Orthodox Christians begin and end the liturgical year with celebrations dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whom we venerate as the Theotokos or “bearer of God.” On September 8, the end of the first week of the new year, we commemorate her Nativity or birth; on August 15, we close the year with the feast of her Dormition, her “falling asleep” and translation to heaven.
As the hymns of these and other Marian feasts make clear, our veneration of Mary, the Mother of God, is basically a confession of our faith in the Person of her Son. All Marian piety, in other words, is an expression of Christological dogma. It points beyond the Virgin herself and focuses on the significance—for her as for us—of the One whom she bore, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the troparion or festal hymn of her Nativity, we affirm the truth that “the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shown forth” from her. By virtue of the fact that she gave birth to this One who is both Messiah (Christ) and Lord (God), the “curse” of our sin and resultant condemnation has been annulled. These words are reminiscent of the apostle Paul’s declaration to the Colossians: Christ has canceled the legal bond (judgment) that stood against us; He has set it aside, “nailing it to the cross” (2:14). The troparion concludes with the Paschal assurance that this Son of Mary has bestowed upon us the blessing of eternal life by destroying the power of death. As the Author of Life, He has descended into the realm of death; and by His resurrection, He has opened the way for each of us to rise up with Him and to share in His eternal glory.
The troparion of Mary’s Dormition continues this theme by referring to her as the prototype of all of those who will be “translated” from death to life at the General Resurrection. The hymn begins by affirming a twofold miracle: although she gave birth in the flesh to the eternal Son of God, she did not lose her virginal quality. Virginity in this sense is a sign of purity and holiness, of self-sacrificing love. These virtues Mary preserved fully, even though she experienced pregnancy and the “opening of her womb.” This wonder is coupled with a second: the fact that her death in no wise separated her from “the world,” from the human objects of God’s boundless love. Accordingly, she is able to intercede for us before her Son and our God, and thereby to “deliver our souls from death.”
Mary in no way replaces her Son in the work of salvation, nor does she serve in the technical sense as “mediatrix” or mediator between God and us. Although the liturgy at times attributes to her the title Mediatrix, the expression can be understood only in the light of her Son’s saving activity. She “mediates” for us only insofar as she prays and intercedes on our behalf. This is the calling—and the blessed possibility—offered to all of us, insofar as we, like the Mother of God, willingly offer ourselves, together with the world around us, to the mercy and grace of our Lord.
There is only “one Mediator between God and men,” the apostle declares, “the man Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all…” (1 Tim 2:5f). Orthodox Christians know this intuitively. Yet they also know that Jesus’ mother never ceases to intercede for us and, indeed, to “mediate” our prayer before God.
For this reason, we conclude most of our liturgical services with a word of supplication that to many people, including many other Christians, sounds scandalous or blasphemous: “Most holy Theotokos, save us!”
“How can you people pray that?” a Baptist friend asked me one day.
If Jesus is truly the eternal Son of God, the God-man who “became flesh” in the womb of Mary; if in and through her person He, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, actually assumed our human nature, to transfigure that nature and restore it to its “original” intended purity and holiness; if His saving, redeeming work was realized because of Mary’s “fiat,” her willing acceptance of virginal birth-giving through the power of the Holy Spirit—if all of this is true, then we can do nothing other than acknowledge her role in God’s economy of salvation, and celebrate that role, with joy and conviction, in the services of the Church.
If Jesus is truly who we believe and confess Him to be, then we can do nothing other, and nothing less, than exalt His humble mother as truly Theotokos: a human person like ourselves, but whose womb “became more spacious than the heavens” by bearing the incarnate Son of God. And if, from her Nativity through her Dormition and beyond, she is truly who we believe and confess her to be—the Mother of God—then we can do nothing other, and nothing less, than ask her to intercede ceaselessly for us, for the sake of our salvation.
~John Breck, Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us! (Website of the Orthodox Church in America: http://oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/most-holy-theotokos-save-us, September 1, 2003).