“… And He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…”
Let us look at the role of the Theotokos and the Holy Spirit. Before talking about the role of the Theotokos in the incarnation, let us take something of a detour. One of the great debates in Western Christianity is over whether a person is saved by good works or by faith. The alleged Catholic position is that one is saved by good works. The more rosaries one says, the more one venerates a relic or goes on pilgrimages, the better one’s chances of getting into heaven. At the time of the Protestant Reformation one of the major disagreements was about indulgences. At that time one would purchase an indulgence and be saved from hell. Of course, actual Catholic theology says for the indulgence to ‘work’ one had to go to confession, receive Holy Communion and be in a state of grace. However, many people thought of an indulgence as a kind of magical ‘get out of hell card”. The Protestants revolted against this. They said that one is saved by faith alone. In other words, when one ‘accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior’ one is saved without any good works. Of course, good works are expected to flow from one’s experience of being saved, but they do not contribute to a person’s salvation.
This debate has never affected the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church has never separated faith from works. The Orthodox position is known as synergy. This comes from two Greek words: syn (together with) and energy (work). This doctrine is found in 2 Corinthians 6:1. It means that human beings and God cooperate in the work of salvation. Of course, God does infinitely more than human beings do, but both are needed.
This bring us back to the Theotokos. If we read the story of Christ’s birth in the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, we see the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary and announcing that she will become the mother of the Messiah. She is puzzled because according to tradition, she has made a vow of celibacy. However, when the angel tells her that he will be born of her and the Holy Spirit she consents. She says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38). In other words, she freely accepts to become the mother of the Savior. This was an act of free will on her part. In fact, she could have said ‘no’, unlikely as this may be.
The point is that a human being is freely working together with God and God will never override our free will but always waits for us to turn to Him. So, the story of the Annunciation is one of human freedom. In a sense the Virgin Mary is undoing Eve’s disobedience.
When the Angel Gabriel is explaining to the Virgin Mary what is going to happen he says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35) Here is seen a reference to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. In Genesis 1 it says that …”the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:2) Just as the Holy Spirit moved over the waters at the creation, he is overshadowing the Virgin Mary in the re-creation of humanity and the world.
Ultimately what all this tells us is that when human beings choose to cooperate and work together with God, nothing is impossible.