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The Mother of God in the Orthodox Church

Updated: May 29, 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.

Certainly in the Gospel Mary does not always remain silent. She talks to the angel who comes to her with his announcement, “she ‘magnifies’ the Lord within her soul,” she asks Jesus to help the poor family at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. But she talks little and keeps quiet a lot. At the foot of her Son’s Cross she doesn’t utter a word. She is also silent at the hour of Jesus’ death and after the news of his Resurrection. She continues to keep quiet at the moment of the Holy Spirit’s descent, when everybody else begins to talk. Therefore, if the gift given to the others was the gift of tongues, the gift of Mary, the greatest of all, was the gift of “prayerful silence.”{footnote}Emilianos Timiadis. Invito al silenzio. Torino, 1977.{/footnote}

In the silence of the Cross, Jesus speaks his last words to his Mother and to John, the beloved disciple: “Son, here is your Mother,” “Woman, here is your son. And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:27). And in his very home, in the habitation of Mary’s silence, immersed in the maternal mystery, after many years of the invisible work that was being done in his heart, John says, with perhaps the most beautiful words about God that man could have ever said: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1). Yes, this witnessing of Mary is silent, but her silence speaks, her silence carries and touches the Word of life. Her presence is hidden here, but who can make a statement like this, who can pronounce these words with a heart fuller than that of John’s, “Life made itself visible” and “we have seen“? The testimony of John is like a transmutation into the hidden words in the heart of Mary. Wasn’t it Mary herself who made visible this life? Wasn’t she the instrument for which this Word was made audible?

“And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” But John isn’t only the beloved disciple who gives his testimony. John stays always in the same house; this is another image of the Church in communion with Mary, in the silence of Mary, in the love of Mary. And it was John himself who, from his Marian silence, spoke these other piercing words about God, “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16).

Mary, the Church

“We have come to know…” and this “knowing” of John embraces and unites all of us, the faithful. It comes from the heart of Mary. But she stands removed, she lets other people do the talking. John speaks, Peter speaks, Paul speaks. Scriptures talk and the Church talks; but each one of their words is as if drenched in the mediation of Mary.

St. John’s “coming to know love,” as well as St. Ignatius’ becoming aware of the “three incredible mysteries” a few generations later, reveal another mystery that unites Mary with the Church. The Church hears the Word in the silence of Mary, receives the love of God from the hands of Mary, and “recognizes herself” in Mary; the Church also remembers Mary in all her prophetic “prefigurations” which we find in Scripture. The ecclesial memory or “remembrance” always goes back to its source in the heart of Mary.

We find her in the narration of creation as the “virgin land,” in the image of the Garden of Eden, in the story of Eve who became “the mother of all the living” because Mary is destined to become the New Eve. We sense her discrete presence in the ark of Noah and in the heavenly ladder of Jacob, but above all we see her in the burning bush because Mary herself becomes the receptacle of the “Fire,” that “Fire” which the entire earth cannot contain. In the crossing of the Red Sea we recognize the virginal birth of the Word, in the hymn of the sister of Aaron we hear the echo of the “Magnificat.” Also in the dwelling, and in the glory of the Lord which filled the dwelling, we already recognize the vision of Mary’s glory. We recognize the figure of Mary in Anna’s canticle in the Psalms. We meet her in the uncreated Seat of Wisdom, we confess her as spouse in the Song of Songs, and finally, in the words of Isaiah we hear her prophesied, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel” (Is 7:14).

The Church in the commemoration of Mary recognizes herself in Mary, because the remembrance that lives in the Holy Spirit-or Tradition-continues through time. Therefore, faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, which the Church confesses from the beginning, finds its fulfillment, its fullness, only when enlightened by the mystery of Mary.

The Church, in her knowledge of Mary figured as “Odighitria,” “Succorer,” “Mother of the Afflicted,” “Joy of All Creation” and so on, finds the avenue to her own mystery. “Mary is the archetype and the personification of the Church, body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit.”{footnote}Alexis Kniazev. The Mother of God in the Orthodox Church. Saint Paul, MN. 1993, p. 89.{/footnote} With the words kept in the heart of Mary, the Holy Spirit that lives in her keeps reminding the Church of everything that Jesus said (cf. Jn 14:26) and everything that Jesus continues to tell us, even today. Tradition is the uninterrupted Word. But this dimension of the “sanctified remembrance” is tied to another one, to that of sacrifice. Christ is an offering of God to humanity, but an offering that we receive as a gift from Mary. Mary herself, as well, is above all the gift that humanity gives of itself to God, the most precious gift, the fruit of a long maturation in the embrace of grace.

“What can we offer you, O Christ?” sings the Orthodox Church at the Christmas vigil, “Heaven offers you the angels, earth brings you her gifts, but we, humankind, offer you the Virgin-Mother.”

In the writings of the early Fathers we find the idea of a reciprocal thirst which unites God and man; we find the idea of God’s walk towards humankind and the walk of humankind towards God. The story of humanity is the very long vicissitude of the place of this encounter. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you,” we hear Isaiah’s cry (Is 64:1). But God came down in secret and in peace. The womb of the daughter of Zion was the place of his encounter with humankind. And from the moment of this encounter a new light falls all over Scripture. The Word of God becomes a string of “icons” that foresees the coming of Mary as the one who carries within herself the mystery of the definite encounter of God with humanity. Mary was chosen as the last stopping place in the long walk of the Word toward man. The Church of the Word was revealed and became fully realized in Mary, in her body, in her heart, in her faith. And so it was also in the faith of her saints and martyrs.

No matter; says one of them, how crazy the world can get and raise a turbid wave upon what we have that is most sacred and pure, we are certain that the sacred mysteries will triumph, because our sinful earth is marked by the footprints of the only Pure One. No matter how much the Church will undergo persecution, it cannot be overcome, because the Mother of God is the heart of the Church, and this heart is cloaked in the sacred mystery of divine love. This sacred mystery is the source of our rebirth, the triumph of eternal life.{footnote}Father Anatolij Jurakovsky (1897-1937), Russian priest-martyr who died during the great persecution of the 1930s. Cited in “Ave Joy of All Creation,” Torino, 1988, p. 178.{/footnote}

For, “Mary is the archetype and the personification of the Church, body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit” (F. Alexis Kniasev).

