Once more we examine the two traditions of faith on this blog. My previous posts have been relatively straightforward. However, this one, and the next, are a little bit more contentious, and you will find me perhaps slightly more skeptical of the Orthodox position than I have been prior. This post will deal with the position of Mary within both Protestantism and Orthodoxy.
The Protestant view of Mary is that she was a nice young girl who was blessed by God, conceived and gave birth to the Messiah by the Holy Spirit, had at least six other children with Joseph, played a minor part in Jesus’ ministry, and thereafter graced a million bad children’s nativity plays. The Protestant looks at Catholic and Orthodox reverence for Mary, scratches his or her head, and asks “what’s the big deal?” (or as we say in the hip-hop community – “Mary Mary, why ya buggin’?”)
For within Orthodoxy, Mary is indeed a “big deal”. She is given the highest veneration of any mere mortal yet born, and holds the title of “Theotokos”, a Greek word literally meaning “God-bearer”. She is invoked several times in the course of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – that 1600 year old communion service which is celebrated almost identically in every Eastern Orthodox church in the world most Sunday morning. Prayers are said to her, and her icon is venerated and holds pride of place in all Orthodox churches over the altar. Moreover, whenever the Theotokos is mentioned by the Priest in a service, it is customary for the congregation to sing “Most Holy Theotokos, save us”. All of this is enough to make any respectable Protestant spit tacks and wonder whether Orthodoxy is in fact a pagan cult with a goddess placed on an equal footing with God. So is it?!
Firstly, as I discussed in a previous post, the Saints are all alive and standing before God, and are also part of our Church family. Mary is one of these exalted folk, so all the same arguments apply to Mary. It then follows – well why is Mary so special? The reason is that, in order for God to do His saving work and send His Son, Mary’s co-operation was needed. Mary was, in effect, the very first of us all to make “a decision for Christ”! For God to choose her to bear His Son implies incredible virtue on her part. For her to accept confirms that virtue. She is the only mortal who plays a direct part in God’s saving act. She is the vessel on which salvation sails. A Christian, if he or she is truly of God, has the Holy Spirit within and we are blessed because of it, but Mary literally had the Son of God within! It is clear that there is no other Saint or mere mortal more exalted before the Throne of God. She has earned the greatest veneration of all the Saints by virtue of God’s grace in choosing her, and by her example to us all as a model of holy living.
It follows that there is no greater intercessor for us with regard to the Judgment Seat of Christ than Mary. She has the ear of Christ, and moreover, she is his Mum! All respectable men listen to their mothers, so how much more does Jesus listen to his own mother! There is no clearer explanation of their dynamic than the one we see in the Bible when they were at the wedding in Cana. It’s hard to think of a more petty or indulgent “need” than booze at a party, but Mary insisted that her son do something about it in a way that conveyed the authority she had been given in God’s Kingdom, and even persisted when he complained! She told the servants “Do whatever he tells you”, and Jesus relented to perform the miracle requested.
That pretty much sums up the role of Mary in Orthodoxy. She is the greatest of all those in Christ and our chief advocate before Him, especially for our day to day troubles. But she also says – “Do whatever He tells you”. The role of Mary is not to receive focus to herself, but always to point to Christ, her son and our Saviour. Indeed, she is almost never without Jesus in any Orthodox icon you will see, but almost always has one hand pointing to Him. She is not a goddess but a Queen Consort – the “Queen Mother” effectively, a consort to the One King. And Orthodox see John 19:26-27 as applying to all Christians, not just the Apostle John – she is our mother too.
These concepts can be hard to get used to for someone who may have swallowed some of the vitriol leveled at Catholicism and Orthodoxy by more fundamentalist sectors of Protestantism, especially the notorious cartoonist Jack Chick. The assertion is that veneration of Mary was not an original part of Christianity, that she is “worshiped” as a carry-over figure from pagan goddesses, and that she only became venerated in the post-Constantine era of the Roman Empire. Not at all true. While it is the case that the New Testament Epistles only make mention of her in passing, the hymn Beneath Thy Protection from c.250AD predates the Christian era of the Empire to a time when Christians were still being persecuted and martyred, and thus at a time when the stakes of good doctrine were exceedingly high.
What also needs to be borne in mind is that, for the first 600 or so years of the Church, giving props to Mary was so strongly associated with a defense of Christ’s joint divine and human nature that to question the effusiveness of it in and of itself would have been unthinkable. The early heresies of Gnosticism were predicated on the idea that bodies were evil and therefore Christ could never have had a body or been born. So to venerate Mary was (and still is) to defend against this idea. Later on in the 6th Century, Nestorianism reared its ugly head with the idea that Christ was merely human and only assumed divine nature in his death and resurrection, relegating Mary to the role of being merely “lucky” to have given birth to someone who only later became God’s saving instrument. To venerate Mary was to reject these heresies, which, if we are honest, still creep around the edges of Protestantism today.
Since the criticisms of Jack Chick et. al. are generally directed at Catholicism, they are sometimes not as applicable to Orthodoxy, which neither believes in the immaculate conception (as Catholics do), nor regards her as a “co-redemptress”, as has been debated by Catholics. Orthodox regard these ideas as “innovations” which are not part of the Holy Tradition, and make Mary an exalted end in herself, rather than the traditional role I have described. There is no separation of Mary from Jesus. She is not a goddess but a Queen and a Mother, and has always been so from the beginning of the Church.
It only remains to discuss the specifics of how Mary is venerated within the Church, and what is said of her. Some of the language would seem heretical to a Protestant – “Holy Theotokos, save us”?! How does that square with Acts 4:12, where Peter says “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”? It took me a while to understand this part of the Liturgy, and for a long time I did not sing it until I was confident I wasn’t committing some grave error. When Orthodox sing this, they are not invoking Mary to grant them eternal life, since that is obviously not in her power and she is not a co-redemptress. They are asking her to exercise the authority that she does have in heaven to petition God to work in our lives. Just as she “saved” the wedding in Cana, she “saves” us in the same way. Even the Apostle Paul uses the word “saved” in a variety of ways in his epistles – at one point he says that “women shall be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15), which clearly does not mean all mothers will automatically receive eternal life! As I have said, Orthodox have a different view on what it means to be “saved”, which I will discuss in a later post.
I would be lying if I said that I was completely convinced of the Mariology of Orthodoxy, or that all of the proscribed prayers to Mary I have come across seemed doctrinally sound to me. Was Mary sinless her whole life, or even just sinless post-annunciation? Was Mary a perpetual virgin? Those could be innovations for all I know. Orthodox theology itself is not particularly helpful in this regard either. For whatever reason, there is not much literature defending the specifics of her place in the liturgical life in the Church. In some ways this is reassuring – silence means other doctrines are regarded as much more important. And it is true that they are more important. Christ is the centre of our faith, whether we are Protestant or Orthodox. But I am convinced of the exalted place of Mary within the Kingdom of God, and will continue to walk by faith in these matters. Mary is venerated because God Himself has venerated her, because it adds to the glorification of Christ and because it stresses his two natures. It is not “its own thing”, and should not be perceived that way.
ADDED: I forgot to add this segment of the Akathist Hymn to Mary, which is sung in Friday services during Lent. Again, not everything in here is something I am certain is doctrinally sound, but it’s probably the most beautiful of all Orthodox hymns: