The Holy Tradition and the Veneration of Mary and other Saints in the Orthodox Church
by Very Reverend John Morris
One of the first things that one notices when visiting an Orthodox Church or the home of an Orthodox Christian is the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Everywhere that one looks, one sees icons of the Blessed Virgin. Her icons are on the iconostasis, ceiling and walls of the Church and in the homes of the faithful. Orthodox Christians frequently mention her name in hymns and prayers and request her intercession at every important moment of their lives. The Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos is not merely a matter of popular piety. It is also an expression of the central teaching of the Orthodox Church, the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ.
Significantly, the Orthodox Church has transmitted its teaching concerning Mary through devotional and liturgical texts rather than through theological essays or dogmatic declarations. This shows how Eastern Orthodox Christians preserve and transmit their deepest-held beliefs. Fr. John Meyendorff wrote:
Through the liturgy, a Byzantine recognized and experienced his membership in the Body of Christ. While a Western Christian generally checked his faith against eternal authority (the magisterium or the Bible), the Byzantine Christian considered the liturgy both a source and an expression of his theology … The liturgy maintained the Church’s identity and continuity in the midst of a changing world.
Although Eastern Orthodox Christians hold the Holy Scriptures in very high regard and consider them divinely inspired, they look beyond the sacred texts to the totality of the life of the Church as expressed in the Holy Tradition of the Church. The words used during prayer and worship are a very important and also very personal manifestation of this Holy Tradition. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “In early times the Church knew full well that the lex credendi (rule of faith) and the lex orandi (rule of prayer) were inseparable and that they mutually substantiated each other — that, in the words of St. Irenaeus, ‘our teaching is in harmony with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching.’” Orthodox theologians do not draw a sharp distinction between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition or between written and unwritten Tradition. Instead, they consider the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and those expressed by the prayers of the Church, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, and the consensus of ancient and modern theologians as manifestations of the same Holy Tradition. Orthodox Christians believe that, throughout the centuries, the Holy Spirit has led the Church to preserve the teachings of Christ and His Apostles through the life of the Church. St. Basil the Great wrote:
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching, others we have received delivered to us ‘in a mystery’ by the traditions of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.
The role of liturgy in transmitting teachings concerning Mary illustrates a very important aspect of the Orthodox understanding of the Church. Orthodox Christians believe that the Church is first and foremost a Eucharistic or worshipping assembly. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “The Eucharist, we repeat, is not ‘one of the sacraments’ or one of the services, but the very manifestation and fulfillment of the Church in all her power, sanctity and fullness.” Thus, from an Orthodox point of view, liturgy and worship are not just one expression of the life of the Church to Orthodox. They are the very essence of the Church. To Orthodox Christians, everything flows from the Eucharist and the worship of the Church. Even charitable and social works are a means to manifest to the world the presence of Christ that the faithful experience during the Divine Liturgy.
The place of liturgical texts in expressing the teachings of the Church concerning the Theotokos, illustrates the Eastern Orthodox approach to theology. Liturgical texts referring to the Theotokos are poetic manifestations of devotion to Mary, rather than rational treatises on the Blessed Virgin. They are an expression of the heart rather than the mind, because Orthodox Christians believe that human reason cannot comprehend or understand the mysteries of God. Indeed, Orthodox Christians believe that all true theology must come from the mystical experience of God through prayer and worship, rather than through the intellectual contemplation of God with the mind.
The first and fundamental meaning of Mary for the Church is the relationship between veneration of the Theotokos and Orthodox doctrine. For Orthodox Christians, there can be no Church without Orthodox doctrine. In 1672, the Synod of Jerusalem decreed, “We believe to be members of the Catholic Church all the Faithful, and only the Faithful, who, forsooth, having received the blameless Faith of the Saviour Christ from Christ Himself, and the Apostles, and the Holy Ecumenical Synods, adhere to the same without wavering …” The Church is not a society of thinkers and philosophers, but is the Body of Christ dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel to the world. The Church is not dedicated to finding new knowledge about God, but instead is dedicated to preserving and transmitting the knowledge of God given to us by Christ and the Apostles. St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, “For where the Church is, there is the spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.”
The veneration of Mary plays a major role in the preservation of Orthodox doctrine, because the honor paid to her is an expression of the Christology or doctrine concerning Christ of the Church. Mary’s most important title is “Theotokos,” which means “God Bearer,” or “Birthgiver of God.” This term, endorsed by the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431, expresses the belief that the son of the Virgin was God from the very moment of his conception. This eliminates such false teachings as Adoptionism, which held that Christ was a good man adopted by God to be his son, and Nestorianism, which came close to teaching that Christ was only an inspired man. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “ … she is truly Mother of God who gave birth to the true God who took flesh from her … For the holy Virgin did not give birth to a mere man, but to true God and, not to God simply, but to God made flesh.”
