18 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
40, 18 June 2024

In the icon of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary in the first tier in new iconostasis in Stony Stratford, she is holding the Christ Child in her arms, and above her head are the Greek initials ΜΡ ΘΥ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III, 16 June 2024). Today the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the life and witness of Bernard Mizeki (1896), Apostle of the MaShona and Martyr in Zimbabwe.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, with the central doors open during the Divine Liturgy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 5: 43-48 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The icon of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left of the Beautiful Gates in the new iconostasis in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 3: The Theotokos (Virgin Mary):

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

In the icon of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary in the first tier in new iconostasis in Stony Stratford, beside the Beautiful Gates, she is holding the Christ Child in her arms. Above her head are the Greek initials ΜΡ ΘΥ.

Theotokos (Θεοτόκος) is the title of the Virgin Mary used in Eastern Christianity. Familiar English renditions include Mother of God or God-bearer, although these both have literal equivalents in Greek, Μήτηρ Θεοῦ (‘Who gave birth to one who was God’) and Θεοφόρος (‘Whose child was God’).

English lacks a satisfactory equivalent of the Greek τόκος (tókos, childbirth, parturition, offspring). A close paraphrase of Theotokos might be ‘she whose offspring is God’ or ‘she who gave birth to one who was God.’ So, the title is often left untranslated as Theotokos in Orthodox liturgical usage in other languages.

The Council of Ephesus in 431 decreed that Mary is the Theotokos because her son Jesus is both God and man: one divine person from two natures (divine and human) intimately and hypostatically united.

Theotokos is also used as the term for an Orthodox icon or type of icon of the Mother with the Christ Child, as in the icon in the iconostasis in Stony Stratford.

In an abbreviated form, ΜΡ ΘΥ is often is found on icons, where it is used to identify Mary.

Theologically, terms such as Mother of God or Mother of the Incarnate God do not imply that Mary is the source of the divine nature of Jesus. Within the Orthodox tradition, Mother of God has not been understood, nor been intended to be understood, as referring to Mary as the Mother of God from eternity but only with reference to the birth of Jesus.

The status of Mary as Theotokos was a topic of theological dispute in the 4th and 5th centuries and was the subject of the decree of the Council of Ephesus of 431 to the effect that, in opposition to those who denied Mary the title Theotokos (‘the one who gives birth to God’) but called her Christotokos (‘the one who gives birth to Christ’), Mary is Theotokos because her son Jesus is one person who is both God and man, divine and human.

This decree was followed by the Nestorian schism. Nestorius, then Patriarch of Constantinople, argued that the divine and human natures of Christ were distinct, and while Mary is the Christotokos (bearer of Christ), it could be misleading to describe her as the ‘bearer of God’. At issue is the interpretation of the Incarnation, and the nature of the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures between Christ’s conception and birth.

The opponents of Nestorius, led by Cyril of Alexandria, viewed his argument as dividing Jesus into two distinct persons, the human who was Son of Mary, and the divine who was not. To them, this was unacceptable since by destroying the perfect union of the divine and human natures in Christ, it sabotaged the fullness of the Incarnation and, by extension, the salvation of humanity. The council accepted Cyril’s reasoning and affirmed the title Theotokos for Mary.

The title Theotokos is often used in hymns to Mary in the Orthodox churches. The most common is Axion Estin (‘It is truly meet’), and it is used in almost every service.

Lutheran tradition retained the title of Mother of God, a term already embraced by Martin Luther. It is officially confessed in the Formula of Concord (1577) and accepted by the Lutheran World Federation.

The three icons to the left on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict (from left) the Dormition, Saint Stylianos and the Theotokos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 18 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Windrush Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with reflections by the Right Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (18 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Let us pray that all are truly welcomed and recognised in our churches – in word and deed to play a full part in the life of the Church.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Additional Collect:

God our saviour,
look on this wounded world
in pity and in power;
hold us fast to your promises of peace
won for us by your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Saturday’s introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

An icon in the porch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The new candle stall in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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