The Act of Veneration

No spiritual activity permeates Orthodoxy as much as veneration. For the non-Orthodox, veneration is often mistaken for worship. We kiss icons; sing hymns to saints; cry out “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” And all of this scandalizes the non-Orthodox who think we have fallen into some backwater of paganized Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Orthodox who more or less apologize for this activity and seek to minimize it. “We are only trying to give honor to the saints, etc.” What is lacking, all too often, is a vigorous explanation for the work of veneration and its central place in the Christian life.

The normal mode of “seeing” in our daily world can be called “objective.” We see things as objects, and nothing more. Indeed, we see most people as objects unless we have reason to do otherwise. Sometimes we see people as objects in order not to see them as otherwise. But this objective viewing is an extremely limited and limiting way of seeing anything. Veneration brings us to a different form of seeing.

It is carefully noted in the accounts of Christ’s resurrection that he is unrecognized at first, and on more than one occasion. Mary Magdalen mistakes Him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus talk with Him while they are walking but do not recognize Him until the moment at which He disappears. The disciples who are fishing do not recognize Him until after they have a miraculous catch of fish.

The silliest explanations of these failures to recognize are the ones that try to attribute it to grief. The stories clearly have something else in mind. That something else is particularly revealed in Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalen. She thinks He is the gardener and wants to know where the body of Jesus has been moved to. But suddenly this “gardener” calls her by name, “Mary.” And she recognizes Him.

What has taken place is the change from an objective seeing to a personal seeing. It is only in the realm of personhood that we experience communion. We do not commune with “mere” objects. The Resurrection, among many things, represents the triumph of the personal over the objective/material. The Resurrected Christ cannot be seen in an objective manner, or, at least, He cannot be seen for who He is in such a manner. It would be more accurate, or helpful, to say that He is discerned, or perceived, rather than merely seen. Both “discerned” and “perceived” imply something more from the observer than simple seeing.

Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. Those things become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon. An icon that becomes an object ceases to be a true icon and becomes mere art, or worse, the object of a fetish. The Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” The veneration of an icon is an encounter with a person.

It is worth noting that in the canonical painting of an icon, persons are not portrayed in profile (other than the devil and Judas). We always encounter them face-to-face. The impersonal, objective treatment of another person is an act of shaming and inherently hides our own face from them.

At some point, the Church’s use of iconography became distorted and became the Church’s use of art. Art is interesting and serves the end of beauty (when done well). But this development in the Church (primarily in the West, but then occasionally in the East as well, as certain styles were copied) represents a turning away from the icon as encounter and the objectification of human beings and nature. It is among the many serious steps that created the notion of a secularized world.

Jesus, as an artistic subject, is equally accessible to all. His use in art renders Him as object. Indeed, Jesus is frequently used to “make a statement.” But this is the anti-icon, the betrayal of the personal as made known to us in the Resurrection. Christ becomes historicized, just one object among many to be dissected and discussed.

Of course, Christians are free. We may decorate our lives with art as we choose so long as we don’t confuse art with iconography, nor religious sentiment with spiritual encounter. But our engagement with art can easily overtake our experience of icons. Our culture knows how to “see” art, but icons remain opaque. Only the true act of veneration reveals what is made present in an icon.

I can recall my first experience with an icon. I had bought a print from St. Vladimir’s and mounted it. I would have it in front of me during my prayer time. I would look and think, and look harder. I think I expected to “see” something or for there to be a trail of thoughts inspired by my looking. But it was simply empty. I was a young college-age Anglican at the time and had no idea how to find my way into the world of an icon.

Some decades later, I became Orthodox, having written a Master’s thesis on the theology of icons and come to understand them. The summer following my conversion, I visited St. Vladimir’s Seminary for my first time. I was surprised when I walked into the chapel to see that the icon of the Virgin on the iconostasis was the original of the small print I had begun my journey with. And then I could see her. All of the journey seemed intensely personal, without accident or caprice. She had brought me home!

This is something that veneration begins to reveal to us. We do not think about the saints or imagine them. In their icons and our veneration, we come to know them. We see them face to face and even learn to recognize them and their work and prayers in our daily lives. The world is not accident and caprice. It is deeply intentional and personal, and conspiring towards our salvation.

