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Distinguishing Between Worship and Veneration Part 2: The Problem of Mary

Peasant_Mary_192px (1)

I would recommend taking a look at the previous post first, in order to get a better context for this one. In light of this understanding of imaging, icons and God’s energies, it is easier to understand one of the greatest hurdles many have to the Orthodox life: Mary. Jesus is a divine (uncreated) person and the one who brought about our salvation. Mary is seen as an icon of the Church and the prime example of one who has received the fullness of salvation from Christ. According to the Church, Mary is the only human being bar Christ to receive the new glorified body (though one could possibly argue the case for Moses, Enoch and Elijah). Mary has from quite early in Church history received high honour from believers.

In fact the earliest hymn to Mary that we have dates to 250 AD, and it reads

“Beneath your
we take refuge,
Theotokos! Our
prayers, do not despise
in necessities,
but from danger
deliver us,
only pure,
only blessed one.”

It’s easy to see how this may cause some alarms to go off in people’s heads. Doesn’t the Bible say that all have sinned? Doesn’t scripture teach that only God can deliver or save us? First a few things need to be understood.

When scripture says that God alone has immortality or that God alone is Holy, is it denying that the Angels or Saints are Holy or Immortal, or is it simply trying to say something about how God possess these qualities versus how we do? Remember to keep in mind the distinction between Originator and Participator. A strict reading of certain texts would lead to other irreconcilable conclusions. The real question is what was the intent of the author in what they’re saying. Strictly speaking, reading those verses like that would put Christ in that list. For Christ was a man, yet he did not sin. Sure, our theological commitments would tell you not to include Christ there, but strictly speaking, the verse does not say any of that.

Secondly, scripture also says “it is appointed unto men once to die.” But then there is Enoch, Elijah, and those who are alive when the Lord returns, and as Paul says “we will not all sleep (die).” So from scriptures we see that there are passages that seem exclusive but are really speaking in generalities.

Third, it comes down to ones understanding of sin. Often times when people speak of “being born in sin” they assume that it means being born with an evil nature. This however is a confusion of categories. For evil is a personal property, not a natural property. In other words, “things” aren’t evil. Evil doesn’t have a positive existence. *People* are evil, by virtue of how they use their will, this is their character. So unless you want to say that evil is a substance, to be born in sin, simply means to be born with corruption. That is, ones soul and body don’t function as they ought. Giving people the inclination to sin. Adam and Eve were created with a functioning nature which became corrupted by loss of grace. Which kept them functioning. And we are all born in this state of gracelessness in soul and body. But we are not evil until we sin. Thus strictly speaking the verse that says “all have sinned” could not literally be true. Just by the fact that countless many have died at birth, by miscarriage or at a very young age. Furthermore, sin as evil is a personal property and cannot by swapped around “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.” (Ezekiel 8:20).

So while Mary was with the same nature affected by the fall, she freely co-operated with Grace to remain in a pure state. As Eve was supposed to do but failed. How it is that this happened, like many aspects of the faith is a mystery.

The grace given to her was from God and her salvation from death comes via the work of Christ in defeating death. So God is her Saviour whether or not she sinned. Salvation also isn’t just about being rescued from sin, but being kept from it too.

1 Thess 5:23 “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In regards to asking for intercession and saving, the language isn’t really the issue. The question is “what’s the meaning?” or “in what context is that being said?”

“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV).”

“Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (Jude 1:22-23 NIV).”

Salvation is of the Lord, however he uses various people as vessels of His Spirit. God’s work/energies in people’s lives that transform and save them. And what is the goal? That they too would participate in God’s divine energies and become like him by Grace. That’s Theosis/deification/Glorification, to be fully conformed to the image of Christ. Which includes more than just character, but the divine life itself. Mary then, in the Orthodox Church is the only human besides Christ to have undergone full Theosis. And as such she’s united to God’s energies more fully. And capable of accessing them and participating in them. As we too will at the end. So she can be a vessel which divine grace comes to individuals, in a way we cannot. Even on earth, some people are more equipped to be such vessels than others.

