Why the Orthodox Honor Mary

viktor_vasnetsov-mother_of_god_1901_1The most difficult part of my Orthodox experience to discuss with the non-Orthodox is the place and role of the Mother of God in the Church and in my life. It is, on the one hand, deeply theological and even essential to a right understanding of the Orthodox faith, while, on the other hand, being intensely personal beyond the bounds of conversation. I am convinced, as well, that the Orthodox approach to Mary is part of the apostolic deposit, and not a later accretion.

When I was doing graduate studies some decades back, I decided to concentrate my historical research on the “cult of Mary” (the veneration of Mary) in the historical Church. With that decision came a semester of intensive research, combing through materials of every sort. And throughout all of that research the question, “When did this begin?” was uppermost in my mind. I came to a surprising conclusion. It began at the beginning.

The historical evidence for Mary’s veneration is so obvious that it is simply overlooked: her place in the gospel accounts. I find much of the “historical” evidence about Christ to have a similar feature. It is amusing, and annoying, to read modern historical critics of the New Testament who come away from those documents arguing that the notion of Christ’s divinity was a later development. Somehow they manage to read the New Testament and miss the most obvious thing: the writers all believe that Jesus is divine. They fail to notice that the very existence of the “Jesus material” of the New Testament exists solely because its writers believed He was God. Every line flows from that belief.

In a similar manner, Mary’s place within the gospels carries a message of veneration. Those who do not see this obvious feature of the New Testament generally get lost in the details, reading too much into sayings such as Jesus’ “Woman what have I to do with you?” and the like.

First, the stories of Mary hold an important place in the gospel narrative. St. Mark has the least mention of her, with no birth narrative. St. Luke has the most material, and St. John perhaps the most important. Biblical critics take a “least is best” approach and will say things like, “St. Mark knows nothing of a birth narrative,” a patently overstated claim.

For me, it is the seemingly “gratuitous” material that points to veneration of Mary. St. Luke’s account has the Magnificat hymn in which Mary declares, “All generations will call me blessed.” It is a phrase that can only be compared to God’s promise to Abraham:

I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3)

In Mary’s encounter with her kinswoman Elizabeth (and with the child in her womb, John), the focus is on Mary herself rather than the child in her womb.

But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. (Luk 1:43-44)

Later in Luke, when the child Jesus is presented in the Temple, the elder Simeon prophesies:  

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luk 2:34-35)

Here, Mary is linked to the Cross of Christ in the piercing of her soul.

I describe these stories as “gratuitous” in that they go well beyond the simple point of the Virgin Birth. Mark and John have no mention of the conception or birth of Christ (though they both include Mary in their narrative). The abundance of Marian material in Luke can only point to her veneration in the primitive Church. She is not just the Virgin who gives birth to Christ – she is also blessed by all; she is the cause of joy to the Prophet John even in his mother’s womb; she is a unique participant in the sufferings of Christ, destined herself for a mystical sword that will pierce her very soul.

This is information that points to the unique place of Mary in the first century Christian community. How can the Church not venerate one whom John the Baptist greeted with a leap of joy when he was in the womb? How can the Christian community be rightly centered on the Crucified Christ and ignore the soul-pierced Mother? The material in Luke is prima facie evidence of the primitive veneration of the Mother of God. That veneration never ceases in the Church, but matures over time as the Church considers the meaning and depth of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

It is obvious that many Christians would prefer to read only Mark’s gospel and ignore the obvious implications in Luke and John.

John’s gospel seems to me to be marked with a profound understanding of the mystery of Mary. Of special note is his first mention of her. We meet her at the Wedding in Cana. John provides no introduction to her character – he presumes a prior knowledge on the part of his readers. At the Wedding, the wine runs out. And with no explanation of a practical sort, John simply relates that Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”

It is profound. His disciples have seen nothing as yet. No miracles have been performed (this Wedding will be the scene of the first miracle). And yet Mary knows who He is and what He means. She is already fully initiated into the truth of His life and ministry.

Many Protestants have made much of Christ’s reply to her: “What is this between you and me?” They have treated the statement to mean: “What business is this of yours?” In fact, it simply asks, “What is this between you and me?” But St. John puts the statement in a context: “For mine hour has not yet come.” Christ says to His mother, “It’s not time. This doesn’t have to begin yet.”

They share the bond of the coming Cross. His life will be offered, a sword will pierce her soul. And once He begins, nothing can stop the movement to Golgotha. Her response is simple: “Do whatever He tells you.” It is a repetition of her earlier, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Her complete humility and self-emptying before God is a human reflection of the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross. With this new “fiat,” the inexorable journey to the Cross begins.

The mystery of her participation in Christ does not end with historical moments – for the sharing of those moments in the gospels are in no way merely concerned with the historical record. They are primarily theological moments. She holds not just a place in the history of salvation, but in its theological understanding and existential participation as well. The gospels are written for our salvation, and not as mere information.

And it is this theological and existential reality that are missing from many contemporary accounts of the Christian faith. The question is often asked, “Why do I need to venerate Mary?”

First, the Orthodox would not say, “You need to venerate Mary.” Rather, we say, “You need to venerate Mary as the Theotokos” (birth-giver of God). This is the theological title dogmatically assigned to her by the Third Ecumenical Council. She is venerated because she is Theotokos. To venerate the Theotokos is an inherent part of rightly believing in the Incarnation of the God-Man. To ignore her as Theotokos is to hold a diminished and inadequate understanding of the Incarnation.

But this is speaking in terms of mere ideas. The Incarnation is not an idea – it is a reality – both historical and now eternal. The Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ. And, more fully, the Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ born of the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos. This is what is asserted in the Nicene Creed.

