In the last issue, I dealt with Frank Schaeffer's assertion:

[b]y ordaining women, "liberal" Protestants are in effect saying, "Christ did not come in the flesh, his maleness does not matter, he is a mere symbol of something larger."

But to the Orthodox Christian, Christ's maleness does matter, just as Mary's femaleness matters.1

Let me now address his second assertion, that "Mary's femaleness matters." I think it appropriate to consider whether Mary is venerated and honored in the Orthodox Church for her femininity, or at least for a sexually defined role, that of "Mother."

Mary is often described as the epitome of humility, submission, and obedience. There is no doubt but that she exemplifies all of those qualities. She laid her entire life at God's feet and willingly accepted to do His will. But are these traits gender-defined? Are they peculiarly feminine? The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no. There is a certain gender-based symbolism at work here. Due to the way sexuality operates in humanity, we often consider receptiveness a feminine trait as opposed to initiation of an action, which is seen as more masculine. There is beauty and poetry to this sexual symbolism of giving and receiving. A problem arises, however, when symbolism, even theological symbolism, is considered normative, that is, when we believe that it must define the conduct of individual human beings.

Mary's humility and obedience are not peculiarly feminine, but rather wholly and completely human. Using this sexual symbolism, all men and women are feminine in relation to God. All of us are called to receive His self-emptying love, to unite ourselves to Him as bride to bridegroom. Thus, many of the Fathers speak of their souls as brides approaching Christ, the Bridegroom, and our Holy Week services are filled with such imagery. One fourth-century Christian writer, Didymus the Blind, even took the sexual imagery of giving and receiving a step further. He spoke of our being male and female after death not emotionally or physically but symbolically, where a person's spiritual gender would be based on his/her spiritual development. Those who were spiritually advanced would be teachers (males) and those who were not advanced would be disciples (females). As one advanced or regressed spiritually, one's gender would change correspondingly.

While this type of allegory may seem far-fetched, it emphasizes an important point. Sexually-based symbolism cannot be used to define or limit the characteristics of any particular person. The Theotokos' acceptance of God is not a model for women; rather, as the French Orthodox theologian Elisabeth Behr-Sigel asserts, the Theotokos "personifies human liberty restored." In the matins service for Feast of the Annunciation, Mary is praised as the restoration of Adam as well as the redemption of Eve. In other words, the Theotokos' obedience to God affects all of us as much as Adam and Eve's disobedience did.

But obedience should not be confused with passivity. Mary was not passive. She questioned the angel and made a voluntary decision to conform her life to God's will, fully cognizant of the difficulties she would face. Responding to God's initiative and love requires decisive action and total commitment. Jesus Christ has given us the sublime compliment of considering us His friends. In John 15:15, He says, "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." We must, every step of the way, actively respond to God's friendship and love. Even the relationship of the Son to the Father should not be viewed in terms of blind filial obedience, but in terms of mutuality. Speaking of God the Father should not conjure up an image of an authoritarian figure, but rather of one who exhibits humility, self-renunciation, and self-giving. As Verna Harrison points out in her article, "The Fatherhood of God,"

When the Son obeys [the Father], offering all that He is back to Him, He is imitating and responding to the Father's original self-renunciation, His giving all that He is to the Son in the eternal act of begetting.2

But what of God the Father and Mary the Mother of God? Doesn't each of these titles, derived from the most basic of gender-based divisions, imply a role alien to that of the opposite? It is interesting to see what the Greek Fathers have to say about both the motherhood of Mary and the fatherhood of God. St. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, declares:

No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. For example, "mother" is mentioned in place of "father." Both terms mean the same, because the divine is neither male nor female.3

In other words, the name Father, when applied to God, has little to do with our normal human meaning of the term, and in particular it has nothing to do with gender.

