The veneration of Mary, the Theotokos (Bearer of God) is a very important part of Eastern Orthodoxy. She is present in the liturgy of every Orthodox service, and we display her icons prominently in every Orthodox church. We regard her as the chief of the Saints, and both in church and in our private prayers, we ask Mary to intercede to Christ on our behalf.
The Christian church has venerated Mary from very early on in its history. The earliest prayer to Mary comes from a document dated 250 AD– this was a corporate prayer, and thus evidence that the early church included her in their Sunday services.
Nevertheless, Marian veneration made me very uncomfortable at first. Solus Christus– the idea that our salvation comes from Christ alone is a very central part of Protestant theology. Coming from a Protestant background, I wondered why the Orthodox needed to treat Mary with such respect. Worst of all, there was a line in the liturgy- “O Theotokos, Save us!”- that suggested that Mary played a part in our salvation!
Eventually I came to realize that my strict interpretation of Solus Christus was not consistent with how God works anywhere in the Bible. In one sense God alone was responsible for the creation, and yet Adam participated-“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). In one sense, God alone was responsible for delivering Israel for Pharoah’s tyranny, and yet God chose to work through Moses, Aaron and Joshua. In one sense, God alone caused the early church to flourish, and yet the book that documents this flourishing is called the Acts of the Apostles.
In one sense, our salvation is due to Christ alone. Yet Mary, by obediently accepting God’s plan as revealed to her by Gabriel- “I am the Lord’s servant; may your word to me be fulfilled”(Luke 1:38) – is a crucial part of God’s plan to redeem humanity. In a way, she is the first Christian- the first to hear the good news of Jesus Christ’s coming, the first to accept it, and the first to act on it.
I’ve only recently started giving Mary the respect she is due, and this has helped me understand salvation in a more meaningful way. Coming from a Protestant background, I had an overly passive view of Christ’s work in my life. Salvation was something that was done to me- after all, if salvation was due to Christ alone, what was there left for me to do? My participation in God’s plan was limited to telling others about Jesus, so they would allow him to impose this “salvation” on them as well.
Now, though I know that I cannot save myself by my own strength or my own works, I recognize that I participate in Christ’s saving work by doing as Mary did- continually saying “yes” to God’s direction, even when it is difficult and inconvenient. This participation encompasses every aspect of my life, not just in evangelism. And it is not I alone that participates in this salvation, rather I do this with the support of the church past and present, including Mary, the Theotokos who prays for us still today.
To end this post, I would like to share this wonderful crayon drawing of a pregnant Mary comforting Eve. I used to consider Eve’s role in the fall as a deeply uncomfortable part of the Bible, suggesting too strongly that it was woman who brought evil into the world. Once I recognized properly Mary’s part in our salvation, only then did the story become complete. I could finally see the fullness and beauty of God’s plan of redemption in the lives of these two women.