Mary, the Faith

St. Clement of Alexandria says, “Only one Virgin-Mother exists, and according to my point of view no better name can be suited to her than the name Church.”{footnote}Henry de Lubac. Meditation on the Church. Jaca Book. Milano, 1979, p. 239.{/footnote}

Mary, by herself, because of her ever-living faith, built the Church of Jesus, and during the long vigil of that Saturday while Christ was resting in the Sepulcher, the entire life of the Mystical Body was gathered in her, almost as if to look for refuge in her, as if the Body were in its own heart.{footnote}Pedagog, 1, c.6; PG 8, 300.{/footnote}

From the very heart of Mary the infant Church was also trying to understand herself and her own faith. The first Christian generations who lived in the mystery of Mary, who possessed the strong sense of her protection, of the fullness of the Holy Spirit within her being, had not yet put together a “Mariology.” The hold of dogmatic consciousness of Mary’s role and of her presence became more deeply rooted by means of necessity, born in the discussion with the many opposers of a Christocentric faith. For this reason the mystery must be lived, not only in liturgical glorification or in the profession of faith, but also in reasoning that deals with the mystery as if it were precious stone and takes it apart, cutting facets on it with human rationality.

There is more: dogmatic knowledge is developed, keeps going ahead, but in the end it goes back towards the source of knowledge, towards the remembrance hidden in the heart. True knowledge is in fact gratitude, because it springs from love; and it is also recognition because it derives from veiled memory. The Church, therefore, by developing her vision of Mary, always arrives at the truth of faith already known, because she carries it within herself from the very beginning, the truth already lived by her saints and her martyrs: Mary is the Mother of God, Mary is always Virgin, Mary is Mother of humankind. This truth is only born by the “intelligent contemplation” of the mystery of the incarnate Word.

It is in this manner that St. Justin, philosopher and martyr, discovers the analogy, which becomes classical, between Mary and Eve, because Mary was already present in the remembrance of Eve:

Eve … while still virgin and incorrupt, conceived the word of the serpent and gave birth to disobedience and death. Mary, the Virgin, on the contrary, when the Angel Gabriel brought her the happy news that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, accepted it with faith and joy … and for this reason the Holy One born of her would be the Son of God. And she responds with the following words, “Be it done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).{footnote}Dialogue with Trifon the Jew, 100, PG 6, 712. See Marian texts … p. 137.{/footnote}

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in his fight against Gnosticism, the heresy of the second century after Christ, a heresy that shows its vitality even nowadays, speaks of Mary as the Mother of the Word of God. The Gnostics diluted the Christian faith by separating the Word and Jesus. “The Jesus of the economy” of which they speak, passed, they say, through Mary like water passes through a pipe.{footnote}Against Heresies, III, 11 3 PG 7, 882.{/footnote}

Two centuries later the idea of separation finds its form in Nestorius’ doctrine. He said something very simple, and according to him something very logical: the Word of God did not need nine months of development in order to be born of Mary. That is, God used Mary as his “instrument,” and Mary as Mother of God simply does not exist.

The Council of Ephesus, which condemned Nestorius, expressed the mystery of the union of the human and of the divine having taken place in the womb of Mary as the foundation of the salvific work of God. “According to the concept of the Council of Ephesus,” says the Orthodox theologian, Alexis Kniasev, “we are acknowledging the holy Virgin as Theotókos (Mother of God) since the Word of God became incarnate and was made man and since the Word united to himself, from the very beginning and by means of that very conception, the temple undertaken by her.”{footnote}Alexis Kniasev, p. 84.{/footnote}

The term “Theotókos” is not a small part of dogmatic Mariology-it is at the very center of the vision of Mary, or rather, it is “Marian wisdom” finding its rational formula. Only as Mother of God can Mary also become Mother in an ontological and soteriological sense. “The mystery of the divine maternity reaches far beyond the personality of the Mother of God and is revealed like a fundamental mystery of Christ’s salvific work. She receives and introduces the Savior as well as salvation to humankind.”{footnote}Ibid. p. 89.{/footnote} And as the Mother of the Incarnation she is also Mother of all humanity in its walk towards God. The decision of the Council of Ephesus remains, for the Orthodox Church, a definitive boundary of the last facet that separates true spiritual knowledge, salvific and rooted in the mystery, from erroneous and illusory avenues. This is like a foundation stone upon which Christocentric piety is based. The sense of the conciliar decision is: the truth about Christ casts a light on the truth about his Mother as well, and only this light can nourish our soul with the correct faith, rooted in Christ, conceived in Mary.

The term “Theotókos” is apophatic as well. It contains the whole truth about the divine maternity, a truth, however, “folded” into the mystery, wrapped in the non-knowledge. The light that comes from Mary’s maternity in not always “decipherable” with precise formulae. And the Orthodox Church defines this apophatism. This light continues to live and grow in the Church, but its “development,” according to Orthodoxy, is not dogmatic or purely rational, but is existential, which manifests itself in the history of the sanctity lived by the saints. The Holy Spirit allows the development of the truth about Mary and of Mary to be manifest in the experience of the saints, in the common remembrance of the People of God, where the word “Theotókos,” while safeguarded in its infant and conciliar nucleus, becomes filled with new meanings that are brought about through a prayer-filled life pervaded by the presence of the Mother.

And this presence is the language of divine love that speaks with the soul, in the silence, a presence that also keeps looking for its liturgical expression.

Ave, torment of the invisible enemies,

Ave, key to the doors of heaven,

Ave, bond of joy from heaven to earth,

Ave, as the earth exults with the sky,

Ave, from the unceasing lips of the apostles,

Ave, invincible courage of martyrs,

Ave, firm assertion of faith,

Ave, luminous knowledge of grace,

Ave, for whom hell is destroyed,

Ave, of whose glory we are blinded …

(Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God)

The art of the akathist is that of recognition. The heart (of humankind, of the singing community, of the Church) recognizes the different faces of its joy of loving or of being loved by the Mother of God, the joy of singing its faith with her or the joy of simply being near her. We can see the definitions multiplying themselves in the expressions of joy and exuberance; the akathist, as a liturgical form, is an act, or rather, it is the river of knowing that does not become rigid through the dogmas that have been defined, a river which has its value in the very flowing of the confession of faith as a state of mind that takes life from its own singing. This casting, this musical flowing, has its origin in the only definition of Mary “recognized,” praised in the role of Theotókos, and it goes back to the same source. The divine maternity is like a fountain of “the essence of being ecclesial,” of the Church, who, in her praying, finds her definition in Mary.

