Those of us who were brought up to question or reject honour paid to Mary in Christian worship or art often have our minds made up in advance. We need to avoid allowing our preconceptions to colour our understanding.
New Testament teaching about the Virgin Mary.
Both the Archangel Gabriel and the saintly Elizabeth confess to Mary, “Blessed are you among women”.
Mary is blessed because she conceived, carried, gave birth to and nurtured the very Saviour of our souls. Our Saviour entered the human race through her womb. She was chosen by the Father to bear His only begotten Son. Early in Christian history she is called the ‘first of the redeemed’.
Mary is also blessed because she found favour in the sight of God. Gabriel’s words to her were “Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28) and later “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God” (Luke 1:30)
Mary is our model for Christian service. The Angel Gabriel described what would happen, how the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of God would overshadow her therefore the Holy One born of her would be called the Son of God. Mary’s willing response to the will of God is an example for us all, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word”
Thirty years later at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee the wine ran out and Mary spoke to the servants and referring to Jesus she said, “Whatever He says to you do it”. (John 2:5) Profound words which also model for us a right response to Christ.
Mary exemplifies femininity i.e. responding love, obedience, self-giving, the readiness to live exclusively in and for the Other. Eve took an initiative, which led to disobedience of God’s command and thus distorted the order of creation. Mary restores something absolutely essential in the order of creation. We also see her as representing all of mankind when she accepts her betrothal to the One who from eternity loved us. She was the first of many to ‘make a decision for Christ.’
Mary the Mother of God This title took on great importance in the fourth century when a heretic named Nestorius wrongly claimed that the one in Mary’s womb was certainly man but that He was not God. This was opposite to the Church’s belief. To see Jesus Christ as something less than God in the flesh is sub-Christian. Unless the One in Mary’s womb was and is God we are dead in our sins. To safeguard the full deity of Christ, the Church has always insisted that Mary be rightly called the Mother of God. Theotokos is the Greek word, which is used for this title it actually means ‘God Bearer’, an even more accurate title for her.
Elizabeth’s words on receiving a visit from Mary are: “Why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Elizabeth knew that her Lord, the Messiah of Israel, was in the womb of Mary.
Two foundational truths are evident from these events: the Virgin Birth of Christ and the deity of Christ (that He was God). In Orthodoxy there is a non-negotiable fence around these beliefs.
Honouring Mary. Mary’s prayer of praise (known as the Magnificat) recorded in Luke 1 includes these words; “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) Her words are believed to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. All generations in Church History have called her ‘blessed’; only in the last few centuries have we faltered.
It is worth noting that the well known evangelical preacher, Billy Graham, has said on several occasions “We evangelicals do not give Mary her proper due.”
From the beginning of recorded Christian worship, Orthodox Christians have taken special care to venerate Mary in the Liturgy. One ancient hymn, which is still sung in the St. John Chrysostom Liturgy begins: ‘It is truly right to call you blessed, who gave birth to God, ever-blessed and most pure, Mother of our God. Greater in honour than the Cherubim and beyond compare, more glorious than the Seraphim.’
(We do not worship Mary, worship is reserved for the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.) But she is to be honoured and venerated.
In addition to the hymns of praise in the weekly and daily services there is other liturgical material (akathistoi) containing love and praise to Mary. These are often given a special place in the Lenten services.
There are also Feast Days, which are kept in honour of special events concerning Mary: The Nativity of the Virgin (Sept. 8th), the Presentation of the Theotokos into the Temple (November 21st), the Annunciation (March 25th) and the Dormition (August 15th).
The icons of the Theotokos have deep theological meaning. There also exist a number of miraculous icons of the Theotokos (Russia alone has 300 of such ‘revealed icons’) these have days of celebration also.
The Early Church Fathers taught that just as Eve was the mother of the old Adamic race, so Mary is the Mother of the new race, the Body of Christ, the Church. In this sense she can be seen as our Mother also since we are all members of the body of Christ. Because she provided the physical body of Christ she became the mother of all who would be saved, hence she had a role in our salvation. She is also believed to be a heavenly intercessor.
Old Testament Prophesy refers to the Virgin birth, eg: Isaiah 7:14 ‘Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel’.
Traditionally, Mary has been called ‘Ever-Virgin’. She is believed to have remained a virgin after the birth of Christ.
The words in Matthew 1:25 which say that Joseph knew not his wife until Christ was born actually do not mean that there was physical union after Christ’s birth. The word ‘until’ in the Greek has several different meanings and in other biblical passages it clearly means ‘up to the time of, or even to’ eg: the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:20 ‘Lo, I am with you always until (even to) the end of the age.’
The mention of brothers and sisters does not, in the world of the Bible, mean anything other than close relatives eg: cousins. St. Ambrose believed that they were children of a former marriage between Joseph and a wife who died prior to Matthew chapter 1.
Bodily Assumption It was widely reported in the early Church that shortly after her death, Mary’s body was assumed into heaven. There is no known record of any gravesite or relics of the Holy Virgin. There is firm biblical precedent for such an event, Enoch and Elijah being two examples. The assumption of the Virgin is safely seen as an historic Christian tradition, though not recorded in the Scriptures.
Immaculate Conception There is a belief in the Roman Church that Mary was born and conceived without sin. The Orthodox Church has always believed that she became divine through the birth of Christ.
An example of an Akathistoi to Mary:
O protector of Christians, most confident mediator to the Creator unchangeable. Despise not the pleading voices of those in sin but hasten, O Good One, to the help of us who in faith cry out to you. Speed up your intercessions and press on your supplication. O Theotokos who always protects those who honour you.