I hear this, all you nations, and take heed, all you inhabitants of the earth (cf. Isa 34.1)! Come all believers and gather all lovers of God, kigns of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth, boys and girls, the old with the young, every tongue and every soul, let us hymn, praise, and glorify the all-holy, immaculate, and most blessed Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,the throne of the king more exalted than the cherubim and the seraphim,the mother of Christ our God,the city of God of which glorious things are spoken (cf. Ps 86.3),chosen before the ages by the ineffable forethought of God,the temple of the Holy Spirit,the source of the living water,the Paradise of the tree of life,the growing vine from which drink of immortality was brought forth,the river of the living water,the ark that contained the uncontainable,the urn of gold that received the manna of immortality (cf. Heb 9.4),the unsown valley that sprouted forth the wheat of life,the flower of virginity, full of the perfume of grace,the lily of divine beauty,the virgin and mother from whom was born the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,the treasure house of our salvation that is more exalted than all the powers of heaven. (pp. 36-37)
Summary: The tale told in the Life is known in its general outline, but it's worthwhile to go through it step by step. Our sense of the life of the Virgin is partly from Scripture, partly from Christmas pageant, partly from our suppositions about what things must have been life, and many extrapolations, some reasonable and some just to make the story; the author of the Life, traditionally thought to be St. Maximus, is getting his account from prophecy (much more than we do), from the Gospels, from the traditions associated with the relics of the Virgin Mary, from comments by the Church Fathers (he explicitly notes he only uses apocryphal and legendary sources when he has some basis for doing so in the Fathers), and his extrapolations are sometimes different from ours, and sometimes just as reasonable or interesting. It is good, in any case, to see the same tale told a different way.
Mary is born to Joachim (of the tribe of Judah and house of David) and Anna (of the tribe of Levi), who were growing old and yet had no children (ch. 3). They prayed, and their prayer was answered, with Joachim hearing a voice in the Temple saying he would receive a child glorious not merely for them but for the whole world, and Anna being met by an angel who tells her, "God has heard your prayer and you will give birth to the cause of joy, and you will name her Mary, through whom the salvation of the entire world will come into being" (p. 39). So was Mary born, and when she was three years old, her parents "brought the Temple of God to the Temple" (p. 39), where she was dedicated to be one of the maidens who assisted the Temple, which was prophesied in Psalm 44 (ch. 7-9; it's Psalm 45 in most Western numberings). At the age of twelve, she had a foreshadowing of the Annunciation when she was praying in front of the doors of the Temple (ch. 14). A great light shone around, and she heard a voice from the sanctuary saying, "Mary, from you my Son will be born" (p. 46). Shortly after, she entered the next phase of her life; by custom, women were not allowed to be continually present in assisting at the Temple beyond this age. However, she was under a vow of virginity. Therefore, on the recommendation of her relative Zechariah, a priest who was husband to her cousin Elizabeth, she was betrothed to an elderly man of excellent reputation, Joseph, who could be trusted to protect her and not to take advantage of her (ch. 16). He was seventy, of good family and reputation, but poor in material possessions, being a carpenter famous for his selfless good works, and he took her to his residence in Nazareth (ch. 17). There she became teacher of his family, and their house was a house of prayer.
Not long afterward, the angel announced the conception of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth. And in the sixth month after this, the archangel Gabriel came to Mary in Nazareth as she stood in morning prayer beside a fountain (ch. 19). He declared to her that she was favored, for the Lord was with her; that she was blessed among women; that she would conceive a Son and call him Jesus, to whom the Lord would give the throne of David, so that he would reign forever with a kingdom without end. She was greatly troubled by this, but not by the angel himself, although she did not "naively accept the message right away" (p. 52); rather she was worried that the message of the angel meant that her vow of virginity would be broken (ch. 23-24). But the angel reassured her that it would be accomplished not by her act but by the power of the Holy Spirit. She kept the angel's revelation to herself, and revealed the message to no one for a long time afterward. Instead, she went to the house of Elizabeth, "whom she imitated in virtuous deeds" (p. 57).When she reached Elizabeth's house and Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, Elizabeth's child, John the Baptist, prophet from the womb, leaped in greeting at the coming of the Mother of the Lord, and thus Elizabeth and John, mother and child, prophesied together of the blessedness of the Virgin (ch. 25). Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months, "because after the death of the holy Virgin's parents, she saw Elizabeth in the place of her mother" (p. 60).