But the prayer born in the heart of the Church also creates the truth in the Church, truth in the two following aspects: Christological and Mariological; the truth in two senses: existential and dogmatic. Certainly, not every word of our liturgical usage can expect to claim a definitive truth. At times it expresses nothing but our search, our intuition or conjecture, a bursting out of the soul. But also in this case, when the search is done along the trail of authentic Tradition, prayer brings with it the witnessing of its truth, a truth not completely perfect, but the truth of that “indistinct vision” (1 Cor 13:12), characteristic of humankind, or the hypothetical truth that can also be rejected. However, in the Orthodox Church this rigid confinement between faith and its devotional expression, upon which Newman insists at the beginning of his letter to Pusey about Mary, does not exist.{footnote}See Newman. Maria, Milano, 1993.{/footnote} Faith, having its solid structure in its dogmatic foundation becomes open and constantly recognizes itself in its prayer; faith in turn, “becomes aware” of the moment of truth in the Spirit through the praying community.

Only the Church, the expansion of Christ’s human nature, can hold the fullness of Revelation; if a book were to be written about it not even the entire world would be able to contain it. Only the Mother of God, chosen to contain God in her womb, can fully realize all that is connected to the event of the Incarnation of the Word, which, at the same time, is the secret of her divine maternity.{footnote}See Lossky, Ibid., p. 176.{/footnote}

But there is yet another aspect of Mary’s mediation, the pneumatological one. In the Church’s conscience every dogma is like a seal of the Holy Spirit upon the human mind, the rational icon of the same Holy Spirit. The definition of Mary as Mother of God is the act of self-consciousness of ecclesial faith and the manifestation of the Spirit. The birth of dogmatic knowledge is like the conception of the Word. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35). But the Spirit also comes to give life to the Word in our soul, that is, to faith. Faith is the fruit of the descent of the Spirit, and Mary is always the first image of faith, its icon, its mother giving birth to faith itself.

In other words: If Christian faith has a face, this face is the one of Mary, the icon of the Church.

“Crown of dogmas,” Mary sheds light on the Trinitarian mystery reflected in the human: “You have given birth to a son without a father, this Son who was born of the Father without a mother” (the dogmatic, third tone). To the paternity of the Father in the realm of the divine corresponds, in the realm of the human, the maternity of the Theotókos; the image of the maternal virginity of the Church. And it is Cyprian who exclaims, “One cannot have God as Father who does not have the Church as mother.”{footnote}Pavel Evdokimov. Orthodoxy, Bologna, 1981, pp. 212-213.{/footnote}

Mary, the Soul

The center of Christian faith is always Jesus Christ, because “there is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved,” as St. Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles (4:12). But in our most intimate, deeper life with God the mystery of Mary always walks along with the mystery of Christ (and of the Trinity), just as silence walks along with the Word. The roots of Mary’s veneration are centered in the faith and in the love of her Son, “the true light that enlightens every human being.” But, in its own simplicity and transparency, the light that enlightens us also carries within itself the maternal presence. Among the people this light takes on the “material” substance of this world. And the light’s first “matter” was the womb and the heart of its Mother. The light comes clothed in an obscure and unfathomable mystery, it comes as a message, the Good News; it comes as a person, as the face of Christ back to us, but it also comes as the purity of the Virgin, as tenderness and protection, intercession and love. All these are the “substances” of the Word that speaks to the soul, that enters the soul and, in a primordial manner, becomes flesh in the soul as well as in the Church.

“Every soul that believes, conceives and gives birth to the Word of God; according to faith, Christ is the fruit and all of us are mothers of the Christ,” says St. Maximus the Confessor.{footnote}St. Maximus the Confessor. Chapters on Love. Works, Moscow, 1995. (Russian).{/footnote}

Mary, the Mother

Christian faith is founded on the Word, is nourished by the Word, but cannot be reduced exclusively to the Word. Because faith is the Word we feel and sense in our heart, in the depth of our silence, the silence we feel at the depth of the Word. And the Word gives life and life enters into our heart. The Word has a Mother and the Mother brings the Word to us. Mary lived all this fully in her maternity.

“In the Mother of God is affirmed eternal maternity, no longer restricted to only the Nativity alone,” says the Russian martyr Maria Scobtzova; because the “maternity is an indication of love.”{footnote}Maria Scobtzova. “Ave, Terra trafitta dalla Croce” in “Ave, gioia di tutto il creato.” Gribaudi. Torino. 1988.{/footnote} She reveals, according to the word of the great theologianFather Serge Boulgakov, the secret “maternity of God,” because the love of God also has a discreetly feminine face. Love is expressed in the Son, but the Son is also the One who saves and who judges, the One who awaits us at his tribunal. But God sends Mary “before” the judgment so she may intercede for all sinners. God lives his Passion on the Cross, but also his compassion for all those who suffer and whom his Mother carries in her heart.

Another secret revealed to us by Mary is that of the Church. There is an intimate bond between the presence of Mary and the action of the Church, between the purification of the soul in Mary and that in the Church, whose invisible protagonist is the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit is the Virgin and the Virgin is the Church, as St. Ambrose said.

The revelation of the maternity of God is another aspect, another face of his love. In our most intimate, deepest life with God there is a secret relationship between the Son and the Mother, between the Word and the silence, between faith held and kept by means of dogmatic rules and the mystery, the mystery hidden in the act of faith. And this relationship is essential and sapiential. From the Word we go to silence, from Christ to Mary, from the Church to the soul and back, because the Spirit of truth unites these realities in itself, inseparably and distinctly at the same time. The Father himself sends his Spirit “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph 3:17); and Jesus is conceived in our hearts by the maternity of Mary.

Consequently, the seed of “Marian piety” is alive in every kind of Christian faith, but it is only Tradition that, by going back to its own apostolic and patristic source, discovers Mary as mother of faith in Christ. Mary, as a figure of the Church, enables this seed to grow. In Mary every heart that “lives by faith” (Rom 1:17) becomes a dwelling place of the Word.

This fundamental bond between Mary and the Church, between Mary and the faith, between Mary and the maternity of God himself, holds within itself the hidden wisdom of faith-faith that is always aware of its origin in Christ and cannot forget its womb in Mary.