The “objects” in our lives are nothing of the sort. It is only the dark and callous objectivity of the modern heart that has so disenchanted reality. We imagine ourselves the only sentient beings marooned on a small, blue planet in space. We wonder if there is “life” out there, as if there were anything else anywhere.

The world is icon and sacrament. But it cannot be known until we see it face to face. Listen to these sweet words from St. John of Damascus (7th century):

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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






54 responses to “The Act of Veneration”

  1. Byron Avatar

    It is worth noting that in the canonical painting of an icon, persons are not portrayed in profile (other than the devil and Judas). We always encounter them face-to-face. The impersonal, objective treatment of another person is an act of shaming and inherently hides our own face from them.

    Would it be correct to say the devil and Judas are portrayed in profile because they are shown “turning away” (or moving their face away) from communion? Just a thought.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, that’s the original thought behind it. I’ve seen icons that violate this – portraying even saints in profile – but I do not like them for that very reason. It turns them from person to object. Even in historical moments that are being portrayed – what is paramount is the personal rather than the merely objective.

    This is always easy for some to misunderstand. I do not mean to denigrate the historical or even the objective – but both are diminishments of the fullness of reality. It is this latter point that many fail to grasp.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    On the tours I give of my parish, I like to quote 2 Cor 13:11: “Greet each other with a holy kiss” I like that quote because it also takes care of the “worship” criticism AND the personal reality of the saints and icons.

    Blessings to all.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I would also note though that the root of our word ‘venerate’ includes worship. Is there not worship of sorts going on as we acknowledge who makes us persons instead of objects?

  5. Preston Avatar

    Beautiful article, Father. I have a question for you. As an outsider to Orthodoxy, one thing I initially found unsettling was the idea that the saints are actually present in their icons. But as I’ve learned more about the concept of a sacramental reality, I think the problem is that my basic worldview had been formed by unspoken presuppositions in Western popular theology: namely, that God exists “outside” Creation, which runs according to its own self-contained laws until He selectively suspends them to perform miracles. Similarly, when I would hear of a saint’s presence in an icon, I thought of an alien, external force that was “magically” imposed on the icon from the outside, thereby causing it to become “possessed.” But as I read what you’re saying here, it looks like that’s not what is meant at all. Rather, to say that a saint is present in their icon is a statement about the very nature of reality itself… Am I on the right track with this thought?

  6. Susan Avatar

    Fr. Freeman’s book Everywhere Present helped me with that; returning divine immanence as reality of realities, love’s ever goodness and presence, and other things I’d thought of as ‘over there’ or ‘later alligator’. I can’t recommend reading it enough.
    Fr. Freeman:
    I have an icon of St Seraphim of Sarov with his bear friend. It’s the bear I want to ask about. He seems a person also and …. . We have bears around here, so for them I see this bear as well as for myself, all other animals, and especially all of us who have been or are being spiritually and physically helped by animal friends. Is that off or okay? Sorry if it sounds far-fetched, but I’m totally serious. Thank you.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are very much on the right track. Susan’s suggestion of reading my book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, is a good suggestion if you’d like to follow-up on this and go a bit deeper with it.

    One of the weaknesses of popular Protestantism is the assumption of things (and people) being independent of one another and of God – essentially having a secularized existence. As such, people who sin have a “legal” problem – they’ve broken God’s rules. What they need is to be forgiven and not to do that anymore.

    In point of fact, people have a “death” problem. There’s something wrong with us that is estranging us from God, from each other, from creation, from our very selves. I wrote in my book: Jesus didn’t die to make bad men good. Jesus died to make dead men live.

    With a legal problem, everything is external – including the problem. So, “getting saved” doesn’t actually mean that you become anything different, only that your legal problem is cleared up. That’s a really serious distortion of the gospel.

    We have an “ontological” problem – a problem in our very manner of being. We are trying to exist outside of communion with God – and that is death itself. There is a need for a true inner change – something that takes place because communion with God, through Jesus Christ, has been re-established. “Christ in us, the hope of glory,” St. Paul says.

