Why Mary Has Always Been Honored


This Wednesday (August 15) is the Feast of the Dormition, the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary. I offer this article as a reflection.

The most difficult part of my Orthodox experience to discuss with the non-Orthodox is the place and role of the Mother of God in the Church and in my life. It is, on the one hand, deeply theological and even essential to a right understanding of the Orthodox faith, while, on the other hand, being intensely personal beyond the bounds of conversation. I am convinced, as well, that the Orthodox approach to Mary is part of the apostolic deposit, and not a later accretion.

When I was doing graduate studies some decades back, I decided to concentrate my historical research on the “cult of Mary” (the veneration of Mary) in the historical Church. With that decision came a semester of intensive research, combing through materials of every sort. And throughout all of that research the question, “When did this begin?” was uppermost in my mind. I came to a surprising conclusion. It began at the beginning.

The historical evidence for Mary’s veneration is so obvious that it is simply overlooked: her place in the gospel accounts. I find much of the “historical” evidence about Christ to have a similar feature. It is amusing, and annoying, to read modern historical critics of the New Testament who come away from those documents arguing that the notion of Christ’s divinity was a later development. Somehow they manage to read the New Testament and miss the most obvious thing: the writers all believe that Jesus is divine. They fail to notice that the very existence of the “Jesus material” of the New Testament exists solely because its writers believed He was God. Every line flows from that belief.

In a similar manner, Mary’s place within the gospels carries a message of veneration. Those who do not see this obvious feature of the New Testament generally get lost in the details, reading too much into sayings such as Jesus’ “Woman what have I to do with you?” and the like.

First, the stories of Mary hold an important place in the gospel narrative. St. Mark has the least mention of her, with no birth narrative. St. Luke has the most material, and St. John perhaps the most important. Biblical critics take a “least is best” approach and will say things like, “St. Mark knows nothing of a birth narrative,” a patently overstated claim.

For me, it is the seemingly “gratuitous” material that points to veneration of Mary. St. Luke’s account has the Magnificat hymn in which Mary declares, “All generations will call me blessed.” It is a phrase that can only be compared to God’s promise to Abraham:

I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3)

In Mary’s encounter with her kinswoman Elizabeth (and with the child in her womb, John), the focus is on Mary herself rather than the child in her womb.

But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. (Luk 1:43-44)

Later in Luke, when the child Jesus is presented in the Temple, the elder Simeon prophesies:  

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luk 2:34-35)

Here, Mary is linked to the Cross of Christ in the piercing of her soul.

I describe these stories as “gratuitous” in that they go well beyond the simple point of the Virgin Birth. Mark and John have no mention of the conception or birth of Christ (though they both include Mary in their narrative). The abundance of Marian material in Luke can only point to her veneration in the primitive Church. She is not just the Virgin who gives birth to Christ – she is also blessed by all; she is the cause of joy to the Prophet John even in his mother’s womb; she is a unique participant in the sufferings of Christ, destined herself for a mystical sword that will pierce her very soul.

This is information that points to the unique place of Mary in the first century Christian community. How can the Church not venerate one whom John the Baptist greeted with a leap of joy when he was in the womb? How can the Christian community be rightly centered on the Crucified Christ and ignore the soul-pierced Mother? The material in Luke is prima facie evidence of the primitive veneration of the Mother of God. That veneration never ceases in the Church, but matures over time as the Church considers the meaning and depth of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

It is obvious that many Christians would prefer to read only Mark’s gospel and ignore the obvious implications in Luke and John.

John’s gospel seems to me to be marked with a profound understanding of the mystery of Mary. Of special note is his first mention of her. We meet her at the Wedding in Cana. John provides no introduction to her character – he presumes a prior knowledge on the part of his readers. At the Wedding, the wine runs out. And with no explanation of a practical sort, John simply relates that Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”

It is profound. His disciples have seen nothing as yet. No miracles have been performed (this Wedding will be the scene of the first miracle). And yet Mary knows who He is and what He means. She is already fully initiated into the truth of His life and ministry.

Many Protestants have made much of Christ’s reply to her: “What is this between you and me?” They have treated the statement to mean: “What business is this of yours?” In fact, it simply asks, “What is this between you and me?” But St. John puts the statement in a context: “For mine hour has not yet come.” Christ says to His mother, “It’s not time. This doesn’t have to begin yet.”

They share the bond of the coming Cross. His life will be offered, a sword will pierce her soul. And once He begins, nothing can stop the movement to Golgotha. Her response is simple: “Do whatever He tells you.” It is a repetition of her earlier, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Her complete humility and self-emptying before God is a human reflection of the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross. With this new “fiat,” the inexorable journey to the Cross begins.

The mystery of her participation in Christ does not end with historical moments – for the sharing of those moments in the gospels are in no way merely concerned with the historical record. They are primarily theological moments. She holds not just a place in the history of salvation, but in its theological understanding and existential participation as well. The gospels are written for our salvation, and not as mere information.

And it is this theological and existential reality that are missing from many contemporary accounts of the Christian faith. The question is often asked, “Why do I need to venerate Mary?”

First, the Orthodox would not say, “You need to venerate Mary.” Rather, we say, “You need to venerate Mary as the Theotokos” (birth-giver of God). This is the theological title dogmatically assigned to her by the Third Ecumenical Council. She is venerated because she is Theotokos. To venerate the Theotokos is an inherent part of rightly believing in the Incarnation of the God-Man. To ignore her as Theotokos is to hold a diminished and inadequate understanding of the Incarnation.

But this is speaking in terms of mere ideas. The Incarnation is not an idea – it is a reality – both historical and now eternal. The Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ. And, more fully, the Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ born of the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos. This is what is asserted in the Nicene Creed.

The reality of this statement is not an idea, but a Person, both in the case of the God/Man, and in the case of the Theotokos. The act of believing in the Incarnation of Christ is made manifest in the worship that is properly directed towards Him and in the veneration that is properly directed towards the Theotokos.

And it is this that is so difficult to explain to the non-Orthodox. For doctrines are easily perceived by them as ideas, even factoids. In Orthodoxy, these doctrines are living realities. It is of little importance to acknowledge that someone is, in fact, my mother. It is of the utmost importance that I honor my mother (by Divine command) and love her. We do not think doctrine. Doctrine is a description of the realities by which we live. We venerate the Theotokos because, knowing what we know, we cannot do otherwise.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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107 responses to “Why Mary Has Always Been Honored”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you.

  2. Tim G. Avatar
    Tim G.

    Please compare & contrast your use of the word “honored” in the title vs. “veneration” throughout the article, as they are quite different to me; and then also please define “veneration”, especially how it differs from actual “worship” which the term “cult of Mary” implies. Thank you!

  3. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks, Father!

    In Orthodoxy, these doctrines are living realities. It is of little importance to acknowledge that someone is, in fact, my mother. It is of the utmost importance that I honor my mother (by Divine command) and love her. We do not think doctrine. Doctrine is a description of the realities by which we live.

    Wow. So much to chew on here!

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Honor” and “veneration” are interchangeable in meaning. The manner in which that honor is expressed has a variety of cultural forms. Worship is that which belongs to God alone. It is most particularly marked by the offering of a sacrifice (of which the Death of Christ is the form used by Christians). Many Protestants, having devolved the Eucharist into something less than it ever was, now only engage in veneration (of God, of sports heroes, of their nation, etc.) and cannot really tell the difference – or explain it.

    Abraham, at the time of Christ, was certainly venerated in many ways, as was Moses. The veneration of saints is normal. Worship belongs to God alone. But, the blindness of anti-Catholicism that has poisoned much Protestant thought, has led to many false conclusion on the topic.

    “The cult of Mary” is a technical term, used in academic circles, and simply refers to those practices associated with her veneration.

  5. Tim G. Avatar
    Tim G.

    Thank you for your helpful reply. The phrase “Worship belongs to God alone” is, alone, enough to put aside years of Protestant vs. Catholic turmoil, I think. Certainly I was brought up, as a Protestant, to believe that Mary was being fully worshiped as equal to God by Catholics, and being sacrificed to, as well.
    Perhaps that phrase “cult of Mary”, having long ago escaped from academic circles, isn’t doing us any favors in terms of getting along, either: The trigger word “Cult” in modern American society brings the baggage of both worship of, and sacrifice to, anyone but God to mind, but that clearly is not what it means in your usage.
    Much to dwell on! Thank you again.

  6. Dean Avatar

    There is a depth, a wholeness, a richness, a vastness to Orthodoxy which feels me with awe! The veneration of the Theotokos is part of the sublime unity and beauty of the Church.
    There is a small lake a few miles from our house, some fifty acres of water, perhaps 30 feet deep. The water is never clear, somewhat murky.
    This summer my wife and I had the joy of visiting Crater Lake in OR. The day could not have been more perfect for showing the deep cobalt blue of the water, one of the most beautiful lakes in the country. It has a depth of almost 2,000 feet, the waters surrounded by jagged snow pocked peaks.
    The local lake reminds me of my former faith, shallow, tepid and unclear in its biblical understandings, not the least of that which concerns our most glorious Lady, the Theotokos.
    Thank you for this reminder of the Mother of God as we draw near to her Dormition Feast. Her presence with us is an integral part of the depth and richness God has granted to us believers as we truly call His mother blessed!

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m aware of the popular use of the term “cult.” But, from time to time, I mean to raise the level of our reading. 🙂

    I might add that it was the 7th Council (Orthodox) that first decreed and defined the distinction between worship and veneration. That distinction is a matter of dogma for the Orthodox.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fredrick Matthews-Green’s book: “Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her” is marvelous(and I am not a raving fan of her other work). The book not only makes the indellible point that Mary as Theotokos is a person it also communicates the necessity of her veneration for the Church and we in the Church.

    Also Father I would be more emphatic than you. Without proper veneration of Mary as Theotokos, there is a denial of the Incarnation (not just a poor understanding). I do not get how one can purport to be a Christian and deny Mary recognition and veneration as Theotokos or worse blaspheme her as some do.
    It is soooo obvious the unschooled heathen that I once was could see it.

    Lord have mercy.

  9. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Wonderful, Father! Thank you!

  10. Matthew Avatar

    I am not looking for a comprehensive list, but would you please list out types of sacrifice/worship and honoring/veneration in the Orthodox Church?

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The essential “sacrifice” of worship of God in the Church is generally called the “Bloodless Sacrifice” – the offering of Christ’s Body and Blood. It is the sacrifice God Himself has provided for us. It is the perfect, complete, unrepeatable sacrifice. We do not “repeat” His sacrifice – but in the Divine Liturgy, the one sacrifice of Christ on Golgotha is made present.

    There are other “lesser” things that have more the character of veneration and honor. For example:

    Use of Incense
    Burning of Candles

    Etc. These last things are common to the veneration and honor of God as well as to the veneration and honor of the saints. Most moderns have no feel for the use of incense. It is a “fragrant offering” that was used in the Temple, but was also commonly used to honor a guest when they came into the home, etc.