To confess our faith in God we can use different words, but they all rise from the same silence with God, from “the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). In the communion of Marian knowledge seen as “maternity” of the Word, rooted in every single human soul, we can find the signs of the reconciliation which can be called, and fully deserving it, “Marian.” Everything is a sign: tenderness and virginity; the icon and the miracle; and so is the sign that brings into focus, that develops, that proclaims the mystery of the living God who is born in us and lives in us.

Such was the faith of the ancient Church: the Word of faith cannot be eradicated from the place of its birth, from the “virgin” mystery of the maternity.

In Luke 8:21, we read, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” Let us marvel at this; “all those who listen to his word, he raises up to his Mother’s level and calls them brothers and relatives!” (St. Simeon the New Theologian).{footnote}Trattato teologico 45, 9.{/footnote}

Mary, the “Orthodox”

“The heart of Orthodoxy (in particular, Russian Orthodoxy), perhaps, never expressed itself so completely as in the veneration of the Mother of God and of the saints.”{footnote}IIiyn. St. Seraphim of Sarov, p. 5.{/footnote}

“The whole of human suffering in its yearning does not dare to break open its heart in front of Christ for fear of God,” says Georguij Fedotov in his writings, “but it freely and lovingly turns to the Mother of God. Assumed in the realm of the divine, up to the dissolution with the Almighty, Mary stands as a distinction from Christ, tied with the human race, the compassionate and protective Mother.”{footnote}G. Fetodov. Spiritual Poetry. Moscow, 1994 (Russian).{/footnote}

The “Orthodox” face of Mary has many expressions, many images that can be found in a permanent correlation. Very briefly, let us look at only three of them: Mary-Protectress, Mary-Eucharist, Mary-Wisdom.

Mary, the Protectress

Mary is the one who protects, the one who accompanies, the one who pulls us away from danger, that danger that threatens our lives on earth and also the one that threatens the salvation of our souls. The justice of the Lord awaits us, “and we don’t have other help, other hope, except you, O, Queen” sings one of the many Orthodox hymns addressed to Mary. “Protection,” in Russian “pokrov,” is not just the remembrance of a past miracle, but it is the maternal protective part of the very same faith that places us in front of God’s eyes in view of our own misery. There, where the ancient virtue of wisdom is present, who, according to Scriptures, is “the Wisdom of God” (Ps 110:10), Mary meets us as mother of repentance. In Orthodoxy there is a tension and equilibrium between faith lived in fear, and trust in this protection before the Final Judgment as well as in front of our own temptations and the dangers of this world.

The maternity of God is also his compassion. Speaking about the mystical theology of Orthodoxy and of its “ethic” as well, we can say that their roots are very deeply Marian. “But the human heart,” writes Maria Scobtzova, “still must be transfixed by a double sword blade. … The cross of neighbors must be a sword for the soul and it must be transfixed by it. The soul must participate with the destiny of others, feel with, and suffer with. … Due to the resemblance with her prototype, with the Mother of God, the human soul is attracted to Golgotha on the footprints of the Son of Mary; thus, it cannot be attracted without shedding some blood.”{footnote}See “Ave, terra trafitta dalla Croce” in “Ave, gioia di tutto il creato…”{/footnote}

And just as she arrives at the Golgotha of her destiny, the Orthodox soul calls upon the mercy and the intercession of the Mother. The miraculous icons, those of Vladimir, Kazan, Pochiaev and Tichvin (in Russia alone there are hundreds of miraculous icons), all express, each in different ways, the “message” of hope, the sign of protection, the mystery of her mediation. There is no room for the mystery where protection is guaranteed, where fear of our merited condemnation due to our sins is absent. The “space” of protection is the hope placed in the love that envelops us because it is born out of fear, in fact, born out of the fear of that love that burns and judges us.

Under the protection of your mercy we find refuge, Oh Mother of God, do not let those who pray to you be overcome by temptation, but free us from danger, you the only pure and blessed one. (Third-century hymn)

The idea of protection is particular to the Russian Orthodox soul. Among all the Marian festivities, “Pokrov,” even though not part of the traditional Twelve, is still one of the most beloved ones.{footnote}Twelve main feasts with fixed dates that constitute the structure of the Orthodox liturgical year.{/footnote} In most parts of Northern Russia the feast of “Pokrov” is celebrated the 14th of October, (October 1st, according to the Julian calendar), and it often coincides with the first snowfall. The earth becomes covered by a white sheet. The brightness of the mantle of snow symbolizes the immaculate icon of purity. But, at the same time, the incoming of winter brings within itself a certain anguish-cold, hunger: the thought of the Russian farmer was always how to survive during the winter. And this anguish becomes fused to the image of purity and the two of them together give birth to a third image, the image of death. The snow is like a denial of a preceding life, another dimension of life undergoing trial, yet cloaked in purity.

All these images “work” at the deepest level, which is that of human rationality. But the answer of faith, which has its roots in the subconscious, that part which always remains concealed to man but that at the same time possesses a clear and rational expression, is the prayer addressed to Mary requesting her protection:

Today, we, people of good will, celebrate in the light, enlightened by your coming. Oh Mother of God, while looking at your most pure image, we say with a heart made tender: cover us with your mantle and save us from every ill; while praying to your Son, Christ our God, save our souls. (Tropaire of Pokrov)

From all these images, buried in the depth of the human heart, the icon representing the face of Mary Mother of God is born; Mary protecting us from evil. But let us take a closer look: this icon is invaded by the light of Christ. Without confusion and without separation, as always in Orthodox Marian piety, Mother and Son are always together. “Mary covers us and protects us with her mantle, and this is for sure” writes a monk of the Oriental Church. “But her mantle is nothing else than the tunic of Jesus, that cloak which the sick of the Gospel used to touch in order to be healed. When it seems that Mary is touching us, it is really Jesus that is touching us.”{footnote}P. Lev Gillet, Marie, Mère du Seigneur, in Contact, 108.{/footnote} Otherwise we can say: Jesus is protecting us with the mantle of Mary, he is saving us with the prayer of Mary.

