Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on the Mother of God and the Saints

We can judge the Church’s attitude towards women by the high position accorded to the Most Holy Mother of God. The Church glorifies Her more than all of the saints and even more than the angels. She is praised in hymns as ‘more honourable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim’. The Holy Virgin is the Mother of Christ and Mother of the Church — it is in Her person that the Church glorifies motherhood. Motherhood is an integral part of woman’s dignity and it may be noted that those Protestant churches that have entrusted to women the celebration of the Eucharist and other priestly functions neither venerate the Mother of God nor pray to Her. Yet the church community deprived of the Mother of God loses its fullness in the same way that a community deprived of the priesthood is not a complete Church. If fatherhood is realized in the person of the hierarchy — the episcopate and the priesthood — then motherhood is personified in the Church in the Most Holy Mother of God.

The Orthodox Church glorifies the Mother of God as Ever-Virgin (aeiparthenos). This term was upheld by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 533 and emphasizes the virginity of the Mother of God before, during and after Christ’s Birth. She is also called Most Holy, Most Pure and Immaculate. The Orthodox Church follows early church tradition in believing that the Holy Virgin after Her death rose again on the third day and was assumed bodily into heaven like Christ and the Old Testament saints Enoch and Elijah.

Very little is said in Holy Scripture about the Holy Virgin: her place in the New Testament is very modest, especially if we compare it with the place she occupies in the life of the Church. The veneration of the Mother of God in the Orthodox Church is based not so much on Scripture as on a centuries-old experience of many people to whom, in one way or another, the mystery of the Holy Virgin was revealed.

The Mother of God stands at the head of the host of saints glorified by the Church. The veneration of the saints and prayers addressed to them is an ancient tradition of the Church preserved from apostolic times. Accusations that the Church worships people on the same level as God, thereby breaking the commandment ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve’, are unjust. Greek theology makes a clear distinction between worship (latreia) of God and veneration (proskynesis) of the saints. The latter are venerated not as gods, but as people who have attained a spiritual height and who have become united with God. The saints are closely connected with each other and with Christ. In venerating the saints we venerate Christ, Who lives in them.

Official numbering among the saints, or canonization, is a comparatively late phenomenon: there were no acts of canonization or glorification in the early Christian Church. A martyr who suffered for Christ soon after his death would become the object of reverential veneration by believers; they would pray to him and would celebrate the Liturgy on his tomb. To this very day there is a rule in the Orthodox Church whereby the Liturgy is celebrated on the relics of the martyr or a saint. This emphasizes the link between the Church on earth today, made up of living people, and the Church triumphant in heaven, made up of saints glorified by God. It also shows how the martyrs are the basis and foundation of the Church. ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity’, said Tertullian.

The veneration of a particular saint is not a result of the act of canonization. Actually, the reverse is true: canonization comes as a result of the popular veneration of a saint. There are saints about whose lives almost nothing is known, and yet their veneration is universal. A good example is St Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia (the fourth century). He is glorified by Christians of both the Eastern and Western Churches, he is loved by both children and adults (Christmas holidays in the West would be unthinkable without Santa Claus visiting the home and bringing presents). Even non-Christians who pray to St Nicholas receive help from him. This universal veneration of the saint is rooted in the experience of many generations of people: he became the ‘personal friend’ of those thousands of individuals whom he has helped and whom he has saved from death.

Some people find it difficult to understand why it is necessary to pray to the saints when there is Christ. Yet the saints are not so much mediators between us and Christ: rather, they are our heavenly friends, able to hear to us and help us through their prayers. Someone who has no friends in heaven cannot properly understand this reverential veneration which surrounds the saints in the Orthodox Church. It has to be said, therefore, that those Christian communities which have no direct and living communion with the saints, cannot fully experience the completeness of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ uniting the living and the dead, saints and sinners.

Text from the online edition of The Mystery of Faith

Icon from