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16 NIV).”

And God allows his creatures to participate even in the work of answering prayers.

“Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:3-5 NIV).”

So we petition eachother and the saints for prayer. And we are all vessels of grace and thus salvation in eachother’s lives (the word salvation in both English, Greek and Latin coming the root word to heal/make whole).

Here is an example of an early Christian prayer, asking for the saints intercession. St. Hippolytus of Rome:

Tell me, you three boys, remember me, I entreat you, that I also may obtain the same lot of martyrdom with you, who was the fourth person with you who was walking in the midst of the furnace and who was hymning to God with you as from one mouth? Describe to us his form and beauty so that we also, seeing him in the flesh, may recognize him.

Commentary on Daniel, 30.1[2] Rome, Circa AD 202-211

And while nothing in scripture explicitly says that Mary never sinned, it doesn’t preclude the idea. Rather it is thought as true doctrine handed down by the Church and supported by the typology in the Old Testament that Mary is said to fulfill. These include Mary as being the New Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant and the Queen Mother. If Mary had to be sinless in order for Jesus to be born sinless, then Mary’s mother would also have to be sinless, and her Mother’s Mother, would have to be sinless and so on and so on. Rather the Church teaches it was “fitting” that God do it this way but not necessary.

If honour is given the temple and the ark, how much more the living temples? Or the souls of just men made perfect (Hebrews 12:23). Christ is the new Adam for sure. But we must remember that the story of the garden and redemption don’t just involve the male protagonist. But the female. When you hear Adam, Eve is in the background. So too Christ, though he is up front, Mary is in the background in many ways. The union of Adam and Eve, is according to Ephesians 5 and image of Christ and the Church. And thus as Mary is the fulfillment of Eve, she is also an icon of the church. For really, bar the title of Theotokos (God-bear), anything that is said of Mary in heaven currently, is true of the glorified Church at the end of time.

mary comforts eve

The beginning of John’s Gospel phrasing and narrative is intentionally arranged to mirror Genesis one. This sets up Christ as being the new creation or re-creation of humanity and the cosmos. Both of their opening passages are similar. Both deal with creation. Both include God (the Father), His Word, Light and Darkness. John further identifies the light (verse 9) and the Word (verse 14) with Christ Himself. Who is sent forth into the world in order to bring about the new creation by his incarnation. Just as He was sent from the beginning to establish the old creation. However, just as one does not speak words without breath, so too the Father works by His Word, through His Breath (which in Hebrew is the same word for Spirit).

John then goes on to give a series of 7 days consummating in a wedding. Just as the beginning of Genesis gives the 7 days, then finishes with the union of Adam and Eve.

– John Chapter 1

Day One (vs19) “Now this was John’s testimony…”

Day Two (vs29) “The next day…”

Day Three (vs35)  “The next day…”

Day Four (vs43) “The next day…”

Day Seven (three days later) John 2:1-2 “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.”

The first Adam, heeding the voice of Eve, the Woman, leading to dishonour. While the Last Adam, Jesus, heeding the voice Mary, the Woman (John 2:4, Revelation 12) and second Eve, leading to the God being glorified. And his disciples to believe. The first involving a fruit, the second involving wine from grapes. The first fruit leading to death, the second symbolizing the cup of the new covenant, which one partakes in, leading to life. Eve was the virgin who heeded the voice of an angel which led to Mankind’s downfall (Genesis 3:4-6). Mary was the virgin who heeded the voice of an angel which led to Mankind’s salvation (Luke 1:38).


Revelation 12 probably better than any other passage, identifies Mary as the fulfillment of Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, and Queen Mother. The Ark contained, 3 items. Each corresponding to Christ. In the Old Covenant, the Ark carried God’s written Word in stone, Bread from Heaven and the rod of the earthly High Priest. In the New Covenant, Mary carried the living Word made flesh, the true Bread from Heaven, the Heavenly High Priest.