    It changes everything – including how we see the world, ourselve, etc. We perceive differently because we become different. Icons are only a part of all that. This – is the gospel.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Seraphim’s bear! Yes. The salvation of the world is more than just people – it includes animals, rocks, trees, etc.

    “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
    (Romans 8:19–23)

    That, of course, refers to something that happens “at the end.” But the “End” is breaking in on us at all times. We see it in the lives of the saints – in miracles and such. Adam “named” the animals – which is far more than saying, “Goat, cat, sheep, etc.” I think it was/is an act of raising animals towards personhood. I say “towards” because the end of it is not yet clear for us. I think our pets are already a tiny example of this. We love them – they love us in their own way. There is something that goes way beyond just living together.

    St. Sophrony did not write about animals, per se, but he wrote a great deal about the nature of personhood – describing it as a true “hypostatic” existence (hypostasis is the Greek word in the Councils that we translate as “person” – as in the “three persons” of the Holy Trinity). It is an existence that is far greater than mere “personality.” It is rooted and founded in love.

    Your instincts concerning animals is spot on. There are many, many stories in the lives of the saints that point to this.

  9. Janine Avatar

    Father, a tremendous post. You write:
    “The Resurrection, among many things, represents the triumph of the personal over the objective/material.”

    How true you words are regarding treating others as object rather than person. I would never have linked that directly to shame, but thank you for this illumination which is quite true. I definitely share a “personal” experience of this (both the objectification and the shame). It makes sense of a lot of things. I sometimes think there are those who are unconscious of this activity of objectification over the personal. Maybe they don’t know any better. Or it’s a way of life. Maybe they don’t care. But the coldness that accompanies it is there.

    Regarding icons, I’m reminded of a late Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of the Western Region of the US. He used to liken icons to a photo of a far away or deceased loved one. To take the photo and even to kiss it would never be understood as love or veneration for a photograph!

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Objectivity” is a bothersome term. When people say, “Objective reality,” they are pushing back against a notion that reality is only in our minds and is purely subjective. They’re right to push back against such a thing. But, they make mistakes in their pushing. The notion that we do not participate in reality – but only “look at it,” is incorrect. How we look, and the state of our heart when we look, are very important. In popular culture today, there is some awareness of turning a woman into a “sexual object,” in which her personhood disappears and she becomes something merely to gratify a man’s selfish pleasure. It’s only one of a myriad of ways that we objectify one another.

    I’m deeply saddened by the growth (of late) of Orthodox argumentation (under the heading of “apologetics”). It often lacks love and can be quite brutal. It reduces the faith to a set of propositions – and does not require that the apologist actually speak from a place of holiness or wholeness. It’s an object talking to objects. This is not the work of the Church.

    This is among the reasons that I (from the beginning) created rules for the blog – requiring kindness – not criticizing priests or bishops, etc. It has allowed us the possibility in this very fragile medium to have life-changing conversations with one another. I know that it has changed my life – over and again.

  11. Susan Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,
    Thank you for the kind help with St Seraphim’s bear friend, kissed by this person at last.

  12. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    As a convert to Orthodoxy in 2009, it was a bit strange to me too – why the kissing of the icons and prayers before them. Now I see them as the true family they are to us. I greet them as the Holy Mother and Father that they are, as well as the brothers and sisters that the Saints are to us. I go to church, and I greet them with a kiss, a prayer of gratitude for their help and prayers, or whatever I feel I need to say at the time. I have described it to non-Orthodox as having a very large family of brothers and sisters that WANT to help you, but you need to ask them to. They won’t impose themselves on you, but if you ask for their prayers and help on your behalf – don’t be surprised when things start happening! We don’t worship them, but we show love and respect for them as our Heavenly Family. Our family icon wall is a source of great comfort and a focus for special prayers. It is a joy to see the faces of our beloved Saints, and to believe they hear our wishes and prayers for ourselves and others. We don’t worship them, we love and respect them, and talk to them. I ask for their prayers for us and those in need of prayer all the time. I have seen some amazing things happen after asking for the help of a Saint in an icon.
    ( I loved your book too, and our adult study group used it for adult Sunday School for a year. Michael Bauman led it, and it was a very well recieved and enjoyed book. I think it does help make things clearer to many.) Blessings and thanks Father.

