One of the deeply fascinating aspects of Orthodoxy theology is how everything is interconnected. Orthodox theology is a grand tapestry where the many threads are all woven together to reveal the glorious image of the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ; or to use the language of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the many jewels which fit together to form the image of the King. The knowledge of the interconnectedness of Orthodox theology is fundamental to understand when approaching of the theological and dogmatic positions of the Church. While the theology of the Church is primarily drawn from the bottomless wells of the Holy Scriptures it is also expressed through the language of the Church Fathers, ecclesiastical hymnography, and iconography; none of which contradict the content of Holy Scripture but rather drawn out theological truths from the Scriptures. This means that some of the theological positions and dogmatic statements of the Church are expressed in ways that are not directly expressed in Holy Scripture but nonetheless are the result of the way the Church reads Holy Scripture. This is the case especially in the way the Church approaches and understands who the Virgin Mary is and what her role is in the economy of salvation and the continuing life of the Church. The Orthodox Church fully affirms her ever-virginity, her intercessory role, and her place as the Mother of God (or Theotokos in Greek). While none of these statements are made directly they are nonetheless necessary conclusions based on the typological and thematic reading of the Holy Scriptures; as taught by the Apostles (as is evident within the writings of the New Testament) and by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (see Lk. 24:27). The case I will be presenting is that according to the typological reading of Scripture, the patristic, hymnographic, and iconographic traditions of the Church we see in Mary an image of the eschatological creation; creation filled with the glory of God responding is praise and thanksgiving. When observing the connections made between Pentecost and the formation of the Church, the eschatological age and the transfiguration of creation, the burning bush, and Mary what becomes clear is that the future eschatological life of the Kingdom of Heaven is implemented in the Church, thus the gift of the Spirit and the formation of the Church constitute the beginning of the eschatological age. Both events of Pentecost and the transfigured cosmos are typified in the burning bush seen by Moses in the book of Exodus. Another typological reading of the burning bush is seeing it as an image and anticipation of the indwelling of the Word of God within the womb of Mary. Orthodox tradition has already seen in the expectant Mary an image of the Church bearing Christ and when we connect the eschatological dimensions of the burning bush and Pentecost with Mary we see in the face of Mary a personal image of the new creation.
Pentecost and the Eschaton:
The foundational event for the book of Acts is indisputably the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus at the feast of Pentecost. Acts 2 gives describes for us how the Holy Spirit descends upon the company of the disciples in the form of tongues of fire, the initial preaching of the Apostles in a multitude of tongues, the reaction of the crowds, and Peter’s first sermon. From the very first words of Peter it becomes clear that he understands the preceding event of the outpoured Spirit as a sign that the eschatological age has begun by quoting the prophet Joel, “and in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28 & Acts 2:17). The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is the fundamental event of the implementation of Christ’s Kingdom following His ascension. While the Kingdom comes in the Person of Jesus Christ it’s extension to the rest of creation begins at Pentecost. The work of the Spirit in Pentecost takes the company of Jesus’ disciples and forms them into a new community, identified throughout the New Testament as the body of Christ. The Spirit formed community of the Church made up of people from all the nations and all cultural groups anticipates the future coming of Christ in glory when the Spirit of God will raise the dead and transform the faithful members of the Church, and all the natural elements of creation, into the glorious likeness of Christ, as Fr. Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “Pentecost’s fiery tongues become the flame of the world fire, not consuming but transmuting the world. This figure represents a hieroglyph of the cosmic Pentecost.”[i][ii] Pentecost constitutes the incorporation of the disciples of Jesus into the eschatological age which looks forward to its consummation and completion at the second coming of Christ when the event of Pentecost will be universalized.
Pentecost and the Burning Bush:
The Church is the seed of the new creation in the midst of the old creation by virtue of the indwelling Spirit, through Whom the Light of the age to come is manifest throughout the world. The image of the tongues of fire resting upon the heads of the disciples draws a connection to the burning bush seen by Moses in the book of Exodus. In the Gospel of John, within Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, Jesus describes Himself as the true vine and His disciples as branches shooting out from the vine (Jn. 15:5). The image of Pentecost is therefore an image of the fiery indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the branches of the Church; and image which echoes the burning bush. The burning bush, being filled with fire and yet not consumed; out of which the message of deliverance and salvation is announced to Israel, typifies the Pentecostal Church; the fiery branches out of which the deliverance and salvation of Israel and the whole world in Christ is announced. The image of the burning bush is also, according to David Bentley Hart, an “eschatological motif of the redeemed cosmos…: pervaded by the divine glory, but unconsumed—an infinitely realized theophany.”[iii] The divine fire within the bush anticipates both the indwelling Spirit within the Church and the pervading glory of Christ within the entire cosmos in the age to come.