The reality of this statement is not an idea, but a Person, both in the case of the God/Man, and in the case of the Theotokos. The act of believing in the Incarnation of Christ is made manifest in the worship that is properly directed towards Him and in the veneration that is properly directed towards the Theotokos.

And it is this that is so difficult to explain to the non-Orthodox. For doctrines are easily perceived by them as ideas, even factoids. In Orthodoxy, these doctrines are living realities. It is of little importance to acknowledge that someone is, in fact, my mother. It is of the utmost importance that I honor my mother (by Divine command) and love her. We do not think doctrine. Doctrine is a description of the realities by which we live. We venerate the Theotokos because, knowing what we know, we cannot do otherwise.

80 comments:

  1. An excellent piece,and perfect timing! Sunday I’m preaching on Mary as the exemplar of the Christian life… Emphasizing her humility and self-emptying is central.

  2. Thank you father,
    God willing, I am going to try to translate this article into Spanish to post on my wall. I think it will illuminate many hearts to understand the role of the Theotokos in the life of the believer.

  3. Fr. Freeman,

    In the statement, “What is this between you and me”, what “this” is Jesus referring to?

    I guess I still don’t quite understand what he was saying.

    Is Jesus saying something like, “Look and marvel at this trail/mission we are both appointed to fulfill, are we to start it now?”

    Why is the sentence not clearer, I wonder?

  4. The late Cardinal Archbishop of Maline-Brussels once asked the great Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner about the decline amongst young people in veneration of the Virgin Mary. Rahner replied “Ah! Well you see Cardinal Archbishop, the young people of today have turned Mary into an idea, a notion, an abstraction. and we know full well both of us that abstractions don’t have mothers.”

    Perhaps not all non-Orthodox have as much difficulty as you think. After all, they too are dogmatically bound by the deliveries of the Early ecumenical Councils and my sense is that there is a growing interest even amongst Evangelicals in Mary’s place in doctrine and devotion stimulated by increased ecumenical exchanges.

  5. It has only recently struck me what we are missing out on in Lutheran Protestant tradition: meditating and recalling ove´r and again the humility and utmost dedication to God´s will exemplified uniquely in Mary.

  6. As a convert I found that venerating Mary took the longest time to develop in my devotions. Fr. Thomas Hopko has a wonderful piece on this on AFR, I think under the title Intercessory Prayer. Anyway, I decided to take extra time each day for a month to pray and venerate the Theotokos and that really helped a lot. I think a lot of Protestants don’t understand the word “venerate” and feel that praying to saints puts up a barrier between direct communion with Christ. As I continue to know and love more deeply the Mother of God, I am grateful for Her continued work on behalf of all of her children, me included.

  7. Helmut,
    But I intend in the article to move beyond “recalling” her humility, etc. At best, most stop at considering such “ideas.” But her humility is not an idea. It is an embodied and lived reality. To consider her humility, it is actually necessary to consider her. That “consideration” traditionally takes the form of veneration. There are things within the gospel (such as her humility) that cannot be known apart from the veneration of the Theotokos.

  8. Psalti,
    I saw a commentary on this recently, but cannot seem to put my hands on it just now. The statement echoes an OT statement. The thrust of it concerns the question of “are you ready to do this?” I’ll keep looking for it.

  9. Psalti,
    I found it. The statement is a quote from 1 Kings 17:18 (3 Kings 17:18 on the LXX), when Elijah has come to the widow of Zarephath when her son had died. She says to him, “What is this between you and me” (or however it is to be translated – but in the Greek the quote is word for word). Christ’s statement to his Mother at the Wedding, invokes the Widow’s son (Mary at this point is a widow). It is an oblique reference that says, “If we start this, your son will die.” Indeed the Widow asks, “Have you come to bring my sin to remembrance and to kill my son?”

    This conversation between Christ and Mary at the Wedding is meant to echo that conversation. Elijah, of course, raises her son from the dead (as Christ will be raised from the dead). So, that, too, is implied. This is St. John’s literary device to signal for us the meaning of the miracle at the Wedding. It is a miraculous foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ. As the “first miracle” it foreshadows the “last miracle,” the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

    So the sentence is “clear,” if you understand that it is a pointed reference, and quote from 1 Kings. That is its primary purpose and function.

  10. Fr. Freeman…thank you also for the connection of Cana with Elijah. For the first time this, what has always been an enigmatic statement to me, has been fleshed out. What beauty there is in the comparison and profound truth.
    The Theotokos was also a stumbling block to me upon entering Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy may be the best kept secret in the U.S. but she is truly the precious inner secret of the Church. I’ve grown to love her dearly these last 20 years and always look forward to her Dormition, especially in our chapel dedicated to her falling asleep and translation. What a privilege to ask her intercessions!

  11. “And it is this that is so difficult to explain to the non-Orthodox. For doctrines are easily perceived by them as ideas, even factoids. In Orthodoxy, these doctrines are living realities.”

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for putting into words what I was not able to articulate

  12. At the risk of being crass it is important to realize that veneration of Mary is not simply a pious devotion.

    On the contrary veneration of her as a real person sanctified by God allows us to experience the depth of faith to effectively challenge the inhuman ideologies that lead to such things as abortion and multi-gender nonsense.

    This article also links with the proceeding ones on the Father and the nature of male and female. Realities that are dishonored and even blasphemed these days.

    Allowing ourselves to appreciate not just the beauty (truth is always beautiful) but the existential strength that veneration of Mary brings us is deeply important.

    I can say for a fact that the more I venerate Mary the more I become a man, a husband and a father.

