THOUGHTS ON THE MOTHER OF GOD
The other Friday, we joined our friends at Lychnostatis Museum for a service in their tiny chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Although it means setting out at 6.30 for a fifty kilometre drive, it is well worth it to participate in the Divine Liturgy in the open air only a few yards from the sea, with the sun rising over the horizon. We find it a very moving and spiritual experience compared with the services of the 15th August which unfortunately in Greece often become overcrowded 'bean feasts' where the reverence and solemnity of the occasion do sometimes get a little overshadowed by the general festivities. The beauty of the service as usual prompted me to consider my feelings about the Virgin Mary.
To the Orthodox, the Mother of God is “more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim” and veneration and love for her is deeply ingrained in those brought up in the faith. Having been brought up a Baptist, however, I found the deep veneration of Mary something unfamiliar and, at first, difficult to absorb. As a child, I followed many other Protestants in believing that the Roman Catholics were somewhat exotic beings who worshipped Mary and regarded her as equal to or even more important than Christ. While these prejudices were clearly untrue and long dispelled, it is a fact that veneration for Mary has sometimes led to excess, causing the reformers of the sixteenth century to diminish reverence for Mary to a minimum. In this, I believe they threw out the baby with the bath water! If the Catholics sometimes place too much emphasis on the role of Mary, I’m sure the Protestants place too little, reducing her to merely a good mother to Jesus.
Even in purely human terms, however, Mary’s total submission to the will of God must put her among the greatest of the saints, while, since we believe that Christ was not only a man but ‘fully God’, then the Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of God’ is worthy of the highest honour we can bestow short of worship. As I ponder more on the position of the Blessed Virgin, therefore, I am gradually coming to the conclusion that Orthodoxy has got the balance about right. Jesus is often described as the 'new Adam' who, by his death and resurrection, restored God's original purpose for humanity. In the same way, Mary is sometimes called the 'new Eve' who, by her total obedience to God's will, showed us the way back to Eden. She is the compassionate, human face of the divine purpose, beautifully illustrated in the famous icon in Toplou Monastery, ‘Lord Thou Art Great.’ The central image shows Mary with Christ on her lap. To her right is Adam, looking penitent, while with her left hand she seems to be comforting Eve, as if to say “Don't worry, my dear, my Son has put things right now.”
I don't feel competent to comment on the refusal of the Orthodox Church to allow women priests, except to say that it may well be based on sound theological arguments. However, there does seem to be a paradox in the veneration shown to Mary and the general attitude to women in the Orthodox Church, at least in this part of Greece. At the foot of the Cross stood both John and Mary; it was a group of women who were the first to enter the empty tomb after the Resurrection. So why are women not allowed to enter the Sanctuary? Perhaps this rule, like men receiving Communion before women or women sitting on the left, men on the right in church, is local tradition rather than Orthodox practice; comments would be appreciated.
Perhaps the final word on the Virgin Mary should go to the beautiful hymn Axion Esti, traditionally dictated to a monk on Mount Athos by the Archangel Gabriel in the ninth century:
It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos,
Ever blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the cherubim,
And beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim,
Without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos, we magnify thee.