Our Most Holy Lady has been established in the minds of the Orthodox faithful as an intercessor who unites the earth with heaven, the perceptible world with the beauty of the things of the spirit. This truth is reflected in Byzantine churches, with the icon of the Mother of God ‘Broader than the heavens’ [‘For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become broader than the heavens’,Prayer at Compline] depicted in the cupola of the sanctuary. Our Lady is the ladder by which God descended to earth so that we humans could be released from the consequences of corruption and death, could gaze upon the loveliness of beauty as it was before the Fall and could progress towards deification. This is why Jacob’s ladder is an image of the Mother of God who united the divided and brings them together forever with her prayers and intercessions to her Son and God.
But in what sense is Our Lady considered to be an intercessor, since it’s well-known that there’s only one intermediary between God and people: Jesus Christ? Through His sacrifice, Christ became theransom which delivered all people from the shackles of the Fall, bridging the gap between the Father and His fallen children. Christ is the intermediary between God and people, and His intercession becomes possible through Our Lady who, as Mother of the God/Man, offered all of us the opportunity to commune with God.
Saint John the Damascan writes that the basic condition for the closer understanding and reuniting of God and human beings is ending the hostility between earth and heaven and the return of the ‘apostates’ to the Father. Once the hostility has been resolved, the path is open for our adoption by God. Adoption activates our participation in the divine glory with the illumination and renewal of the creature who was broken. As intercessor, Our Lady leads us to Christ and prays for our salvation: in the iconography and hymnography of the Church, which is reflected in the services, the canons, the Akathistos Hymn, the hymns to the Mother of God and the end of the litanies. In each of these, the Mother of God pleads on behalf of the faithful and in doing so expresses herself as the Mother of us all. This is particularly clear in the feasts of the Mother of God, which are special occasions for Christians to have recourse to her shelter and protection.
Our Lady is very close to God. From this privilege is derived her boldness towards Him on our behalf. When the faithful address prayers and supplications to her, or to the saints, this doesn’t mean that they forget Christ the Saviour. It’s Christ Who, in the end, saves us. In the Liturgy, we sing, ‘Through the prayers of the Mother of God, Saviour, save us’. The Mother of God doesn’t save, but we aren’t saved without her. It’s through her that we become closely acquainted with Christ the Saviour. In theParaclitic Canon, the faithful address Our Lady in these terms: ‘Preserve your servants from dangers, Mother of God for, after God, we all flee to you as our invincible bulwark and protection’. This Canonreflects the religious veneration we feel for Our Most Holy Lady, whom we all call upon, after God the Father, for support and fortification. This hymnological reference is another facet of Orthodox worship in which the intercessional role of the Mother is God is made explicit in the invocations for salvation on the part of the world which is threatened by the dominion of evil.
Vasileios of Seleucia defines the meaning of intermediary when he says: ‘Hail you who are full of grace, mediating between God and people so that the wall of hostility separating them can be pulled down and the heavens may be united to the earth’. This transcendence from the sphere of mortality to that of the heavens and the promise of salvation and resurrection can come about through the Mother of God, who was the first of all people to receive the joyful message of the Resurrection of the Lord. This view is widespread in the liturgical tradition, the hymnography and iconography of the Orthodox Church. Despite the absence of any Biblical foundation for this position, the great Fathers of the Church, in their interpretational notes on passages of the synoptic Gospels let it be known that, after His Resurrection, Christ appeared first to Our Lady. She herself never doubted the divinity of her son, recalling all the marvellous and divine things which occurred at Christ’s conception, at His birth and during His presence on earth.
Salvation and the hope of resurrection comes from God Himself. Making it our own, however, becomes possible through the prayers of the Mother of God, who offers the perfect example of a holy life and brings the faithful to virtue and repentance The profound conviction of people concerning the enduring presence of Our Lady in the midst of the storm-tossed human race became firmly established in the minds of the faithful in the very first Christian centuries. The Mother of God became ‘a gracious comfort to those in sorrow and a ready help to those who ask’. She herself stands by us, feels sad for us and desires the salvation of the whole world. She embraces all and is ready with her boldness and proximity to God to resolve any situation in life which causes sin.
