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During this long break of the Paschal season, which ends with the Ascension, I thought I would turn to another iconographic theme post, similar to my essay on why we have icons in the first place, and specifically of Christ, and discuss what may be the most popular icon type (in terms of numbers of icons): The Theotokos, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Next to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, no other person is so highly venerated within Orthodox or Catholic churches. Due to the length of this subject, this essay will be in two parts. In the first part, I discuss why she is so highly esteemed, from both historical / traditional reasons, and from experiential reasons. In the second part I will present a sampling of the major forms her icons take, and by what names they are called.
At the outset it bears noting that, outside of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Mary is rather a controversial figure. Within the Protestant churches, aside from the more liturgical Lutherans and Anglican / Episcopalians, Mary is rarely mentioned aside from Christmas, and traditional understandings of Mary (that she had herself no further children, that she was far younger than Joseph, and that she was taken up bodily like Enoch) are disputed. This is somewhat surprising as both Martin Luther and John Calvin esteemed her greatly, and for all else over which they broke with Rome, on these they remained in agreement. For inquirers into either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, the veneration of Mary remains stumbling block – not just for the imagery all over the churches, but for the liturgical prayers and entire feast days dedicated to Mary. For anyone coming from a church where In Christ Alone is a popular praise song, encountering Mary face to face is jarring, and may feel heretical or bordering on pagan. This need not be the case.
As a note of explanation, throughout what follows in this essay, and in part 2, the reader will encounter the term “Theotokos” in reference to Mary. Mary is the Theotokos, a Greek term which literally translates as “the birth giver (or bearer) of God”. But so embedded in the Orthodox consciousness is the term, that it is rarely translated, so even in a fully English-language service, one will always see Mary called “The Theotokos”.
The Veneration of Mary – The History
The Orthodox Church dedicates 4 great feasts to Mary herself (I’ve discussed three so far in this series: Her Nativity, Her Presentation, The Annunciation; her Dormition will be discussed in due course). Mary is present and a major figure at three others (The Nativity of Christ, The Presentation of Christ, Ascension), and was also at Pentecost. And the liturgical year begins with Mary’s nativity, and ends with her Dormition. During the course of the Divine Liturgy, Mary is specifically honored in hymns several times and in most of the prayer litanies, while in the Orthros (Matins) service that precedes the Liturgy she is honored in a longer hymn sung while the church is censed. Even during the various Hours services (usually only sung in full by monastics), the Magnificat (a short prayer honoring Mary) is chanted at several points. Why is Mary so prominent?
If we see Mary as simply She Who Bore Christ as a virgin, we are already partly missing why Mary matters, and so we need to go back to the Annunciation and recognize Mary’s agency, her assent to bearing the Incarnation despite how that would appear, and how that would reflect on her or her betrothed, Joseph. But even taking those into account does not explain the full import of Mary. Mary, we should remember, was present with Jesus throughout much, if not all of His earthly ministry, and had been active from the start.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus *said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.” His mother *said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.”1 John 2: 1-5 (NASB)
The Wedding at Cana not only shows that Mary was present with Jesus at a time when he had already gathered disciples, but that she advised him. Fr. Stephen de Young has written at length about how Mary’s role paralleled the role, and indeed the office of the Mother of the King as instituted centuries before by Solomon (see 1 Kings, 2:19), to be the chief advisor to the king. Jesus had come to usher in a new kingdom, and in such Mary served as his chief advisor.
For a faithful believer in the God of Israel in the first century AD, religious expectation was focused in the coming of the Messiah, and the beginning of the Messianic age. It would, therefore, have been natural when such a person heard the apostolic proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ who has come, to ask the name of his mother. It would have been a natural expectation, based in the scriptures and traditions of the Jewish people, to expect that his mother would have this role, at his right hand, as closest advisor and queen. The New Testament authors take great pains to correct popular misunderstandings related to the Messiah, particularly the idea that he would be a political leader in this world, and would come to establish an Israel in this world free from Roman domination. At no point, however, do these authors seek to correct this expectation as it pertains to Christ’s mother.