In the Orthodox tradition there is also another view of the “pokrov,” that of Mary as the defense from divine love itself, whose fire, for us mortals, is unbearable. Bishop Alexander Semionov-Tian-Shanckij writes:

Any writer holding the faith can confirm that the mantle of the Mother of God protects us from the light of divine glory, from its splendor unsustainable by us sinners. Without this gentle mantle we would be burned by the brightness of the divine glance turned on us, by the ray of his justice and of his love; the mantle of the sovereign Queen gives to each one of us the possibility to receive this light as if it were received from our own strength, thus disposing us to gradually open up, more and more, to the light.{footnote}A. Semionov-Tjan-Shanskij. “Ave, mantle of infinite mercy!” in “Ave, Joy of All Creation,” p. 96-97.{/footnote}

Mary and the Eucharist

This mystery of protection cannot be explained, but it becomes clear by examining another one, the Eucharist. The Mother of God is present here as well. But in order to speak of the “Eucharistic Mary” we must remember that according to the Orthodox faith the Eucharist is an action of God. The people of God prepare in order to receive him, gather together in the Church, carry the bread and the wine, but God alone can change these human gifts into the gift of his presence. The people pray and invoke his descent, but the mystery of transmutation is an act of faith on behalf of the Church. And, by means of this act, the Church finds her realization, finds her “identity” as the Body of Christ, and, in following the secret logic of her faith “finds herself” in Mary who gave human life to this Body. The people of God gathered in the Church become the Body of Christ in the Eucharistic act, in the communion. The Eucharistic act with the Son in the Holy Spirit is offered to the Father, and is included in the memory of Mary, in whose spirit the perfect communion, or union with God, was and remains fully realized. This “Marian remembrance,” ontological, existential, and vital, is constantly revealed in liturgical prayer, “bringing our memory,” says the liturgical prayer, “to recall the all-holy one, the stainless one, more than blessed, glorious Queen, our Deipara and ever-Virgin Mary together with all her saints, we ourselves and everyone else entrust our life to Christ God.”

We always partake of communion with Mary, in the light of her beatitude. In the anaphora, or in the Eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom, immediately after the epiclesis, the gathered community sings these words to the Mother of God: “It is truly just to call ‘you’ blessed, O Deipara, because you are highly blessed, all pure and the Mother of our God.”

Mary assists us and walks with us during the whole liturgy and during communion. She assists us at the Eucharist and prays for us and with us, so that communion with the Body and Blood of her Son may not become “condemnation for us.” Instead, she prays so that “our souls may be purified and sanctified,” ready for eternal life where she will be forever near us.

It is not for nothing that the “remembrance” of the Eucharist includes within itself the entire life of our Savior, from Christmas (which presupposes, without doubt, the entire earthly life of the Mother of God including the Annunciation), up to his glorification in his Dormition; it brings to light the thought that the Church holds within herself when she teaches us to implore the gift of Holy Communion, not only by the hands of the One who gives himself in the Communion, but we are also exhorted to implore such gift by the hands of the Mother. The Church, then, invites us to give thanks to Mary for such a gift.{footnote}P.S. Bulgakov. Words and Sermons. 1987, p. 354 (Russian).{/footnote}

Mary as Divine Wisdom

“The reading of Proverbs (8:22-23) at the feast of the Nativity of Mary identifies the Virgin with the place of the Wisdom of God and through her celebrates the aim reached by divine creation.”{footnote}P. Evdokimov. Orthodoxy. Bologna, 1981. p. 219.{/footnote}

The image of Mary: Wisdom does not have any dogmatic expression. Wisdom is the vision of the world in its initial “project” of the Lord, and faith in our Creator cannot exist without this visual and spiritual contact with his work, of which we are part. Without the remembrance of the “wisdom” of the first day of creation, or of the joy of creation just out of the hands of God, or of the grace that fills the world with each breath and that finds his fullness only in the heart and in the silence of Mary, faith becomes impoverished.

Oh full of grace, the whole of creation rejoices in you, the throng of angels and the progeny of mankind, Oh sanctified Temple and rational Paradise. (Liturgy of St. Basil)

Joy is another name with which wisdom can be called. Mary is the incarnation of the joy of creation; she is the heart of all creation exulting for joy and holding present within her memory the eternal moment when, by God’s lips, creation was proclaimed “a good thing,” because sin had not yet touched it. The whole of creation is recapitulated in Mary; it goes back to its initial goodness, to its original wisdom.

Wisdom has many definitions. I will dwell on this one alone, the simplest, the most evident, and the most “Marian”: the joy of all creation. Said joy must spring out of me, must find its source within me, it must allow this fountain within to become free. For this reason one can speak of wisdom and purification, the purification of Adam’s cry after the fall. This is the wisdom of the prayer and of the asceticism of monastic life. But wisdom has other “channels,” other forms, other ways of expression. One of these channels could be the “intelligent” vision of the world, which is true philosophy; another channel could be artistic activity. The authentic act of creation is always wisdom filled. The artist, with his human wisdom, is trying to answer the voice of the original wisdom, hidden in the silent joy of the first day of creation. But the most perfect joy abides in Mary, in grace, in the receptacle of grace that she became. Therefore, in addition to prayer, one of the main expressions of wisdom is the art of the icon.

The following is the description of the icon “In You Every Creature Rejoices”:

The icon offers a radiant image of heaven adorned with blooming flowers whose center, depicting the Virgin with the Child, is God incarnate who came down to bring salvation to the world. The Mother of God is represented seated on a throne, surrounded by a garland of divine glory and by the symbols of the four evangelists … and by choirs of angels. … Behind her, among the heavenly verdant shrubs on which birds are resting, the domes of a luminous Church stand out, representing the Virgin celebrated in the hymn, “Sanctified Temple.” This figure is framed by a red semicircle from which tongues of fire are emanating, being thus interpreted as an opening in the firmament admitting into the kingdom of light. The universal character of exultation is rendered by the presence of all the “orders” of sanctity, beginning from the unanimous tension of the whole earthly surface toward the hemisphere of paradise, to the celestial asters appearing through the clouds.{footnote}Description of the icon “In You Every Creature Rejoices,” T’immagine dello spirito. Milano 1996, p. 190.{/footnote}

Mary, the Icon

The Word of God has its own walk. It goes from top to bottom. It becomes transformed in human discourse (a sermon, ethics, dogmatic conscience, etc.). But there is another walk traveled by the Word, a walk that goes much deeper, that travels from the “beginning” to the image, to wisdom, to the paradisiacal vision; a walk that comes inside some areas of our being, unknown even to ourselves, because the power of God on the subconscious is more powerful than on the conscious. The art of prayer is, in a certain sense, “the collaboration” with this power, its manifestation. The sapiential art of the icon is also derived from the same power.

