Leaving Mary Out

maryabrehaDecades ago, when I was in seminary (Anglican), a professor told me that he did not believe in angels. I was surprised and asked him why. He responded that he “did not think they were necessary…that anything angels did could be done by the Holy Spirit…” While this is obviously true, I noted that angels are found throughout Scripture, and that “necessary” was not a theological category – and that he himself was not necessary for that matter. The story had a happy ending…but has always remained with me as an example of how people sometimes go wrong theologically.

The Virgin Mary is among those theological matters that many Christians find “unnecessary.” She is not only unnecessary to them, but positively bothersome and considered a possible distraction from Christ Himself. “You’re worshipping Mary,” goes the charge. And the option then becomes to leave her out (other than when she is needed to play her annual part for the Christmas pageant).

But leaving Mary out is not an option for the Christian gospel.

It is true that Mark’s gospel barely makes mention of her. But the Church has never declared that any single gospel is sufficient to the faith – indeed it has proclaimed that such an idea would be heretical (cf. Marcion’s Canon). The New Testament does not proclaim Christ apart from Mary – she is essential to the gospel.

The notion of a bare minimum gospel, or a least common denominator gospel, is a strange idea. In our modern culture, the ability to reduce anything to 140 characters is an asset. But truth cannot be expressed in such a manner, and certainly not in its fullness.

A driving force behind much of modern reform (and for the past 500 years) has been a desire to simplify. Thomas Cranmer boasted of having simplified the Church liturgy to a single book, noting that prior to his work, an entire book was required just to find out what had to be used from the many other books:

Moreover the number and hardness of the rules called the pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause, that to turn the book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, then to read it when it was found out. (

His single Book of Common Prayer is one of the masterpieces of English literature and a marvel of Christian piety. It was also, however, a drastic reduction in the tradition (a reduction vastly increased three years later in his second prayer book).

Today, Cranmer’s original work would be considered a heavy burden by many, too restrictive for worship. We now have Christianity by the numbers:


And though John 3:16 is a wonderful verse, it is not “the gospel in a nutshell.” It is a bumper sticker and now a cliche.

True human life has a fullness about it that is irreducible. A life must be lived and experienced, never just extracted. That fullness of life requires the complete range of our experience and existence. The gospel is not a message within human experience – it is the summary and the whole of human experience. The gospel is the universe, rightly understood.

[God has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)

This brings us to the life and worship of the traditional Orthodox faith. Tomorrow (August 15 on the New Calendar) is the Feast of the Dormition of Mary (her death). It is the greatest of the feasts that honor the Mother of God. For those outside the Orthodox tradition, such a feast might seem a distraction from the “gospel,” an attention given to Mary that should be given to Christ. But this is only a perception of a greatly truncated modern attention span.

For the gospel is a song sung by the Church. In general, it takes an entire year for the song to be completed. Every verse must be heard. And though there are summaries offered in every service, the whole requires the sustained effort of the worshipping community and the extension of our hearts and minds over a long course of time. Tomorrow, in the Feast of the Dormition, a single verse will be sung. It is the song of the death of Mary, the Virgin who as a young woman said yes to God and became the Mother of all living, the one from whom the eternal Word of God would take flesh and become man.

Mary herself offers a song:

My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever. (Luk 1:46-55)

God has indeed “exalted the lowly.” And as the Feast begins, the Church will take up God’s “song of Mary” and exalt her as He did. How can we not sing the Lord’s song?

The Church, which is the “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), which is the “fullness of Him that fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23), cannot rightly leave Mary out.

Even Protestants remember this from time to time. The Anglican hymn “Ye watchers and ye Holy Ones” (written by Aethelstan Riley) has a verse that remembers her in words taken from the Orthodox:

O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th’eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

In Orthodoxy, we sing all the verses!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



74 responses to “Leaving Mary Out”

  1. David Avatar

    Very good…well said Father. Thanks

  2. David P Avatar

    Very good commentary on the Protestant tendency to “boil things down”, which I have started calling “Gospel reductionism”. This is done in the name of making “the gospel” accessible to as many people as possible in order to help them procure this thing called “salvation”. But with such a simplified skeleton of a gospel, what are they saved to? Explanations like this help me to understand more how veneration of the saints or other Orthodox traditions are not in competition with “the gospel”.

    How do you handle the apparent lack of Marian piety in most of the New Testament? After the gospels, she is mentioned only offhand in Acts 1:14, Galatians 4:4, and possibly Revelation 12; in the Acts and Galatians verses she is referenced only briefly as Jesus’ mother, with no hint of the veneration she would later receive. Did the veneration of Mary only develop over time, or was there some other reason the apostles did not display it in their letters?

  3. Allen Long Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David P., I don’t know this to be true of the Gospels and the Epistles, but historical accounts frequently mention only those things that are problems and are not common.

    One of the reason that many Protestant’s give for not using the sacraments or icons is that they are not mentioned in the Bible or very little. Yet we know for a fact that sacramental worship was the norm in the early Church and the icons were also quite common from early on. Perhaps it is so with devotion to Mary as well. It did not need to be brought up because it was quite common.

    There are extant hymns to Mary from the earliest times.

    The shocking thing is that there are some Protestants who object to even the verses in St. Luke, especially “…all generations shall call me blessed…”

    What is wrong with following the instructions of the Holy Scripture and simply calling her blessed?

    …they know or somehow realize that the rest will follow.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Revelations includes her in rather dramatic imagery.

    St. Paul’s letters, as well as others, are rather polemical in nature, rather than exhaustive. St. Paul, when he says, “my gospel,” by no means is referring to a few sentence summary of salvation doctrine. That has been a reductionist tendency in some theological circles for ever so long.

    There is an increasing realization that when St. Paul says, “My gospel,” he means something like “the gospel account that I delivered to you, that had been delivered to me” and would be referencing something comparable to one of the 4 gospels, delivered in oral form.

    We should not think of the gospel being preached, prior to the written gospels, in some sort of truncated version. It would have included an oral form of what we call gospel (which is how the Church in the 70’s or later “recognized” the 4 gospels as being consonant with what they had heard while rejecting others). Thus St. Paul makes reference to “oral” and “written” tradition. His letters are an early “written” tradition, while the gospels were oral at first. Evidence for this can be found in 1 Cor. 11, in which St. Paul cites a “tradition” he had delivered to the Corinthians, that is, essentially, the Last Supper as found in the Synoptic gospels. There is no reason to think that if he knew that story in the gospel (in a verbatim form), he did not know pretty much the rest of it, too.

    They were not an utterly document-dependent culture.

    But, as Michael noted, the full course of the liturgical tradition was not written down (that we can see) until around the mid 2nd century. We have written scraps of hymns to Mary in archaeology digs dating to the mid 3rd century, which means they had to date much earlier.

    I think the Marian material in Matthew and Luke (and John) are very much evidence of Marian devotion in some form. Those “hymns” such as the Magnificat, aren’t just written for poetic entertainment. They have doubtless been sung in the Church (probably before appearing in the written version of the gospel).

    And every argument that attacks what I have just described would be an attack on the historical reliability of the entire New Testament! It’s simply the easiest, most natural conclusion to be drawn from the material we actually have, when you stop and think about what we actually have.

