One of the most difficult topics during my transition into the Eastern Orthodox Church was understanding the role of Mary. As Protestants, I think we instinctively ‘turn our noses up’ at the faintest whiff of anything that appears Catholic. Behind the veil of our misunderstandings is the rich and sweetly scented liturgy & life of the Orthodox faith.
Mary should be honored but as an evangelical she was downplayed, leaving her story and importance ambiguous. I acknowledge the desire to abstain from false worship. I later learned that this same desire is clearly present among those who emphasize the importance of Mary and desire to imitate her faithfulness toward God.
Allow me to address the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. Some have taken their adoration of Mary too far and perhaps made it worshipful. However, I would argue that these people are clearly misrepresenting, not emulating, the Orthodox faith. We don’t have a doctrine of Maryology per say, rather our emphasis on Mary is a subset of our Christology. Focus on Mary is primarily indicative of Christ’s importance and how we can emulate her as righteous and holy people!
Her Birth & Childhood-
There was great love for Mary in the early Church that continues today in the Orthodox faith. It’s important to note a few differences between the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. The Orthodox Church rejects the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception (this issue will be covered in a later blog on soteriology). In addition, the affirmation of Mary’s sinlessness is a later development of the Catholic Church after the schism of 1054. According to the Orthodox Church of America there has never been a formal pronouncement on this subject by the Orthodox Church. Some Church Fathers do suggest Mary was capable of sin but chose not to, living a holy ascetic life. Others, like St. Chrysostom, say that there was evidence of a typical sinful life like anyone.
Was Mary a sinner at birth, did the incarnation dispense a type of grace providing the possibility of sinlessness, or was she a person who made mistakes but lived such a holy life as to avoid the many pitfalls of sin? St. Tihkon’s Monastery concludes that these “viewpoints cannot be termed dogma… because a reply to this question has neither been revealed in the historical information available to us, nor has it been formally investigated and articulated by the Church.”
Her childhood is documented in the protoevangelium ‘gospel of James’, a second century book that was widely read but never officially accepted into the canon of scripture. One reason for this exclusion is the Gospels intentionally focus on Christ. The Gospel of James focuses mostly on the childhood and life of Mary and the lament of her parents, Anna and Joachim, as they sought the Lord to deliver them from barrenness. God answered their prayers and after her birth they dedicated Mary in the temple (depicted in the icon)! The presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple is celebrated on November 21st.
After losing her parents around the age of 10 she received care in the temple and may have been one of the undefiled virgins that worked on the temple veil. When Mary approached the age of puberty the High Priest determined that she should be married and the widower Joseph was chosen by God to betroth Mary.
The protoevangelium also focuses on the work of God in Mary’s life, her personal purity, and perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. While the protoevangelium of James is not included in the canon of scripture, the Orthodox Church recognizes the significance of this attestation of the righteousness of Mary’s parents and Mary’s miraculous birth. The annual Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos is commemorated on September 8.
Canonical Appearances of Mary-
The scriptural account reveals that Mary is a woman of obedience and dedication to the Lord. She is favored by God, an undefiled virgin, faithful to answer God’s call. Mary, “you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…you have found favor with God.” Mary responds as we should respond- “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke Ch 1- 2). (The annunciation is celebrated on March 25th).
Mary is one of the first to deliver the Good News of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10; Luke 24:8-12). She is an exemplar of what we’re supposed to be in proclaiming, ‘come and see!” After Christ’s ascension she continues with the Apostles in one accord (Acts 1:12-14). Her devotion and joy are important marks of her life and clearly highlight her as a role model all Christians should emulate.
The term ever-virgin is not an elevation of her to a status for worship. The term is intended to affirm who Jesus is and the impact of his presence within her. We recognize her as a chosen vessel, a finite dwelling place of the infinite God. She is essentially the living ‘Holy of Holies’ and her ever-virginity is a natural characteristic of this reality. The early Church, the Fourth Ecumenical Council, and many of the Protestant Reformers affirm her as ever-virgin. One must also keep in mind that the focus of the early Church and the Ecumenical Council’s were to preserve what was passed down, not the introduction of new things.
