I sat at a table during a women’s Bible study in my nondenominational church, maybe 15 or 20 years ago. The leader, a conscientious and gifted Bible teacher, was telling us about Jesus as the new Adam and included St. Paul’s thoughts on the subject. She displayed a chart, with side-by-side comparisons of Jesus’ obedience versus Adam’s disobedience, such as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil leading to death and the tree of the Cross leading to life.
I was blown away. It was so powerful to see, spreadsheet cell by spreadsheet cell, how Jesus restored that which had been broken early in Creation.
And yet, while I was taking notes, a very faint voice in my head said, “But . . . what about Eve?” It seemed that if God had healed Adam’s disobedience through Christ, then Eve’s disobedience needed healing too. The teaching seemed . . . incomplete. But the question flew out of my mind, because I had no framework for answering it.
Until I encountered the Orthodox Church, I never again wondered about a new Eve, but I should have. Because God did provide a new Eve whose surrender to His will would change the course of human history. Her choices would overcome the first Eve’s disobedience. That woman is the Virgin Mary. But in my context, we didn’t think about her. As I’ve noted before, Mary was trotted out at Christmas then tucked away for the rest of the year. Even something as lopsided as a discussion of Adam without Eve couldn’t make us consider her.
Now, as I’ve spent the last decade reconsidering Mary, I’ve had to learn many things that I had never been taught, as well as unlearn some assumptions. There are significant differences between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox teachings about the Theotokos, and the ancient Church—the Church that was truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—viewed the Scriptures and her in ways I had never considered.
Yet again, the old is new to me.
A prime example is my ignorance of the Virgin Mary’s role as the New Eve. The ancient Church certainly didn’t have a blind spot on this subject. Less than a century after the death of Jesus’ beloved disciple, St. John the Theologian, in AD 180 St. Irenaeus wrote about the implications of the Theotokos’s resounding “yes” to God.
A little context is important here regarding the significance of St. Irenaeus. When discussing the Church Fathers, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of names across the centuries. But Irenaeus, who was the bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France), is closely connected to the apostolic era and also to the Virgin Mary. He was a disciple of the martyred St. Polycarp, who had been a disciple of St. John the Apostle.
And St. John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23) had a special relationship with the Virgin Mary. While Jesus hung on the Cross, He looked at His mother and at John as they stood near Him: “He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:26–27).
In Religion of the Apostles, Fr. Stephen De Young writes of St. Irenaeus, “As the spiritual grandson of St. John, who had himself lived with the Theotokos in Ephesus, he writes about her in a way that reflects an already developed theological vision. Saint Irenaeus develops the idea of Christ as the new Adam (Rom. 5:12–21), including describing the Theotokos as a new Eve” (pp. 130).
Saint Irenaeus writes in The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching:
And just as through a disobedient virgin man was stricken down and fell into death, so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of God man was reanimated and received life. . . . For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor, and by a virgin’s obedience undo and put away the disobedience of a virgin. (33)
Even these words from the late second century are not the earliest on the subject. Saint Justin Martyr, born around AD 100, also contrasted Eve’s disobedience with Mary’s obedience in Dialogue with Trypho:
For Eve . . . conceiving the word from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But Mary . . . when the angel announced to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her . . . answered: Be it done to me according to your word. (Dialogue with Trypho, 100)
And here’s more from Tertullian, who died around AD 240:
God, by a rival method, restored His image and likeness. . . . For into Eve when she was yet a virgin had crept the word that established death, likewise, into a Virgin was to be brought the Word of God that produced life: so that what had gone to ruin by the one sex might be restored to salvation by the same sex. (On the Flesh of Christ, 17)
Why am I quoting these men? Because, like many Protestants, I had always assumed that veneration of the Virgin Mary was a Roman Catholic thing. But these Fathers of the Church were writing about her from an era when the Church was one—battling heresies, certainly, and awash in the blood of the martyrs, but almost a thousand years before the Great Schism officially divided East from West. The one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church honored the mother of our Lord.
Everywhere I look, I find that veneration of the Virgin Mary is not a Catholic thing. It’s a Christian thing.