    It is silly, for example, to think that there are hymns recorded in the NT that were not sung. Just silly.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Dear all,
    Comments by “a.s.” that appeared earlier have been removed. They do not conform to the rules of the blog. He is not welcome to comment further. Sorry if any saw them and were disturbed in any way.

  7. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    Thank you for another arudite article. As I read it, I immediately thought of Jefferson rewriting the Bible, deleting what he felt was irrational. I wonder what your thoughts are on that?

    I am glad you reminded us that God was born of a woman. I would like you to comment on woman’s ever changing role in today’s society, like under the guise of equality we now have women serving in combat units.

    Thank you for your time and attention. I have saved all your epistles and plan to download them and save in a 3-ring binder. Thank you.

  8. Alan B. Avatar
    Alan B.

    I am still officially a member of a Protestant Church but participate frequently in Orthodox worship. The congregation of which I am a member is not Presbyterian but uses the “generic” edition of the _Presybyterian Hymnal_. I was very surprised to find us singing “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” (maybe not all the verses that exist) a few months ago and recognized the words with which I am familiar from Orthodox worship. The _Presbyterian Hymnal_ has now been superseded (although I am sure many congregations, both Presbyterian and otherwise, will continue using it for many years) by _Glory to God_, in which I could not find “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” (and not in updated English either).

  9. Catherine Jefferson Avatar

    A fine blog, and spot on about Christianity as I saw it growing up in the American south and southwest.

  10. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you for this helpful reflection.

    As a RC, I was brought up with the idea that Mary was very important – but I must admit that I resisted this to a point. I was willing to grant her the status of “saint” but not much more. I was bothered, I think, by a good many of the devotional practices I observed that made little sense to me.

    Interestingly, my view and relationship with Mary has shifted in recent times and some of that has been facilitated by reading the Orthodox saints and elders. Elder Paisios in particular modeled such a loving relationship with her, with gifts coming from her in times of need and in response to prayer.

    If God wants to give me a Mother, along with everything else He gives me (His Son, His Spirit, His Body and Blood to nourish me, and so on), why should I turn down or minimize the greatness of this gift?

    Mary is not God, the uncreated One. She is a created being like me. Yet, if my understanding of the feast is at all accurate (Dormition/Assumption), Mary, in her holiness, is the first created being to share fully (soul and body) in Christ’s Resurrection. Because of this, grace undoubtedly flows more generously through her than through any person before or since, other than Christ Himself.

    Such a Mother I need and long for. May be God be praised for His “unnecessary” and ineffable gifts.

  11. GGG Avatar

    “Beneath thy Compassion, we take refuge virgin Theotokos; despise not our prayer in our necessity, but deliver us from harm, O only pure and only blessed one! Most holy Theotokos, save us!”

    I love singing this in church (especially the Bortniansky arrangement). This is one of the oldest Christian hymns, dating back to the 200s-300s. Any Christian who has problems with the veneration of the Mother of God needs to learn this hymn and realize that it was composed by our earliest Christian forebears!

    It gives me great joy to sing this every now and then to my 10-month-old son when putting him to bed. What joy!

    We worship at an old-calendar parish, so we only just began the Dormition fast. But blessed Feast to our new-calendar brothers & sisters.

  12. KKSorrell Avatar

    “For the gospel is a song sung by the Church. In general, it takes an entire year for the song to be completed. Every verse must be heard.” What a beautiful way to describe the liturgical year! And we close that year with the sadness of Mary’s death, knowing that next month we will open it again the joy of her birth!

  13. James Avatar

    Thank you for another great article, Fr. Stephen.

  14. jamesthethickheaded Avatar

    Fr. Thanks!

    The very super-abundance of the Gospels come to mind as squarely opposed to a redaction to one stream: We have four accounts – not one… and it’s pleasing to God they don’t flow word-for-word but allow one to complement (but not merely complete… because there is more than written) the other. I’d never thought of it this way before, but I continue to marvel and love the way our Divine Liturgy has multiple streams as well… in its own superabundance. Sure there are inherited reasons that explain this (Typicon Decoded), but if it violated our sense of things… it would have disappeared. And at least for me it seems to capture and embody a sense that God works simultaneously in all places and all people all at once… and isn’t confined to the linearity or singularity of our own personal experience… which is too limited to “know” all there is.

    As one who came to Orthodoxy from Anglicanism as well, I was drawn by wanting to resolve the role of the Theotokos: Somehow… her being “optionable” just didn’t make sense. Either she’s essential or she’s unnecessary. Logically (and I’m not a logician), I suppose …if she were unnecessary… than so would each of us be as well. Yet it seems the story of the Gospel is also a love of God for each and every one of us …as so essential… that God became incarnate and died (and dies each day still) for each of us.. that the love that He bears and was hidden might be made manifest in each of us.

  15. Drewster2000 Avatar

    This is a real gem:

    “In our modern culture, the ability to reduce anything to 140 characters is an asset. But truth cannot be expressed in such a manner, and certainly not in its fullness.”

  16. […] the Orthodox Christian Church) you can read a nice post about the importance of the Mother of God, “Leaving Mary Out,” by Father Stephen Freeman.) In this icon, Christ is receiving His mother’s soul into […]

  17. […] (Fr. Stephen Freeman, emphasis added) I added that emphasis to a truth that is very dear to me. I’m privileged as Cantor to sing most of that year-long song, and after almost 17 repetitions, I’m starting to get it. […]

  18. Lou. Avatar

    Father Stephen:

    A question, a comment, and an observation.

    My question is what you make of such projects as Lewis’ “mere” Christianity. It seems he used simplification as an apologetic device: it helped him communicate with a generation uncomfortable dealing in broad disagreements. (Indeed, it seems to me you use this site to address atheists and others with, sometimes, simplicity).

    My comment is that 3:16 (whether in John’s Gospel or elsewhere) is hardly a bumper sticker. Of course, it can be quoted by those who “wrest the Scriptures” — sometimes to ruin, perhaps sometimes as a means of salvation. Then again, Peter sounds like he was stumped by some of Paul ‘s writings . . .

    My own experience grows out of an Anglican upbringing. I saw nothing of Mary in Scripture. Jesuit theology classes had no effect. Then me eyes were opened ( I surely didn’t ‘t open them ) and now her presence is tangible in passages where she formerly was invisible.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Obviously we often have to simplify for the purpose of education, etc. The trouble begins when the simplification replaces everything else. Christianity should not be so thin a gruel.

    I deeply appreciate the richness, unrelenting richness, of Orthodox liturgical life. It’s worth years of seminary if you listen and pay attention.

  20. Lynne Avatar

    David P: It seems as if you equate frequency with importance. However, most people I know report that their marriage, occurring once, is more important than their paydays.

  21. Dn Stephen Hayes Avatar

    “Necessary”. Ah, yes, I heard that word several times from Anglican seminary teachers, yet they never seemed to think it necessary to explain the necessity of things they deemed neccessary or unneccessary.

    One principal of an Anglican theological college said he didn’t believe in the Kingdom of God. We asked him, in all seriousness, why, if one didn’t believe in the Kingdom of God, it was necessary to go to Mattins and Evensong (the Anglican equivalents of Orthros and Vespers). His reply? “Because you’ve got to do it when you get into a parish.”

  22. Brian Avatar

    Every year as we progress through the Church calendar we are ceaselessly reminded of – and called to participation in – the fullness of life in Christ. And yet the Church calendar more or less begins, follows, and ends not with the life of Christ, but with the life of the Mother of God.

    I’ve often contemplated the (at first glance seemingly strange) Gospel chosen by the Church for the Feast of the Dormition…

    “As Jesus and His disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to Him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ The Lord replied, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but only one is needful. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken way from her.’ […] As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the woman who gave birth to you, and blessed are the breasts at which you sucked.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’”

    Through the constant remembrance of her, the Church seems to be calling us to immerse ourselves into her life, the fullness of communion in the very life of Christ in and with her in the Church. Her life is our life.

    Much like mine, a great deal of Mary’s life was undoubtedly spent doing mundane, ordinary things – cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, working. The busyness of life so easily distracts my attention (like Martha’s) and tempts me to forget the One in whose life I share and disconnect Him from everyday tasks. It is comforting to me to ponder that must have been hard, even for Mary, always to remember who He is. The Gospel of Luke seems to hint at this when the young Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem while Mary and Joseph assumed he was somewhere in the crowd returning with them to Nazareth. When they circled back to Jerusalem and found Him in the Temple, she even scolded Him saying, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you!” Luke, who knew the Mother of God personally, tells us that she did not fully understand His reply: “Why were you searching for Me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” But even though Luke tells us that they (Mary and Joseph) did not fully understand what He said at the time, he adds, “But His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” She kept in this same quiet, contemplative remembrance the visitation of the shepherds twelve years earlier who told her of their vision of angels calling Him “Christ the Lord.” (My pathetic attention span and vigilance is rebuked as I think about it: Twelve years!) She did so again when the Magi came to worship Him and yet again when Simeon and Anna recognized Him as the Messiah upon His presentation in the Temple. Luke tells us several times that “they were amazed at these things” and didn’t fully grasp them at the time – much as I do not grasp the full significance of those extremely rare, fleeting moments we all have when the veil is lifted from the eyes of my heart and I am allowed a brief glimpse of the heavenly reality in which I live at every moment (but all-too-easily forget). Mary provides an example for me. She did not pass over these moments lightly, allowing them to pass quickly into forgetfulness. Rather, although she did not fully understand them, she “kept them in her heart,” unhurriedly contemplated them, and allowed God to reveal their full significance in His good time.

    All the periods of fasting and feasting, the Scripture readings, the prayers, the hymns, the continual remembrance of – and call to participation in – the life of Christ our God as it unfolds and is revealed to us in the yearly Liturgical cycle… Our life together in the Church is the life of Mary. For me it is, as it were, her continual personal encouragement to share with her in the glory she has received in yielding herself fully to God and humbly submitting to His will. It is a call (and often an admonishment) to keep myself unstained by the world, to contemplate every experience unhurriedly in the light of the Gospel, a call to allow my heart to become the very throne of Divinity and to trust and obey Him even when – and perhaps especially when – I don’t understand what He is doing. I’ve always sensed that this, at least in part, is the meaning of the exhortation we hear again and again in the Liturgy:

    “Calling to remembrance our all- holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.”

    Hasten to us with intercession, O Theotokos, who doest ever intercede for those who honor thee!

  23. Sir Al Avatar
    Sir Al

    Just wondering, how it comes that we exalt Mary to such a lofty position. When I study the original languages, I find that she is described as parthenos or “a maiden, virgin” but not ever described as hagnos or “sacred (in a condition prepared for worship), pure (either ethically, or ritually, ceremonially), chaste”. In Luke, 1, the word “blessed” is makarios or “to be happy”.
    Therefore, when I look at the song of Mary, I see her exalting the Lord because of her own extreme joy or happiness. I do not see her being set apart by God to be worshiped. Worship belongs to God and God alone. Even the Wise Men knew this because in Matthew 2:11 they prosekynēsan “worshiped” the child.
    So I am wondering why we spend so much time on focusing on Mary when the Bible clearly focuses on Christ. To exalt Mary to a place of equality with Christ … well.
    Or am I completely off on this? Am I missing verses that call us to prosekynēsan Mary? To revere her as hagnos? If so, please help me to understand. Please point me to the Scriptures I am missing.

  24. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Sir Al,

    Yes, indeed, you are missing something because biblicism comes with blinders. It misuses and mistrusts the very scriptures it purports to hold up.

    It is misuse because the scriptures aren’t meant to be used as you’re doing. It is mistrust because they can’t be trusted when misused.

    Fr. Stephen has written many articles addressing this problem and they’re all worth reading.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sir Al,
    We decidedly do not worship Mary. We honor her because she is Theotokos (Birth-Giver of God). Orthodoxy traditionally incorporates all of its doctrinal beliefs within the worship life of the Church (Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi – the “Law of Praying is the Law of Believing). Thus reference to Mary as Theotokos is always included in the prayers of the Church. The experience surrounding this was that those who refused to call her “Theotokos” did so because they denied the truth of Christ as “fully God and fully Man.” The ironic term “Theotokos” expresses this very thing.

    But we believe she is truly holy, filled with the Holy Spirit and worthy of honor beyond any other created thing. The language of the Church does no more than give her than honor. We do not (and it would be absurd) restrict all language to what is found in Scripture.

    In our culture, mostly driven by Protestant history, almost nothing is given honor (including God). The culture of honor and humility that marks Orthodox worship and its language (which is simply traditional Christian worship), is often misinterpreted by those whose ears have been formed by the honor-bereft culture of the modern world.

    No Orthodox Christian would ever think Mary is a God or that she is worshipped. But neither would they be comfortable with any slight directed towards her.

    Proskynesan is used two ways in Scripture: it can mean worship (it literally means to bow the knee), but it also can mean the mere honor (to bow before a king, etc. ). The first of many examples would be in Gen. 37:10, Jacobs brothers bowing before him (in the Greek LXX).

    In the 8th century, struggling to give verbal expression to the traditional practices of the Church, (honoring saints, relics, icons, etc.), the Church refined the use of language and chose the word proskynesan to express the relative veneration (honor) that is proper to honorable things (saints, icons, etc.). And it chose the word latreia to have the restricted meaning of worship that is due to God alone. English, traditionally, did not always translate or make this distinction very well. Thus in the old English (Anglican) marriage service, the groom said to his bride, “With my body I do thee worship…”

    This refinement in language has often been required in the life of the Church. In the Councils regarding the Holy Trinity, the words ousia, hypostasis, homoousios, etc., were given careful meanings in order to express what the Church had always believed. We do this sort of thing in English from time to time.

    St. Paul says, “Give honor to whom honor is due.” (the word is the simple “time“). But the principle applies. The Church says of Mary that she is worthy of “hyperdulia” or “hyper honor” meaning, an honor greater than any other creature. But she is only a creature and cannot and must not be worshipped.

    She has nothing that was not given to her from God. What she brings to God is her humility and her obedience. But her humility and obedience were only perfectly human humility and obedience. Nothing more. Who else will be called blessed by all generations? She is the “lowly” whom God has exalted.