Clement of Alexandria (150-215) affirms the account of Mary’s perpetual virginity in the protoevangelium and early Church tradition.
Origen (185-254) states in his Commentary on John, “There is no child of Mary except Jesus, according to the opinion of those who think correctly about her. ”
Athanasius (295-373), the bishop of Alexandria, states “if Mary would have had another son, the Savior would not have neglected her nor would he have confided his mother to another person, indeed she had not become the mother of another. Mary, moreover, would not have abandoned her own sons to live with another, for she fully realized a mother never abandons her spouse nor her children. And since she continued to remain a virgin even after the birth of the Lord, he gave her as mother to the disciple, even though she was not his mother; he confided her to John because of his great purity of conscience and because of her intact virginity.”
St. Hilary (315-367), Bishop of Poitiers, argues, “Indeed many depraved men give authority to their opinion that our Lord Jesus Christ was known to have brothers (and sisters). While if these were really the sons of Mary and not those of Joseph from a former marriage, never would our Lord at the time of his passion have given Mary to the apostle John to be his mother by saying to both of them, ‘Woman behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Behold your mother,’ unless he were leaving the charity of a son in the disciple for the solace of his now desolate mother.”
The Second Ecumenical Counsel in Constantinople (553) states, “If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema.”
There are several others, but for the sake of time and space let us also consider the Protestant Reformers.
Martin Luther states, “Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb… This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that. Christ… was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him.”
Ulrich Zwingli also says, “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.”
Lastly, John Wesley wrote to a Roman Catholic these words. “I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”
Why do we insist on the idea that Mary did not have a “normal” married life? We could also ask the inverse. Why would she not remain ever-virgin? Being a dedicated virgin to the Lord is not unheard of and Mary was clearly dedicated to God.
Let’s not forget the care and seriousness of handling the ark on which the presence of God resided. Mary literally carried God inside and this should provide context to the holiness of her womb and give any husband pause before engaging in sexual relations.
What about siblings? There are nine passages referring to brothers- Matthew 12:46-47 and 13:55-56; Mark 3:31-32 and 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12 and 7:3-5; Acts 1:14; and 1-Corinthians 9:5. The Greek word used in all these passages is adelphos (οἱ ἀδελφοὶ), generally translated “brothers”. It can also mean “cousin,” “kinsman,” “fellow believer,” or “fellow countryman,” and used consistently this way throughout the LXX & NT.
The bottom line is that there is no clear statement anywhere in the Scriptures establishing Jesus’ brothers as literally the children of Mary! The word adelphos can express many relationships: neighbor (Matt 5:22- 24), fellow-believer (Rom 9:3) and stepbrother (Mark 6:17-18). As noted earlier, the Church Fathers also questioned why Jesus would ever entrust Mary to the Apostle John if she had other children. It doesn’t fit logically or culturally.
Who are these “brothers”? Irenaeus believed that they were actually Jesus’ cousins, the children of Joseph’s brother Cleopas. This theory is also confirmed by Hegisippus, a Jewish Christian historian. Eusebius writes that Hegisippus, “belonged to the first generation after the apostles.” He interviewed and documented eye-witness testimony from Christians of the apostolic community.
Isn’t he “Firstborn”?- The use of prototokos in Greek is not identical to the English word. While the use of this term in English can indicate additional children, this is not necessarily the case in Greek. For example, Hebrews 1:6, references Jesus as the “prototokos” (πρωτότοκος), a reference to the incarnation. In Jewish tradition it can also refer to the firstborn heir, a legal term and position that does not indicate subsequent children. Romans 8:29, Hebrews 11:28, and Revelation 1:5 all refer to Jesus as the heir to Gods Kingdom.
Joseph did not “know” Mary until… The use of the word “until” (ἕως) in Matthew 1:25 is often used to prove sexual relations between Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. We see similar uses of this phrase in the LXX and NT which emphasizes a present reality, not a future event. In other words, Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary not by the sexual union of Joseph and Mary. The text does not indicate a sexual encounter after his birth.
