For 26 years, I have been very interested in the differences between Churches and Ecclesial communities. Perhaps one of the most prominent differences is the veneration of Saints and especially of the Mother of Jesus. Varying traditions have varying attitudes on this, but the most prominent differences are essentially those who "only honor Jesus" versus those who "honor Jesus who is glorified in His Saints."
On the one side are found groups like the Baptists, Wesleyans, and Methodists, Pentecostals, and numerous "Bible Churches" and Fundamentalist groups. On the other side, I once erroneously thought, was found the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, I have also learned that there are Anglicans/Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Eastern Orthodox. With the Anglican/Episcopalian communities, it is more obvious, although Lutherans do honor Martin Luther, as well as having Churches named for St. Luke, St. Matthew, St. Peter, and St. Paul, among others. The Lutherans will honor saints at least by naming their parishes after them. Eastern Orthodox devotion to saints, in many ways outstrips even Roman Catholic Devotion to them, for they will not only pray before their Icons, but it is not unusual to see an Orthodox Christian kiss the Icon as well, whereas Roman Catholics will kiss the statue of a saint, but not as frequently. This, however, is only an outward expression. It is true that Roman Catholics also have novenas to particular saints, and patron saints, but Orthodox also have patron saints, and although they do not have novenas, from time to time an Akathist will appear to a particular saint and Orthodox Christians will not shy away from asking for a saint's help repeatedly.
For some of the particular thoughts on why Saints are honored in the Eastern Christian Tradition, see my earlier post entitled: "God is Magnified in His Saints."
Prior to just yesterday, I also had been doing many of the things that my co-religionists in my Eastern Catholic parish did; making the sign of the cross, bowing, venerating the icons of saints and feasts, and so on. But yesterday something happened that I think is worth sharing. I attended a prayer service at the local Greek Orthodox Metropolis (The Small Paraklesis). The text of this service is available at http://www.goarch.org/chapel/chant/paraklesis/index_html .
I have attended this service many times before, and have a great love for it, but this particular day was different. The Chancellor of the Metropolis was the celebrant of the service. At the end of it, after we were anointed with oil, he offered his reflections on something that had happened that very day. A group of ministers from a protestant denomination showed up at the Metropolis for an unscheduled tour of the Cathedral.
The Chancellor graciously obliged them, took them into the Cathedral, magnificently frescoed with Icons on every side, and proceeded to explain the Orthodox traditions regarding worship, faith, and icons. He then pointed out how every Icon in the Orthodox Church had the name of the saints featured in that Icon, including the Festal Icons (which commemorate particular events, as opposed to just particular people): every Icon except one. Nowhere in any Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is her name ever written. What is written is the abbreviation ΜΡ ΘΥ which stands for the title Meter Theou, or Mother of God. The Icon of the Ever Virgin Mary is not an Icon of Mary, but an Icon of the Incarnation of God as man! It is an Incarnational Icon, which highlights the reality that Christianity is about God embracing Humanity in the deepest way possible; by becoming a man Himself. The ministers were blown away by this aspect of Orthodox Catholic Christian* Theology, and asked many more questions, but ended in a statement of how blessed the Orthodox Church was to have this veneration of the Most Holy Theotokos in their tradition.
Truly we are blessed to have this beautiful reality in our holy Tradition, that Jesus' Mother is not merely the mother of just a man, but of a man Who is Complete in Divinity. This man is no less God than the Father in Heaven! To embrace this part of the Christian Message is transformational to a Genuine Christian understanding of humanity. To be touched by God is, in the fullest meaning of this reality, to be transformed utterly. Mary was touched by God, not only in body, but in heart and soul. She has been transformed by His presence dwelling within her day and night 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 9 months without ceasing. She believed in Him, and knew more deeply than anyone else who He was, for she had received the Divine Messenger's visitation proclaiming that she would conceive by the power of God. She loved Him before any other human being loved Him. She even went to the cross with Him, although her suffering was a maternal suffering in her heart, rather than an actual physical crucifixion, which she may have preferred to the maternal suffering.
It should be noted that Jesus, for his part, as God and as Man, also loved her first among all people on earth, and more closely than any other human being on earth. There are parts of the Bible which show Him seeming to not respect her as deeply as He should, but these have a particular meaning which shall be explored at another time. He truly loved her with all His heart, and we know that she was on His heart when He died in a special way. He took care of her as He was redeeming the world, and She will always have a special place in His Heart everywhere that He is. It therefore makes sense that if we love Jesus, we ought to love all who He loves. This means that we ought to love His mother too!
*Orthodox Catholic Christian- This particular term may seem to be odd to us. It should be noted that the Orthodox Church considers itself to be the same One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ Himself. So the term Orthodox Catholic means essentially that they consider themselves to be the Right Believing and Right Worshipping Catholic Church. This term may be applied elsewhere by others to mean something different. Most of the time, when I use Orthodox Catholic, I use it to refer to my status as belonging to a Church which is in full sacramental communion with Rome (the Roman Catholic Church), but having Orthodox Belief and Theology, in such a way that is proper for a member of an Eastern Catholic Church. I will expand on this in a future blog.