Among the greater mysteries of the New Testament are those surrounding the Mother of God. A large segment of modern Christianity has become tone deaf in this regard, a result of centuries of antagonism towards certain aspects of older tradition. It is a deafness that grieves my heart, primarily in that it represents a great gulf within the broader experience of the faith. A few years after my reception into the Orthodox Church, a friend from my Anglican past asked me if I ever thought of returning. He had no idea of how foreign the thought was to me. But within my mind, the first thought was the absence of Mary. I think I said something to the effect that I could never consider leaving “my mother.”
I’m not sure what those who are strangers to Mary imagine goes on in the life of an Orthodox or Catholic Christian. I cannot speak for Catholics (they’re more than capable of speaking for themselves). First, I know that there is nothing even remotely like worship accorded to her. The entire experience of veneration seems to have been lost within Protestant thinking. I often use examples of patriotic feeling, or some such inadequate experience, to suggest analogies. But, in truth, it is an experience that has no parallel.
For one, I have no conception of Mary apart from Christ. She is not someone-in-herself to be considered alone. The traditional title affirmed by the 3rd Ecumenical Council is “Theotokos,” the “Birthgiver of God.” In the same manner, we say of Christ, “born of the Virgin Mary.” Christ is the God become man, and His humanity is utterly and completely derivative of Mary. He is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. It is the nature of our humanity that if we speak of His Body and Blood, we cannot do so in a manner that excludes her from that reality.
But saying this can easily be lost in words of doctrine. Doctrine is always a discussion of reality, and it is the reality we want rather than the words. The Body and Blood of Christ are not an abstraction. They are a sweet warmth within the experience of the believer. How would I describe to the non-Christian the experience of communion? There are no words that I would ever exchange for that singular taste.
The oldest known devotion to Mary can be found in the words of a hymn that is documented to have existed and been sung before the middle of the 3rd century. It remains a very important hymn within Orthodoxy to this day:
Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Theotokos:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble;
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.
Anyone who might suggest that this hymn represents some pagan-importation is simply historically ignorant. The 3rd century is the great century of martyrs when the Church was in constant conflict with the official paganism of the Empire. There is no historical legitimacy for a claim of a paganizing of the faith during this period. Honoring Mary, including asking her intercessions, was perfectly at home within the mind of the primitive Church.
But what heart first uttered this cry to the compassion of the Theotokos? How did the Church learn of such a thing? That compassion is well described, for it was prophesied in Scripture.
At the time of Christ’s presentation in the Temple (at 40 days of age), Mary is warned about his coming role in Israel, and told that “a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk 2:34-35). This is more than maternal grief. Her union with Christ, expressed in the words of her innocent humility, rendered her uniquely vulnerable at the Cross. Christ is wounded for our transgressions, but she is wounded as well. The Church’s instinct and experience says that she is vulnerable to the sufferings of all.
The word translated “compassion” (εὐσπλαγχνία) is itself worth noting. It seems to be a Greek effort to translate a Hebrew word (רַחֲמִים rachamim) and indicates a deep pain identified with the womb. It is the very deep heart of maternal suffering.
The fear of this experience and knowledge, I suspect, is driven by the centuries-old accusation of “Mary-worship,” as well as an idea that anything or anyone given honor other than God represents competition for God, and denigrates His glory. People might argue with the form that honor has taken over the centuries (icons, candles, hymns, prayers, etc.), but at no time has there ever been any intention of offering worship. Indeed, that would be condemned as the worst of heresies.
But we have forgotten the ancient Christian ethos of honor and veneration. The Scriptures nowhere describe God as “alone.” Instead, He is consistently depicted as the Lord of “Hosts” (a vast crowd). The God made known in Christ is a relational God who is Himself described as “love.” The honor and veneration given to the saints within the Church is simply the liturgical expression of love. It is not worship. Generations of Christians, however, have become estranged from the court of Christ, and fancied the Kingdom either as a democracy, or the King without His entourage. They have forgotten the place of the King’s mother and the honor due His friends. In short, we have become rude in our spiritual bearing and made ourselves strangers to heaven.
