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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • The Church of God
      • The living and the dead: The Mother of God
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The living and the dead: The Mother of God

In God and in His Church there is no division between the living and the departed, but all

are one in the love of the Father. Whether we are alive or whether we are dead, as members of

the Church we still belong to the same family, and still have a duty to bear one another’s burdens.

Therefore just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one

another’s prayers, so they pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray

for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church

together.

Prayers for the Departed. ‘With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of thy servants,

where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting.’ So the Orthodox

Church prays for the faithful departed; and again: ‘O God of spirits and of all flesh, who hast

trampled down death and overthrown the Devil, and given life unto Thy world: Do thou, the

same Lord, give rest to the souls of Thy departed servants, in a place of light, refreshment, and

repose, whence all pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away. Pardon every transgression which

they have committed, whether by word or deed or thought.’

Orthodox are convinced that Christians here on earth have a duty to pray for the departed,

and they are confident that the dead are helped by such prayers. But precisely in what way do our

prayers help the dead? What exactly is the condition of souls in the period between death and the

Resurrection of the Body at the Last Day? Here Orthodox teaching is not entirely clear, and has

varied somewhat at different times. In the seventeenth century a number of Orthodox writers

most notably Peter of Moghila and Dositheus in his Confession upheld the Roman Catholic

doctrine of Purgatory, or something very close to it (According to the normal Roman teaching, souls in

Purgatory undergo expiatory suffering, and so rendersatisfaction’ or ‘atonement’ for their sins. It should be remarked,

however, that even in the seventeenth century there were many Orthodox who rejected the Roman teaching

on Purgatory. The statements on the departed in Moghila’s Orthodox Confession were carefully changed by Meletius

Syrigos, while in later life Dositheus specifically retracted what he had written on the subject in his Confession).

Today most if not all Orthodox theologians reject the idea of Purgatory, at any rate in this

form. The majority would be inclined to say that the faithful departed do not suffer at all. Another

school holds that perhaps they suffer, but, if so, their suffering is of a purificatory but not

an expiatory character; for when a man dies in the grace of God, then God freely forgives him all

his sins and demands no expiatory penalties: Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of

the world, is our only atonement and satisfaction. Yet a third group would prefer to leave the

whole question entirely open: let us avoid detailed formulation about the life after death, they

say, and preserve instead a reverent and agnostic reticence. When Saint Antony of Egypt was

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once worrying about divine providence, a voice came to him, saying: ‘Antony, attend to yourself;

for these are the judgments of God, and it is not for you to know them’ (Apophthegmata (P.G.

65), Antony, 2).

The Saints. Symeon the New Theologian describes the saints as forming a golden chain: ‘The

Holy Trinity, pervading all men from first to last, from head to foot, binds them all together ...

The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before, and filled like them with

light, become a golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith,

works, and love. So in the One God they form a single chain which cannot quickly be broken

(Centuries, 3, 2-4). Such is the Orthodox idea of the communion of saints. This chain is a chain of

mutual love and prayer; and in this loving prayer the members of the Church on earth, ‘called to

be saints,’ have their place.

In private an Orthodox Christian is free to ask for the prayers of any member of the Church,

whether canonized or not. It would be perfectly normal for an Orthodox child, if orphaned, to

end his evening prayers by asking for the intercessions not only of the Mother of God and the

saints, but of his own mother and father. In its public worship, however, the Church usually

prays only to those whom it has officially proclaimed as saints; but in exceptional circumstances

a public cult may become established without any formal act of canonization. The Greek Church

under the Ottoman Empire soon began to commemorate the New Martyrs in its worship, but to

avoid the notice of the Turks there was usually no official act of proclamation: the cult of the

New Martyrs was in most cases something that arose spontaneously under popular initiative. The

same thing has happened in recent years with the New Martyrs of Russia: in certain places, both

within and outside the Soviet Union, they have begun to be honoured as saints in the Church’s

worship, but present conditions in the Russian Church make a formal canonization impossible.

