Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Theotokos, Mariology, and the Challenge of Orthodox Exuberance


A good friend who is a Protestant but sympathetic to Orthodoxy wrote me with a question about Mary.  Many Protestants, it would seem, get queasy when they find themselves in the midst of Orthodox songs of fulsome praise to the Mother of God (Theotokos).  My friend cited this example:

Canon to the Theotokos
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
I hold you as the Intercessor and Protection of my life,
O Virgin Birth-Giver of God.
Pilot me to your haven, O Cause of good things,
O only all-hymned Support of the faithful.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
I pray, O Virgin: dispel the storm of my sorrows and spiritual turmoil.
You are the Bride of God who bore the Origin of stillness and alone are most pure.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Pour a wealth of generosity for all, O you who bore
The Benefactor, the Cause of all Good. 
You can do anything, for God has blessed you, the Bearer of Christ
Who is might in strength.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Help me, O Virgin, for I am cruelly tried by severe illness and painful afflictions.
I know, Ever-Undefiled One,
That you are an inexhaustible and generous treasury of healings.

And then  my friend goes on to say:
I don't have a problem asking people, alive or dead (in this physical plane), to pray for us.  I understand the title given her.  I understand referring to people like her as holy, righteous, etc., knowing that doesn't mean without sin or need of a Savior.  I understand that tradition considers her to have been always a virgin - no issue there.  But it seems a stretch, and somewhat dangerous, to pray in a way that seems to imply that she, in herself, saves, answers prayer, grants blessing, protection, etc.  One could say that she intercedes and asks God to grant these things, but I am working with many people who see her and even acknowledge her as the co-mediatrix.

My response was as follows:

Your question about the rather high Mariology that some/many seem to have is a good one.  Orthodox teaching on Mary makes a clear distinction between Mary and the members of the Holy Trinity.  Mary is a woman and not God, and therefore she cannot do the things that only God can do.  Moreover, Mary is presently enjoying a state of being, an aspect of salvation, that all the redeemed of the Lord will one day enjoy in full.  She receives the honor due to one who has done what she has done.  No one can be said to have carried the Almighty and infinite God, as she has, nor cared for the incarnate Son of God in his infancy and childhood as she did.  And as you say, there is no problem with any of this, or at least there shouldn't be, from any of Christianity's main traditions.  But as you point out, sometimes the language in some of the songs and prayers seems rather exuberant.  As the one who gave birth to the Savior, she is often described as the source of the sorts of things the Savior does (heal, save, guide, etc.) and there is truth in that.  But as with icons, Mary is/must always be seen, not by herself, but in the context of her Son.  The exception are those icons that depict a biblical scene.  The danger comes when less theologically-informed Christians separate Mary from Jesus, and make her into a stand-alone dispenser of spiritual and temporal blessings.  At this point the songs, prayers and over-emphases veer dangerously into making Mary more than she is, both biblically and in the Tradition.  In my opinion, a proper understanding and focus on Christ will always promote a proper understanding and appreciation of Mary.  This is what I've found so far, at least, in my experience in the Orthodox Church.  But I am new to this.

I would love to have both Orthodox and non-Orthodox friends share their perspective on Mary!