I can’t resist one more quotation. As I’ve said before, the truth of the Church’s ancient teachings is often contained in the ellipses—the parts that are left out of Protestant books of theology and history. Here’s one more quote for fans of St. Augustine, a favorite of modern Reformed Protestants. The following words are a portion of a long and beautiful prayer that Augustine wrote to . . . the Virgin Mary:
Holy Mary, help the miserable, strengthen the discouraged, comfort the sorrowful, pray for your people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all women consecrated to God. May all who venerate you, feel now your help and protection. . . . Make it your continual care to pray for the people of God, for you were blessed by God and were made worthy to bear the Redeemer of the world, who lives and reigns forever. (In Shanbour, pp. 339-340)
But . . . What about the Bible?
It’s true that Mary’s importance in the New Testament era is subtle; there are no dogmatic statements about her there. Instead, she is present in so many important moments of her Son’s life: naturally she is present at the Annunciation and the Nativity; she also finds Him in the temple at age 12, and she is near Him throughout his ministry, at the Cross, at the Resurrection, and at Pentecost. She is mentioned in the New Testament more than any other person besides Jesus.
But as I have reconsidered Mary, two items have really stuck with me in terms of her importance to early Christians: the first is the fact that her personal life experiences open the Gospel of Luke, and the second is that a second-century pagan thought that a good way to dismiss Jesus was to dismiss her.
St. Luke’s Record of Eyewitness Accounts
The beautiful stories of the Annunciation and of Jesus’ early childhood are contained in the first two chapters of the Book of Luke. Before St. Luke tells these stories, he explains to someone named Theophilus, which means “lover of God,” the purpose of his Gospel:
to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, . . . to write to you an orderly account . . . that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Luke 1:1-4)
Saint Luke ministered with the Apostle Paul and also wrote the Book of Acts. He was not one of the twelve disciples, so he interviewed those who had firsthand knowledge—those “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”
Think of the famous events that Luke shares: the angel’s visit to Zacharias, the Annunciation, Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the lyrics to Mary’s song of praise, the birth of the Lord, the visit of the shepherds to the newborn King, Simeon’s prophecy (which begins, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace…”), Anna’s song at the temple, and later, Mary and Joseph searching for Jesus at age 12 and finding Him at the temple.
Who told St. Luke all of these intimate details? It’s not hard to guess. Luke writes about his source in chapter two: she “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19), and, again, “kept all these things in her heart” (2:51).
Fr. Bill Olnhausen writes in Fr. Bill’s Blog,
Who was the foremost of these “eyewitnesses”? Luke could not be clearer. He tells us twice so we can’t miss his point. . . . The stories came from the Virgin Mary. (This is so obvious. I am amazed that so few commentators remark on it. I am amazed that it took me so long to see it.) Who else could some of the stories have come from? I mean, how many people were present at the Annunciation?
I thank Fr. Bill for pointing out the obvious. I had never thought about St. Luke’s sources either. When he wrote his Gospel, which scholars say he did sometime between AD 70–80, Elizabeth and Zachariah were long dead. So were Simeon and Anna. Only one other person was present during these events before and after Jesus’ birth and was still alive during Luke’s lifetime: the blessed Virgin Mary, who knew exactly what the angel said to her and who remembered the blessing of her cousin Elizabeth as well as the words to her own song of praise, the Magnificat.
It is because of the Virgin Mary that we know the circumstances of Christ’s birth and early childhood. Saint Luke honored her, St. John honored her, and so should we.
Celsus: Attacking Christianity by Attacking the Virgin Mary
In a fascinating episode of the Lord of Spirits podcast, “The Queen Stood at Thy Right Hand” (December 11, 2020), Fr. Stephen De Young tells listeners about Celsus, who wrote a scathing, pointed pagan attack on Christianity and the gospel around AD 150. Father Stephen explains,
We don’t have Celsus’s writings; instead, we know his words through the Christians who countered them, such as Origen’s Contra Celsum. Celsus attacked the proclamations of the early Church—the things that were publicly known about Christianity. He attacked the idea that Jesus is God and that He is the Messiah, the King.
Celsus attacks the central points of the gospel, and one of the ways he attacks these doctrines is by going after the Virgin Mary, writing that Jesus was:
born in a certain Jewish village of a poor woman of the country who gained her subsistence by spinning. It was improbable that the god would entertain a passion for her, because she was neither rich nor of royal rank, seeing no one even of her neighbors knew her.
