Why the Orthodox Honor Mary

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Today (August 1) marks the beginning of the Fast of the Dormition, the annual preparation for the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary. I offer this article as reflection.

The 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.

76 comments:

  1. -Father Bless,
    Thank you for such a concise statement of why we venerate the Theotokos. As I continue my Journey into Orthodoxy I find myself drawn ever more to her. As you say, it is deeply personal and beyond words.

  2. Thank you Father Stephen. Will you please write more on this subject? I know you explained it pretty well here, but can you please write more specifically about this paragraph? Specifically can you explain what the last 2 sentences mean? Can you also explain why veneration is not worship?

    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.

  3. When Eve tempted Adam we fell from God’s Grace. When Mary agreed to be the vessel for Jesus we found Redemption.

  4. Dear Father Stephen,
    I am sure I mentioned this before in so many words, but your continued blog writing has made you excellent at distilling Orthodox tradition in the face of opposing and/or incorrect doctrine. It comes with practice, by writing posts, reading questions and painstakingly answering them. You have probably done more of this than anyone that has ever lived, giving you a unique place in Orthodox history. I am constantly amazed. This is an excellent post in every way imaginable. It is thorough, accurate, and yet able to be read by anyone. May God continue to bless your efforts, and may others see Him through your work.

  5. Ananias,
    Veneration and worship are very different things. Worship belongs to God alone – it is the complete adoration of the creature for his Creator. It is infinitely beyond anything else.

    Veneration, however, is the simple act of holding someone or something in right honor – proper regard. The Theotokos is the greatest of all human beings, the one whose very flesh and blood was united with the flesh and blood of God. Indeed, the Church affirms that Christ “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.” Her flesh now becomes His flesh. Indeed, we must admit that she has an eternal share in His Body and His Blood by which He feeds us.

    This does not make her God. But it illustrates the depth and fullness of grace given to her and the singular position she holds within all of humanity.

    So, we honor her above all human beings, even more than the angels. But that honor is infinitely less than the worship that belongs to God. It is not actually “less,” because it is not worship at all. It is simply honor.

    Honor, right honor, is due to everything and everyone. It is love, not some generalized abstract love, but the particular regard and love that is due to a particular person or thing.

    Protestantism, having abandoned the honor due to the saints, has forgotten all of this. Instead, it most often honors politicians, movie-stars, rock and roll heroes, athletes. It gives honor where it is not due. Then it recoils at true honor, rightly given.

    If we rightly understand what happened in God becoming a human being, and the role Mary played in that (she was not simply a “rent-a-womb” as I once heard a Protestant describe it), then we would understand that we cannot separate Christ the God/Man from her. Veneration is what not separating her looks like.

    I’ll write at length on the incarnation itself. I think the fullness of its meaning is lost on many people.

  6. Father, after studying Mary last year in our adult Sunday School using Frederica Mathews-Green’s book, I finally realized how integral honoring Mary is to our faith.

    I wonder if those that do not venerate her and the saints have any idea what worship is and merely venerate Jesus?

    I don’t mean that in a harsh way, just wondering.

    Certainly, your point that those who don’t Mary have failed to begin to grasp the Incarnation is absolutely true.

    Look forward to your explication of that reality.

  7. Many years ago, when I was beginning my journey to Orthodoxy, someone made this point to me:

    The Orthodox are disciples of both Christ (in venerating Mary) and Mary (in worshiping Christ).
    Protestants, by contrast, are only disciples of Mary (following her in worship of Christ), while refusing to be disciples of Christ (refusing to follow Him in venerating Mary).

  8. Fr Stephen (et al):
    Christ’s words to Mary “What have I to do with thee?” are a quote from the OT (1 Ki 17, MT). There, Elijah multiplied food, which resulted in the widow’s son dying. The widow then gave these words to Elijah before Elijah raised him from the dead: “What is there between you and I, O man of God? Have you come to kill my son?”
    In the NT, Mary asks Christ to repeat this miracle by multiplying food. (highly suggestive that she knew exactly that she was asking Christ to begin His ministry). In giving the widow’s words back to Mary, Christ is reminding her what happened originally -the food was multiplied and the widow’s son died. Christ is essentially asking Mary if she is ready for that – for His death. Mary answers essentially “Yes. I am ready. Do whatever He tells you.”
    It is exactly as you say, Fr. Stephen. This connection, of course, is far more obvious in the LXX than in the MT.
    PS The original quote was addressed to “Man of God”, thus Christ is addressing Mary as “Woman of God.” It is worth noting in this regard that in the OT the phrase “Man of God” was a highly loaded term designating Elijah as the most important person ever [so important it was believed – of him alone – that he would return again from the dead (to herald the coming of the Messiah). Many modern Jews still set a place for him at the ritual table, believing that he will return at the end of the world].
    When one realizes from whence Christ’s words to Mary originate, contemplating them goes ever deeper and deeper. They are truly Theological words. Words which carry import in communion with the venerated Theotokos.

  9. Since I was raised largely by a single mother and grandmother, I have always held deep respect and appreciation for women. It is therefore so refreshing and wonderful to experience the respect, honor, and love afforded to Mary the Mother of God in Orthodox prayer. In some ways I almost find it more natural and comforting to approach her, given the circumstances of my upbringing.

    I find that veneration of Mary also gives the lie to the notion that Christianity is some purely patriarchal construct dedicated to oppressing women or whatever radical feminist revisionism would declare – something of no small significance in explicating the Gospel in these topsy-turvy times.

    It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos!

  10. This is an excellent article. It is always amazing to me when I read that Jesus was not thought of as divine until Constantine made him a God. The comments of the Jewish scholars throughout the Gospels makes it perfectly clear that they knew that Jesus was telling them that He is God. They had no doubt about what He was saying. Too often people take the lazy way out and just quote what the latest “expert” says instead of actually reading the Gospels.

  11. If the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics were to allow women priests and bishops that would destroy the feminine nature of the church. The paradox/balance between the male hierarchy and Mary would be lost. You need both to form a beautiful synergy. It seems that woman priests in the Anglican Communion has weaken the veneration of Mary.

  12. Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen! So wonderful for this former Protestant and now Orthodox Christian of 10 plus years to read and reflect on during our Dormition Fast!

    I have recently read Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s God and Man and his comments on the Wedding at Cana truly opened my eyes even more to why Christians must allow for the truth of the Theotokos as you express here. Glory to God for All Things!

  13. Thank you, Father, for this article!

    It is something that came to my mind few months ago, namely that if the NT writings reflect the theological outlook and practices of the early communities that produced them, then what does it tell us about Mary? I came to see St Luke’s infancy story in a very different light. What if the angelic greeting is in fact a quotation from the early Church’s prayer life? What if the Church first invoked Mary as the Kecharitomene, as the most blessed among women and only then St Luke inserted these praises into the mouth of Gabriel (we know this practice from our liturgical tradition)?

    There is so much more that can be explored in this vein!

