Before she was in labor, she gave birth; before her pain came, she delivered a male child.” Isaiah 66:7
The Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church maintains that when the Theotokos was delivered of Christ at Bethlehem, she experienced no pain because the curse of pain in childbirth was a result of sin. Christ’s conception was miraculous, without passion, and sinless and she had been completely sanctified to the core by God from within so the curse simply did not apply to His birth.
However, in the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, when St. Simeon the God-Receiver beheld Christ at the ripe old age of 360, he prophesied that Christ was set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign which will be spoken against, that the thoughts of many would be revealed.
And, amid this prophecy concerning Christ, he also prophesied that Christ’s mother, the Most-Holy Theotokos Mary, would be pierced in her soul by a large sword.
By recounting this prophetic utterance, the Holy Apostle Luke is showing us something important about the Mother of God; that she is uniquely and unambiguously linked to the cross, the restoration of mankind, and to the Kingdom of God.
Mary is not some random virgin whose sole purpose in God’s redemptive plan was that of a human surrogate. God forbid!
Rather, she is blessed by all generations; she is the cause of great joy to St. John the Forerunner even in his mother’s womb; she is a unique participant in the incarnation and the sufferings of Christ, and she was destined to be pierced in her soul by a mystical sword at the crucifixion so that she, the unconsumed bush that burned, the ladder to heaven, the ark of the new covenant, might become the new Eve, the true mother of all the living.
In Ode V of the Midnight office of Pascha, we hear:
Coming forth from an unwedded Mother, and wounded in Thy side with a spear, O my Maker, Thou hast brought to pass the re-creation of Eve. Becoming Adam, Thou hast in ways surpassing nature slept a nature-restoring sleep, raising life from sleep and from corruption, for Thou art the Almighty.”
Christ, the new Adam, was pierced in His side re-creating Eve, the mother of the living, who is the Theotokos. The blood and water that spilled forth represent a birth taking place in that moment; the birth of the Church.
According to Fr. Stephen Freeman, the abundance of Marian material in Luke’s Gospel account clearly “points to her veneration in the primitive Church.” And not only her veneration but also the centrality of her story to the Gospel as a whole.
Indeed, the Holy Apostle Luke provides several parables and events relating to Mary that are not included in the other Gospels, including the Annunciation to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25); the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38); the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth and the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56).
Likewise, it is no accident that in the Gospel according to St. John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana is Christ’s first miracle (John 2). St. John tells us that the Theotokos initiated the miracle of turning the water to wine, and, by extension, their prophetically pronounced journey to the cross.
First, the word “Cana” means “place of reeds.”
The Catavasia of the Cross begins by recounting Moses' parting of the Red Sea, which is also known by another name: the Sea of Reeds.
In Ode I we sing:
Inscribing the invincible weapon of the Cross upon the waters, /
Moses marked a straight line before him with his staff and divided the Red Sea, /
opening a path for Israel who went over dry-shod. /
Then he marked a second line across the waters and united them in one, /
overwhelming the chariots of Pharaoh. /
Therefore let us sing to Christ our God, /
for He hath been glorified.
Moses opened and closed the waters of the Sea of Reeds by making the sign of the cross with his wooden staff, but the people of Israel having crossed over, found themselves still in the land of Egypt for another 40 years before reaching the land of Promise, the land still occupied by hostile forces.
Likewise, Jesus, having initiated His miraculous ministry in Cana, the place of reeds, begins His journey to the promised land where He will re-plant the tree of Life upon Golgotha, the graveyard hill.
It’s clear from the Gospel according to St. John that Christ would not have chosen the wedding at Cana to reveal His authority over all creation but for His mother’s request. But He honored her greatly by His obedience even though she humbly left the decision with Him.
So it was, from the place of reeds He ministered until being betrayed, He received the reed of mocking from the soldiers who then struck Him in the head with it (Matthew 27:29-30). Then dying on the cross, He was offered vinegar on a reed for His thirst (Matthew 27:48).
St Cyril of Alexandria says it this way: “For it was fitting that He, Who was renewing the very nature of man, and refashioning it all for the better, should not only impart His blessing to those already called into being, but also prepare before grace for those soon to be born, and make holy their entrance into being.”