    The veneration of Mary I’d an essential part of the full armor of God.

  13. Father,
    that is a most crucial connection with Elijah’s story, but in the Greek Septuagint it is 3 Kings 17:18 (not 1 Kings). It is also noteworthy that in Cana, it is the symbol par-excellence of the Church -the Theotokos- that asks for the symbol of the Eucharist -Wine-, adding further richness to St John’s account -and the parallels with the last Banquet.
    We see a similar parallel in the icon of the incarnation (Nativity) and of the Dormition (the deification of the one who is human only). In the first a tiny God-made-man is held by a huge Theotokos while in the second a tiny human-made -god (the Theotokos’ soul) is held by a huge Christ.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman,

    the kingdom of God was at hand then, but not yet a reality, and neither is it here today, and as always at hand.

    But he did come in this world for his own, to deliver the oppressed, and who was more oppressed then the woman of his days for centuries.
    I sometimes think when Gentiles took over the writings, were converted and parted with Judaism, the Gospels took on a whole new narrative to suit the minds and leaders, and later the Pope’s mentality. Woman remain oppressed under the orthodox leader-ship, although woman played a major role in Christ’s life. Mary Magdalene was considered the Apostle of the Apostles, and Mary the Christ bearer, a standing and status given that Jews detested, as woman were still cattle, dogs and property in their days and eyes. Slanderous to give them God given values and status. Not much different then the US break with black slavery.
    It’s been a 2000 year fight for freedom with Christ, and we will never go back to Mary’s role, but honor her for the role her son played in the deliverance of woman and ongoing, as well as men.
    We will teach our sons to honor and respect their wives, daughters and sisters, and to never think of themselves more highly than…., while you reduce and limit her, you’ve also reduced and limit yourself.
    The kingdom of God is always at hand if everyone does their part and is not deceived.

  15. “Woman remain oppressed under the orthodox leader-ship…”

    Maria, I am a woman who was most definitely oppressed within the particular type of Protestantism with which I associated most of my adult life. If I had seen anything like such oppression in the doctrine and on the ground in the Orthodox Church, I could not and would not have sought entry into the Church – that was THE deal-breaker for me.

    The Jews of Jesus’ day weren’t perfect, but they did treat women better than the surrounding Near Eastern peoples. There certainly are instances of misogynistic behavior toward women in majority-Orthodox countries, but those men don’t understand their faith in this regard, and good priests will try to help them see that. At the heart of Orthodoxy, women are viewed as every bit as human and valuable as men. Veneration of the Mary the Theotokos actually promotes this – not because she was a doormat, but because she exercised the same self-giving love that Christ did, which is the goal and fulfillment of the common humanity of both men and women.

    Blessings to you-
    Dana

  16. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    I treasure your blog entries. Tonight I was able to share a little with my non-orthodox husband (he was curious about what I was reading and smiling at) and we had a good conversation. He even allowed me to read a little of the conversation to him. 🙂

  17. When I was leaving Protestantism for Orthodoxy (or Catholcism, at that point), I grilled my Catholic friend about the Blessed Virgin Mary; how we know what we know, and so on. She said a sentence that clarified soooo much for me: “You know, we don’t really *study* Mary; we just love her.”

    I also have come to believe that the Theotokos is a treasure of the Church, and in her humility, she doesn’t put herself forward, but always points to Christ and stays in the background. Many converts have told me that it has taken them a good 15 years to start to establish a relationship with her…she is a hidden jewel. And not to be understood by study, but in relationship, over time.

  18. Thank you, Fr. Stephen Freeman for that beautiful treatise on the holy Theotokos so beautifully presented. It is my belief that at the End of Time it will be St Michael the Archangel who will lead God’s army against the Evil One but it will be the THEOTOKOS who will crush the head of the serpent Satan, Lucifer, and destroy him forever in a Great Lake of fire.
    .

  19. As a recent convert from protestantism to orthodoxy, I have no problem with venerating Mary. My problem is with asking her to do stuff and giving her titles that don’t seem to having any connection with the New Testament and which seemingly take the place of the Savior. The “Steadfast protectress of all Christians…” hymn that gets sung occasionally near the beginning of the Divine liturgy is the really aggregious example of this. I would prefer to follow the admonition of the epistle to the Hebrews to “boldly go before the throne of grace … to receive help in time of need.” depending only on the Savior as intercessor.

    I’m posting this comment annonymously because I’m pretty concerned about what impact this kind of frank statement might have on my reputation within my parish.

  20. Anon There is no doubt that it is possible to turn almost any veneration into excessive sentalmentalism or even veer into near idolatry. That can be done with the Bible too.

    It is good to avoid such.

    Nevertheless, Mary is Mother and as such does look after us in particular ways.

    I’m celebrating my sixth anniversary today with a woman who came into my life after I prayed to Mary daily for several months to send me a Godly woman.

    I have my son because of Mary’s blessing on my late wife and I when we could not conceive until then.

    It is not difficult for even my German soul to be abundant in Thanksgiving to her.

    She does miraculous things for many. I am not special in that regard.

    We must also guard our heart against requiring God to sct only in certain ways. The path is narrow but His mercy is super abundant and the Holy Spirit goes where He will.

    Rejoice in the Lord always.

    I’m sure she does nothing without checking with her son. “Let it be done unto me according to your word still governs.

    The only reason she is exalted in the Church is because of her son. In a sense therefore any praise we give her redounds to Him.

  21. …another thing that must be noted that the hymnography of Mary is repeat with a deep Christological understanding of the Scriptures.

    I’ve always been partial to the appellation from her Akathist: “thou mystic heifer..”

