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June 3, 2010

Well, I’m sure you can guess where I’m gonna go with this one. In thinking over the topic for this post, the closest comparison I could think of from the Tolkien world is Galadriel. My topic for this post is The Virgin Mary, the Theotokos (God-Bearer), as I have learned of and encountered thus far in my journey. Even as I’m typing this, a couple comparisons are coming to mind.

Galadriel is, of course, the Immortal elven queen of Lothlorien. She holds a very special place of honor among the elves of Middle Earth, but is never the object of their worship. She is also surrounded in a bit of mystery to the outside world. I think it would be safe to say that those outside of the elven race are even fearful and suspicious of her, based on false rumors and legends.

Having said that, anyone who has read the Silmarillion knows that Galadriel was a part of the initial rebellion of the elves that landed them in Middle Earth, unable to return home to Valinor. In that light, Mary is an antithesis of the Galadriel character, the way she is seen as a kind of anti-type to the rebellion of Eve, with her submission to God in accepting the Annunciation from Gabriel.

Like most Protestants, one of my big hang ups was the veneration of Mary. Listening to the podcasts of Journeys to Orthodoxy, I got the picture that Mary is a pretty big deal. It wasn’t until I stepped into an Orthodox Church and heard a few prayers and hymns addressed to her, that I saw how big. She was, well… an even bigger deal than Galadriel to the elves. As I read the service book with the congregation, I stopped when I realized these were prayers to Mary. I resumed again when they were address to one of the Holy Trinity. It made me cringe inside. I said within myself, “I don’t REALLY have to believe this stuff about Mary do I? Ever Virgin? Ever Blessed? The Mother of our God? More honorable then the cherubim… We magnify Thee?” The answer was yes. The place of Mary in salvation history is a dogma of the Orthodox Church.

I am in no way qualified to give any kind of apologetic on Mary and the teachings of the Orthodox Church about her (not that you needed me to tell you that). This is obviously not going to be any kind of treatise, I am simply going to share some of what I have learned and what I have experienced.

I had this idea that Orthodox put Mary up on such a high pedestal, that she became something like a fourth person of the Godhead. Nothing can be farther from the truth. She does have a very prominent place in Orthodox spirituality, but is definitely human. She was by no means “just a vessel”, but was a person in need of a Savior, like all of us.

One of the things I used to argue was that Mary is never really exalted in Scripture (back in my Sola Scriptura days). A careful reading of Luke Chapter 1 shows that she was indeed special. I won’t pretend to be able to give a satisfactory explanation of the texts, but I encourage you who may have never considered this before, read the Annunciation by Gabriel the Archangel, the Prophecy of Elizabeth, as well as Mary’s Magnificat that follows. After that, read John Chapter 1, in which the Apostle tells us that the infant conceived in Mary’s womb of the Holy Spirit is none other than the Creator Himself, the Divine Logos of God. I have come to realize, if I can grasp the reality of the Incarnation, I walk away with Mary being pretty special. Actually, that is really the point. The Incarnation. I always had an idea that even though the Incarnation was “special”, the real deal was what happened during Pascha (Easter). Maybe that’s why I was off in my understanding of Mary. I have since come to see, in a slightly clearer way, the enormity of the Creator of the Universe becoming a human… and that (“He” I should say) is why Mary is so special.

As far as the Traditions go, there are some non-canonical writings that were based on the Tradition. One such writing is the Protoevangelium of James. While this writing has a lot of things “less than accurate”, there is a lot that does come from the Tradition. This writing nearly stumbled me on my journey and caused me to turn away from Orthodoxy. A kind friend referred me to a great podcast by Fr Thomas Hopko that explains the whole thing very well. I will let him explain the whole thing. One thing I will say is that this writing basically tells about the life of Mary, from her conception onward. I think the podcast link is pretty awesome, Like I said, it kept me on then path…

Another great series of podcasts are found under “Our Life In Christ”. They have an eight part series called Encountering Mary. Theses guys explain in a lot of detail all the things you could want to know about the Orthodox veneration of Mary, as the Theotokos. When I was having a lot of difficulty internally, these podcasts helped out a lot. You can type the title of the podcast into the iTunes Store search and it comes up. If you don’t fancy iTunes, has it (for those who are unfamiliar with it).

At some point, I become comfortable with with the veneration of Mary (in general at least) and even the prayer, “It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever blessed, most pure and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim. Thou who without stain barest God the Word and art truly Theotokos, we magnify thee.” I got that Jesus is what makes a hymn/prayer like that even possible to say. Having said that, there were many times when a hymn, canon, etc had a phrase that would make me cringe when I heard it. The same was true for a lot of the statements made about the other Saints as well. I can’t remember any specific ones, off the top of my head, but that’s not the point. The point is, I thought some of the content was teetering dangerously close to blasphemy.