God is a generous God, quick to forgive. He has not allowed us to destroy the ethos or the witness of the Apostles’ successors. The reality of His heaven abides. We can regain was has been lost, beginning, perhaps, with careful consideration of the doctrine and practice involved (free of passions and mischaracterizations). But only time and usage heal what is essentially a relational matter.
Perhaps reciting the words of that ancient hymn that has found its place on the lips of saints through the ages would be a good place to begin.
We need all the friends we can find!
Written in honor of the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, November 21
Thank you, father.
May you know the sweet compassion of the Panagia, particularly during your time of mourning…
I just finished reading the chapter on The Virgin Mother in John Behr’s book, The Mystery of Christ. Virgin Mother and Virgin Church are interchangeable terms, I believe he says. The womb and the tomb both proclaim the mystery of the risen Christ. “Mary is not the archetype of the Curch, but the symbol of the Church.”
It is a lot for my formerly Protestant mind to take in. Though I, too, can no longer conceive of leaving my mother.
As an Anglican, I had a devotion to Mary, mostly modeled on RC, consisting primarily of the Rosary. I certainly had come to love her and know her love for me. Orthodoxy, however, took all of this to a different place. She is so deeply woven in the liturgical life of the Church – primarily as we go deeper and deeper into the Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. It takes time, but it does not hide itself from us. All I can say about the experience is that without it, there would be a diminishment of the fullness.
Thank you Father. I am enjoying the journey into fullness.
Fr. your statement in the interwoveness of Mary got me. She is not an optional add-on
Never having been a Protestant or any kind of iconoclast I really do not get the deep antipathy some hold for the Theotokos, Mary. It goes beyond simple rejection of RC practice.
It has always baffled me and grieved me. How can one reject the mother of the person you supposedly hold most holy?
At times it seems as if the entire Incarnation is being rejected.
I deeply appreciate the words spoken in this article.
It was only in April of this year that I “found” Orthodoxy. Raised Catholic, abandoned the church only to return at the age of 50 to the Protestant church, after 12 years I knew there was something greatly missing but had no idea what. But God knew exactly what I needed. After a long time of asking, seeking and knocking I “happened” upon Orthodoxy, read as much as I could about it, reached out to several priests I heard on Ancient Faith radio, and finally went to my first service at a Church in my area (there are only two!) recommended to me by Father John Peck. You talk about words failing…I was completely overwhelmed. I think I cried throughout the whole service.
There is so much to embrace. One of them being the person of Mary. In the Protestant churches I went to, not only was she downplayed, but from the pulpit as well, spoken of as “only a vessel”. I swallowed this tooth and nail, the same concepts with the Saints, martyrs and monastics. You used the word “antagonism”….yes, that’s exactly what it is.
I began to pray to Mary…and you talk about bearing a little shame, this was more than a little…I asked her to forgive me of my ignorance, of disparaging her, my (as one of the prayers mention) “stony insensibility” and asked her to reveal herself to me because I want my love to grow towards her…and she is doing just that, in her great compassion.
You mentioned that a friend asked if you ever considered returning to the Anglican church, that he had no idea how foreign that thought was to you. Oh Father, I have had similar experiences in conversing with a dear Protestant friend. She really has no idea. I used to go overboard in my defense, trying to explain, but until the wall she has built up starts to crumble, until that veil is removed, she will not comprehend. I remind myself that I had that mindset not very long ago. Again, a loved one with good intentions said to me “well I hope you found what you’re looking for…that this is “it” (so to speak). I said to myself, well this IS it, and if it isn’t, there is no where else to go, I’ve come to the end of the line, which is actually the beginning!
And Father, I was greatly touched with your response to your friend that you could never consider leaving “my mother”. It came to you as naturally as breathing the air. That’s is my desire…anything past this desire will be done by her intercession (in other words, I can’t make myself by mere desire change my heart). I look to her for rescue.
You mentioned that veneration has been lost within Protestantism. Yes, for example, the aversion to hierarchy is demonstrated in the rejection of the order of bishops, priests, and deacons. I see more veneration in patriotism, the flag, etc, than they’ll ever be in Christ’s saints. It doesn’t even come close. Perhaps because America has never been governed by a Monarchy that this has led to our lack of understanding Kingship and “the place of the King’s mother and the honor due His friends”. Perhaps it is too much of a threat to our perception of individuality, our so called democratic freedom. Little do they know just how much this takes away from the fullness of our faith.