    My experience has shown me that those who will not or do not honor Mary, inevitably have a very shrunken version of the gospel itself (and therefore of Christ). “The good things God has prepared for those who love Him” is often a mystery, but a large scope of that mystery is hidden from those who will not accept the life and Tradition of the Church and insist instead on later man-made rules regarding Scripture and authority.

    Do remember that when thinking about words like proskynesan – the writers of the NT, read the OT, and they read it in Greek (the LXX). Thus, to understand how they might have viewed a word, you have to look at the LXX usage as well.

  26. Alan B. Avatar
    Alan B.

    Fr. Stephen:

    I have occasionally (and I think as recently as within the last three months) encountered English texts from the Antiochian Orthodox Web site that do use the word “worship” in reference to the Theotokos.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Alan B.
    You’re correct. I cringe when I see this because I know how it will sound to the American ear. But, as noted, English has often been deaf to this distinction (worship/veneration) as have a number of translators, not all of whom are native-English speakers. One can hardly blame them if noteworthies such as Thomas Cranmer couldn’t make this distinction (as in the English marriage service of which he was the author).

    Think, if you will, of the British title for mayors, justices of the peace and magistrates in the Commonwealth: “Your Worship.” The problem is not the translation – it’s the English language. In the Greek there is no confusion at all.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I’ve never understood why so many people get so bent out of shape over honoring Mary especially the screeching bladphemers. What darkness is at work in their hearts that they feel obligated to expend so much energy and vitriol?

  29. David Avatar

    ah yes…”with my body i thee worship” is not idolatry, any more than standing when your mother enters the room or kissing her or your daughter per appropriate affection. but then…

  30. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen…
    Yesterday during the liturgy of the Dormition we were privileged to have with us Hawaii’s myrrh-streaming Icon of the Theotokos. Her fragrance wafted through the entire chapel. A young mother came up to the icon along with her 16 month old daughter. As mother prostrated in veneration so did the toddler. There she was, face down, tiny dress up exposing her little diapered bottom. The sight was precious. I’m certain it brought a smile to our loving Mother’s heart.

  31. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I have an informational question. I am a bit confused about the references to beginnings/endings of the liturgical year.

    Since apparently this is designated different in Orthodoxy than in RC Church, I would be interested in learning more about this – if anyone can explain this or provide me with with a link that will help me understand the what/why of the Orthodox liturgical calendar year.

    I appreciate some of the helpful comments about Mary and the honor given her, as well as the source of confusion around the word “worship”.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Orthodox Church continues to reckon the calendar in accordance with the Roman (Byzantine) Empire – in which September 1 is the beginning of the new year. The Jewish New Year begins in September as well.

  33. Anastasios Avatar

    “A driving force behind much of modern reform (and for the past 500 years) has been a desire to simplify.”

    Arguably that’s been going on for a lot longer than that. The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a lot shorter than its predecessors. Weren’t the first liturgies close to 6 hours in length? As people became busier and busier, they just didn’t have the time and energy to give anymore, and they demanded more “simplicity”.

    In many cases they demanded more uniformity as well, which is why the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria (the Chalcedonian ones) switched from their native Syriac and Coptic liturgies (which were longer and more intricate) to the Greek-Constantinopolitan one sometime in the 9th (?) century.

    I call it ecclesial entropy. The Protestant Reformation (and the Counter-Reformation within Catholicism, which did the same thing to a lesser extent) merely accelerated the process in the West. It’s a rather saddening trend. Fortunately there are lots of young evangelicals and Novus Ordo Catholics who are getting fed up with how trite the atmosphere in those churches has become, and are looking for something more profound and ancient. Many Protestants used to have an almost Romantic notion of a primitive and “simple” early church that was only later “corrupted” by people “adding” things. No serious church historian believes this; in truth, there was a whole lot more subtracting than adding going on.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is a good observation. The tendency to simplify has been with us for a very long time. We are not as great as our fathers. And that is the first light in which we should see this – the general understanding of the fathers that the succeeding generations become spiritually weaker. But God alone will judge this (or we should certainly leave the judgment up to God). Even within modern Orthodoxy there are some practices that are shorter than others. I give thanks for the champions of prayer who still sustain great effort in some monasteries – for we all need their heroic efforts of prayer.

    There is the simple length of time that is required that is often consumed by so many distractions in our contemporary life. I do not think that we could sustain 6 hours of liturgical prayer. But we can (and do) sustain two hours (at least that’s what they endured this morning in my parish!).

    I’m even somewhat sympathetic to Cranmer’s lament in his Preface. I at least have the convenience of a very abbreviated (and already digested) typicon (what he called the book of “Pie”) to direct the services and the texts are more easily accessible.

    But I would feel a great impoverishment if the richness of the many texts were diminished further. Having been an Anglican once upon a time and practiced a very full liturgical life by those standards – and now with 16 years of liturgical Orthodox life under my belt – I don’t think I could sustain my life with what I once had. It’s too thin.
    But we do have to be merciful and recognize that in the contemporary world there will not be monastic piety within the average parish life – nor should we expect it.
    I wrestle with this all the time, within the latitude allowed. How much is too much? etc.
    But at least it’s the luxury of having too much rather than too little.

  35. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Although I love the RC liturgy, I lament how short it has become. And priests feel a pressure to not have it last too long because people are “busy”.

    I know there is some truth to the busy-ness of modern life but much of it we create for ourselves. We decide we want to do something and soon we see ourselves as needing to do it. (There are, of course, exceptions – as we must go to work, eat and sleep, but so many other things we rush to do are quite optional.)

    BTW, off-topic (but only slightly so), I just began reading “The Struggle for Virtue, Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society” by Archbishop Aversky Taushev. I have only read the introduction so far but am captivated. The author’s explanation of what asceticism means is itself invaluable. The book was just published and I was blessed to stumble upon it.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    The pressures to simplify in our contemporary world are truly great. One simplification that happens beyond any priest’s control is the simple lack of attendance. Vigils are served and few attend (this is quite common). In some American jurisdictions the custom has been developed that allows for “Vesperal liturgies” in which there is an evening liturgy for the feast. This increases attendance for the feast. There is resistance to this within a number of jurisdictions with complaints that it disturbs the proper sense of the typicon (the liturgical rules of the Church). It is the kind of internal Orthodox debate the will continue in the contemporary world.

    I struggle with this – pastorally priests want to work as much as possible to accommodate the needs of people. There is, here, the need to maintain the integrity of the liturgical life (or so it seems to me). Orthodoxy, even in its shape and form, preserves the fullness of the gospel in a liturgical form. Every diminishment is an incalculable loss. Fortunately, it is preserved in the monastic life of the church, but I would count it tragic were it to be isolated in such a manner.

    Rome’s liturgical life is an excellent example of an increasing diminishment. For one, the reduction of the Church’s parish life to the Mass already represents a tremendous loss of a once rich heritage. Shrink the Mass to 30 minutes and it is simply insufficient for the Tradition. It represents a liturgical “dumbing down” that is a great loss. Catholic “tradition” continues to exists, primarily in texts. You can read about it, but not pray it on a parochial basis. This lack is not noticed unless you’ve ever had the presence of this liturgical life.

