The preface of His All-Holiness Bartholomaios Patriarch of Constantinople which is included in the beautiful (and unfortunately difficult to find) catalogue Mother of God: Representation of the Virgin in Byzantine Art (ed. Maria Vassilaki. ISBN 9608452791) for the Benaki Museum’s 2000-2001 exhibition of the same name, would be good to read as a contribution to our understanding of the Eastern Orthodox conception of the Fall and the person and role of Mary Theotokos in relation to the redemption of our human nature. I have found it one of the most useful and concise such definitions. I love my patriarch!:
To the supplicants, beloved bothers and children of our Humbleness in the Lord, we grant grace and peace from God.
The exhibition ‘Mother of God’, mounted by the renowned Benaki Museum, over and above the fact that it brings visitors into closer touch with works of art inspired by the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, provides a pretext for profounder consideration of the Mystery of the Incarnation of God and the participation in it of Man in the person of the Theometor, Mother of God.
Following the transformation that the human mind underwent from the moment it turned aside from being in communion with God, that is, from the moment it denied love as an attracting and binding movement which makes communion with one another the reason and cause of gratification and bliss, it revolved around itself, grew selfish, lost the joy of giving and was filled with anxiety, being held fast in the grip of its self-confinement within its thoughts of self-righteousness and self-salvation. But the transcendence of individuality and the re-creation of the relationship of personal communion with another as a source of life, of the existence and of the happiness of existing in communion is impossible for him whose original social nature has been corrupted and transformed into one self-centred, for the latter necessitates the death of the former. By reason, therefore, of the rupture in Man’s loving communion with God through his own culpability, commonly known as the Fall, the restoration of this relationship through human effort is impossible.
Accordingly, just as the mind of the ancient Greek, illumined by some reflection or other of divine light, awakened, mankind would have been asleep until God would have taken the action needful to restore this relationship, that is, the action needful for the reconciliation and reconnection of the persons of the divinity and humanity through love.
However, the effecting by God of this restorative action presupposed the existence of at least one human being who would willingly respond positively to it, for love is a relationship of absolute freedom, and the response to love, the mutuality of love, is not amenable to compulsion.
All forms of love which mankind experienced after the Fall, after the rupture of this loving communion with God, were debased by a certain kind of selfishness, that is, by the lover’s anticipation of personal gain. The people of Israel loved God because God was their protector. It was inconceivable that love, instead of offering the lover certain satisfaction, should be attended by sacrifice.
The virgin maid Mary self-sacrificingly responded directly to the self-sacrificing love of God for Man in unhesitatingly accepting to bear a child without being married to another human being, thus exposing herself to death by stoning. By offering her whole being to the will of God, through transcending herself, the Virgin Mary fulfilled the presupposition of the mutuality of selfless love between God and man which made possible the Incarnation of God, that is, the perfect kenosis of Divinity through its assumption of the human form so that the love of Man for his fellow creature Christ the Man might be made more attainable and effected, since Christ has first loved us.
The Incarnation of the Word of God through the Mother of God is a great Mystery and is not explained by means of juridical intellectual categories that ignore the nature of God as love.
The approach to this Mystery can be made only within the environment of love and by thoroughly delving in its essence and characteristics.
Mankind owes infinite gratitude to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, for she opened the way of love, was an accessory to the restoration of communion between Man and God and sacrificed herself by seemingly denying her human destination. Through her Son who likewise selflessly sacrificed himself in his human nature, she became an instrument of the restoration of the communion of the love of Man and God, which was disrupted by the egocentric move of our foremother Eve towards the object that was pleasing in her human eyes.
Our admiration of the Mother of God, which has given rise to innumerable works of art inspired by her and dedicated to her, of which a considerable portion is recorded in the catalogue in your hands, is an admiration for the selfless and sacrificial love that allowed the love of God to be incarnated, to assume human nature, to suffer, to be sacrificed, and by way of selfless and sacrificial love to elevate Man close to the throne of perfect love of God in heaven. This signifies that he restored the existence and life in loving communion with the Supreme Person, for personal life in individual existence confined within itself is inconceivable. Personal life presupposes that other person and personal communion with that person.
A large part of mankind continues even today to live a self-centred existence. Human relations are built upon a utilitarian foundation. The ‘I’ is secured in a variety of ways from all danger of being sacrificed, of being offered to the ‘you.’ In this manner, the individual does not exist as a person, as a being capable of existing in communion and in a relationship of selfless love with another person.
The Mother of God opened the way to the Incarnation of God and to the re-attainment of this relationship which was the original relationship of the first human couple with God. It rests with each one of us to tread in selfless love the already opened road of the new life which is the life of the Deity, or to remain within the confines of egocentric selfishness that constitutes the death of the human person as a person.
May we discover, through the love of the Mother of God, the selfless, giving, sacrificial and binding love that is life, joy, blessedness and the restoration of the human person in personal existence in communion, which is the only true human existential condition.
2 September, indiction 8, 2000