Does the Orthodox Church worship Mary?
No! The Virgin Mary is honored by the Orthodox, as the Bible teaches in Luke 1:46-48. We do indeed call her "blessed," as the Mother of the Lord. She is the first to become a temple of the living God. She is called "the New Eve" who said 'yes' to God and made way for the restoration of fallen Eve and all people. She is never worshipped or given the glory that belongs to God alone, but she is honored as the Vessel that brought our Salvation into the world.
It should be noted however that, unlike Roman Catholics, the Orthodox do not hold the doctrine of the "Immaculate Conception" of Mary, which claims that she was exempt from original sin and thus was not subject to death. This doctrine falsely separates Mary from the rest of fallen humanity.
The Orthodox believe that she inherited the consequences (not the guilt) of Adam's sin, just as we all do. Yet by her free will she cooperated with God's plan and thus was open to become a vessel of His grace. Still she was in need of the redemptive work of her Son and Lord to overcome the power of sin and death by His cross and resurrection.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why does Mary receive so much attention?
The Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church make it clear if we have eyes to see. She is the “highly favored [“graced”] one” (Luke 1:28), chosen out of all generations to become the “mother of [her] Lord” (Luke 1:43), the one who said yes to God on behalf of all mankind, the first to receive Jesus the Christ personally and intimately into both her heart and the very fabric of her being and become a temple of the Holy Spirit, the one without whom there would be no “Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). She is given the distinct honor among all mankind, by the Most High God Himself, to be called “blessed” by “all generations” (Luke 1:48).
The early Christians blessed and honored her. But do we? Irenaeus, the great 2nd century bishop and defender of the Christian faith, who was taught by the Martyr Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the Apostle John, has this to say:
"Just as she [Eve] . . . being disobedient, became a cause of death for herself and the whole human race: so Mary . . . being obedient, became a cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race."
The Virgin Mary is the new "Ark of the Covenant." God carefully specified that the first ark be constructed with the most precious materials (Ex. 25:10–22). This ark held the tablets of stone with His Ten Commandments (literally: "Words"). The New Ark, Mary, held the divine Word of God Himself in the flesh in her womb!
If God took such an active role in the construction of a box that would hold His written word, with how much greater care did He choose and prepare the earthly vessel that would contain His Incarnate Word? If he specified with precision and loving care every measurement and detail of the resting place of those tablets of stone, would He not also prepare a fit and holy dwelling place for the measureless “Son of His love” (Col. 1:13)? If He constructed the lifeless ark of testimony out of precious and pure materials, surely He would adorn the living ark of the New Covenant, the Virgin Mary, with virtues and purity of soul and body. And if He treasured the tablets themselves upon which His Law was written, how much more did He cherish the holy vessel who carried the Law-Giver Himself, and who became the living Book of the Word of God?
The Old Testament ark was the point of union between God and His people and their most treasured object of faith. Carried in procession by the priests, the ark took the first and most prominent place among the people as the instrument of God’s presence and leading (Num. 10:33; Josh. 3:13–17) as well as of His power and protection (Num. 10:35). The very sight and presence of the ark was a cause for rejoicing (1 Sam. 6:13) and blessing (2 Sam. 6:12). And when the ark of the Lord was brought into the newly built Temple of Solomon, the glory of the Lord filled the temple to such a degree that the priests could not even remain there (1 Kin. 8:10–11).
Similarly in the Christian Church, the Virgin, the ark of our salvation, is rightly given the most honored place among the Christian people and is a great cause of rejoicing, for through her we have seen the "Face" of God, Jesus Christ (cf Matt. 18:10).
Even the Protestant Reformers extended great reverence to the Lord’s mother. In a Christmas sermon, Martin Luther confesses Mary as the “highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ. . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified.” He adds, “We can never honor her enough.”
John Calvin also grants her the supreme place among Christians: “It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son, granted her the highest honor.”
Even the more radical Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, acknowledges that “God esteemed Mary above all creatures, including the saints and angels—it was her purity, innocence and invincible faith that mankind must follow.”
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why does the Orthodox Church pray to Mary?
The word "pray," in its original sense, simply means to speak or to inquire. For example, "Pray, tell me, where goest thou?" Orthodox Christians ask the departed Saints in heaven (those who are with Christ) to pray for them before the throne of Jesus Christ. We ask them to make intercession before the Lord, just as we ask fellow Christians on earth to pray for us.
But isn't Mary (and aren't other departed Christians) dead? Now we hit upon the relevant question! Do we really believe in the resurrection?
The Scriptures tell us the “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). When the Lord Jesus rose from the dead "the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Matt. 27:52-53).
On the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus spoke with the "dead" prophet Moses just as He did with Elijah who did not die (Matt. 17:1-3). For in Christ, all things are united, "both which are in heaven and which are on earth" (Eph. 1:10). In the Revelation of John (5:8) we see the saints in heaven offering up the prayers of those on earth: "Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures [angels] and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints [on earth]."
© Fr. Michael Shanbour