I can go on and on here…there is so much to contemplate…”no conception of Mary apart from Christ”…” Her union with Christ… rendered her uniquely vulnerable at the Cross”…” The honor and veneration given to the saints within the Church is simply the liturgical expression of love”. Thank you for offering the means to this contemplation through the words expressed in this post. I am very much looking forward to partaking the feasts of the season we are now upon.
Thank you, Father. I am just a babe in this great faith Orthodoxy, having been received into the Church by Holy Chrismation mere weeks ago. Your articles have been instrumental in helping me renew my mind. Each feast I experience helps me to put away the 40+ years of Protestant thinking that still surfaces. This article in particular brings more clarity to my understanding and appreciation of Mary, and indeed all the Saints. One of the things that drew me into the faith was this community that exists in and out of time. Thank you for expanding my faith. God bless you.
Father Bless. It is indeed good to reflect upon the Theotokos at this time of year. As you said: “He is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh…” How true and how unique among mothers she is. As I do Pro Life I am surrounded by Protestants and some do directly denigrate Mary. I find myself becoming escalated and defensive. I too would never trade having her as our mother and go back to where I was before. Thank you for this great reminder and for your insight in this article.
Michael, (and Father Stephen), ‘interwoveness’ seems to encapsulate so much of what I see, as an outsider, as Truthful and life giving in Orthodoxy. It has profoundly affected my own theology and perception
Veneration as love – wow. So simply put and so much to think about. This is such a responsibility for me because, if I haven’t love, my veneration is empty and ‘falls off the mark’. If it does so then, by implication it is sinful! So much to think about!
I had a grace filled encounter with a Protestant minister some years ago, Sam Johnson, for whom I still pray.
At the end of our discussion he asked the question, “Is it necessary for salvation to believe about Mary as you do?”
My answer was, “At the very least, you need to do as the Bible says, call her blessed”.
That is the heart of veneration after all, acknowledging the grace of God in Mary and the saints.
My wife mentioned recently that we needed more icons of Jesus on our icon shelf. We have several, but I said without thinking, all the icons up there are of Christ.
Thank you Father. Michael showed me this today and it brought tears. I know, first hand, how our mother Mary feels our pain and how much She loves and cares for us. The prayer is beautiful. One thing I especially love in our faith is that I can openly love and thank her in person, for her love and compassion for a grieving mother here on earth. She loves and cares so much for all of us. As a true mother. We are blessed.
In reading back through this post and reflecting on compassion it occurred to me that our cultural rejection of Mary and indeed of women is connected to our lack of capacity to bear suffering?
Just a thought/question.
These are very beautiful words, but I immediately thought of when David sins by sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering Uriah, his cry of repentance is, “Against you and you alone have I sinned, O God.”
This seems to me troubling when considering the paradigm you have elaborated, one of a family or court of God. It seems to me that if I were rude to Mary, or if I insulted her, I would ask *her* forgiveness, for she is worthy of my respect in and of herself. But David did no such thing, and God seems pleased with that. God’s is wrath is assuaged when David says, “I have sinned against you *alone*”, as if any other creature is really not the one we sin against, or even worth asking forgives of.
In short, David’s cry of repentance (“against you alone”) and God’s pleasure with it seems to suggest that the “King without his entourage” model is the one God is most satisfied with. How do we respond to this, or better understand it?
Thank you, Fr. Stephen! Yesterday at the Honors college student Forum, I and a new convert to Catholicism held forth on the veneration of the Saints (against two very animatedly dissenting Prots). As I am friends on FB with many who were there, I will point them to this: it’s excellent.
I’ve held professional roles that typically have been dominated by men. My mere presence typically ‘rocked the boat’ and I had to develop a ‘tough skin’ to the antics against my presence.
Years later, after I became a catechumen into Orthodoxy, I was criticized for adhering to a ‘new religion’ that is “patronistic” and “male-centric”. I asked why they had this perception and they pointed to the icons that I had on my shelf which were predominantly Christ at the time. I did have an icon of the Theotokos but it was very small. So I got a beautiful and significantly bigger and noticeable icon of the Theotokos that now sits at the right hand of Christ’s icon. I said nothing about it but noticed I haven’t heard a word ever since in that vein of criticism.
