Title: Introduction to Orthodoxy 6: Fathers, Saints, and Theotokos
Subject: Role of Church Fathers, Saints as Intercessors, Theotokos, Paraklesis
Age: 16+ years
"BRETHREN, we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and up builds itself in love. Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds" (From St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians 4.14-17).
The Orthodox Church is a Church with a past that has bearing on the present. The past is consumed with the endeavor of discovering, recovering, and preserving the true faith of Christ. What the apostles preached, the fathers kept. "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread…" (1 Corinthians 11.23) We today inherit that faith, that full deposit of the faith. The idea is that the Christian of today filters everything we think about the faith through the lens of the entire Church and the mind of the fathers.
Your faith is lived out and experienced in community. No one is saved alone and no one is damned alone. Rather all of our spiritual life is lived in and through community, through our relationships with one another and with the whole Church. This whole Church concept includes the living and the dead, the whole Body of Christ. Today this concept is virtually forgotten or ignored by many. Faithful Christians rarely see the value of honoring the faith of those who have gone before them. Nor do we see our faith, our beliefs in relations to the whole Body of Christ. Unity of faith is no longer important or primary, whereas the Church used to agonize over the unity of faith, dogma, and doctrine.
This is one of the reasons why attendance at Church becomes so important. It is not an arbitrary rule. It is based on the reality that salvation and the life of faith is not lived in isolation or individually. The community should always serve as the measuring stick for our personal spiritual development and faith. The question becomes not, have I found the truth, but have I found the truth as it has been faithfully and consistently witnessed to by the community of the faithful. "We have found light the true faith by worshiping the Holy Trinity..." This is why Fr. Coniaris points out that Orthodoxy is never just one man or woman's experience of God. Rather it includes all those believing souls that have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for the prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1.20-21).
What is this inheritance? It is a treasure chest, a pirate's booty, "X" marks the spot, a goldmine, the mother lode. All of these phrases describe what discovering the Orthodox faith is like. In fact the honor paid to the Fathers of the Church is primarily the result of one thing: their ability to be transparent to Christ and the fullness of His teaching. In like manner that is the true honor of every real Christian. There ability to be transparent to Christ, to the real, lifesaving Christ and His message.
There are some dangers, however. First, that we would hold this great treasure in our hands and never learn to enjoy it, to live it, but rather to hoard it, to collect it for collection sake. Another danger is to view it as a museum exhibit, a relic of a bygone past. It is also dangerous to use the Orthodox faith as scholasticism, intent on learning definitions, divisions, high theology, to win arguments, to "traffic" in "theology." Yet another danger is to assume that the era of the Fathers is over and done with. Thus, we never look to create a new Father or Mother, a great saint capable of recapturing their brilliance in our day and age. But today, probably our greatest danger is to see the Fathers as irrelevant, uninformed, even worse, to view them as primitive Christians.
To avoid these dangers we must become torchbearers, renewing the flame of faith to a new generation and a new world. Often I think of my Grandfather who left everything, toiled for many years in a land, all alone, so that I might have a better future. What a shame it would be if I squandered this inheritance, this chance for a better life. So, is the life of faith, so many have struggled and toiled to bring it to us, unstained, resplendent, and in its full glory. What a shame it would be to cast is aside, to fail to build upon it, to keep it fresh and alive. Christ Himself cautions us on how we build upon the life of faith and with what materials we build with. Will they stand the test of fire and flood? Will they stand the test of time?
Their knowledge of Who God is made the Church Fathers great. This came by way of making this relationship their supreme task in life. They sought more than anything else to know God on a personal and intimate level. To develop an "I – Thou" relationship, one based in knowing the other, not about learning about the other. The Church Fathers spend time with God through prayer, worship, sacraments, reading of scripture, and good works. They experienced God. We can know of God, but to experience Him is quite different, theology versus experience. Think of the contrast between someone talking about their own trip to Paris and you taking the trip to Paris yourself. Remember that it should be our experience of God that leads us in our life of faith, not our technical knowledge of Him. Our experience must be checked against the wisdom of the Church. But without the experience, the wisdom of the Church seems folly. God comes alive in our lives when He is experienced, not when He is studied. To separate the experience from the explanation leads to empty abstractions that make no sense, it leads to religion that does not have the power to transform. Recall the blind man declaring, "…that whereas I was blind, now I see."
