The piety of the Church gives a rather prominent place to the one whom we call the Theotokos, she who gave birth to God, the ever-virgin Mary. On August 15th, we celebrate the major feast day known as the Dormition or Falling-asleep of the Mother of God. Three weeks from that date, on September 8th, we celebrate her birth. There are, of course, other feasts in her honor, and no service of the Church fails to make reference to her. Prayers are addressed to her and hymns to her glorification are sung. In them we call her “more honorable than the cherubim and without compare more glorious than the Seraphim…”
Most Orthodox never question the propriety of these practices and practically all of us have a deep devotion to the Mother of our Lord. Surprisingly, however, the younger generations to which we have the great responsibility of passing on our Orthodoxy, have in some instances, been left with almost no piety of the Theotokos. It is not uncommon to find among our people nowadays, and especially among those who have been born and educated in America, the feeling that devotion to the Virgin Mary is some unnecessary, superfluous adornment of old-country Orthodoxy, with which we can easily dispense in our new environment. (Curiously, at the same time, we see American evangelicals taking an interest in the role of the Theotokos in the Christian faith.) For these reasons it behooves us to understand what we are doing in relationship to Mary and why.
The central event in human history is still the Incarnation of the Son of God, no matter what startling things science and technology may have accomplished or have in store for us. The central and most crucial question for all mankind since the living God made His most personal and intimate intervention into the life of humanity has been “What think ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42) Who is this Person who has had such an enormous impact on civilization? It is the question around which the entire religious dilemma of the 20th century revolves. All thinking, sensitive people must at some time at least consider the matter. Modern secularist theology is struggling with the problem because it is the product of a Christology, a doctrine about Christ, (foreign to Orthodoxy) that has ignored the Theotokos.
Orthodox theology has kept its thinking clear concerning Christ. It insists that Jesus Christ was the incarnate Word of God, God made flesh, with a perfect divine and a perfect human nature, and that He was born of the Virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. Attention and devotion to the Theotokos have contributed to the Church’s being able to maintain this balanced and essential doctrine of the God-Man. His divinity is manifest in the e
xtraordinary circumstances of His birth, and particularly in the preservation of the virginity of the Theotokos, and His humanity is guaranteed in that He was born of a woman, a real historical person.
She was the fulfillment of Israel’s calling, in reality, the reason for Israel’s being the chosen race. They were a race that was chosen specifically in order to produce a holy humanity that was capable of cooperating with God in bringing about man’s salvation. She became, through her own perfection, the new Eve, and the fulfillment of God’s promise to woman when she was punished for first yielding to the temptation of godlessness. She was central in the life of her Son, from Cana of Galilee to the Cross. Her death or falling-asleep which we celebrate every year in August was a perfectly normal one, but was followed by her resurrection, her passage to eternal life. In her we see the promise of the general resurrection fulfilled.
She had predicted, upon first hearing the announcement of the great thing that would happen to her from the Archangel Gabriel, that she would be honored by all generations that followed, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For He hath regarded the humility of His Handmaiden, and behold, henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.” (Luke 1: 46-48)
The kind of honor and praise that we give Mary is really determined by the Archangel at the Annunciation, “Rejoice, O thou who art full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1:28)
Her own cousin Elizabeth, not even knowing of the Annunciation, reacted in a totally new and different way when Mary visited her house after she had been told of what would happen. It was a great honor to Elizabeth for her cousin Mary to visit her: “How is it that the Mother of my Lord, (my God) should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)
At the marriage feast of Cana of Galilee, where we first see mother and Son together, she intercedes for the people before Him, and although He was not yet ready to embark on His public ministry, He granted their request because she had presented it.
On the Cross, Christ told the disciple John, “Behold thy mother.” (John 19:27) John and all Christians from that day have regarded her as their mother.
Here we have the perfect type of the Church, redeemed humanity, a person whose life is lived in complete harmony with God’s design for man. Her’s was the Eucharistic existence, one of thankful offering to God, the kind of existence that Adam forfeited in Paradise, because he became attached to things as ends in themselves. Her obedience was perfect. “Be it unto me according to thy will.” (Luke 1:38)
It is difficult to understand a Christian piety that does not include the most Holy Theotokos. A faith that does not include Christ’s Virgin Birth and the veneration of His mother is another faith, another Christianity from that of the Orthodox Church.
Our devotion to the Theotokos, our remembrance of the events in her life, our hymns and our prayers are faithful to the New Testament attitude toward her. She provided the perfect example of one who loves God and is totally committed to Him. (Thus the liturgical year begins with a major feast dedicated to Mary on September 8th and ends with our ‘consideration of the outcome of her life,’ (Hebrews 13: 7) on August 15th.) At the same time her place in our theology keeps that theology from losing its balance.
“In giving birth thou didst keep and preserve thy virginity; and in thy falling asleep, thou hast not forsaken the world; for living thou was translated, being the Mother of life. Wherefore, by thine intercessions, deliver our souls from death.” (Troparion for the feast)