The Mother of God in the Orthodox Church

Updated: May 30, 2020

The following article by Fr. Vladimir Zelinsky is an excerpt from the Marian anthology, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, Seat of Wisdom Books, A Division of Queenship, 2008. Fifteen international Mariology experts contributed to the text. The book features a foreword by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke and has 17 chapters divided into four parts: 1. Mary in Scripture and the Early Church; 2. Marian Dogma; 3. Marian Doctrine; and 4. Marian Liturgy and Devotion.

-Asst. Ed.

The First Step Toward Her Mystery

The Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, is an enormous subject in the Orthodox Church. At the same time it is rather modest, dogmatically speaking. In the Orthodox Church the presence of Mary is defined by only two dogmas, but she is advocated by a thousand names or images.

The two dogmas adopted by the ecumenical councils affirm that Mary is Mother of God and that she is the ever-Virgin.{footnote}Formerly, even the dogma of the ever-virginity of Mary was not proclaimed officially. But it was mentioned by the fifth ecumenical council (553) as something evident, which goes without saying.{/footnote} All the rest of what we know about her comes from the Ecclesial Tradition, history, popular devotion, and the Holy Spirit.

“The name of Mother of God is the only name which contains all the mystery of the economy,” as St. John Damascene says. The “economy“ means the “work” that God has done for our salvation, and which is revealed through the name of Mary. In the mirror of her participation in the work of salvation operated by God we shall consider the dogmatical, spiritual and liturgical role of the Theotókos in the Oriental Church.

“Nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved,” said St. Peter of Jesus (Acts 4:12). This confession remains immutable and inviolable for all disciples of Christ. But the other apostle, St. Paul, proclaims the “depth of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom 11:33); the depth which is concealed from us, but which is constantly revealing the incredible richness of the veneration of Mary in the Orthodox Church can be viewed as a particular form of this revelation. In fact, faith in Christ is fulfilled in the person of Mary with an unspeakable light which betrays the secret of God that only his Mother knows. And she communicates it to us, because she does not cease to reveal the wisdom and the human face of God. Lending an ear to the innumerable prayers addressed to Mary, we understand that each one of them underlines a singular facet of the inexhaustible mystery of the Incarnation-as if the feast of the Nativity continued forever in the Orthodox Church and since Christmas Eve the world lives in astonishment.

“In the Silence of God”

“From apostolic times,” writes the Orthodox Archbishop of San Francisco, John Maximovitch, “and to our days all who truly love Christ give veneration to her who gave birth to him, raised him and protected him in the days of his youth. If God the Father chose her, God the Holy Spirit descended upon her, and God the Son dwelt in her, submitted to her in the days of his youth, was concerned for her when hanging on the Cross, then should not everyone who confesses the Holy Trinity venerate her?”{footnote}Archbishop John Maxomovitch, The Orthodox Veneration of Mary, the Birthgiver of God.{/footnote}

This veneration was not affirmed directly in the letter of Scripture, but was concealed in the spirit of Scripture, and the earlier generation of Christians, obedient to this Spirit, could recognize him in the presence of Mary. One may say that the whole veneration of Mary has matured in the bosom of the spiritual recognition of her presence in the strictly and fundamentally Christocentric faith. One of the first (if not the first) of the witnesses to such recognition, or awakening, of the discreet presence of Mary belongs to St. Ignatius of Antioch. On the way to his martyrdom (107) he wrote: “To the prince of this world, the virginity of Mary and her birth were kept hidden; and so also was the death of our Lord. These are the three glorious mysteries that took place in the silence of God.”{footnote}I Padri Apostolici, Cittá Nuova, 1966, p. 105.{/footnote}

Tradition tells us that St. Ignatius wrote these words during a brief rest while on his way to Rome, where he was sent to die in the arena of the circus. He is not afraid; he begs his friends not to intervene on his behalf with the Roman authorities in order to save his life. Death promises to him a meeting with Jesus-“I am seeking the One who died for us; I want him who resurrected for our sake.”{footnote}Ibid, p. 104.{/footnote} Facing his death, he behaves and confirms his vocation and duty of a pastor; he writes letters to his flock imparting some teachings, he prays, preaches, exhorts. Above all he is concerned about the unity and catholicity of the Church, because where the Church is, there the Christ is truly present, and there truly is the faith and the Eucharist. From the very source of his ecclesial experience, in the offering of his life to God, he discovers the mystery of Mary.

