Flirting with Eastern Orthodoxy Part 2: Ah, Mary

Or “Becoming Orthodox” by Peter Gillquist Part 2

I grew up in the Independent Christian Church, which means that I’m pretty far out on the rapidly spreading branches of Protestantism.  I couldn’t really tell you what the Independent Christian Church believes, however, as the church I attended as a youngster was a small, country church, and I didn’t pay much attention until high school.  Church or denominational history didn’t really enter in to it, although we did claim to be non-denominational.  We answered to no central council or authority, in other words.  All this to say, being of a Protestant bent, I have some very strong reactions to thoughts of Mary beyond what is generally shared in The Nativity Story.  Praying to Mary seems rather odd and uncomfortable to me.

Well, I’ve reached the chapter on Mary in Gillquist’s book and I’m a bit surprised by some of my reactions.  First, I either agree with him or at least take his point on a few issues.  I understand the reasoning behind the phrase “Mother of God”.  It actually makes sense to me.  The gist of the phrase is that Mary isn’t so much the mother of the Trinity (as the Trinity has no mother), but that she is the mother of Jesus, who was divine.  “Mother of God”, therefore, asserts that Jesus is God, not merely mortal and human as some heresies throughout church history have claimed.  Okay, this makes sense to me.

I take the point that Mary is the greatest woman who ever lived due to the fact that God chose her, and he chose her due to her purity.  She is also a role model of obedience, purity and faithfulness.

But what truly surprised me was when I started to see the reasoning behind the believe that Mary was Ever-Virgin.  Sure, Protestants will agree that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but I think very few would say she and Joseph never consummated their marriage.  However, the Orthodox do believe this, thus Mary is Ever-Virgin.  Now, it seemed to me that it was quite absurd to think Joseph would be okay with never having marital relations with Mary.  It seemed ridiculous to think Mary was Ever-Virgin because, well, didn’t Jesus have brothers and sisters?   Church tradition asserts that James was the brother of Jesus.  There are actually two things that have made me begin to waver on this idea.  First, Ezekiel 44:1-2, a verse from a prophetic book, so take that for what it is worth, states, “ Then he brought me back to the outer gate to the sanctuary which faces toward the east, but it was shut.  And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut. (NASB)’” The implication here is that the gate is Mary’s womb and that Jesus entered the world by her womb and “no man shall enter”.  The prophetic language here is rather compelling.  But it is one verse, right?  Well, the second thing that began to sway me was the account in John’s Gospel when Jesus, while on the cross, saw his mother and John.  He told Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” then told John, “here is your mother.”  Essentially, he is providing for the care of His mother, trusting her to John’s care and provision.  This seems to be quite reasonable until I realized that if Jesus had brothers, why would He give Mary to the care of a disciple.  It would be the responsibility of the His brothers to look after Mary.  Thus, this is a bit of an oddity.  It is true that sometimes the Bible uses the term “brother” to designate a close relation (cousin, nephew, etc.), so there is room for Jesus to be an only child.  There is room for her to be Ever-Virgin.  The question I have now becomes, is it truly essential to believe this?  Does it really change anything I believe?  At this point, I’m not sure that it does, but who would have thought the whole filioque issue would mean much without the tapestry of church history to observe?

These are the things that I’m coming around on, although the Ever-Virgin idea is still new and uncomfortable because it is in contrast to my Protestant heritage.  But I mentioned things that I am still unconvinced by.  These have to deal with Mary as intercessor and Mary saving us, both ideas are present in prayer by The Orthodox Church.  I will grant Gillquist that Christians have a part in the salvation process.  Paul says we are ambassadors of Christ.  While Christ does the actual saving, we can help point people to Him, we can witness to His work and kingdom.  We can turn others from destructive ways.  In doing this we save them, but we do not actually give them salvation.  That is Christ’s alone to give.  But while I agree with Gillquist on this point, why ask Mary to save us when it is Christ doing the saving?  Many of the examples of Christians saving people involve the living helping the living, not someone in Heaven helping someone on Earth.  Likewise with intercession, if I ask someone to pray for me, I don’t do it by praying to them.  And the examples Gillquist uses on both intercession and saving could be used, it seems to me, with any saint that has gone before.  Why not pray to Paul or Peter or Mother Theresa?  Granted, praying to the saints does play out, but prayers in the Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father) show believers praying to God in Heaven.  Why the middleman?  And isn’t Christ our intercessor before God?  I’m not sure Gillquist has convinced me on this part.

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2 thoughts on “Flirting with Eastern Orthodoxy Part 2: Ah, Mary

  1. For what it’s worth, the ever-Virginity of Mary was pretty standard for Protestants from the time of the Reformation (Luther and Calvin believed this, as did the early evangelicals like Wesley). In the earliest Church, this was pretty much standard – they would be best positioned to know (the Protoevangelium of James from 150 ad seems to have captured this element of oral tradition in the early Church, and was wildly popular). Even today, protetstant scholars like Richard Bauckman believe the New Testament affirms Mary’s ever-Virginity based on analysis of the Biblical text.

    In any case, “save me” means “help me” – I think the confusion comes in that some protestant groups who equate Salvation with a single prayer to God – the Sinners prayer. In that sense, of course Mary can not effect Salvation. Orthodox equate prayer with Communion and with love – of course we pray for one another within the Body of Christ. Other prayers to saints use similar language – off the top of my head I believe the prayer to the Guardian Angel has a similar call for help throughout. On of the oldest prayer fragments we have is the sub tuum presidium – a prayer to Mary asking her protection from the Coptic Liturgy of the 200s.

    For whatever reason, this seemed all pretty natural for me – oh, this is what they first believed kind of reaction -, despite me Southern Baptist-fundamentalist upbringing. I’ve come to see the Mother of Christ and hence of all Christians. I unquestionably want her help in my life. But on the other hand, I can’t imagine how that would be possible without God or how that could replace God in any way.

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