    The lighting of candles, making of icons, etc. date back to the earliest centuries of the Church. Indeed, excavations have revealed the presence of holy images painted in synagogues contemporary to early Christianity.

    In a democratic culture and consciousness, the notion of hierarchy and honor are somewhat alien. Christ upbraids one of the Pharisees for not bathing his feet when he came as a guest (nor offering perfume).

    Orthodoxy has simply preserved the forms of ancient culture and did not seem odd at the time. Iconoclasm, in all of its forms, has been a hallmark of modern Christianity. I think there is a link between that iconoclasm and the devaluation of the human in many ways. Sometimes I suspect the delusions surrounding the doctrine of original sin to have driven much of this. Not only does contemporary Protestantism not honor the saints, but (in many places) has a very dark view of all Christians – as in Martin Luther’s view that we are all “dung heaps.”

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You might this article to be helpful.

  13. Santosh John Samuel Avatar
    Santosh John Samuel

    Thank you once again Father; your personal veneration of Mother Mary shines through what you’ve written.
    How we can profess to follow Christ and not honour Mary is beyond me, and i’ve stopped trying to convince anyone who does not get it instinctively. All i ask them is to call upon her and see if it works. (I cannot recall a single instance where it has not.)
    She who bore Christ and then helped (and watched) Him grow until His Cross has innumerable gifts and secrets to offer us — why miss out?

  14. Jeff Avatar

    And, Fr., since we truly live in a one storey universe, the honoring of all those who are in Christ must be so, …whether in this part of life or the other. We all (meaning those we see and those we do not) live. And we are not remiss when we honor a mentor or parent. We are not remiss if we honor someone who has loved greatly and sacrificed much in great humility. It follows, in a one storey universe, that even more so, we would honor the disciples of Christ, who live in him fully. And to not honor the very Mother of God above all of these others is not even slightly begrudged by them, for she deserves great honor. She was the one who first (maybe not chronologically, but first among us all) imaged him, and we owe her, at the very least our deepest respect, and even more than that the most exalted place at the table of our lives.

    I am not yet Orthodox, but your words here are the keystone to many other things, thoughts, and conversations I have been given by God as He sustains my faith and grows it. Thank you, Father Stephen. I honor you.

  15. David E. Rockett Avatar
    David E. Rockett

    Good stuff here Father…thank you.

  16. Albert Avatar

    Dean, I have both lakes in my memory — the one we can all share out near the high desert and the shallow one most of us within driving distance –and now, thanks to your comment, they are in my mind. I seem to be in sight of the deep blue one when I am at the Divine Liturgy. I can almost understand why some persons might want to live near, or even in, the desert. Too often I feel as though I am wading around the edges of a small, murky lake. Thanks for adding to Father Stephen’s very helpful reflection, parts of which I’d like to memorize so I could repeat his guiding words when I forget where I am.

  17. William Avatar

    Thank you Stephen for your excellent article. The true Orthodox understanding of Mary as presented here puts to rest a number of nagging questions I had regarding the topic. I have to admit my own esteem for her was quite a bit lower than it might should have been, and I was in error. The idea of her knowing exactly who He is! before the world hadn’t occurred to me and is a beautiful nuance and discovery.

    It seems like my honest search for the Heart of the Truth brings me ever-increasingly closer to The Orthodox Church.

    I still struggle with the Ecclesiastical Structure/Priest/Bishop… but I understand that there is less of a distinction between Laity and Clergy than one might perceive from the outside. The priesthood of believers is very real, no?

    I grew up Episcopal, now a Christian… I wonder about the Apostolic Deposit… The chrismation…

    We love the Word, repent, and are baptized FOR the remission of sins… if the Spirit is not found in the Watery grave of Baptism w/ Christ.. then where?

    I have read “Coming Home” and found it to be quite good, I am hoping to read the other Gillquist book or some of Ware’s.

    A few of the plainly visible Roman heresies I railed against have diminished with understanding, but I find the Orthodox neatly avoided many of these errors…

    There is an excellent resource of Russian Orthodox here, I wonder about Greek/Antiochian/Russian etc.

    Thank you for your time and kind heart.

  18. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,
    I think the real reason Mary is not venerable (or any saint for that matter) by Protestants is that the believe in Original Sin. The basis of almost every soteriology among Protestants is or was Total Depravity (which I still cannot separate from nuances on the Catholic understanding of Original Sin). So even Theotokos (which I don’t think too many Evangelicals or Reformed would have a problem with) has nothing to do with the fact that Mary was chosen -because- of her innocence and devotion to God – that is an impossibility. Their anthropology makes Mary impossible – because of OS/Total Depravity. The liberal Protestants in many cases rejected OS and Guilt often treat the NT and OT as historically unreliable (often motivated by a rejection of Calvinistic soteriology). Once Ancestral Sin (whether a neo-logism or not) is explained and elaborated on, they will be able to embrace Mary. But this will never happen with a starting presupposition that rules her out.

    If man through theosis, if his destiny was to be among the ruling household of God (since we are to judge angels), then those who have experienced theosis are already among that household. Mary would have pre-eminence as first among humans who have been made into gods. The logic is clear. But not if man was already perfect and immortal before the fall with a destiny of bliss had he never disobeyed. If man was to work synergistically, to receive immortality, to receive a place among the host of heaven – a divine and human family of God – then Mary was first, and deserves some respect. This will never happen in a monergistic system where man is so fallen that his will is useless and hopelessly corrupt. She will end up needing imputed righteousness, substitutionary atonement, escape from the wrath of God, etc.: she’s just a vessel. In fact, due to election and predestination, she could have been anyone.

  19. Dean Avatar

    Thanks for your kind words…for love of the beauty of liturgy and lakes!
    If you’ve never read Prayers by the Lake by St. Nikolai, it’s worth the read.

    Those who know theology better than I can perhaps respond to this.
    Because I believed in original sin as a Protestant I always wondered why Christ had not inherited it through His mother. Catholics seemed to have side-stepped this through their doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. But as Orthodox we do not have this problem since we do not believe in the depravity of man due to OS, only that our human nature is marred by our propensity to sin. This is not to say that we are not sinners. Each person must deal with his/her own sin (not Adam’s) through the saving and healing balm of Christ available to us in His Church through the blessed and life-imparting sacraments. The image of Church as hospital for healing is wonderful as is our being saved/healed through the medicine of immortality (Eucharist).

  20. Sue Avatar

    Thank you for this beautiful meditation on the Mother of God, Fr. Stephen!

    As I read your words about the wedding at Cana, I remembered something I wrote to a Protestant friend a few years ago about Mary in St. John’s Gospel:
    “St. John echoes the creation in Genesis at the beginning of his gospel. “In the beginning…” This format continues through the first two chapters with, “the next day”….”the next day”…”On the third day”, etc. This is important. John wrote specifically to a Hebrew audience with a deep knowledge of the scriptures. They would have understood that John was setting up a new creation story in his gospel: On the first day the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. On the second day John the Baptist proclaimed the Lord’s advent and Jesus’ was baptized (the sign of his Sonship). On the third day was the calling of the first disciples. On the fourth day was the calling of Philip and Nathanael…and on the third day after that, or the seventh day (the completion of the new creation), was the wedding feast at Cana. Jesus calls his mother “Woman” because that is the language of Genesis: Adam called Eve “woman” (Genesis 2:23). And just as the first woman led Adam to commit the first evil act in the Garden; Mary, the new Eve, leads the New Adam (Jesus) to perform his first glorious act. The wedding feast and wine are the symbols of the Messianic Age throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Isaiah 25:6-8 comes to mind as one such passage:
    ‘On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
    And he will swallow up on this mountain
    the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations.
    He will swallow up death forever;
    and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.’

    I’m not sure why it should bother anyone that Mary plays an important role in the New Covenant–she is God’s choice for this role, just as John the Baptist is God’s choice for the role of herald, and Peter for the role of principal disciple. But, what is it that Mary does exactly at the wedding feast? Does she perform a miracle? Not at all. All she does is point out that “They have no wine.” She does not beg or make a fuss. She then instructs the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary never takes the spotlight away from her Son; in fact, she puts the spotlight on him.”

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you! I had not noticed the pattern of the “days” – but it now seems so obvious. One reason, sadly, that I think some have a difficulty with Mary is that she does not fit well in a Christianity that is a newer, streamlined model. There’s no room on the postcard for her.

  22. Byron Avatar

    I’ll only add that, when I first joined the Orthodox Church, I regularly stood on the left side of the nave in front of the icon of the Theotokos during liturgy. At one point I commented to our Priest that I felt closer to the Theotokos when in liturgy and so wanted to stand near her. He just nodded and said, “yes, that is not uncommon for new converts.” It has always stuck with me that she leads us to her Son.

  23. Robert Avatar

    OS and total depravity have trouble explaining exactly why God had to wait so long before finally arriving for our salvation. It turns the Incarnation into a random event in the timeline of human history, which does damage to our understanding of God, free will, and the honor due to Mary.

    Damage to God, because it makes God into a decision maker who does things at random. A common refrain I hear from Protestants is that God simply chose Mary, and there isnt anything special about Mary that caused God to choose her – it could have been anyone. It also turns God from desiring a union and relationship with His creation to…well I’m not quite sure and I dont want to blaspheme God. A God who wants to share His love with us does not arbitrarily withhold His love.

    This denies free will and dishonors Mary at once. Of God truly honors our free will, He would not short circuit the Incarnation. The Incarnation is conditional on the Theotokos saying “yes”. If someone would have said “yes” prior to Mary, God would not have withheld the Incarnation. Note, this is also conditional on the Lord being rejected by His people to the point of executing Him. It is thus an act of love on God’s part, because He respected our free will and didn’t force anyone’s hand either in bearing Him or killing Him.

    This then has obvious implications for the status of Mary. God had to wait on us – we didn’t wait on God. The Theotokos then has the distinction of being the first one to step up to the plate. God in his omniscience knows what is 8n our heart’s and every decision we uniquely as individuals would make. Mary’s decision was itself conditional on her purity in all aspects of her life. She would have been unable to say yes if she wasnt pure in a way unique from any woman before her. It was not necessary for her to be immaculately conceived (which only brings back the problem of our free will – why couldn’t God pick someone much sooner to ‘immaculately conceive’ to be without sin to bear Him).

  24. Robert Avatar

    “The historical evidence for Mary’s veneration is so obvious that it is simply overlooked: her place in the gospel accounts.”

    I think for many Protestants this problem goes back to something you have talked about before Fr. Stephen, that is the natural consequence of sola scriptura turning Christians into a “People of the Book” a-la Islam. Christianity is not a religion based upon the ideas written in a book, but a religion based upon a historical memory – aka the dreaded “t” word to Protestants (tradition). The writing of the Gospels were a way to preserve that historical memory, or tradition, for later generations. Hence what is written in the Gospels, the epistles, and the apocalypse represent records of an already existing Church and what they had already believed. ‘Sola scriptura’ places the Bible first on the ‘timeline’ so to speak, even before Christ Himself. As Peter says, if there was no Resurrection (a historical event), there really wouldn’t be anything to this whole Christianity thing. The New Testament is one of the ways we have preserved this historical memory, or tradition, and that is why it is itself a product of tradition.