  13. Janine Avatar

    Thank you so much for your reply Father. You write:
    I’m deeply saddened by the growth (of late) of Orthodox argumentation (under the heading of “apologetics”). It often lacks love and can be quite brutal. It reduces the faith to a set of propositions – and does not require that the apologist actually speak from a place of holiness or wholeness. It’s an object talking to objects. This is not the work of the Church.

    This is among the reasons that I (from the beginning) created rules for the blog – requiring kindness – not criticizing priests or bishops, etc. It has allowed us the possibility in this very fragile medium to have life-changing conversations with one another. I know that it has changed my life – over and again.

    I am beginning to think that possibly the whole key to holiness is this capacity for being “personal” as you have framed it in this discussion. I’m grateful for your setting rules like this. When people are sincerely inquiring spiritually it seems a particularly vulnerable place, regardless of wherever they are in their journey of faith.

    You remind me that Christ left His harshest warnings to the disciples — very vividly so! — about creating stumbling blocks/scandals for the “little ones.”

  14. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I love the picture. Absolutely beautiful!
    I completely agree with you because I don’t believe in coincidences, either. I give glory to the Lord’s Providence.

    It’s kind of funny, when I became a catechumen, I didn’t really have trouble kissing icons. It seemed natural. But what wasn’t my usual behavior was kissing in public. I felt self-conscious. A little bit of shame isn’t so bad. I overcame my self-consciousness pretty much, although I’m still a bit clumsy about it for some reason.

  15. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I really appreciate your insights and questions to Father about his writings. Your conversations with Father are edifying.

  16. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I have to admit I fear ‘the personal’ in my interactions with others. I fear showing myself and my vulnerabilities. But I suppose being willing to do this is a sign of strength? However, I’m also afraid of overstepping appropriate boundaries. Being inculcated in this culture, the boundaries often seem blurred or artificial.

    The boundary of reality is something else again. I’m thinking of the capacity to live in the moment rather than in fantasy or hypothetical speculations. It seems to me that Western society treats communion with the saints as a form of fantasy. Heaven is somewhere else (or in the imagination). This form of denial (if it can be called that) might be the case because so much fantasy is woven into our daily lives, with access to TV shows and the like (and the way that heaven or angels might be portrayed). Perhaps this is an overstatement, rather than insight, Father?

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, you might be mistaking the personal with seeing a person. I do not really need to know much about you person to honor and respect you as a person rather than a “thing” or worse.

  18. Janine Avatar

    Dee, thank you very much for your kind words
    Also, I agree with you about fantasy — and that it has consumed so much all around us, especially popular entertainment, which enters into popular awareness especially among children. This might not be pertinent to the topic, but as an aside, I worry about the spiritual damage false fantasies do in a number of ways.

    I agree with Michael’s take on honoring and respecting persons. You seem very kind and quite sensitive Dee and I also believe this is what Father refers to when he seeks to make this a place fo the practice of kindness.
    I am thinking that perhaps your own cultural upbringing which you have spoken about conditioned this kind of sensitivity in you. I appreciate that it is difficult to reconcile with contemporary workspace and culture and the way one must interact there.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Knowing the appropriate boundaries and how they are to work in our lives is not easy. Too much, and they become walls. Too little, and they are as though they don’t exist.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Veneration in all of its forms is a critical spiritual discipline especially as the world darkens. “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

  21. Nikolaos Avatar

    Geronta (Elder), does the name of Panagia have spiritual power, like the name of Christ?

    Yes. Whoever has a lot of reverence for Panagia, hears her name and is transformed. Or, if he finds it written, somewhere, he kisses it with reverence and his heart skips a beat. One can perform an entire akolouthia (hymn) with a continuous kiss of the name of Panagia. And when he venerates her icon, he does not have the feeling that it is an icon, but that it is Panagia herself, and he falls down melted, dissolved by her love.

