Mary, Did You Know?
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
One of the biggest issues that many people have when discussing or considering Orthodoxy is Mary. Her place and presence in the Church are somewhat scandalous and confusing to those come from a protestant background where they were taught that such devotion to the Mother of God is unnecessary at the least, or sacrilegious at the most. So, after leaving the Church on Sunday how do we talk to others about Mary, the Theotokos, to others during the week?
As always, don’t get defensive right off the bat when you’re called to give an account. Instead, ask the person you’re conversing with why they don’t venerate Mary. Put the onus on them. You’ll learn quite a bit about their perspective and be better situated to address their concerns. They’ll likely feel listened too, which will result in more positive dialogue. With that out of the way, what might be some of their beef about Mary?
Often, she is seen with all the other saints as an unnecessary go-between, a mediator, to get to Jesus. “Can’t people pray directly to Jesus?” The answer, of course, is yes. In fact, Orthodox Christians do speak directly with Jesus, The Father, and the Holy Spirit. We also ask Mary and the saints to pray for us, just like we ask the person next to us in the pew to pray for us.
Mary and the saints are part of our Church family. We want them around. We want their love, advice, witness, and guidance. We really love them! They’ve been through this life and succeeded in keeping the faith. When we “pray” to them we are asking to learn from their example and witness, and yes, we are asking them to pray to God for us. Don’t we want as many people praying for us as possible? I do. And I especially want those who’ve succeeded in the spiritual life and who stand at the throne of God to pray for me. Their prayers, it seems to me, are the most helpful.
Remember, we Orthodox didn’t sit around one day and say, "hmm, these people are too close to God. Let's give them a hard time by instituting prayers to Mary and the saints." Nor did we accidentally fall into creating a series of saintly bodyguards to keep us from God. The intercession of the saints is part of the organic life of the Church. It is even scriptural (I’ll do a post on that soon).
Interestingly enough, Christ’s first miracle happened at the intercession of His mother. Recall the wedding at Cana of Galilee in John 2:1-11. The wine gives out and Mary approaches Jesus to do something, and it seems that Christ’s “hour has not yet come.” “No matter,” Mary says to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” You know the rest of the story. This is a great example of how we understand Mary and the saint’s intercession. We ask for prayers and intercessions, she makes them and simultaneously tells us to do whatever her Son says. This was Christ’s first miracle, it manifested His glory and the disciples believed in Him thanks to the intercession of Mary.
Another Marian concern: It seems to many that we give too much effort focusing on Mary. Why not just say a quick prayer to her and move on? We have supplications to Mary. Why spend all that time pleading with her when you could talk to Jesus directly? First off, anyone who makes that claim has likely never listened to an Orthodox supplication service. Encourage them to come to a supplication before they make a judgment. If they visit, they will realize that just how focused we are on Christ during those prayers.
Then there is the idea that we Orthodox give undue honor to Mary. That she just happened to be the one God chose. What? Like God was sitting around one day and thought, "who should bear my son?" and then picked her name out of a hat? Or maybe God opened a book and said, “Whoever’s name point to on the page when I open the book will be the chosen one?” We might immaturely do that when seeking spiritual advice from God, but that’s not how He operates.
Read Luke 1:26-56. It says she found favor with God. God didn’t randomly pick her. It wasn’t a Divine lottery. She lived in such a way as to find favor with God. Enough favor as it turned out to be made worthy to bear Jesus Christ our God. The scripture recounts Elizabeth saying of her, “Blessed are you among women.” Blessed! And Mary said that God, "regarded" her and that from "henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."
When do other Christians call Mary blessed? I grew up in Protestantism and hung out with scripture alone believers. I rarely, if ever, heard them call Mary blessed. If we are going to be scriptural then we must call Mary blessed. And where would be the best place and time to do that? Gathered together as the Church in the worship of God.
Here is another reason we venerate Mary: The Ten Commandments. Yep, right in Exodus 21:12 God commands that we honor our father and mother. Well, Jesus’ (remember he is fully human and fully God) fulfilled the Law and honored his Father and mother. When Jesus honored His mother Mary, was he being sacrilegious, no? But are we blaspheming by honoring His mother? No. How could we be?
We are united to Christ and have received sonship through adoption. His mother has become our mother. The mother of the Christian race. That is the point of John 19:26, in which Jesus not only entrusts Mary to the beloved disciple but teaches us that Mary is the mother of the faithful. So again, when and where would be the best place and time to honor ours’ and Jesus’ mother? In and as the Church worshiping God in our union with Christ. Because He doesn’t stop honoring His mother. He eternally honors her even as we worship Him, in Him, and with Him.
But WHY AM I SHARING ALL THIS WITH YOU? Because I want us to go out there and talk to people about our faith. To know the faith and communicate it in an intelligible and relevant manner. To EVANGELIZE. We need to stop putting our energy into things like food festivals, or telling others on social media how wrong they are. Instead, we need to practice genuine evangelism. The kind that loves others, that offers a warm heart, or maybe even a meal. The kind of evangelism that can competently share the faith. I hope these reflections on Mary help us speak to others about her when we are asked.
p.s. Sadly, there are some out there who accuse us of worshiping Mary. I am not sure they actually believe that or if they just like repeating antiquated propaganda. If you come across someone who takes that line of argument, then know they understand next to nothing about Orthodoxy and are likely not interested in knowing. Move on.