By Metropolitan Seraphim of Kastoria
The person of the Most Holy Theotokos brings back once again our reverence, our thoughts and our heart into the wonderful Service of the Salutations, which is partially chanted every Friday night of Holy and Great Lent, and completely on the Friday of the Fifth Week of the Fast. We have this reverence for the person of the Panagia because she is an exquisite, otherworldly and heavenly spectacle, the "awe-inspiring message and report",1 according to the phrase of Saint Joseph the Hymnographer.
The mystery of the Theotokos exceeds not only all human spiritual figures, but also the heavenly ones who stand next to God. In her person everything is great and wonderful. She was not only a vessel of God, but became a cherubic throne where God the Infinite Word in His entirety dwelt physically in her immaculate womb to save the human race from corruption and death. This is why Saint Gregory Palamas in one of his famous discourses on the Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos says the following: "She alone stands between created and uncreated natures and no one could come to God except through her and through the Mediator who was born of her."2 And Saint Nikodemos adds: "The more angels and people rejoice and are glad to glorify you, the more they receive illumination from God...and the more they dance with love for you, the more they partake of God's grace."3
For the glory of God, the honor of the Most Holy Theotokos, as well as our own sanctification, it is worth focusing on one verse of the kontakion in tonight's Service of the Akathist Hymn: "Rejoice, ark that was gilt by the Spirit; rejoice, inexhaustible treasure of life."
This verse transports us to Holy Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, and it reminds us of the two arks which, according to the testimonies of the God-bearing Fathers, are a type of the person and ministry of the Panagia.
A. The Panagia is an Ark
The first ark was that of Noah which saved the man of God, Noah, and his family from the devastating flood which literally wiped out every living soul, as it is graphically described in the Old Testament. But the new ark of grace and salvation, the Theotokos, is she who brought to the world the salvation of mortals, Jesus Christ, and saved the human race from the deluge of sin. Similarly, the Church is a type of the Panagia, who saves and will save in perpetuity everyone from the presence of sin. There can be no Church without the Panagia. The Most Holy Theotokos is the Church and the Church is the Most Holy Theotokos. Just as the Church has Christ as her head and is called the Ark of Salvation, so also the Theotokos was made worthy to carry within her all-immaculate womb the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God. This is why Saint Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, calls the Panagia the "Holy Church": "We must have divine fear and fear the inseparable Trinity, singing hymns to the ever-virgin Mary, namely the Holy Church."4
Saint Epiphanios, Bishop of Cyprus, calls her the "New Eve": "While Eve became the cause of death in humans, Mary became the cause of life by which authentic life came to us."5 This is why Saint John of Damascus full of admiration calls the Panagia "imitator of the heavenly Church."6 "The Church is inconceivable and cannot stand without the Panagia, the Mother of the Savior Christ,... When someone says 'Theotokos' they include in this the entire meaning of the Church, because through this name and the person of the ever-virgin Mary is expressed the entire divine mystery of the person of Jesus Christ. The platytera ('she who is wider than the heavens'), painted in the semi-vault of the niche of the Holy Sanctuary after Jesus Christ, symbolizes precisely this, that Jesus Christ is in the midst of the Church. And the odegetria ('the guide') is the earthly Church which guides humanity to unite in the Body of Christ."7
B. The Panagia is an Ark
She reminds us of the ark in the Old Testament which was the most sacred of the sacred objects of the Tent of Testimony. The ark, as we are told in the sacred text, was gilted and within it was a golden jar that contained the heavenly manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the two tablets of the Decalogue. It was covered by two gilted cherubim. It reminds us of what the Apostle Paul says in his Epistle to the Hebrews: "Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the glory, overshadowing the atonement cover."8 In this ark the Fathers of the Church see the person of the Most Holy Theotokos. Just as the old ark was made of precious materials, so the new ark, the Theotokos, was gilt by the grace of the Most Holy Spirit. This is why the sacred hymnographer chants full of admiration: "The Fashioner of heaven and earth made you immaculate one."9
She is not just holy, but All Holy (Panagia).
She is not just graceful, but Full of Grace.
She did not carry within her the tablets of the law, but the Lawgiver Himself.
As the golden jar, she did not contain within herself the manna, but the Heavenly Bread Himself, Christ, who is offered to the faithful as the medicine of immortality, "the antidote to death."
"You are a noetic Eden more sacred and divine than the old... the ark holding the seed for a second world prefigured you," wrote the God-bearer Nilus of Damascus full of admiration.10
The Panagia is an ark,
An ark gilt by the Spirit,
An inexhaustible treasure of life.
But every Christian should have as a goal and purpose for their life to accommodate within them the Lamb of God, "who takes away the sins of the world." To become a dwelling place and temple of God, according to the exhortation of the Apostle Paul: "For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.'"11
For this reason we should resort with reverence to her all-holy person and entreat her that we may become a dwelling place of the grace of God. That we may live within the Church and be fed with the life of the Church. If we truly desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us even resort to the person of the Panagia like the Saints of our Church, to take us by the hand and bring us to her Son and God.
"As an animate and living rational ark, blessed Mariam, of the lawgiving Word, even as Noah was contained, redeeming us from the cataclysm of the deceits of the world, showing forth the ruler, of the other second world and more excellent life."12
1. 5th Ode of the Akathist Hymn.
2. St. Gregory Palamas, "Homily 53".
3. Monk Theoklitos Dionysiatis, Μαρία, η Μητέρα του Θεού, Thessaloniki 1988, p. 22
4. St. Cyril of Alexandria, "Homily 4", PG 77,996D.
5. St. Epiphanios of Cyprus, Panarion, PG 42,727D.
6. Georgia Kounavis, Παναγία και Εκκλησία, pp. 25-26, έκδ. Ι.Ν. Τιμίου Σταυρού Χολαργού, Athens 1986.
8. Heb. 9:3-5.
9. Service of Salutations, 4th Stasis.
10. Georgia Kounavis, Παναγία και Εκκλησία, pp. 28, έκδ. Ι.Ν. Τιμίου Σταυρού Χολαργού, Athens 1986.
11. 2 Cor. 6:16.
12. St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Theotokarion, Ode 4 - Tone 3 Wednesday Vespers, p. 104.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.