    Sometimes there in the Kalyvi (hut), when I want to pray to the Virgin Mary, I think: “how can I go with empty hands to beg her?”. I cut some wild flowers, take them to her icon and say: “Panagia, take these flowers from your garden.” Before I went to Mount Athos, I heard that it is “the Garden of Panagia” and I expected to see flowers, fruit trees, etc. When I went and saw wild chestnuts, gorse trees, I understood that Panagia’s Garden is spiritual. Later I felt her presence in it.

    From Elder Paisios book 5 Passions and Virtues

  22. Matthew Avatar

    Would you be willing to say a word about the difference between an icon of Christ and the Eucharist as the real presence of Christ?

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Wonderful quote. It’s worth noting that some say that an icon doesn’t become an icon until the name is written on it. The name is itself an icon.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A whole book could be written on the topic! However, I’ll try to be brief. Orthodoxy prefers not to give huge metaphysical explanations of the sacraments (as in the medieval West’s use of “transubstantion” – a discussion that was very well meant). We say of the Bread and Wine in the Holy Eucharist, that they become the true Body and Blood of Christ – and we consume them. The doctrine of transubstantiation sought to express this in terms of the “essence” or “substance” of the Bread and Wine changing. Be that as it may, we confess that they truly become His Body and Blood.

    In icons, it is not a matter of the “substance” or “essence” that is being considered. The “substance” of an icon is wood and paint, etc. No change takes place in the painting of an icon. St. Theodore the Studite wrote very carefully about all of this and put it in terms of what he called a “hypostatic representation” – or a “representation of the person.” Thus, in an icon, the person who is represented is “personally” or “hypostatically” present – which is quite different than saying it becomes the very substance of the person whom we honor.

    I remember when I first read St. Theodore – I was working on my thesis at the time – on the theology of icons. I spent a long time pondering the meaning of a “hypostatic representation.” It helped when I simply thought about the language of essence (the very being of something) and hypostatis (the “person” who exists). There is a relationship of love, of veneration, of honor – that is made present in an icon.

    It is worth noting that we do not worship an icon of Christ. We offer veneration, but not worship. Even in the Eucharist, there is a reluctance in Orthodoxy to have anything like a service of “Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament” as is common in the Catholic Church. Instead, the Orthodox generally say that the Eucharist is given to us to eat and drink, not to look at. Orthodox liturgical practice actually “hides” the Eucharist throughout most of the services. It’s a very different approach.

    We may have communion with the person represented in an icon – a relationship of participation through love and veneration. What takes place in our consuming of the Eucharist is a mutual indwelling “that He may dwell in us and we in Him.”

    I’ve probably just muddied the water in this explanation. God give us grace to understand His mysteries!

  25. Preston Avatar

    Your insights are much appreciated, Father! Now I have a bit of a follow up thought. As I’ve been pondering these concepts, it seems like lot of what applies to visual representation could also hold true in other ways. Just as Christ is hypostatically present in a painted representation, He is also present in the Scriptures. In fact, His presence is what MAKES them the Scriptures. Reading them is not just a method of learning ABOUT Christ but rather a sacramental means of ENCOUNTERING Him. By analogy, a saint would not just be present in their icon, but also in the written chronicle of their life, which is a complementary means of sacramental encounter…

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. The 7th Ecumenical Council wrote: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father is Christ hidden during most of Divine Liturgy or not yet revealed? It seems to me there is a revealing that occurs during the Liturgy but, not necessarily to all.

    The revealing takes place at different times within the celebration of the Sacrament as each is prepared to receive.

    Am I wrong on that?

  28. Simon Avatar

    This makes me think of Col 1 and 2, “He is the image (icon) of the invisible God…And He is the head of the body (soma), the church…For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (somatikos; somatically).” Hyper-speculation: I am wondering whether that is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, is it within the scope of Orthodox gramma to think that every “level” of reality is an iconic embodiment of God where the hypostasis of God can be met and where the hypostatic embodiment of others is possible?

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t think anyone has taken it that far.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In my experience, that is the case.

  31. Janine Avatar

    Father, you wrote:
    We may have communion with the person represented in an icon – a relationship of participation through love and veneration. What takes place in our consuming of the Eucharist is a mutual indwelling “that He may dwell in us and we in Him.”

    Thank you for this. I think you have very nicely made this clear. Also thank you for your remarks on adoration, etc.