    Classical Christian civilization was thoroughly intertwined with this liturgical knowledge of the gospel. That civilization was conquered and disrupted (it collapsed in the West). It is only preserved today in broken pieces, in monastic life, and in what remains of parish life. In parts of Eastern Europe it is far more integrated (parts of Romania, Serbia, Greece, etc.) It is being restored in parts of Russia.

    But it is not the cultural memory that matters – cultures come and go. It is, finally, the experiential knowledge of God that is given within and through this fullness (and not to all). I believe all of this continues as intact as it does by God’s grace. I have seen and been touched by lives that know something, or even a great deal of that fullness. What I have garnered in those relationships is the most tangible and believable part of God that I know.

    Secular modernity (and its flattening of the Christian life) leaves only a thin, psychological version of the faith, that will ultimately pass away (as it is already doing). I have no doubt that God will continue to preserve the gospel in its fullness. But my own voice, I pray, is part of that preservation.

    Most important is not to preserve, but to be preserved. To become a living witness to the Christ Himself and His fullness.

  37. Alan B. Avatar
    Alan B.

    Fr. Stephen:

    Are there really Catholic masses that last only 30 minutes? The Mass that I sometimes watch on TV if I am not feeling well enough to attend worship (or sometimes record and watch later anyway) fills a 60-minute slot and is usually not quite over at the end of that time: the faithful have all communed, but the last few(?) minutes get cut off.

    Before your most recent post I was already planning to comment on your earlier post about simplification and abbreviation, and to lament that on at least one occasion in that Protestant congregation of which I am a member both the Gospel and the Creed were omitted in order to squeeze the Lord’s Supper into the hour (or not much longer) along with the longish sermon, and the offertory on the organ, and the choir anthem. But a 30-minute Catholic Mass? What *didn’t* get left out?

  38. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I inadvertently opened a can of worms (misconceptions).

    In almost 59 years as a Catholic, I do not think I have ever attended a Sunday Mass that lasted only 30 minutes. (I am not saying that there might not be one somewhere but it would be a very rare exception.) My lament was that the Mass does not last longer than an hour. If there are a lot of people in attendance, the priest may have to speak quickly and/or give a somewhat shortened homily because Communion will take quite a bit of time.

    A weekday (non-Holy Day) Mass may only take 30 minutes – or even a little less. This is quite different though as the priest is not expected to give a full length homily but just a few reflections on the readings. There is one less Scriptural reading, fewer if any hymns and a lot fewer people in attendance.

    Fr. Stephen- I am puzzled at your statement that the Catholic parish life has been “reduced” to the Mass. Parish life involves many more things than Mass attendance, although to attend the liturgy is the most glorious experience a person could ever hope for – to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the context of community after hearing and reflecting on the Word of God.

    (If you are referring to the absence of universally practiced liturgical services such as Vespers, I would agree that it would be lovely if we had these – and that our priests had time to conduct them and our lay people had time to attend them. However, we have never had this practice in my lifetime, outside of vowed religious life.)

  39. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    It still astounds me that my Greek parish in New Hampshire can do a midweek Liturgy in under an hour and a Sunday Liturgy in about an hour and a half. It’s not enough for me, but others still complain that it’s too long. Ah, well. It’s still the Liturgy.

  40. Dino Avatar

    I had a lot of catching up to do with all these insightful articles and comments after some time without internet. I deeply appreciate and value this place…

    Concerning the subject of simplification, witnessing the shortening of the content of services in parishes (sometimes for the wrong reasons) is bound to be worrying. Especially when the people involved in promoting this also see no problem with the general promotion of the “light” version of faith. What is most worrying however is that both quantity andquality are curtailed, and this is sometimes done in a manner utterly detached from the salvaging influence/advise of our maonasteries. If there is a need for any simplification, a truly charismatic monastic guidance must be seeked in my opinion. This should ideally be a sweeping consultation…
    I have seen this work extremely well in city Churches that are dependencies of Athonite monasteries.

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    The 30 minute Mass is a proverbial exaggeration…though I’ve heard of such (not usually a Sunday). The reduction of liturgical life to the Mass (and you have no memory of anything else in your lifetime…) is what I am describing. This began a very long time ago. The pressures within Orthodoxy towards this certainly exist as well. But the Eucharist, wondrous as it is, has perhaps the least amount of variable material, and therefore does some of the least amount of liturgical formation on a certain level.

    In Orthodoxy the bulk of that formation is found in Vigils (Vespers/Lity/Matins combined). That is where the largest amount of variable material (hymns and verses, etc.) are found. Equally important is what could be called “liturgical ascesis.” Services that, like fasting, engage us in a manner that causes us to struggle and reach.

    Without this – services begin to collapse into the passions – and we begin to be concerned that they somehow “reach” the people, or even “entertain” in some spiritual manner.

    The Mass (even in its Sunday 60 minute form) is simply too empty of material and action. It is too “manageable”. But I’m speaking about something (Vigils and the like) that are outside the experience of the non-Orthodox and even of some Orthodox (depending on jurisdiction).

  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    A midweek liturgy in my parish lasts only an hour (or slightly less) at least without a homily. I do the homily at the end since some need to get to work on time. Sunday liturgies last an hour and a half or a little longer depending on the length of my sermon and how well I control my rabbit trails. 🙂 Yesterday was really long. We started late, admitted new catechumens, the sermon was slightly long, announcements seemed to go on long (my fault again). So it wasn’t liturgically driven length… Even I complain inwardly about the length of services sometimes – but usually because I have turned my attention somewhere other than God…

  43. Dino Avatar

    The Theotokos’ “necessity” is actually accepted patristically in a manner akin to that of Man’s synergistic response to God’s calling. God had to wait for that ‘door’ to be openned to Him to enter our world, and that door has ever since been a 2-way passage for Christ’s Grace.

  44. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Again I might clarify about Catholic practices, at the risk of sounding defensive. That is not my intention; just want our differences/faults well understood. 🙂

    As a Catholic, I have had many prayer/worship experiences in addition to the Mass. As a child, my classmates and I regularly went to the church in May for devotions to honor Mary. We then went to Stations of the Cross during Lent to unite ourselves to Christ’s suffering. Every Sunday evening, my family returned to church for “devotions”, that included some litanies and other prayer. We had a practice called “40 hours”, which is now more often experienced in the form of adoration. As a child, my family said the rosary daily and many people continue to pray it alone or in groups. There are a number of other practices.

    One of the beautiful things about Catholicism (that I wouldn’t want to give up) is that any day of the week, if I feel a need to be strengthened by the Eucharist, it is there for me. I do not find that the lack of “variable material” in the Mass causes a “collapse into the passions” at all. Some people (my father was one of them) attend Mass daily -and do not do so for entertainment. It is an encounter with Christ as He is present in the sacrament.

    I believe that people will be bored, collapse into the passions, or whatever, if they do not desire a spiritual life, if they haven’t learned to pray from the heart and if they do not understand and value asceticism. Of course, this is all of us (Catholic or Orthodox), at least some of the time – perhaps most of the time.

    However, the spiritual life, prayer of the heart and the struggle of ascesis enable us to grow more deeply into the life of Christ. (Deficient liturgical practices, insufficient clergy or poor homilies notwithstanding.)

