Everyone has heard of and perhaps even seen the film Jesus of Nazareth, by Franco Zeffirelli. First seen in the United States as a television broadcast on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1977, it has been a standard ‘religious’ movie ever since, though its extraordinary length, over 6 hours, makes it difficult to watch in one sitting. It is still my favorite movie about Jesus, although I have reservations here and there. One of them—and I still have a hard time understanding why they did this—is in the scene in which Christ bequeaths the keys of the Kingdom to the apostles, saying “and upon this rock I will build what I must call my church.” Since when is Christ in a position where He ‘must’ do anything? It sounds like a sheepish capitulation to some kind of political correctness, and who, if not Jesus, was the ultimate in political in-correctness? But that’s alright. Other scenes amply make up for it, especially the scene where Christ tells the parable of the prodigal son, and Peter standing in the doorway of Matthew the tax collector’s house but refusing to go in “to his blood sucking enemy” is self-consciously caught in the web of divine logic, realising that he is the older, dutiful son, that Matthew is the prodigal, and that Christ is the all-loving and all-forgiving father. The words of his Master, and His direct eye to eye look, draw Peter completely out of himself and directly to the Lord, of whom he asks forgiveness with tears in his eyes, and adds, “I’m just a stupid man.” At that moment, watching the scene my entire being dissolves as I realise, with Peter, that Christ is the Pantokrator, and I am less than nothing, and yet He loves me. Who says movies can’t be ikons?
Today is the first day of the Theotokos Fast, and it’s making me think more and more about Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, whom all generations have called blessed, even to the point of calling her the Mother of God, some going even further and calling her the All-holy, as Anthimos of Chios has, who is quoted as saying, “Our Panagia is the salvation of the whole world, she is the only mother for all Christians. She has much love for the human race, especially for sinners. Let us all run to the Panagia in every circumstance to ask her, to have her as our aid.” The title ‘Panagía’ means, all-holy.
How and why does he call her ‘all-holy’? Surely he doesn’t mean that she is a goddess. Neither did Mary die on the cross for our salvation. She is not the God-woman as Jesus is the God-man. She is still just a human being. Everything that Mary is and has is received from her Divine Son, yet she gave Him something too—her flesh—so that He could become man and be the Life of the world. There is no doubt that their lives interpenetrate in a way that no one else’s does, but Mary is simply not the mediator between man and God, not even between man and her Son, who is God.
For there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Jesus Christ, who sacrificed Himself as a ransom for them all.
1 Timothy 2:5 Jerusalem Bible
Mary of Nazareth, a Jewish girl, daughter of Joachim and Anna, a virgin of Israel living at home with her parents, but already betrothed to a man named Joseph.
New Testament apocrypha, like the Protevangelion of James, written long after the events they try to describe, have painted a very strange tale around this young woman. So strange, that the Church, though accepting some of the tale, has disposed of the rest, and even recommends that these apocrypha not be read by the average Christian. Why? We are told that everything of value that is in these ancient writings has been extracted by the Church and for the Church, so we don’t need to bother ourselves. The fact that even what the Church does accept does not square with the history or the customs of the Jewish people in the time of the 2nd Temple does not seem to matter. The hymns and ikons of the Church are simply true, because they tell the story so well.
My favorite painting of the event in salvation history called evangelismós in Greek, and ‘the annunciation’ in English, is very realistic. I know that it isn’t an ikon and I don’t pretend that it is. Nevertheless it speaks to me, and very profoundly, of the human reality of the Theotokos, Mary of Nazareth, a Jewish girl in the working class, following the commandments as befits a woman of Israel, devout, praying, believing what her parents taught her and what she sang and heard sung by the other women, conversant with the psalms as with her own heart, so much so that without premeditation she could compose and sing a new psalm after hearing her kinswoman Elizabeth greet her, “Of all women you are the most blessed…”
It is night. She is awakened and is sitting pensively on her bed, a blanket hanging between her sleeping area and the rest of the house hiding her from view. The rest of the house is in darkness, but not where she is sitting. A strange light is burning before her, emitting words. We would expect that when the bodiless power appeared, she would have retreated in fear, as she does in the film Jesus of Nazareth. But no, she sits quietly, listening. The angel (for now we know what it was, and even though we cannot see it, she can) has to tell her “Do not be afraid,” but only after he has called her ‘highly favored’ and said, “The Lord is with you.”
In what way is she favored? She trembles. How is the Lord with her? What does He want of her? When he reveals it, she says ‘yes’ to God, even though it will put her in the worst position imaginable. She is a virgin. She has never known a man. She is now pregnant. How to tell father and mother, how to tell her betrothed Joseph. What will people think?
“A virgin will bring forth a child, who will be called Immanuel, God among us…” Was she comforted by this prophecy?
In the Bible, there is only one mention of an angel coming to speak to Mary, and it is this one. But there is also another tradition that the same angel came and spoke to her at least once more (some say more than once more). The angel, whose name we have come to know as Gabriel, visited Mary when she was back in Jerusalem in her old age, still living with John, Christ’s beloved disciple, into whose care He gave His mother. The angel spoke good news to her again. It would not be good news in the ears of some, but it was to her. In just a few more days, her Divine Son would come and take her home to be with Him forever.
You would think that the evangelist John, with whom Mary lived for the remainder of her life, would have told us about her life after Christ’s ascension, that he would have written and told us about, not only the angel’s first bringing of the good news, but also the second, yet he is silent. How much he knew about her, how much he knew from her about Jesus! Yet he limits his writing of the good news to the person and words of his Lord and Master, even admitting that he was ‘barely scratching the surface,’ and that “if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written” (John 21:25). And in Christ, the same is true of Mary of Nazareth, and of every one of us who follow Him with her. The whole world could not hold all the books that could be written, but it doesn’t have to. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, but when He who is our life is revealed…
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Colossians 3:1-4 NIV
Ει ουν συνηγερθητε τω Χριστω τα ανω ζητειτε ου ο Χριστος εστιν εν δεξια του Θεου καθημενος, τα ανω φρονειτε μη τα επι της γης, απεθανετε γαρ και η ζωη υμων κεκρυπται συν τω Χριστω εν τω Θεω, οταν ο Χριστος φανερωθη η ζωη ημων τοτε και υμεις συν αυτω φανερωθησεσθε εν δοξη.