Symbolism is again important in this context. For the ancient Greeks, the father was believed to be the source of the child's life (hence the notion of implanting the seed), while the mother provided the fertile soil in which the fetus was nurtured. So it of course made sense to speak of God the Father in order to affirm that He was the origin of the Son. Yet God the Father also eternally gives birth to the Son. In English we use two different terms, giving birth and begetting, to refer to the mother's and father's actions, respectively. In Greek one word gennao, is used for both. Verna Harrison explains patristic theology on this question thus: "God's fatherhood is a unique mode of generation characterized by a wholeness that both includes and transcends aspects of both forms of human parenthood." In other words, God is both mother and father, and yet beyond either one or both together.

So what man can be an adequate icon of God the Father? Actually, the most appropriate human icon of God the Father is not a man at all, it is Mary the Mother of God. Just as God the Father both begets and gives birth to the Son in His divine nature, the Theotokos is the source of Jesus Christ's human nature and she gives birth to Him. Christ is the one begotten of a Father but without a mother and born of a mother but without a father. Harrison sums up this paradoxical idea of wholeness as follows:

[The Theotokos'] parenthood is the most exact human icon of the divine fatherhood. It follows that to call God the Father is not to make an anthropomorphic assertion of His maleness, since the content of His name "Father" is understood through the character of His generation of the Son. Divine Fatherhood expresses the Father's relationship to His Son, and human fatherhood is called to become an icon of that manner of parental relationship to offspring. We would add that, together with the Theotokos, all mothers are called to be icons of the Father in a similar way.4

But just as all men and women are called to become icons of God the Father, all men and women are also called to become icons of the Mother of God. To quote Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Mary is the "typos of a Christ-bearing (christophoros) humanity because she bears the Spirit (pneumatophoros)"5 , in other words, she is the archetype for all to give birth to Christ spiritually by bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit. In fact, St. Gregory of Nyssa used just this imagery. In the Resurrection, all of us, women and men, are called by God to become mothers by eternally giving birth to Christ spiritually through the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, not only the fourth-century Greek Fathers, but the Church in her liturgical life rejects a gender-identified symbolism for Mary. This is expressed perfectly by the Gospel reading used for all the feasts of the Theotokos, Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28. Surprisingly, the reading, at first sight, does not even seem to deal with the Theotokos. Rather, it is the story of Martha and Mary. Martha complains to Christ and asks Him to order her sister Mary to help her in the kitchen instead of listening to Him. Christ, however, chides Martha for worrying about her earthly role rather than her eternal one: "Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." As if to emphasize that the significance of this statement is not simply ethical, but rather at the root of our being, the Church in her wisdom skips half of the next chapter to continue immediately:

As He said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!"

Christ does not here by any stretch of the imagination denigrate the role of the Theotokos in His incarnation and the whole of God's work of salvation. Rather, He is affirming it by emphasizing that it is not a gender-defined role. Mary is blessed not because she is His mother, but because of why she is His mother: She kept the word of God. Her blessedness, i.e., her theosis, her deification, is as a human being voluntary uniting herself synergistically to God. The Theotokos thus becomes a model for all human beings, not a model for women only. I would like to quote here a statement by Panayiotis Nellas: "The category of biological existence does not exhaust man. Man is understood ontologically by the fathers only as a theological being."6 Likewise, our relationship with God, based on our attributes and virtues, is determined by our potential as human beings created in God's image; it is not limited or defined by our existence as men and women. By growing into God's likeness, humanity becomes a community of ecstatic persons in communion with God and with each other. Each human being must express himself or herself uniquely in an ecstatic outpouring of love that is determined not by any biological necessity, but rather by each person's relationship to God and to other human beings.


1. Orthodox Observer, (December 1993), p. 21.

2. Verna Harrison, "The Fatherhood of God in Orthodox Theology," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 37:2/3 (1993), p. 191.

3. Verna Harrison, "Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology," Journal of Theological Studies, n.s., 41:2 (October 1990), p. 41.

4. Harrison, "The Fatherhood of God," p. 210.

5. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, The Ministry of Women in the Church, trans. Steven Bigham (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1991), p. 60.

6. Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on the Nature of the Human Person, trans. Norman Russell. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1987 ), pp. 33-4.