Not long ago I wrote two blog posts on the intercession of the saints. It was important to do this before turning our attention to the premier saint, the Virgin Mary, because if we haven’t yet embraced the concept of One Church, with the dead and the living alive together in Christ and united in Him, then we are still functioning mentally and spiritually in the lower level of a two-storey universe, as Fr. Stephen Freeman has written. In that worldview, all of the saints, including the Virgin Mary, are somewhere “out there” and largely irrelevant to our everyday lives.
In this two-storey view, we can learn all kinds of facts and spiritual insights about the Virgin Mary, and she and the other saints will remain historical figures to admire from a distance. But the ancient Orthodox Church doesn’t ask us merely to admire the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos—the “birthgiver of God”—and Panaghia, “most holy.” We are to be in communion with her and with the saints who have gone before us; we are to participate in ongoing relationship with them.
Fifteen years ago, I did not have this worldview of being a part of the communion of the saints across time, so if it’s new and strange to you, believe me, I get it. But now that we’ve considered the Church’s understanding of the saints in Scripture and in the early Fathers, we are in a better place, both intellectually and spiritually, to think about the role of the Virgin Mary in the life of the Church.
Emotional Blockages and the Virgin Mary
But that’s not enough. We may be ready intellectually and spiritually to consider—and reconsider—her, but we’re not necessarily ready on an emotional level, because Mary is not merely another stumbling stone in the Orthodox road. If the idea of praying to saints is a boulder in the road, then the idea of praying to and honoring this one particular saint, the mother of our Lord, is the biggest boulder of all for many people—more like a major rockfall blocking our way to the Church.
We can’t just set her aside and try to avoid her, either; in an Orthodox parish, the Theotokos is more than part of the furnishings, so to speak, with an icon here and there. She is present in a massive icon above the altar, with Jesus in her womb and her arms outstretched in prayer, welcoming the faithful into the temple.
She is also present throughout our hymnography. Any Orthodox service you attend, whether the Liturgy, Vespers, or other special services, contains hymns of praise to her.
She is inescapable.
If you’re from a background like mine, this attention to Mary—this deep devotion to her—can provoke a response anywhere from moderate discomfort to flat-out fear and even scandal. For some, she is a deal-breaker.
The allergic reaction of the Protestant West to the mother of our Lord is so bound up with anti-Catholicism that it’s difficult for some of us to approach her openly, much less with reverence and awe.
In my own Evangelical background, the Virgin Mary was definitely minimized. Out of necessity she was trotted out every December, mostly in the form of a chipped statue in a crèche and the obligatory sermon about her admirable obedience and purity. She was then tucked away, both physically and metaphorically, with the Christmas decorations until the following December.
By the time I stepped inside an Orthodox church in my mid-forties, I had done some reading about Orthodoxy, so I was somewhat prepared. I knew that nobody was going to ask me to worship Mary—or any of the saints and angels surrounding us in the iconography—and that she is important in salvation history. But . . . that was it. I really wasn’t sure what to do with her, except maybe to shift uncomfortably in front of her icon and mutter, “Thanks.”
I have a feeling that this discomfort is familiar to a lot of readers. So before we really consider who Mary is and her role in the Church, we need to address these fears up front.
Who’s Afraid of the Virgin Mary?
Lots of us. I can think of three basic reasons why, although there are probably many more.
1. Fear of idolatry
This is a healthy fear. Faithful Christians don’t want to stumble into heresy or even demonic deception. And most Protestants keep Mary at such an arm’s length, it’s as if they’re afraid that honoring her at all means adding a fourth person to the Holy Trinity or engaging in polytheism, which is what praying to the saints looks like from the outside.
But the Orthodox Church is not worshiping extra deities and certainly not demons. Our family in Christ includes the people in the pew in front of me as well as the invisible choir of the saints, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) who lived and died long before us and are now alive in Christ. No idolatry allowed.
2. Confusion of worship and veneration
This confusion is often a language problem, as I noted in Part 2 of “Suspicious of Praying to Saints.” When we talk about “praying to Mary,” it sounds like we mean “worshiping Mary.” But it’s more accurate to say “asking for her intercessions.”
The language issue is easy to explain, but some of us have personally observed excessive devotion to the Virgin Mary, perhaps among Roman Catholic friends and relatives. Or even Orthodox ones. Historically, this devotion to Mary, sometimes even more fervent than devotion to her Son Jesus and the Holy Trinity—was a sticking point in the Protestant Reformation. But rather than correcting abuses, some Reformers pushed Mary offstage entirely, jettisoning 1,500 years of historic teachings of the Church about her. Thus she is largely absent in many Christian traditions.
3. Fear of being too Catholic
The word “Protestant” has at its root “protest,” and from the beginning of the Reformation, Protestants have often defined themselves by who they are not, almost as much as who they are. I have a pet theory—I can’t prove it, but it’s a strong suspicion—that the modern use of fog machines onstage at Evangelical services is tied to this knee-jerk Romaphobia. (Yes, fog machines really are a thing in some churches.)