Mary and the Burning Bush:
Another dimension of the Orthodox Church’s typological understanding of the burning bush is seeing in it an anticipation of Mary bearing within her womb the Word of God. This is demonstrated most clearly in the iconographic depiction of the burning bush which features the image of the “Theotokos of the Sign” within the burning bush. This iconographic interpretation of the text is rooted within patristic Mariology, as testified by St. Gregory of Nyssa, “This also symbolizes [the burning bush] the mystery of the Virgin, from whom came the divine light that shone upon the world without damaging the bush from which it emanated or allowing the virgin shoot to wither.”[iv] The Church herself likewise testifies to the typological connection between the burning bush and Mary in her hymnography. The Kontakion for the feast of the icon of the “Theotokos the Unburnt Bush” reads, “You showed Moses, O Christ God, an image of your most pure Mother in the bush that burned yet was not consumed, for she herself was not consumed, when she received in her womb the fire of divinity! She remained incorrupt after her pure childbearing! By her prayers, O greatly merciful One, deliver us from the flame of passions, and preserve your people from all harm!”[v] The hymnography recognizes a correlation between the bush that held that divine flame and the womb of Mary that held the fire of divinity; since as the book of Hebrews declares, “God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
Mary the Image of the Church:
What emerges is an intimate connection between the Pentecostal Church, the Eschatological Creation, and the person of Mary through their anti-typical relationship with the burning bush. Moving forward we come to the conclusion that the Word bearing Mary is an anticipation and image of the Spirit bearing Church at Pentecost. Just as the Spirit overshadows Mary, taking her flesh and blood and forming the body of Christ within her womb, so at Pentecost the Spirit descends upon, or to use Mariological language “overshadows”, the Church, taking the flesh and blood of the disciples and forming them into the ecclesial body of Christ. This indication of Mary as a personification of the Church has been recognized by the Orthodox Church, as Vladimir Lossky wrote, “if we consider St. Paul’s image of the union of Christ and His Church – the image of the union of the bride and the bridegroom – it would appear that Christ is the head of His body, head of the Church, in the same sense in which the husband is the head of the single, unique body of the man and the woman in marriage (Eph. 5:31). In this mysterious union…the one body, the nature common to two persons, receives the hypostasis of the Bridegroom: the Church is ‘the Church of Christ’. But it does not cease to be the other person in this union, subjected to the Bridegroom, distinct from His as bride…the question must need arise – who is this other person, this person of the Church, distinct from the person of her Head? Who is the bride in this union ‘in one flesh’? What is the Church’s own hypostasis?…this person is Mary, the Mother of God…who is herself the first-fruits of the glorified Church.”[vi]
Mary as the Face of the Eschatological Creation:
All of this leads us to the recognition that Mary is herself not only an anti-type of the burning bush, not only the image of the Church, but is herself the personification of the eschatological creation. At the end of our present age the Lord of Glory will enter into His creation, just as He entered secretly into His creation as He was conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit, though what began in secret will conclude in public. The glorified Christ will fill all of creation with His divine glory through the transfiguring operation of the Holy Spirit just as He filled the womb of Mary with His glory through hidden operation of the Spirit. The coming of the glorified Christ completes the union of heaven and earth into a new creation just as the womb of the Virgin became the place where heaven and earth first reunited and became, as the Orthodox hymn sings, a “spiritual paradise” and “more spacious than the heavens.”[vii] The womb of Mary thus became the embryo of the glorified creation, anticipating the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the formation of the body of Christ, the Church, within the upper room which looks forward until the glorious return of Christ where the inner life of the Church, the life of the glorified Christ in the Spirit, will embrace and transfigure all of creation, filling it all with the eternal glory of Christ. The eschatological age is in one sense the “Churchification” of creation, since the life of the Church in the Spirit experienced now in part will become universalized, and in another very real sense the “Mariolization” of the whole creation, where the life of the Virgin – being the receptacle and bearer of Christ – will become the cosmic experience.
[ii] Quoted by Fr. Aiden Kimel in https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/parousia-and-the-glorification-of-the-cosmos/
[vi] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1997, p. 192-195.