In most Orthodox churches, the image of the Mother of God towers over us—sometimes literally, as her icon fills the upper apse of the church temple, proclaiming there how she united heaven and earth by her willing assent to the Incarnation of the divine Messiah. In all her icons, she is a majestic figure—regal, composed, serene. Many icons of the Annunciation portray her as seated on a throne, and with a small footstool, as befits royalty. In all her images, she is a person of power.
This is as it should be, since icons portray the eschatological reality, and present not a naturalistic perspective, but a heavenly, hieratic one. An icon is not a painted photo or a portrait, but a proclamation of the person’s heavenly glory. Thus, it is appropriate that Mary of Nazareth be presented as exalted by God to a place “more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.”
But these heavenly images of her present power should not blind us to the low degree and powerlessness that she had while she lived and walked in Palestine. At the time of the Annunciation, Mary was not a person of power, but a simple peasant girl in a small town in Galilee, far from the halls of the mighty in Jerusalem and further afield in Rome, and unconnected with the movers and shakers of the world. It would be hard to exaggerate her powerlessness as far as this world was concerned. She was a member of a despised race, the Jews, a nation that had lost the last bit of its national sovereignty when the Romans took over in 63 BC. In a world that respected age, she was young; in a culture that valued marriage, she was single; in a society that revered wealth, she was poor. She lived in Galilee, derisively called “Galilee of the Gentiles” by those in Judea, and the town of Nazareth was looked down upon even by others in Galilee. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was a proverbial taunt uttered by Jews in neighbouring Cana (John 1:46). And we must remember that at the time of the Annunciation she was of the usual marriageable age—that is, about thirteen years old.
Later, loving devotion would adorn her story with other details, like tinsel on a beloved Christmas tree. The so-called Protoevangelium of James, written in the second century as a kind of devotional attempt to fill in the blanks of her life, supplies a number of biographical details not strictly historical. But the sober history of the Gospel preserves a picture of what we might expect—a young girl, unknown and poor, coming face to face one day with the eternal and the incalculable. Saint Luke’s Gospel presents her as a young girl “betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph,” and when the angel Gabriel informed her that she had been chosen to bear the Messiah and was about to conceive Him, she was naturally “greatly troubled,” asking how this was possible since she had “never known a man” (Luke 1:27f). When it came time to offer the sacrifice required from those who had given birth, she and Joseph offered “the sacrifice of the poor” — two young pigeons (Leviticus 12:8, Luke 2:24). Neither does Saint Matthew’s Gospel present her as a celebrity: when Joseph receives news of her pregnancy, he considers divorcing her quietly (Matthew 1:18f). In neither of these accounts is Mary presented as famous or rich and powerful. And later in our Lord’s ministry, when people stumbled at His claims, they invoked His family with no suggestion that they were special: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (Matthew 13:55f). It is clear enough from the Gospel records that Mary was not considered a celebrity by the world around her.
This is her greatest boast, for her “low degree” was rooted in her invincible humility. She herself said it first and best: God’s plan was to scatter “the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” to “put down the mighty from their thrones, “and to “exalt those of low degree” (Luke 1:51f). Her Son echoed His Mother: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). Mary was humble, of low degree, powerless in this age. And because of this, God exalted her, making her honourable and powerful — indeed, more honourable than the cherubim, and reigning with her Son in heaven: “The Queen stood at Thy right side, arrayed in golden robes all glorious” (Psalm 45:9).
Her exaltation from low degree was the first of many such exaltations. We find this divine delight in exalting the humble playing like a theme-song throughout the New Testament. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to nullify things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27f). “Has not God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom?” (James 2:5). The world utterly misunderstands the nature of true greatness, and equates greatness with outward strength and self-assertion. In the world, the one in first place is the one who rules, who exerts his will, who makes a big splash. God overturns all this, for in His Kingdom the one in first place will be the one who serves as the slave of all (Mark 10:44). It is the humble, and self-effacing, and powerless servant who is truly great. God’s Kingdom inaugurates a revolution, and the revolution began with the Annunciation.
Mary is an image of the Church, and her exaltation prophesies and prefigures ours. It is important therefore that we see and appreciate her humble estate and her powerlessness during her life, for they form the basis for her exaltation after her death. It is right that our icons dress her in the robes of royalty and place her upon a throne, for these images simply acknowledge in art what God has done for her in heaven. But as we venerate these images, let us not fail to appreciate the revolution they portray: that God took a humble, young girl from a small town, and exalted her to a place unmatched in the cosmos or the Kingdom. He exalted her who was of low degree, so that we and all generations may see His work, and call her blessed.