From the same power also derives the sapiential art of the icon:

The stains of sin had darkened the splendor and the charm of human nature, but when the Mother of God was born, the Mother of him who is Beauty par excellence, this nature finds in itself the ancient privileges and it becomes shaped according to the perfect pattern thus truly worthy of God. This formation is a perfect restoration and this restoration is a perfect divinization and the latter is assimilation to the primitive state. Today our nature, in order to become shaped and visible undergoes a totally divine transformation, receiving the first fruits of the second creation (St. Andrew of Crete, Sermon 1).{footnote}See Alexis Kniazev, p. 123.{/footnote}

The art of the image is as primitive as wisdom itself, due to the fact that it is primordial and takes part in the new creation.

The art of the painter is accepted from the dogmatic point of view as the development of the central vision of Christianity, that of the Incarnation. That which the contemporaries of Jesus and Mary were able to see, we can also see. This is the miracle of the Church-no matter in which era we are living, we always remain in the era of Christ. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Among us, yes. In Mary first, who became the icon “par excellence,” the icon of the Incarnation. And this icon keeps living in the faith of the Church as her proto-image. And it is the very faith of the Church that gives us the eyes to see all this.

The icon is, above all, the art of seeing and living that which has been truly seen and lived by the Church. In our case, living the presence and maternity of Mary, manifested with the image and in the image. The secret of the image is that it comes out of the mystery into the light, from the silence into its expression, expressions that speak to us, springing from our memory into life, the life that we share with the prototype we see in the picture. We become aware of the fact that Mary’s presence, by means of the icons, expresses distance and intimacy at the same time. The icon is not a portrait, it does not represent another woman perceived by us as a figure outside of us; on the contrary, it shows us the image born out of the remembrance, from the memory that Mary holds in her heart. In a certain sense the icon is a remembrance, but not a remembrance of the past, but rather an interior remembrance, “a Eucharistic remembrance” realized in color, an awakening of the mystery that enlightens us and begins to live within us.

Where the Word abides there the Spirit remains forever. To sum it up the icon must open the space for him; or, maybe it must become the place where he can abide. The representation of a face must become an authentic image (like the water that was changed into wine at Cana in Galilee) in order to be able to bring the message of the Spirit; it must change us in order to create an inner space in our souls to receive the same Spirit. In this sense the icon is ascetic art. To pray with the icons means to enter into an interior dialogue with the very image (in our case that of the Mother of God), and that means with the Word that speaks by means of his silence, with the Spirit making himself manifest in the human countenance. And for this reason we must hold inside of us a human face where the Spirit can make himself manifest. With this descent the soul embarks upon the “interior battle.”{footnote} “Interior Battle” is the title of the book written by the Catholic monk Scupoli, translated into Greek in the eighteenth century by St. Nicodemus of Monte Santo. This treatise became one of the spiritual manuals of Orthodox monasticism.{/footnote}

Oh you, that in your power

changed water into wine,

change into joy the oppressing

sadness of my sins

through the intercession

of the Theotókos,

O Christ God, you

who have created all things

with wisdom.

(Romanus the Melodist){footnote}Hymn of the Marriage of Cana; SC.110, 300-320, Cit. Marian Texts, p. 718.{/footnote}

In this manner, with the icon, we enter into the realm of open wisdom, something like “a developed” wisdom of the Spirit. The icon is a “theophany” that always proceeds from the hidden source of faith. The icon serves as a channel for the grace of God falling on us. The icon, by means of the light that it awakens in us, dispels “the sadness of our sins,” giving testimony to the source. The true representation of Mary is the one that awakens in us the Marian wisdom veiled in the silence.

The icon of St. Sophia, Wisdom of God, expresses the still veiled mystery of the divine plan about creation. But the Mother of God, who gathered the whole world around the baby, preceding all times, embodies within herself the realization and the revelation of the same plan of God (Evguenij Trubeckoj).{footnote}Evg. Trubetckoj. Contemplation in Color, 1965, p. 47. (Russian).{/footnote}

“The project” of God is that of creating an open humanity, open to himself, transparent to himself, a “deified being.”

The “Race” of Mary

The Mother of God reveals the “project” of God firstly in herself. She is the living testimonial of the fullness of God which potentially can be realized in every human being. In that sense Mary is the everlasting act of Revelation, the mystery of Revelation living among us who continues to live in every act and even in every spark of sanctity. Sanctity, therefore, in the Orthodox vision, is, above all, the adoption into the Father, life in Christ, and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, but it is also our kinship with the Holy Virgin, as St. Seraphim of Sarov used to teach, echoing the words of St. Simeon:

As he was born first in the Holy Spirit from the Most Holy Mother of God, and from him all the saints, consequently, the Mother of God is the Mother of all the saints, Lady, Queen, and Mistress; and all the saints are her servants, because she is the Mother of God. They are her children; therefore, they partake of the purest flesh of her Son. This word is true, because the flesh of the Lord is the flesh of his Mother.{footnote}Simeon the New Theologian. Theolg. Essay 45, 9.{/footnote}

He who truly was a saint of the Virgin, “flesh of his Mother,” was St. Seraphim of Sarov, one of the greatest mystics and Russian saints. The figure of St. Seraphim holds within himself his theological secret. He knew her presence and her protection, not just by hearsay; many times during his lifetime, she herself, surrounded by many saints, would enter the cell of the saint in order to speak with him and to heal him (this has been confirmed by many eyewitnesses; about the face-to-face visits we know almost nothing). During one of these healings she said, while turning to St. John the theologian who was standing near her and pointing to Seraphim, “This is one of our race.”

However, the prayer that occupied the main part of the saint’s life was always “triad-centered.” With innumerable Marian invocations, St. Seraphim, above all, used to pray to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, but always in front of an image of the Mother, as if she was to take his prayer to the Holy Trinity, as if she were the mediatrix of his supplication. He always prayed in front of the same icon called “tenderness,”{footnote} “Umilenie” in Russian; not to be confused with the icon of the Mother of God by Vladimir which is often called by the same name.{/footnote} and in front of this image he died.