    Sola scriptura then actually elevates secular history above the Bible. Secular history then validates the Bible, while for us who see the Bible in it’s place within the tradition of the Church, the Bible validates history.

  25. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I am thrilled to read your comment…it is a blessing! Amazing how the search for Truth is drawing you nearer to the Orthodox Church. I can not speak for anyone else, but Almighty God knew, He just knew! my questions would be answered in the Orthodox Church. May I not be too presumptuous to hope to God the same for you!

    One of the things I first realized was that my thoughts toward our Blessed Mother were wrong in 50 different ways! I fell for the teachings out there that she was “just a vehicle”, and worse, they went out of their way to emphasize it, and so I did the same. I’m only two years in Orthodoxy, so still getting to “know” Her. Like a child, because that’s what I sounded like, I asked Her to help me get to know Her better…not so much by reading about Her, that too, but also by, how we say, a “knowing” or by “experience”. All I can say is I know She graciously hears my prayer. In the article Father linked to Matthew he mentions “lex orandi, lex credendi”, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” I found this to be true with how I approach the Theotokos…I simply began to venerate Her…prayed to Her, kiss Her image. I say simply, but with much desire to truly love and honor Her, from my heart, as I knew She is worthy.

    I hope you don’t mind me asking, William…I wonder if you’ve attended a Orthodox Divine Liturgy yet? The reason I ask is, like you, I read about the Church and was very interested, but it wasn’t until I went to Church, still with many unanswered questions, that I knew I was “home”…beyond the shadow of a doubt, the experience of the Divine Liturgy did it for me. This simply can not be described in words…that’s why we say “come and see”!
    Regardless, whatever path your journey takes, William, may you be greatly blessed! And thank you for your comment here.

  26. William Avatar

    Thank you very much for your dialogue.
    I haven’t attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy. I am looking forward to it.

    I won’t allow my ‘feelings’ to dictate anything… The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jer 17:9.

    The Truth can and does withstand severe scrutiny!

    I admit that I just looked at a virtual tour of the inside of a local cathedral… and it looks like Heaven.

    My poor little church won’t know what to do if I leave? *sigh* We’ll all have to convert.

  27. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    William….re: your last words “We’ll all have to convert.” …. that wouldn’t be the first time! It’s happened before!

    Byron @ 11:58 am….Sweet!

  28. MamaV Avatar

    Matthew Lyon did an excellent job of articulating why I (when I was a Protestant) had such a hard time understanding why Mary was a big deal. If everything is predestined, then Mary could have been anyone. I figured that she just had to be a virgin so that Joseph would know Jesus was God’s son. Or something.
    I am still getting to know our mother, the Theotokos, and coming to love her, but I am thankful to be surrounded by orthodox Christians who can emulate that love.
    Thank you for this writing, Fr Stephen.

  29. William Avatar

    Robert! Thank you for crystallizing something I did not know and highly value. How elementary and blind I feel

  30. Sue Avatar

    Dean, I am very interested in your question about the Orthodox teaching on Ancestral Sin regarding Mary and Jesus. I hope someone, or even a few people, will share their thoughts.

    I have been reading about Ancestral Sin and Original Sin (the Catholic teaching, not the Reformed Protestant doctrine) and trying to understand how they are different. I confess that they seem identical to me. Any difference appears to be a matter of wording (for example “ancestral” instead of “original”); the words, though different, seem to articulate the same truth. On the other hand, although the Catholic Church and Reformed Protestant churches both use the same words “Original Sin” their teachings are very different. This is confusing!

    Sometimes, here in the comments, no distinction is made between the Protestant and Catholic views of OS. Whereas the former hinges on a penal substitutionary theory of atonement which was foreign to the early Church Fathers, the latter hinges on a theory of atonement that is both in accordance with the teachings of the early Fathers and with the various figures/types revealed in Scripture (rather than giving primacy to any particular figure/type such as illness/healing).

    In an effort to understand what is meant by Ancestral Sin, I searched this site and read all of the posts that contained the term. In doing so, I came across a post titled “The Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos” and this reference from the OCA website:
    “…For a long time St Anna was childless, but after twenty years, through the fervent prayer of both spouses, an angel of the Lord announced to them that they would be the parents of a daughter, Who would bring blessings to the whole human race.The Orthodox Church does not accept the teaching that the Mother of God was exempted from the consequences of ancestral sin (death, corruption, sin, etc.) at the moment of her conception by virtue of the future merits of Her Son. Only Christ was born perfectly holy and sinless, as St Ambrose of Milan teaches in Chapter Two of his Commentary on Luke.The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in Her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although She committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, She would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from Her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibility of our salvation is in doubt.”

    This made me wonder about many things. For one, Catholics also look to the teachings of St. Ambrose of Milan (among many other early Fathers) for their understanding of Mary’s Immaculate Conception:
    “Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.” (Commentary on Psalm 118:22-30 [A.D. 387])

    Dean, regarding your question about Mary, I wonder why you consider the Catholic Church to have “side-stepped” the issue. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a matter of dogma for Catholics. In other words, it is essential to the Faith; you can’t be Catholic and not believe it. Not that this matters to Orthodox Christians. But, if one is investigating the matter, it is probably wise to examine all claims closely.

    I also wonder, if Mary was born with Ancestral Sin–the same as we are–then how could she be the new Eve? In order to fulfill this role, wouldn’t she have to be Eve’s ontological equal? Eve was born a “real” human (ontologically speaking). Her turning away from God led Adam to commit the first sin, inviting disorder and its consequences into creation, and rendering her offspring mortal, subject to decay, unclean, and separated from God; in other words “less than” human. It seems to me that Mary would have to be born a “real” human (ie. not disordered) in order for her fiat to have eternal import for us–in order to conceive the order/righteousness/life needed for our salvation.

    As I sort through this, I am struggling to see how being born a “real” human (ie. as God intended humans to be) would disqualify Mary from experiencing temptation or death in this disordered world. According to the passage sited above, Orthodox believe that “Only Christ was born holy and sinless,” yet, He still suffered temptation and physical death like us. If Mary or Jesus inherited Ancestral Sin/Original Sin, then wouldn’t they actually be “less than” fully human? Our Lord saves us from being “less than”–dead in our sins– and raises us to true (full) human life by virtue of His being both fully human and fully God.

    There seems to be many early Church Fathers who taught that Mary was sinless from conception. Here are just a few quotes to ponder:

    From Hippolytus:
    “He [Jesus] was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle [Mary] was exempt from defilement and corruption” (Orat. In Illud, Dominus pascit me, in Gallandi, Bibl. Patrum, II, 496 ante [A.D. 235]).

    From St. Ephraem the Syrian:
    “Mary and Eve, two people without guilt, two simple people, were identical. Later, however, one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life” (Op. syr. II, 327; Ott, 201)

    Proclus of Constantinople:
    “As He formed her without any stain of her own, so He proceeded from her contracting no stain” (Homily 1[ante A.D. 446]).

    Romanos the Melodist;
    “Then the tribes of Israel heard that Anna had conceived the immaculate one. So everyone took part in the rejoicing. Joachim gave a banquet, and great was the merriment in the garden. He invited the priests and Levites to prayer; then he called Mary into the center of the crowd, that she might be magnified” (On the Birth of Mary 1 [d. ca A.D. 560]).

    St. Sophronius:
    “… full of divine wisdom, and free from all contamination of body, soul, and spirit. For this purpose, a holy Virgin is chosen and is sanctified in soul and body; and thus, because pure, chaste and immaculate, she is able to serve in the Incarnation of the Creator.” (Epistola synodica ad Sergium 648)

    Theotokos of Livias:
    “She is born like the cherubim, she who is of a pure, immaculate clay.” ,(Panegyric for the feast of the Assumption 5:6 {ante A.D. 650).

    St Andrew of Crete:
    . . . . “Today, humanity recovers the gift it had received when first formed by divine hands, and returns immaculate to its original nobility. The shame of sin had cast a shadow upon the splendor and charm of human nature; but when the Mother of Him who is Beauty itself is born, this nature recovers in her person its ancient privileges, and is fashioned according to a perfect model, truly worthy of God. And this fashioning is a perfect restoration; this restoration is a divinization, and this divination is an assimilation to the primitive state. . . . In a word, the reformation of our nature begins today; the world, which had grown old, undergoes a transformation which is wholly divine, and receives the first-fruits of its second creation.” (650-740 AD Homily 1 in the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin)

    John of Damascus:
    “O most blessed loins of Joachim from which came forth a spotless seed! Oh glorious womb of Anne in which a most holy offspring grew.” , Homily 1 {ante A.D. 749).

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the mistake you are making is thinking that ancestral sin means ancestral guilt. It does not. Sin is death, corruption, decay, etc. When Adam and Eve sin – it is death that comes into the world (“for as in Adam, all die”). It is not about guilt. The Orthodox hold that Mary is free from any “sin” in the sense that she maintained the integrity of her will in obedience. But, she was born subject to death (we believe that she died of natural causes). Christ dies because He is willing to submit to it – but is not subject to death, etc. Death could not hold Him.

    We confess of Mary that she is “Most pure, most holy, most glorious, Lady, Theotokos and Ever-Virgin. The Immaculate Conception, as I understand it (and am willing to be corrected) holds that she was free from the original sin (original guilt) of Adam which St. Augustine and later Catholicism in the West held to be communicated by concupiscence (sexual desire in procreation). This notion of original sin (guilt) is not taught in Orthodoxy.

    It is the notion of sin as guilt that is not present in Orthodoxy – and, if I am not mistaken, has been quite dominantly present in most of the West (including Roman Catholicism) for quite some time.

    Frankly, I love St. Ambrose – but I would never cite a Western Father on dogmatic matters for the simple reason that they frequently failed to grasp what the Church was teaching with real clarity. With the exception of Pope Leo, they contributed almost nothing to the early councils. Augustine’s Trinitarian teaching seems largely ignorant of the work of the previous century that was so important (his knowledge of Greek was quite scanty).

    It is helpful in distinguishing East and West to understand the rather strong differentiation about the nature of sin itself. For most of the West, death is a punishment on account of sin. In the East, death and sin are pretty much synonymous. It is not a punishment. Death is the failure to live in communion with God who alone is the source of life.

  32. Kathy Avatar

    Sue, I loved your explanation of the wedding at Canna! It has always been a mysterious story to me.
    I am a convert and must say that prayer to and veneration of Mary was one of the last hindrances.
    The thoughts that led me to her are very simplistic and not very theological but were revelationary to me.
    I had an acquaintance who was contemplating leaving her husband. I was conversing with her about it and said ,” Can’t you find anything to love and honor your husband for?’
    “No”, she said.
    “What about your children? You wouldn’t have them without him.”
    “I would have other children.” she replied.
    That horrified me! She already knew and loved those children…how could she ever think of the world without them?
    It took several years before this story opened my eyes to Mary. My Protestant background taught me that had Mary said no—someone else would have been chosen. She was only a vessel as many of you have said. Did we not know that if anyone but Mary had been chosen by God, we would not have Jesus Christ!We might have had someone else, but it would not have been the Jesus who we have both seen and do know. When I saw the truth of this, I felt the same horror that I did that day talking to my friend. I already know and love “this” Jesus. He died for us! How could Mary ever be separated from this story? She also must have been chosen from the foundation of the world. I can certainly venerate that!!!

