At the Celebration of Faith fair sponsored by our local council of churches and held at our local mall, we Orthodox were permitted the standard evangelization tools of an 8-foot table, three sample pamphlets, and some AV equipment. Food, our usual drawing card, was not allowed. As an extra visual, we displayed a large icon of the Mother of God and Child. The tender affection shown in this icon seemed to shed peace over the bustling mall scene. We were soon to find, however, that for some people the image of Mary is not peaceful, but contentious.
I made small talk with the Slovak Lutherans, Lutherans, and Episcopalians whose tables completed the square our section formed in the middle of the mall walkway. Shoppers, like sprinters off a mark, sped to their destinations. We would-be evangelists soon realized our Orthodox booth scarcely attracted a glance from these schools of busy shoppers and that we had fewer lures to hook them than other faiths. The Messianic Jews were more fascinating. The Lutherans were giving away crayons and coloring books. The Pentecostals were burning up center court with tambourines and Christian rock. Despite the no-food rules, the Islamic Society was giving away candy, and even we were absorbed by their pamphlet, “Why the Bible Says Jesus Can’t Be God.”
It was our icon of the Virgin Mary leaning toward her Child in the traditional “sweet kiss” pose that saved us from total oblivion among this buffet of beliefs. Was it just the beauty of the image, or was there something more? Why is it that Mary evokes such a strong reaction?
Certainly the image itself was powerful. Immediately recognizable, Mary’s tender face and embrace of Jesus evoked gut emotion from the crowds. Two Orthodox Christians of Egyptian and Syrian ethnic background were drawn to her familiar motherly gaze, took all three of our pamphlets, and warmed to the idea of visiting our parish. A slight, young Asian woman glanced toward the icon, locked eyes with the virgin, and stretched toward a pamphlet. Through the crowd a beefy hand grasped her back into the throng, and the voice of her companion snapped, “You don’t want that, that’s all about God.” Someone inquired how much such a hand-written icon would cost. Another woman stopped, registered a noticeably indignant toss of her bob and huffed off. Finally three young men, a trinity from the local Bible college, stopped to argue.
“You know she’s a sinner,” one of the young men challenged, as he pointed to Mary’s nose.
“If you claim to be a scholar of the Bible, tell me where it says that,” I replied.
“Romans 3:23 All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.”
“Luke 1:48 For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed’. Mary had our sinful human nature, but there is a great difference between having a sinful nature and personally sinning. Mary found favor with God; do you call her blessed?”
“That painting is blasphemy. You make Mary greater than God because she is larger than Jesus in that painting.”
“Sir, do you have a nativity set in your home? Is the figure of Mary larger than Jesus? Are you larger than your children?”
End of discussion. Disgruntled and unconvinced, the three went to argue elsewhere, while I pondered the tremendous mystery of Mary and her ability to elicit such a storm of reactions, not just at our local mall, but throughout Christendom.
There is a constant debate between Protestants and Catholics regarding the “size” of Mary. Catholics tend toward picturing her as Co-Redemptress, an indispensable Mediatrix and an immaculately conceived human. Protestants react to such excess honor by diminishing her to a vessel used for the Incarnation. Recently, evangelical delegates to the General Synod of the Church of England insisted that the traditional text of the Nicene Creed be changed to reflect a subordinate role for Mary. They wanted to replace the traditional phrase of the Nicene Creed, “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” to “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,” asserting that Mary had a lesser part in the miracle.
We Orthodox avoid this constant false dialectic. We believe the Virgin, conceived in a manner like us, possessed a fallen human nature that was given to Jesus Christ to save. At the same time we believe that her resounding “Let it be with me according to your word” linked our human race to the divine will and inaugurated our salvation. She is the daughter of Zion, the pinnacle of Israel’s training under the law, and in her wake all nations are drawn to God. Jesus is our Savior, but she is the image of our salvation, the icon of what occurs when a human being says “Yes” to God’s grace. Without her free assent and equal action there is no connection between the divine and human.
The sweet kiss is between Mother and Son. The Son freely expresses God’s love toward humanity. The Mother freely expresses gratitude and love toward the Divine. At Christmas we proclaimed that Christ is Emmanuel, God himself with us. During this season of Theophany, let us remember that the Light dawned on us because a young woman, ever-blessed, said “Yes.”