Transitioning from Protestantism to the Orthodox Church a bit over a decade ago was for me a fairly seamless one. I was already well versed in the different theological positions and met the cultural surprises through research prior to my first visit to an actual church; however, I definitely got hung up on the Church’s apparent obsession with Mary.
As a Protestant I was trained to keep vigilant skepticism of all things Mary. She stood as a primary symbol of Catholicism, which meant she had to be resisted. Catholicism was for us the quintessential bogeyman of the faith.
From an Orthodox perspective nothing could be more shocking than that a Christian would have trouble identifying Mary as a foremost concern in the faith, never mind treating her as something taboo. Having experienced both side of the issue I thought it would be worthwhile to share a quick take on why Mary is so important in our faith.
To start with, the ‘mother’ outside of the Christian view is already both the symbol and the reality of the deepest possible connection between two people. In an ideal mother-child relationship the child receives the sort of attachment, love, and affection that will never find it’s equal in his or her lifetime. In archetypical terms, the ‘Great Mother’ is found throughout world history in literature, myth, religion and psychology.
But within strictly historic Christian terms, the theology of the Theotokos rises far above any of these conceptions. In fact, many mysteries of the Christian faith are made known through her, and, ironically, made more paradoxical. Such as, how divine providence is conformable with the freedom of creatures (i.e. how the Incarnation could not happen without Mary’s consent); how in her title “Theotokos” the whole history of salvation, or rather of the divine economy, is contained; how this virgin was rendered apt by the Holy Spirit to receive in her womb the Son of God, etc.
These mysteries begin to tap into the reasons why Orthodox Christianity holds the Theotokos to be of utmost importance. She is often found on icons with her hands raised and with the Christ child on her chest. This posture is known as the “orans” stance common to both historic Jews and Christians as representing the bodily attitude of prayer.
For the Orthodox this icon reveals the ‘Church’ (that is, the total aggregate of all right believing and worshipping Christians) personified by the Mother of God—the one who had confined within herself the unconfinable God. She had the literal Word of God—Christ in the flesh—dwelling in her womb.
Her unique life reveals the communion of the saints and personhood at its highest capacity. She is the example par excellence of what Christians strive to become: the abode of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit; she remains the highest possible human realization of communion with Christ.
She is not, as I once thought when looking into Orthodoxy from the outside, some sort of substitute Savior, or some form of needless separation between the believer and Christ. Quite the opposite. She is the vital link between all believers and Christ. And here’s the phrase that really shook me: she made salvation possible. It shook me because it made it sound as if she was usurping the credit for salvation from Christ. But that’s a bit like saying the ark usurped God’s power in saving mankind from the flood.
Thanks for reading.
8 thoughts on “Why Mary is the most important human figure in Christianity”
When, to teach the gospels to pagans, the priests made themselves models of Christ, and endeavoured to be embodiments of Him, as Jesus was, it was a good presenting method at the time. It had a down side though, in that the priests who had been the access-way soon became an impediment to individuals having direct personal contact with Christ. People did not want a go-between; they wanted to pray directly to Divinity. The idea of praying to the Virgin Mary bypassed the priests and solved the problem, and spread like wildfire across the continent. The church had to adopt the idea or lose it’s adherents. And now the Virgin Mary is a divine spirit in her own right, answering the prayers through the hearts of her believers. Still, protestant Christians have no need to pray to the Virgin Mother as Protestants pray directly to Christ. Protestants do not need a go-between.
Hi Crossbow, thanks for the comment as always. I’m curious where your historical view came from. Lots of questions come to mind, like, what time frame approximately do you believe the church began praying through Mary instead of through priests? Do you have a reference for the info? Also, of course Orthodox pray directly to Christ. We also pray directly to the Father and Holy Spirit. However, we also ask those whom we trust in the faith to pray for us. I ask my friends and family to do so all the time, and certainly my priest. Why wouldn’t one also ask the saint to pray for them in the same spirit? This is something I could never answer as a Protestant.
It was in the early Christian centuries, and would have emerged in different places as needed ideas tend to do. I was referring to one emergence in particular, a little later than the rest, in western Europe that took off on a grassroots level across the then early Christendom. Social practices were usually going on informally well before being recorded or made formal. And much is not recorded for all sorts of reasons. I cannot be more specific than that. It is many years since I learned about that event.
Yes, I do have a reference/source for the info but it is acquired unconventionally. As you know, I am not an average Christian. I did not document that particular lesson, but it was of the type as described in the out of body excursions on my blog, and where I describe how I do it.
“Why wouldn’t one also ask the saint to pray for them in the same spirit? This is something I could never answer as a Protestant.”
I see nothing wrong with asking others to pray for us, and to pray as a group, and to pray to saints.
However, if you can directly talk to the one you wish to talk to, why ask someone else to talk to them on your behalf too? It isn’t necessary. And there are no angels, spirits or saints, higher or more powerful, or closer to God than Christ. Why go to Christ’s subordinates when you can go to the top?
I was once an evangelical, then Torah observant, and now I have no idea what to call myself as my beliefs regarding spirituality have drastically changed due to some intense spiritual experiences… perhaps I am now what is considered a Universalist, not sure. But at some point in my journey, while meditating on the Lord’s prayer for a few weeks, I realized I was not interested in a Heavenly Father, I needed a Heavenly Mother. At this point I understood the appeal of Mary. When I struggle with motherhood and caring for my children, it makes more sense to pray for comfort and guidance from a Mother. Jesus, clearly masculine and never enduring the trials of motherhood, from physically bringing life into the world and nursing babies and caring for children every. single. day… I’d rather seek Mary’s assistance in those times, since she knows all about it. It has nothing to do with the eternal salvation of my soul (which I don’t even believe in that entire concept anymore) but with help in living my life. Isn’t that basically what prayer is? Asking for help? This mother needs a lot of help. I seek the wisdom and comfort of a mother.
Crossbow, unless I’m misunderstanding you, you acquired your historic view by way of an “out of body excursion” where you learned certain “lessons” on the church. I’ll admit I have no idea what that is except for my assumptions, which are almost certainly wrong (I hope). After my experience in evangelicalism I tend to rely on the apostles, prophets, martyrs and saints on those aspects of the faith that tend toward historical and spiritual reality about the faith. My own experiences are not lacking, but I always temper them with the witness of the Church knowing how flawed and blind my own perceptions of experience can be depending on my dominant bias at the time.
Anyway, to your question, the Orthodox pray with the saints because we have a seriously high view of the communion of the saints. Of course we have direct contact with Christ through prayer but we also have his “body” the Church which is constituted in the Holy Spirit. That communion is very important for a full-orbed faith.
Grace, thank you for your thoughtful and honest post. Please drop by and explore Orthodoxy here without the fear of judgement or rebuke. The faith speaks for itself and is an endless journey of discovery. God is faithful to answer those who seek.
Its a honor having your readership.
Thank you 🙂 I’ve been reading your blog since 2012 and I’ve really enjoyed your posts.
Yes Eric, you understand me correctly. That is where nearly all my understanding has come from. Have no concerns though. You have known me for a while now, and I think you know that I am a sincere and faithful Christian who does not indulge fantasy or irrationality.
Out of body excursions and other mystic experiences are unusual among Christians but are not unknown. There are examples in the Old and New Testaments, as I expect you are aware. We never know where faith will take us.
As you said to Grace, “The faith speaks for itself and is an endless journey of discovery. God is faithful to answer those who seek.”
I did not know in advance where my faith would take me. I only knew that I craved truth, whatever truth may be.