  33. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Byron – When I first went to St. Anne’s I was captivated by the icon of the Mary. I have offered a candle to her at every service since.

  34. Justin Avatar

    Sue – I first became aware of Mary in the OT via Johns Gospel. Christ is presented as all the things that the Tabernacle/Temple furniture contained – so that obviously left Mary as the container! Christ is the Lamb who was slain, Mary the Altar; Christ the Living water, Mary the Laver, Christ the light, Mary the Lampstand, Christ the Bread of Life, Mary the Table of Shewbread, etc.

  35. Dean Avatar

    I misspoke when I said, “sidestepped. ”
    Catholics needed the dogma of 1854 so that the guilt of OS ( as they believe) was not passed on to Christ.
    Again, Fr. Stephen, thank you for what you write as I would often flounder if left to my own devices. Especially what you have written in the article and your comments is so apropos for this moment as we are on the very eve of Dormition.
    Our holy Mother is the new Eve as noted above. She is and has been mother to millions. I lost my earthly mother 10 years ago. But I am not bereft of maternal love. All who flee to the Theotokos have ” her warm protection.” Even as my heart glows in love for her she is pointing me to her beloved Son.

  36. Levi Avatar

    Thank you for this, I have never been able to explain who Mary is, I find this to be such an intimate and powerful relationship . Not doctrinal for me but rather something that is alive.

  37. Jeff Avatar

    God bless everyone taking part in this conversation… As I continue reading these comments, my eyes see more and more. God’s patience with all of us is so serenely good. I thank him for his love and patience.

    Pondering what I’ve read, I’m realizing a little more about myself. Having grown up semi-protestant (basically Mennonite; I guess another historical moniker is “radical reformer”), I never gave the veneration of Mary or any of the saints much thought. This state of things was not because I was Mennonite (I merely state that for context), it is most likely more due to my familial upbringing and my own approach to the world. Whenever I have thought about these things, I was basically dismissive, thinking, “That’s not the right way, ” and “Sounds like superstition to me.” It’s almost as though I thought of the veneration, or, as I perceived it then, worship, as more of a talisman. This particular perception was probably due to pop culture, e.g., movies that portrayed people who would invoke Mary or other saints when they were in a bind, kissing a ring or a statue for “good luck” or protection.

    I only realized any of this thought process, because I was brought to ponder Mary through this post and its comments. This morning, after reading the latest comments, I was beginning the rest of my day. I let the dog out. As I sat waiting, I thought of Mary, and I considered asking her for guidance, or something, I’m not exactly sure what. I think I just thought I’d talk to her. And this is where, based on my early comment, I realized something.

    If we do live in one storey, this means that those people who love the Lord, whether living here in their first bodies or living elsewhere in their glorified bodies are all equally alive. Well, not equally, those who continue to live in their earthly bodies and love Jesus are being “sanctified” (isn’t that a more protestant term?) while those who have passed over are as alive as they were ever meant to be. Forgive the digression, the point being, just because they’ve died does not make the saints talismans, nor are they mere superstition, they are still people, people who love God, are in God, and are now our “great cloud of witnesses.”

    I say all that to say, I thought of Mary as more of an aberration, and not the divine Mother of God. But even more than that, I realized this morning, as I’ve done that with Mary and all the saints, I have also done that with Jesus. I have abstracted Him. He has been a set of ideas that give me comfort. As I am slowly escaping the bonds of modernism, I am returning to being human and leaving dis-integration. Jesus is making me alive because he is alive, not because he had a great plan, or is the ultimate idea of the human being.

    So sitting on the couch, I had just a glimpse of the presence of Mary and Jesus, just as I would have the sense of my wife’s presence sitting with me, talking about the day. Jesus is here. Jesus introduces me to His Mother. We shake hands…and then we hug. She says, “I’ve ‘heard’ so much about you. It’s good to finally meet you.” (‘Heard’ because, she’s always known; it’s me who is having his eyes opened.)

    The most sobering revelation is that I have treated Jesus as a talisman just as much as I have Mary or any of the other saints.

    Lord have mercy.
    Lord have mercy.
    Lord have mercy.

    Thank you for loving me…for being my life, my motion, my very being; for in you I live, and move, and have my being.

    Glory to God for all things.

  38. Maria Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. This was wonderful. Also all the comments – thank you to everyone. I have come to appreciate Mary, and love the Dormition. However I feel alienated a bit from it all, just due to the fanciful nature of the story of the apostles being called miraculously to her side. Some of the very fanciful stories of Mary and the saints are frustrating to me.
    Does anyone have any advice on these things?

  39. Simon Avatar

    Maria, I sympathize and feel the same way. However, it is my experience that Orthodoxy isnt interested in mere intellectual acquiescence. If you accept them on the terms in which the Church presents these stories, that is fine. But I also think there is a sense in which the apostles became present and we are also present at the Dormition upon the creation and veneration of the icon.

  40. Scott Avatar

    From Scott;
    Father and to all who have commented today,
    I am not Orthodox, but am beginning this journey. There are days when I seem to be overwhelmed. Then a time like this when I know I am on my way home. I have been Lutheran for 53 years. In some way I think I could thank Luther for this nudge to Orthodoxy. I have one request that you pray for me and all who are on this new journey to home.
    God the Father, God the Son and Holy Spirit bless you all

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God grant you grace and strength! My late Archbishop, Dmitri of Dallas (the first convert to become a bishop in the Western Hemisphere), always told those of us who entered Orthodoxy later in life, “Try not to speak ill of where you came from. It helped you get to where you are.” Indeed.

  42. Sue Avatar

    Hi Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you so much for both of your replies to my comments. I appreciate you taking the time to read through my (lengthy!) thoughts and responding to them so quickly. Your explanation of Ancestral Sin helped me to better understand the Orthodox Church’s position.

    You wrote that sin and death are pretty much synonymous for Orthodox. I’m sorry, but I have to ask this: is it pretty much synonymous, or is it synonymous? Because in the Catholic view, sin also means death. But the Catholics draw their view from such verses as, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:15). In each of these passages, “sin” and “death” are both used. The words are closely linked, but it appears that one follows from the other; death follows from sin. It is accurate then, for Catholics to say “sin means death”, but if I ask them: what was the first sin? The answer would be: “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in His goodness.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 397). Is this in-line with the Orthodox view of the first sin and all subsequent sin, or is the Orthodox view different?

    You wrote that I am making the mistake of thinking that Ancestral Sin means ancestral guilt. I don’t know where I gave you that impression, Father. To my knowledge, in the Catholic Church’s teaching on Original Sin, the words “guilt” and “punishment” are never used. (However, I understand that the concept of guilt is essential to the reformed Protestant doctrine which is also called Original Sin.) The Catholic teaching on Original Sin is clearly articulated in the Catechism. The section dealing with Original sin can be found online at this link: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p7.htm

    It is worth noting that the Catholic Church does not describe Original Sin in terms of “punishment”. “Nor does Original Sin have the character of a personal fault in any of Adams’ descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin–an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence’ (Catechism of Catholic Church, paragraph 405).

    This is the Catholic Church’s definition of concupiscence: “Conversion to Christ, the new birth of Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ received as food have made us ‘holy and without blemish,”‘just as the Church herself, the Bride of Christ, is ‘holy and without blemish.’ Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.” (The Catechism of the Christian Mystery, Chapter Two, Article 4, II. “Why A Sacrament of Reconciliation After Baptism?” paragraph 1426). Concerning Mary, Catholics believe she was born without Original Sin, as holy and unblemished as if she were Baptized in St. Anne’s womb (my analogy, not the CC’s), but she is fully human–a creature–and thus subject to concupiscence in this life, wherein she remained sinless by God’s grace and obedient to Him in all things until the end of her life. (Note: The Catholic Church has never formally defined whether she died or not, but the almost universal consensus is that she did die. Catholics believe that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven, like Enoch and Elijah.)

    Concerning the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Catholic Church teaches that Mary was born without the stain of Original Sin (but this has nothing to do with “guilt”). As I understand it, this doctrine was actually first taught by “eastern” Fathers. Ironically, this led to a theological debate in the Church, where a few “western” Fathers (notably St. Bernard) argued against it based on their mistaken understanding of concupiscence. Professor Lawrence Feingold (Ave Maria University) gave an excellent talk on this topic which is posted here: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/12/marys-immaculate-conception/ “St. Bernard reasoned that since concupiscence was present in the conjugal act, it was impossible for Mary to be conceived without sin. But that is a mistake, not only because concupiscence is not sin, but because concupiscence belonged only to Mary’s active conception, not to her passive conception. There is no contradiction between concupiscence in the parents in the marital act (i.e. in active conception–human will), and being conceived-without-sin, in passive conception (ie. God’s will)” (Bryan Cross–author of the post linked above).

    I was surprised by your fourth paragraph, Father. Besides St. Ambrose, I believe that only one of the other eight Fathers I quoted was “western”. Catholics do not discriminate between Church Fathers based on their geography, and I confess, it is a strange and rather off-putting concept to me. Didn’t St. Paul teach in his letter to the Galations, chapter 3 that “in Christ there is no east or west” (to quote a John Wesley hymn)? Furthermore, before Christ created “Paul” anew, the man “Saul” zealously persecuted Christians. So, the idea that St. Augustine’s teachings are invalid because of his origins / language skills seems like a denial of the power of God in the Bishop of Hippo. Far be it from me to say which Bishops’ teachings are correct.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement: Death is the failure to live in communion with God who alone is the source of life.

    Thank you for your excellent posts and for your patience with people like me. May God continue to bless your good work here, Fr. Stephen.

  43. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    Adding on to Fr. Freeman, and maybe just repeating what he said: Mary was born with Ancestral Sin – the uncleanness of death – but the uncleanness of death is not the same thing as moral sin. I’ve been studying Leviticus – a most neglected book of the Bible and the differences between uncleanness and moral sin are in stark contrast. There was a way to be clean in the sacrificial system which Mary would have taken part in. The uncleanness could be dealt with – moral crime was punished. Purity of heart always supersedes ritual purity. That’s why Gentiles who are not circumcised can be said to have the faith of Abraham. That’s why Jesus can point out over and over the faith of the non-Jew even to the point of being astonished. I don’t know how to spell out in detail how all of this would apply to Mary – but I do know it is possible to uphold her sinlessness and the fact that she needed redeemed from death at the same time.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was priveledged to be in attendance at the celebration of a Marian Feast about nine years ago at which His Grace Bishop Basil gave an unexpected extemporaneus homily on Mary that had everyone in tears of joy by the end. It was on the real, present and unmistakable fact that she is, was and will always be a human mother. A person and lover of God. Theotokos to be sure but the foundation of that is her human motherhood. I wish there were a recording.