  14. Thank you father for this post and for all the ones before . I look forward to it each week .
    Deacon Abdelnour Abdelnour

  15. We venerate her because of her role. And then we thank and glorify God for how he didn’t merely “appear” in the flesh, in human form, but connected Himself to humanity permanently, and by doing so, offers each of us an invitation to recognize that connection and participate in His life.

  16. Helen,
    Yes, but. We venerate her because of her role, but we must understand that her role and her very self, soul and body, are all one thing. A woman bearing a child does not simply carry out a role, she is the role. And the motherhood of Mary, and its role (and all that it entails), is more than simple motherhood, it is the motherhood of God the Savior, and is a role that itself belongs to the salvation of the world.

    The bifurcation of “role” and “person” or “role” and “flesh” is very compatible with the legal understanding of salvation nurtured by many Christian groups. There, salvation is somehow removed from the true flesh and blood of our humanity and becomes only a legal idea. It is little wonder that such groups are able to denigrate the importance of Mary. In truth, they actually denigrate the role of Jesus Himself. His suffering and death are merely ideas to them, a satisfaction of the Father’s wrathful demands. It is an account of salvation that has no real flesh and blood, no sinews and nails. It is only a transaction, to which any pain and suffering are incidental.

    But we have come to think this way about many things – and it is insidious in its consequences. We become abstracted from our own bodies, as if the life of the mind had an existence separate from the life of the rest of the body. It is what I have called “Two-Storey” thinking.

    Forgive me for saying so much. I only saw an occasion for saying this by reflecting on your phrasing. You clearly understand all of this in your words of “connected” and “participate.”

  17. Helen, we venerate Mary for who she is and why she is. God planned for and prepared the woman Mary to be Theotokos.

  18. Bob, the RCC is apparently considering women deacons. Seeing as how they also allow women to be altar servers and Eucharistic ministers, it seems that Rome is already far down that road.

    The Orthodox Church may be the last to not succumb.

  19. James Isaac, you are correct but it is not always perceived that way. A dear protestant friend if mine often remarked that she found it hypocritical that we Orthodox put icons of Mary above our altars yet did not allow women to serve there.

    She was a hired choir director for the parish in which I was received by the Church. Despite singing Theotokians and being frequently surrounded by the reality, she refused to see it. It remained hidden to her.

  20. Thank you Father for expanding. While I didn’t mean to separate the Theotokos’ role/personhood, your response helps me to pay better attention to this importance.

    Yes, my aim in my comment was to recognize my “Eureka” moment in that ultimately, it all goes back to Him and my gratitude for His love and grace in everything. These last few days especially, I have been enveloped in this love as we spent time in the hospital with my brother-in-law, Nickolas. He passed away yesterday morning, and if I may ask for your prayers, Father, and for the prayers of this beautiful online community, for his soul and the comfort for this family as we learn to live with the big hole he left behind. He was only 66 years old.

  21. Bob,
    I think Mary is key to understanding women in every possible way, as well as men. She is a key element in theological/anthropological reflection that is too often neglected. I do not think there will ever be a change in the Church’s teaching viz. the priesthood, though the diaconate will doubtless receive lots of debate. Almost every reason that I hear in our current context for women in the diaconate is, for me, a reason to not do it. We live in a time of terrible confusion about male and female. This means that we are probably the least competent people in history to think carefully about this manner. Cultures that are destroying families do not need to have a voice on the roles of men and women in the Church – the culture needs to listen – and we need to find ways to speak.

    When people ask me questions about women’s ordination, I generally respond, especially if they are not Orthodox, that it is impossible to discuss this topic without some common understanding and affinity for the place of the Theotokos in the life of the Church.

    Modernity is all about consumption. Language of vocation, fulfillment, freedom, etc., are all simply code words for becoming a more effective consumer in the deluge of modernity. It is the destruction of what it means to be human – for men and women.

  22. Father, that may have been a part of it but I knew her pretty well. She was an educated and delightful lady who was of the pre-WW II generation of women artists and musicians that stood up for themselves against men.

    They were pre-feminist.

    My mother and my aunt were much the same. My mother was mortally offended by the Episcopal service analogous to our Churching because it offered prayers for the cleansing of women after childbirth. My mother, memory eternal, was preparing to become Episcopal but after that she would have nothing to do with any church.

    My friend was not as offended, but definitely enough to comment on it. She was a Methodist, BTW and went to her own church either before or after leading the choir. Quite odd I always thought.

    She was not initiated into the mystery despite being around it quite a bit.

  23. May I ask a question to get a clearer understanding of the Orthodox view on Mary. I too revere Mary the mother of God, she is part and parcel of Jesus’s existence in his physical male form in/ at a time and place narrated in the Bible, though I am neither Catholic or Orthodox. I looked up the word “Theotokos” and it referred to a TITLE being attributed to Mary, at some point.
    So what is the problem? It was woman who Jesus accepted in what ever cultural or political state/milieu he found woman in during his few years journey on earth, it was woman who stood by him to the end, and it was woman who came to the graveside and found him gone, it was woman who ventured to the apostles and informed them that he was gone and risen, and Mary Magdalene became the 1st Apostle to the Apostles after his death. Woman has always been the carrier of his life and light since then. Every Reformer, or Man, in the Catholic or Orthodox tradition can trace their existence back to an existence of woman, they have a navel right, his or her mother, and it probably was the mother from whom most men get any kind of religious or spiritual sense of being.
    Some one posted before, in a beautiful comment, about seeing the face of his/her mother before it has any kind of identity as the first sense of what it means to look into the face of God. Children do believe when they are little our parents are God.
    Woman has always played a vital and major role in life and in the continuum of the Church, or any kind of life on earth.
    I wonder though why always the comparisons with Protestantism. Is it only thru them that you know who you are, kind of like Judaism constantly needing Christianity to elevate or insure separation from the rest of humanity. (elitism) Which tells me that even Orthodoxy is not ankered and knows itself only by what it is not.
    The problem with Mary for the Protestants are the icons, not Mary herself. My Father always had a picture on the wall with Mary and Baby Jesus. He revered his spiritual mothers who raised him and so did my mother. I think the problems is not with Protestantism, but with the emerging of psychology of Nietzsche etc. and the Jewish actual females place in past cultural societies that contribute to an irreverence toward woman and motherhood. (not to mention the woman burned at the stakes) Woman’s plight was miserable, and you can not deny her fight in modern times. Men have destroyed countries in their power-struggles, and it was woman who have always rebuild time and time again. No sane individual can ever forget or deny the heroic works of woman, who by the millions go unrecognized or rewarded. But God knows each one by name and joins her to Mary.
    Yes, there is no Jesus, the man showing his compassion, love and forgiveness toward his fallen world, without Mary in her humanness and their (together) humanity (humility).