I ask the Theotokos for her prayers for my loved ones. I too have a pierced heart and I know she sees my heart.
Actually, you are reading David’s cry incorrectly. He certainly could not say that he had not sinned against Uriah the Hittite (Bathsheba’s husband). By “against you only have I sinned,” carries the sense of “most of all,” rather than “only God.”
For one, it is taking this single expression and ignoring the entire witness of every description of God in His court. David’s cry is the recognition that his sin is not just against a man, but against God as well. And, in that sense, it is saying that his sin is even greater than he had thought. He was not merely doing Uriah wrong, but was doing wrong to God Himself.
I am not particularly concerned about whether or not I have “insulted” the Mother of God – rather, with David, I would say (had I insulted her), that it is, in fact, God whom I have insulted for His Scripture declares that she should be called blessed by all generations. He exalted her. If I choose to disparage her, then it I have set myself against Him.
The “entourage” is not something that exists in order to make it harder (for we are part of that “entourage” as well). It is the true fellowship of the King – the communion of the faithful. We’re not Muslims who pursue some abstract “alone to the alone.”
Such a beautiful article, Father. Many thanks!
I was once asked by my priest why I stand to the left of center in our parish church and I replied that I often feel very close to the Mother of God and like to stand in front of her icon. He simply nodded and said, yes, that is true of many people. I have felt the brush of her hand on my cheek and been comforted when I cried out in prayer during Liturgy. I am very thankful for her intercession.
I remember when my mother and I visited a Catholic Church to hear Immaculee Ilibagiza speak. While standing in line with some of their parishioners afterwards, one woman was very quick–almost desperate–to relate to us that they do not worship Mary. We both knew that and assured her of it. I always found her statement a bit odd (this was well before I became Orthodox), but I am beginning to understand her concern now.
Excellent blog! Thank you, Father.
Father Stephen your blessings.
In recent days the very last point you made has really rung true. Even the friends and others that come in to our lives carry in them a little bit of that paradisal community in them. This idea has helped me understand why I know the people I know. They all bring something unique to our encounters. One perseveres, another is inclined to be silent, another is bold. The potential for them all to play their part in the symphony of paradise is there.
Regarding the Mother of God, today I came across an icon, panagia paramythias. I did some research and was astounded by story behind the icon which depicts the Infant Christ covering His Mother’s mouth. I will post the link.
Thank you for this most wonderful post. You mentioned the warmth of the taste of Christ in our mouth in communion, and how this cannot be explained to non believers. And I think of these words from a prayer to His most pure mother, “…Whose warm protection shall I have, and who shall be a helper in my distress.” And the “great cloud of witnesses, ” and the souls of those under the altar that cry out to God. What an entourage of Christ, the God of the living and not of the dead!
“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Thank you, Fr Stephen.
Once, I asked my wife (who is a neo-protestant): “Who do you think can call Christ ‘my beloved Son’?” She said, “God the Father”. “True, but who else?” “That’s all”. “What about Mary? Could she call Christ her beloved Son?” “Well… this doesn’t matter”.
Personally, I believe it does matter. Mary is not just a vessel. She is “Theotokos,” the “Birthgiver of God” who is worth of our praise, veneration and love. St. Justin the Martyr refered to the Virgin Mary as the “new Eve,” based on the fact that Christ was the “new Adam”. The “new Eve” said “yes” to God where the first Eve said “no.
We can’t be sure about ourselves but we know that Theotokos and the saints belong to the body of Christ. They are having communion with the Lord while we are still on the earth, living in our sins. It is our Christian duty to pray for each other. The Orthodox saints don’t stop being Christians after their death. They are still Christians. Moreover, they are with Christ. And we ask Theotokos and the saints to pray for us to the Lord, in the same way we look for the prayers of our friends and relatives. From our experience, we see that it’s quite often when a friend’s prayer is more effective than our own prayer. But how much more effective a prayer of the Mother of God and His friends (saints) who pray for us! What kind of people are we if we can’t be grateful to Theotokos and the Lord’s friends for their love, prayer and help?