Of all doctrines, the Incarnation is central for Orthodox Christians. As Vladimir Lossky has written, “Eastern theology never thinks of the Church apart from Christ and from the Holy Spirit.” As the Holy Scriptures teach, “Christ is the head of the Church.” The Church is the Body of Christ. Thus, in order to understand what the Church is, one must understand who Christ is. Related to the doctrine of the incarnation is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, which is not merely belief in the power of God to work wonders. The Orthodox Church believes in the sovereignty of God over creation. Thus, God is not bound by human understandings of the workings of creation, but, “Whensoever God willeth, the order of nature is overcome …” However, the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ has a much deeper meaning as a proclamation that “ … the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Jesus Christ is really the Son of God, not a divinely inspired man accepted by God because of his own righteousness. Through the virgin birth, God really became human, not just metaphorically or symbolically, but actually. In Christ, God became physical, as humans are physical. This is important because Orthodox believe, as St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “that which is not assumed is not healed.” From Mary, God assumed all that is human, to perfect that which is human and to unite humanity to Himself. On the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, September 8, Orthodox Christians proclaim that, through the incarnation, “ … the creation of us earthly beings was renewed, and we ourselves were renewed from corruption to life immortal.” In another hymn sung during Saturday evening Vespers in Tone Six, Orthodox Christians honor Mary with the words, “For the only Son rising timelessly from the Father, himself did come incarnate from thee in an inexplicable way. He, who while God by nature, became for our sakes Man by nature, not divided into two persons, but known by two natures without mixture or confusions.” Another hymn to Mary proclaims, “Thou art the preaching of the Prophets, O virgin Theotokos, the glory of the Apostles and pride of the Martyrs, the renewal of the whole race of earthly ones. For through thee we are reconciled to God.”
The Orthodox Church celebrates the two natures of Christ, the human nature received from the Blessed Virgin and the divine nature begotten by the Father, as expressed by the Church in the Council of Chalcedon through many of its hymns to the Blessed Virgin. For example, a hymn from Saturday evening Vespers in Tone Eight contains a very articulate expression of the teaching of Chalcedon and the fathers on the incarnation and the two natures of Christ:
Verily, the King of heaven, for his love to mankind did appear on earth; and with men did he deal; for he took unto himself a body from the pure Virgin. And from her did he issue in the adopted body, he being one Son, dual in Nature, not dual in Person. Wherefore, do we confess, preaching the truth that Christ our God is perfect God and perfect Man. Therefore, O Mother who hast no groom, beseech thou him to have mercy upon our souls.”
The doctrine of the two natures of Christ is relative to a discussion of the Church because, like Christ, the Church has two natures, the human and the divine. Thus, the Church, which is a divine institution, is also made up of sinful men and women. For this reason, Orthodox Christians believe that the Church itself is perfect and without sin, although some of its members are still in the process of being healed of sin. Thus, although the Church cannot sin, the people in the Church, including its leaders, can fall into sin.
The doctrine of the Incarnation, which is expressed in Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos, is also relevant to Sacramental theology. The Church teaches that God became flesh to save those who are flesh and to sanctify the material universe. Thus God uses physical things such as water, bread and wine, and oil to convey His divine grace through the Mysteries of the Church. At the same time, by becoming physical, Christ has sanctified the physical world. Thus, at the Feast of Epiphany, Orthodox proclaim, “Today the whole creation is lighted from on high.” This means that a true Christian must care for God’s creation and seek to protect it from being destroyed by human pollution.
When the Archangel Gabriel spoke to her, the Blessed Virgin could have refused God’s request to bear His Son. Her positive response to the Archangel Gabriel plays an important part in salvation. As St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, Mary is the second Eve, whose obedience liberates humanity from the consequences of the disobedience of the first Eve. For this reason, on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, Orthodox Christians sing, “ … the Mother of Life, who is the renewal of the creation of Adam and the recall of Eve, the fountain of incorruption, the liberation from corruption, through whom we have been deified and delivered from death, is born of the seed of David, dispersing darkness.” Mary could have refused to bear Christ, but she chose to obey God.
