On the theme of the Theotokos and the Dormition Feast, I would like to share an old facebook message I exchanged with an Orthodox convert from August 11th, 2009 (almost exactly one year ago). As you will read from the reply, I had issues with the Orthodox veneration of Mary. This was his gracious reply:
I grew up in Tennessee, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. I wasn’t entirely wedded to the denomination, and often visited other churches with friends, mostly Presbyterian. Yet, during the ages of 18 and 22, I more or less stopped going to church, though I never quit believing in God and his unique revelation in Christ; I always prayed. I came into the Orthodox Church soon after I turned 23, on Dec.13, 2001. The issues you mentioned (in particular, the role of Mary) were certainly things I wrestled with. Truth to be told, I was still wrestling with them when I converted (and sometimes still do). Yet, along the way I received some good advice which I will pass on to you. Simply put, a priest told me: convert to Orthodoxy for Christ, not for any other reason. When you investigate the Church, always remember that everything is about Christ, and Him crucified and resurrected according to the Scriptures. If we lose sight of this center, the practices of the Church become disordered, and make little sense.
I say this not to shirk your questions, but simply to place them in the proper context: that of faith in Christ. As you seek to understand more about the Church, never stop praying: “Christ, lead me to You in Your fullness.”
At a certain point, the more I thought about Mary, and the more I looked prayerfully upon icons of her and her Son, the grandeur of her simple words to Gabriel (“Let it be to me according to your word”), and her role in our salvation slowly dawned upon me. As a Protestant, if I ever thought about Mary at all, I generally viewed her as an almost impersonal vessel through which Christ had passed. As my Orthodox faith grew, I began to see her more as a person, just like us (not immaculately conceived), but who had been given a task of paramount importance, and had said, “yes.” Certain biblical figures had always stood out in my mind – Abraham, Noah, Moses, Peter, Paul, for example – as doing something truly unique for all of us, but Mary had never occupied such a role in my own mind. I began to see that what she had done was, in a sense, the lynchpin which held the lives of all these other figures together: she gave birth to the one the prophets proclaimed, whose Gospel Paul preached. Literally, it is through Mary, that our salvation – Christ – has come.
This, of course, doesn’t answer your more specific questions, but I hope it at least indicates to some degree how Orthodox Christians can apply such superlatives to her. In a sense, the Orthodox see Mary as the icon of what we should all do – say yes to Christ in every moment – and she is the one human to have done it perfectly.
You mention that you are troubled by Orthodox prayers which seem to ask Mary to perform our requests. My sense is that this is just a different (perhaps hyperbolic) way of asking Mary to pray for us. It is certainly not the Orthodox teaching that we cannot pray to the Father, but must pray to the saints, who then deliver our prayers to the Father. When I ask for Mary’s prayers, or even if I ask her to pray to God on my behalf, I think of this in two ways, (1) in the same way that I would ask someone whom I particularly respected as a Christian to pray for me; (2) as a way of acknowledging my own frailty before God. Humility is a virtue which the Orthodox particularly prize, and I often think our asking the saints to pray for us is not so much to “get God’s ear,” so to speak, as it is to remind us that we are truly the “least of these.” God hears our prayers, period – even those we don’t know to pray. But by asking the saints to pray for us, we cultivate an awareness of our own place in a much larger body – a body which even death cannot tear asunder.
Regarding prayers which depict Mary as holier than all others, I would think of it this way: rather than viewing Mary as standing at the top of some divinely established pecking order, these prayers simply offer yet another way of depicting for every single Christian what our lives are about: receiving Christ and manifesting him in our words and deeds. And it is significant, I think, that Mary always seems unconcerned with her own holiness. Her concern, in both Scripture and Icon, is to point to Christ.
Coming to terms with the Church’s veneration of Mary, however, takes time. The words I’ve written are in many ways my own continued attempt to come to terms with this. Yet, as with all Orthodox teaching, the conversion must take place in the heart, and the conversion of the heart always happens in prayer. If I could thus recommend one thing, it would be this: get an icon of Christ and the Theotokos (there’s one called “shower of the way” which seems particularly relevant) and for a few minutes every day, sit in front of it and pray, perhaps, “Christ, teach me about Your mother.” Even with this, though, don’t feel like you must rush into it. Conversion to Orthodoxy takes time, and you should feel comfortable taking this at your own pace (or you can think of it as God’s pace, in which a day is like a thousand years ).
Not too many months after this, Jeff was ordained a Deacon. AXIOS! I would like to thank Jeff from the bottom of my heart for the part he played in my journey.