Why the Orthodox Honor Mary (Part I)
By Father Stephen Freeman
Today (August 1) marks the beginning of the Fast of the Dormition, the annual preparation for the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary. I offer this article as reflection.
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.
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.
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. (Luke 2:34-35)
Here, Mary is linked to the Cross of Christ in the piercing of her soul.
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.
~The Website of Father Stephen Freedman, Glory to God for All Things, “Why the Orthodox Honor Mary,” https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/08/01/orthodox-honor-mary/