When I was a boy of about 10 or so, some dudes came walking up to me as I was washing the family car in our driveway. They were dressed in suits and had a briefcase. Very official looking. They said they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had no idea who Jehovah was, and why these guys were gonna tell me about why he was in court. (witness. court. See the connection?) My dad promptly came out and said something to the effect of, “No thanks, we’re Christians.” I thought, “What does that have to do with being a witness at a trial?” The painfully obvious fact was, we were no more Christians because we said we were, than I was an Oscar Meyer Wiener, for wishing I was one… but I digress. The point is, I was thoroughly confused, because I was completely unfamiliar with the subject I was confronted with. So now, here I was in an Orthodox Church. Jehovah needs witnesses at his trial, but too bad… I’m a Christian. Have a nice evening. I was more clueless than the Beverly Hill Billies.

I had purchased an icon of the Theotokos holding the infant Christ, along with a few others, for my prayer corner at home. It seemed a little awkward to pray in front of at first, but after a while I got the gist. Still, I had my doubts about some of the things I would hear in the prayers and hymns of the Church. Over the course I time though, I began to not only feel more comfortable with the hymns and prayers, but to understand them somewhat as well. The podcasts from the guys guys from Our Life In Christ were invaluable in helping me to this point.

The major changing point came one evening at a Little Compline service. It was a Friday even, which for us meant that the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos was sung my the choir. Once again the inner cringe started to come over me. And then, I said the Jesus Prayer, and asked God to help me understand. I suddenly remember a OLIC podcast that talked about the language of wonder within the Orthodox Church. I also remember the thought, “It’s because of Jesus.” entering my head. While that thought was still being processed, something that I can only describe as being like a mental lightning bolt hit me. ” I think I get it!” I thought. I was suddenly washed over with a feeling of comfort. I couldn’t describe it at the moment it happened, but during Fr Patrick’s homily, it hit me what had happened during the Hymn. God’s peace.

I have come to realize that all the things spoken of about Mary, the Theotokos comes from wonder. Child-like wonder. Not a simpleton, a child. Trusting, at peace and joyful. There is a wonder at the majesty of who Christ is and what He has done, both in eternity and on earth. That wonder at Christ is passed on to those who emulate His life, even though they be sinful humans. It’s a wonder that doesn’t just say that God is everywhere present and fillest all things, it’s a wonder that believes it, REALLY believes it. This wonder is expressed very poetically. What I was listening to with an objectively critical mind, was meant to be heard with the ears of faith, and interpreted by a heart of love. Love for God, for His Saints and all His people. Especially the woman found worthy to bear Him in the womb. It’s like that statement, “Seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing.” I won’t pretend like I don’t still have those moments when I question something I hear. I am able to stop and look at it through the lens of wonder a little more easily now.

I am still brand new, and have a long, long way to go. Compared to the length of the journey, I haven’t even taken the first step yet. Paul said we see through a glass darkly. I feel like maybe little more light is getting to me…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2010 1:42 pm

    Interesting story!

    I think that St. John of Damascus compares Our Lady to a mirror, and to the moon. This reminds me of Galadriel too. There is much mystery and we cannot understand how God has given His glory to His children, but He surely has. I like to tell people who challenge the place of the Blessed Virgin that what they are challenging is all of our futures. To decry her status is to decry salvation. For salvation is not merely a matter of having our record free of charges against us–it is a divine birth into the Family of God.

  2. June 5, 2010 8:09 pm

    Well spoken my friend. speaking of similarities, I learned today the the word earendil is Old English for Day Star. Apparently Tolkien was inspired by a hymn, praising Christ, with the term “Earendil” for Day Star. Fr Andrew Stephen Damick read it in it;s Old English form. Sounded nearly identical to the “elvish”.

  3. Sean permalink
    June 6, 2010 3:52 am

    I have no experience of how Protestants perceive Mary’s position within the frame of christian faith & life, but I can affirm she holds a special of very high honor and respect in Orthodoxy, without, however, being thought of as something more than human (there is nothing like the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in Orthodoxy). Orthodox feel and love her as a mother, not the way we call God our Father, but in the human, earthly sense. Where I live, the Theotokos is the first person that comes to mind along with one’s physical mother in moments of extreme hardship or danger. More than half of the churches, especially in monasteries, are dedicated to her. People feel her as one of us who was so honored as to have given birth, in flesh, to our Creator and as such the recipient of special grace from the Lord. In that light, we feel so close to her that we ask her to help us by interceding in our favor to her Son.
    It is not mere coincidence after all, that besides the hymns written for the grand Feasts (the ones which have to do with Christ Himself), the Church reserved the most poetic and musically beautifully hymns for her.

    • Sean permalink
      June 6, 2010 3:54 am

      * … she holds a special POSITION of very ….

      ** … and musically BEAUTIFUL hymns ….

      • June 6, 2010 12:55 pm

        Thank you for sharing that Sean. Even though I left it out of this blog entry (not purposely), I have begun to feel the kind of affection that comes with asking for her intercession. I find myself asking her petition whenever my kids of ill.
        I also left out the Roman Catholic differences regarding Mary. There are those who are far better able to cover that stuff than I.
        A book that I am very much looking forward to reading is “Mary: The Untrodden Portal”.
        I hope to come to that place you spoke of, in my regard for and affection toward the Theotokos.

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