The distinguished theologian and Russian Orthodox priest Andrew Louth writes this week’s “Credo” column in the Times, provocatively titled “There’s nothing untrue in the Protevangelion’s joyful, inaccurate tales.” The column is worth reading – I think, for instance, that it has interesting and largely unexplored implications for ecumenical dialogue, and we will always have to remember that we are called to thankgiving, not “suspicion, resentment and fear.” Here is most of it:
Next Friday, September 8, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this is one of the 12 great feasts of the liturgical year. Like several other feasts of the Virgin, it draws its inspiration not from any of the canonical gospels, but from a late 2nd-century gospel, the so-called First Gospel of St James, the Protevangelion of St James.
This is one of the apocryphal gospels that attract perennial interest, often alleged to contain traditions of the “real truth of Christianity” and consequently to have been suppressed by the Church. The Protevangelion was not included in the canon of the Gospels, probably because of doubts about the historical accuracy of the stories it contained, which tell of the early life of the Blessed Virgin, from her conception by aged and barren parents, through her life in the temple, to her betrothal to Joseph and her giving birth, as a virgin, to the Son of God.
It is clearly a work of imagination; the meaning of the stories lies in their significance, not in their historical truth.
What is particularly striking about the Protevangelion is the way it associates the Virgin Mary with the Jewish Temple. In a wonderful scene, depicted unforgettably in the mosaic of the life of the Virgin in the inner narthex of Constantinople’s Church of the Chora (Kariye Camii), the six-month-old Mary is placed by her mother, Anna, on the ground, and walks seven steps towards her mother. Anna vows that Mary will no more walk on the earth until she goes to the temple. She is presented at the temple, and lives there until the age of 12, when she is betrothed to Joseph. Later she is one of the virgins chosen to weave the cloth for the veil of the temple.
Much of this is historically implausible, but its significance lies in the fact that Mary is destined to be a living temple, in which God will dwell, and that she will weave in her womb the human nature of Christ: the flesh, called in the Epistle to the Hebrews the veil (Heb. x, 20). By her “Yes” to God, the Jewish girl Mary becomes God’s dwelling place, a living temple. Or, to change the imagery, she becomes Paradise restored: as one of our Orthodox liturgical hymns puts it: “Her womb is shown to be the spiritual paradise, in which is the divine plant, eating of which we live, not like Adam who died. Christ is born, to raise up the fallen image.”
Though there are many songs and hymns about the Virgin throughout Christendom, the West has often seemed to hanker after something more definite, either dismissing devotion to Mary on historical grounds, or expressing it in terms of defined dogmas: the Immaculate Conception, or the Assumption. The Christian East has remained content with celebration in song. The most famous Byzantine hymn to the Mother of God, the Akathist, cries out to her:
Hail, you through whom joy will shine out,
Hail, you through whom the curse will cease.
Hail, recalling of fallen Adam,
Hail, redemption of the tears of Eve.
Hail, height hard to climb for human thoughts,
Hail, depth hard to scan even for angels’ eyes.
Hail, for you are a throne for the King,
Hail, for you carry the One who carries all.
There is perhaps a deeper reason behind the way the Christian East expresses its devotion to the Mother of God in song rather than in intricate theological definition. For song and celebration foster a fundamental attitude to the world and life of joy and thanksgiving. In contrast, one of the most insidious effects of sin, very evident in society today, is the way it leads to an approach to life characterised by suspicion, resentment and fear.