"What people want to hear is not God's lawyers presenting logical arguments for His existence but God's witnesses sharing from personal experience what God has done for them. And this is what the early Christians were: witnesses, martyrs. As someone said of the early Christians, ‘God? They knew Him! Miracles? They themselves were miracles! Resurrection? They had gone through it! Heaven? They were living in it! Hell? They had escaped it! Reconciliation? They rejoiced in it! Eternal Life? They possessed it!'" (Coniaris, Introducing the Orthodox Church, page 65).
They came into contact with the vivifying presence of the Holy Spirit. His presence in their lives animated their very beings. They forsook all to follow Christ. An Elder whose foremost requirement was to be full of love for his charge directed them. Faith is transmitted through others, it comes from another loving soul who desires more than anything else our conversion and salvation. This other desires these things because he or she loves us. The Fathers loved books and learning and lead lives of prayer, particularly the Jesus Prayer. The challenge for us today is to reclaim this great and hallowed past and to bring it to bear in the world we live in, to its full measure, thus illuminating the world.
Sainthood is a universal call rather than a spiritual elite. We are all saints in the making. This is accomplished not so much in the unusual and fantastic things we do but in the unusual and fantastic devotion we show for Christ. Offer examples of those saints who have run the race successfully. They become for us examples of what might be. Saints are found in every walk of life, from cooks to scholars to royalty. They are truly transformed human beings who had struggled with the meanest of sins; they are transformed human beings who were just like you and I.
The saints promote a common effort of ascent towards God. Together with us they strive to move into a closer relationship with God. "‘Show me the man you honor, and I will show you the kind of man you are.'" Saints make up God's Hall of Fame. The Saints are heroes and heroines. We know the statistics of our favorite ball players or the life stories of famous celebrities. But do we know the life story of just one Saint? It is a practical thing to know about the lives of the Saints.
"...If we see such holiness only in our Savior and not in His people (the Saints), we may be disposed to consider holiness as an impossible ideal which we imperfect humans can never attain. We learn best when we see concrete examples of how to live the life of Christ in the world today. This is why the Saints are a challenge to us. They can shake us out of our complacency with our mediocre way of following Christ" (page 97).
Ted Williams was one of the greatest baseball players, a talented hitter. To become a great hitter he studied the game endlessly and he wrapped his whole being around becoming a great hitter. He wouldn't drive at night because he believed it would have a negative impact on his vision and thus on his ability to hit the baseball. Young players today emulate his passion and overall commitment to becoming a great hitter. In a similar way, the Saints can serve for us as great examples. We should learn to walk as they walked, pray as they prayed, eat what they eat…
The Saints cheer us on. "Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12.1). We seek their intercession. Imagine that your child, spouse, or loved one grew sick. Experiencing this you might ask those around you to pray for them. You may have had the experience of being asked to pray for others. Perhaps you have asked others to pray for you or for a certain need. This same thing is at work with the Saints, we ask them to pray for us, to intercede with us and on our behalf. There is a communion between the Church Triumphant (those in Heaven) and the Church Militant (those on Earth). The Saints are remembered and commemorated in order to bring us into a deeper commitment to Christ. This is why we bring them to mind. How does one become a Saint? Canonization begins locally, then becomes regional, and then the whole Church takes it up.
You may have had the experience of venerating relics of a Saint. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the saintly man or woman sanctifies the whole being. Remember Christ was resurrected in a physical body. Thus, the resurrection has to do with our whole person: mind, soul, and body. Look also to the scriptures. "[Now a woman] came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped" (Luke 8.44). Touching Christ's garment brought healing. The shadow of Peter made people well. "…They brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them" (Acts 5.15). Again in Acts we learn that Saint Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons heal the sick, "so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them" (Acts 19.12). Think of relics like a tuning fork and how it carries the pitch for sometime after it is struck. The Saints body carries, resonates the pitch, the sound of the grace and power of Christ.