Thank you for that link to the Panagia_Paramythea icon. It sure does have an astounding story behind it! Made me think of the power of prayer and even more so here with this interaction between Christ and His Mother.
I appreciate your clarification that I set myself up against God in disparaging/insulting Mary as I did in the past. That is to say, when we disrespect another person, at the same time we disrespect God. I asked her forgiveness just as I would ask someone else to forgive me after insulting them. I felt particularly shamed because she is Christ’s mother. Still, I think I am missing something in your statement. Am I?
Love & Blessings to All Mankind is what our Christ is and the acceptance of the Theotokos of God’s invite to bear Jesus is due to her Love of God.
Thank you Fr. Stephen for this great article & explanation. How can any Christian deny the Love of the Theotokos is beyond me. From the beginning, the first Miracle of our Lord & Saviour was honoring His mother. Can we do less?
BLESSINGS to you & yours Father.
The Church New Year is celebrated on September 1st. As a cradle Orthodox I somehow missed that fact until my mid 30s.
Now I look with amazement at how the Theotokos’ Birthday, September 8 and the Dormition on August 15th frame the year, pointing to how our salvation is encompassed in hers.
One thought for your wife just in case you would like to share it with her
Christ is so generous He not only shares His Father with us, He also shares His mother.
And she is a mother who knows her children, pressing her younger ones closer to the shoulder of Christ.
without her having said yes to Christ we would not have the opportunity
Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comment! I will share it with my wife.
I realized the other day, having come out of evangelical protestantism, where it was the practice to give children names from the Bible, that while I knew a lot of kids with names like Joshua, Abigail, Bethany, John, Luke, Rebecca, Isaac, Lydia, Jacob, Peter and even Trinity, Boaz and Jemima, I can’t recall ever meeting a little Mary in that circle. It made me sad to remember, again, that there was something of an aversion to Mary before I came to Orthodoxy. Thank you Fr Stephen, for calling us again and again to deepen our understanding of our holy Mother in the faith.
I don’t know where to begin. I have never understood our blessed Mother in this way, and find myself now weeping- both for my own impoverished understanding of the faith and the joy of anticipation in receiving more of her love and prayers. I can’t thank you enough.
It is the beginning of a great joy.
Beautiful contemplation, Father! Thank you.
I have been trying to succinctly crystallize a number of ideas, ideas that I have been trying to bring together for quite awhile now. Ideas brought to the fore, once more, by this post on the Mother Mary.
I am an iconoclast from birth, and I have never held much stock in the arguments FOR the icons of Saints that Orthodox writers have given – at least those arguments that I have heard. To compare the veneration of a Saint’s icon with the reverence and kissing of a picture of a long dead relative smacks of a cultural division in my mind more than anything else. From your very own book, you articulate the nature of death in the Protestant West in your first chapter. We do not kiss the pictures of our relatives.
However, and I think this is key, there is profit in exploring the icons of modernism as a way to understand the role of icons in the holy tradition. Nature abhors a vacuum, and with holy icons gone, unholy, secular icons, I think, exist.
Look at the vices that we glorify in our advertising. Are they shallow? Absolutely, but they are icons. They stir in us desires, and motivate us, not to elevating things, but to base things.
I’ve been in marketing organizations where we have been encouraged to “dream-build”; where we were encouraged to put up pictures of our lusts to motivate us and encourage us – not to higher levels of piety and righteousness, but to production, more consumption, and greed.
Many teenagers have posters of rock-stars, models, or athletes on their walls. People who frequently fail to live up to even the minimal standards of modern middle-class morality, but who are venerated for some skill or other value to the modern mind. These are modern “saints”, people who offer themselves, not for shared communion, but only insofar as they can make money, satisfy their ego, or otherwise fill personal need of theirs. They have no genuine love.
Pornography is the cumulation of everything I’ve already listed plus depravity, and is as far away from our Mother as can possibly be imagined.
Given all this, because of the counterfeits, and what I have come to think of as the Modern Anti-Icons I think I understand the role and place of Saints and true iconography a bit better.
I still have a hard time crossing myself in front of anything but icons of Christ; however, I do feel a stronger need to have the Saints in my life now, even in the form of icons. If for no other reason than to have them around me.