Keeping in mind the importance of the image in our way to salvation for Orthodoxy, and above all the experience of the many personal encounters with the Mother of God that St. Seraphim alone experienced, he who belonged to her, being of the “same race,” we can certainly be sure that the mystery of the Holy Virgin was open to him. But in the Orthodox faith this mystery does not look for words or definitions, instead it has to be deeply lived at the bottom of the heart. One can live with the prayer of Jesus on the lips and remain saintly, dedicated to the Mother of God. One can speak of the purpose of Christian life as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and belong to the “race,” the “line” of the Holy Virgin who was the “burning bush” of the same Spirit. But all this experience is as if sealed into silence, because “with the coming of the Holy Spirit,” according to the confessions of St. Seraphim, “one must be in complete silence in order to hear clearly all the words of eternal life that through the message the Spirit is bringing us.”{footnote}Seraphim the Servant of God, Moscow, 1995, p. 131 (Russian).{/footnote}

Let us examine a much more ancient testimony, that of the Philokalia, that talks about the same miracle of mediation.

One day St. Gregory the Sinaite met St. Maxim (Capsolivite) and asked him, “I beg you, tell me venerable father, if you have obtained the prayer of wisdom.” St. Maxim, while bowing a bit his head, said:

I don’t want to hide from you the miracle of the Holy Mother of God. Since my youth I always had great faith in her and I prayed with tears in my eyes so that she would obtain for me the grace of the prayer of wisdom. One day, having entered the church, according to my custom, I went to pray to her with all the infinite tenderness of my heart. When I went to kiss the icon with her image, I felt a particular tenderness in my heart and a fire which were coming from the icon; these were coming from the holy icon. This fire was not burning me; on the contrary, it was refreshing me and filling my heart with sweetness. From that moment on my heart began to say the prayer and my spirit became joyful, my memory having been impressed with the remembrance of my Lord Jesus Christ and of my Queen the Most Holy Mother of God. My heart stayed always fixed on this remembrance and my prayer never became dry nor was it ever interrupted.{footnote}Philokalia, vol. 5, p. 473. YMCA-Press, 1988, Russian Ed.).{/footnote}

The wisdom prayer is the prayer of the heart or the prayer of Jesus (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”). The sense of this prayer is the concentration on the name of Jesus so as to obtain total union with this name, union in unison with the beating of our heart. The name of Mary is not even mentioned here; as it often happens she is veiled in the name of Jesus (though one could add to the prayer this phrase: “by the prayers of the Mother of God, have mercy on me”). The prayer of Jesus by the intercession of the Mother of God can become a living stream inside of us. And the gift of Mary to us becomes the prayer of silence. And with her silent, inaudible prayer she intercedes for the gift of God and obtains it in advance as well. The absolute Christocentrism of Orthodox piety hides within itself a no less absolute devotion to the Mother of God. This tie is absolutely vital. The name of Jesus hides within itself the presence of the Mother. And from her prayer, from her prayer of intercession, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is revealed to us.

Transfigured on the mountain Christ-God

You revealed your Glory to your disciples.

To the extent that it was possible for them to see it

You are letting your eternal light shine

thanks to the prayers of the Mother of God.

Oh, you who give the gift of light, glory be to you!

(Tropaire of the Transfiguration)

Mary, Apple of Discord

The figure of Mary continues to divide three big Christian families: Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. It is common knowledge, for example, that Catholicism and Orthodoxy are separated by two Marian dogmas. But, in the two faiths, the sense and the place of the dogma have a somewhat different position. If Orthodoxy sees dogmatic knowledge as the secure custodian against deviation from the “correct faith,” Catholicism perceives, in the same knowledge, an element of praise as well.

The thought of Catholicism does not remain enchanted in front of the impenetrable mystery, does not go around it, but wants to penetrate it, as if to tear away the secret of silence in order to have it participate in the veneration. For this reason there is an interior coherence in the Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption, as a similar logic and coherence also exists in Orthodoxy in the very absence of said dogmas. Orthodoxy does not accept these definitions as rules, not because it was not able to undertake the intellectually coherent and necessary task, as Newman thought,{footnote}See Newman, Ibid.{/footnote} but simply because Orthodoxy does not want to allow entrance to what it perceives to be a logic that is too rational, too constricting in a dogmatic sense, in its Marian devotion. The so-called Marian rationality, however, object of so much criticism on the part of the Orient in the past, cannot be anything else but an instrument of glorification and a specific language of prayer. Therefore, the intellect can pray with the dogmas also. We pray in different languages, and perhaps the flowery embellishment of our hymns, akathists and canons, so familiar to us, are not easily married in the Latin mentality.

If dogmatic apophatism is part of Eastern faith, whose main way of expression is liturgical, the more modest Catholicism, more reserved in its divine office, always searches “divinity” (that is, the revealed character) of its faith, scans and finds new reflections of the same mystery that we instead keep in the hollow of silence.

Let us see in a more concrete way. Practically there is no discussion between the Orthodox and Protestant view on the role of Mary because the Protestant world acknowledges the ecclesial tradition which leans exclusively upon the letter of the Scripture. But the veneration of the Mother of God from the second century to nowadays is a part of “ecclesial being” in its spiritual, liturgical, and dogmatic dimension. It is an inalienable part of the Church’s life. In theory we can find some formulas of reconciliation, but we can’t communicate the so-called “Mary” wisdom, revealed to St. Ignatius and to his innumerable followers. For example the so-called problem of “Mary’s children” cannot be resolved on historical grounds; but it cannot be even seriously discussed because for the Orthodox mind it does not exist. “Apollo has no revelatory significance for Christians; the Virgin Mother Mary reveals nothing to Protestantism” (Paul Tillich). But for the Orthodox tradition the ever-virginity of Mary is not only a dogmatic statement but an element of revelation matured in the Church. Thus, the discussion with the Protestant world can’t be led dogmatically or historically, but only on the basis of a common, rediscovered, spiritual and ecclesial life.{footnote} [Editor’s note: Within the context of authentic Catholic-Orthodox Mariological dialogue, the contents of the following footnote reflect the author’s perspective of the Orthodox view of the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, which obviously is in opposition to the papal teaching on these two infallibly declared dogmas of faith from a Catholic perspective.

For a Catholic response to this Orthodox perspective in the ongoing dialogue, Cf. Fr. Peter D. Fehlner’s article in this anthology, “The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and Her Immaculate Conception.”]

The situation in the Orthodox-Catholic “Mariological” dialogue or discussion is much more complicated. For Roman Catholics the veneration of Mary is also an essential part of revelation and devotion. But from the Orthodox point of view Catholic reason went too far in the rationalization of mystery and arrived at some erroneous conclusions.

