First Person: On Mary

An Eleusa (Ἐλεούσα or “tenderness”) icon of Mary, Vladimirskaya, c. 12th century

“We Evangelical Christians do not give Mary her proper due.”

Billy Graham

Today, Orthodox Christians all over the world celebrate the Great Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος or “Mother of God”), a celebration which concludes two weeks of fasting, one of the four extended fasting periods on the Orthodox calendar. Meanwhile, Catholics are celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, honoring the tradition and belief that Mary did not die a natural death but ascended into Heaven, sort of like Elijah. Orthodox Christians neither reject nor affirm that tradition, but we honor Mary’s dormition or “falling asleep.” Both Orthodox and Catholics believe that Mary, like all the saints, is alive with Christ and praying for us.

As a one-time Evangelical, I struggled more with the veneration of Mary than with nearly any other aspect of Orthodox doctrine. My experience was not unique. Most former Evangelicals (most Protestants, really) view the veneration of Mary with suspicion, as if Catholic and Orthodox Christians commit idolatry en masse every time they pray. Not only did I hesitate to venerate anyone other than Christ, but something about the Orthodox emphasis on Mary’s motherhood, on defining her identity based on her role as the Theotokos, the Mother of God, felt…kind of creepy. I get hung up on the conservative doctrines about sex, doctrines that treat sex as a link between humans and sin, so that the emphasis on Mary’s perpetual virginity bothered me. As if we couldn’t venerate Mary if she hadn’t been a virgin all her life! I was turned off.

My very first prayer rope was tied to a small, silver cross with an engraving of Mary and the infant Jesus at the center. I remember looking at it and thinking, “Oh boy, this is a big leap for me.” No other mysterious aspect of Orthodox faith—the mystery of the Eucharist, the traditional stories of the saints and their lives, the belief in modern miracles, etc.—bothered me as much as the stuff about Mary. I actually embraced the strange and supernatural aspects of my newfound Orthodox faith, but felt resistant to venerating the Theotokos.

The Dormition of Mary, Novgorod, c. 12th century

Eventually, I read Peter Gillquist’s account of a mass Evangelical conversion to Orthodoxy, entitled Becoming Orthodox. In a chapter called “Facing Up To Mary,” Gillquist described the Scriptural and traditional support for the extreme veneration of God’s mother. That phrase alone, “God’s mother,” should inspire us to venerate Mary. It is not merely that she was sinless or a perpetual virgin; these are almost incidental points. Mary was obedient to God to a degree unmatched in Biblical or Christian tradition. She was the first person to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, and so she can be remembered as the first Christian. Early Christians referred to her as “the first of the redeemed.” The Second Vatican Council acknowledged her not only as the Mother of Christ but as the Mother of the Church. The twentieth-century Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov said, “The Virgin Mary is the centre, invisible, but real, of the Apostolic Church.” For these reasons alone, we should honor her. But there’s much more to the story.

As Gillquist wrote in the chapter on Mary, the New Testament offers four important teachings about Christ’s mother. First, she is “the greatest woman who ever lived. Whereas our Lord Jesus Christ told us there was no greater man to walk the earth than John the Baptist, both the Archangel Gabriel and the saintly Elizabeth confessed to Mary, ‘Blessed are you among women.'” Many Orthodox would argue, given the historical veneration of Mary (which can be dated back to the first century of the Church), she can be safely described as the greatest of all God’s creation, “more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.” She is, of all people, the first person in honor and glory.

Second, wrote Gillquist, Mary is “our model for the Christian life”: she models perfect obedience to God, she models holiness and purity before God, and she models Christian royalty and intercession for the saints. Royalty? Yes. Gillquist wrote: “If the sacred Scriptures declare that we are all kings (Revelation 1:6), is it so strange that the Church refers to Mary as Queen? If the Holy Bible promises that you and I shall judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), is it so odd that the Church should sing that Mary is ‘more honorable than the cherubim…?'” Gillquist called attention to Psalm 45:9, which, for Christians, portrays Christ as King and a “royal bride in gold of Ophir” by His side. Traditional Christianity understands this “royal bride” as Mary, the foremost member of Christ’s body, the Church. Meanwhile, to ignore Mary’s role as an intercessor is to ignore the thrust of Christian eschatology, which points to our union with God and brotherhood with Christ, beyond time and space, in continual prayer and worship. “If Saint Paul instructs us as a holy priest to pray ‘always…for all the saints,” wrote Gillquist, “is it so outrageous to confess with the Church that holy Mary (along with all the saints who have passed from death to life and continually stand in the presence of Christ) intercedes before her Son on behalf of all men?”