“The links between Our Lady and the Church are not only numerous and close,” writes Henry de Lubac, “They are essential, and woven from within. The two mysteries of the faith are not just solitary; we might say that they are ‘one single and unique mystery.’ … In the Church’s Tradition the same biblical symbols are applied, either in turn or simultaneously, with one and the same ever increasing profusion, to the Church and Our Lady.”{footnote}Henry de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church; Ignatius Press, 1986, pp. 317-318.{/footnote} The same thing can also be repeated by an Orthodox theologian, but with one difference: In the Eastern Church Mary is never above the Church, but always inside of it. (For this reason the term “Mother of the Church” was not accepted by the Orthodox). But the Church constantly “recognizes” itself in the presence and the grace of Mary, as if the Church had the need to live the presence of the Mother of God in her own bosom, to enter more and more in communion with her beatitude, and the Church’s river of praise is never exhausted.

On the contrary, it always finds new expressions; with time it becomes richer, more abundant. For instance, every title given to icons, which express the various facets of Mary’s life in the Church, attempts, through that same title, to anticipate and to explain the secret content by means of the representation of that icon: “Unexpected Joy,” “Finder of the Lost,” “Vivifying Fountain.” “Petitioner for Sinners,” “Divine River of Living Water,” and so on. This river of images and of words that comes from the spring called “Mary” is born in the faith, nourishes it and becomes part of our “ecclesial being,”{footnote}The expression of Metropolitan I. Ziziulas.{/footnote} though it often doesn’t come to light in the Word. However, where the Church is, there is Mary, and where there is Mary, the Church of her Son is born and is formed. In order to understand the origin of our spontaneous veneration, we have to examine our way of living the faith in the Tradition of the Church.

The Heart Filled with the Holy Spirit

“How shall we call you? Full of grace? Heaven, since you made the sun of justice rise? Paradise, since you caused the flower of incorruptibility to blossom? How shall we call you? Virgin, since you remained incorrupt? Chaste Mother?

“Since you held in your holy arms the Son, God of the universe, implore him so that our souls may be saved.”{footnote}Compendio liturgico ortodosso, Rimini, 1990.{/footnote}

Liturgical thought tries to link within itself praise, the marvelous, and the paradoxical. From the very beginning of Mary’s existence in the Church, it is as if Mary were cloaked in mystery, that kind of mystery which gives rise to the wonderment that caused Elizabeth to cry out: “And how does this happen to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43).

Only the heart, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41), can recognize these images, because it becomes a womb giving birth to prayers, praise, dogmatic truths and ecclesial feasts. But Mary herself was, and remains, the living temple, the temple of silence where the Word is born. The Word became flesh, not only at the words of the angel, but also in the silence of the Holy Spirit. And indeed, Mary carries within herself the silence of the Holy Spirit. And in silence she comes to live with us, in our hearts, near the fountain of faith in Christ. Silence is another voice of revelation. God sends his Son who also becomes manifest in the care, in the tenderness, in the prayerfulness, and in the presence of his Mother according to the flesh. Martyrdom, that is, the victory over the world and its prince and the last Eucharist of faith, allows the martyr to discover the Virgin Mary. And there is more: Mary’s virginity as a sign of the great silence of God is united to humankind in order to save it.