  45. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m probably not explaining my thoughts at all well here. There is certainly no lack of piety and devotion within the Catholic Church. I did not mean to question that at all. It’s the larger content and fullness of the faith that I was referencing. Without this, devotion and piety will also begin, if not to diminish, then to go awry. But it is not an easy conversation to have because I’m referencing something that is not part of your experience yet and so can’t quite be part of the conversation.

  46. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Understood. Actually, I have been wondering if it is acceptable to visit an Orthodox Church for Great Vespers. I have thought of doing that but, not knowing what to expect, wasn’t sure if that was OK. Is it? Or should I call the church to inquire?

    (Of course, I have considered visiting for a Divine Liturgy but I don’t want to miss my own church observance where I can experience communion.)

  47. Laura Avatar

    “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the woman who gave birth to you, and blessed are the breasts at which you sucked.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’”
    As I re-read this gospel from the Feast of Dormition, it occurs to me that it is Mary the Mother of God who is the primary example of those who hear the word of God AND obey it.
    And it is Mary the Mother of God who, at the wedding in Cana, who tells the stewards to do what Jesus asks – and in so doing she commands all of mankind to do the same.
    In icons of the Theotokos and Christ -child she always is pointing toChrist – showing us “the way.”
    How great an intercessor we have in the Theotokos, who can intercede for us with the boldness of a Mother before Her Son!

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    Always acceptable. Just like visiting a Catholic Church – they’d be glad to welcome you. Over the years I’ve had a number of people who attend our Vespers and then their own parish on Sunday a.m. One of them sings in my choir.

  49. David Avatar

    It’s also worth noting that theologically speaking this simplifying factor is responsible for a whole host of problems in Protestantism. Zwinglianism has caused many if not most American evangelical churches to dispense with the sacraments as a regular part of their community’s worship life, for example.

    Fr. Stephen, I’m curious if you would agree that perhaps, without losing anything of what we have, making room for more liturgical diversity might spark some revival in parish worship life. Further, I’m curious how you feel about the use of the King’s English. As a college student coming into Orthodoxy, I have to say that the King’s English is frustrating. Not only is it a dead dialect of English, but one of the main arguments in favor of it–that, supposedly, the use of thee’s, thy’s, and thou’s is more reverent than addressing God with “you”–has no linguistic substance, as Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic have no separate pronoun for addressing Deity than they do for addressing created things. Further, the fact that the NT was written in the Koine Greek, rather than in Classical, despite the fact that at least some of the authors were capable of writing and speaking Classical Greek, seems to point to the fact that it is acceptable and desirable that the language of interaction with God should be that which the people can understand. Isn’t this what happened at Pentecost? This isn’t to suggest that we have to dispense with beauty, as both Koine Greek and Contemporary English are capable of immense beauty. But perhaps we may see revival if we were to do these things.

    Sorry for the rant on tangential issues. Look forward to your thoughts.

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree with you. At one point I tended to defend older English as “liturgical” English, but in retrospect, a lot of it was simply being resistant to the liturgical reform folks who secretly were pushing a liberalizing agenda.

    Today, that is simply not an Orthodox question. Interestingly, the Greeks use contemporary English whenever they use English, while it is the OCA and the Antiochians who continue to use the older forms. But even across the OCA, there are many places (the mid-West for one) where contemporary versions (quite good) are used in place of the older.
    The issue has been somewhat slow to be resolved. But I think, in time, contemporary will win out. I am personally waiting on a new bishop (we have a locum tenens in my diocese) to request permission to use contemporary all the time.

  51. Alan B. Avatar
    Alan B.


    Even in Protestant churches that are not officially Zwinglian (Calvinist, for example, whose views are frequently misrepresented by both Catholics and Orthodox), much of the opposition to weekly celebration of the Eucharist is based on “But that’s what the Catholics do!” or “But then the sermon would have to be shorter if we’re still going to get done by — and that’s what we’re really there for: the sermon.”

    Which variety of English you will encounter will depend, I think, on the jurisdiction of the Orthodox church you attend. I mostly attend an Antiochian mission that uses almost entirely “King James” English and not infrequently in a “mangled” form. They tell me that the Antiochians were the first jurisdiction in North America to adopt English, and did so when “King James” English was still very popular among Christians in general. The OCA, and perhaps even the Greek Orthodox, adopted English when the trend was to modern English, and this is what they use.

    I have pointed out that the _Orthodox Study Bible_ uses modern English, but the response is that this version has not been approved by the Archdiocese for liturgical use.

  52. Brian Avatar



  53. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen – thanks for the welcoming words re: Vespers.

    I am wondering, having read much of your writing over the last couple of years, how you differentiate when there may be a legitimate need to change something (as in the discussion above with David regarding language) versus when a group is “pushing a liberalizing agenda”.

    I think I have come to understand and appreciate – at least to a good extent – your reasons for defending Tradition and guarding against changes that simply pander to people’s preferences. And yet to never change anything could be stultifying. Where does one even begin to draw a line?

    Of course, no agenda for change should be more important than the faith itself. Humility and obedience cannot be improved upon. Yet the Church as it is expressed in its human members is living and living organisms grow and change…

    Just pondering. Of course you do not need to respond.

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    My thoughts viz. “liberalizing agenda” were specific to a general situation that obtained within Anglicanism. Not that there weren’t very legitimate reasons for language change – but I was around when the changes were taking place – and was involved “behind the scenes” and am aware that there was a serious agenda at work. Time, to say the least, has proved my judgment to be correct.

    Discernment is never a science – and it’s really a matter of discernment in these matters. “What is the heart” in a matter is key as is a proper attention to “unintended consequences.” This latter concern means all change should be slow. We should, I think, always be skeptical of change. For what must change is the heart and we too easily fall into the materialist/mechanical view that through change we can produce desired results. The Kingdom of God cannot be produced.

    Orthodoxy is deeply skeptical about all of this – sometimes producing consternation in the minds of others. The Church in Greece consistently rejects efforts to adopt modern Greek in the services, and Russia consistently rejects efforts to adopt Russian rather than Slavonic in the services. Both have internal debates on the matter, that are often lost on outsiders. A lot of the debate has a history. The Russian Church, with which I’m more familiar, has a very bitter history with the efforts of the “Living Church” movement that was pushed by the Bolsheviks for a time (in a very bloody manner). It favored married bishops, contemporary language, and was full of modernist ideas and heresies. And all this during the worst times of persecution! So it is hated and despised – and has left an edge to the skepticism.

    In America, the forces of liturgical reform among the Protestants (and often among the Catholics) were also driven by a hidden agenda of modernism and doctrinal compromise. In Orthodox eyes these changes have been part of a 70 year swath of destruction across the face of Western Christianity. So, there is a general hesitancy to even go a few feet down the same path.

    Frankly, Orthodox prayers and hymns are so full of theological terms and meditation, that, even rendered into the most transparent language, still requires great attention and spiritual development of the heart. Strangely, we’ve also noticed through the centuries that the work of the liturgy and services is still accomplished, even among unlettered peasants. It’s not a completely intellectual thing.

    I suspect that Roman piety was at least as effective when everything was in Latin as it is now in the common language.

    There is something more important than “thinking” that goes on in the liturgy.

