>What is This Great and Strange Wonder?

>First of all, I am humbled and amazed to notice, as I post tonight, that 100 of you read my last post from Sunday night. Thank you. I hear from a few of you via email at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com. And a very few of you leave me comments at the end of the post. It’s easy to do… but you do have to have some sort of (free) account… mine’s with Google. Anyway, I’d love to hear from more of you! And now, about this Great and Strange Wonder….

As an Orthodox Christian, I’ve had some conversations with friends of other Christian traditions over the years about the place of women in the Church. Some of these friends have expressed concern that the Orthodox Church does not honor women, because it does not ordain them to the priesthood or allow them to serve in the altar.

I am no theologian. Nor am I equipped or inclined towards apologetics in this or any other area. But I am a woman. And a mother, albeit by receiving the gift of motherhood through the vehicle of adoption. And an iconographer.

That last “credential” might seem out of place. Except that I’ve written (the iconographic term for painting) numerous icons of the Mother of God, including the one I almost finished today. Something mystical happens in the writing of icons. A relationship is nurtured. A love grows. (Here’s a detail of the icon, showing the finished face of the Christ Child, and His Mother “directing” us to Him with her right hand, which is why the icon is called The Mother of God, Directress.)

Another aside: Thank you to my friend, Claire Van Drimmelen who spent five hours helping me clean up and re-organize my icon studio yesterday! I didn’t take any “before” pictures (I’m always amazed when people like to publish those) but here are a couple of “after” shots. (Click on the image to see it larger.)
I was so motivated by the peacefulness that order brings, that I was able to almost complete the icon today!

It’s the icon that’s placed on the solea (the raised area in front of the altar) in the Orthodox Church at certain times. Like last night. When we prayed the Paraclesis Service to the Mother of God for the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. This is a special service of supplication to the Theotokos (God-bearer) done during the Nativity Fast… the season leading up to Christmas. You can read the entire service here. There are similar services prayed during Great Lent, and also during the two weeks leading up to the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Mother of God in August. Because the Mother of God, a woman, is held in the highest regard… that’s not a good enough word… she is reverenced and loved. Her prayers are sought. Just like the servants at the wedding at Cana who went to Her because they ran out of wine and knew she had her Son’s ear.

If you haven’t been in an Orthodox Church, and especially during a service commemorating the Mother of God (there are lots of them throughout the year) … well, let me try to describe it for you. And then maybe you’ll see the place of honor the Orthodox Church bestows on women. (This photo, of St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, was taken when an icon of Christ the Bridgroom was on the solea during Holy Week of Great Lent. But it’s in the position where the icon of the Mother of God would be for the service I’m describing now. So at least you can visualize the interior of the church. And how the icon is placed on the stand for veneration.)

When you enter the church, lights dimmed, candles lit in front of the icons, you make a prostration (on your hands and knees) in front of the icon of the Mother of God, Directress, kissing the icon when you rise. The chanters do most of the service, at the chanters’ stand to the right of the solea. The priest has parts in the service, as well, leading the worshippers in the prayers of supplication to the Mother of God. Here are some of the verses that are chanted, read or sung:

Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden hath been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha, for the tree of life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her womb did appear as a super-sensual paradise in which is planted the divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam. Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.

[A brief aside… I love that part that says raising the likeness that fell of old. The incarnation, God becoming man, what we celebrate at Christmas, raises us up from our fallen state. It restores us. Helps us be all that we can be.]

Here are a few verses that give Mary’s response to becoming the God-bearer:

“What is this great and strange wonder? How do I uphold Thee who upholdest all the world by Thy word? O my Son who art without beginning, Thy birth is beyond all speech!” So spake the all-pure, fearfully holding Christ in her arms.

And again:

The blameless Lady was amazed at the height of the mystery, in truth past speech, that covered the heavens with knowledge, and she said: “The heavenly throne is consumed in flames as it holds Thee: how is it, then, that I carry Thee, my Son?”

And again:

“Thou dost bear the likeness of Thy Father, O my Son. How then hast Thou become poor and taken upon Thyself the likeness of a servant? How shall I lay Thee in a manger of beasts without reason, who dost deliver all men from unreason? I sing the praises of Thy compassion.”

And this one I love, and inspires icons like this one, of the Mother of God, Tenderness: (icon at right):

“O sweetest Child, how shall I feed Thee who givest food to all? How shall I hold Thee who holdest all things in Thy power? How shall I wrap Thee in swaddling clothes, who dost wrap the whole earth in clouds?” So cried the all-pure Lady whom in faith we magnify.”

A beautiful hymn which is frequently sung in Orthodox worship is sung at this point, while the priest walks through the church with a censor, like the one Father John Troy is holding here, censing all the worshippers:

It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos, who art ever-blessed and all-blameless and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, thou who without corruption barest God the Word, and art truly Theotokos, we magnify thee.

I’ve been Orthodox for 20 years now. I’ve never wanted to be a priest or serve in the altar. I’ve never been sad that women can’t do those things in my church. My role model is a woman who bore God in her womb. The priests (men) in our church make prostrations before her icon. She teaches all of us, men, women and children, to prepare ourselves for Christ to be born in our hearts. At Christmas. And every day. I love being a woman in the Orthodox Church.

The next Paraclesis Prayers for Nativity at St. John are Monday night, December 17, at 7 p.m. For directions to the church, visit our web site, http://www.stjohnmemphis.org/.
Most Holy Mother of God, save us. (Listen to an Orthodox hymn to the Mother of God here.)
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