It is difficult to develop a talk about the Theotokos, to pin point just one topic or theme, especially when you stop to consider just how much history and theology are associated with her. Add to this the fact that devotion to our Lady the Theotokos runs deep. Many of us have experienced this devotion by way of observance. For instance, we have seen our own mothers, grandmothers and fathers turn to her in prayer and supplication. Those of us of Greek background are familiar with the phrase, "Panayee-a mou," a phrase that encapsulates a relationship of love and a fervent supplication.
The Paraklesis service is a supplication service that is usually sung or sometimes read at home to the Virgin Mother of God. This service, which comes to us from Theophanes the monk, is full of deep and profound theology, emotion, and poetry. The character of the melodies and the impact of the words can affect the head and the heart. The service itself is traditionally sung during the first 15 days of August, and in many parishes of Greek background, it is also sung every Friday night. It is not uncommon to sing this service whenever a great need arises or when a crisis or sickness touches upon a friend or loved one. During the service we hear a series of odes or groups of hymns that have a distinctive melody, separated by petitions and in one instance a gospel reading, traditionally the same passage from the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Luke. Probably the most distinctive feature of this service is the litany of names that the celebrant reads on behalf of the people. These names are lifted up and presented to our Lady, on behalf of them we pray for the Theotokos' intercessory prayers.
If we look closely at the hymns, we notice that there exists an incredible depth of meaning and purpose to them. These hymns are not put together in a casual or haphazard fashion. Rather, they are very direct and distinct in their meaning; in fact they are almost technical. The author of these beautiful hymns is a true artist, weaving together great poetry while at the same time mastering deep theology. Looking at a few of these hymns we can see such skill, a skill that dazzles the mind and quickens the heart: "I entreat you, O Virgin, Disperse the storm of my grief, and the soul's most inward confusion, scatter it far from me; You are the Bride of God, for you have brought forth the Christ, the Prince of Peace; O all-blameless One." Another verse, "The streams of my many tears, reject not, Holy Virgin; for you gave birth to the One who dried all the tears, from all the faces of people; the Christ was born of you." The hymns of this one service, in one way or another, encapsulate our faith, the faith of the Apostles.
It is important for each of us to realize that it is in the worship of the Church that we most clearly proclaim what we believe. It is in what we say and do in worship that we proclaim the truth about God. How does Paraklesis, or to a greater extent, how does our devotion to the Mother of God, proclaim our faith? To put it in layman's terms, "what's up with all this devotion to Mary?" This is an important topic, one that should not be overlooked. Many of our Protestant brethren think our devotion to the Lady Theotokos to be misguided and even "cult-ish." In their eyes we have overstepped the boundaries and have replaced God with Mary, or that we have put Mary on too high of a pedestal.
Something very basic to the faith worth reiterating is that worship, la-tria, is reserved for God alone. This is technical and absolute. As Orthodox Christians we recognize one God in Trinity, this God alone we worship and revere. However, our Tradition holds certain people in a place of high honor, and these select persons are venerated by the faithful. We have a distinction that must be held firmly in our minds and our hearts. On the one hand we worship God, and on the other we venerate His Saints. The chief saint of our Church is the All Holy Lady Theotokos, the Birth-Giver and Mother of God. The Church, with her faithful, gives all manner of praise and veneration to her, reserving for her a special place of honor. She is placed in every Orthodox Church on the iconostasis or icon screen, next to the Royal Gates. She is also depicted for us in every sanctuary above the altar on the apse of the Church. Our divine services have a petition that is set aside just for Mary that reads, "Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God." We have most obviously the Paraklesis that we just sung that is full of hymns devoted to the Virgin Mother of God.
