The Nativity of the Mother of God
‘Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down’
At yesterday evening’s Great Vespers, we heard — in connection with today’s great feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God — the prophecy which inspired this well-known and beautiful verse from the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God.
The third prophecy of the Vespers, from the Book of Genesis, speaks of Jacob’s vision: “Behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). He then hears God say, “I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac … in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (v. 13–13); that is, ‘through you and through the one who will descend from you, I will bless all of humanity’.
Here we see an image of the incarnation. God will descend from the heavens and come to earth. And how will he do this? He will assume human nature from the Virgin Mary, the descendant of Jacob, a member of the Jewish nation. Thus, through this person, our Lady, God is united to every human being. Our Lady, then, is the heavenly ladder by which God came down to earth. For this reason, in almost every traditional Orthodox temple, we see the icon of the Platytera in the semi-dome above the sanctuary, uniting the ceiling of the church with the walls and floor of the sanctuary — and the symbolism here is exactly the same: Christ, the Word of God, descends from heaven to us on earth.
God also says to Jacob, “I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (v. 15). God had chosen Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Jewish people more generally, for one reason: from the Jews would come the one person capable of becoming the Mother of God; and this person was our Lady. Today’s feast, then, constitutes the fulfilment of the role of the Jewish people as the chosen people of God. They brought the world to the point at which God was able to descend, the prepared and set up that ladder, our Lady, by which God would descend. This is why the Apostle Paul says, “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4) — the fulness of time came, the Virgin was born, and at that point God sent his Son, and the Word of God was born of a woman as a man.
With the birth of the Virgin Mary, then, the blessing and promise of our salvation which was then given to Jacob and the Jewish people is given to all of humanity, to every faithful person. That is why we a little earlier sang,
Thy Nativity, O Virgin Mother of God, hath proclaimed joy to all the world;
for from thee hath dawned the Sun of righteousness, Christ our God.
Annulling the curse, He hath bestowed a blessing;
and having done away with death, He hath given us eternal life.
Fr Kristian Akselberg