  22. Anonymous,
    These titles flow from the abundant experience of the Church through the centuries. You’re clearly still struggling with what place that experience should have in your life. None of these things replace Christ the Savior – nor have they done so over the 2000 years of the Church. Forgive me, but your “heart” still sounds very mired in a Protestant temperament (i.e. the stuff that mashes your buttons and fears). It takes time to get over these things. Ponder the fact that your fears have not been realized in the Church’s experience, while Protestantism has become shipwreck. Our Steadfast Protectress has been a “wall and a haven” for us. The “toned down” Theotokos that your sensibilities imagine would make us more acceptable by Protestant standards – and – no doubt, after a while the rest would crumble as well.

    In humility, ask Christ to show this to you.

  23. Blessed Mary, Mother of God, please take all of us to our Holy Father, and through Jesus Christ in unity with the Holy Spirit, help us ask Him to become vessels of His love.

  24. Anonymous. ..Christ is not our only intercessor. St. Paul asks the churches to intercede for him on various occasions. He says we are to pray for ( intercede for) the king and for all those who have authority over us. The prayer chains in many evangelicals are there so that Christians may intercede for each other. Examples could be multiplied. By the way, since Christ is God of the living and not the dead, this is why we ask for the intercessions of the saints. Don’t forget that Moses and Elijah were on Mt. Tabor with Jesus no doubt praying with Him as He had His face set toward His passion in Jerusalem.

  25. Fr Stephen Freeman,

    The article is excellent and – what’s stranger for me – you published it right after I’ve been pondering on something you also write here. You mention that you did some research on the historical development of the Marian veneration and you indicate a staring point in the New Testament. I wonder if you are aware of any scholarly articles or books that analyze those New Testament Marian texts as having their source and grounding in the life of the Apostolic Church in the 1st century? I’d love to study this further and I am curious if anyone has actually written something about e.g. Archangel Gabriel’s salutation or St. Elizabeth’s blessing as derived from the practices of the Church and not only inspiring those practices.

  26. Anonymous
    Christ is not the only intercessor. St. Paul often asks that prayers and intercessions be made for him. He writes that we are to intercede for the king and others in authority. Evangelical churches often have prayer chains where intercessions are solicited for acute needs. Christ himself had Moses and Elijah with him on Mt. Tabor, no doubt being strengthened by their presence and prayers. After all, He is the God of the living and not of the dead. That’s why we have the privilege of asking the saints to intercede on our behalf. I’m sure that as you grow in your life in Orthodoxy you’ll see how the scrim dividing heaven and earth grows ever more tenuous and transparent. As God is everywhere present and filling all things you’ll discover that so are his angels and saints, and especially in the worship of the liturgy, “blessed is the kingdom…” entones the priest as liturgy begins and we are lifted into the heavenlies.

  27. The veneration of Mary is the “other shoe dropping” to the truth of Christ in His Church. Wonderful post and comments! Oh, to be a Koine Greek reader and mine all the richness of these texts! Thank you, Father, and Dino for that added insight about the allusion to the story of Elijah and the Widow.

  28. Mary the Theotokos, Mother of our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth was honored by God and Loved for being Obedient To God. We humbly ask; Pray for us Oh Theotoks, mother of God to intercede for us, to your Son, our Lord & Savior.

  29. I’d be encouraged, but surprised if the evangelicals develop an interest in the Theotokos. I’ve been to some of their churches and apart from a complete focus on speaking in tongues as the only evidence of the receiving of the Holy Spirit and therefore salvation, there’s not much there. They’re big on missions, which is a great thing, their doctrine however is a mile wide and a half inch deep. Not that we don’t have our own warts, but they really really need our help.

  30. Jon Bountalas,

    Of those usually classed as “evangelicals,” only some go in for speaking in tongues. But evangelicals in general do have little interest in the Theotokos: she may get displayed for a brief period at Christmas, but most of the time there is no more about her than about the animals depicted in those nativity scenes.

    And many “evangelical” churches (and even some “mainline Protestant” ones) seldom if ever use either the Nicene Creed or the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” that would remind them of the place of the Theotokos.

  31. Fr Stephen, such wealth of information for reflection as usual! But the one thing that has always struck me about our Mary is, from what source did the Four Evangelists receive their knowledge about the life of Jesus the Christ before the beginning of his public ministry? It’s an easy answer, just as easy as it is to venerate her.

  32. Of course. She is the one who “pushed” her Son to start his mission, knowing it would lead to his death and the pain she would feel. It seems so obvious now, but I never really noticed it before.

    I have an icon of Mary holding baby Jesus. He’s looking away, at a an angel hovering behind him holding a cross. She’s looking at him with such sorrow and gesturing to him, as if to say, “Behold your Savior.”

    Thank you for that insight into the Scriptures, Father Stephen.

  33. Father, thank you for helping me profoundly with what has remained an ongoing struggle in my nearly 16 years of being an Orthodox convert from a rigidly Calvinistic protestant cum Evangelical background. Every time a suggestion is made to take needs to the Theotokos in prayer I have a knee jerk reaction asking internally, “Why? Why not point people to take their cries to the Savior directly, first?” Maybe that’s really a different issue than why we honor the blessed Mother of God, which I think I have come to understand. Your article, and especially your direct comparison with the language and prophetic foreshadowing of Elijah’s conversation with the widow was eye-opening to me in that regard also. I have to confess to a lingering concern that people urged to carry their heart’s cries to the Mother of God may not draw near to Christ Himself, or see His great love for them other than abstractly. I don’t think I really realize His love for me, or I wouldn’t fail Him as I do. Maybe drawing nearer to His Mother would help me to draw nearer to Him. Forgive my obtuseness. I do thank you very much for the insights from your article and your later comments about the Elijah connection.

