Why the Orthodox Honor Mary
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.
The African Orthodox Saint of 4th century Cyril of Alexandria explained how important it is the name of the Virgin Mary "Mother of God" ("Theotokos" in Greek).
Although at first was stiff and rigid, he repented for its hardness and wore a piece of the vestments of St. John Chrysostom in his head as a sign of repentance.
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.
Orthodox Christians in Uganda prepare church of Virgin Mary, along with a school, orphanage and clinic (from here).
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.
The Patriarch of Alexandria & all Africa Theodoros II with orthodox icon of Theotokos surrounded by small African children, with the inscription in Swahili "Mother of the Orphans". Patriarchal School, Kenya (more here).
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.
"On the Eve of Dormition of Virgin Mary’s feast, father Innocentios the Bishop of Orthodox Diocese of Burundi and Rwanda, together with his Priests from Burundi; baptized 11 people at the Dormition of Theotokos Cathedral in Bujumbura..." (more here).
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.
An orthodox little boy from Cameroon. Photo from here
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.
“O you Apostles from afar, being now gathered together here…”
† Panteleimon of Brazzaville and Gabon
Orthodox Missionary Fraternity
In the Orthodox Vineyard of Africa
“O you Apostles from afar, being now gathered together here…”:
It sounds like a gentle touch that brings back childhood memories, somewhere in our home country, in the small picturesque church or the beauteous parish church, but always within the One Church of Christ, the Church of great sacrifices and major wonders. Hymns are sung to the Mother of the Redeemer, Mother and comforter of all Orthodox Christians, close and those from afar. The feast of the Assumption is the feast of the Church unity. It is from those distant places and from the ends of the earth that clouds grabbed the Apostles and transported them to the humble house of Gethsemane, to lay the body of the Most Holy Mother of God in burial. The All-Holy Virgin of silence, of tears, of pain, of the wronged, of strangers, of slaves, the Awesome Protection of those being persecuted, the Consolation of those in grief, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Life itself.
Following in the footsteps of the Apostles, we left the native land of the ancestors, “there, where pennyroyal and wild mint grew and earth sprouted her first cyclamen”, which is bathed in the grace of the Paraclete, and has remained steadfast in its faith in the Triune God for two thousand years now. And we came near the edge of the world, and now we send our voice to far-off places, a voice of early Christian times, the voice of a newly established Church. We appeal to our blessed brothers-countrymen, who still speak the language of the ancient philosophers and the Holy Fathers, whose people first accepted the preaching of the supreme among the Apostles Paul. The co-elect Church of Congo-Brazzaville knows where to turn to, even if her voice comes from afar.
The Apostles, present at the deathbed of the Most Holy Virgin, knelt before Her empty tomb… How could the Mother of Life be defeated by death? The laws of nature were truly defeated in You, Virgin immaculate! So on the ends of Africa, it is this Mother that we invoke and supplicate to, it is this Unity in the Church of Christ that we hope for and sing. We speak with filial piety to the same Mother, we nestle, rest and find peace in the same God-receiving bosom. It is Her that we resort to in times of trouble and affliction, different in nature from those of our home country, which, nevertheless, always remain causes of sorrow and distress. It is in Her, the same mother, that we find consolation and take refuge beneath the mantle of Her compassion.
Icon from a school book in Greece (from here)
We walk on a land so different from our blessed Orthodox homeland, but at the same time so thirsty for receiving the Grace of God, on a land that only in recent years has it learned to worship the True God and put up churches, sometimes makeshift, sometimes permanent, but it sets them up! And in them it has learned to plead with God, Who was revealed to humanity in Jesus Christ, in unbreakable unity with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, just like around the mournful, yet life-bearing deathbed of the Virgin, where the Apostles were called and gathered from afar.
We walk on a land where multiform and demonic temptations lurk to grab immortal human souls, mar the divine breath in them and lure them away to the dark and unredeemed paths of Hades through sorcery, sacrificial rites, idols and infernal ceremonies.
The Bogolubskaya Icon of the Theotokos with saints of the North Africa (from here)
This is the voice coming from afar that we ask you to hear, brothers, and pray to the Mother of the Orthodox Christians for the consolidation of the missionary struggle initiated before us by bold and brave priests, remarkable spiritual strugglers. As for us, we continue on the way they paved in obedience to the Church. Brothers, be the bridge to the dissemination of the Virgin’s victory over death even in the most remote or inaccessible areas on this edge of the equator, so that the Name of the Most Merciful God may be glorified and praised in the arms of the same Mother “with one voice and one heart”, and His mercies may be “with all of you”.
