Today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, or Mary’s death and translation to heaven. I wanted to offer some general thoughts on Mary, Jesus’ mother.
In the Orthodox Church, our hymns are incredibly rich with two thousand years of Christian theology and devotion. The writings of the Church Fathers are full of traditional and historical doctrines, of Christian belief about Mary. But my own initial thoughts and experience regarding Mary were far less doctrinal, and much more personal. To be sure, as a Protestant, non-denominational evangelical, I had to address certain questions I had when I became Orthodox. But these never seemed all that problematic. No, my first experiences were, if you will, much more relational.
Calling Mary “Theotokos” or “Mother of God,” was never an issue for me at all. Is Jesus God? Is Mary his mother? Next question.
Believing in Mary’s perpetual virginity was never an issue as well. Quite frankly, in my opinion, it seemed just a bit, well, weird, to so adamantly insist that Mary had sexual relations with Joseph after Jesus’ birth. There didn’t seem to be any grammatical necessity for such insistence, and plenty of demonstrable plausibility to conclude that reference to Jesus’ siblings was a much more generic designation. Further, there were more important theological reasons to argue for Mary’s perpetual virginity than there were to argue against it. At the time, I had no ax to grind either way. I was open to either argument. And the arguments against seemed much more oriented toward anti-Roman Catholic sentiment, or were a weird insistence that it was impossible for married people not to have sex, indeed it was a requirement that they do. Please. (And for the record, I’m a father of two daughters, draw from that what inferences you will.)
Prayers to Mary? That one was no problem either. When Christians die, doesn’t Paul say that they are “absent from the body, but present with the Lord”? Aren’t all the saints alive in Christ Jesus as we await the final resurrection? And don’t we actually “pray” to each other here in this life when we ask for each other’s prayers? If asking the prayers of living saints here in this life is perfectly okay, then there is no reason not to ask the prayers of the living saints who are with the Lord. And Mary is among that number.
As I was becoming Orthodox, I did not have to deal with the Roman Catholic dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception (which teaches that Mary was preserved from any taint of original sin as a special grace unlike any other human being). For one thing, the Orthodox do not agree with Roman Catholic teaching, at least on some important points, when it comes to original sin. And for another, one of the Orthodox emphases, when it comes to the Orthodox Church’s teaching on Mary is this: everything we believe about Mary has to do with her Son.
Calling Mary “Theotokos” is all about declaring Jesus is God in the flesh. If the Person to whom Mary gave birth is not God, then we cannot call her Theotokos. Nor would we be saved. But because Jesus is God, and because Mary is his mother, then we cannot but call her Mother of God.
Mary’s remaining a virgin after Jesus’ birth says absolutely nothing about sex, about Mary’s marriage to Joseph, and really says very little about Mary at all. It says everything about who Jesus is. If in fact, Jesus is God in the flesh, then the impact of God dwelling in Mary’s womb is a very big deal. Think of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. Only one person could ever physically be in the presence of the Ark, and that once a year: the high priest. The Ark had very specific handling instructions: only certain people could do so, it could not be touched, but poles had to be used to carry it. In fact, when Israel violated all those rules, and was bringing the Ark back on a cattle cart, and it almost fell, and Uzzah reached out to steady it and touched it, he was struck down. The point? Not that Joseph couldn’t have touched Mary, but that the presence of the holy has material affects. Holiness changes things, inside and out. And if you have God dwelling in your womb for nine months, if God nurses at your breast for his first couple of years of life, if you give God his DNA, he cannot but communicate his holiness to you. He sanctifies you inside and out. The Orthodox Church’s teaching that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth is all about who Jesus is, how being God he is utterly holy, and how that intimate connection of birth and motherhood is one means of communicating that holiness. On a personal note, it makes total sense to me that Joseph, a righteous Israelite, steeped in the Law, the Writings and the Prophets, would have no more thought of approaching Mary for sex after Jesus’ birth than he did before Jesus’ birth.
I’ve spent some time addressing some of these common objections many Protestants and evangelicals have on becoming Orthodox primarily to make a single point: who Mary is, in our faith, has everything to do with who Jesus is. Doctrines about Mary are really doctrines about Jesus. That will be important in just a moment. But truth to tell, these dogmatic points were not all that big a deal for me. While I had some very critical doctrinal and historical questions when I was becoming Orthodox, I wasn’t all that hung up on issues about Mary. My thinking was that if my primary questions were answered, then these secondary matters would fall into place as well.
But even saying that is a little misleading, because having had my background in New Testament, philosophy and theology, I had had enough training and education that addressing these questions was a very quick matter. The harder part for me, in becoming Orthodox, had more to do with everyday life and prayer. And that’s where Mary comes in.