Third, Mary is the mother of God, the Theotokos. Either Christ was fully God or He wasn’t; one cannot separate His divine nature from his human nature. Mary was His mother. We are not Nestorians here.

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, c. 1513/14

Finally, wrote Gillquist, we are commanded to honor Mary and call her blessed. Read Mary’s prayer from Luke 1:

My soul magnifies the Lord, 
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.

“…all generations will call me blessed,” and, wrote Gillquist, “all generations in church history have done so; only those of the last few centuries have faltered.” My Evangelical Protestant friends may not find this fourth point convincing (are we really commanded in Scripture to venerate Mary based on this one verse?). I sympathize with that objection, but I also believe the objection reveals the inherent arrogance of Evangelical Protestantism…an arrogance I have not rid myself completely of yet. We assume that our post-Enlightenment interpretation of Scripture is sufficient and that we can safely erase the fifteen hundred years of Christian history and tradition that precede us. But these bygone saints, who pray for us even now, all venerated Mary. So did Martin Luther! Do we really know better than all of them?

Even if we shed our arrogance, venerating Mary in prayer doesn’t feel natural to us. It feels a tad too much like idolatry. On this point, Gillquist was perfectly clear:

We do not, of course, worship Mary, for worship is reserved for the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But she is most certainly to be honored and venerated. And because Christ is our elder brother, the firstborn of many brethren, we honor the Virgin Mary as our Mother, our Lady, as well. Just as Eve was the mother of the old Adamic race, so Mary is the true Mother of the new race, the Body of Christ, the Church.

But what about the repeated exhortation, “O holy Mother of God, save us”? We do not merely ask Mary to pray for us (as we do with all the other saints), but we also ask her to “save us”? Doesn’t this fly in the face of small-o orthodox Christian teaching?

On this point, I think Evangelicals are getting too caught up in particularities of language, which is an imperfect human instrument. Only Christ has redeemed us, only Christ has declared victory over death and the demonic rulers of this world. So can we actually say ask Mary to save us? “Yes,” wrote Gillquist, who explained:

Certainly, we believe that Mary is pure and holy, that she rules with Christ, that she even prayers for us. We know that Mary relinquished her will to the will of God, thus cooperating fully with the purpose of God. And we know that this is the express purpose of God to save those who have faith in Christ. At the very least we can say that Mary is concerned about our salvation and that she desires it. That should be true of all believers. So the original question, “Can Mary save us?” leads to another question: “Can we save others?” Here, the Holy Scriptures speak with resounding clarity.

Gillquist went on to cite 1 Timothy 4:16, James 5:20, Jude 22 and 23, 1 Corinthians 3:15, James 5:15, Isaiah 63:9, 1 Peter 3:21, 1 Corinthians 1:21, and Romans 11:14. Each of these verses refer to the work of prophets, saints, and angels as saving others. “New life in Christ, or salvation, is both personal union with Him and an incorporation into the wholeness of the Body, the Church,” wrote Gillquist. “Salvation is a church affair, a church concern, because we are all affected by it. Therefore, in Christ we all have a part to play in the corporate nature of His saving act.” Mary, as the Mother of the Church, plays a venerable and distinctive role in leading us toward salvation.

An Orthodox icon-inspired Mary sticker by the Armenian-American artist Marza: linktr.ee/artofmarza

The point is not that Mary was vitally important to the Church as the Mother of Christ. She continues to be vital to the Church. As Bulgakov wrote, “Mary is not merely the instrument, but the direct positive condition of the Incarnation, its human aspect. Christ could not have been incarnate by some mechanical process, violating human nature. It was necessary for that nature itself to say for itself, by the mouth of the most pure human being: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word.'”

Gillquist concluded his chapter on Mary by declaring, “What we do about Mary is connected directly to what we do about the Church. The community of Christ’s followers is called to act together. Taking action with regard to Mary is not simply personal or private; it has to do with responding as the Church.” This Church, this community of Christ’s followers, include the many millions of saints who precede us in history. They have fallen asleep but they are not gone. Evangelicals are too willing to overlook their important role in our relationship to God and the Church. And within the Church, Mary is blessed and venerated and uniquely situated as the first person who intercedes before Christ on our behalf.

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