In the garden, the serpent attacked the fundamental human relationship: marriage. It is fitting then, that Christ, at the request of His mother, would first assert His authority and dominion at a marriage feast to signal the redemption of every aspect of humanity that had been marred by sin, the coming wedding feast of the lamb, and the birth of the Church through the obedience of the Mother of God.
Not only that, but since it was Eve who initiated the Fall of man by being deceived and offering to Adam the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, it is fitting that the Theotokos, the second Eve, having received the fruit of Life within her womb, should initiate, by humble suggestion, the offering of the fruit of Christ, the Vine, for the redemption of mankind by which Christ would bring about the destruction of death.
But to understand Mary’s role in the Kingdom of God, requires some knowledge of Israel in the Old Testament.
In the Davidic kingdom, the mother of the king held an official position in the royal court, in which she shared in her son’s reign and interceded on behalf of the subjects of the kingdom. The “queen mother” was the people’s most powerful, and therefore preferred, advocate. Her specific place of honor and intercession is dramatically illustrated in 1 Kings 2: 13-21.
From the very beginning, the Church recognized and venerated the Theotokos as the “Queen Mother” of the Kingdom of God. Serving in this role, the Mother of God is inextricably linked to the formation and administration of the Kingdom of her Son, and her official role is advocating on behalf of His loyal subjects that make up His holy Body on earth.
Moreover, Psalm 44/45 tells us that the Theotokos is both the queen of heaven and the mother of the Church:
The queen stood at Your right hand in apparel interwoven with gold, and adorned end embroidered with various colors… For the King desired your beauty for He is your Lord… In the place of your fathers, sons shall be born to you; You shall make them rulers over all the earth.”
And listen to the Hymondy sung of her from the Catavasia of the Cross, Ode 9:
O Theotokos, thou art a mystical Paradise, /
who untilled hast brought forth Christ. /
He hath planted upon the earth the life-giving Tree of the Cross: /
Therefore at its exaltation on this day, /
we worship Him and thee do we magnify.
Today the death that came to man through eating of the tree, /
is made of no effect through the Cross. /
For the curse of our Mother Eve that fell on all mankind /
is destroyed by the fruit of the pure Mother of God, /
whom all the powers of heaven magnify.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corithinans 1:18
In the Akathist hymn to the Mother of God we affirm:
Rejoice, Thou Who hast united opposites: Rejoice, Thou Who hast joined virginity and motherhood! Rejoice, Thou through whom transgression hath been absolved: Rejoice, Thou through whom Paradise is opened! Rejoice, key to the kingdom of Christ: Rejoice, hope of eternal good things! Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!”
Lets go back to Isaiah 66 and read the entire section I quoted earlier, verses:7-12, which speaks of both the Mother of God and the Church.
Before she was in labor, she gave birth;
Before her pain came,
She delivered a male child.
Who has heard such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day?
Or shall a nation be born at once?
For as soon as Zion was in labor,
She gave birth to her children.
Shall I bring to the time of birth, and not cause delivery?” says the Lord.
“Shall I who cause delivery shut up the womb?” says your God.
“Rejoice with Jerusalem,
And be glad with her, all you who love her;
Rejoice for joy with her, all you who mourn for her;
That you may feed and be satisfied
With the consolation of her bosom,
That you may drink deeply and be delighted
With the abundance of her glory.”
For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
And the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream.
Then you shall feed;
On her sides shall you be carried,
And be dandled on her knees.
This is affirmed by the words of the wise Solomon from Song of Songs 8:5:
Who is she who comes up, is made white,
And leans on her beloved?
Under an apple tree I raised you up.
There your mother travailed in labor for you;
There she who travailed in labor for you
Gave you birth.
Under the Tree of Life, which is the cross, the Holy Mother, the new Eve, travailed in labor, delivering the Church, which was enlivened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
It was part of Christ’s mission. In the Eucharist, Christ gives us both His Holy body and His most precious blood. His life, which is in the blood according to Leviticus, emanates from the Father. His holy body came from her who bore Him. If the Church is the body of Christ, it is born of the Theotokos.
Remember the words of Our Lord to St. John on the cross, “Behold, your Mother!” The Theotokos became the mother of the Church by the express word of Our Lord. And after having said this, Jesus knew all things had been accomplished. (John 19:28)
Let us honor her who mystically labored for our deliverance from death.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!