  32. Janine Avatar

    Thank you for that excerpt from Elder Paisios

  33. Matthew Avatar

    I understand veneration. What I don´t understand is asking Mary to save us. I am certain that Orthodox Christians know it is Jesus Christ who saves us, so there must be another explanation. To Protestant ears, this sounds like blasphemy.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand your problem – but it’s a language problem, not a theological one. The prayers of the Orthodox Church are extremely ancient and reflect the usage of the early Church rather than the jargon of the 21st century. “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” is attested as earlier as the 2nd century. It means, “Most Holy Theotokos, help us!” and nothing more than that. If you did a word search on “save” in the New Testament, you would see that it has a number of meanings – everything from saving someone from harm, to the more technical sense of Christ “saving” them from eternal destruction.

    Evangelical Protestantism raised the word “save” to almost exclusively mean “Jesus saves,” making it a highly specialized theological term. That’s something that they’re free to do – but they simply cannot change the history of a word’s usage by doing that.

    I found the phrase a bit jarring in my earliest encounters with Orthodoxy, but became comfortable with it over time – like learning to speak a new language. Your objection is, in effect, saying that Orthodoxy does not adhere to the grammar rules of Evangelical Christianity. That is true. But since Orthodoxy has been speaking Christianity for 2,000 years, and wrote and preserved the New Testament itself, perhaps it can be given room to use language in the manner that it has consistently spoken for all of that time.

    Evangelical Christianity, however, has its own linguistic errors. For example, it has changed the meaning of being “born again” from its classical association with the sacrament of Baptism and interpreted it to mean a specific emotional experience. That meaning only dates back to the 1740’s and the usage of the Wesley’s and Whitefield. It is a linguistic novelty.

    Protestant ears, when listening to Orthodox speech, are hearing the language of the New Testament. That it is occasionally confusing is its own commentary. The novelties, however, lie within Protestantism rather than Orthodoxy.

    I have sometimes pondered the notion that, for the sake of evangelism, perhaps Orthodoxy should change its language usage in order to make it easier for Protestants to understand. I’ve long ago realized that those few jarring phrases are actually important – they help awaken the non-Orthodox to some important understandings.

  35. Preston Avatar

    ‘“Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” is attested as earlier as the 2nd century.’

    Would this be the Sub Tuum Praesidium or is there another source as well? Just curious.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. The Sub Tuum Praesidium. It’s very rare to find such an early manuscript (papyrus is not very well-preserved in general). I’ll stand corrected on it. The concluding phrase, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” is not seen on the early Papyrus scrap – and I should have said 3rd century (I was thinking “200’s).

    Generally, Orthodox liturgical texts often serve the purpose of refuting heresies as much as anything. As the debates regarding Christ’s humanity/divinity heated up, you see more texts regarding the Theotokos – in that her proper veneration is also a means of expressing Christ’s two natures and the unity of His Person…which makes the 200’s a very remarkable date for this prayer.

    The language of “save us,” is pretty common in Orthodox hymns. Most commonly it is something like “pray to God to save our souls…” which is easier to digest. But the broader use of “save” (soson) is not unknown. It is the restriction of its meaning that makes it jarring to a Protestant ear.

  37. Nikolaos Avatar

    Fr Stephen

    We can find similar language in the scriptures themselves. It has to do with the context of relative vs absolute meaning. Panagia saves in a relative sense whereas Christ saves in the absolute sense. How jarring is to Protestand ears that St Paul saves too ? as per examples in the Romans and 1st Corinthians below:

    “For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. ” Rom 11:14

    “to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” 1 Cor 9:22

    Another example of relative vs absolute meaning, is the use of the word “αγαθός” translated “good” in the passage below:

    “So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God”. Mark 10:18

    St Luke refers to Theophilus “κράτιστε” translated to “most excellent” in Luke 1:3.

    In Greek the comparative and superlative degrees of “αγαθός” are “κρείττων” and “κράτιστος” and St Luke using the superlative term “κράτιστος” surely does not elevate Theophilus above God who is only “αγαθός” !