  24. Maria,
    I do not write in order to bang on Protestants, or to use them as a point of definition for Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy existed when there was no other Christian group to contrast it to. It stands on its own, quite well. However, I live and write in what is an American context, though I have readers across the world. But the American context is a culture that has been formed and shaped by its Protestant history. That history has often changed the meaning and interpretation of so many things that unless I am quite clear in pointing those things out, and doing some contrast, then what I am saying will either not be understood, or will be misunderstood.

    Protestantism itself is largely coterminous with modernity itself. They were born at largely the same time out of the same ideas. I believe those ideas are a serious distortion of the classical Christian faith and need to be addressed. Many Protestant readers find this helpful, in that it helps them with a more nuanced existence as a Christian, even if they are not Orthodox.

    I’m glad you have a high view of Mary, although much of what you say is simply a high view of women, of whom she is obviously one.

    Theotokos (“the one who gave birth to God”) is a title used for Mary from at least the 2nd century. Its usage was attacked in the 400’s by the heretic, Nestorius, who was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. After that time, the Orthodox always refer to her with that title to affirm that Council and the teaching which it defended. Nestorius wanted to only call her “Christotokos” (“the one who gave birth to Christ”). He made a very false division in Christ – essentially making Him some kind of hybrid combination that would, under analysis, be neither God nor man, but something else.

    Some of the thoughts and careful language of the Great Councils seem unnecessary to many modern Christians – but that is mostly an indication that they are not Orthodox and have some other over-riding notions in their Christianity.

    As to women and history, some have contended that if women ruled there would have been less war, etc. However, modern women who hold power have shown just the same abilities to order the wholesale slaughter of innocents as their male pregenitors. Sin knows no gender boundaries.

  25. Thank you Fr Stephen.

    Many times in reading the Gospels I think of Mary’s presence in the human psychological make-up of Christ. I often wonder in John’s Gospel about what John knew from her as her second “son,” and it seems to me that there are hints there in the text of a depth of knowledge resulting from this relationship.

    But there is something I wanted to introduce because you often write so deeply about shame and the experience of shame. You wrote in a recent post that people experience shame at the “Cross,” so to speak, because our sins or shortcomings are recognized there. But for myself and other women I know, often it is different. Shame is experienced from the “world” — and not from the encounter with God. As you indeed said, God does not shame us. God gives us loving correction. For those who have endured any kind of abuse (particularly childhood abuse), this is such an extraordinary difference from the social adjustment they “learned” that there is no shame at all associated even with learning of our failures at the hand of such a loving Parent.

    What this has to do with Mary is just thinking about Jesus’ behavior toward women in the Gospels; not only those who supported Him and ministered, but also those who were sinful. Sometimes I can’t help but feel that the Mother who may have been herself put to shame socially for being pregnant without benefit of marriage also contributed — at least in the human side of His identity — to this understanding. That in itself, that the Theotokos could well have been a victim of society’s condemnation, is perhaps an illustration of the sort of shame I mean.

    I’m sure I haven’t expressed myself well or fully, but I wanted to bring up the ideas as part of response and dialogue with you and others. I think this type of social shame is *still* enormously a part of the Cross, as the crucifixion also was intended to be an instrument of the deepest shame and condemnation put upon Christ. Its transfiguring power is still all there even from this point of view, as well as the need for encounter with God for healing and identity.

    Mary, in the experience of countless people, is a very essential balm with such problems. She is the one who knew the sword that would pierce her heart as you noted. She seems to feel our pain even when we can’t. I know that sounds weird, but it’s a product of experience.

  26. PS correction in the traditional sense is still necessary for innocent victims of abuse, because so often our human response is incorrect in terms of compensation or self-protective behaviors that still “miss the mark.” This especially is true for an understanding of humility or humiliating experiences.

    To Justin — Also, perhaps it was Justin who brought up “the sword that would pierce her heart.” At any rate, I also want to thank you Justin for the Scriptural insights you offered.

  27. Janine,
    I suppose I don’t tend to analyze these things psychologically – particularly with regard to Christ or the saints. Their human experience is much deeper than what you and I experience as psychology. Mary, however, is not ashamed in the presence of God. She is utterly humble, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Humility dissipates all shame.

    There is, for lack of a better word, a “mystical” depth in these things that takes us beyond psychology – and it is in those depths that we find true healing of the soul. Most of what we experience and describe on the psychological level is noise, disordered and confused. The answer is deeper. What we call psychological will mostly remain noisy.

  28. Thank you Fr. Stephen. I always find your answers open more questions for me, a very good indication of what you are teaching. But I will try to restrain myself a bit 🙂 God bless

  29. Thank you Fr. Freeman for taken the time to explain, I appreciate it, and in no way do I wish to diminish Orthodoxy, anyone or anything, as I only wish to understand. Yes, and I do hold woman or motherhood in high regard, because in her lays the womb of all civilization, and I’ve seen done to her dreadfully heinous crimes, in subtle and less subtle fashions predominantly by male-counter parts. That woman tend to imitate men now, to escape their nothingness in the eyes of men, is understandable, but as you have already written in other essays, it is regrettably in error and a mistaken form of who Woman/she really is.
    Men have been dominating the world, from my European perspective, and thank you for letting me learn from yours, and I have come to the conclusion, with all humility and prayer that I can muster, that man is destroying every pillar we stand on, even our spiritual and religious pillars in family and society. (your enemies will be in your own household) To navigate a community within this destructive environment takes survival skills, beginning in with your own family and your own off-springs. I raised a Navy Seal, yes secular, emotionally and psychologically strong, America took my boy and made him into an Atheist/Agnostic, (and I could cry over it) before I ever got a chance, but I still have one more chance with my youngest, to instill in him a respect and love for life, compassion, and respect for woman, the sacred, nature and the holy. (not war)

    Perhaps your concern is only for the Orthodox Church, while mine is living in the world with all of God’s Creation, diminishing or making less of no one, but allowing everything to exist. And I don’t think in so doing I will make less of Christ or his Church (and it is his call who is his Church and who isn’t, ) but rather I would like to partner with him in his humanity, as I believe all Christians are destined to do and be so. And that means not to close your/my eyes to the plight of woman, men or children where there is need. (she didn’t) I can know all things, but if I have not LOVE, I have and know nothing. Was it not LOVE that raised him from the dead.

    I am also learning a lot here on your blog and I thank you for writing and sharing so much with us. It most certainly is your calling.
    And sorry, I do feel a little banged on, although denominationally unaffiliated at this time. I do love, honor and respect all my previous human teachers and would not change them for the world.

  30. Maria W. Your pain sounds deep. American culture wants to turn everyone into an unbeliever, even a God hater; especially those who serve in the military.

    Mary can help.

  31. Maria,
    Thank you for the response. Some of the things that you say seem to have a perspective of victimization. “America took my boy and made him into…” Your boy is clearly a man and has to make choices. It’s more complex than simply what someone did to him. The parents who raised him are also involved. All of that is to say that everything is more complex than simply describing history as men destroying everything. We live in difficult times.

  32. There are many beautiful men (spiritually) and there are many more, I believe, who would be beautiful if we prayed for them in the kingdom instead of looking at them like dangerous predators.