Reverence for the saints is closely bound up with the veneration of icons. These are placed

by Orthodox not only in their churches, but in each room of their homes, and even in cars and

buses. These ever-present icons act as a point of meeting between the living members of the

Church and those who have gone before. Icons help Orthodox to look on the saints not as remote

and legendary figures from the past, but as contemporaries and personal friends.

At Baptism an Orthodox is given the name of a saint, ‘as a symbol of his entry into the unity

of the Church which is not only the earthly Church, but also the Church in heaven’ (P. Kovalevsky,

Exposé de la foi catholique orthodoxe, Paris, 1957, p. 16). An Orthodox has a special devotion to the saint

whose name he bears; he usually keeps an icon of his patron saint in his room, and prays daily to

him. The festival of his patron saint he keeps as his Name Day, and to most Orthodox (as to most

Roman Catholics in continental Europe) this is a date far more important than one’s actual birthday.

An Orthodox Christian prays not only to the saints but to the angels, and in particular to his

guardian angel. The angelsfence us around with their intercessions and shelter us under their

protecting wings of immaterial glory’ (From the Dismissal Hymn for the Feast of the Archangels (8 November)).

The Mother of God. Among the saints a special position belongs to the Blessed Virgin Mary,

whom Orthodox reverence as the most exalted among God’s creatures, ‘more honourable than

the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim’ (From the hymn Meet it is, sung at

the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom). Note that we have termed her ‘most exalted among God’s creatures:’

Orthodox, like Roman Catholics, venerate or honour the Mother of God, but in no sense

do the members of either Church regard her as a fourth person of the Trinity, nor do they assign

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to her the worship due to God alone. In Greek theology the distinction is very clearly marked:

there is a special word, latreia, reserved for the worship of God, while for the veneration of the

Virgin entirely different terms are employed (duleia, hyperduleia, proskynesis).

In Orthodox services Mary is often mentioned, and on each occasion she is usually given

her full title: ‘Our All-Holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, Mother of God and

Ever-Virgin Mary.’ Here are included the three chief epithets applied to Our Lady by the Orthodox

Church: Tkeotokos (Mother of God), Aeiparthenos (Ever-Virgin), and Panagia (All-Holy).

The first of these titles was assigned to her by the third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431), the

second by the fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 553). (Belief in the Perpetual Virginity of

Mary may seem at first sight contrary to Scripture, since Mark 3:31 mentions the ‘brothers’ of Christ. But the word

used here in Greek can mean half-brother, cousin, or near relative, as well as brother in the strict sense). The title

Panagia, although never a subject of dogmatic definition, is accepted and used by all Orthodox.

The appellation Theotokos is of particular importance, for it provides the key to the Orthodox

cult of the Virgin. We honour Mary because she is the Mother of our God. We do not venerate

her in isolation, but because of her relation to Christ. Thus the reverence shown to Mary, so

far from eclipsing the worship of God, has exactly the opposite effect: the more we esteem Mary,

the more vivid is our awareness of the majesty of her Son, for it is precisely on account of the

Son that we venerate the Mother.

We honour the Mother on account of the Son: Mariology is simply an extension of Christology.

The Fathers of the Council of Ephesus insisted on calling Mary Theotokos, not because

they desired to glorify her as an end in herself, apart from her Son, but because only by honouring

Mary could they safeguard a right doctrine of Christ’s person. Anyone who thinks out the

implications of that great phrase, The Word was made flesh, cannot but feel a certain awe for her

who was chosen as the instrument of so surpassing a mystery. When men refuse to honour Mary,

only too often it is because they do not really believe in the Incarnation.

