Orthodox Christians commemorate the death (Dormition) of the Virgin Mary during the month of August (New Calendar, the 15th, Old Calendar, the 28th). For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which are Christ – who alone is our salvation.
The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy, the husband Beth, etc. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.
The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”
There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross, a payment for the penalty of our sins. This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor is the Virgin seen to have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation. They believe in the fact of her virginity, but do not understand its mystery.
Our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is that our salvation is through union with Him, through true communion in His life.
His Incarnation (God-become-man) is thus a foundational reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. Christ becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystically in her soul as well.
Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop, that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:
Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.
Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.
This prefigurement and its abundant use in the fathers, all flows from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aaron’s lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Light, etc.
As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that “in accordance with the Scriptures” is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very holistic understanding of salvation and its story that unfolds from beginning to end.
The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).
These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.
The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:
All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!
Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.
Amen Amen Mary
I’ve very much appreciated these recent posts on Mary and her place in the work of our salvation. There is a richness here that I am only beginning to comprehend.
That being said, I have a more pragmatic challenges with the Orthodox Church’s veneration of Mary. As a curious non-Orthodox person occasionally attending Orthodox services, I find it difficult to move back-and-forth between prayers to God and prayers addressed to the Theotokos. As I try to follow along, I find myself sometimes saying the prayers “aimed” in the wrong direction. In other words, I’ll be thinking that I’m praying to the Holy Trinity only to find that the prayer ends with an address to the Theotokos. Or, more unsettling for me is when I think I’m addressing Mary and find that the words actually were intended for the Father or the Son. I understand and accept the technical difference between worship and veneration, but I’m disturbed by the difficulty I have in actually maintaining that difference. Granting that I have not entirely embraced the Orthodox way, is this simply a symptom of my inexperience that (hypothetically) once converted should recede with time and familiarity? Am I “doing it wrong” somehow? Or is this something that faithful Orthodox also struggle with?
My experience is that it sorts itself out with time…
TimOfTheNorth, as Dino says, it sorts itself out over time, but there is also the aspect that all prayers in the Liturgy are a re-offering of the life of God which is in us, in the saints, the angels, etc. “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto thee…” It is part of the communion going on–an intricate choreography of being.
I’m not sure how much of that a non-Orthodox can really enter. Certainly, my own participation in the Liturgy has grown over time.
Beautifully said Fr. Stephen. I must say to Tim, that when I first came to the Orthodox church I too was a bit confused and found the liturgy to be beautiful but hard to follow. With time it absorbed me into it, and I know the flow well now.
Mary, The Theotokos, loves us all so very much! Her love has been shown to me personally, and to so many. That we venerate her, ask her to pray for us and our loved ones, is like asking our own mother to please pray for us. We don’t worship her, but we venerate and love her. I chose her for my Saint, because long ago she appeared to me, a grieving mother who had lost her baby son, and spoke to me in the most loving voice. It has been over 43 yrs now, and I cannot remember or talk about that moment without tears. It was so beautiful, loving, and caring of her. She felt MY pain, and and gave me confort. She is very real, and still very much a part of our lives. I was so humbled, the mother of Christ is truly the mother of us all. I know many people want it to be all about Christ, or about the Holy Trinity, but the humanity of Christ was thru His Holy Mother. Only in the Orthodox faith have I found the real balance that began it all. God bless you in your journey. Mine brought me here.
Most holy birthgiver of God save us! <3
Dear TimOfTheNorth, I don’t think God is so rigid as to get “technical” on us (thanks be to God!). I think the technical violations are those of immaturity (in the sense that we are all immature and becoming mature in Christ) and are forgiven as we forgive our children. I try not to parse the words my kids say – and believe God operates similarly.
Ultimately, all prayer is addressed to God – the Author and Finisher of our Faith. But to me, asking the Theotokos, or the saints, to “put in a good word” for us isn’t an outlandish idea, or offensive to God somehow.
Our concerns are (I believe) a side effect of our isolation through that deeply American “independent spirit”. We’ve lost (somehow) the idea of community (and communion). Christ asked that we would be one as he and the Father are one, and that we would all be in One with Him – so we cannot address one part of the Body of Christ without addressing all of Christ.
Just my ex-Baptist thoughts.
I recall questions at one point in my ministry (Anglican) from someone who wasn’t used to Trinitarian worship – they came from an Evangelical background and mostly just talked to Jesus. The various traditional Trinitarian addresses were difficult for them. They asked me whether the Father or the Spirit would resent it if they just talked to Jesus. Such jealousy and resentment is impossible in the Godhead, but the question was real for them.