  38. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much for the comprehensive response Fr. Stephen. I appreciate it very much. I have become much more comfortable with the terminology and teaching surrounding the Most Holy Theotokos as I move closer and closer to the Orthodox Church.
    Is there a way to reply to a comment directly under the comment? Did I miss something?

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I do not have the theological sophistication and I will never know Greek, but ever since my incredible encounter with the icon of Mary with the Child Christ sitting on her lap her arms outstretched as He gives a blessing on the Holy Trinity I could barely wait to be received.
    I have an inkling that the full explication of our cry: “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” is revealed in the veneration of that icon. It certainly blew away this sorry old man the first time I encountered her on my first visit to an Orthodox parish.
    I went because my late wife and I were looking for a new place to worship. We happened to be driving by St. Mary of Wichita Orthodox parish as we were talking about it one day. She turned sharply toward it and said: “What about that one!”

    The rest is history. Thank you blessed Mary.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Spot on! Really great examples and explanation. Thank you!

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    BTW, that encounter was in 1985. Me, my late wife and newborn son were received the next year. I still enter awe as I contemplate the memory of that encounter.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father is it true that Mary is considered in a certain way, the Church? That also explains the cry

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    She is a “type” of the Church. So, yes, it does.

  44. Janine Avatar

    When I think of that prayer to the Theotokos, it reminds me of how powerful we believe her prayers are for us, and how we rely on them and I think the language speaks to that. We depend upon her in that sense, like a really good best friend who is also a holy person you can count on for support in prayer and all that means. We definitely (I feel confident in using we) experience her love

  45. Janine Avatar

    Nikolaos, yes thank you again, for those examples. Really helpful to think about
    Amazing story Michael but not unusual I think!

  46. Janine Avatar

    If I may just add, I think it is important also in the Orthodox tradition to consider how protective we believe she is. I can also say this personally for myself in terms of protective guidance and help in that sense — of course it is all pointing to her Son, and so akin to angelic help. Father can perhaps tell us more about Mary’s connection to angels and of course all the communion of saints

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, thank you for your question. It has sent me into a deeper examination of the teaching of the Church, the theology involved and my own experience. Even though my direct experience began, consciously, in 1985 it continues.
    May our Lord continue to bless your journey.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, I doubt my experience is unusual too. If it were, it would not be true. Part of the fruit of my experience is in helping me endure and, by Grace, begin to overcome my own deep sin and, again by Grace, follow her invitation to know and commune with her Son both spiritually through prayer and fasting and Eucharistically through the Sacraments. The Icon of The Sign. Not Constantine’s sign BTW.

  49. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Michael.

  50. SC Avatar

    Fr Stephen

    Thanks for another inspiring and truth revealing article. I’ve noticed some icons of Our Lady and Jesus focus more on their face to face relationship (e.g. Our Lady of Vladimir), whereas others focus more on Our Lady looking at us and showing us Christ in a face to face manner (e.g. Our Lady of Kazan). Why do think this is? What is it that is so heart warming about seeing the face to face gaze of Our Lady and Jesus? Is there something that helps us grow in personal relationship by witnessing a true personal relationship?

    Thanks also for your inspiring story of the icon that you saw in it’s fulness when you came “home”. I literally had this experience last month; Our Lady of Kazan was the first icon I was given years ago and I stumbled upon the chapel at Fatima where she was kept safe during communism. Truly an awe-inspiring experience.

  51. Alan Avatar

    “I’m deeply saddened by the growth (of late) of Orthodox argumentation (under the heading of “apologetics”). It often lacks love and can be quite brutal. It reduces the faith to a set of propositions – and does not require that the apologist actually speak from a place of holiness or wholeness. It’s an object talking to objects. This is not the work of the Church.

    This is among the reasons that I (from the beginning) created rules for the blog – requiring kindness – not criticizing priests or bishops, etc. It has allowed us the possibility in this very fragile medium to have life-changing conversations with one another. I know that it has changed my life – over and again.”

    Father, A thousand times AMEN to what you wrote above! Thank you for the ground rules you have on your blog.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A thousand thanks! The rules have saved me – and every time I’ve failed to employ them properly has served to prove to me their value. God help us!

  53. Alan Avatar

    Nikolaos, thank you very much for sharing the quote from St. Paisios!

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