The Roman dogma of the Immaculate Conception says: “The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first moment of her conception, by a special grace of the omnipotent God and by a special privilege, for the sake of the future merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free of all stain of original guilt” (Bull of Pope Pius IX of 1854). The Orthodox Church does not agree that any human being, even the holiest Mother of God, before Christ could be freed from original sin, which by inheritance from our forefather has spread to all mankind.

There are two principal objections to it, traditional and theological. First: the tradition of the undivided Church did not know such a teaching. “Mary is not God, and did not receive a body from heaven, but from the joining of man and woman; and according to the promise, like Isaac, she was prepared to take part in the divine economy. But, on the other hand, ‘let none dare foolishly to offend the Holy Virgin'” (St. Epiphanius, “Against the Antidikomarionites”). “Of all those born of women, there is not a single one who is perfectly holy, apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, who in a special new way of immaculate birthgiving, did not experience earthly taint” (St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, ch. 2). Even such theologians of the West, as Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux and others did not support it.

“None of the ancient Holy Fathers say that God in miraculous fashion purified the Virgin Mary while yet in the womb; and many directly indicate that the Virgin Mary, just as all men, endured a battle with sinfulness, but was victorious over temptations and was saved by her divine Son” (John Maximovitch).

The theological objection is even more important: preservation from original sin would deprive the Mother of God of her personal freedom; it would demean her act of obedience to God, her holiness.

The Orthodox Church acknowledges the birth of the Mother of God as holy, immaculate and blessed in the sense that this birth was from aged parents, that it was announced by an angel of God, that it served for the salvation of mankind, but it occurred within the usual laws of human life, both in a spiritual and physical regard.

… If a different spiritual nature were given to her, apart from her will, then she is no longer ours and cannot constitute our glory. We cannot then say to God: “We have given her to thee,” as the Church says concerning this on the feast of Christ’s Nativity (see John Maximovitch).

As to the dogma of the Assumption, the difference between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox view consists only in a clear accent on the corporal death of the Holy Virgin, a death without any sign of decomposition, which in the Orthodox language is called the Dormition (the name of the feast of August 15). Mary died as every human being dies, with her body and her soul being taken by Christ to heaven.

The end of the earthly life of the Most Holy Mother of God was the beginning of her greatness. “Being adorned with divine glory” (Irmos of the Canon of the Dormition), she stands and will stand, both in the day of the Last Judgment and in the future age, at the right hand of the throne of her Son. She reigns with him and has boldness towards him as his mother according to the flesh, and as one in spirit with him, as one who performed the will of God and instructed others (Mt 5:19). Merciful and full of love, she manifests her love towards her Son and God in love for the human race “Joy of all who sorrow and intercessor for the offended, feeder of the hungry, consolation of travelers, harbor of the storm-tossed, visitation of the sick, protection and intercessor for the infirm, staff of old age, thou art the Mother of God on high, O most pure one” (Sticheron of the Service to the Odighitria). “The hope and intercession and refuge of Christians,” “The Mother of God unceasing in prayers” (Kontakion of Dormition), “saving the world by thine unceasing prayer” (Theotokion of the Third Tone). “She day and night doth pray for us, and the scepters of kingdoms are confirmed by her prayers” (Daily Nocturne, see John Maximovitch).{/footnote}

A Way to Reconciliation

St. Augustine said, “In the most important matters, seek unity; in that which is less certain, seek freedom; in all things seek charity.” Perhaps, regarding unity in a Mariological sense, the fundamental thing is the wisdom that Mary possesses and incarnates within herself. Wisdom precedes dogmatic knowledge, but the latter, contrariwise, is deeply personal and free. And in its liberty there is also an avenue towards reconciliation in the spiritual life, toward the memory shared in the heart of the Mother of God. Mary, who remains the “sign of contradiction” before the prince of this world and for the world itself, should not be a similar sign for the Christian family. Marian wisdom, that is the vision of the world and of mankind created out of love through the divine maternity, in the mystery of the bond that forever unites the Mother with the Son of God, should create the spiritual space for abiding unity under the protection of Mary herself. It is not necessary to try to accomplish such unity right away, not now nor even tomorrow. What really counts is the space acquired by the common silence and of shared knowledge. Only from this unifying source can unity make its way visible: unity, not as constriction or compromise, but as gift of inner freedom, sapiential freedom.

In addition, with knowledge as a Marian source of theological thought, we can be free from the law of opposition, from the constricting need of being opposed to the truth of another in favor of our truth.

P.P. Florensky writes, in his essay “Thoughts about Orthodoxy,” that the entire knowledge of religion and of its writings as well, is supported by the adverbial particle “not.” However, in his contact with another religion and another confession, modern man does not see and chooses not to see the interior meaning, its coherence, its conformity to its law, its intrinsic form.{footnote}P.P. Florensky. Notes on Orthodoxy. Simvol 21, Paris, p. 93. (Russian).{/footnote} In other words, we can try to live another truth, and the faith of another, by recognizing them and discovering them in our own knowledge.

However, before talking about traditions that seem to divide, we must find reconciliation in the mystery of knowledge rooted in silence. How do we find it? With the effort of the heart and the effort of the ear as well, tuned to the silence of another. The priority of faith formulas must give space to another priority, that of the relationship with the Lord, “searcher of mind and heart” (Jer 12:20). Where this silence is present and truly felt and protected in the heart of Mary, there does not exist any crisis of the ecclesial essence, and the faith is not thrown into confusion by the waves of secularism or by the internal movements that destroy the Church. The Word of God, that in the process of transmutation becomes the human word, is, as it were, protected by the Mother of the Word, the Mother who keeps silent. Her silence is the veil, the “pokrov” of our faith that speaks, thinks, and creates concepts.

Mary is also the image of each soul fertilized by the Spirit, which generates the Lord. This absolutely unique event in history becomes a paradigm of the mystical life for each soul, a model of the Trinitarian faith which needs the Mother, Mary. Such are the principal features of the veneration of the Mother of God in the Orthodox Church.

However, when one starts to ponder the“marian” experience of the East, one is always struck by the similarity or the kinship with the same experience of the Occident, in spite of a difference in forms and dogmas. This intimate affinity, vital, existential, which carries the germs of the inevitable unity is Mary, Mother of God, the unity which remains to be discovered.

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