  34. Jo Ann,
    In my own experience, I never see the Theotokos apart from Christ. Indeed in almost all of her icons she is pictured holding Him. There is rightly an awareness when we ask for her help that we are speaking to someone who is not God, nor a substitute for Christ. I can think of nothing that I ask of her that I do not also ask of Him. That mystery – why asking her or any other saint for that matter should be salutary – is, I think, bound up in the mystery of our “Conciliar Salvation” as I’ve described it in an article. God does not want to save us apart from the Church, but within and through the Church. And this most especially means the Church in heaven that intercedes for us. Asking the help of the saints is simply what living in that relationship looks like. I really can’t imagine how else we would express it.

    I have a terrible personality quirk in that I tend not to ask for help. It’s problematic in a parish priest, because it can prevent others from doing things (many of them can do the things better than I can). It creates a loneliness and isolation and hurts the communion of the parish. If I translated that into my prayer life (and I sometimes do!) then it creates a false consciousness and an alienation from God. Our conversations with the saints draw us closer to God. They do not distract.

  35. Clearly the apostles and Gospel writers at least admired the Theotokos, for who else supplied them with information about Jesus’ life before the beginning of his public ministry? For that alone we are all indebted to her.

  36. Fr Stephen, thank you for this reflection.

    In your earlier, tripartite reflection on our theology of gender, you wrote of the Parousia, something I’ve not hitherto heard, viz., that Christ would come with the Theotokos.
    Why did you say that, Father?
    Is it because you believe He will appear, at the eschaton, with all the heavenly angels and saints, in which case, she, as the foremost of the saints, would be present?
    Or, were you thinking something considerably less general? If so, on what do you base your belief, Father?

  37. As a catholic who is learning a lot from your blog, I ask: in Orthodoxy people pray Ave Maria and the Rosary, or you pray other prayers? I ask this because I find a lot more meanings in the Lord’s Prayer than in the Ave Maria, and this strive against the principle of “praying what you believe”. Maybe a word from you can explain better, as usual in your blog!

  38. Christian,
    The “Prayer Rope” used by the Orthodox is commonly prayed with the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is a prayer that has been used since very early times in the Church.

    Sometimes, the short prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” is used for a short while when praying.

    The Lord’s Prayer is the greatest of prayers, containing all other prayers within it. The Ave Maria is also a wonderful prayer with a long history in the Church. In the East it has a different form (actually many different forms) such as the “Axion Esti”: “It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word, true Theotokos we magnify you.”

    I sometimes use the Western Ave Maria myself. I like it.

  39. Jo Ann,

    I appreciated your question. I have a theory about why we tend to have the knee-jerk reaction of “Why not point people to take their cries to the Savior directly, first?” Fr. Stephen touched on it:

    We are fiercely independent. If you think about how we arrange our earthly friendships, our usual strategy is to find 1 or possibly 2 people we can confide in – if we’re lucky. Most of us have to find a soundproof place to pour our hearts to God and hope He’s on the other side of the proverbial confessional and not too busy to listen to us.

    So we treat the saints gone by in the same fashion: You shouldn’t go telling everyone your problems. You just don’t do that. They’ve all got their own problems and lives. For heaven’s sake don’t burden them! And besides, shouldn’t we just talk directly to God?

    The problem is that it’s not a true understanding of how things are in the Heavenlies. Mary and the saints are quite willing to intercede for us. And not only do they have all the time in the world to do so but they also have a much clearer understanding of reality and therefore what our true needs are – not to mention a closer and much easier relationship with Jesus Himself.

    And if we go back to our here-and-now earthly relationships, the truth is that we would be better off giving and receiving help from those around us, rather than playing the Lone Ranger like we all tend to do in North America. This interaction makes us more vulnerable but it leads to health much more easily and quickly. We are communal beings and this is how we are supposed to function.

    The knee-jerk reaction comes from deep but extremely wrong societal training that we should “never let them see you sweat”. God is the one, but we are many and no one gets saved alone. We need to be there for each other.

    I have heard people say that they ask a particular saint to intercede for them in certain matters because that saint had a similar experience or they felt a kinship with him through his writings. It makes sense. The question eventually should become: Why NOT ask others for help – those living and those who have passed on to eternal life?

  40. Drewster,
    Here’s another thought. Why, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, doesn’t the Rich Man ask God to help him? He is clearly praying. Jesus himself gives this example of the intercessions of the saints.

  41. Fr. Stephen,

    A good question. My immediate thought is that here in North America we in our hearts consider ourselves rich, even despite all the talk of our hollowness and failings. The rich are used to just “managing” life. One of the biggest reasons it’s so difficult for the rich man to go through the eye of the needle (please excuse the mixed metaphor) is because he can’t or won’t (or both) ask for help. Once he recognizes his own poverty it’s the end of the world and he’s totally lost – or so his mind tells him.

    I suspect that the Lone Ranger doesn’t really ask God for much help – and when he does, he doesn’t really listen. If he did listen he would be told to help other, but even more importantly to ask others. The underlying lesson would be that we are all connected, that we are not saved alone.

  42. Drewster,
    America is a very sad place. It is full of self-congratulations about many very small things. But we are quickly becoming an “evil empire” by many large measures. It troubles me to say it and my conscience is deeply disturbed of late. We’re not alone – the EU rivals us in these things. We have begun to use our military for very dark pursuits, many of which are disastrous for Christians, especially Orthodox Christians. I pray, Lord have mercy.