Yet, the question remains how and why all this fervor for the Theotokos? Let us look for the source of the Church's devotion by examining scripture passages. The first is the announcement made by the angel Gabriel to Mary. Read the Gospel of Luke aloud:
"Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!' But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.' Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?' And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God'" (Luke 1.26-35).
In this passage God's own messenger greets Mary saying, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you." The second passage of scripture contains the commonly known canticle of Mary, and it also comes from the Gospel of Saint Luke:
"Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.' And Mary said, ‘My should magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed'" (Luke 1.39-48).
Here Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaims first that Mary is the Mother of God. Mary also foretells that for generations to come, all will call her blessed.
Finally, we must look at a passage from the Gospel of Saint John; it is of the wedding at Cana where our Lord, at the bidding of His mother, performed His first miracle.
"On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.' Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.' His mother said to the servants, ‘Whatever He says to you, do it.' Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the waterpots with water.' And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, ‘Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.' And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, ‘Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!' This beginning the signs of Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and is disciples believed in Him" (John 2.1-11).
Today, we still beseech our Lady the Theotokos asking her, like the wedding party of old, to attend to us in our time of need. As Orthodox Christians we are confident that the Theotokos will indeed speak to her son on our behalf and so we turn to her. This confidence of ours is based in the love that lies between a mother and her son and from our own experience; we too know how powerful the heartfelt requests of a mother can be. Therefore, standing with humility in times of trouble and distress we make our needs and the needs of this world known to the All Holy Mother of God. We pray that she take up our cause(s) before our Lord Jesus Christ, believing in our hearts that our Lord will indeed hear our supplications out of His love for us and His love for His Mother.
There is another element of piety at work here in the way we approach our Lord. It goes like this, out of the awe and reverence we feel for Christ we dare not approach Him directly, but rather we go to His mother, hoping that her relationship with Him and the love any son or daughter has for their mother will prove effective for us and our petition for help. We must also look at some of the theological implications of calling Mary the Theotokos or God-Bearer.
First and foremost the term, Theotokos, affirms elements of faith that are extremely crucial to our understanding about Christ. By affirming Mary's position as the Theotokos, we affirm the reality of the Incarnation, of God taking on human flesh. Look at the icon of the Virgin Mary and of Christ, notice the colors that are used: red and blue. For each these colors are reversed. The Lord is robed in red, the color of divinity; over His divinity He is cloaked in red, the color of humanity. The Lord God, Jesus Christ who is divine, clothed Himself in our human flesh, our human nature through the Theotokos. Likewise, Mary robed in blue, is clothed with the color of red, the divine. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she became the vessel of the Immortal God. We are also affirming the two natures of Christ by using the term the Theotokos. We hold as Orthodox Christians that Christ was both, God and Man, the Theanthropos, the God-man. Both natures are fully present in Jesus, He was neither symbolically man or symbolically God, but rather He was both true God and true man in one person. As Saint Athanasius affirmed for us many years ago, Christ assumed our complete and full human nature from the Virgin Mary, for what is not fully assumed cannot be saved.
In using the term the Theotokos we are also affirming the link between the Creator and His creation. Look again at the apse above the altar. We notice that Mary sits with her arms outstretched and the Christ child is depicted seated in her lap. This powerful visual imagery says a thousand things in one image. Through the Virgin, God has entered and encountered His creation in a new and most intimate way. Emmanuel, God is with us. God can never be accused of being aloof or ambivalent to the plight of His creation. No, He has emptied Himself, humbling Himself and taking on the flesh of His own creation. This mystery is made true through the obedience of the Virgin. Finally, her example of submission rectifies Eve's disobedience. She therefore becomes an archetype for all of us. We too must bear Christ and we too must give birth to Him. We must bear Him and push Him out into our lives, into the lives of other and into the world we live in.
There is a connection also between Mary and the Cross of Christ. When Mary and Joseph Presented the Lord at the Temple, they encounter Simeon.
"And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.' And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, ‘Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed'" (Luke 2.25-35).
Mary is present at the foot of the cross. "Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother…" (John 19.25). In a real way the whole life and ministry of Christ is connected to the Theotokos, from His birth to His death on the cross.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas
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