When she returned to the house of Joseph, Joseph soon recognized her to be pregnant; "he could hardly bear it" and "he was filled with sadness" (p. 61). Being a just man, he came up with a plan to handle the scandalous matter in a way that would harm Mary least, but an angel appeared to him, and calmed his fears. In those days a census went forth from Caesar Augustus; this census is symbolic of a higher census, that of the kingdom of heaven (ch. 32). According to the census, people should register in their hometown; but while Joseph lived in Nazareth for purposes of work, he had been born in Bethlehem, where all his family lived. Because Bethlehem was crowded, the normal places to stay were unavailable, so they had to spend a night in a cave where animals were ordinarily kept. And there was born the Word of God, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger (ch. 33). Elizabeth was in attendance. Angels brought shepherds to the cave. And Mary pondered in her heart all of the things that had happened to her.
Magi came from the east following a star that had already been long guiding them, stopping and starting and descending as appropriate, thus showing that it was not an astronomical event but a rational being (ch. 36). They came from to Jerusalem to ask about the newborn king, a question that did not please Herod, who was already paranoid that his wife and his brother were scheming to take his throne. But the Magi soon enough came to Bethlehem to stand before the newborn infant and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh "as to a king and God" (p. 69). The Magi returned to their own lands, being warned in a dream not to inform Herod of the child's location. The child was presented in the Temple according to the Jewish law, and there was recognized by the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna; Simeon warned her that her soul would be pierced as by a sword.
In the meantime, Herod intended to murder members of his family whom he thought a threat to his throne, and to do so without suffering the wrath of Rome, he had to make his way first to Rome in order to make his case before the emperor. When he returned, he strangled his sons, and, remembering the questions of the Magi again, began to reflect on a wider possible threat to his power. Almost two years had passed since the questions of the Magi, so he had slaughtered all children two years and younger. Because of this, Joseph, Mary, and the child fled into Egypt, only returning to Nazareth after about two more years (ch. 55). When Jesus was twelve, they went down to Jerusalem, where Jesus was separated from them; after days of searching, they found him in the Temple listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Then Jesus, in his first divinely inspired teaching, said to them, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (p. 89).
The ministry of Jesus began when Jesus was thirty years old, and his cousin John a little older. The latter was living the wilderness, preaching repentance and the baptism of repentance to the people, who were amazed at his asceticism. Jesus came to John to be baptized, despite John's recognition that he did not require it, and then Jesus went into the desert to be tempted. Afterward, he began to gather his disciples, first Andrew and John (the evangelist), who had been disciples of his cousin, and then others. And they all went to a wedding in Cana, which Mary also attended. When they ran out of wine, she made known the situation to her son, and although her son was modest and humble, he honored her and complied with her wishes, performing his first miracle by changing water into wine (ch. 68). Shortly afterward, he healed Peter's mother-in-law. The result of these and other early miracles was that more disciples began to gather around him, including women, and Mary would become the leader of these women and their ministry to Christ. "And she held authority: as the Lord did over the twelve disciples and then the seventy, so did the holy mother over the other women who accompanied him" (p.102). At the passover before his death, as Jesus showed the mysteries to the twelve disciples, he gave to his mother the care of the women who attended him, "and she encouraged them and was his surrogate in their labor and ministry" (p. 102). As Peter was chief among the disciples, Mary Magdalene was chief among the women who were guided by the Virgin.
Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples and seized by his authority, and unjustly condemned to crucifixion. All of the disciples abandoned him, some by fleeing outright, some by following but only 'at a distance', but the Virgin Mary alone remained with her son through all things (ch. 75), and indeed, she is the source of much of what we know about the Lord's passion (ch. 76). When she was forcibly separated, she nonetheless did not cease to try to find out what was happening. And so she was aware of all of the suffering of Jesus, which pierced her soul like a sword. And when he was nailed to the cross, she was at his feet, grieving. The disciple John, the evangelist, joined her, and in one of his final acts, he gave her to John to be his mother, and him to Mary to be her son, thus showing that we should care for our parents until death.
After the death of Jesus, Mary began immediately to organize the affair of his burial, finding an appropriate tomb, which belonged to Joseph of Arimathea; she asked him to use his influence to request of Pilate that the body be delivered to her. Then Joseph, a secret disciple of Jesus, was strengthened in courage by the words of Mary and helped her to retrieve the body and bury it, along with two other women named Mary who had joined the Virgin at the Cross, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. Jesus was laid in the tomb, but because of the Sabbath, the funereal preparations could not be completed. The tomb was then sealed by order of Pilate, and the two Marys went away, to return later with the perfumes needed to complete the preparations; but the Virgin Mary remained by the tomb, and thus saw the events surrounding the Resurrection of her son, a fact hinted at in prophecy but not explicitly stated by the evangelists, who were more concerned with confirming the event by other witnesses (ch. 92). St. John, taking seriously the trust Christ had given him on the cross, bought the Virgin a house in Jerusalem where they could both stay, and it was in this house that Jesus manifested himself to his disciples (ch. 93). Mary was with the disciples when Jesus ascended, and afterward, "the holy mother of Christ was the model and leader of every good activity for men and for women through the grace and support of her glorious king and son" (p. 121). She instructed the apostles in fasting and prayer, and on the fiftieth day, when the grace of the Holy Spirit fell like fire from heaven, she was there with them.
