Mary the Mother of God and Sacred Tradition as Fundamental to East and West

My response to David Ford’s essay on ‘What it Means to Follow Jesus in the Orthodox Tradition” will post on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is a high, holy day for Catholics worldwide, and indeed, for the Orthodox Church worldwide the same is true.  In that venerable Eastern tradition the feast is called “The Dormition of the Mother of God,” and while there are slightly different emphases for East and West, the essence of the feast is the same:  that upon her death or ‘falling asleep’ at the end of her earthly life, Mary was assumed bodily into heaven in a state of spiritual peace and without suffering.  

Why would I choose to highlight this, as part of my response to David’s posting?  First, because it illustrates my primary reaction to each and every sentence of his lively articulation of the faith of the Orthodox Church.  At every turn my response was complete agreement and affirmation, even where a slight touch of ‘translation’ was needed to accommodate different ‘flavors’ in the Western tradition.  The essence of what David expresses in his post is in complete alignment with the ancient faith of the Roman Catholic Church.  The ‘whole life approach’ of the Church’s reach that David so aptly describes is indeed true for Roman Catholics.  Each day as we rise and move through a given period of waking hours, the Church offers us a scaffolding of tradition in the prayers we say, the pious practices we enact and in the spiritual sustenance of the liturgical year, which lends significance to each day of the week in a given season.  The saints we lean on, the songs we sing, the readings of the Church Fathers we take instruction from, and the sacraments that lend actual grace to our daily existence (even moment to moment as we struggle to love those around us in a Christ-like manner) are all provided for us by the Church in our respective traditions, both East and West.  The overlap is striking.  Where David has an icon corner, I have a little oratory. Both ‘translations’ of this reality accomplish the same thing: a space in the home dedicated to living out a practice of prayer.  On this August 15th, I am celebrating the Assumption of Our Lady, and David is celebrating The Dormition of the Mother of God, but the ancient Church of both East and West is united in its purpose of commemorating this holy day.   

This brings me to another reason to highlight this glorious feast day in my response to David’s post.  Taking a nudge from Providence, I think it is worth noting that David beautifully lays out the most Christ-centered aspects of the ancient faith, and rightfully so, considering the question about following Jesus in our given traditions. There is room to discuss, however, some of the more controversial aspects of both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity for our Protestant brothers and sisters in this response.  The illustrative nature of this feast day raises the issues of how we understand Mary, the Mother of God, and also our belief in Tradition that comes to us from outside of the Holy Bible.  

We cannot read about the account of the end of Mary’s earthly life in the Holy Bible.  It is simply not included in Sacred Scripture.  And yet, for both David and myself (if I may speak boldly for both traditions), this makes this glorious day no less real for us.  Indeed, there is no stumbling block to the richness or fullness of our joy and celebration on this day because we cannot turn to read about it in the Bible.  Now, there are plenty of passages we can read that point to our understanding of Mary and her role in salvation history.   These would include passages in the Old Testament about the glory of the ark of the covenant and what it contained: the law of God on the stone tablets Moses brought down from Sinai, the manna with which God fed the Israelites in the desert, the rod of Aaron that bloomed to confirm his priesthood.  We can also read about this ark in the New Testament, in Revelation when St. John sees the same ark of the covenant:  And the temple of God in heaven was opened, and there was seen the ark of his covenant in his temple, and there came flashes of lightening, and peals of thunder, and an earthquake, and great hail.And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”(Revelation 11:19-12:1). The early church understood this woman, who appears as a sign immediately following the ark of the covenant, to be the blessed Virgin Mary.  As this new ark, how much more did she hold in her very womb the law of God, Christ the Word made flesh?  How much more did she hold that manna, the very Bread of Life Himself?  How much more did she hold that flowering rod of the priesthood, Christ the great high priest as the little baby boy inside of her?  

This rich reading of scripture, and this understanding of Our Lady as central to the mystery of faith, comes to us through Tradition.  Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373) wrote: “O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O [Ark of the] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides” (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).  For both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, who shared the same Fathers for a thousand years before they parted ways, our understanding of the Mother of God (or Theotokos) comes not only from Sacred Scripture itself, but from the body of writings we have from the early Church which makes up our Sacred Tradition.  What those earliest Christians believed holds a tremendous amount of weight for us.  Both East and West see Mary’s role not as an optional side note to a life in Christ, but rather as a glistening and central jewel in a tapestry of the mystery of faith.  Christ came to us through Mary, and our contemplation of Christ can only be most fully realized through that same channel.  Our very salvation came to us through this blessed Virgin, and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions see her role in the salvation of the world as ongoing, even if our understanding and expression of faith around Mary the Mother of God has subtly different ‘flavors.’  

My response to David Ford’s essay, therefore, is intended to affirm his very eloquent and concise statement of what it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition.  As a Roman Catholic, there is nothing I can disagree with, even if in my tradition we might phrase things a little differently.  Though, I hope my response will also dive into some of the places that will be the ‘known sticking points’ between Catholic and Orthodox believers and Protestants.  As a convert to Roman Catholicism it is quite easy for me to recall being Protestant and feeling mystified and even angry about the way Catholics dealt with issues around the Blessed Virgin Mary and Tradition outside of the Holy Bible.  I raise these issues here not for the sake of being controversial, but rather to expose (hopefully with both charity and courage) the areas we may find it most challenging to discuss.  I hope this response gives even a little glimpse of the love, awe and wonder we have for our Lord’s mother, and for the early Church that paved the way for our belief to come down through the centuries.  As it is for Orthodox Christians, loving the Blessed Virgin and Sacred Tradition are at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus as a Roman Catholic.