Mary’s obedience is an example of synergy, or cooperation, with God. For that reason Orthodox Christians sin, “For through her hath salvation come to the whole human race.” The concept of synergy is essential to the Orthodox understanding of salvation. As understood by Orthodox Christians, synergy is the exercise of our free will to accept God’s gift of grace. It is not the idea that human merit is required or applicable for salvation. The Orthodox doctrine of synergy is also a manifestation of the two natures of Christ, human and divine. God has accomplished salvation through Christ, reflecting the divine aspect of salvation, but the individual believer must respond positively to God’s offer of the gift of salvation, showing the human aspect of salvation. Orthodox believe that St. Paul expressed this concept of human and divine cooperation for salvation with the words, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Thus, Orthodox believe that, despite the curse of sin, humans still possess a free will and can respond positively to God’s invitation to receive His divine grace. Orthodox believe as St. John Cassian wrote:
These two things — that is, the grace of God and free will — certainly seem mutually opposed to one another, but both are in accord, and we understand that we must accept both in like manner by reason of our religion, lest by removing one of them from the human being we seem to contravene the rule of the Church’s faith. For when God sees us turning in order to will what is good, he comes to us, directs us, and strengthens us, for as soon as he hears the voice of our cry, he will respond to you.
The Orthodox Church calls Mary “immaculate,” and “all pure,” as a manifestation of the Orthodox understanding of salvation as deification. Orthodox Christians believe that through the grace of God Mary has been deified or made by grace what God is by nature or, as St. Paul wrote, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another …” Vladimir Lossky wrote, “ … the very heart of the Church, one of her most secret mysteries, her mystical center, her perfection already realized in a human person fully united to God, finding herself beyond the resurrection and the judgment. This person is Mary, the Mother of God.” Thus salvation for Orthodox theology is more than the forgiveness of sins or justification, but is also the transformation of the believer by the grace of God to become a partaker of the Divine Nature. Orthodox Christians see the realization of salvation in the deification of Mary.
However, Orthodox Christians do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. On the contrary, Orthodox believe that the Blessed Virgin was born in ancestral sin just like any other person. This is important because if Mary had not been born in ancestral sin, God could not have assumed sinful human nature from her. As St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” If God had not assumed sinful human nature from the Blessed Virgin, He could not have saved sinful human nature through the Incarnation of Christ. Indeed, a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary from the service of Compline contains the beautiful words, “thy glorious birth-giving has united God the Word to man and joined the fallen nature of our race to heavenly things.”
Although Orthodox theologians do not dogmatize the Assumption of the Virgin, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of her falling asleep and translation to Heaven on August 15. Once again, this is a reflection of the Gospel by telling the faithful that they, like Mary, may share in the victory of Christ over death. Thus, through Christ, the Blessed Virgin has become “more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,” for she has been deified and has inherited a place in the Kingdom of God.
Finally, the devotion of Mary is an The Word 9 expression of meaning of the word “Church.” In the original Greek, the word “Church,” or “ecclesia,” literally means a gathering or assembly. Alexander Schmemann wrote that properly an Orthodox Church building (temple) “is experienced perceived as sobor, as the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ — which constitutes the essence and purpose of the Church itself.” To Orthodox Christians, the Church is not just an assembly of humans, but is a participation in the worship of the Saints and angels before the throne of God. That is why there are so many references to the angelic hosts during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Again, Alexander Schmemann wrote, “The Eucharist is always a going out from ‘this world’ and an ascent to heaven …” Thus, Orthodox Christians believe that through the Liturgy, the faithful mystically ascend to heaven and join the company of the faithful departed before God. This assembly of the entire company of heaven before the throne of God through the Eucharist creates a relationship between the living and the departed in Christ. This is manifested by the prayers of the living for intercession of Mary and the Saints, who are mystically present in the lives of the faithful through the mystery of the Church. This mystery transcends the boundaries between heaven and earth and unites those on earth with those in heaven.
Therefore, Orthodox devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is not merely an expression of popular piety. It is much more. Orthodox veneration of Mary is a manifestation of the most essential doctrines of the Orthodox Faith. The prominent place played by Mary in Orthodoxy also shows the importance of worship as the essence of the Church and the chief means whereby the Church transmits and preserves the Gospel for future generations. The deification of Mary shows that the promises of Christ are real, for, through Christ, those who follow Him will share the experience of God’s deifying grace that is manifested by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Finally, the familiar way in which Orthodox Christians ask Mary and the other Saints for their intercessions, illustrates the very meaning of “Church,” which is an assembly of the faithful, those on earth and those in heaven, with the angels before the throne of God.
Courtesy of the
June 2007 issue of The Word magazine.