    Amongst all the theological and spiritual statements, it is easy to loose track of her human motherhood. Her Son fulfills the Commandment of God to honor father and mother.

    Is that not the foundation of our honoring her?

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Like Simon, I sympathize. On the one hand, all of the feasts of Mary have huge theological content – something that triumphs over historical questions in some cases. Certain matters concerning material outside of the Scriptures has been questioned or debated in the early Church. But, it was not a culture that primarily thought of history as being the primary locus of meaning. There was/is a comfort with rather poetic accounts – particularly if the poetry is pointing to something theologically true.

    As a modern (and we’re all modern to some extent because it’s the culture we swim in) there are times that we want to get our feet on some solid historical ground and walk around a bit. There are places I go (a number of them in the Scriptures) when that is what I need. But I need more than that.

    You should not ever force yourself to believe something that you don’t believe – nor should anyone seek to force that. Orthodoxy does not demand that kind of approach to everything. I always tell people to take it slowly.

  46. Simon Avatar

    I want to share a story, but I am very hesitant to do so only because stories like these are easily misunderstood. During vespers last night, I had my son in the foyer of the church because he was being fussy. So, at one point it occurred to me to see what he would do with the icons of Jesus and Mary that are set up for the little people. We venerate the icons in the sanctuary in front of the iconostasis, but usually I shoo him away from the ones in the foyer mainly because he can be unpredictable. So, when I stood him in front of the little people icons I was going to do what I usually do, but he beat me to it. He walked right up to the icon of Mary and bent over and kissed it. Not once. Not twice. I didn’t count. He kissed her, looked at her, and kissed her again…I didn’t count. He hugged the icon of Mary. He laid his little head on the icon and hugged the icon of Mary. He then gave her more kisses and then another full on hug. He looked at the icon a little bit and then I am pretty sure he licked it. I thought to myself, “This is much more than what He and I ever do when we venerate icons. For him to give hugs or kisses isn’t unusual. He’s a touchy-feely kid. But, this was unusual even for him.

    I’m not saying it means anything…I’m just telling a story.

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, good story.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I can’t really respond in any depth to this – in that I lack a real knowledge of contemporary Catholic teaching. I’ve often had the sense that the Catechisms (with its revisions over the centuries) represents something of a moving target.

    I would say that, to a certain extent, the entire way of thinking about these things between Orthodox and RC are two very different languages. RC still has a strong flavor of scholasticism (particularly in the Catechism) with a very strong tendency to sound rather mechanical in its explanations (to my ear).

    Sin and death: They are not precisely synonymous in Orthodoxy, but are so intertwined that they are hard to separate. We do not think of sin as the cause of death – indeed, I’m not sure what “sin” would mean in that concept. Sin could be described as the severing of communion with God, or a deviation in the direction of a soul (moving towards non-existence rather than towards union with God). But, essentially, that’s what death is as well. So, they’re virtually synonymous.

    Both terms have other shades of meaning such that they are not, strictly speaking, interchangeable – or least not without creating some confusion.

    As to East and West – All of the Fathers, when studied properly, have to be read in a critical manner. None of them are without error, or the potential for error. That’s why Councils are made up of more than one bishop. Augustine, Ambrose, etc., have many excellent things to say, but they have the weakness of not being fluent in the language and thought that was the language and thought of the Councils. God could and does use every language and culture – but the definitive teachings and understandings of the Church were worked out in their greatest depth in a Greek Hellenistic context. That’s just the historical fact.

    I would say that today, for example, no one can understand the Scriptures in the manner of a teacher if they do not read and understand Greek. Hebrew is useful as well – indeed, the more languages the better. All of the Fathers have to be read together, critically, with some knowledge of the setting, the background issues, and as much of the subtleties as possible. We cannot simply pull quotes out of texts and think we know what they mean – frequently we don’t.

    What God “can” do and what He has actually done are not at all the same thing. From an Orthodox perspective, there are many, many things within contemporary Roman Catholicism that are simply unthinkable – whether it’s the charismatic movement, clown masses, or simply the uncritical importation of modern philosophies. We live in very troubled times.

  49. MamaV Avatar

    One of my sons is adopted from an orphanage and he is a very troubled child. I can count the number of genuine kisses he has given me on one hand. Maybe on one finger. But every liturgy when we are about to take communion he gives the Jesus icon a big ol’ kiss. It’s amazing.
    Glory to God.

  50. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Mama V….your words about Jesus with your son are precious…

  51. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Simon…I didn’t see your story until just now…
    that’s truly amazing…very precious.
    Again…I see it as what Christ and His Mother does to us…the children are easier recipients because they are just raw! Totally themselves…
    Great story!

  52. Andrew Avatar

    Revering the Theotokos is a powerful belief indeed in an age where books are coming out with authors all saying in one sense or another that the solution for the next stage of Christianity is to reduce and reduce, chop away and chop away even beyond the level of Protestantism we’ve inherited (giving in to deconstructionism or at least minimalism thought) until what’s left over is a husk as vacuous (yet potentially agreeable) as the old medieval Dualism where no building for worship even applied, or the flight from all creation that is Theravada Buddhism. And the human heart despairs still. What you get left is not pure, it’s skeletal.

    It disgusts me. It’s apostasy. An untrained mind that doesn’t know (or perhaps want) holiness as it truly exists, will strip down. I come from an eastern Christian country and I KNOW better. As a Protestant I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten mad at women, diabolically mad, because my soul didn’t have any solace in a Heavenly Mother.

    I can’t rationalize but I need Mary the Theotokos.

  53. Karen Avatar

    Simon, Mama V.,

    I think the Lord allows us the clearest glimpses of His Kingdom (His own Nature and Presence) through our children. Your stories, to me, are evidence of that.

    My special needs daughter was baptized in my Orthodox parish on August 5. (Thanks to all who were praying for her—it was a beautiful service.) She is 18, but her heart and mind are incapable of the sophistication of adulthood. I worried how she would manage all the rites because of her social awkwardness and the anxieties that accompany that. She did really well, reading the last bit of her vows all by herself and saying the Creed confidently with the rest of us. She has been insuppressibly full of joy from the moment her baptism was scheduled. She wrote the most beautiful thank you note to our Priest afterwards. Since that day, she has been praying and reading her Bible daily (putting her mother to shame), praying for her recently deceased great aunt and other departed members of the family as well as her living relatives and friends and generally throwing herself wholeheartedly into the expression of her faith. She was complaining of soreness in her chest and woke me up earlier this week with the horrible hacking of her cough. She insisted on attending Dormition vespers with me anyway and wanted to go to (her first) Confession that evening. Then, still complaining of her symptoms, she also insisted on attending the Feast Liturgy with me and taking Communion (her second time) yesterday. She spontaneously informed me earlier today that she had, had no symptoms of cough or chest pain since taking Communion….

    That Grace given to the newly illumined certainly seems evident in her case. I believe this is because in her simplicity she simply receives with joy what I struggle to embrace and so often reject in my blindness and distraction with things of this world. May the Lord have mercy on me and continue to glorify Himself in my daughter!

  54. Simon Avatar

    I hesitate to indulge magical thinking…but I seriously wondered if my kid wasn’t seeing something I wasn’t seeing.

  55. MamaV Avatar

    Simon, I have another daughter from the same orphanage as my son. She is severely delayed in every area of development and requires total care. The absolute bliss that she exhibits during the cherubic hymn every week definitely makes me wonder what she sees. Even if she’s not having visions she definitely “gets it” better than I do.

  56. Simon Avatar


    It was enough to make me wonder. I went in to get another parishioner to see it because I had never seen anything like that before. For whatever it’s worth, I was impressed.

  57. MamaV Avatar

    That kind of thing makes water come out of my eyes, Simon 🙂

  58. Sue Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Yes, we indeed live in very troubled times.

    I commented here because I wanted to know the difference between Ancestral Sin (Orthodox) and Original Sin (Catholic) because the teachings seem identical to me. Although you and other commenters say there is a difference, so far no one has been able to articulate it to me.

    Some commenters (both to this post and to other posts on this site) have made statements about the Catholic Church that are incorrect. I attempted to share the truth about what the Catholic Church teaches from Catholic Church sources. All of the sources I shared, I referenced. I am aware of the dangers of using Sacred Scripture or Patristic writings as “proof texts”. Nothing I shared about Original Sin or the Immaculate Conception is my own teaching.

    I agree with everything you wrote in the fifth and sixth paragraphs of your last comment about East and West and how to understand Sacred Scripture. To my knowledge, this is also what the Catholic Church teaches, and it is what I believe.

    In all of my comments here, I have been respectful to the Orthodox Faith. I have not made any erroneous statements about it, nor questioned the validity of Her teachings, nor cast aspersions on Her by pointing out specific areas of abuse. Yes, there is abuse within the Catholic Church, of course there is– the Church has fought against it since the beginning –, but the Deposit of Faith passed on to the apostles in Sacred Scripture and Tradition is the Church’s possession of unchangeable truth–certainly not “a moving target”.

    I deeply appreciate everything you and the other commenters have shared about the Orthodox faith. I have read many very beautiful things on this site.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sorry to have been a bit bumpy in my last reply.

    In truth, “Ancestral Sin” is not an ancient term within the Fathers to my knowledge, nor is it found in any Orthodox formularies, per se. As I noted in a reply to another commenter, it is a bit of a neo-logism, popularized by Fr. John Romanides, whom I think overdid his use of it.

    The fact is that Orthodoxy doesn’t really speak particularly about ancestral or original sin. For example, though we Baptize infants, we do not believe that the unbaptized are therefore marked by sin. They, in fact, are born innocent. They are, however, born mortal. It is in our mortality and all that goes with it that we are corrupted.

    Orthodoxy does not generally speak of a fallen nature, or of our nature somehow being distorted. It’s not our nature that has fallen – it’s that we are not able to live in accordance with our nature. The Reformed people go to very serious lengths with the fallen nature stuff, and I don’t know what place that holds in Catholic thought.

    A major difference in East and West has very much been the way of speaking or thinking about certain things. Not so much the conclusions – but the actual train of thought itself. I have known Catholics who are very “Orthodox minded” about the faith, and I think that is entirely possible. I also think that it’s more than possible for some Orthodox not to be very Orthodox-minded.

    When I say we are in troubled times – I mean to say that it is difficult to speak with clarity about some things.

    Romanides’ use of the term Ancestral Sin was specifically an attempt to make a distinction between Orthodox thought and Catholic thought. There is, in his book, Ancestral Sin, an account of what he understood the West to mean by Original Sin. That’s probably the best place to read and judge the matter.

    Blessings. I ask your forgiveness for any offense.

  60. Yvette Cathers Avatar
    Yvette Cathers

    I’d also mention what was included in yesterday’s daily scripture reading for the observance of the Dormition of the Theotokos:

    “When the time drew nigh that our Savior was well-pleased to take His Mother to Himself, He declared unto her through an Angel that three days hence, He would translate her from this temporal life to eternity and bliss. On hearing this, she went up with haste to the Mount of Olives, where she prayed continuously. Giving thanks to God, she returned to her house and prepared whatever was necessary for her burial. While these things were taking place, clouds caught up the Apostles from the ends of the earth, where each one happened to be preaching, and brought them at once to the house of the Mother of God, who informed them of the cause of their sudden gathering.”