But Orthodox honour Mary, not only because she is Theotokos, but because she is Panagia,

All-Holy. Among all God’s Creatures, she is the supreme example of synergy or cooperation between

the purpose of the deity and the free will of man. God, who always respects human liberty,

did not wish to become incarnate without the free consent of His Mother. He Waited for her voluntary

response: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word

(Luke 1:38). Mary could have refused; she was not merely passive, but an active participant in

the mystery. As Nicholas Cabasilas said: ‘The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father,

of His Power and His Spirit ... but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin ... Just

as God became incarnate voluntarily, so He wished that His Mother should bear Him freely and

with her full consent’ (On the Annunciation, 4-5 (Patrologia Orientalis, vol, 19, Paris, 1926, p. 488)).

If Christ is the New Adam, Mary is the New Eve, whose went submission to the will of God

counterbalanced Eve’s disobedience in Paradise. ‘So the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed

through the obedience of Mary; for what Eve, a Virgin, bound by her unbelief, that Mary, a virgin,

unloosed by her faith’ (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 3, 22, 4). ‘Death by Eve, life by Mary

(Jerome, Letter 22, 21).

The Orthodox Church calls MaryAll-Holy;’ it calls her ‘immaculate’ or ‘spotless’ (in

Greek, achrantos); and all Orthodox are agreed in believing that Our Lady was free from actual

sin. But was she also free from original sin? In other words, does Orthodoxy agree with the Roman

Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed as a dogma by Pope Pius the

Ninth in 1854, according to which Mary, from the moment she was conceived by her mother

Saint Anne, was by God’s special decree delivered from ‘all stain of original sin?’ The Orthodox

Church has never in fact made any formal and definitive pronouncement on the matter. In the

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past individual Orthodox have made statements which, if not definitely affirming the doctrine of

the Immaculate Conception, at any rate approach close to it; but since 1854 the great majority of

Orthodox have rejected the doctrine, for several reasons. They feel it to be unnecessary; they feel

that, at any rate as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, it implies a false understanding of

original sin; they suspect the doctrine because it seems to separate Mary from the rest of the descendants

of Adam, putting her in a completely different class from all the other righteous men

and women of the Old Testament. From the Orthodox point of view, however, the whole question

belongs to the realm of theological opinion; and if an individual Orthodox today felt impelled

to believe in the Immaculate Conception, he could not be termed a heretic for so doing.

But Orthodoxy, while for the most part denying the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception

of Mary, firmly believes in her Bodily Assumption (Immediately after the Pope proclaimed the Assumption

as a dogma in 1950, a few Orthodox (by way of reaction against the Roman Catholic Church) began to express

doubts about the Bodily Assumption and even explicitly to deny it; but they are certainly not representative of the

Orthodox Church as a whole). Like the rest of mankind, Our Lady underwent physical death, but in

her case the Resurrection of the Body has been anticipated: after death her body was taken up or

assumed’ into heaven and her tomb was found to be empty. She has passed beyond death and

judgement, and lives already in the Age to Come. Yet she is not thereby utterly separated from

the rest of humanity, for that same bodily glory which Mary enjoys now, all of us hope one day

to share.

Belief in the Assumption of the Mother of God is clearly and unambiguously affirmed in the

hymns sung by the Church on 15 August, the Feast of the ‘Dormition’ or ‘Falling Asleep.’ But

Orthodoxy, unlike Rome, has never proclaimed the Assumption as a dogma, nor would it ever

wish to do so. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation have been proclaimed as dogmas,

for they belong to the public preaching of the Church; but the glorification of Our Lady belongs

to the Church’s inner Tradition: ‘It is hard to speak and not less hard to think about the mysteries

which the Church keeps in the hidden depths of her inner consciousness ... The Mother of God

was never a theme of the public preaching of the Apostles; while Christ was preached on the

housetops, and proclaimed for all to know in an initiatory teaching addressed to the whole world,

the mystery of his Mother was revealed only to those who were within the Church … It is not so

much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition. Let us

therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatize about the supreme glory of the Mother of

God’ (V. Lossky, ‘Panagia,’ in The Mother of God, edited by E. L. Mascall, p. 35).




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