The same word (ἕως) is used in several other passages. 2 Sam. 6:23 says, “And Michael, the daughter of Saul, had no child until her death. Did she have children after her death? Clearly the answer is no! Mark 12:36 also states, “the Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.” Does this mean Christ will cease to sit at the right hand at a later time? Of course not!
The reality is the Church has always presented Mary as ever-virgin. Joseph did not “know” her after the birth of Jesus because he was a righteous man who understood she carried God Most High. Mary dedicated her life to God and was consecrated as his vessel.
Theotokos- “Mother of God”-
The 3rd Ecumenical Council held in Ephesus in 431, adopted the term Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), meaning “God-bearer” or “Birth-giver to God.” The title was aimed at identifying Christ as God. A heresy arose from Nestorius during this time questioning whether Jesus is fully God and this heretical group wanted to call Mary Christotokos- “birth giver to Christ.”
In response, St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus insisted on the title Theotokos to safeguard a correct doctrine of Christ’s person. Who was in her womb? Jesus was not a new person, but the pre-existent, true, and living God! The Orthodox Church emphasizes this title to highlight the importance of the incarnation and also honor Mary for her faithfulness to carry “very God of very God” in her womb.
The title Theotokos was affirmed by the early Church and also later Reformers like Martin Luther. He says, “she became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven…calling her the Mother of God.”
The dormition (falling asleep) of the Theotokos is commemorated on August 15th. Mary was regarded very highly and at the end of her life the disciples gathered around her to pay tribute. She died and was “assumed into heaven, where she now dwells- with her body as well as her soul- in eternal glory with her Son. She is for us the ‘joy of all creation'” (Kallistos Ware).
Can we pray to her? This is a common question and ‘hang-up’. Let us first acknowledge that “pray” does not mean worship. “I pray thee, pass the bread” is simply a request and not worshipful toward the person passing the dinner rolls. A more accurate question, “can she intercede for us?” One common challenge to this concept of asking for saints to pray for us that “there sone mediator between God and mankind, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 2:5). In order to understand this doctrine one must first understand the clear difference between mediation and intercession. As Orthodox Christians we affirm what scripture says- Christ is our mediator! However, any saint can intercede in prayer on our behalf. Mary and the other saints are all alive in God’s presence before the throne just as John describes in Revelation. We believe they are able to intercede just like other friends and family that pray for us. Please reference my blog Saints- Our inspiration and intercessors for further.
What observations can we draw from these points?
Looking back I’m not sure why honoring Mary bothered me so much as an evangelical. I was out of step with the early Church and even the Protestant Reformers. Some of my negativity came from over-generalizations. I learned later that my fears and judgments were mostly based on misinformation.
Mary is our great example! She loved God and faithfully served Him. She remains ever-virgin, a woman dedicated and consecrated to God! She is the Theotokos, the God-bearer, carrying true God of true God! Just as God’s presence resided over the ark of the covenant, in the Tabernacle and Temple, His presence resided in her womb and her body contained the uncontainable God! She is the living ark!
St. Irenaeus (180 A.D.) makes a profound connection between Mary and Eve. He states that “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”
Tertullian (160- 220) also notes, “As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced.”
Mary literally birthed the new covenant. What an amazing picture of her faithfulness and role in the history of our salvific story. Kallistos Ware points out “for Orthodoxy, the Virgin Mary constitutes, together with St. John the Baptist, the crown and culmination of the Old Testament sanctity. She is a ‘link’ figure: the last and greatest of the righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, she is at the same time the hidden heart of the Apostolic Church (Acts 1:14).”
As an Orthodox Christian I’ve experienced many benefits of the Church calendar. Namely, regular emphasis & reflection on the events of Christ’s life and his followers. Ironically, we are currently in the fast of the Dormition of the Theotokos and I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on Mary’s life and impact with a new perspective. Let us all recover a proper veneration of Mary! We can follow the example of the Apostolic Church rather than dismissing or avoiding her, which is often the case when it isn’t Christmas time.
In the words of Martin Luther, “Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees… If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother.”
*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue.