On the first and third Mondays of each month, I will answer readers’ questions about Eastern Orthodoxy. If you have questions, please leave them in the comments, email them to me, or tweet them to me. Today’s question is Why do Orthodox Christians revere Mary so much?
I remember when I first visited Ruamrudee International School, which was the school I attended for junior high and high school in Bangkok. The school was founded by Catholic missionaries, and when you entered the campus, there was a spirit house with a statue of Mary in it. Spirit houses are common across Thailand; these ornate bird-house-like structures stand like security guards in front of almost every home and business. Thais place flowers, food, and incense on spirit houses to appease the evil spirits so they won’t enter the house or company. My Catholic international school had contextualized the gospel by placing statues of Mary and Jesus in its spirit houses. Mary and Jesus would keep the evil spirits out of RIS. My parents didn’t particularly like that, claiming that it was going too far. (It didn’t stop them from enrolling us, though). At the time, I agreed. Catholics were obsessed with Mary, which was ridiculous. It wasn’t like Mary could ever be equivalent to God.
Today, I find myself in a church that reveres Mary just as the Catholics of my high school did. In fact, there is an Orthodox hymn that says Mary is higher than the angels:
More honourable than the Cherubim
And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim
Though who without stain barest God the word
True Theotokos we magnify Thee
“Theotokos” means God-bearer, and it is the Orthodox term for Mary. Mary bore God in her body. It was through her that Christ came to us, making her a crucial part of our ability to be saved. The incarnation was made possible through her obedience and willingness. Even though she didn’t understand and knew she would be ridiculed, she said yes to God. And because of that, she became the vessel through which God came to us in human skin. Her role is an integral part of the incarnation. In the icon of the annunciation, you can see Mary holding a spool of red thread, which represents how humanity was woven into Christ within her human womb.
“The Church never separates Mother and Son, she who was incarnated by him who was incarnate. In adoring the humanity of Christ, we venerate his mother, from whom he received that humanity and who, in her person, represents the whole of humanity,” said Father Sergius Blugakov.
Sometimes Mary is called “the new Eve” as Jesus is called “the new Adam.” While Adam and Eve disobeyed God, Jesus and Mary obeyed Him. While Adam and Eve broke our communion with God, Jesus restored that communion with the help of Mary because she brought Jesus into the world. Let me be clear: Jesus is our Savior, not Mary. However, Mary played an important part in bringing our Savior to us.
In addition, Mary is considered the first Christian, the first person on earth to believe that Jesus was God. Orthodox Christians believe in the process of theosis, or holiness, or becoming like God (in his energies, not his essence). Mary is the human who has come closest to achieving Christlikeness, and she is our chief intercessor as we navigate our lives as Christians. Orthodox Christians don’t believe in the immaculate conception of Mary like Catholics do, but they do believe that she lived a sinless life. While the desire or inclination to sin was there, she resisted the temptation to sin throughout her life. That idea is hard for me to swallow, I admit. But I can still adore and love Mary even if I question that belief. For me, whether or not she ever sinned doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that she brought me Jesus, she honored God, and she is an example and intercessor for me and my family.
I’ve had many conversations with Protestant friends about Mary, and sometimes I tell them all these things and they still say, “Okay. I understand what you’ve said. But so what? God calls people to do things for Him all the time. Why is Mary more special than others just because she said yes to God?”
It’s a hard question for me to answer when I feel like I’ve given all the intellectual answers I know.
All that is left is for me to dig into my personal experiences and answer from my spirit.
Mary is a friend who understands me. Every time I look at her image in an icon, I sense her compassion. She knows how I felt when I carried my children in my body. She knows the mysterious thrill of growing a child. She knows the grief my mother felt when she stood next to her dead son’s body. She knows how I felt when I had to say goodbye to my brother. She knows what is it to be crushed by disappointment. She knows the fear I feel – the fear for my children’s safety, the fear of trusting a God I often question, the fear of being rejected. Through prayer and faith I have forged a kind of relationship with Mary. She has taught me the quiet beauty of creative power and hope. Here is a section from a prayer called the Akathist to the Mother of God:
Bearing God within Her womb, the Virgin hastened to Elizabeth; whose unborn child, knowing at once the salutation of the Theotokos, rejoiced and, leaping as if in song, cried out to her:
Rejoice! Vine whence springs a never-withering branch:
Rejoice! Orchard of Pure Fruit.
Rejoice! For thou tendest the Husbandman who loves mankind:
Rejoice! For thou hast borne the Gardener who cultivates out life.
Rejoice! Earth yielding a rich harvest of compassion:
Rejoice! Table laden with mercy in abundance.
Rejoice! For through Thee the fields of Eden flower again:
Rejoice! For thou makest ready a Haven for our souls.
Rejoice! Acceptable incense of intercession:
Rejoice! Propitiation of the whole world.
Rejoice! Loving-kindness of God unto mortal man:
Rejoice! Freedom of the approach for mortals unto God.
Rejoice! O Unwedded Bride!
Mary is a woman, holding a place of honor for all women. In a world and a faith that can sometimes be male-centered, Mary gives me someone to relate to. When a divine, powerful God seems far away, Mary is there in all her humanity, waiting for me. When Eve gets blamed for the Fall, Mary holds out her hands to me and says, “You have value. You are blessed.” Mary restores my worth and influence as a woman. Her strength both inspires and sustains me. Check out these triumphant lines, also from the Akathist:
We all sing in honor of thy Son, O Theotokos, and praise thee as a living temple. For the Lord Who holds all things in His hand made His dwelling in thy womb; He hallowed and He glorified thee, teaching all to cry to thee:
Rejoice! Tabernacle of God the Word:
Rejoice! Greater Holy of Holies.
Rejoice! Ark made golden by the Spirit:
Rejoice! Never-empty treasure-house of life.
Rejoice! Precious crown of Orthodox kings:
Rejoice! Honored boast of Godly priests.
Rejoice! Unshaken fortress of the Church:
Rejoice! Unconquered rampart of the Kingdom.
Rejoice! For through thee the standards of victory are raised on High:
Rejoice! For through thee our enemies are cast down.
Rejoice! Healing of my body:
Rejoice! Salvation of my soul.
Rejoice! O Unwedded Bride!
To some extent, this relationship with and adoration of Mary has to be experienced, not described. My love toward Mary has grown more from praying prayers like the ones I’ve shared here than from intellectual knowledge. I can try to talk intellectually and theologically, but there is a point where my explanations fall flat, and I can only encourage you to seek Mary on your own through prayer.
I welcome your thoughts and questions.