In other words, no god would choose a poor, humble country girl to bring about the Incarnation. But how would Celsus know anything about the Theotokos? His knowledge of the Virgin Mary must have come from his Christian contemporaries, who were talking about her. Father Stephen explains, “He thinks that attacking her is a way to undermine the whole thing, so it’s not like it’s some detail that he heard them talking about. He thinks this is an important part of the proclamation.”
Once again, this is subtle, but it’s important. AD 150 is only about 50 years after the Apostle John died, and many of the apostles’ disciples were still alive and ministering in the Church.
The Virgin Mary in the Old Testament
When looking at the Old Testament, the Church has always used typology. In Christian theology and biblical exegesis, typology is a way of viewing the people and events in the Old Testament as a revelation of Christ, a prefiguring of that which is to come. It’s a way of understanding the Scriptures that began in the early Church, but it’s not often used by Protestant groups today.
I can still remember taking New Testament Greek many years ago at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. We were translating a passage in which one of the Gospel writers used an Old Testament verse as a prophecy of an event in Jesus’ life. I’m sorry that I can’t remember which verse—it might have been a snippet of a psalm used as prophecy, which seemed out of context within the psalm itself. The professor, a wonderful Korean-American man who always began our classes in prayer, said, “We don’t use Scripture that way anymore, do we?” And I thought it odd that one of the Gospel writers would flunk a modern exegesis class in seminary.
An example of typology that is probably familiar to you, if you’re from any kind of Christian background, comes from the words of Jesus Himself. He said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jonah’s story is a prefiguring of Christ’s death, burial, and Resurrection. Some of these examples of typology are still used in Protestant churches when referring to Christ, but in general this approach to the Old Testament is out of fashion.
Not so in the Orthodox Church. Even Wikipedia remarks, “Notably, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, typology is still a common and frequent exegetical tool, mainly due to that church’s great emphasis on continuity in doctrinal presentation through all historical periods.” Good job, Wikipedia.
In the Orthodox Church, typology is not limited to Christ—it is also used to understand His mother. This particular use of typology is definitely out of fashion in the Protestant world. But the Incarnation provides a rich source of typology in the Church’s hymns. It is an unfathomable mystery—that God, the Creator of the universe, could be contained in a human womb. This is why the Church refers to Mary’s womb as “more spacious than the heavens.” It’s a way of describing the indescribable.
The Church sees the mystery of the Incarnation in many events of the Old Testament, believing that they refer ultimately to the Virgin Mary. You’ll hear them in so many hymns as you attend services at your local parish, such as:
- The Garden of Eden with the Tree of Life in its midst (Gen. 2:9) (The Akathist hymn includes the verse, “Rejoice, . . . O living Paradise, having the Lord, the Tree of Life, in your midst.”)
- The bush that burned but was not consumed (Ex. 3:2) (This image is included in the Small Vespers for the Nativity of the Theotokos: “She is the Bush springing from barren ground [her mother, St. Anna, had been barren] and burning with the immaterial fire that cleanses and enlightens our souls.”)
- The jar of manna (Ex. 16:33–34)
- The rod of Aaron that budded (Num. 17:8)
- The tablet of the Law “written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18)
- The dewy fleece (Judg. 6:38)
. . . and many others.
But the most powerful type of the Virgin Mary in the Church’s understanding is the ark of the covenant. For the ark, which held the Ten Commandments—the Word of God—God gave very specific instructions for use of the most precious materials: acacia wood and gold lining, with cherubim of pure gold on either side. The ark was the place where God spoke to Moses—where God met man.
Where else did Divinity and humanity meet? In Christ, in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
In Know the Faith, Fr. Shanbour writes,
If God took such an active role in the construction of a box that would hold His written word, with how much greater care did He choose and prepare the earthly vessel that would contain His Incarnate Word? If He specified with precision and loving care every measurement and detail of the resting place of those tablets of stone, would He not also prepare a fit a holy dwelling place for the measureless “Son of His love” (Col. 1:13)? If He constructed the lifeless ark of testimony out of precious and pure materials, surely He would adorn the living ark of the New Covenant, the Virgin Mary, with virtues and purity of soul and body. And if He treasured the tablets themselves upon which His Law was written, how much more did He cherish the holy vessel who carried the Law-Giver Himself, and who became the living Book of the Word of God? (pp. 320–321)
I never heard Mary described in this way—as a holy vessel containing the living Word of God in her womb. And yet it makes perfect sense in terms of New Covenant fulfillment of an Old Covenant type.