When examining the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel with 1 Samuel 6, there are some very interesting parallels. The following are some points made about this on the Catholic Answers website:

  • Mary arose and went to the hill country of Judea. I have been to both Ein Kerem (where Elizabeth lived) and Abu Ghosh (where the ark resided), and they are only a short walk apart. Mary and the ark were both on a journey to the same hill country of Judea.
  • When David saw the ark he rejoiced and said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” Elizabeth uses almost the same words: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke is telling us something—drawing our minds back to the Old Testament, showing us a parallel.
  • When David approached the ark he shouted out and danced and leapt in front of the ark. He was wearing an ephod, the clothing of a priest. When Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, approached Elizabeth, John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb—and John was from the priestly line of Aaron. Both leapt and danced in the presence of the ark. The Ark of the Old Covenant remained in the house of Obed-edom for three months, and Mary remained in the house of Elizabeth for three months. The place that housed the ark for three months was blessed, and in the short paragraph in Luke, Elizabeth uses the word blessed three times. Her home was certainly blessed by the presence of the ark and the Lord within.
  • When the Old Testament ark arrived—as when Mary arrived—they were both greeted with shouts of joy. The word for the cry of Elizabeth’s greeting is a rare Greek word used in connection with Old Testament liturgical ceremonies that were centered around the ark and worship (cf. Word Biblical Commentary, 67). This word would flip on the light switch for any knowledgeable Jew.


Remember in the original manuscripts there were no chapter divisions. So things were read without these artificial divisions. So reading Revelation 11:19, 12:1-17, we see the connection between the Ark, Mary and Queen Mother. The woman and her seed here are a Mary and Christ, fulfilling the promise made to Eve in Genesis 3. Her son is the King, thus she is the Queen. Christ sits as Luke says on the throne of his Davidic Father. Thus the Davidic kingdom is seen as a typology for Christ’s kingdom. One good example is seen in the passage about the “keys” in the synoptic Gospels. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven Matthew 16:19.” The idea is taken from Isaiah 22, where the Master of the palace, who serves under the King is granted authority to rule. “In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (Isaiah 22:20-22).” Christ has all authority and He has no problem sharing that with us (Rev 3:7, 21).

And in Israel, the Queen was not the wife, but his Mother as seen by Solomon. Here, she seen both making intercession to the King on behalf of another and sitting at the right hand of her Son. 1 King 2:9 “When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand.” Psalm 45, clearly a Messianic passage, seems to have the Queen Mother who is distinct from the bride, at the King’s side. So the idea of Mary as Queen and Ruler, fits the Biblical typology quite well. As Queen Mother, she holds a special place by His side. As a member of Christ’s Church, she is also granted rulership “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne (Revelation 3:21).”

The woman of revelation 12 ought not to be mistaken for Israel. Israel are the symbols of which she is clothed and honoured. In scripture, Israel are referenced *as* the Sun, Moon and Stars. This woman is clothed with them.

“Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind (Genesis 37:9-11).”

That is why the language of the Sun being darkened, the Moon turning to blood and Stars falling, was symbolic of judgment of coming on Israel. Hence why the Apostle Peter could say that this prophecy was fulfilled in their time.

“But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day (Acts 2:14-21).”

So the woman can’t be Israel who at the time rejected Christ and thus were under judgement, as the book of Revelation itself calls Jerusalem Sodom and Gomorrah “And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified (Rev 11:8).” Rather she is given honour in the Israel of God, the Church (Galatians 6:16). The believers are referred to as her children “Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus (Rev 12:17).”

They’re hardly the children of the Israel that rejected Christ are they?

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38″Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! (Matt 23:37-38).”

