The quality of strength is frequently viewed as something we develop by—and for—ourselves. In our culture, strength projects a sense of power. It is easy to come across familiar examples—world-class athletes, high-powered executives or influential politicians, to name a few. Strength can be exerted in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes, both good and bad. Many of us, too, aim to be strong of body, mind or in holding credentials. And when our goals have been reached, we are frequently credited as having reached them as a result of exuding some aspect of strength.
With today’s common perceptions of what qualifies for being “strong,” we might be somewhat surprised to find an extraordinary example from a certain young girl from antiquity—one who was likely just a teenager. That is, however, exactly what we see when we look at the life of the Theotokos—strength in its most noble form. Hers is a strength that is at once subtle and obvious, derived from a complete surrender to God. As we endeavor to be attentive to God as Orthodox Christians, what are some of the strongest character traits of the Theotokos?
Humility and Obedience
Holy Scripture tells us the Archangel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary with the news that she would bear Jesus Christ. It is important to note that despite the announcement of the mystical birth, it was not confirmed until the Theotokos bravely accepted, saying, “Behold, the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). We have heard this quotation frequently, and we are quite possibly prone to miss what an astonishing proposition this was. Unwed women found pregnant weren’t just the subjects of vicious neighborhood gossip, but rather they were subject to death by stoning. Whatever doubt or fear she likely felt in that moment, her holy life had prepared her to accept God’s will.
St. John Climacus writes, “Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, an unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness.” As we look toward the Theotokos as a model of humility and obedience—virtues we would desire to model for our children—we could consider the following questions:
- Are we really prepared to “bury” our pride so that we may humble ourselves before the Lord? Obedience to God means our will coincides with His. What does that look like as a daily practice?
- To whom are we obedient? Do we have a spiritual father or mother to help us in our journey as we strive for faithfulness to Christ and His Church?
Love and Sacrifice
On Holy Thursday evening (the Matins of Holy Friday) we see the crucified Christ processed in our parishes. We hear the hymnography, “Today is hung upon the Cross, He Who suspended the Earth amid the waters.” This is God’s love for His people—this is the ultimate sacrifice. And when we look at the foot of the cross, we also see the mother of Jesus with a heart that is weeping. She is watching her sinless Son die in the most horrific manner. In her love, she trusts in God’s providence. Love involves sacrifice and often pain. But rooted in the source of love—God as Holy Trinity—that sacrifice and pain is transformed.
Patriarch Athenagoras said, “Only by love can we glorify the God of love, only by giving and sharing and sacrificing oneself can one glorify the God who, to save us, sacrificed himself and went to death, the death of the cross.” As we look toward the Theotokos as a model for true love and Christ as the source, we should consider the following questions:
- How do we love when it is difficult to do so?
- How do we regularly connect with the source of love: God Himself?
We should convey to our children that true strength and power don’t derive from physical or intellectual achievements but from steadfastness in God with all things. This is a critical message for them in a society that is becoming increasingly self-absorbed. In the Epistle to the Philippians we read, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13). Christ is our strength! Here are some suggestions to encourage strength in our families:
- Pray individually, and as a family, for spiritual strength and stamina. And there is nothing wrong with having capacities of physical and intellectual strength or authority—as long as they are applied to serve godly needs.
- Look up the words strength and strong in your Bible’s concordance and find passages related to godly strength. Also, see where the words humility, obedience, love and sacrifice occur for broader connections to strength.
- Familiarize yourself with the New Testament passages mentioning the Theotokos and look up other commentaries on her.
- Read from the lives of various saints. We can draw great strength from their faithful witness, emboldening us to live truly Christian lives within our own set of circumstances.
- Make a strength collage. Contrast images of worldly strength from ones derived from God.
- Share with your family circumstances, big and small, from your life that took strength of faith.
Especially remember to look to the mother of all Christians, the Theotokos, for her wondrous example of sublime strength. As we pray in the Akathist Hymn:
Rejoice, the Church’s unshakeable tower;
Rejoice, the kingdom’s unassailable fortress..
Rejoice, through whom trophies of victory are raised;
Rejoice, through whom enemies are defeated.
Rejoice, healing of my body;
Rejoice, my soul’s salvation.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.
Melissa Tsongranis is the associate director of the Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. She and her husband, George, live in Tarpon Springs, Florida, with their son, Nomikos.
This article originally appeared in PRAXIS Volume 17: Issue 2, “Women in the Church.” To learn more about PRAXIS, including how to subscribe, visit praxis.goarch.org.