  43. The other side of the coin you describe, Drewster, is that in Greco-Roman and ancient Near Eastern societies, making one’s way up in the world by sheer genius or effort was not the preferred means of rising. The self-made Roman (i.e., a man who did not inherit noble status but achieved it himself) was to some degree resented or at least suspected. To the Roman Sir Leicester Dedlock, even Cicero, the most famous self-made man of ancient Rome, would be evidence that the Republic was going to pieces. In short, men of ability were still supposed to rely on patronage. Ancient Christians in Greece and Rome naturally saw themselves as the clients of Heavenly patrons. Why do things the hard way against all odds when you can rely on a patron to make everything work out for you while you sleep?

  44. Yes Daniel, in this earthly life balance is always an issue. Laziness is not to be commended any more than the spirit of individualism and total self-sufficiency; both practice a lie. However, God and those in union with Him don’t encourage or support either side of the coin. Instead they throw off those who are wrestling with such duality by calling both to go further up and deeper in.

    They tried to trap Jesus by asking whether or not they should pay taxes. To paraphrase the essence He replied, “You’re missing the point. Do that which enables you to become the person God created you to be. Stop looking for the least you can do and wasting your time trying to relieve your pain through sport at someone else’s expense instead of doing the work of living.”

  45. Christian, The Prayer hailing The Mother of God within Orthodox tradition may help.

    Hail Theotokos (or Mother of God) Mary, Full of Grace; The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women and blessed is the fruit of Thy Womb; For thou hast borne the Saviour of our souls.
    Bless you Father Stephen, and thank you for the head up about Elijah and The Widow. Most helpful.

  46. Fr.Stephen and Katerina, thank you for your answers.

    America isn’t the only sad place. Italy, from where I write, is another one. But I think is the same for every “first world” country. We all are too much lost behind our belly or our brain… Here maybe is even worse, because under the shiny surface, faith is no more at the heart of most of italian people, at least for many young man. My wife is even shy of saying I am going to Mass, when speaking with friends. Modern world, as you call it, is the winning force also here, and is becoming more socially accepted, for example, a coming out of omosexual people than saying you believe in God and you are trying to live accordingly…

    Just another question: what do you think about of the miracles of Lourdes? I don’t mean the title under which is venerated the Theotokos over there. Going in the main street of that city is like going to see the “merchants at the Temple” (very sad and ugly), but indeed miracles happen there and this help people in their journey of faith, or at least in enduring the hardness of life. What Orthodoxy think about these miracles attributed to intercession of Mary?

  47. When I was first investigating Orthodoxy, a wise individual told me not to worry too much about the veneration of Mary. “She’ll grow on you,” I was told. They were right, and thanks be to God, she has loved me with the love of her Son. Even before I began to recognize my love for her.

  48. This article reminds me of the moment in 2008 I was sitting in my living room reading the book Becoming Orthodox and I got to a section about Mary. I read it and thanks to God the scales fell off my eyes and everything my Baptist eyes couldn’t see suddenly seemed so clear. Yes, Mary is the Mother of God “for who is God but the Lord ?” (Ps 17/18:31). Yes, we should adorn our church buildings for what bride doesn’t adorn herself for her wedding. Yes, we should baptize infants, for baptism is the new circumcision and out of the mouths of babes and sucklings God has perfected praise. And, for that matter, what parent doesn’t wash their infant? Yes, we (infants, too) should partake of our Lord’s body and blood, for without Him we will starve and what parents would starve their little babies? Everything seems so simple and clear now. In coming home to the Church, I see how in my Baptist childhood home that my parents – any parents – taught me without realizing it to long for the sacramental life. Parents wash and feed their little ones; why the mental detachment for the baptism and communion of little ones? Parents “anoint” their children with ointment when they get hurt; the Church anoints us for the healing of our physical and spiritual maladies. Are we (was I) really trying to be smarter than scripture and the documented history of the earliest Christians? The list could go on and on like the belief held in some Protestant circles that the Theotokos had sex with Joseph and bore sinful children. Oh, my, what does that say for their belief in who the Church is and what she does?! Where is this “Hashemite” family tree of people who bear a physical relation to Christ??? How can we all be the adopted sons and daughters of God when there must be some special people who have a share in His human DNA, Christ’s nieces and nephews??? This line of questions must sound crazy; but, this no doubt goes back to truly believing the Incarnation, that God humbled Himself to walk among us. I remember showing a Baptist family member whom I love very much my new parish many years ago. Somehow, our conversation diverged into life in the womb; perhaps I had shown him how Mary is almost always shown with Christ at the center of her being. My family member looked at the icon of Christ on the iconostasis and said something like, “Well, I wonder what would’ve happened if He had been aborted?” And, in a nutshell, as you said in the article that to venerate Mary we must truly believe in the Incarnation.

  49. Fr. Freeman,

    I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy from Baptist and am still trying to grasp a better the understanding of Mary/Theotokos.

    Would you say that when we venerate the Theotokos, we are not so much venerating Mary, but her role in our salvation? Kind of like when we bow before an icon, we are not honoring the picture or wood, but the image of Christ in that saint?

    Also, I have the Jordanville Prayer Book and some of the language concerning the Theotokos is confusing. In the Evening Prayers, Prayer IX to the Most Holy Theotokos, refers to her “who alone art pure and blessed”. I’ve read other places where she is called the “only sinless one.” Which my priest and others in my church deny that she was sinless and cannot really explain what is meant here. Obviously, Jesus was sinless and pure.

    One other place, in the Kontakion to the Theotokos it says, “All my hope I place in thee, O Mother of God: keep me under thy protection…. My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my protection is the Holy Spirit: O Holy Trinity, glory to Thee.” Can you explain the seemingly contradiction here?