Mary traveled with Jesus too, and was present at the Crucifixion.
But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He *said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!”From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.2
Even near the moment of his death, Jesus thought of his mother, and entrusted her care to the disciple John, and it is said in tradition that John saw after Mary’s care until her own death some years later. Mary was present with the Apostles after the Ascension (see Acts, chapter 1), and so would have been with them at Pentecost too, and so on. While after Acts Mary is no longer mentioned, the various traditions of the Church and the early post-apostolic fathers assume her continuing presence until her death* some years later. As de Young concludes:
Repeatedly, throughout the scriptures of the New Testament, these expectations are reinforced through the importance of the Theotokos not only in the ministry of Christ, but in the early community of the church as described in the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. As just one example, there is a clear parallel between the interaction between Bathsheba and Solomon in 1 Kings 2, and that between the Theotokos and Christ at the wedding at Cana (John 2), though the Theotokos shows herself a wiser and more holy woman than her ancient ancestor.
It is this understanding which has led, since the beginning of the Christian faith, to the special role given to the Theotokos among the saints in glory. It is she who stands at the right hand of Christ the king, and among the intercessors with whom Christ shares his rule and reign, she has a special status of honor. She stands as the fulfillment not only of queen motherhood, but of motherhood itself (Gen 3:15), and even, we may see, of womanhood.
The Theotokos Today
Perhaps the chief divide, besides the veneration of Mary, between the Orthodox and Catholics on the one hand, and Protestants on the other hand, is over the matter of the veneration of the saints. This divide is not inconsequential, and is over the question of whether those who have died in Christ, who have (as is so often said in the Epistles) “fallen asleep in the Lord”, are truly and fully separated from us, or whether they in fact are still with us. I will save that discussion for another essay in this series where I will aim to discuss the iconography of the saints on their own terms, but it is important to discussing the veneration of the Theotokos to make the point now: both the Orthodox and the Catholics believe that the saints are, in fact, very much alive, and are still doing the Lord’s work. The Theotokos above all continues to intercede and to aid those in need.
And it seems everyone either has a story, or knows 2-3 people who do (among both Orthodox and Catholic believers). There was the deacon who saw a seemingly new stained glass icon of the Theotokos during a special service, only to see that the window was plain afterwards. There was the girl who had been suffering from an untreatable skin condition that left her in great pain, who was healed and spoke of a beautiful and kind lady who visited her. There are the miracles at Lourdes. In a book I reviewed recently (Everyday Miracles), Father Oleksa tells of a women he knows who was visited in a dream and received healing from great personal trauma. There are more besides.
The Theotokos is the most beloved saint in the Orthodox church for good reason. The design of the typical Orthodox church has remained more or less fixed for well more than a millenia now, and on the iconostasis – a wall or screen that separates the nave from the sanctuary – you will see flanking the royal doors in the center of that screen an icon of Christ on your right, and of Mary on your left. In this manner, Mary is forever present at the right hand of Jesus her son, just as the mothers of the kings of Judah were always seated at their sons’ right hands. In that role, she continues to serve. Mary was and is, in essence, the very first Christian. Her intercessions are continually sought. She is was who contained the Uncontainable within her womb.
It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos
Who are ever blessed and all blameless,
And the Mother of our God.
More Honorable than the Cherubim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim
Truly Theotokos, we magnify Thee.
Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of they womb
For thou hast borne the savior of our souls.
*Regarding the death of Mary, I’ll say more when it comes time to discuss The Dormition. The Catholic church teaches that she did not die, but was taken bodily up to Heaven just before the moment of her death, and the Orthodox position is that she was taken bodily up to Heaven just after her physical death.
1 The Lockman Foundation. Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (NASB) (Kindle Locations 33752-33756). The Lockman Foundation. Kindle Edition.
2 The Lockman Foundation. Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (NASB) (Kindle Locations 34568-34571). The Lockman Foundation. Kindle Edition.
Maximovitch, John (Rose, Seraphim, Translator), The Orthodox Veneration of Mary, The Birthgiver of God, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1978
Matthews-Green, Frederica, The Open Door, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2004