In the eyes of the Church throughout history, the Virgin Mary is the greatest woman who ever lived. Highly favored by God, she was chosen by Him to bear His only begotten Son, thus becoming the Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” the mother of God. She is the first Christian—the first person to receive Christ as her Savior.
When the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin that she would give birth to a Son, Jesus, she proclaimed in Luke 1:48, “Behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” And yet, as the Church has fragmented during the past few hundred years, many Christian groups, including the ones that formed me, now refuse to do so.
Father De Young said of the Virgin Mary in the Lord of Spirits episode on the Theotokos:
We see a human who has fully come into what God created her to be and who He created her to be, who has reached the kind of maturity and completion as a person formed into the image of God that the Scriptures are constantly talking about as the goal of our Christian life. She’s done that. She’s crossed that nonexistent partition [between earth and heaven] and is still connected to us, and we can see her there in the heavenly places, awaiting us at the end of the journey. . . .
She’s one of us, who has achieved and has received what we’re all striving for and therefore is an example to all of us, a beacon to all of us, an intercessor for all of us. And that’s not just some ancillary thing; that’s not just some obstacle I have to climb over if I’m not Orthodox and want to join the Church. That’s central to what we understand salvation to be and who we are in Christ and the value of every Christian.
The understanding of Mary as “one of us” is important and illustrates a serious difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings of her. Roman Catholicism includes a teaching that is foreign to the early Christians and Church Fathers: the Immaculate Conception. It is a recent Catholic doctrine that has never been accepted by the Orthodox Church.
The Immaculate Conception Is Not Orthodox
For those who are a little fuzzy on its meaning, the immaculate conception refers to the conception of Mary by her parents, Joachim and Anna. The teaching asserts that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin. It was proclaimed as official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854, but the teaching had been around for centuries.
According to the Orthodox Church, this doctrine is both unnecessary and untrue. It is unnecessary because the view of sin in the West is not accepted in the East. As Fr. Shanbour explains in Know the Faith, “the Orthodox East never embraced St. Augustine’s distinctive opinion that original sin consists of the guilt of Adam, passed down to all who are born of him” (p. 327).
However, Fr. Shanbour writes, a prominent teaching of the medieval Latin Church was that “the Virgin must have been conceived without original sin (i.e., guilt) so that she could be the pure vessel for the Incarnate Son of God” (p. 327).
Because this concept is not taught in the Scriptures, by the apostles, or by the Fathers, the Orthodox Church rejects it. The Church embraces the Faith delivered “once for all to the saints” and does not accept the Catholic idea of doctrinal development.
One of the major problems with the immaculate conception, beyond its novelty, is that it makes Mary different from other human beings—almost super human. Father Shanbour explains,
If the Virgin was outside the stream of our fallen humanity, she could not have offered it to her Son, who would then also have a human nature different from that of those He desired to save. . . . The Mother of God chose God’s will, and yet she, like all mere mortals, was in need of a Savior, as she could not overcome death. (pp. 328–329)
It is a doctrine that appears to honor Mary, but it actually demeans her. In the book The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, first printed in 1978—about 12 years after his death—St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco writes,
This teaching, which seemingly has the aim of exalting the Mother of God, in reality completely denies all Her virtues. After all, if Mary, even in the womb of Her mother, when She could not even desire anything either good or evil, was preserved by God’s grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after Her birth, then in what does Her merit consist? If She could have been placed in the state of being unable to sin, and did not sin, then for what did God glorify Her? If She, without any effort, and without having any kind of impulses to sin, remained pure, then why is She crowned more than everyone else? There is no victory without an adversary. (p. 60)
The Orthodox Church understands that the Virgin Mary is fully human with a human will, which she exercised freely in her response to God’s call and throughout the rest of her life.
Mary is one of us, and she cooperated with the Holy Spirit. In her role as the Mother of God and in her holiness and virtue she is highly honored and set apart, but she is not ontologically different from you and me. As Fr. Shanbour writes, “This is her glory: that she gave herself completely to God’s will through her own ascetical effort to reject the desires of her fallen nature out of love for God” (p. 333).
Okay. So, now we know one more factoid in the ancient Orthodox view of the Theotokos. But it’s one thing to know about the Virgin Mary. It’s another thing to actually know her.