Here’s another “rabbit trail” example. I recently spent a week in England and had to drive a car there for the first time. Wrong side of car for steering wheel, wrong side of seat for gear shift, wrong side of the road for driving. This was “dyslexic” but not impossible. What was really cumbersome, however, was my lack of awareness of a whole car being to my left (since there’s only a window there normally). I curbed the left side tires twice before I got out of the parking lot. It was there, like a numb side of the face after a dental visit. It felt awkward all week long.
The essential formula for Orthodox prayer (according to the Tradition) is:
To the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit – and all of this is often offered up in union or “through the prayers” of our fathers in the faith, and in the communion of the saints, honoring the birth-giver of God.
That’s a mouth full and very cumbersome at first. But it is, in essence, “prayer in the fullness of our salvation.”
When we mention Mary, very often it is adding a reminder of our salvation – for her role is particularly about our salvation. We never grow tired of extolling the humility of God who for our sake became flesh for our salvation. The human side of God’s condescension is humanity’s exaltation (both as salvation – and represented by what He did in the Virgin).
Thus, most litanies conclude:
Commemorating our Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed and Glorious Lady, Theotokos, and ever-Virgin Mary, and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our lives unto Christ our God. Response: To Thee, O God.
And then: some sort of Doxology – For Thou art Holy, O our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory…etc.
And – as has been suggested – time will help. It is good to remember that you are learning a new language liturgically. You’ll gradually become fluent. But this language has been on the tongues of enumerable saints through the ages. We are in such great company!
It seems to me that whatever confusion or misunderstanding exists surrounding the veneration of Mary in the non-Orthodox world is primarily the result of the variance in understanding of what salvation in Christ is. To become by grace everything that God is by nature through union with Him is something far beyond “having our sins forgiven” or being “in right standing” with Him. It means that what can be said of God can also be said of those who are fully “saved,” the difference being that He is the Creator and Giver while we (along with Mary) remain the created, albeit cooperative, recipients.
A parallel to this is the misunderstanding created in the minds of some outside the Orthodox Church when Orthodox Christians are sometimes hesitant to say that they are “saved.” For us, salvation is both a free gift and a process. If we are hesitant to say that we are “saved” it because we have not yet attained the likeness of God. We count ourselves with the Apostle Paul who while still in the flesh of this life wrote, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Mary, however, along with all the Saints who have been perfected, has fully attained the likeness of God so that what can be said of God can be said of her (with the creaturely qualifier noted above). This creates misunderstanding only when the hearer of the sublime words spoken of her fail to grasp the (scandalous to some) fullness of what salvation really is. Just as the Holy Trinity loves the world, has not forsaken the world, is ready to both to help and to save, and anything else that can be said of God… so she, with all the Saints who have been perfected (or fully “saved”) personally participates in the sharing of His divine goodness while also being the one uniquely honored for being the Mother of God, for giving her flesh to the One whose flesh is the Life of the world.
To the point. Indeed.If all Orthodox Christians could put it so well, I would not need to write.
It’s also important to remember, I think, what we are saved for. God saves us because of his philanthropy, his exceeding love for men, but does so also because he created us to “bear his image,” to be kings and priests in the world, mediating his kingship to creation and summing up creation’s praise in our worship life of him. The end of the story is ultimately Christ’s return to redeem the earth and unite it permanently with heaven, to resurrect and judge the dead, and to enthrone the Church alongside him in his government of the whole cosmos. God wants creatures who are by grace what he is by nature because he wants human creatures to whom he can entrust his cosmos, and for that they need to be conformed to his nature, his will, his likeness. Theosis is missional in and of itself.
I was Protestant for 26 years (evangelical). In my last few years there I found it increasingly irrelevant and finally just stopped going, much to my wife’s distress. Space doesn’t permit me to relate what caused me to eventually become Catholic, but that’s what I did in 2010, much to my wife’s more pronounced distress (but we’re okay with each other) and the total bewilderment of many others. I’ve always been a reader and I read a lot of Orthodox material including this site. Often after I read one of your columns I feel simultaneously informed in a new way and newly conscious of a pathetic life formation. It’s like I’m Josiah constantly rediscovering the law. It makes me see that God has had much mercy on me. I pray that I will become in Him what I should be.