    Why would Christ gather all the apostles from all ends of the earth only to assemble for the passing of a “mere vessel” ? A protestant friend of mine tried to tell me Mary was just a vessel, and not worthy of veneration, and that Catholics (and Orthodox as well) worship her, which is false.

  61. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Hi Sue-
    this article might be of help:

    The difference between OS and AS doesn’t lie within the nature of the sin (the first parents’ loss of trust in God and their turning from him). The difference lies in the teaching of what has been inherited because of that sin/turning away. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and I learned there that all humans inherit Adam’s guilt, and that Adam’s guilt is passed on to successive generations simply by the process of human reproduction; therefore, Christ’s death deals primarily with this guilt, and sort of secondarily with death. In Orthodoxy, what is passed on is not Adam’s guilt; each person is guilty of his/her own sins. What is passed on is the condition of death, since that is the result of turning away from (that is, not trusting) the Source of Life.

    One way to think about the intertwining of sin and death is expressed in Hebrews 2.14-15, which is in the middle of a passage that talks about why Christ had to suffer and die. It says, “…he himself likewise partook of the same nature (humanity – D.), that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death (that is, the devil) and release all those who were subject to lifelong bondage because of the fear of death.” We do the things we do that miss the mark of being human (the word for sin in Greek means “missing the mark”) because of our fear of death/nonexistence. Our inclination is to do anything to survive by means of our own resources, no matter what the cost to others around us – or even our own selves. So the first and major thing from which we need deliverance – the deliverance Christ’s death accomplished – is the power of death (which we can in no way accomplish ourselves), not the moral guilt of Adam’s breaking of a rule. I find this to be on a very different level than simply breaking a rule/commandment and that rule-breaking being sort of the point and end of the issue.

    Scripture says that Christ deals with our personal guilt by bearing or bearing away our sins, or “becoming sin”. Fr Stephen has some good articles on this in the archives.


  62. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    What a blessing to read about your daughter’s “first days” at Church! Along with the other comments about the children, it just stirs my heart!
    I had a little laugh where you said her diligence is putting you to shame! God bless her…and you!
    Your last paragraph expresses well my thoughts about how the simplicity of children allows for easier reception of God’s presence. I can only imagine the joy a parent receives in witnessing these things! The love and grace of God….!

  63. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Sue – I think one of the interesting differences between the Roman and the Eastern church is the almost complete absence of apologetics in the Eastern church. God is a given in the Eastern church. There is nothing to be proved. That is but one example of the radically different paradigms of the East and the West. It is not really a difference in ideas. It is a difference in world views. Romans are anxious to understand and prove something. The Orthodox are anxious to live and experience something. Just my personal view as a former Catholic trying to live an Orthodox life.

  64. juliania Avatar

    Father, I have two things to say about the importance of the Theotokos from my own limited reflections on the Gospel stories in which she has a part. I have been most taken by the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Luke, where a contrast (it seems to me) occurs between the soon to be father of Saint John the forerunner being addressed by the angel Gabriel, and the story very similarly presented, of the Annunciation. It’s just beautiful, I think, and could be considered the source of her designation as the new Eve. To me, there is great dignity along with humility in her acceptance which gives promise to the whole human race of the path to intimacy with God.

    Secondly, I do see a challenge being given by her Son in the marriage feast situation. Something similar to, if greater than, the challenge He gives the Canaanite woman, and also the Samaritan woman. And, from a lecture I once attended given by an Orthodox professor, a likeness which Dostoievski hints at – that of the challenge of Satan to Christ after His baptism, and an answer to Ivan’s enigmatic Grand Inquisitor tale.

    Dostoievski has Alyosha thinking at his critical time listening to the reading about the first miracle, that the people at the wedding must have been poor to have run out of wine. It’s a different problem from duplicitly assuaging hungry masses of people with bread – it’s wine, at a wedding feast! His mother’s friends! Such a gentle but effective contrast to the grandeur of Satan’s challenge that so captivated the intellectual Ivan.

    I don’t know if Dostoievski actually saw what he was doing in contrasting these two Scriptural passages, and I haven’t done justice to the lecture here. I just know I was very moved by the suggestion and have always remembered it. And well, it’s in his name, isn’t it? “Dostoynoi est”… “In truth we call thee blessed…”

  65. juliania Avatar

    Sue, I’d like to thank you for the helpful measure in which you have explained Catholic theology, as correcting some misunderstandings I myself have had, and also eliciting from Father Freeman a lovely reminder of how Orthodoxy differs in some respects. I had some Catholic schooling though not a Catholic myself, and always consider that to have been an important part of my path to Orthodoxy.

    An aspect that Father Freeman brought forward in his last comment to you helped me clarify my own thoughts when he spoke of the innocence of the child in Orthodox tradition. To my mind, this attitude (as I would call it) would make , would it not, every conception – I hesitate to say immaculate, but at the very most a great mystery in the advent of a new person coming into the world. That, I think, helps us to consider the Theotokos as most purely from childhood retaining that state into which we all were born. She is without doubt the best one of us. Thanks to all, and happy feast!

  66. Sue Avatar

    To Fr. Stephen and Dana:

    Fr. Stephen,

    You have my forgiveness and also my gratitude for everything you expressed in your last comment. I cannot tell you how much I have learned from you and the readers of this blog.

    Thank you for taking the time to think about my question and for your thoughtful reply. In my research on Ancestral Sin, I did read the article you linked.

    It is unfortunate (and perhaps especially true here in the United States) that Catholics learn many things that aren’t actually part of the Faith. I wonder if this is true in the Orthodox Church, as well?

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sue, David, et al
    I have taken the enormous liberty of editing Sue’s comment and removing the link to the article cited. The author has a track record that is concerning to me, and I’ll say no more in that direction.

    I will simply add that Orthodoxy does not teach of a “limbo” nor that unbaptized babies are consigned to the devil. The Council of Carthage is probably one of the most contentious points within what can marginally be called “Orthodox history.” It is an extreme Council – with St Augustine in attendance, driving a point against Pelagianism that was largely foreign to the East. It’s canons, though ratified in the Council in Trullo, remain a matter of great debate, and lack the sort of wide acceptance that normally are seen as necessary to a Council’s true ratification. Orthodoxy does not hold that Councils have authority simply because they took place and said something – they have to actually be received into the common life and practice of the Church.

    The article also made use of the work of St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain. Much of his work is extremely derivative of later Roman Catholicism and frequently comes under criticism on a number of points. He should not be cited as an exemplar of Orthodox thought.

    Sorry if I’m sowing confusion.

  68. William Avatar

    The reply concerning the Council of Carthage, Pelagianism, was very helpful to me.
    I thank you for faithfully presenting what Orthodoxy does NOT teach.
    I struggle(d) with:
    Infant Baptism (as a requirement or pattern)
    Mary as intercessor/mediator, (veneration seems especially fitting)
    Lay/Clergy Divide
    “Tradition” vs. Scripture
    Did miracles cease after the first century church?

  69. Karen Avatar

    Paula, I read your comment this morning with the sound of my daughter reading Psalms in the background. She was reading in the living room while I was preparing our breakfast. 🙂

  70. Sue Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    It is your blog, so of course you have the right to edit comments at your discretion, which I fully respect. However, in fairness, I hope you will consider letting your readers know that the article I linked was posted on The Very Reverend Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick’s blog hosted on the Ancient Faith Ministry’s website. Some readers may get the impression that I linked some sketchy article from the dark web!

    I now must wonder: were the decrees of the Council of Carthage added to the 6th ecumenical Council? Did one of the Canons of that council affirm the Council of Carthage, which affirmed not only a Canon of Scripture but also the Doctrine of Original Sin? Do ecumenical Councils have universal, infallible significance for the Orthodox Church? Is Carthage recognized by the Orthodox Church as a “Robber Council”?

    Thank you for your patience with all of my questions. I am learning and trying to understand.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The article is very problematic. I understand that the author (not Damick) is no longer Orthodox. There is discussion about removing it from the blog. There is much within it that creates a misunderstanding and would require a very long and careful, detailed response. Canon Law is far more complicated, in terms of its place and use within the life of the Church than most people know. The article gives the impression that a few quotes covers the whole deal and this is not the case.

    But, my summary remains:
    Orthodoxy does not teach that unbaptized infants go to hell or limbo.
    There are problems with the topic of Original Sin vs Ancestral Sin that are easily misunderstood.

    Generally, my rule on the blog is not to argue with or criticize priests (the author was not a priest – indeed, he is now a Roman Catholic). I will leave the topic as it is.

    I very much appreciate the questions you are asking.

    Councils certainly have universal significance for the Orthodox – and can generally be described as authoritative. I like to stay away from the word “infallible” since that is not part of the language of the Church at the time of the Councils. The truth is not and cannot be legislated. Councils teach. But, historically, it is the case that a Council is often expanded or somewhat amended by later Councils, and the Council has to be read and understood in the light of the writings that surround it.

    Some Conciliar expressions can be seen as problematic – limited by their circumstances. There has been a tendency in the debates and discussions surrounding the nature of authority and doctrine to fall into a kind of simplified, legislative, definitive treatment of teaching that winds up creating false understandings.

    The faith of the Church is living and organic. If doctrine is not lived – then it is not doctrine – just a dry set of words. The truth is also embodied. Canon Law and doctrinal statements are of use – but have a lot more to them than something like Constitutional Law.

    When Carthage, for example, is ratified by the 5th-6th Council (the Council in Trullo) – what importance did it hold? It’s language did not pass into common usage and teaching in the East. In hindsight, more attention should have been given to it than was the case – particularly in that many things associated with it later proved to be problematic in conversations between East and West. Note in the article you referenced there were two versions of Carthage (one Greek and one Latin). The author treated it as an insignificant thing – but that was not entirely accurate. It simplified and ignored the larger discussion and debate that has surrounded its position – something that creates misunderstanding.

    People like for things to be cut and dried – some absolute, defined, “this is it!” If we are honest, we have to say that this is not how things are best understood. I’m not a liberal nor a revisionist – but I treat Church history for what it is and encourage people to deal with the complex reality that we have.

    This is an honest answer to a difficult question and I hope it is of use. If it seems vague at points – it is because of the nature of the problem.

  72. Karen Avatar


    Thanks for offering further context for Sue to the article and author in question. I will offer my observation that though the initiation rites for Orthodox and Catholics have identical roots, the way they are executed and spoken about in the modern period is quite different. Only with already-baptized converts coming into the Orthodox Church who are received by Chrismation do we find the rites of Baptism, Chrismation and first Eucharist temporally separated from a one another in the Orthodox Church. Normally, they are of one piece together forming the whole of the incorporation if the new member into the Body of Christ. It’s very clear in Orthodoxy our cleansing from sin (inherited or personal) and being united with Christ in His Church constitute two aspects of the same spiritual Reality (a Reality that is a living dynamic or movement). Our cleansing from sin and resurrection from death in Christ, both symbolized by our white baptismal garb are hardly distinguishable—a distinction can perhaps be made between these aspects, but normative Orthodox practice makes clear no actual division between them can be made without introducing a distortion in our understanding of what it means to be united to Christ in His Church. We are not cleansed from sin apart from the life of Christ flowing into our being, any more than we can be raised from death apart from the life of Christ flowing through us.