If it’s important to set a mood with worship songs—and the theatricality of this mindset makes my skin crawl—then why not just use incense? Incense is biblical, and its use is meant for worship and prayer. Censers and incense paraphernalia are inexpensive, and the fragrance is much nicer than the vague chemical scent of machine-generated fog.
But the Catholic Church uses incense, and the Puritans, who settled our country, emphatically did not. And if Catholics are known for incense, popes, crucifixes, and worshiping Mary, then we must protest all of these things. And the fear of the Virgin Mary is part of this fear of Catholicism. It’s not rational, but it’s very strong.
I carried that baggage with me into the Orthodox Church, too. It’s been a long, slow process to dismantle my own mental and emotional blockages. And a lot of that journey, as part of the day-by-day process of developing an Orthodox mind and an Orthodox understanding of the world, the Church, the Scriptures, and God, has required that I remove the filtered lenses over my eyes in order to see things in a new way—or rather, in the ancient Christian way.
We don’t even need to go very far back in history to see that the Church throughout time has honored and revered the Theotokos. Today her role in most Protestant churches has been vastly diminished, but this was not always the case.
The Protestant Reformers and Mary
The early Protestant Reformers honored Mary in a way that is surprising in light of the modern churches who look to them as theological forefathers.
In a Christmas sermon in 1531, Martin Luther proclaimed Mary as “the highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ. . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. . . . We can never honor her enough.” [emphasis mine]
Ulrich Zwingli, who died that same year and is known as a radical Reformer, wrote,
God esteemed Mary above all creatures, including the saints and angels—it was her purity, innocence and invincible faith that mankind must follow. . . . The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow. (Quoted in Michael Shanbour, Know the Faith, Ancient Faith Publishing, p. 324)
John Calvin, who died in 1564, wrote, “It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son granted her the highest honor” (Calvini Opera, 45:348).
In an earlier Christmas sermon from 1529, Luther also preached,
Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees. If He is ours, we ought to be in His situation; there where He is, we ought also to be, and all that He has ought to be ours, and His mother is also our mother.
Even earlier, in 1522, Luther affirmed, “The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.”
Wow. Just . . . wow. If you are a Protestant, a former Protestant, or a not-quite-sure-where-you-fit seeker, were you aware that this is your spiritual heritage? Did you know that the veneration of the Virgin Mary is part of the Reformers’ DNA?
I didn’t. And I’m guessing that this is news to many readers. This is not because we have been unfaithful or haven’t paid attention. It’s because Protestant teaching and practice have changed radically over the past 500 years. Even those denominations whose founders highly honored the Virgin Mary are often ambivalent about her now.
In fact, as I have reflected on the Virgin Mary—the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the Panaghia—and who she was to me, as well as what she was and is to the Protestant brothers and sisters who surround me, I think that not too many years ago I would have described her as an instrument. She was a tool used by God—in short, a means to an end. It’s a pragmatic view. For God to become man, the Incarnation required a mother. Mary was the tool that God used to come into the world. The end result was the Christ Child, and Mary was the means to that end. She, along with the other saints, exists in the out-there-somewhere second storey of the universe, so we can’t know her any more than we can know any of the other saints. We can know about her, and them, but that’s it.
Many of us were taught this view of reality, and many of us need to reconsider the Virgin Mary. In order to do so, there is no better place to begin than at, well, the beginning—the beginning of the story of the Incarnation in the Bible. Well, okay, that’s really a story that begins with Creation and Old Testament prophecy and all that, but I mean in real time on earth, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
In order to understand the greatness of the Virgin Mary, let’s start with a close look at the Annunciation.
If you have any sort of church background, you know the story: The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she will give birth to Jesus. The Scripture reading from Luke 1 is read aloud at churches during Christmastime every year, whether you are nondenominational, Baptist, Anglican, or Orthodox.
I thought I knew the story. But, as I’ve mentioned before, I spent many decades reading Scripture through a Protestant filter, so I often didn’t see what was in front of my face. I thank Fr. Theodore Dorrance for removing that filter during a homily at an Akathist service a few years ago.
To set some context for the Annunciation, let’s do a quick survey of human encounters with angels in the Bible. In the Old Testament and the New, these interactions have a typical pattern. Let’s see if you can find it.
Angelic Encounters in the Bible
I should note that there are a few instances in Scripture where the people involved in these stories didn’t realize that they were dealing with an angel. For example, in Acts 12, when an angel leads St. Peter out of prison, Peter thinks he is seeing a vision.
But the rest of the human–angel encounters share some similarities. In Judges chapter six, Gideon didn’t realize that he had been speaking with an angel of the Lord until the angel disappeared. Then he feared for his life, and the Lord reassured him with, “Peace be with you; do not fear, you shall not die” (v. 23).