    The way is narrow but every man has a heart that we may be privileged to see if we love each man we meet.

  33. Fr. Stephen, thank you for a clear and well written exposition on one of the most ‘debated issues’ throughout Church history. What I often come across in my interaction with protestant and evangelical pastors is that they believe that the veneration of the Theotokos and the worship of the Holy Trinity looks very similar to them. My question to you would be: If the perception of orthopraxy does not communicate (communion under way) orthodox theology to the ones that are in need of it, how do we remedy that? May Christ’s peace be with you.

  34. Dear to God Maria W.;

    I reverence for the Mother of God is also a commentary on the role of women in God’s work of salvation on earth.
    She is considered our Protectress (not some violent army general); she is gentle, humble, patient. She- this woman– is the prototypical Christian. She is the example we are all given if we want to know how to be Disciples. Indeed in Christ, we are all feminine (being his Bride) and our soul must be like a woman to Christ the Bridegroom.

    The myrrh-bearing women were the “apostles to the apostles”; something in the charisma of the feminine has the capacity to receive and perceive Christ intuitively before the masculine is prepared. It is this capacity that all Christians must learn from; in this way we must all be feminine to our Lord, receiving and perceiving Him in the womb of our hearts.

    As for oppression of women throughout history- of course this is so, sadly (and it can be found in the history of the Church; we’re in the Hospital because we are sick afterall). Women are the “weaker sex” (as St Paul wrote), and the world runs on strength. Might is right in the world; the powerful lord it over those under them. This affects inter-gender relationships primordially, since our Fall in the Garden (see the Genesis story, and prophesy for male-female relationships in the corrupted world).
    Yet it is not so in Christ. In Him weakness is strength; everything is inverted! So we see then that, paradoxically, the “weaker sex” is actually the mightier in Christianity.
    In Him all the walls of separation are torn down and there is neither male nor female. Here is where I have trouble with the way you are framing the issue. I do not think the problem is *men* or masculinity, but the problem is sin. The problem is disordered desire that leads us to dominate and oppress, rather than serve and honour the weak.
    The charisma of the feminine can be as rejected by women as it can be by men. The desire to lord it over, and take by force, can be manifested by women as surely as by men.

    I was just listening to an amazing account of this “inversion of power”- that God is mighty in our voluntary weakness- in the account of the Martyrdom of St Blandina in the year 177AD- A 12 year old slave girl who was victorious over her enemies. Here is a small excerpt:
    “the small and weak and despised woman had put on the great and invincible athlete, Christ, routing the adversary in many bouts, and, through the struggle, being crowned with the crown of incorruptibility. … “Through their continued life the dead were made alive, and the martyrs showed favor to those who had failed to witness. And there was great joy for the Virgin Mother in receiving back alive those who she had miscarried as dead. For through them the majority of those who had denied were again brought to birth and again conceived and again brought to life and learned to confess; and n ow living and strengthened, they went to the judgment seat.”

    To hear more, the story begins at about 14mins. here:
    https://orthodoxsalem.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/behr-01-becoming-human.mp3

    I was sad to hear of your older son’s path. Have you read the life of St Xenia, Fool for Christ? Her husband was a soldier and died at a young age. Xenia wore his soldier’s clothing and repented on his behalf, finding a path to healing and salvation that may well have saved her deceased husband too.
    https://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/01/24/100297-blessed-xenia-of-st-petersburg

    Love in Christ, the humble Servant;
    -Mark Basil

  35. Jakob,

    I think much of the confusion Evangelicals have over this issue stems from their distorted ideas of what “worship” even means. In modern Evangelical parlance, “worship” primarily means singing songs to God– ideally paired with an interior emotional experience of reverence. Evangelical music directors are known as “worship leaders”, and the musical portion of the standard Evangelical church service is called the “worship service” or “time of worship”.

    Thus, Evangelicals look at the Orthodox and see us singing frequent hymns of praise to Mary, and cultivating a reverential emotional connection to her, and conclude that we are obviously worshiping her– after all, we are offering to the Theotokos what they offer to God and call “worship.”

  36. Jakob,
    I recall the many questions I had about Orthodoxy. Before becoming Orthodox, a deacon took me with him on a weekday to Ben Lomond, at the time a thriving Orthodox church. He introduced me to Fr. Terry, of blessed memory, the then youth director. He had a great sense of humor, as all who work with youth need. I was telling him of my struggles with Mary. He turned to me as we were about to enter the church and said, “Kinda sticks in your craw, huh?” Well, yes, it did at the time. I think that this struggle with her is a very common one for evangelicals investigating Orthodoxy. I believe that the Holy Spirit, for most men at least, will pull them to Orthodoxy through other means, and not through an immediate attraction to the Theotokos. For me it was worship, principally the liturgy and major teachings of the faith. I still struggled with saying things like, “Holy Theotokos, save us,” for a long while after becoming Orthodox. More than reading about her, it was the veneration of her and her icons, and asking especially that she reveal the truth of herself to my heart, that slowly created in me a love for her. I think that this is part of the inner piety the Church holds for our blessed Mother of Christ. So, I don’t know that I would even argue about her to anyone outside the Church. As Fr. Freeman has written, he won’t discuss ordination of women, etc., with those outside of Orthodoxy because one must be in the Church before there can be any understanding or common ground on the subject. It indeed requires a paradigm shift of the heart to know and venerate, lovingly, our most blessed and holy Lady Theotokos.

  37. Fr. Freeman, free will if you believe in it. Ignorance is bliss, and victimization is always seen from the perpetrators perspective not needing or having to take responsibility. You must be able to relate from experience. Thank you for your glib reasoning. Lessons learned.

  38. Maria,
    I did not mean to be glib. Forgive me. But there is a danger in the reasoning of victimization – a danger for the soul. My point was the complexity. None of us are innocent. We are all quite complicit in the world in which we live. No group has the honor of perpetrators to the exclusion of others.

    I am a father of 4 children. I understand the angst we have and how we grieve over the path their lives sometimes take. Our hope is not in punishing the guilty but only in the mercy of the good God who saves us all. Unbelieving children as well. It matters much more to God than it does to us. The foolishness of unbelievers is a little thing in the sight of His mercy.

  39. Thank you Fr. Freeman, a word of compassion helps for some of the mistakes I made and gives me hope I pray for every day. He was closest to me and I thank God for the special love we shared over many years, but never thought that pain would come. All I can hope is that he and his family will find more in life than…
    He hates me now, because I believe in God. and kept it to myself mostly out of fear to be ridiculed as I have been many times before. I’ve been an anonymous believer most of my life for just that reason. Hate is an awful feeling to receive when you love the ones that hate you.,

  40. Dear Father,

    Your advice to resist the mentality of victimization is sound. This really is something we all, if we desire to draw near to God, must somehow learn to fight in ourselves tooth and claw. A sword pierced the soul of the Mother of God, and her name, Mary (Miriam) means “bitter”, but though she surely suffered more bitterly the injustice of her Son’s passion than any other human being, she is not known for fear, anger, resentment or self pity, but rather humble faith and love that enabled her to glorify God and enter fully into the intercessory work of her Son as no other (though every true Christian will be an intercessor). The first thing that Christ’s Pascha will teach us is that because of Christ we are no longer victims, but my experience is that outside of Orthodoxy (not its institutions, but its living Reality) it can be difficult to see Christ and His Pascha clearly.

