The festivals of Mary were a continually maturing tradition in the early Middle Ages and early Christianity in general but in the East especially the pull of Marian observance was strong. Between Andrew of Crete and Germanus of Constantinople, Mary’s image as not only theotokos but also as the way to interpret liturgy was explored in further depth than just fulfillment. Both do show how her lineage, heritage, and purity are ways in which she was the only choice for mother of the Word, but there also lies the fact that she is the only way, past or present, to view the Word. Whether that be the Word as scripture or as God himself, there is a sense of her becoming the only light to display the truth of both.
In the Old Testament tradition, to look upon God’s face, in his truest form, was surely a sign of either death or of an upcoming career as prophet, father of faith, or covenant. Countless stories are within the Hebrew Bible that describe death as the ultimate outcome of contact with God but Mary is where this interpretation is able to change. The image and reality of God can be seen without fear. On page 119 of Wider than Heaven, Andrew of Crete uses the colorful language of casting the veil away and this implies just that scene of God’s image no longer being prohibited by fear and by law. He can be seen within his own creation, in his own “Imago dei” and so no longer does the ark need to be separated from the world outside by the royal, sacred veil of the temple.
God is emerging from the temple and tearing down the veil, imagery that could be connected directly to Mary. Mary as the temple gives birth to Jesus who brings the divine into the world by becoming one with the world. Germanus of Constantinople also uses this temple ideal when he has Gabriel the angel say that Mary, the god-bearer, will “become a universal source of propitiation” which in essence describes the seat of the ark (233). Just like the throne would be for the descendant of David, Mary is not only the propagator for the Davidic covenant to be achieved but herself becomes the seat of a royal and divine king.
The feasts in which Germanus and Andrew are celebrating refer to the fulfillment of this aspect of the faith and this aspect of the tabernacle coming to fruition on earth by this most blessed woman. They show that she is not just pure but that she has a mind for the truth of God, and “ponders” not only about her role but about all of scripture as Andrew of Crete had described her. These dialogues by both authors help create the image of an alive Mary in the moments of being introduced to motherhood by Gabriel, of conception, and of becoming the light to humanity. Just as the festivals were celebrating these events of Nativity, Annunciation, and Dormition of the Virgin, the virgin herself is living these out through the liturgy.
The repetition of the past, the repetition of the scriptures throughout the years show how these theological ideas are not common sense. Icons, relics, and art become important ways for the common, especially illiterate, Christian populace was to understand the scripture and come to familiarity with the particularities of the faith. Still, even with physical depictions, there is need to ponder and to study these scenes for full understanding and edification of what that means for the individual believer and the whole of humanity.
This need to ruminate as is suggested by both authors is not for just the community at large but also for those who were creating policy as well as the religious leaders. During their lifetimes, the issues of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire and the East in general were rampant and so both Andrew of Crete and Germanus of Constantinople needed to impress through their homilies that the image of Mary and Christ can be given through words as well as art. These images of the virgin and her child in particular are key to understanding the doctrines of the church and to understand these, theologians must be able to make these key people come back to life just as the liturgical calendar brings the stories back to life and back into the present. While Germanus of Constantinople is discussing the doubt that Mary is feeling about this conception upon first hearing the news, he is also saying that it is happening at present within each and every believer and in the present time. Temporal laws no longer needed to hold the Word from his people nor his mother from their presence.
Andrew of Crete and Germanus of Constantinople had to deal with discussing Mary as not only a mother, not only a virgin, but as theotokos and mother of Jesus in the material world they knew. To explain this idea to their congregations and to the many who went to the festivals was to preach to not only the Greek or Byzantine audiences but to delve further into the Middle East and create characteristics of Mary. Smart, thoughtful, deliberate, bold, and faithful was the Mary they presented as not only the mother of God but the one who could illuminate the scriptures, an important part of their daily lives and faith.
-- A. Graff