  73. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Sue – I can tell that you are good Roman Catholic because of your concern with the teachings of the Councils and the Catechism. I was similarly concerned, for many years. Now, as an Orthodox Christian, I no longer see the Councils as givers of the law. (There is no Orthodox equivalent to the Catechism of which I am aware.) I now see the Councils as teaching authorities. I read somewhere that the difference between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy is the difference between juridical obedience and organic participation. (John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, since you appreciate attributions). So read any individual the Council as a trusted authorities on how best to understand and live a Christian life, not as the proclaimers of doctrines and rules that I must believe on obey.

    And, by the way, I have noticed that you sometimes conflate the terms “Catholic” and “Roman Catholic.” That is a common practice and certainly understandable. But the Catholic Church includes not only the Roman Catholic church but also the Eastern Catholic churches (sometimes called the Byzantine churches) which are also in full communion with the Pope of Rome. The theology you have sometimes described as Catholic is consistently Roman Catholic, but not necessarily Eastern Catholic. For example, the soteriology of most of the Eastern Catholic churches is much closer to the soteriology Father describes in this blog than it is to the Roman Catholic soteriology you describe.

    Please forgive the foregoing, but for the last 8 years or so of my Catholic life I was a Ruthenian Rite Catholic, so I am a little more aware than most to the distinctions between Roman and Eastern Catholicism.

    And please forgive my other comments as well. I do not mean to criticize you in any way. To the contrary, I find your comments to be most insightful and helpful. I am merely trying to be a little helpful to you, in return.

    God bless.

    Again, my comments only reflect my experience. I trust that Father will

  74. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Should have read ” So I read any individual the Council as a trusted authorities on how best to understand and live a Christian life, not as the proclaimers of doctrines and rules that I must believe on obey.”

    I am certainly not trying to tell anyone else what to do.

  75. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    My comment also contains other errors that are, frankly, more numerous than I have time to correct. My apologies to all. I hope my sense comes through, despite my poor writing and editing skills.

  76. Dean Avatar

    Orthodoxyis replete with miracles. Miracles by most in the West are either not believed, or if granted, go against what commonly is observed in nature. Of course, those who disbelieve live in a 2 storey universe. I’ve heard my son in law, an evangelical, say that we have to live in the “real world,” as opposed to the spiritual, referencing a completely secular view. He would have a hard time believing anything miraculous. The Synaxarion is a collection of the lives of saints. Miracles are commonplace. I think you can download at least some as a PDF file. As in Father Freeman’s book, when he writes of his visit to a monastery, what we might deem miracles are seen as a whole with nature, as God has created it. The warp and woof is one. No bifurcation into two stories.
    Just 2 days ago, on Dormition, we had the annual visit of the Iveron myrrh streaming icon, now in Hawaii. As normal for Her, the icon of the Theotokos was streaming myrrh inside the glass. The oil is collected in cotton as it flows down and small saturated pieces given to the faithful. I’m in awe everytime I see this…wondrous to behold God working through wood, ink and paper.

  77. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    The Meyenforff article I referenced may be downloaded as a PDF from https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/ctsa/article/view/2569/2206

  78. Sue Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Karen, and David,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with me. I have learned a LOT from this conversation. I appreciate all of the links to articles and book recommendations you’ve given me and plan to spend some time with them.

    The reason I drop the “Roman” when I speak of the Catholic Church is to include all Catholics. My father’s side of the family are Ukrainian Catholics. Since they are in full communion with the Pope, a distinction does not truly exist concerning the Faith.

    I agree with Fr. Stephen that matters of Church teaching are not always as cut and dried as Catholics or Orthodox present them. As he pointed out, the Faith of the Church is not a document, it is living and organic, the Body of Christ. The Truth within Her does not change, but the Church’s understanding of it does deepen and develop through the ages.

    I do NOT wish to discuss the theory of limbo. However, I do want to set the record straight to avoid any misconceptions on this matter: It did not appear to me that the author of the article I linked was saying that Orthodoxy teaches unbaptized infants go to hell or limbo. I think his point was that the theory was first conceived by Greek Fathers. It should be noted that limbo is not and never has been dogma in the Catholic Church.

    St. Augustine’s writings are not infallible, although he is sometimes presented by Catholic opponents as if he were the sole voice of the Church.

    David, I do not think it is fair of you to imply that Roman Catholics merely follow the “rules” of the Church and do not possess an active, living, faith in Christ.

    Blessings to you all!

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The teachings of the Orthodox Church are indeed organic, living because they are infused with the Grace of the Holy Spirit but let us not fall into the modern trap that they are therefore changable to be in accord with the current spirit of the age.

    That is the idea often associated with the phrase “living teachings”.

    Let us also not forget that the Soviets tried to create a “Living Church” to replace the Orthodox Church in Russia.

    “Living” is a dangerous word.

    The spirit of our age is nihilism which demands the destruction of virtue, truth and morality to create the Transvaluation of All Values(Orwellian Newspeak) and what we see and hear every day all around us.

    In this way of thinking if you love someone you cannot mention that they are entering into sin because that is judgemental and a “dead” way of thinking.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I very much agree. I perhaps should have used the word “lived” rather than “living.” The teaching of the Church is never an abstract but is always “lived.”

  81. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Reiterating the thought in your last comment: it seems common to these times that words are appropriated, redefined, and pass into common usage without much reflection on this form of translation.

    It seems that when this is done, it is either completely unconsciously done (perhaps because of the ubiquitousness of the new meaning), or purposely done to manipulate understandings. In the latter case such ‘work’ is often politically motivated.

    Thank you for your comment regarding the use of the word ‘living’ in the varied contexts you mentioned. Your comment is helpful to me.

  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, IMO the misappropriation of language is both conscious and malevolent among many. It spreads out of laziness, ignorance and getting worn down by the multitudes. The examples are legion over my life. Not even seemingly unassailable words such as male and female are under attack.

    But “The Living Church” in the Soviet Union failed because of the courage of folks like St. Luke of the Crimea and the many more folks who simply did not go.

  83. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Sue – Three things.

    With all due respect, there certainly are significant differences between Eastern Catholics, including the Ukrainians, and Roman Catholics, despite their common union with the Pope. The most commonly discussed difference is the absence of the filioque from the creed used in the Eastern Catholic Churches. This is no small thing. It reflects a profound difference in the understanding of the Trinity.

    Secondly, I would never, ever say that Roman Catholics do not possess an active living faith in Christ! I cannot even imagine saying such a thing!

    I just edited out most of this comment, because I found that I was going overboard in defending my love for and my appreciation of the deep and abiding faith of my many Catholic friends, not to mention people like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Richard Rohr, Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Mother Theresa, and on and on and on. If that is what you got out of my comments, I best quit commenting.

    Finally, I would like to suggest that you google a broadcast entitled Scholasticism and Theology: The Difference Between East and West. It does as good a job as can be done in 45 minutes in explaining the differences between the Western and Eastern understanding of Christianity.

    God bless

  84. Jeff Avatar

    Regarding your third point, specifically, and the general point re differences between east and west, Brad S. Gregory, in his “The Unintentended Reformation,” gives this theme excellent treatment, along with all that has led to a modernist mindset and approach to life. You may have noticed me citing it elsewhere. I have been reading it per Fr. Stephen’s recommendation.

  85. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Sue, one thing reading this blog has done for me is raised my appreciation of the faithfulness of lay Roman Catholics.

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sorry to have been slow to respond. I’ve been climbing through a massive to-do list!

    Infant Baptism: It is clear in the service of Holy Baptism that it envisions the Baptism of adult converts. This was/is a normative practice in a healthy, evangelizing Church. However, that pattern has to do with the treatment of converts, per se. It seems clear from all of the evidence in the early centuries that the practice of infant baptism for the children of believers was quite normative. We can, for example, think of its parallel with circumcision in the life of a Jewish child. If God is able to make a covenant (the Old Covenant) with an 8-day old baby, and commanded that it be so, then He is surely able to have a covenant with an infant Christian – and it would be normative.

    What is normative, sacramentally, is that a Christian child should grow up and be nurtured in the faith. Orthodoxy has no concept of being nurtured in the faith without the sacraments. Thus when we Baptize a child, it is also Chrismated (what the West calls “Confirmation”) and given communion. Infants begin to receive the Body and Blood of Christ from there forward. The notion of an “age of accountability” is a more modern invention. Frankly, it’s a concept that goes hand in hand with democracy and capitalism (two very modern things, indeed). In a more hierarchical, structured society, the notion of being initiated into the faith as an infant and nurtured and raised within it would seem obvious. Our modern minds, however, are utterly captivated with the notion of choice and decision-making. We are smart enough, however, to give our children instructions regarding sex and drugs (telling them “no” if we’re smart) – and we give them those instructions when they are young. If you wait until they reach the “age of accountability” you’re likely to be too late. Spiritual formation begins best in infancy.

    Mary as intercessor. There is but One mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, we learn in 1 Timothy. That Mary prays for us is what all of the saints do for us (cf. the martyrs before the Throne). The notion of mediation regarding Mary has a different meaning – and simply describes a role she always has with regard to Christ. Her motherhood is not a temporary thing (“rent a womb,” I call it). It is eternal. Jesus is “bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.” You cannot invoke Christ “apart from Mary” because she is always a part fo Him. It’s the language of devotion – sometimes a bit extreme and less than precise.

    Scripture is itself part of Tradition – that which has been “handed down.” We see this in St. Paul: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2Th 2:15) What the Orthodox believe is that Tradition ultimately means the very life of the Holy Spirit within the Church “teaching us all things.” Since there is but One God – one truth – what the Holy Spirit teaches us is what He has always taught us. A consistency with what has gone before is a mark of faithfulness. A departure from what has gone before is a sign of breaking faith – perhaps even heresy or apostasy. What was interesting to me years ago when I began studying Orthodoxy was to see that what was being said, taught and believed, was, in fact, of a piece with what the Fathers taught. To imagine that we can ignore the faithful pattern of belief and practice and leap over all the history in between and arrive at a Scripture that we now can interpret for ourselves is foolishness. Christ appointed Apostles on purpose. They appointed Bishops, priests and deacons, on purpose. The Orthodox priesthood can, with great ease, trace is line of succession – both in terms of actual persons as well as in terms of actual teaching. This is the faith of the Apostles.

    Liturgy: One of the Traditions given to us is the Divine Liturgy. The earliest description of a Church service with any detail, dates to the first half of the second century. What is described is a liturgy, one that follows the same pattern and outline that is used to this day. Jews were liturgical – everywhere. Pagans probably were as well. The notion of the non-liturgical service isn’t invented until the 1500’s – and even then only by the most radical reformers. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, all retained a liturgy.

