On August 15, the Orthodox Church (new calendar) commemorates the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Most Holy Mother of God. The feast is considered to be one of the 12 Great Feasts of the year and thus an integral part of the proclamation of gospel of Jesus Christ.
Many who are not familiar with Orthodoxy, or its manner of understanding saints, easily see feast days and the veneration of saints as distractions from the gospel. The thought is: “If it’s not about Jesus, then somehow the gospel is not being preached.”
I am willing to grant the point – but to quickly add that the veneration of the Mother of God is inherently about Jesus and that without paying proper attention to Mary, Christ is being short-changed and not fully understood.
In the history of the Church the first dogmatic proclamation concerning Mary was the use of the title, Theotokos, meaning “the one who gave birth to God.” Nestorius, for whom the heresy of Nestorianism is named, objected to the use of the term saying that she should be called Christotokos instead. This would mean that she was the mother of Christ, but not properly called Mother of God. The Church condemned Nestorius’ teaching and affirmed the use of this title for Mary, for Christ is not properly divided into a schizophrenic being (God and Man but not united), but is instead but one Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Eventually the Church would declare that He was one Person with two natures (Divine and Human) but never sought to contemplate Him in a manner that divided His person.
Thus the title given to Mary was and is about Jesus and was solemnly defined in order to protect the proper understanding of His incarnation.
The Scriptures themselves bear ample witness to her unique position. “All generations will call me blessed,” are words spoken by Mary in her dialog with her cousin, Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist). To refuse this honor to Mary is to violate the clear word of Scripture.
At the Wedding at Cana, where St. John records Christ worked his first miracle, we have a story of an encounter between Christ and His mother. For what reason we do not know, the problem of the wine shortage is brought to Mary. She takes the problem to Christ who responds: “What is this to me and you, woman? My hour has not yet come.” Idiomatically the statement means, “What concern is that of ours?” Addressing her as “woman” is not derogatory as some claim (why would Jesus fail to honor his mother in violation of the law?). Her response to His statement is interesting. She turns to the servants and tells them to “do whatever He tells you.” At her intercession Christ works His first miracle. Argue with it if you will, but on the plain face of the story that is what happens. Why does St. John record the story? It is certainly a story that points towards the great wedding feast at the end of the age, but Mary plays a central role.
This same role is played throughout Scripture in the lives of the righteous. They intercede before God for others and God hears them. Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses interceded many times for Israel and God heard him; the stories of these righteous men and women can be multiplied many times over(Read Hebrews 11).
This same communion of saints has continued through the ages adding to its list those who have followed Christ and in union with Him offered intercession for the world. Those who have known the communion of the saints and their fervent prayer before God on our behalf have known something of the fullness of the Church. For it is they (and us) whom St. Paul has in mind when he says that the Old Testament saints awaited a promise which is now ours, that, together with them, we are made complete (Hebrews 11:40). That promise, of course, is Christ, born of the Holy Spirit and the Most Holy Virgin Mary who is blessed through the ages.
Eternal life is to know God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent (John 17:3). But the Christ we are called to know is to be known in His fullness. That fullness includes His incarnation and the communion of saints He established when He united Himself to our flesh in the Virgin.