In Numbers 22, when Balaam finally sees the angel that his donkey has been avoiding, he falls flat on his face.
In Daniel 10, an angel appears to Daniel. Daniel then loses his strength and falls to the ground trembling, and the angel tells him “Do not be afraid” before continuing his message.
David, in 1 Chronicles 21, sees the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, with his sword stretched out over Jerusalem. So David and the elders with him fall on their faces (v. 16).
Moving on to the New Testament, in the first chapter of Luke, Zacharias was “troubled, and fear fell upon him” when an angel appeared at the altar. The angel tells him, “Do not be afraid,” then announces Elizabeth’s late-in-life pregnancy with John the Baptist (vv. 12–17).
In the following chapter, after the birth of Jesus, an angel appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, “and they were greatly afraid” (or “sore afraid” in King James English). The angel comforts them with yet another “Do not be afraid” before a host of angels appears, praising God (2:8–14).
The Roman guards in Matthew 28 “shook with fear” when an angel appeared at Jesus’ Tomb (vv. 1–4).
And after Jesus’ Resurrection, an angel appeared to the Roman Centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, and—you guessed it—“he was afraid” (10:1–4).
I’m sure you’ve figured out the pattern. The common response to the appearance of an angel is fear. Sometimes the fear is so great that people can’t even remain on their feet; they fall to the ground. Many times the angel must tell the human not to be afraid before delivering the rest of his message from God.
This fear response is our first clue that the holy angels bear absolutely no resemblance to motherly Hallmark figurines or to pudgy babies with wings, riding puffy clouds. Angels are solemn, holy, and distinctly other.
As C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his preface to The Screwtape Letters,
Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish and consolatory angels of nineteenth-century art. . . . They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying “Fear not.” The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, “There, there.”
Lewis is correct. The angels in Scripture—that is to say, real angels—stand in God’s presence and do His bidding; their holiness is so great that humans, even believing ones, are overwhelmed.
The Prophet Isaiah’s reaction to the heavenly council is telling. In chapter six he describes a vision:
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim [one of the orders of angelic beings]; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; / The whole earth is full of His glory!” (vv. 1–4)
Isaiah’s response to all this? He said,
Woe is me, for I am undone! / Because I am a man of unclean lips, / And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; / For my eyes have seen the King, / The Lord of hosts. (v. 5)
One of the seraphim then touches Isaiah’s lips with a live coal to purge his sins (vv. 6–7). Isaiah, like the others in the Bible, was frightened at the sight of angelic beings and was acutely aware of his uncleanness.
Back to the Annunciation . . .
With all these examples in mind, let’s look with fresh eyes at the Annunciation in Luke 1:
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. (vv. 26–29)
Okay, let’s stop here and notice two important things: First of all, Mary remains standing in the presence of the Archangel Gabriel. Angelic appearances cause burly Roman soldiers to shake with fear and the mighty King David to fall to the ground. But this young Jewish girl remains upright.
Secondly, Mary is not afraid. She is “troubled” because she doesn’t understand Gabriel’s greeting. But only a person who is familiar with holiness, who is truly holy herself, can remain unafraid when an angel comes to call.
After his greeting and her response, the angel gives his usual admonition to fear not: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (v. 30). It is the manner of the greeting, not the presence of an angel, that troubles Mary.
So let’s return to that greeting: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (v. 28). Gabriel praises Mary, calling her “highly favored” and “blessed among women.” Later he reiterates that she has “found favor with God.” Gabriel greets her with the angelic equivalent of “Wow, look at you!”
In short, the Archangel Gabriel venerates the Virgin Mary.
Why did I not see the implications of this encounter when I heard this Scripture passage year after year? This young virgin is not the good, pious Jewish girl that I had been taught to admire and then dismiss. When the Church proclaims the Theotokos as “more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,” the Church is not overstating her worth.
The holy Gabriel, God’s messenger, honors her. He knows that the mystery of Incarnation is about to happen, the fulfillment of prophecy that St. Peter, in chapter one, verse 12 of his first letter, describes as “things which angels desire to look into.” As the Orthodox Study Bible notes, “The angels beheld and worshipped Christ in His divine nature; what is new and amazing to them is His human nature.”
Back to verse 30, after this holy and humble young woman is troubled by Gabriel’s greeting:
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (vv. 30–33)
Naturally, Mary asks for clarification:
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
And the angel answered and said to her,
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible. (vv. 34–37)
Mary’s response will change the course of history:
Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (v. 38)
I’d like to pause here at the end of this post and let this encounter between the Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel sink in. If you are able to do so, please take a deep breath, quiet yourself, and ponder this important question:
If the holy Archangel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, offered praise and veneration to the Virgin Mary, shouldn’t we do the same?
Next week we will look at the Theotokos in prophecy and in Old Testament typology, Mary as the new Eve, and some key differences in Orthodox and Roman Catholic doctrines about her. I hope you can join me.