  50. Matthew,
    Great questions. We say about Christ, that He is the Truth, and that the Truth is a person. Mary’s role in our salvation is a person in the same manner. She is what she did. There was a complete integrity in her.

    I think some modern Orthodox tend to want to downplay what the Church actually says about her. We do teach that she is without sin. She had complete integrity within her life. She is “most pure.” This is by grace, but it is the common tradition.

    There is, in liturgical language, something of an exaggeration. So that we will say, “only hope,” meaning, “only hope because I’m asking you now.” It means, “I’m depending on you.”

    The original language of the Church is Greek (and sometimes Aramaic). We get a bit of Greek culture with that, including its tendency to extremism of expression. I have joked and said that an Englishman reading Greek lives of the saints needs to divide by 3 or 4 in order to arrive at something that seems halfway reasonable.

    At one point in Byzantium, for example, the “superlative” form of the adjective “best, greatest, most wonderful” was used so commonly, that you had to put the word “hos” in from of it (an intensifier) to mean, “the best possible,” when you only meant best. To the extent that our prayers were generated in that culture, we all have to pray like Greeks. 🙂

    On the sinlessness of Mary, just a quick link to a short answer.

  51. Matthew…I recently listened to Frederica Mathewes-Green read an excerpt from her new book, Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity. She read from the chapter on “The Theotokos and Prayers to the Saints.” Here is a part of what she said. “You might be shocked by the language addressed to (the Theotokos) her and some of the other saints in Orthodox worship. For it does seem to be effusive. Worship language is often exuberant; it’s not always careful and precise, like the language of theological description or the creed would be….Our worship sometimes sounds over the top. ‘Save us O Virgin, you are our only hope!’ But we know what we mean. What we mean mostly is, ‘Pray for us!’ We don’t mean that Mary has the power to grant eternal salvation….”
    And she continues. Take a listen on Ancient Faith Radio.

  52. It may be helpful to remember that bombast was as essential to rhetoric in the Roman East as in Republican Rome. The Italian predilection for superlatives I blame on Cicero, perhaps unfairly. The flip-side is of course bdelygmia.

  53. Matthew,

    You write ‘Would you say that when we venerate the Theotokos, we are not so much venerating Mary, but her role in our salvation?’. That’s an interesting question, because it’s so Protestant in it’s nature, rooted in nominalism, functionalism, utilitarian approach that is so pervasive in Protestantism. In my own struggle to grasp the veneration of the Mother of God I have asked myself this same question as an attempt to find some viable explanation for me as ex-Protestant. But as Fr. Freeman has written – I realized that Holy Mary is not just an icon, not an instrument, a symbol, a role etc. She’s a real person. It is a similar mistake as with the Protestant justification theory: we need to have the correct badge (of righteousness) and the reality of our personal existence is secondary.

    I learned from the hymns of the Church that it is not so – the role of a person in the story of salvation is not accidental, but deeply rooted in the reality of his or her personal existence. The one who offered his life to Christ in martyrdom gains an eternal boldness to entreat our Saviour before His throne. The level of self-deprivation a Christian lowers himself to bears fruit in the abundance of glory and power bestowed by the Lord on his servant. If Virgin Mary became a sacred gate through which the Son of God has come into the world, this also means something to Her personally forever. It’s not one-off role, but it is eternal personal vocation and honor and glory and power – to be the Gate through which we also come to the Lord, Her Son, our God. That is why we pray: “O blessed Theotokos, open the doors of compassion to us whose hope is in you…”

    We truly venerate the Mother of God, not because of her role in salvation, but because she became (to put it somewhat ungrammatically) her role in salvation, there’s no distinction between role and person.

  54. @Christian: western rite Orthodox do recite rosary. As a Catholic you should know why Catholic pray the rosary and how. It’s a meditation of the life of Jesus.

    It is the “imagining things” (english isn’t my primary language and i have a hard time explaining what i meant in words) that Orthodox teaching doesn’t recommend, but none of us forbids rosary. It’s a private devotion, though.
    My priest doesn’t forbid me praying the rosary.
    He said,”does it make you love Jesus and adore Mary more?”
    I said,”yes!”
    He said,”so, is praying an act of sin?”
    “No.”

    St. Seraphim of Sarov did pray the rosary, but the Orthodox way (I used to have a link to his version of reciting it, but i lost it). What we Orthodox do is akathist. And our prayer rope is a komboskini/chotki and the prayer is Jesus prayer

  55. “It is of the utmost importance that I honor my mother (by Divine command) and love her.”
    So where exactly is this commanded? Not trying to be argumentative, but trying to get a better understanding of what “veneration” looks like in belief and practice.

  56. TJM05,
    I had in mind the command to “Obey your father and your mother, etc.” Veneration is not worship. But it is a due regard of heart mind and soul towards someone or something (like the Cross of Christ).

  57. My adult Sunday School class is studying the Mathews-Green book on Mary this year. It has been eye opening in many ways. Among other things reinforcing that the veneration and honoring of Mary is neither window dressing nor even optional. Mary is essential to God’s salvific work. She said “Yes” to His incarnation, she said “Yes” to His finishing the work on the Cross, and she said “Yes” once again in her Dormition.

    She was not a accident of birth, but the result of God’s work through His people. As Father Stephen has pointed out it was she who gave Jesus the flesh and blood which we partake of in the Eucharist.

    To dishonor Mary is, in important ways, to deny the actual Incarnation of Jesus Christ and God’s work of salvation. To blaspheme her, as some do, is deeply despicable and comes close to a denial of Jesus and His work altogether, IMO.