The Grain That Grows

“Silence is the sacrament of the coming century,” St. Seraphim of Sarov used to say, in remembering the words of the ancient Fathers.{footnote}Vladimir IIjin. St. Seraphim of Sarov, Moscow, 1995 (Russian).{/footnote}

In the silence of the Spirit, listening carefully to the future century, St. Ignatius was able to hear the mystery of Mary that St. Gregory of Nyssa called “the limit between creation and non-creation.” Ignatius spontaneously found within himself the seed of the presence of Mary. But in reality this seed had been sown in him from the beginning, by his baptism in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This seed was already hidden in the Most Holy Trinity, and Mary’s presence in the ecclesial faith derives from the mystery of Christ. The Word became flesh, and consequently Mary’s flesh, and all human flesh, is filled and consecrated with the presence of the Word.

The same mystery will become clear, and the same silence will speak, to the heart of each individual and also to all the generations that will call Mary “blessed,” and that with her and through her will enter in communion with her Son. But, to use the language of the Gospel, let us remember, as Jesus says while speaking about the reign of God, that “it is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” (Mk 4:31). Also the “little seed” of Mary’s mystery is so small, that it is not even clearly visible in the Gospel. But no sooner is the “Marian seed” sown in genuinely lived faith that it begins to grow. The seed continues to grow in the Church and with the Church who reflects within herself the growth of the Kingdom of God. It is the very Church that, by growing together with the “Marian seed” in its bosom, recognizes the gentle presence of Mary everywhere the Church herself is present: in her past, transformed in the Sacred Tradition; in her eschatological future, in her eternal evangelical present; but above all in the heart of humankind, in the heart of every person.

“Being mediatrix between God and mankind, she made God the Son of man, but she made every human creature a child of God” (St. Gregory Palamas).{footnote}St. Gregory Palamas. Omilia 53. (Ed. Russa. vol. 3, 88. Montréal, 1984).{/footnote}

Tradition: The Memory of Mary

One can say that the heart of Mary is the heart of the very Church; the Gospel points this out very clearly: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them” (Lk 2:19-51). The meditation of Mary is, in fact, her mediation. God sends his message, and the “Good News” that once more becomes flesh in the heart of Mary, is transformed in the chamber of the memory of what God reveals. It is like the seed of silence transformed into words. By means of the silent words held in the heart of Mary, we can also hear the same message from God; the message about the Mother of God as well as the message given by the Mother. The root of tradition develops, not so much from the voices of the people, but above all by the great silence of the heart of Mary who gives life to the Word.

Thus, the “remembrance” of Mary becomes the beginning and the deposit of ecclesial memory. To the extent in which the memory of the Church is developed and manifested in our consciousness, we will begin to hear the words of Jesus, the words that Mary preserved and kept in her heart. Every generation of the faithful possesses all the richness of the past, of the revelation of Christ which is repeated, not only in his Word, but in continuing growth, while remaining faithful to its original identity. The preservation of this identity, the Tradition of the Church, is the “remembrance,” but a remembering filled by the same Spirit that filled Mary. Vladimir Lossky, in his essay called “Panaghia,” dedicated to Mary, finds the foundation of the very principle of the Church, the Tradition of the Church, in the Marian heart, in the “remembrance” of Mary.

If Christ is preached on the rooftop, if he is proclaimed so that everyone may come to know him in the teaching presented to the whole world, then the mystery of the Mother of God opens itself to the inner core of the Church, to the faithful who receive the Word of God. … This is not only the object of our faith, but it is something more; it is the fruit of faith, matured into Tradition.{footnote}See Lossky. “Panaghia” (Tuttasanta). According to the Image and the Likeness, Mosca, 1995, p. 182 (Russian).{/footnote}

The fruit grown by the seed of Marian silence, sown in the memory of the Church, is, above all, the “remembering,” the “recognition” of the very person of Mary. We carry inside of us this “remembering” like a seal, a fingerprint of the Word, of the same Word that Mary utters as Mother of Christ and of all the living-Mary prefiguring the Church, Mary like the image of the soul that gives birth to the Lord. The fruit of silence becomes the voice of the Church, the voice of a “remembering” Church, a Church that recognizes, and a Church that transforms her silence into the word of faith.