make a place and a way for the Lord, as well.

In speaking of the icon, Goa reminds us that, “the Incarnation is a revelation of who we are. It is a retelling of Genesis chapter 3 and that is why, in this season of retelling this story, we enter a dangerous time.” It is dangerous not just because we might miss the meaning of it, but because with every re-telling of our commissioning as image-bearers, sent to cultivate and create in God’s name, we are tempted to exert our own desires, to exercise dominion for our own sake, in our own names. Goa continues, “The mystery of the Incarnation of God in Christ is our mystery, a revelation of our created nature and a call to its fullness, . . . [thus] the Icon of the Virgin and Child is . . . the Icon of the Human Vocation. It reveals to us our capacity as persons, as women, men and children.” That vocation certainly includes seeking to understand the created world and its ways via careful and faithful study, just as it includes seeking the Lord through the scriptures and traditions of the Church; but it is most fully expressed when we use both of those resources to ease the pain and injustice we find (and have even caused, ourselves) in the world around us.

Finally, Goa notes that, “When Orthodox Christians around the world enter the church, they bring a candle to this icon and, bowing in a prayer of gratitude to God who clothed them in flesh, ask that they, too, like the Theotokos, may be open to be a birth giver of divine love in a fractured and suffering world.” Motivated by confidence that the Lord who created the cosmos is the same Lord who was born of Mary in Bethlehem, may all of us who struggle to understand the way God continues to reveal Himself in creation and in the scriptures remember that the most vital and present revelation of His love occurs by the Spirit within us, for the benefit of others. May we recognize that the miracle of Christmas was not that God chose to break the rules of biology, but that He makes a way for all of us “who were far off” to join in His reconciling, redemptive work by likewise bringing—being—the Body of Christ unto the world. May we, then, join with Mary Theotokos in her song of praise and thanksgiving that we have been called to share in the mystery of the incarnation of our God and Savior.

Dr. David J. Goa is the Director of the Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion & Public Life at the University of Alberta. All quotes were taken from Goa’s “Our Common Calling: The Icon of the Human Vocation,” given at Bethel Lutheran Church in December 2007. More on the iconography of the Theotokos and this image may be found here.


Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.


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beaglelady - #66781

December 24th 2011

That was a lovely post, thank you. Have a blessed Christmas.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66802

December 27th 2011

A big part of this problem is the effort to impose a Greek cosmology on a Hebrew event.  The Hebrew title Messiah (Christ in Greek) means “anointed.”  YHWH had Samuel anoint David, as he had earlier anionted Saul, to indicate that God had chosen David to be the next king of Israel, even though this would not take place for some time.  At that time David became YHWH’s Chosen King, the Messiah.  Please note that kings, ministers, and bishops are still anointed at the time of ordination or coronation to mark the understanding that they are chosen by God.

Psalm 2 is a coronation hymn.  Verse 7 states, “You are My Son; Today I have become your Father.”  YHWH says that the Messiah, the Chosen One, is God’s Son. 

Jesus was not just a messiah, He was the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lords of Lords.  His birth was special because He was special, but the principle is the same, Jesus was the Messiah because He was chosen by YHWH to save God’s people from sin and death and He fulfilled this call through the Holy Spirit, not through a divine nature.  

      


Neighbor#2123 - #67488

February 2nd 2012

I have a hard time with the concept presented here, and not because i don’t believe that it is truthful. Also, I fully recognize my own inadquecy in determining what is universally true regarding any theological topic. However, now that I’ve removed my sandals, I think that the message incomplete.

Not that I’d ever deem any human reflection, or teaching as fully complete, but i feel there is a stumbling block here that may hurt more than it can help. I fully agree with using the symbolism of the incarnation to give the individual a sense of significance, as i do believe that lines up with what scripture reveals as one of God’s intentions. However, leaving out the significance of the reality of the incarnation, relegates the entire event to a philosophy, thereby diminishing the significance of Christianity. I say diminish, in the sense that the world is not short of philosophy, and probably won’t be for some time. What the world seems to have always been short of, is an authentic relationship with an authentic God. 

The author quotes Goa saying a danger of retelling the Christmas story is that “....we are tempted to exert our own desires, to exercise dominion for our own sake, in our own names”. But i would push back by first agreeing with the statement, but also by pointing out that it is also dangerously incomplete. It neglects the opposite of itself, which is equally likely and dangerous, and is to exert ones own desires, to excercise what we deem as freedom, in our own names. In essence we could create a very attractive philosophy, of giving birth to our own God images, rather than being imagers of God.

The reality of God placing a seed in Mary is critical, because it forces humanity to recognize that there is no birth without an interaction with a God who precedes and will outlast our earthly selves, even while He may choose to dwell within us. I feel like any theological or ethical standard that does away with such a reality would be critically flawed.
 


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