She (Jerusalem) was left with no Children. Destroyed as it were in 70AD. But Mary is called the Mother of all Believers. Just as Eve was called the Mother of all Living. In Christ only are we truly living. Plus Israel didn’t give birth to the Man child of Rev 12. Only one woman in history did, fulfilling both Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12; Mary.

Thus in Christ and his Mother is filled the typology. Her role is not insignificant as in Lukes Gospel, “And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed– and a sword will pierce even your own soul– to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed Luke (2:34-35).”

Also, the war of the Serpent-Dragon is not just against Christ the seed. But against the Woman and her seed (Genesis 3:15). Christ was promised to crush the head of the serpent. Another such typology is found in the scripture, this time of a woman, closely paralleling Mary.

Consider this account of Jael in Judges 4:21-24, 5:24. She is one of few women in scripture to have such a major as saving Israel from their enemies.

“But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. Just then Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead. On that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the Israelites. And the hand of the Israelites pressed harder and harder against Jabin king of Canaan until they destroyed him.”

How did Christ crush the head of the Serpent? By becoming the last Adam and being nailed to a “tree”. Reversing the damage done under the first tree. Just as Jael crushed the head of her enemy not nailing it. But just like Adam and Eve had key roles, so too Christ and Mary had key roles. Though one takes centre stage. The other is not out of the picture. And this war of the Serpent being against the woman too, Mary by her role was a vessel in order to bring salvation under a second “tree”. Then what is said of Jael afterwards?

“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed (Judges 5:24).”

Consider what is said of Mary: “And the angel came in to her, and said, Hail, you that are highly favored, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women (Luke 1:28)

“For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed (Luke 1:48)

It is possible that Mary would have remembered that reference. Or come to realise it later. She would have known that in her was being fulfilled the promise of Genesis 3. People at the time learned large portions of scripture by heart, since most couldn’t read. And it was expensive to have Torah scrolls made. Mary it seems too was quite familiar with it as well. Just consider the song she sings right after (Luke 1:46-55).


Much more could be said on the topic. But that is just to show an example of how scripture itself points us to give great honour to our fellow humans, without threatening God’s centrality in our hearts. And this aspect of the heart is the last part I want to touch on. The full conformity that Christ has in his human nature to God’s Glory, which we will have in the end, the Orthodox Church teaches that Mary possess that now. The only human to be fully glorified bar Christ. Thus in their humanity they are completely identical in the conformity to the image of God, Christ Himself. So Mary receives and is given the highest honour and praise possible for a glorified human. And particularly for her role as Mother of God, Theotokos. A special honour which no saint no matter how glorified could ever have. And all things said of Mary, bar the title of Theotokos, are applicable to the Church as a whole. In fact, that’s one rule of thumb given. If you have no issue saying something of the Church as a whole, but think it’s blasphemous when said of Mary, then that’s inconsistent. Even if you thought it was inaccurate, to say it’s blasphemy is misguided. Everything that we or Mary have, we possess as participators and by grace. While God has it as Originator and by nature. Thus she receives honour. But only Christ as God and Source, receives worship. Remember that the goal of Christianity is union with God. Which is none other than Glorification by partaking of his energies. Meaning that pretty much everything that God is in his energies, is transferrable to us humans in our glorified state. Think of the implications of this? For example, what would happen if omnipresence met with the body and blood of Christ? The Eucharist maybe?

For a more thorough examination of some of these issues, I recommend the looking at the following post by the brilliant Seraphim Hamilton. He has others on the same topic and many more in relation to Eastern Orthodoxy there on page. Or this video of the post by the same guy linked below.


3 comments on “Distinguishing Between Worship and Veneration Part 2: The Problem of Mary

  1. Pingback: Distinguishing Between Worship and Veneration Part 1: Icons and Saints | Irish With A Tan

  2. Pingback: Eva Nova | Irish With A Tan

  3. Pingback: Distinguishing Between Worship and Veneration Part 1: Icons and Saints – Irish Orthoblogger

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2015 by in Theology and tagged , , , , , .
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