Saturday, September 02, 2006

Fr. Andrew Louth on the Feast of the Nativity

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One of the many wonderful things about being in Durham is being able to regularly visit with scholars such as Professor Louth. To have him in our department here at Durham University is such a great blessing. The Times Online 'Faith' section has published an article from him in the news that can be found below. I place it here for your reading and refer you to the Times page as well.
There is nothing untrue in the Protevangelion’s joyful, inaccurate tales
Credo by Andrew Louth
Next Friday, September 8, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this is one of the 12 great feasts of the liturgical year. Like several other feasts of the Virgin, it draws its inspiration not from any of the canonical gospels, but from a late 2nd-century gospel, the so-called First Gospel of St James, the Protevangelion of St James.

This is one of the apocryphal gospels that attract perennial interest, often alleged to contain traditions of the “real truth of Christianity” and consequently to have been suppressed by the Church. The Protevangelion was not included in the canon of the Gospels, probably because of doubts about the historical accuracy of the stories it contained, which tell of the early life of the Blessed Virgin, from her conception by aged and barren parents, through her life in the temple, to her betrothal to Joseph and her giving birth, as a virgin, to the Son of God.

It is clearly a work of imagination; the meaning of the stories lies in their significance, not in their historical truth.

What is particularly striking about the Protevangelion is the way it associates the Virgin Mary with the Jewish Temple. In a wonderful scene, depicted unforgettably in the mosaic of the life of the Virgin in the inner narthex of Constantinople’s Church of the Chora (Kariye Camii), the six-month-old Mary is placed by her mother, Anna, on the ground, and walks seven steps towards her mother. Anna vows that Mary will no more walk on the earth until she goes to the temple. She is presented at the temple, and lives there until the age of 12, when she is betrothed to Joseph. Later she is one of the virgins chosen to weave the cloth for the veil of the temple.

Much of this is historically implausible, but its significance lies in the fact that Mary is destined to be a living temple, in which God will dwell, and that she will weave in her womb the human nature of Christ: the flesh, called in the Epistle to the Hebrews the veil (Heb. x, 20). By her “Yes” to God, the Jewish girl Mary becomes God’s dwelling place, a living temple. Or, to change the imagery, she becomes Paradise restored: as one of our Orthodox liturgical hymns puts it: “Her womb is shown to be the spiritual paradise, in which is the divine plant, eating of which we live, not like Adam who died. Christ is born, to raise up the fallen image.”

Though there are many songs and hymns about the Virgin throughout Christendom, the West has often seemed to hanker after something more definite, either dismissing devotion to Mary on historical grounds, or expressing it in terms of defined dogmas: the Immaculate Conception, or the Assumption. The Christian East has remained content with celebration in song. The most famous Byzantine hymn to the Mother of God, the Akathist, cries out to her:

Hail, you through whom joy will shine out,
Hail, you through whom the curse will cease.

Hail, recalling of fallen Adam,
Hail, redemption of the tears of Eve.

Hail, height hard to climb for human thoughts,
Hail, depth hard to scan even for angels’ eyes.

Hail, for you are a throne for the King,
Hail, for you carry the One who carries all.

There is perhaps a deeper reason behind the way the Christian East expresses its devotion to the Mother of God in song rather than in intricate theological definition. For song and celebration foster a fundamental attitude to the world and life of joy and thanksgiving. In contrast, one of the most insidious effects of sin, very evident in society today, is the way it leads to an approach to life characterised by suspicion, resentment and fear.

The attitude of thanksgiving was characteristic of one of the great saints of the early Church, St John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople, who experienced in his life much opposition and misunderstanding, and died in exile. According to his biographer, his constant response, whatever happened, was: “Glory to God for everything.”

Father Andrew Louth is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh


Anonymous Death Bredon said...

I am less skeptical of the accuracy of the Protoevangelon of James.

Indeed, it was written at about the time when many would have wnated to preserve the oral history regarding Mary, all the while knowing that her personal story only intrecests with the Gospel and is not part of the dogamatic canon of the Church.

And while the "tale" contians certain historically improbablities, but none more improbable than the Scriptural account of the Virgin birth. Mary was a special woman, favored by God, and must have led an unlikely and unusal life from start to finish.

In short, when an ancient "apocraphal" work seems to be timely written and complements the scripture, I am inclined to place great wieght in the likelihood of its basic accuracy.

4:19 pm  
Blogger lexorandi2 said...

Excellent posting, Jeff. One of the greatest failures of Protestantism, if not the west in general, is that we have forced an either/or choice on the issue of Christian legend and myth. Either we defend dubious historicity in order to keep the myth intact (e.g. as in
Rome's dogmatic deconstruction of the Assumption of Mary), or we dismiss the mythic component altogether and lose an important liturgical/devotional means to understanding transcendent truths.

7:58 pm  

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