    I would almost want to say to someone – “Attend all the services for a year, keep the fasts, make a good and very frequent confession, receive the sacrament, give generously, then think about what should be changed.”

    The mechanisms for change in Orthodoxy are very removed from easy usage – things don’t change easily. This has saved us ever so much mischief. If I had any worries in Orthodoxy it would be any tendency to “streamline” the process.

    Human members grow and change. But the Church is more like air and water. I change, but no matter how I change, I need air and water.

  55. dino Avatar

    Concerning translations and modernization of services, there is no way this can ever be done without destroying the richness of the original masterpieces. A few new words and terms can help a person that struggles, in order for them to understand what is uttered (similar to learning terminology for any other technical or theoretical subject). Those who have the desire always end up doing this. Those who don’t complain. But as Father Stephen reminded me above, I have witnessed utterly unlettered old people who would read the original Vespers, Matins etc of each day (syllable by syllable) understanding virtually nothing (on the ‘outside’) compared to an erudite theologian, yet doing this with fervent zeal and much enjoyment every single day for all of their lives. There is certainly no problem with any updating of the language as far as these genuine believers goes… I remember one old lady who was asked if she would want a modern translation to help her understand better, (it took her hours to read what takes me less than 10 minutes) and her answer was instantly negative.

  56. Alan B. Avatar
    Alan B.

    Fr. Stephen:

    I agree about the caution needed before changing theological terms — if they are to be changed at all. Every field has its own terminology: as a non-American, usually I haven’t a clue what sports commentators on “football”(?) or baseball games are talking about — it’s a foreign language; they might as well be talking Swahili. Same thing when my wife and I walked into a quilting-supplies shop out of curiosity: whole new language.

    I’ve often said that when they start giving sports commentaries in plain English, then we can consider redoing the liturgy in “plain English.”

    But simply changing “In thy birth-giving, O Theotokos, thou didst keep and preserve thy virginity…” to something like “Even in giving birth, O Theotokos, you preserved your virginity” changes none of the meaning but simply expresses the same idea in simpler and more readily understandable (by most 21st-century speakers of English) language. The music would need to change, but it’s my understanding that in the Orthodox tradition the text rules and the music must change to suit.

    I just remembered another comparison between sports and worship. A student in a class I audited a couple of years ago pointed out that people will “give thanks to the football ‘gods’” when a game goes into overtime but complain when the church service runs five minutes overtime.

  57. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    dino you say that no translation will ever approach the original. While I understand that, it is a bit depressing at the same time as I will never understand the original languages, neither will most of those here in the U.S. Does that leave us either un-churched or always second class (as some already believe)?

    Yet, it gives me hope at the same time that, by God’s grace, we may at some point stop trying to ‘translate’ in a mechanistic way and come to the real theological, doctrinal, poetic and experiential spirit that inspired the originals and produce, in our own language our own masterpieces.

    The little I have seen of examples of ‘liturgical reform’ have been stultifying messes of mindlessness. Without life or grace.

    We should also be careful not to artificially ‘spiritualize’ the works but realize that there are a lot of elements that were ‘common’ then but reshaped and used for a higher purpose. That is my understanding at least.

    Unfortunately, the common today is low, vulgar and often obscene.

    The one suggestion/complaint that has galled me the most over the years is against the minor keys in the tones. I call it the C-major disease.

    We must also be on guard against the egalitarian delusion to water down.

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Alan B. One level of meaning does not change, but a bit of the poetic is lost. I’d be interested in how Shakespeare is translated into Greek (if it is). That would give us a template on how to translate the Greek into English I would think. And part of catechesis would be a brief introduction to Shakespearean language and meaning.

    It is not just about the obvious meaning. Any change has to be considered in regard to the wholeness–dogmatic, theological and the beauty.

    The English language, while beautiful in its own right, is not as nuanced and flexible as Greek. I suspect that more poetic language, not less, will have to be used in order to get the fullness.

    Interesting thing about sports language especially in regard to baseball. There is an entirely new vocabulary that is taking over based on new statistical models of the game which promise greater accuracy in describing the intricacies of the game. As someone who grew up playing and watching and enjoying baseball, the new language, while possibly more accurate, ignores the human essence of the game in time and space doing violence to the beauty of the game in the process. It also separates a lot of older, longtime fans from the game unless we learn the new language.

    The solution is not to simplify but to go deeper. Allow oneself to be surrounded and interpenetrated by the beauty the presence of the Holy Spirit and the life of God. What the conscious mind ‘understands’ is the least of it. It is the ontological response and transformation that is key.

  59. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good point re: Shakespeare. Interestingly, the Russians love Shakespeare. Which says that there is much to love about him that transcends his amazing English! I spoke with a Russian recently and mentioned my love of Dostoevsky, and he more or less dismissed me by saying some things about how it reads in Russian.

    There is a transcendent meaning that must be remembered. But, in terms of Orthodoxy and older English. They are simply not masterpieces of translation. Thomas Cranmer’s liturgical work is comparable to Shakespeare. No English translator of Orthodox services has been very good (and I have to reluctantly include my most beloved Archbishop (memory eternal) who loved translating and produced one of the primary books in the OCA.) In places, it is simply terrible English (generally its terrible English because he carefully followed the word order of the Slavonic).

    But the liturgy in Greek is among the language’s greatest treasures (as is true for Slavonic). There is more at stake there than we see from the outside (as there was with Cranmer among the Anglicans).

    But, as I’ve said, better work will come in English, I think. England is actually doing better than America through a admirable work of Archimandrite Ephrem Lash. They also made more reasonable decisions, such as “Mother of God” versus “Theotokos.” etc.

  60. James Ignatius McAuley Avatar
    James Ignatius McAuley


    Wonderful site, good article. I have just finished The Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While john Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas and Mark Eugenicus Professed the Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary. Fascinating work by Latin Catholic Father Christian W. Kappes. This is not a rehashing, but an academic work that cites the primary sources in Greek and Latin. There is a interview with the author on the site Eastern Christian Books. You might like to read it.

    To Mary Benton, I would suggest if you want more liturgy, more prayer to look for a copy of the 1975 Saint John’s Abbey Short Breviary. You will find it very spiritually enriching – it is the most accurate translation of the other part of the Latin (Roman) Catholic Church’s Liturgia Horarum (Liturgy of the Hours). Being a former Latin rite person and now a Byzantine Catholic I can assure you it is superb. I still use my copy in conjunction with the Horologion. The Liturgy of the Hours is part of the Latin Catholic Church’s official liturgy and most lay folks have never heard of it. If you start saying it, you will discover that your whole life will be filled with glorious prayer to God. It is worth digging to find this book. The translation is richer and closer to what is now used in the new mass translation. It also has the psalms of Dom Eberhard Olinger of St. Meinrad’s Abbey – a much better translation than the dreadful Grail in the current translation.

  61. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not very much up on RC doctrine and thought. To a degree, saying that Mary was free from sin is not all that big a deal in Orthodoxy. There are some (even on the Holy Mountain) who hold that St. John the Baptist was also free from sin, and there are some who say this of others. Because of how the Orthodox view sin, this is just not that big a deal. It is interesting – but not remarkable in Orthodox thought. What matters in Orthodoxy, ultimately is ontology.