    Of course, the Church dealt with this long ago when She anathematized the Nestorian heresy in the 5th century of our Lord.

    As a hymn of our says: (paraphrased) “He made your womb a throne and your body more spacious than the heavens” The title of the George Gabriel book, “Mary: the Untrodden Portal of God” says a lot (just starting the book–available as always from Eighth Day Books).

    With the author’s name being Gabriel I wonder if he might not have some special insight.

  58. Returning to this article after a very frustrating conversation turned argument with a Protestant family member, who insists that Orthodox worship Mary, and won’t listen to my understanding of my own faith. Have you ever written an article on the definition of worship and how it can be that the Orthodox “magnify” the Theotokos without “worshiping” her? It seems like the problem must be in the insufficiency of the Protestant understanding of worship.

  59. Sunny,
    You’re absolutely right. See if either of these articles are helpful. You are likely to be frustrated in this conversation. It is born of a centuries-old certainty that Catholics worship Mary (which they do not in any way shape or form). But it’s been drilled into the Protestant consciousness relentlessly.

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/?s=worship+mary

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/11/19/beneath-her-compassion/

  60. Hi Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this helpful post. Currently inquiring and exploring, prayerfully and openly, the Orthodox church. I am surprised at how quickly I am “getting over” the old protestant horror at the veneration of Mary; just a few readings and listening to what the Orthodox were saying, I could understand, appreciate, and also (most importantly) feel the significance of it. It is no small thing to have borne God incarnate into the world. I liked how one Antiochan Orthodox put it: “Christ loves his mother, as any good son does. We are his Church, his Body, his Spirit is in us: it is right for us to love and honor her.” This made a lot of sense to me, as well.

    I have another question, though. I was wondering what your position is, and what the general Orthodox position might be, on something like this:

    THEOTOKOS: My Son, forgive them.
    CHRIST: I will not forgive them.
    T: My Son, forgive them.
    C: I will not forgive, their hearts are hard.
    T: My Son, for my sake, forgive them.
    C: For your sake, I will forgive them.

    I think this is written on the gates of a Serbian orthodox monastery somewhere (I heard Fr. Lazarus Al-Anthony talking about it in his video autobiography). I am not as concerned as what this says about Mary as what it says about Christ.

    My question is: Where does this kind of a thing come from, and what is the Orthodox position on it?

    It seems obvious to me that God is Love — Love, which keeps no record of wrongs –and that Christ is God incarnate, the display par excellence of that Love, who from the Cross said, “Father forgive them,” of his unrepentant mockers, and who taught us to forgive our enemies 70×7 times a day.

    For me, even a marginal understanding of the significance of the Incarnation and the Cross makes it impossible for me to believe that anyone would need to convince Christ to forgive for the sake of anything other than his Love. It is precisely He who is God incarnate on the Cross, reconciling the world to himself. This idea of Mary begging a begrudging Christ to forgive us for her sake misses who God is and what the Cross means! Does EO in any way believe that Mary is a “co-redemptrix” and interceding for us in precisely this way? I thought this was a Western idea.

    Thank you for any answers I get; I know this is a late post!

  61. Inquirer,
    That sort of thing comes from the pious imagination of some believers – but not from Orthodox doctrine or teaching. There is, however, the example of Mary’s concern at the Wedding, and her gentle, even unspoken plea resulting in Christ’s compassionate action. There’s much more to that story and its significance in John’s gospel. But it has this image –

    And, of course, there are numerous examples in Scripture of Christ saying no, only to finally say yes. I have always assumed that He has a purpose in the drama of those encounters, and not that He had a hard heart.

    Mary is not Co-redemptrix. However, the prayers of the Church play a crucial role in salvation and a manner beyond our ability to describe. Cf. Col 1:24. We also should not imagine that Mary’s suffering at the foot of the Cross (“a sword will pierce your own soul, also”) is simply about her private, motherly sense of loss. It is a mystical bond with the sufferings of Christ.

    St. Paul himself speaks of the “communion of His suffering” (Phil. 3:10). The word “fellowship” is a terrible translation. The word is “koinonia” and is properly rendered as “communion.” This is a great mystery but a clear reality.

    Mary, Paul, none of us, are co-redeemers, particularly if you’re thinking in terms of the legal metaphor of merits, etc. But our suffering, united with the suffering of Christ participates in all that His suffering accomplishes.

  62. Thanks for the answer, Fr. Stephen, that is very helpful. I had a sense that this had to be something “limited” in its scope; it seemed so foreign to the Orthodox vision of Christ, but I wanted to be sure. That’s interesting about the mystical bond with sufferings of Christ. Food for thought there. Is her bond with the suffering of Christ the same as, or in some way more than or different than that of others who suffer in/with/for Christ?

    Would it be correct to say that the “communion” of suffering is that the suffering of Christ (on the cross) extends into our suffering, and our suffering into him, redeeming it all? Somewhat like the eucharist “makes-present-again” the sacrifice and body and blood? Is Mary suffering in that way only, along with say Paul, or in some way more?

    Thanks again!

  63. Inquirer,
    Your description of the communion of suffering seems on track to me. I think we would say of Mary that her communion exceeds any other human being’s simply because of the unique character of her communion with Christ. He is “bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh,” quite literally. Her union with Him was utterly unique and profound from the moment of His conception. We pray to see God “face to face.” As a mother nursing Him at her breast, think of how many hours a day she did exactly that!

    The Church uses the word “dulia” to describe our veneration of the saints and holy objects. However, it speaks of “hyperdulia” with regard to Mary. She is unique. Not inhuman in any way. But unique. Uniquely full of grace.

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