As I’ve told previously, while I had had encounters with Orthodoxy beginning in early summer 2000, it wasn’t until June 2002 that I intentionally set out to determine if the Orthodox Church stood up under scrutiny and if this was going to be my faith home. Given my “St Anthony moment” during my first Liturgy that June of 2002, I pretty much had my answer from the get-go. But I spent that summer researching, writing, and thinking, and having the questions I had answered. By October 2002, there weren’t any more questions, I had done some pretty extensive research and writing. I needed to get away and pray.
I scheduled a weekend at St Gregory’s Abbey, in Three Rivers, Michigan, a Benedictine monastery in the Episcopal Church. Normally I have a specific focus on such retreats, but this time I just went, open to whatever God had for me. I had concerns on my heart (one of them the Orthodox Church and what I was discovering and then what I was going to do about it), but I was just going to pray and listen to what God had to say to me. I left Friday after work and got in right at the tail end of supper. I slept well that night, but was restless all Saturday. In late afternoon I was haunting the monastic library, not really knowing what I was looking for, when for reasons I no longer remember, I happened upon a book containing the Akathist service to Mary (a special set of liturgical prayers about Mary and her role in God’s plan of salvation with prayers asking her intercessions). I checked the book out and took it with me later to the Compline service.
At the monastery then there was a time of silent devotion reserved for prayer after the service for anyone who wanted to stay in the church and pray. And there were also then several side chapels, one of which had an icon of the flight to Egypt. That Saturday night, I chose another chapel and prayed the Akathist. It was the first time I’d ever done so, and the longest time I’d ever spent in such prayer. I did not feel all that different, and yet I did know that God had visited me in that prayer time. The next day, after lunch, I had packed and was getting ready to leave, when I returned to the monastery church and this time chose to pray in the side chapel with the icon of the flight to Egypt. Here I poured out my heart, discovering some things within myself, as I opened everything to God, all the struggles I was having (school, work, marriage), and for the first time in a very long time, I wept in prayer. At the end of it, also for the first time, I asked Mary to pray for me and my family. I won’t detail the things I prayed for specifically, except to say that two months later we discovered we were pregnant with our first child, our daughter Sofie. Sofie was born at 6:40 in the evening on 14 August. At the time of her birth, the Orthodox feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God had begun. There could be no clearer indication to me that Sofie’s conception and birth were an answer to one of the prayers I had asked Mary to pray for us.
Since that time, I have felt quite existentially the impact of Jesus’ statement from the Cross: “Behold your mother.” The Church has, from the beginning, recognized that Jesus was not just giving his mother into the care of his beloved disciple, but that it was the Church that was present there at the foot of the Cross, that two or three gathered together in Christ’s name, and it was to the Church that Jesus was giving his mother. And that is precisely my experience of Mary. She is my mother, too.
Now that I am several years past my chrismation and reception into the Orthodox Church, it occurs to me how blessed I am to have in my common everyday experience the life of the Mother of God intertwined with mine, with my daughters, with the whole Church. There is a beauty and tenderness to my faith and everyday life that is there because I belong to a Church that makes important the life and witness of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Think of it this way: imagine a large Mediterranean family, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, and children everywhere. Imagine this family at a large evening dinner. There’s wine flowing, great food (lamb!), lots of loud talking and laughter. An older cousin is teasing his younger sibling, who then gives him a joking punch in the shoulder. Girl cousins are off to one side talking about … whatever things girl cousins talk about (I’m a guy, I have no clue). At the head table the mom and dad of this large family are seated next to one another, everyone talking and enjoying themselves. Now, imagine this exact same setting and imagine that the mother is gone. No mom.
You feel it immediately, don’t you? It completely changes things. There’s something missing. Something beautiful, warm and tender. Perhaps the father is now a widower. The family chats and laughs and eats. But there’s an essential quality missing, a wonderful feminine presence that blesses.
Being Orthodox means I get to have that blessing, that maternal warmth and tenderness and beauty. There is a sweetness to Orthodox living and praying that having Mary as a central part of our faith brings. She is not God, of course. She is “only” the Mother of God. But she is the Mother of God. And there is no other woman who has lived or who ever will live who is like her. Because of Jesus, her Son and our Savior and Lord. If she is sweet and beautiful and warm and tender, it is because of him. If she prays for us, and if her prayers are answered, it is because of him. Just as she did at the wedding of Cana, she tells us always and ever to “do what he tells you to do.” And she is his mother. And he, who gives us all things, in whom all things are ours, Jesus himself gives to us his mother as our own.