    At the same time, because of mass media, we are confronted at every turn with the cruelest violence against the defenseless about which it seems we can do nothing or next to nothing. Psychologists tell us that witnessing violence against someone with whom we identify (such as a parent or sibling or member of the same social group) is as damaging and traumatizing as experiencing the violence personally. If witnessed violence is similar to something we ourselves have also experienced, it can trigger even deeper fear and pain. It can be paralyzing. Such wounds do not admit of easy healing. I know I am not writing to one who doesn’t know these things from experience.

    All that is to say it seems to me that really coming to terms with our own complicity in the sin that can take such monstrous forms and penetrating to see the full humanity of each perpetrator is a very advanced place along the spiritual path. This is something I, having been Orthodox for nearly ten years, still struggle every day to embrace when push comes to shove–even though it was in part this very conviction and intuition that propelled me toward Orthodoxy in the first place. The truth is I still have trouble biting my tongue when some poor distracted or hurried slob like myself cuts me off in traffic! It seems to me only a very real and deep encounter with the love of God can change this sense of being victimized by the evil perpetrated in the world (and even by “God” Himself as we, in our fear and blindness, sometimes conceive Him–conflating Him as we frequently do with other authority figures in our fallen human experience), and save for a radical intervention of the grace of the true God, we gain ground in this area painfully slowly in my experience.

    Forgive what is mostly a digression from the subject of this post, but as it has arisen in comments, I felt it might be helpful to acknowledge this much.

  41. Karen I very much appreciated your words.
    Just yesterday I read for the first time a pastoral letter from Met. Tikhon of the OCA that speaks to one aspect of what you address: a sense of powerlessness in the face of world atrocities. To heal our helplessness he rightly has us shift our gaze inward and essentially, become the change we wish to see in the world:

    “St John is pointing to a fundamental spiritual principle: that real change only begins when we look within our own hearts. Rather than feeling helpless in the face of world tragedies, we need to recall our unity with all of mankind and to respond with prayer for the suffering and the departed. In addition, just as the ascetic struggles of the great saints, in their own time and place, have a cosmic effect, so our own effort to purify our own hearts will have an effect on the rest of the world.

    Thus, a very concrete and practical way that we in North America can respond to the violence in the Middle East is to commit ourselves to establishing peace in our own families and communities. When the Holy Apostle James posed the question: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you?”, he immediately answers with a challenge for us to consider: “Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” (James 4:1).

    If we are truly concerned about the strife in the world today, let us begin by overcoming anger in our own hearts by striving for meekness and humility.”
    — Pastoral letter concerning violence and extremism in the Middle East, on the OCA website, Aug. 10, 2014

    (this word chastises me, as I am very concerned with violence and yet direct so much of my attention outward rather than on the raging war in my own heart. God help me!)

    Also on a personal note, I’m curious when you were received into the Church?
    I was received in the shadow of the Cross, on Sept. 17, 2006. I too am almost 10 years old (yet have scarcely been born, God help me).

    -Mark Basil

  42. It is safe to say that Mary is entirely absent from any theological reflection regarding the incarnation, ecclesiology, or salvation within modern Protestant theology. Absent, actually, from any reverence at all save a couple of Christmas hymns. There is a reason for this, however.

    The absence is an intentional and conscious reaction to Roman Catholic Mariolatry, and everything that position entails, not only the immaculate conception, assumption, and the implications of a co-mediatrix, but the overall skew in perceiving Mary as more approachable, more personal and relatable, than our Savior.

    How non-Orthodox (and non-RC) perceive the Orthodox Church’s veneration of Mary, and why they have questions, is almost certainly connected to what they know about Roman Catholicism’s doctrines and claims. Mariolatry also possesses aspects similar to other “Christian” cults, so that ups the stakes. If you have ever witnessed Mary’s role in certain areas of Southwestern US and Latin American Catholicism, then you know what some non-Orthodox are reacting to when you bring any notion of honoring Mary. That’s why pointing out the differences, the “Why” and the “How” is so important.

  43. Martin,
    Forgive me, but I will take exception to your comments on “Mariolatry” in Roman Catholicism. Historically, the Reformation did not initially come down on Marian devotion – both Luther and Calvin held to the ancient doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity. I think it is more accurate to say that the hatred of Roman Catholics came first and then seized on Marian devotion as something to abhor (never bothering to understand it). The Reformation was not initially a popular uprising, but was largely imposed from the top down (read Eamon Duffy’s works on the English Reformation). But the Reformed countries maintained a steady diet of propaganda until they had managed to demonize Catholicism and almost everything associated with it – frequently in a very irrational manner.

    I am not terribly bothered about the excesses – they are often the product of an incipient syncretism (as in the Southwest). That sort of thing is far easier to correct than the ignorance and hatred that have been nurtured for 500 years to serve the political and economic ends of our overlords.

    There are certainly differences between the Orthodox veneration of Mary and that found in Roman Catholicism – the larger part of which is cultural rather than dogmatic. I think that Catholicism lacks certain elements of the fullness that would help them.

  44. Mark Basil, thanks. I have very much appreciated your contributions in comments to Fr. Stephen’s blog as well. 🙂 I was received on Holy Saturday 2007.

  45. Christ is among us!

    I don’t usually comment here in this wonderful blog bur when I do, it has to be a ridiculously big commentary! =)

    I have to say some things regarding Latin America and our special love for Our Lady Mary.

    I can not but agree to what Fr. Stephen points out in relation to Roman Catholicism. As a convert from the once-greatest catholic country in the world, Brazil, I’ve seen it from my grandmothers homes what is to live in an authentic catholic home, where tender love, piety and reverence toward Our Lady Who is Heaven, the sweet Mother of the Lord Jesus were a constant reality, a reality that mirrored a very traditional upbringing of children, their formation for social and religious life, and the core, the soul of a people where popular faith live intermingled with poverty, slavery and lots of terrible social wounds that still haunts us to this very day. A life lived in the glory of the Cross, a terrible and historic suffering punctuated by an ardent and burning love for God and His Caring, Protectress, Merciful and Loving Mother.

    Orthodox might I be today and I am not blind to the many, clear theological and spiritual shortcomings of romanist marian devotion. It is a complex, vast and troublesome matter for every Latin-American Catholic, and much serious debate is prejudiced by a vicious hatred, constant persecution and hypocrite criticism of our protestant ‘brothers’. Forgive for these harsh words but as a Catholic in the past it was really difficult to even think about ecumenism in a country where you have the living images and memories, even from your childhood, where Our Lady Mary is scorned, hated, persecuted and even insulted by neo-pentecostals ‘brothers’ in Christ. These were terrible, heart-breaking issues for us.