Knowing about the Virgin Mary vs. Knowing Her
In these past two blog posts we’ve covered a lot of ground regarding the Church’s understanding of the Theotokos, yet we’ve barely skimmed the surface. And this is all head knowledge, with a bit of emotion too in terms of awe and appreciation for her. The problem, in daily Orthodox practice in the midst of our busy lives, is moving from head to heart.
I know about Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know him.
I know about Queen Elizabeth II. I don’t know her.
I know about Olympic athletes Suni Lee and Allyson Felix. I don’t know them.
And I knew a few things about the Virgin Mary during my Protestant past. Now, through the Orthodox Church, I know a lot more about her. But this is not the same as actually knowing her. Knowledge is impersonal and distant. Relationship is personal and close.
So, how can we get to know the Theotokos?
1. Talk to your priest.
It’s good to explore your questions and struggles in dialogue with another person, especially your spiritual father, who is getting to know you and will pray for you. Likely he has helped converts and inquirers with the same issues that you wrestle with.
2. Try talking to Mary.
This can be a stretch for some of us. Several years ago I was sharing my worries about my adult children with my priest at the time, Fr. Lou. I confessed that I needed to pray for them with more consistency. He encouraged me in this and also wisely added, “May I respectfully suggest, if you are comfortable, that you talk to the Theotokos and ask her to pray for your children. As a mother, she knows the love you have for them and will understand.” He was aware of my Mary-free background and didn’t pressure me, but he helped me to begin thinking about our spiritual mother, Mary, and our entire spiritual family, the saints and angels, as more than theoretical presences but as helpers in time of need.
Getting to know the Virgin Mary, our premier saint, is no different than getting to know the other saints. How do we make new friends? We notice their presence and seek them out. Getting to know Mary requires the same sort of awareness and practice, learning to ask for her prayers in the same way we ask our earthly friends for prayer.
If it feels a little weird, that’s okay. You might find it easiest to start with simple gratitude—thanking Mary for her obedience, her sacrifice, and her example. Then ask her to pray that you and your loved ones would draw closer to her Son. Over time, this practice can become second nature.
3. Let the Church help you.
The “canned prayers” of the Church can help us, providing words when we fumble and also training us to think Orthodox. (I discuss written prayers in the Walking an Ancient Path episode “Canned Prayers” and in the accompanying blog post.)
Some of the Church’s many prayers to the Virgin Mary include the Paraklesis service, which many of us chanted during the Dormition fast that just ended; the Akathist Hymn; and the Service of Salutations to the Most Holy Theotokos, which is chanted during the first four Fridays of Great Lent. You can pray these at home, maybe just one or two sections at a time. They’re available online and also in nice booklet form from the Ancient Faith store and various monasteries.
Or start small. I recently discovered an article by Robert Arakaki called “An Early Christian Prayer to Mary” in the blog Orthodox–Reformed Bridge (May 3, 2015).
The article gives the history of a prayer to the Virgin Mary recorded about AD 250, during the persecutions of Emperor Decius. It is sung at the Vespers service for Great Lent and in similar daily prayers and the Sunday Liturgy. There’s a lot of theology behind this early prayer, but I won’t go into that here. Read this carefully. It is so beautiful:
Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers
only pure, only blessed one.
Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, either moving toward Orthodox Christianity or going deeper into the Faith that you already hold, here’s some free advice from a gal in the pews: simply begin where you are. We are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), our brothers and sisters in Christ, who intercede for us. And our Lord’s mother, the Virgin Mary, is our prime intercessor.
If we want to make her and the rest of our spiritual family a part of our lives, we need to get started, usually with baby steps. I asked for the intercessions of the Theotokos and of my patron saint, St. Hilda of Whitby, for many years as a practice of obedience, of something I’m supposed to do. I didn’t enter into any ecstatic experiences, and I still haven’t heard any miraculous voices. I just kept on keeping on, and only recently have I begun to feel the gentle love and compassion of the Theotokos on a personal level. And I just reminded myself that I need to ask for St. Hilda’s help daily.
Remember, no matter how many stones we stumble over on the Orthodox road, Orthodox Christianity is something that’s lived, not merely a collection of precepts requiring our intellectual assent. We cannot live true Orthodoxy without Orthopraxy, the practice of the Faith. So just start walking, or crawling, right where you are.
We can stumble along together. Let’s pray for one another on the journey.