Mary sends the disciples out to preach, while remaining in Jerusalem herself, where she could pray at the tomb from which her son had risen. And as she had shared mentally in the Passion of her son, she shared mentally in the sufferings of the disciples preaching in his name (ch. 97), organizing prayer for them whenever they were thrown into prison or harmed. however, she was not wholly satisfied with this, particularly since John stayed with her, and she felt that she was holding him back. So she decided they would both go out into the world to preach, along with Mary Magdalene and the other women. As she was on the road, however, Jesus appeared to her in a vision and told her to return; John and the women should continue, but his mother was to remain for a while in Jerusalem "so that she would lead the believing people and direct the church in Jerusalem with James the brother of the Lord who was appointed as bishop there" (p.125). John went on with the women to Ephesus, where he and they preached the gospel, the women becoming co-apostles with him. And through all the sufferings of all of those going forth, the Virgin suffered with them and interceded for them with her son; at one point the enemies of the Church even tried to burn down her house, although it backfired on them and that put a quick end to that. And the apostles would return, when they could, to celebrate Easter each year with her.
The time came when the end of the Virgin's time on earth drew near, and the archangel Gabriel was sent to her again, giving a date palm branch as a symbol of victory over death, to let her know that she would brought into heaven, as predicted in Psalm 44 (ch. 103). (This was the same psalm that we saw in the Presentation, and not accidentally, because the Presentation foreshadowed her Dormition.) Rejoicing, she went to pray at the Mount of Olives, and as she prayed, all the trees bowed down before her, and when she returned St. John was brought by the Lord to her. She showed him and all the women the date palm branch, and they began to prepare for her falling asleep in the Lord. From every corner of the world, the apostles began to return to pay their respects, and she taught them how they should proceed and gave her blessing to them. Then Christ with his angels manifested before them, and as the angels sang songs of praise, the holy mother died a painless death, and Christ took her soul to heaven (ch. 110). The apostles prepared her body according to her instructions, with St. Peter as head of the apostles leading the funeral prayer, and they processed through the streets to lay her body in the grave. Some of the enemies of the Church attempted to cast down the bed on which her body was being carried, but when they did so, their hands were struck with terrible wounds. They begged for mercy, and Peter healed them, and there was no more disruption (ch. 114). Then they laid the Virgin's body in the tomb she had laid her son, and the tomb was sealed, and they visited the tomb for three days. But St. Thomas, who had the farthest to go, his mission being in India, arrived late; so they opened the tomb so he could see her one last time. But there was no body in the tomb (ch. 117).
The Virgin, being poor and devoting most of her resources to the poor, had only two garments. One she entrusted to a woman who had attended her, and it eventually came to the city of Constantinople in the reign of the Emperor Leo, through the devotion to the Virgin displayed by two noblemen, Galbius and Candidus (ch. 119-124). Thus we see that the Virgin continues her care for the Church.
One of the very notable things about this whole story is how extraordinarily active the Virgin Mary is; the tale presents her as a constant and very active presence. What is more, she is in the Life a very authoritative presence; she organizes a great deal of the ministry of Christ, and is the primary mover of the expansion of the Church, a still small point around which the entire Church revolves. She never pushes her way in, but she has a way about her that leads to her teaching, organizing, influencing others to do better and be better. And, of course, all of her earthly ministry is a sort of picture of the way the author thinks her heavenly ministry is; the tale has almost all of the components of modern Marian devotion, although not always linked in exactly the way they often are today.
Favorite Passage: From the Dormition:
Such a blessing and teaching she spoke to them according to her glory, and she explained to them the rites of anointing her with myrrh and her burial. And she extended her hands and began to give thanks to the Lord and said:"I bless you, O king and only-begotten Son of the beginningless Father, true God of true God, who constented to become incarnate from me, your handmaid, through the incalculable, philanthropic good will of the Father and the assistance of the Holy Spirit."I bless you, the giver of every blessing, who spread forth light."I bless you, the source of very life of goodness and peace, who bestow on us knowledge of yourself and of your beginningless Father and of the co-beginningless and life-giving Holy Spirit."I bless you, who were ineffably pleased to dwell in my womb."I bless you, who so loved human nature that you endured crucifixion and death for our sake, and by your Resurrection you resurrected our nature from the depths of Hell, and led it up to heaven and glorified it with an incomprehensible glory."I bless you and glorify your words, which you have given us in truth, and I believe that all the things that you have said to me will be fulfilled." (pp. 133-134)
Maximus the Confessor, The Life of the Virgin, Stephen J. Shoemaker, tr., Yale UP (New Haven: 2012).