One struggle Protestants have when looking at Orthodoxy is with how the church views the saints and most particularly the Virgin Mary. Most Protestants have a category for hearing stories about those that have lived the Christian faith well and have clearly loved God. Missionaries, prominent evangelists, and church leaders and founders are often highly regarded in this way. We can be encouraged by reading stories about these wonderful godly men and women. But when the Orthodox start talking about praying with the saints, praying to the saints, or asking Mary to save us, all sorts of alarms go off and it gets uncomfortable quickly.
I got to the point where I was convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy and knew that there was an pretty important point here, but at the same time, I knew that I just didn’t get it and wasn’t sure I liked it. I could understand saying that the saints pray with us. If I believe that they are alive in Christ then that’s not such a hard thing to believe. But pray to them? Ask them to save us? And why especially prayers to Mary?
Two things have helped me to appreciate this a little better: I’ve recently read Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Fr. Peter Gillquist and I’ve been frequently praying an Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children. I honestly can’t say which has helped more. I should point out that my struggle with praying to the saints was not because I thought Orthodox Christians worship Mary or the saints. It’s very clear that worship is reserved for God alone. We venerate and honor the saints (and each other).
We honor Mary as the prototype Christian. Mary is called Theotokos, or God-bearer, because she held in her womb that which the entire universe cannot contain — for the nine months she carried Christ inside her in his humanity, he was at the same time fully God. We honor her not just for giving birth to Christ, but for her yes to God. The Orthodox believe that Mary had a choice and continually turned toward God. As Christians we also want Christ to be born in us and to turn toward him, so we recognize her as a model of how we should be.
We honor Mary as our mother. As Eve was the mother of the human race, so Mary is the mother of the new race. Mary gave birth to and raised Christ, the Son of God. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, Mary becomes the mother of all who would be saved. Jesus, on the cross, saw his mother and said “Woman, behold your son!” and then to Saint John, “Behold your mother!” (John 19:26,27). We are also called the sons of God and called to be like Christ (1 John 3:1-3).
We know Mary wants our salvation. It is clear that Mary yielded her will to God and therefore desires that we be saved. But can she save us? Can we save others? As Fr. Peter notes, the answer from scripture is a resounding yes.
Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:16).
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15).
We cannot save alone—Christ said “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Yet we can participate: “If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). Clearly Mary was a important part of our salvation for she carried and gave birth to our savior.
Obviously this is a partial discussion of the reasons we venerate Mary. I glossed over many of the reasons that were less of a struggle for me: that she was the greatest woman who ever lived, her ever-virginity, that honoring her always reminds us of the incarnation, and that the church has always venerated her as she herself prophesied: “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46-48).
It’s interesting to write this on and after the day of the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos. The feast commemorates a miraculous appearance of the Theotokos during which she spread her veil over the people as a sign of protection and a russian fleet set to attack Constantinople was destroyed.