    So you can imagine how traumatic it was my conversion to Orthodoxy. It took time, effort, studies but mainly were not for the complete reframing of my mind by Dostoevsky’s characters I would probably still be lingering in infinite doubts, never wanting to cross the Rubicon of the Orthodox Tradition. It never ocurred to grandma how I had to convert my own love for Our Lady in this process, it was not only my faith in Jesus Christ that has changed in my conversion. She could never understand… I don’t blame her. The roman, poor, deeply marian catholicism, even in these dark times of apostasy, atheism and political correctness remains being the traditional ‘mark’ of Latin America. It is more, it’s the Poor America’s face.

    I see may things now, besides this ‘face’ we used to have here. First, this face is scarred and it is not being exchanged for the Orthodox tradition. It is becoming blurred with very evil doctrines, man-made doctrines. Second, maybe that’s particular latin-american christian identity that makes so difficult to live and to convert to Orthodoxy. We have material problems, of course, our parishes have all sorts of problems, we are so few and still ethnically dependent, but the problem is chiefly cultural and spiritual. It is even hard do tell converted Orthodox here from the average Catholics. Maybe it can’t be otherwise and only the Love and Mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the holy prayers and saving force of Our Lady Theotokos will accomplish what the human efforts can barely dream about, the conversion of Latin America to Orthodoxy.

    Thirdly, I don’t think it is correct to abuse this word, ‘Mariolatry’. It indeed exists, it can’t be denied, but we must try to understand it, not only in our continental context, but in the wider roman-catholic cultural and theological context, particularly in its distorted interpretations of the Apostolic and Patristic Tradition. And… besides the distortions, the pure and beautiful touch of humanity we can disclosure in all of this. I think this is essential. Every sociologist want to know, to understand our region, our country but they fail essentially because all they see in it is… religion (!!!). They think religion in the wrong, detached ways modernity teached them to think, and this is for both, left and right. Marxists and liberals, all of them fail to see, to realize where it resides our soul. It is in Our Lady Immaculate Heart, that is the heart of America Latina.

    That is the delicate, human, tender approach I would ask of everyone dealing with this issue. Theotokos is not a matter to be argued about, she is a real person who we love much, she is the Mother of Our Lord, and Our Mother, the Mother of the Holy Church.

    To add to this discussion I’d like to recommend the following texts:

    https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/20-marian-devotions-latin-america/

    http://www.cartemarialedumonde.org/en/sanctuary-info/our-lady-aparecida-queen-brazil

    Father, if you feel this comment is too much, you are free to delete it.

    In Christ.

    Glory to God for All Things!

  46. Sorry for double-posting but I had to make this important remark:

    And last but no least,

    I ask for your prayers for us, Latin-american Orthodox Christians.

    Pray for America Latina! Pray for the Patria Grande!

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen and all my brothers in Christ.

  47. Fr. Bless,

    Let me begin by saying that I am a long time reader, and a first time commenter. Your blogs and podcasts have been instrumental in helping me acquire an orthodox phronema, even in the years before I became orthodox. I also want to thank all those who comment; you are all a vital part of Fr. Stephen’s ministry, and I benefit greatly from your contributions!

    I suppose that this post has been brewing with some of your writings from weeks gone by; my question seems to be what has bubbled up to the top. As I am a recent convert (a year in January) from a protestant background I have been busy untangling the PSA roots that ensnare my understanding. Your posts have been like sharp and true sheers.

    If you could write, at some length (if I can lean on your generosity), on how we orthodox are to understand and participate in Holy confession. I struggle with the PSA “noise” in preparing and giving confession, especially when I think of or say the line “I have angered the good God against me.” I struggle with my fear of punishment and incurring God’s anger. This fear seems consistent with the rest of PSA thought and so I know it’s origin is the evil one. How do we rightly relate to God in confession? Fr. Serafim’s podcasts on confession have helped me prepare for confession, but I still struggle with my whole mindset (the “noise” if you will).

    Your advice on removing the roots of the PSA weed in this area of my phronema? (If you have previously written or spoken on this matter please include link(s).)

    I am like a sickly infant, take pity on me Father, and remember me in your prayers.

    Kissing your right hand.

  48. Mark Basil and Karen,

    Thank you both for your beautiful posts. So sweet to read and so helpful as so many of the comments are here. All taken to heart sincerely. Blessings!

  49. It’s important to remember that the one person who told the apostles and thus the writers of the Gospels about Jesus before they even knew him was who? The Theotokos.

  50. Father Stephen,

    Glory to God for your ministry to all of us!

    First, a question. Does our Holy Tradition teach us anything about Mary’s life from the crucifixion of her Son until her falling asleep, especially in regards to her role in the early Church and relationship to our Christian forefathers of that time?

    Now, a short reflection.
    In our Greek Orthodox tradition, early in every Divine Liturgy, we chant the first antiphon:

    ” Through the intersessions of the Theotokos, Savior save us!”

    This, of course, reflects our realization of own unworthiness so speak on our own behalf, but also reflects the knowledge that this living, Glorified woman, chosen from all the women who were ever created by God, or ever will be created, actually has a personnel relationship of selfless love for each of us. How else could we expect her to call on her own special relationship with God the Word who took on flesh and to intercede on our be half? Yet, somehow, deep inside, we know this love, and and are emboldened by it. How can we not venerate her for all that she is, including her love for us, the unworthy ones?

  51. My Protestant background is very anti-Catholic, even to the point of being anti-Mary.

    It is amazing how far we’ll go to avoid certain things.

  52. Please, share a short summary of the differences about Mary between the RCC and Orthodoxy.

  53. Terry,
    As part of my catechism reading, my spiritual father suggested that I read: “The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God” by St John Maximovitch. This book discusses and contrasts the Orthodox veneration to other viewpoints and includes discussions on heretical views such as those found among iconoclasts and the “immaculate conception” concept found among the Catholics. It’s a rather short book but worth reading. I highly recommend it.

  54. Thanks, Dee.

    Sounds like an inspiring read. I read some books by and about St John Maximovitch, but not this one. He is a favorite of the local church here and his icon adorns one of our walls.

  55. Michael, I spent twenty years in the military, navy and army. I never experienced the hate you describe in the military.

    Could you, please, explain further.

  56. Father,
    For me, it is enough that her obedience to God was second only to Christ’s obedience to his father.

  57. A fascinating read, thank you. I’m curious about Orthodoxy and have been looking for an answer precisely to the question of why hold Mary in such special regard.

    Might I ask for a clarification on a certain point? Does Orthodoxy ascribe a level of ‘divinity’ to Mary? That is, I have come across some readings that seem to treat her as someone who lived without sin. I can see a reasoning behind that – a flawless human being a vessel for the coming of Jesus who is fully Man and God. However, doesn’t this reduce it to a rather circular argument? That is, if Jesus needed a sinless, holy, physical vessel to be born through then would Mary have needed one too and would this vessel have needed a sinless vessel and so forth?