The Mother of God as "Eye" and "Earth"
Epitaph of Theotokos, Zimbabwe. Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, August 2015 (from here)
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlasios, Greece
Every feast of the Mother of God is a matter of joy for the entire Church, precisely because the Panagia glorified the human race, by becoming the person who donated her flesh for the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God. The Fathers of the Church, the holy hymnographers and the iconographers compete to present the value of our Panagia, who is the joy of Angels, the glory of Saints, as well as the protection of all people who suffer and are burdened from various problems which are closely related to human life.
Among the many festivals of the Mother of God, an important position is held for the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, which acquires great importance and value both in terms of its content, since the Panagia defeated corruption and death by the power of Christ, as well as the time it is celebrated, which is why it is called the Summer Pascha.
Orthodox Christians from Congo with the holy icon
of the Theotokos and the photo of the great
missionary fr. Cosmas of Grigoriou
By participating in this great celebration of the Mother of God, I would like to present two images used by the sacred Nicholas Cabasilas to show the most revered, most pure and holy person of our Panagia.
|Icon from here|
One image presents the authentic person and work of our Panagia, which is the image of the eye. Indeed, the entire human nature, with the Panagia, acquired an eye. "Now has the nature of man actively received an eye." Before the Panagia was born and accepted with obedience to become the Mother of Christ, human nature was blind, it could not see God. Of course, there were the Prophets of the Old Testament who did see God, but this was temporary, since they could not overcome death. Thus, in general the entire human nature, after the sin of Adam, was akin to a blind man, since he wandered to the left and to the right, worshiping false gods. And this was natural, since man abandoned the true God and was spiritually blinded. The worship of idols was a consequence of the loss of the worship and knowledge of the true God. Hence, that which the Prophets and Righteous of the Old Testament desired to see were seen by human nature in the person of the Panagia.
The Panagia is the spiritual eye of the universe. Just as only to the eye light is given and thereby other members of the body receive its value, so only to the Panagia was the true light given, and through her, who is the eye of the universe, all members, that is all of mankind, was offered light.
The other image associated with the work of our Panagia is the creation of man. It is known that God created man after taking soil from the earth and then breathing into it a soul. The earth contributed, since from there God took matter to form and build the body, but it did not do it of herself, because the earth does not have freedom to be asked and to make a decision.
This image is adjusted towards the recreation of man which occurred through Christ from the Panagia, but with a difference. Namely, the Panagia is the new earth from which the new man was created, but while the earth in the first creation of man did not participate by her will, since she did not have freedom, the Panagia in the second creation attracted the Craftsman and Creator Himself with her virtue and her life, and she gave movement to the hand of the Creator to the regeneration of the human race. Therefore, the Panagia is the supplicator for us to God, before the Supplicator even came, that is the Holy Spirit.
|The icon "Unwithering Rose"|
These two images show the greatness of the Panagia, as well as the great and significant work she did for human nature. This is why we at every feast of the Mother of God, especially at this present feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, we attach our love. Through her we see the love of God and deal with the problems that plague us. Through her we eliminate all our spiritual blindness and acquire the knowledge of God. Through the Theotokos God reconstructed the human race, and we of the Church taste this regeneration. Our life takes on another meaning and context. This is why our love towards the Panagia is a reciprocation of what she did and still does for us.
Every person has their story and problems. For all of these we must flee to the Panagia, who is alive and hears our prayers. This is not a pipe-dream or utopia, but a reality. Our people have extensive experience on this subject. We see, hear and feel the Panagia in the difficult moments of life. This tradition must be cultivated by us. Because we as a people have something deeper and more meaningful; we have a living relationship with God, the Panagia and the Saints. And it is a fact that the whole world today has need of this perspective, which is the only possible way to lead us along the one-way streets of this life, and the impasses of the current unambiguous and therefore tumultuous society.
On the occasion of today's feast let us pray that we may be found under the protection of the Mother of God, the Panagia, so that united with her, we can have the spiritual eyes to see the greatness of God, the tragedy of man, as well as the way we can effect our restoration and recreation.
Orthodox "Mothers of gods" from Africa (mothers of Orthodox Christians, who are invited to the deification)
Maasai Women, Kenya (From here)
Mamelodi, South Africa (from here)
Women frm Uganda with the Patriarch of Alexandria (from here)
In Rwanda, with Bishop Innocentius of Burundi & Rwanda (here)
In Nigeria, with Metropolitan Alexandros (from here)
The Dormition: Icon of Hope
Theotokos (tag in our blog)
Historicals & miraculus orthodox holy icons of Theotokos (tag)
Historicals & miraculus orthodox icons of the Theotokos from all the World
The god called “Earth”
Fr. Moses Berry, a priest with the Orthodox Christian Church in America, founded the Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Mission, a tiny 30- by 15-foot church. In his frequent talks around the country, fr. Berry shares his experiences with many people and organizations, especially encouraging children to believe in themselves and to believe that they can achieve their dreams.
More in Fr. Moses Berry, a descendant of African slaves, Orthodox priest and teacher in USA