Yesterday, the Orthodox Church celebrated the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. This is one of the twelve great feasts of the Orthodox Church and commemorates the falling asleep of the Mother of God.
Mary is one of the most misunderstood figures in Church history. We have very little by way of Scriptural reference of her life prior to the Annunciation and we have no scriptural references on her death. We only have tradition and the faith of the Church to guide us.
First a little about the feast itself. This feast is similar in many ways to the Roman Catholic feast of the Assumption. In fact they are celebrated on the same day. According to our Orthodox Tradition, Mary died like all humanity, as we say in the Orthodox Church she “fell asleep.” She died as all of us will, not “voluntarily” as her Son, but like all humans our time will come when our earthly body gives out. The Apostles, save St. Thomas, were miraculously summoned to this event and were present when she died and was buried.
Thomas arrived a few days latter and desiring to see her one more time asked to be taken to the place of her burial. She was not there and this is considered to be the “first fruits” of the resurrection of all the faithful that will happen at the Second Coming of Christ.
So why do the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics honor Mary as we do? Well quite frankly it is because of the title of this post, because a young girl said yes!
Scripture tells us that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and asked her to give birth to Jesus. Tradition tells us that she was a young girl and not wise in the ways of the world and asked the Angel how this would happen since she does not know man. In the end Mary says yes to the Angel. St. Nicholas Cabasilas tell us that if Mary, in her obedience, had not offered her freedom to God – had she not said yes to God- God would not have been able to become incarnate. In other words, if this young girl had not said yes, Jesus would not have been born.
Mary gave her consent to the request of the Angel in her freedom, the freedom that we all have. God did not “force himself” on her because once God have freedom to His creation He would not have been able to violate this. Mary said yes out of her freedom and her love for God.
The Fathers of the Church consider Mary to be a cause of Salvation in the sense that she gave birth to the savior, source of life because she is the Mother of Life. Her consent to become the vehicle for the Incarnation was recognized as a redemptive act, not simply an act of singular felicity undoing the devastation achieved by Eve. For this reason Mary is considered the Second Eve.
Just as sin came into the world through the disobedience of the First Eve, the Redemption of the world came through the Second Eve, Mary through the submission to the will of God. He consent had exceptional moral value; it was an act of uncommon obedience. The Second Eve, according to St. Irenaeus, cooperated with God and liberates humanity from that death which the First Eve’s collusion with Satan had caused.
The portrait of Mary presented by Luke is one of perfection directly related to God. The word “kecharitomene” (full of grace) (Lk. 1:28) immediately places her on a higher level than Zachariah and Elizabeth, who are righteous in the Old Testament sense. She is God’s favored one. She has found favor with the Lord (Lk. 1:30); her child can be called Holy (Lk. 1:35); she is blessed among women, blessed because she has believed (Lk. 1:42, 45); all ages will recognize her blessing (Lk. 2:19 51). In Luke’s Theology she is God’s people at prayer, pilgrimage to the Temple, preeminent among the poor of the Lord, capable of sanctifying others (Lk. 1:44), inspiring awe in her elders, Symeon and Elizabeth.
I believe there is some misunderstanding of the Orthodox/Roman Catholic position of Mary in the Church. We do not worship Mary, but we honor her. She is considered, “more honorable then the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim.” Epiphanius said, “Though Mary is remarkably good, though she is holy, though she is to be held in honor, still she is not to be adored.”
In Orthodox Iconography Mary is never depicted alone she is always holding her Son and pointing toward Him as the Way. We do not honor Mary apart from the Salvific work of her Son but honor her for the part she played in it. Again, if she had not said yes, the rest would not have been able to happen.
In Orthodox Theology the salvation of the humanity is primarily an act of God. God invites his Creation to be in communion with Him, in order that He might share His divine glory with His creation. This communion becomes an “ontological” reality through the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ. The Creator is united with His Creation. The divine is united with the human. This unity is the beginning of new life for the world. Through this Incarnation human nature is restored into a fellowship with God which had been damaged by the fall. Mary, expressing the desire of the human race to be saved, accepted obediently God’s love and therefore participates actively in the mystery of the Incarnation. The answer of Mary to the Archangels Annunciation resolves the tragedy of fallen humanity.
The Orthodox Church does not accept the idea that the Holy Virgin was exempted from the lot of the rest of fallen humanity. It is not by virtue of privilege received at the moment of her conception by her parents that we venerate the Mother of God more than any other created being. She was not, at the moment of the Annunciation, in a state the same as that of Eve before the Fall. Mary’s unique election does not separate her from the rest of humanity, from all her fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, whether saints or sinners, but she represents the best parts. She was not placed above history in order to serve a special divine decree, but realized her unique vocation while in the “chains of history,” sharing the common destiny of all humanity awaiting salvation. The Mother of God, before the day of Pentecost, before the Church, still belonged to the humanity of the Old Testament, to those who waited for “the promise of the Father,” expecting to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5).
In the end, Mary is honored in the Church not for who she was but for what she did. Mary is the example for all of us of obedience to God’s call on our life. Because this young, poor girl said yes to God, the world was changed forever.(some of the material for this post came from class notes from a Dogmatic Theology class in Seminary at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology with Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis.)