(A Brief Synopsis) What I have been given in the Church: The Protection and Shelter of the Saints ~ Part I: The Mother of God
This icon is called the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God
Note: While I am new to Conciliar Post, I am here because of their commitment to dialogue between Christian traditions (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) with respect and Christian love. While I could write (and perhaps will later) on why I think this is the best way, suffice for now to say what I see my writing, including this series, to be about: to share what I have been given in my journey with Christ and in the Orthodox Church. My essays are meant to encourage,perhaps provide a different perspective, to give comfort and a pause to reflect. Conversely, it is not written with a focus to ‘convert’ another to what I have found. That’s simply not my job; I have to work out my salvation. I have found the best place to do this is in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The ultimate ‘job’ of working out one’s salvation is between each person and God – who created, loves and is always reaching out to each of us. To use Donald Sheehan’s essay, “The Action of a Merciful Heart”1: God is inviting us all to the dance that is found in Christ2 . The actual steps of the dance, I can only write of my own and encourage everyone to prayer and openness to Christ, the Saviour of the world.
(A Brief Synopsis) What I have been given in the Church 3,4 ~ Part I
The Protection and Shelter of the Saints ~ Part I: The Mother of God
I was at a friend’s birthday party awhile back and asked to see this friend’s icons. His icon of the Theotokos (the Mother of God) looked out so tenderly. The Mother of God is a deep Mother and I felt reassured of her protection for this friend.
The Mother of God5 is the most revered of all the Saints; the Virgin Mary is one who Orthodox and Catholic Christians are very familiar with. However, most Protestants are not6 – I say this as a fact, not as a criticism, just to be clear. The name “Theotokos” is used often for the Virgin Mary in Orthodox Christian prayers. The word “Theotokos” was affirmed at the 3rd Ecumenical Council, in the fourth century (AD) to make clear that Christ is both God and man in one person. The Church at the time was dealing with the Nestorian heresy which was trying to take away the name of the Virgin Mary, which in Greek is Theotokos (Theo = God, Tokos = bearer, Theotokos = God-bearer). The Church fathers believed that if you were to deny the name Theotokos when speaking of the Virgin Mary, you would be denying Christ’s divinity. Thus, the Orthodox Church affirms that Christ’s Incarnation necessitates that we call the Virgin Mary “the Mother of God”, or “Theotokos” (if you want to know more, see here7). Of course, here, the Church is also remembering the Holy Gospel, when St. Elizabeth, the Mother of St. John the Baptist, asks the Virgin Mary: “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?8
Pondering the Gospel passages on the Virgin Mary helps one understand the early Church’s view of her. First, the Annunciation: the archangel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary, telling her of God’s plan of salvation: that she, a virgin, will bear a Child conceived by the Holy Spirit, who will be the the Hope of All the World, Immanuel, God with us. This passage has been praised and discussed in homilies, essays and books for centuries and it is because of the absolute humility and obedience to God, seen in Mary saying“Yes”: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be according to your word9.” Helpful to note is that the Archangel honours the (then future) Mother of God, saying “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”10 The Virgin Mary accepts a most humble path: being pregnant without being married, having her Child in a manger, having to flee with her Child and husband to Egypt, having her heart pierced, as Prophet Symeon foretold11 – seeing her Son die on the Cross, her innocent, pure, sinless Son. During Christ’s life, He honours her, obeying her request in Cana, making water into wine when His mother tells Him “They have no wine12.” Many see this not only as the beginning of Christ’s public earthly ministry, but the beginning of the Mother of God’s ministry of intercession, how she asks her Son for help on behalf of another (here the Bride and Groom at their wedding)13. The Theotokos’ intercessions for others (to her Son and our Lord and God Jesus Christ) is the reason centuries of Christians look to her.
The Mother of God’s intercessions and protection are very strong. The Mother of God’s protection is celebrated every October, with the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God.14 This Feast tells the story of the Christians in Constantinople, when the (then pagan) Slavic people were besieging the city. Sts Andrew and Epiphanius saw the Mother of God, “in the Blachernae church.”15 Both of these Saints saw that the Mother of God first in prayer for the Church and then watched her as she spread her veil over the entire Church, protecting them. The danger was averted and the city was spared suffering and bloodshed after her appearance.16
Many parents pray to her to raise, or nurture, their children, using the popular Akathist17 “Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children18.” This Akathist focuses on the raising of children to think first of the Kingdom of Heaven, to be able to stand up for Christ in a secular land and to be protected from the many dangers that can imperil them. It may surprise some that anyone would ask the Mother of God to ‘raise their children’ but for an Orthodox Christian this is very normal.
A godparent, in the Orthodox Church, bears a responsibility to help raise the child, especially in terms of the child’s spiritual life. When I became the godmother for my first godson, I was living in Ottawa (in Ontario Canada). I knew (barring tragedy) that I was moving away within a year to marry the man who is now my husband. I knew that I would not be as present in my godson’s life as I was then, living within walking distance. And so, after his baptism (he was about 40 days old), I took him right to a beautiful large icon of the Mother of God and committed him to her care, asking her to raise him for me. I was not denying my responsibility for him; rather, I put him in the care of someone who can ‘stand in the gap’ for me. Indeed, to intercede can be understood to be exactly this way: to stand in place of and pray.
In a homily I heard this past year, the priest wonderfully encouraged the children of our parish to ask for the prayers of the Mother of God. He explained that sometimes, when we have a difficulty at home, with a sibling or with a parent, you can ask the Mother of God for help. He knows that the many days of struggle, the worries, the misunderstandings, the hurt, can all be helped by the Mother of God’s prayers. Many, when at a loss for what to do, or in times of distress, turn to the Mother of God for prayers and receive from her comfort, solace, protection and help.
My Husband and I ask the Mother of God’s protection for our marriage daily. I have a small icon of the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God19 above my kitchen sink, on a shelf with a few decorations. I often wash dishes after dinner and see this icon. One day, during dinner, my husband was stressed and said something that I found hurtful. I did not say anything during the meal, indicating my distress, as the best thing I could do, in that moment, was listen. However, it still hurt. I was at a loss; I did not know how to deal with this. After dinner, I prayed very simply to the Mother of God for help as I washed dishes. Quickly, I was given the answer I needed. I understood that my husband’s words were not said with intent to hurt me. I suddenly realized that my husband’s character, which is very kind, did not match what I perceived him saying. This alerted me to how stressed he was. Then all was turned right around, as we were able to talk about the real issue (a stressful situation) and work towards a resolution with mutual love and clear communication. A small example, perhaps, but I know that such moments can be the beginning of either a time of healing or a time of marital crisis. It is wonderful that the things of our lives, our struggles, hurts, worries and distress, can be all brought to the Mother of God, whose prayers and help are with us.
Note from author: Elizabeth is very interested in your thoughts and loves the social media aspect of Conciliar Post. However, due to prior commitments, she will not be able to reply immediately to your comments on this particular post. She will get back to you as soon as she is able. Thank you for your readership and any comments you leave, they are greatly appreciated!Show Sources