  62. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    James Ignatius McAuley –

    Thank you for your kind suggestion. I am familiar with the Liturgy of the Hours – but sadly (though understandably), it is not prayed routinely in Catholic parish communities.

    I was seeking to share prayer with my local Orthodox neighbors while maintaining my RC traditions – which I’m happy to report I did this weekend. Great Vespers was beautiful (as was my Catholic liturgy this morning).

    Regarding language, it is interesting to note that, despite the service being in English, I could not understand many of the words the choir chanted during Vespers. It did not matter for my prayer. (However, people obviously need to be taught in their own language where the actual words are much more important.)

  63. Yannis Avatar

    Concerning language:

    Both the “Elizabethan” style and the more modern translations seem much closer to the English vernacular than liturgical Greek is to the Greek vernacular. It seems strange to me that there should be so much objection to “thees & thous”. Maybe in consumerist society, people are so used to messages that are expressed in the most digestible language, that they object to any need for effort on their part as hearers. Maybe the myth of progress comes into it, whereby “now we speak like this” means “it is better to speak like this”.

    And what happens in fifty years?
    Mr A: “This troparion to Sts Cosmas & Damian says ‘freely you received’ – which of the two does it mean?”
    Mr B: “Well, back in those days there was no ‘yall’; people used ‘you’ for singular and plural.”
    Mr A: “Oh, how weird! Why can’t the liturgy be in contemporary English?”

  64. fatherstephen Avatar

    You made me smile. And I think the point is well made.

    As a native speaker of a Southern dialect (Appalachian), “ya’ll” is very common, but it can be a “polite” singular (“you” as direct address actually sounds impolite to a Southern ear). So, “What do ya’ll want?” would be spoken to an individual. “Ya’ll” can also be plural, though there is the truly plural, “All ya’ll”

    The sounds of my native speech!

  65. Alan B. Avatar
    Alan B.

    Yes, some dialects of English make better distinctions than others. But “thou” vs. “you” is not a current way of distinguishing singular and plural addressee(s). Nor does it denote familiar or polite address (“thou” being the familiar rather than the respectful), as many people assume. Some languages have more than two forms of address: Hindi has “ap” (respectful), “tum” (familiar) and “tu” (too disrespectful to use even to one’s servants children, I was told — but that is the form used in addressing God). Dutch, on the other hand, has “U” (respectful), “jij/je” (familiar), and “Gij”, which I have seen only in older books as an address to God; and the “U”/”jij” distinction is now all but dead in modern Dutch, I am told: everyone is “jij.”

    And some languages other than English make even more distinctions; e.g., Mandarin as spoken in Mainland China has different words for “we” including the addressee and “we” excluding the addressee.

    If we want a maximally distinguishing language, we’ll have to invent our own.

  66. Yannis Avatar


    Your dialect has come full circle back to the French system! Very interesting.
    My own little sketch was based on the premise that “Yall” (with the apostrophe lost) became broadly used in the English-speaking world.

  67. Yannis Avatar


    All this is beside the point – whether we are talking about “thee/thou” or “therein/thereby/thereof” or some other older usage, the question is not what kind of language is maximally distinguishing, but whether it is valid to insist on “current” English (itself a moving target) particular with the justification of making the language easy to understand.

    I suppose the simple act of translating something into the best language that is current at the time of the translation simply because that is the language at the time of translation is not objectionable as such. But even then, if literature can make use of archaisms to express High Language, should we not use the highest language possible for the highest act of man, worship?

  68. Dino Avatar

    if literature can make use of archaisms to express High Language, should we not use the highest language possible for the highest act of man, worship?

    this has certainly been the tradition in hymnography, considering that some of the most profound words are to be found in the iambic (using essentially Homer’s language) cannons. This was obviously intentionally chosen by the writers… I am guessing that Saint Gregory the theologian did not ‘speak’ that (Homeric) language (which he wrote these in) to very many people…
    And it did not take illiterate people that many hours (such as Saint Porphyrios who was enamoured with these cannons) to study and understand their hidden depths!
    On the other hand, hidden depths or not, a Greek can walk into a Serbian Church and understand about 5% of what is being said, yet still perceive and participate with his entire being.

    Another problem with translations -any translations- is that a decision has to be made as to which meaning must be conveyed when the original has a certain pregnant ambiguity that cannot be retained. This is a serious issue, and in the English translations of (for example) the Psalms, I always encounter the wrong (or the lesser if you will) of the two or three ambiguous meanings of the original has been chosen in the translation! I could go into examples…

  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, what you say is a burden we, who speak English only, have to bear. A good translator loves both languages, is fully literate (as opposed to simply fluent) in both and is of a poetic even whimsical and theological heart. Hard to find and I dare say almost impossible in academe and on committees.

    That means we English speakers are required to ferret out the depth ourselves in deep practice as the meaning is still there to be revealed because Jesus Christ is still there revealing it.

    A note in passing. Many years ago my parish had a young priest who was born and raised in Lebanon. One Sunday his father visited. His father was an accomplished chanter but only chanted in Arabic. He was blessed to chant anyway. The Divine Liturgy went seamlessly with the main body in English and the chanting in Arabic. The man’s chanting was beyond beautiful. It seemed to open up the vaults of heaven even though I understood not a word nor did I even really know what he was chanting about still being somewhat young in the Church.

    It may well be that the Church here in the colonies will always be somewhat polyglot in our liturgics (English, Greek, Slavic, Arabic, Aleut, Tlingit, Mexican whatever). I don’t find that to be a bad thing but expressive of the very ethos of this country and land, it is even Pentecostal like the Agape Vespers. We should embrace that while working for the most beautiful and most expressive of Holy Tradition that allows people to enter into the mysteries.

  70. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael, Dino
    One aspect of English is that much (even most) of our vocabulary is made up of words we’ve plundered, borrowed, been forced to accept, etc. Which means that if you really want to be proficient in English, it becomes necessary to pay attention to other languages as well. I highly recommend Owen Barfield’s classic little work, History in English Words. A good English translation, for me, helps make the underlying language as apparent as possible, without doing damage to the English itself. English presents unique challenges in translation because of its history and structure.

  71. […] year begins and ends with the birth and death of our beloved Mother. Father Stephen Freeman, in a recent blog post about the dormition, put it this way: “For the gospel is a song sung by the Church. In […]

  72. Christopher Avatar

    ” I have just finished The Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While john Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas and Mark Eugenicus Professed the Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary.”

    Interesting, I was not aware of an Eastern Father (let alone St. Gregory Palamas) who took Rome’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception at face value (as James seems to be implying here). However I admit I have never made a real study of it. Can someone confirm or deny this, or point to a source? Is the Antiochian’s view of it the consensus?:


    Father, I want to thank you for your response to Mary upstream that begins with “My thoughts viz. “liberalizing agenda”. It helped me put in perspective some thoughts and events from years back when I was journeying to Orthodoxy from the wastelands of the “liberal mainline”…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. For those that do not know the book, Zorba, the Greek, was an attempt by the author Kanzantzakis to present…

  2. Something I love about Orthodox theology is it’s both/and approach. Both faith and works. Both nature and grace. Both God…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast