31 May 2018
This 18th-century icon of Mary by Pokrov Bogomateri hangs at the museum in Palekh, Russia. The Orthodox tradition reveres Mary, but never separates her from Christ. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Last week in our reflections on Mary, Mother of the Church, a new Marian feast initiated by Pope Francis, we looked at how Christians in the Western (Roman Catholic) church revere Mary. Today, we will look at how she is revered in the Eastern (primarily Byzantine Orthodox here) churches. These are churches that have a special relationship to CNEWA, for they are cornerstones of faith in many of the regions we serve. Understanding their devotion to the Mother of God helps us understand, as well, the piety of the people — many of whom draw strength and consolation from Mary.
Perhaps the best insight into the Eastern churches’ reverence for Mary can be found in “The Sanctity and Glory of the Mother of God: Orthodox Approaches” by Kallistos of Diokletia (The Way, Supplement 51, 1984), a scholar at Oxford and titular Metropolitan of Diokletia.
At the outset, Metropolitan Kallistos states that “she (Mary) is honored, revered, loved but not the subject of critical analysis. We have no developed ‘Mariology’; indeed, the very word, suggesting as it does an autonomous and systematically organized body of doctrine, has about it a non-orthodox flavor.” For Roman Catholics, accustomed to Marian devotion in the Catholic Church and (at best) Protestant discomfort with it, the Orthodox way is both interesting and important. The Orthodox approach to Mary shows that there is more than one way to approach reverence to the Mother of God and still be faithful to the church’s tradition.
Bishop Kallistos notes that — unlike in the west — there are only two titles of Mary which are fully recognized among all Orthodox: Theotokos (Mother of God) and Aeiparthenos (Ever Virgin). The primary title is Theotokos but — as the bishop correctly notes — the title speaks “not so much about the person of Mary as about the person of Christ.” Orthodox tradition never separates Mary from Christ. When Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation ”Marialis cultus” (2 February 1974) wrote of “the indissoluble link and essential relationship of the Virgin to the Divine Savior; we reject any tendency to separate devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary from its necessary point of reference — Christ,” Orthodox theologians and believers could only approve.
Bishop Kallistos treats two recent points of divergence between Catholic and Orthodox understanding of Mary, namely the Immaculate Conception (proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854) and the Assumption of Mary (Pius XII in 1952). It is not that the Orthodox reject these Catholic dogmas, although they sometimes understand them differently; rather, the Orthodox recognize that “the Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the apostles,” while Christ was proclaimed to the whole world. With the traditional Orthodox sensitivity to the “ineffable” — or that which cannot be adequately expressed — Bishop Kallistos warns, “There is a danger of trying to say too much about the Mother of God. St. Basil’s warning is not to be forgotten: ‘Let things ineffable be honored in silence.’ “
The different ways of giving reverence to Mary reflect the different “theological cultures” of the Eastern and Western churches. While the West has a tendency to analyze, to define and to codify the “mysteries of the faith,” the Eastern churches have a tendency rather to contemplate in awe and silence. The same applies to a great extent to how the two traditions approach Mary in the church in the lives of believers.
We in the West might have something to learn from churches in the East. Not everything is best dissected, categorized and studied. Some things are best simply contemplated. While adding titles to the lengthy Litany of the Virgin Mary might be helpful to some Catholics, quietly entering into the deeply mystical relationship between Mary, Mother of God, and Christ her son might also be a useful thing.
Tags: Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Mary