    Miracles: they never ceased and continue to this day. They are, gratefully, thought of as commonplace in the life of the Church. Every kind of miracle. The notion of them ceasing is a peculiar idea (primarily traceable to the Campbellite Movement – the so-called “Restoration Movement” in America in the mid-1800’s). It was born of a bibliolatry – the notion that once the Bible was completed miracles were no longer necessary. That is actually a heresy. Not one of the early heresies – but a modern heresy. It has no warrant in Scripture other than a misinterpretation of 1 Cor. 8-10

    Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. (1Co 13:8-10)

    This has always been interpreted as speaking of Christ and the fullness of the Kingdom – His Second Coming. Christ is “that which is perfect – or complete.” The very Church that declared the books in your Bible to actually be the Scriptures, is none other than the Orthodox Church. It was filled with miracles, remains so today.

    I hope that’s helpful. I know a good number of former Church of Christ (Restoration Movement) converts to Orthodoxy – particularly here in Tennessee. These are familiar questions.

  87. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Jeff – The Unintended Reformation is on my buy list. I only need to get through about a dozen books on my read list until I get to buy books on my buy list and I already have over a dozen books on my buy list, but I suspect this book may leapfrog quite a few of the others.

  88. Jeff Avatar

    Thank you for your answers to William. They clarify a lot of questions I’ve had myself, questions that weren’t necessarily nagging, but that I would have had to eventually resolve. Your answers make complete sense.

    I know what you mean! As to The Unintended Reformation, you’re probably right. It’s quite comprehensive. I’ll most likely have to read it again to fully understand it’s implications. Whether I actually get that done is another question entirely. Thank you for your comments here. They have been quite helpful. Oh, and happy reading!

  89. Lisa Avatar

    I love the painting! Can you provide the title and artist?

  90. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I should have labeled this. It is by Viktor Vasnetsov and is in St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine.

  91. William D Avatar
    William D

    Dear brother in Christ (Stephen),
    (I still struggle with “Call no man Father” – perhaps you can help me here)

    I appreciate your reply to my questions, I have been returning back to see if they were forthcoming.
    I understand how it was possible that I might not receive a reply as I had asked quite a few, and they required a somewhat detailed answer. I trust that my sincerity has been able to be discerned by you.

    I have so many wonderful new things to examine and consider. One of the beautiful hallmarks of earnest truth-seeking is the readiness to accept the truth when you have found it. I found the “Church of Christ” to be the best available when I was searching for a home to come out of the cold.. Where oh where has my Episcopal Church fallen to? *heartbreaking*

    I hope to be able to visit you in TN some glad day.

    I had previously struggled with all of the aforementioned issues and now I am seeking an informed (perhaps member of the clergy?) in my area. I hope that I will be able to attend services within the next two weeks and I will be sure to share my experiences with you all.

    The thought of my blessed children growing up outside of the practice of the faith breaks my heart.
    Too much inconsistency – If he is born innocent (we got that right), then why not full participation? If we deny the real presence, what is the harm in letting the child have a cracker? I would rather ( ) than delay his run towards Christ. Before bed I told him “Mommy and Daddy Love you”, and he says “Yes, and The Lion and Mr. God”. I cried with joy.

    I’ll be adding my last initial to differentiate from the other William who posted in July.

  92. Glenn Avatar

    Fr Stephen,
    Your last post about 1 Co 13 jogged a memory. About twenty years ago I was reading 1 Co and came to that passage. I emailed my pastor and asked him if we are now living in the “age to come” since the gifts described no longer exist (from our Cessationist) point of view. He didn’t have an answer.

    I eventually wound down the path of hyper-Preterism for a while before I completely ceased studying Scripture out of frustration with what I read versus what I heard from the pulpit. Glory to God that when I began studying again, I came across the Dictionary of Ancient Christian Beliefs in (of all places) the clearance rack of the local Family Christian Store. I didn’t know what ante-Nicene meant, but it looked interesting. Neither had I heard of the Church Fathers at that point.

    Fast-forward 10 years. My wife, sons and I were received in to the Antiochian Church this past Holy Saturday. Everything makes so much sense now. This past Dormition fast, and the last week have been life-changing for my family in terms of our finally starting to absorb the fact that we can have a personal relationship with Mary, too!

    Thanks for your time on here, and thanks to everyone else who participates on this blog. You have all been a huge part in our coming to the Fullness of the Faith. I can’t believe the things I didn’t know before.

  93. Byron Avatar

    Glenn, welcome to you and your family! May God bless!

    William D, where are you (generally) located? There is an Orthodox “parish locator” available at the OCA website. You can check on local (area) parishes there.

    Also, don’t worry too much about information right now. It comes in time but initially (as in the first 5-10 years or so!) try to simply live the faith in the life of the Church. There is so much to learn just in the Liturgy alone! Ask as many questions as you have though; they are always welcome.

  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    William D,
    I hope you can visit sometime, indeed.

    Sadly, the case of I Cor. 13’s misinterpretation (it is clearly contradicted by St. James’ instructions on summoning the elders and praying for healing) is proof (as is the long history of miracles to this day) that the unique claims made within the Restoration Movement are simply false. Well-intentioned, no doubt, by good people. But false. America has many such sad stories.

  95. William D Avatar
    William D

    You shall know The Truth and He will make you free. I’ll take The Truth and no thing else. I find no comfort in gilt cages and appreciate the systematic dismantleing of the same.

    I had wonderful and suspected about James. It seemed to me a command to pray and annoint for healing.

    I have learned the particulars of the Faith as delivered once and for all to the Saints and continue to learn to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
    Bibliolatry is a new description here, very apt for the behavior.
    It seems a contradiction in terms at first glance; to make an idol of the breath of God.
    Prayerfully, with study, and submission, Best to you all

  96. William D Avatar
    William D

    To Byron: it seems I have some options, OCA and rocor.

  97. maria Avatar

    Father Stephen –
    This was very helpful:
    “it was not a culture that primarily thought of history as being the primary locus of meaning. There was/is a comfort with rather poetic accounts – particularly if the poetry is pointing to something theologically true.”
    I have heard it said that the Dormition is a sort of “theological” feast.
    It’s very liberating that “history … wasn’t considerd the primary locus of meaning”. Really when you think about, if what you know factually is all that matters, we are in trouble, because we can’t know everything and things we do know, we often get wrong.

    There are 3 more questions that this blog has raised for me:
    I am hoping we can discuss the original meanings of the words in the Annunciation.
    I looked in my grandmother’s (Protestant) Biblical commentary (Matthew Henry), and in the annunciation, “Blessed are you among women” – Matthew Henry says the original word for “Blessed” is the same word used in (i think Ephesians 1″6 – i may be wrong), and that it means “made acceptable”. Then i checked my little Eastern Orthodox Gospels (which have comments on the original language) and their comment for the description of “Blessed” includes something like “the word denotes all the action comes from God” (basically what i’m asking then is, Protestants say Mary has no merit of her own – what about the original language?)
    Also Matthew Henry says that “full of grace” is just “from the Roman church”. What about that phrase?

    Someone earlier in this blog asked about “call no man Father” . I too struggle with the idea that we can go completely against one of Jesus’ commands. Father Evan Armitas has produced a list of all of Christ’s commandments and i bet that is not in there! I’m saying that with a chuckle. The best i’ve heard is the comment about Paul calling Timothy his son. Also the fact that we call our biological fathers “Father”.
    Other than that, i still would like to know How we go completely against what is a commandment of Jesus.

    This is very nice and i wish i had the reference: i heard an interview a few years back with a biologist who specializes in pregnancies and reproduction. He said that the latest discoveries (he had been to a scientific conference) about pregnant mothers is that not only does the child receive DNA etc from his mother, but that the mother receives something (i forget all that he mentioned) from the child and her biology/her body is permanently changed! What implications for Mary!

  98. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Call no man Father.” This is a verse, in the Church’s understanding, that must be seen as hyperbole – an extreme statement rather than a command not to do something perfectly natural. And those who think, “Daddy, Papa, etc.” are not violations of this are just being silly. It is a commandment to be compared to Christ’s saying that we should “hate our parents.” St. Paul himself uses the term “father” to describe himself and his ministry. It would be odd, indeed, if the Desert Fathers, who used the term “Abba” consistently, and who practiced such extreme asceticism fulfilling the commandments of Christ, should have disobeyed in so small a thing had they or anyone around them thought that to be the meaning of the verse. Indeed, no one interpreted it in the Protestant manner until the Protestants saw it as a way to attack Catholics. They are only upset about the priestly title “Father,” while no one reacts if I say “I considered my father to be a good man.” Christ also says “call no man teacher (master)” which is, in fact, what the word “mister” means. The entire question has only ever been an anti-Catholic abuse of reading Scripture the wrong way.

  99. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On the word “blessed.” It is the normal Greek word “Evlegetos,” that renders exactly into Latin as “Benedictus.” It is the normal word that means “blessed” – as in, “Blessed by God.” A blessing would include all the good things God gives, but that precise meaning is not actually in the word itself.

    As to “full of grace” – the verb (or participle) used has the meaning of “the one who has been given grace as an accomplished fact.” “Fullness” is implied, but, again, not in the word. “Full of grace” is a literal translation of the Latin version of the Scriptures, in which she is called “gratia plena.”

    The Orthodox do not think in terms of “merit.” But they are just wrong. St. John the Baptist was called, “The greatest among men.” The Calvinist treatment of human beings as entirely worthless is just nonsense. We were worth dying for – every last one of us.

    Mary is not God, she is not divine. But among women, she is truly “blessed”.

    Now, no one is without grace. Nothing exists apart from grace. Everyone can be said to be blessed – to be given life and existence from God. Mary is blessed above all others – for no one in all of creation ever bore God in their womb except her. Her relationship was physical, spiritual, within the soul – i.e. a complete relationship. She beheld God face-to-face for probably 2 1/2 years as she nursed the baby Jesus. He is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. And, yes, according to science, some of His DNA would have also been in her body from having borne Him in her womb. As He was crucified, a “sword pierced her soul, also” (Lk. 2:35). She uniquely shared in His suffering in a manner never ascribed to any other.

    Sadly, Protestant thought refuses to actually read the Scripture when it comes to Mary – again, blinded by anti-Catholicism.

  100. maria Avatar

    Thank you for the answers.
    I HAD wondered about the very early use of the term Father, so thank you for pointing out the use of Abba in the desert ascetics.
    I guess my question about Mary involves more the fact that Protestants think she herself did not have some sort of special virtue which caused God to select her. That God “caused her to have the grace”. It wasn’t her particular beautiful virtue. That was the interpretation given by Matthew Henry i was talking about, that God made her “accepted”.

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  1. The difficulty is that the “problem” and the majority of solutions are all ideological. Ideology no matter the stated intent…

  2. WOW and thank you, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for ALL Things!

  3. This is an unusual yet much needed discussion. Thank you Father!

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