Christ with Mary, never without
In the Afterfeast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, we reflect as Orthodox Christians on the role of Our Lady in our salvation. This is natural as the air we breathe for us Orthodox, but to many non-Orthodox Christians, this is scandalous and just plain wrong. They think that our devotion to the Mother of God, and our teaching concerning her saving work, places her on a level footing with her Son who, as St Paul says in his first letter to St Timothy (2:5), is our only Mediator and Advocate. Yet from the very beginning of the Church the Fathers have taught otherwise and consistently, with no apparent conflict with this verse from St Paul. How can this be? Has the Church truly “lost her way” as most Protestants suppose? Well, first of all, what do the Fathers say about this?
St. Irenaeus reflected that: “whereas Eve had disobeyed God, Mary was persuaded to obey God, that the Virgin Mary might become Advocate of the virgin Eve” (Against the Heresies).
St. Ephrem the Syrian called the Theotokos the “friendly Advocate of sinners”. Other Fathers of the Church referring to Mary’s advocacy were St. Germanus of Constantinople and Saint Romanos the Singer.
We also have preserved an ancient Prayer from the 3rd century: “We fly to your patronage, O Holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all danger, O ever Glorious and Blessed Virgin.” So, how does Mary “save us”?
Christ is indeed the only Saviour of the world because only God can save us and He is God. Mary is not God. However, God does not save us without us. What do I mean by that? St Augustine preached in his 169th sermon: “He who created you without you will not justify you without you.” So, what did he mean by that, and is it scriptural?
1. The first thing we learn from the Bible is that although we cannot save ourselves, we can and must cooperate with God and with each other so that we can successfully acquire the salvation won for us by the unique sacrifice of Christ and the victory of his resurrection. We must, in short, struggle to make available to us the full fruits of this saving sacrifice and victory. We must apply effort. We must take up our cross and follow Him. By His grace we must fight against the passions and temptations that assail us. As St Paul said: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling …. (Philippians 2:12-13). Our voluntary sacrifices even completes the sufferings of Christ: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church,” (Colossians 1:24).
What this means for Our Lady is that her cooperation with the will of God won for us salvation at the Annunciation. Her struggles purified her throughout her adolescence in the Temple to prepare herself in purity for this great day. Her sufferings at the foot of the cross; prophetically, the “sword piercing [your] her own soul ...” (Luke 2:35), began to complete Christ’s saving work through and by His Church, which continues to this day. In this first sense, Our Lady saves us.
2. If salvation cannot proceed without us, recognising the unique role played by the Ever Virgin Mary in the Incarnation, what about the Church, the body of Christ in which we are part? Is that necessary as well? What is Mary’s role in the Church?
I became a Christian (although regularly baptised in a heterodox church in infancy) in 1975 when I made a personal commitment to Christ as my Lord and Saviour. Was I Orthodox then? Unknowingly, in part yes, but for the most part, no. However, I gravitated unwittingly, but perhaps understandably, since I knew no better, to the Church of my baptism, the Church of England. What matters more, for the sake of my argument here, is how I became a Christian in 1975.
A key person in my conversion was a guy called Peter. He and I met briefly once in September of 1975, never to meet again, but after that my life changed completely, a true and, to this day, ongoing revolution … by the grace of God and my cooperation. Let us not forget Peter though, I don’t. He wasn’t Orthodox but without him I would not have become a Christian and known salvation; without him, I would not be standing before you here today and my life may well have turned out very differently indeed!
So, by God’s grace, I confidently say to you today, Peter saved me. He befriended me and opened his mouth concerning Jesus Christ. Yes, it was the right time in my life; yes, someone else might have done it; but that is not the point here. God saves people (usually but not strictly always) through other people. The Church and the persons within it, are willing instruments of Christ’s saving work. Like Our Lady at the wedding of Cana of Galilee Peter said: “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). As the Apostle Jude in his letter (vs. 22-23), Peter saved me from perdition: “on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.”
If this is true for a sinner like me, Peter, how much more so is it going to be for the Mother of God herself, who we invoke in our services to “save us.” She does not replace Christ. Rather she works with us and all the saints to conform our lives to Christ, who grace she uniquely represents as example, intercessor and advocate. She is the true image of the Christian in and part of the Church, Christ’s saving body.
So we have now come full circle in our little study and I think it appropriate to close with that very early Christian prayer to the Virgin with which we opened: -
“We fly to your patronage, O Holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all danger, O ever Glorious and Blessed Virgin.”