    Apologies if this question sounds flippant or disrespectful, it’s certainly not my intent. It’s the curiosity of a Protestant mind trying to understand Orthodoxy.

  58. M Dem
    There is no “divinity” attributed to Mary other than that which will be the lot of all the faithful, who become “partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4). There is no sense that Mary had to be a perfect or sinless vessel for the coming of Christ. Her humanity is completely the same as every other human being. The RC’s seem to hold otherwise, because of a mistaken understanding of original sin that is not held by the Orthodox.

    The Church does believe that Mary was preserved from “sin” (in the sense of choosing something other than God) by grace, but not because of something inherent to her person. We do not honor because of any sinlessness (though we do sing of it when we honor her). We honor her because of her unique role of obedience to God and her communion with her Son, who took flesh from her. He is bone of her bones and flesh of her flesh. Essentially, we honor Mary that we might rightly understand and teach the fullness of the incarnation – that God truly became man.

  59. Terry I expressed myself poorly. I was trying to say that the pressure to make people God haters seems to be especially intense on the military right now.

  60. I have a question regarding the Orthodox position on the sinlessness of Mary. Some documents and authors state that the “Orthodox position” is that Mary never sinned during her life. That view is presented in one of Kallistos Ware’s books (sorry, I don’t have the citation) and also here (https://oca.org/questions/saints/sinlessness-of-mary). However, I have read several documents by Orthodox theologians that state the belief that Mary did sin during her life time, but that she didn’t commit a mortal sin. In Metropolitan Maximos’ essay on “The Dogmatic Tradition of the Orthodox Church,” he states that “even after she gave birth to the Son of God, Mary was not exempted from less serious (“venial”) sins.” ( found here, https://www.goarch.org/-/the-dogmatic-tradition-of-the-orthodox-church ). A very similar position is given by Fr. Thomas Hopko, here. ( https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/half_way_through_lent ). I realize that the doctrines concerning Mary are not dogmas in the Orthodox church, but I still am having trouble reconciling these different statements.

    Kind Regards,
    Randall

  61. Randall,
    The hymns of the Church clearly articulate that Mary did not sin. It is worth noting that there are some who hold this to be true of John the Baptist as well. First, you have to step outside of the “Western” concept of sin, its origin and meaning. First, both Mary and John died – they were mortal. For the Orthodox, sin is death. It is not so much a moral category. Our behaviors that are termed “sins” are the consequence of our mortality, a bad response to corruption and death. But we do not die because we “sin.” We sin because we are dying. Christ willingly submitted Himself to the consequence of humanity’s mortality (“He became sin” in the words of St. Paul, 2 Cor. 5). But there was no “sin” in Christ, no moral failing – only righteousness.

    That someone might live in constant union with God in this life is amazing to the Orthodox, but not inconceivable.

    Having said all that, it is correct that there are a variety of opinions on the matter of specific moral choices (sins) on the part of the Mother of God. The variety of opinions is possible because there is nothing that hangs on it, no particular dogmatic understanding is affected one way of another. A way to say this is that the Orthodox do not think that Mary “had to be” free from sin (unlike the RC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, rooted in a false notion of Original Sin – at least that’s what I’ve been given to understand). The larger part of the Orthodox tradition simply believes that Mary was free from sin, as a matter of fact (even if it’s a pious fact).

    The understanding is rooted in expressions within some of the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Church that always speaks of her as “most pure, most holy.” It holds that in the Annunciation, the Incarnation of Christ is much, much more than a mere borrowing of flesh and inhabiting of her womb. It is a personal union with God, in the same sense that we long for such union. In that moment, she becomes Theotokos – not just “tokos.” It is for this reason that the statement “A sword will pierce your own soul also,” is understood to be ontologically true, and not a mere statement about the grief of a mother.

    Mary is in no way “exempted” from venial sins – but she does not break her union with God or with her son – that is – she does not consent to them. She has consented to God alone. Met. Maximos cites Chrysostom’s opinion that Mary was guilty of vanity at the wedding in Cana. I think Chrysostom was wrong and guilty of bad exegesis, failing to understand the mystery within that text. The fathers are not infallible and must not be used as such. It simply says that great preachers get carried away sometimes. Chrysostom, for what it’s worth, is not a dogmatic theologian. He was a great preacher. His work was never part of the dogmatic tradition surrounding the councils. Indeed, I would say of Chrysostom that he is among the most “human” of fathers, clearly showing his own brokenness. He gets himself in trouble with certain excessive actions and statements. He is faithful and he is a giant. But he’s not a great source of theological understanding, except when he is. 🙂

    But – don’t trouble yourself in the matter. It is not a dogmatic concern. The truth of it is something that can be known, I think, on the level of the heart and long experience with prayer and the communion of the saints. But it is not a “theologumenon” to be figured out and believed one way or the other. Just let it sit there.

  62. Fr. Stephen,
    I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I am a little confused about how you are using the terms dogma, theologoumenon, and private opinion in your response. My understanding (which, admittedly, is very limited) is that they are three separate (non-overlapping) categories. (see, https://davidheithstade.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/the-influence-of-v-v-bolotov-on-orthodox-theology/ ). Are you using a different framework for understanding the differences between them? I know that certain RC doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and the filioque are considered to be theologoumena, despite their status as minority opinions within the Orthodox Church tradition. If Mary’s title “panagia” is not a matter of dogmatic exposition (unlike, the title “Theotokos,” for instance ), wouldn’t it fall into the same category?

    In other words, my confusion seems to be stemming from the fact that I cannot tell which of the traditional categories of thought/doctrine you are placing the belief of Mary’s sinlessness into. If it is not a dogma, a theologoumenon, or a matter of private opinion, what is it?

    Of less significance–when you write “she does not consent to them” (referring to venial sins), do you mean she does not “commit” them, or that they don’t have the power to break her communion with God even if she does? I assume you mean the former but I found the word choice a bit confusing.

    Thanks again for responding.

  63. Randall,
    I suppose I’m being imprecise on purpose. Categories such as “pious opinion” or “theologumenon” are not really official categories. They’re simply ways of referring to something that is not necessarily full dogma.

    The problem with all of this is the categorization of these things – it is a borrowing from models outside of Orthodoxy, born of the debates between Catholicism and Protestantism. Once the categories are created, it is assumed that things can and should be categorized. It is a false consciousness (not that the Orthodox haven’t taken the bait time and again).

    Dogmatically, Mary is “Theotokos.” This is declared by the 3rd Ecumenical Council. There is, however, a vast amount of liturgical material that is part of the Church’s consciousness. From outside, it is easily asked, “What is the authoritative status of such material?” One appropriate answer is, “Why do you ask this?” Do we ask the question so that we can create categories within the heart – “This I must believe, but this over here, not so much, etc.” Again, this is a sort of mentality that sees dogma as “saving facts,” things I must believe in order to be saved.

    Many things regarding Mary reflect the texts of the Protoevangelium of James, a book that is not in the canon but whose material has been almost fully incorporated into feasts (including Great Feasts) and the hymnography of the Church. I daresay it is as used liturgically as any of the four canonical gospels. The modern, post Reformation consciousness cannot bear this practice. It violates the various criteria established in the debates of Catholics and Protestants. But – I think it is important to say – it is deeply Orthodox.

    How does the heart sing these things and celebrate their feasts? Do we do it with Protestant reservations – typical of how mere theologumena and pious opinions are treated? I suspect some do. But, again, it is not an Orthodox consciousness.

    For myself, I think we should sing these things and celebrate them with full abandon. Arguing over their basis in historically acceptable texts, etc., is a useless exercise in a false consciousness. That consciousness demands answers that cannot be given and simply engages a critical consciousness that does not save.

    First, over time in the life of the Church, we actually come to know Mary. She is real and true and we have communion with her as we do with all the saints. The Church’s liturgical consciousness (certainly as evidenced in the 3rd Council) demands that we hymn her as “Theotokos.” And, given that the rest of the material regarding her is given to us – we are expected to sing it and take it into ourselves (with abandon is my suggestion).

    Second, I do not engage this material (even with abandon) as a matter of saving “facts.” Those things are given us in the Creed. Rather, they are given to us as, “This is how Christians should speak and sing of the Mother of God.” It is how the sanctified life of the Church has given it voice.

    These things can be parsed as theologumena or pious opinions – though that is not a particularly Orthodox thing to do. It’s almost like needing to diagram every sentence you speak. It’s possible, and grammar-nuts would like that – but you’d never manage to have a conversation.

    If someone pushed me about “do you believe that Mary committed no sin?” How could I possibly answer such a question? How would I know and what value would any opinion that I expressed actually have? I “know” her as “most holy, most pure, most glorious and blessed Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin,” etc.

    It is deeply unsatisfactory within the modern consciousness (which was founded in the fires of the Reformation) to suggest that we sing without nailing down the exact status of these things. But Protestantism is a false consciousness and does not produce the fruit of theosis (I do not mean to say there are no holy Protestants – there are lots of them – but this is the grace of God, not the work of the Protestant system).

    The modern consciousness is equally shocked by the manner in which the fathers used “non-canonical” writings with little concern in many cases. It is for us to stop and ask why and how they could do this and in what manner did their consciousness differ from that of modernity – and why. I think it is because the criteria of truth are quite other than those that have come to dominate the modern mind.

    As to the less significance – yes, I meant she does not commit them, but maintained unbroken communion with God. Sorry for my lack of clarity. I have a hard time conceiving of a soul that has known the intimate union with God represented in the Annunciation simply committing venial sin – just like I find it inconceivable that she was other than a perpetual virgin.

  64. Father Bless,
    If it may help the discussion on any sins committed by our Lord’s Mother, I might be tempted to answer a Protestant that she did not do any of the things enumerated as sins by their system. I have found that the consciousness of sin in the Protestant world is limited to not breaking the rules especially the 10 Commandments. When I ask my Reformed friends especially about their sins they list all of the “be nos” (There will be no murder, there will be no theft) and say categorically that they do not do such things and are sinless. There seems to be in most no understanding of sin as broken communion. Some of my friends have a vague idea that their relationship must right with God, but they see nothing wrong with doing things the way they see is fit without considering what their actions say about their attitudes of obedience.
    I have found discussions abut the Theotokos to be very difficult because of the ingrained hatred many are taught towards her. I had a girl tell me that the Theotokos “did nothing special.” I said to her: “Tell your mother that and then tell me how it went.” I would answer a Protestant questioning me on her sinlessness by asking where in Scripture there is a discussion of her sin. That generally ends the probing and attempted entrapment.

  65. There are plenty of negative threads on the internet on this topic and I certainly had no intention of starting another one. I am not interested in “baiting” or “entraping” anyone. I would plead that you would not assume the motivations behind commenters in the future.

    As for my asking a question that fit into a western systematic mold/worldview, may I suggest that when other orthodox thinkers engage western Christians on these grounds they are not being “baited.” They are simply being “all things to all men” as the gospel encourages them to do. “To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews,” etc….

    Blessings.

  66. Randall
    I was certainly not referring to your questioning as you come across as interested, fair and open to learning. No, not everyone is seeking to entrap but, in my experience in dealing with many friends from before my conversion and people I have met since, especially in my Pro Life work, there is genuine rejection of The Theotokos and I often feel I am being asked questions so that they can ridicule my answers, because they have. Its sad they feel the need to act that way because I am not trying to force anything down their throat. I have one person who keeps trying to get me “saved” which I find amusing. Yes, there are negative strings, but yours is not one of them and I enjoyed your questions. I apologize if you took my comment as a person insult because I was not thinking of you and certainly do not seek to offend you. I cannot recall if you are actually a Protestant so I was not addressing you. Please forgive any offense I have caused.

  67. Randall,
    I understand your point – and I think it’s a very difficult one in discussions with Protestants – precisely because the Orthodox position does not fit within that model/worldview. I think it’s right to be all things to all men and that your questions are appropriate. Mostly, my answers are not to dismiss the questions, but simply to say that this is a problem that cannot be solved in the categories of a western systematic mold.

    It is scandalous outside of Orthodoxy, that we approach certain things in the way we do. My own thoughts are that the more modern models and systems are a deviation from the faith and demand things in a manner that finally deconstructs the faith itself – either dismantling it altogether or rendering it into a very thin simulacrum.

    I have seen priests sometimes take the approach with inquirers that suggests these things be thought of as nothing more than theologumena or pious opinions, and to hold them lightly. It renders, I think, a very attenuated Orthodoxy. I tend to suggest that someone slow down on these things – and understand that they are not ready to think about them yet – or to grasp them in the way the Church does. The Orthodox understanding of Mary is probably one of the most experientially based realities in the Church’s life, and only comes over time for most.

    I’ve been around as a witness any number of times when the “coin dropped” for an inquirer or catechumen, or even for the faithful after a period of time. Often, it is almost a matter of “how could I not have seen this?”

    I do not think it is possible to understand the Orthodox mind on the matter of the male priesthood apart from understanding Mary. It is one of the reasons I don’t generally write on the topic – there are “mysteries” involved that I could hardly find words to describe.

    I knew a woman, a former Pentecostal, who was having “problems” with Marian stuff. She went to her Greek priest. He was pretty clueless about Protestants in general. He told her something quite “Greek.” He told her to go sit in the Church for an hour in front of the icon of the Theotokos. She later told me about it. She said that as she sat there, all of her questions were cleared up and she felt at peace – and she understood.

    I would never have dreamed suggesting such a thing. But there it is. I thought, argued, reasoned for years on the Marian stuff. But in hindsight, I would have to say that none of that approach did for me what over a thousand liturgies have done.

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