We have the privilege of enjoying a powerful protectress and defender, Our Most Holy Lady, who, through her intervention, weakens the influence of evil. She ‘prays and entreats on our behalf’,repelling the inflammations of the passions and the attacks of the Evil One. She also wishes and is able to assist in defeating a variety of evils before we even recognize their presence. This is when the intercessor intervenes with her maternal boldness, making fervent supplication to our heavenly Father, as if for herself, and citing the kinship of her nature with that of the human race.
As a ‘victorious general’, Our Most Holy Lady looks down with compassion from on high on her flock, which is under visible and unseen attack from enemies, especially the ancient tyrant, the Evil One, as Saint Filotheos Kokkinos calls him. Her intercession is that means, beyond understanding, which not only honours the human race, but also strengthens it, since it frees us from the dominion of the cause of evil ways and habits. The faithful ask the Mother of God to quell the passions of their soul and to gradually disperse the murk surrounding the flesh, this thick and earthly covering. They also request that she should reinforce the spiritual movements of their soul and orientate these towards the eternal and original beauty.
Often enough, the disinclination of human nature and the lassitude of our minds make us lethargic as regards virtue, which demands effort. Hindrances and barriers make the acquisition of virtue difficult. This is why, at their first appearance, the faithful turn to the Mother of God who never ceases to love us and care for us as our own affectionate mother. She transfers her benefactions to all, without distinction, and protects them from temptations and dangers. Iosif the Hymnographer speaks poetically of Our Lady’s sleepless prayers to God, which purify the passions of the soul through her holy intercessions, at the same time granting us the saving vigilance to fulfill the will of God.
The sorrows, the calamities of life are so many, the temptations that compass us about on all sides so great that we seek the ‘powerful shelter’ of Our Most Holy Lady, and ask for protection, calling upon her name: ‘Through the bowels of your compassion, Virgin, do not despise me who am drowning in the flooding of life’s waves, but give a helping hand to me who am pained by the ills of life’. In our battle against evil, we, the faithful, are afflicted mercilessly by the surges of the passions, by the arrows of the Evil One and the rebellions of the flesh. This is why we seek Our Lady as our associate and helper, to quell the outbursts of the flesh and to overthrow the domination and triumph of the material outlook, which is what begets sin.
The faithful also request the immediate presence of God the Father, from Whom they ask to be granted ‘a watchful mind, chaste thought, a wakeful heart’. In this way, personal ascetic effort is in step with divine protection. The faithful don’t rely on their own powers, but more on the assistance of God, to Whom they also offer the whole of their being, as did the saints of the Church, and, particularly, Our Lady.
The prayers of the Mother of God support people in temptations and against the power of evil. Saint John the Damascan was of the opinion that human life would be unbearable if the faithful didn’t have Our Lady ‘talking to them and the only remaining comfort’.
If we wish to make our way to the Lord of all, to God, or to ask forgiveness for our trespasses then, in the person of Our Lady, we will find someone to take us by the hand and lead us to Him. Because of her proximity to God on the one hand, and her common ancestry with the human race, the Mother of God is continuously interceding, reconciling the creature to the Creator. With her prayers, she grants the faithful the fulfillment of their requests. And if it’s an obligation for children to pay respect to their natural parents, what tribute should they render to Our Lady, who is the cause of their spiritual birth, maturation, enrichment and deification?
Given the fact that the human race is itself to blame for its fall, and for sullying the ‘image’ [of God], it’s clear that we ourselves were incapable of arresting our progress towards desolation. The Virgin saw the catastrophic fall of our race with sorrow and compassion and sought the counter remedy for such a great affliction. Her diagnosis was that there was only one path open to her: to turn completely to God and to intercede on behalf of the whole of the human race. In consequence, she became our ambassadress, of her own free will, ‘asking to speak to God persuasively and openly’.
Through the conjunctive power, her Son Who was both God and Man, Whom she cradled in her maternal bosom, the Mother of God becomes a single realm which sustains and unites. She embraces all people, she brings together those who are scattered and reconciles them with each other and with God, as does the centre of the circle with all the radii. Our Lady is the common focus, the foundation stone and the incomparable source of gifts beyond those of nature, upon which our spiritual and rational nature draw plentifully, though without being able to transcend its perfection.
As the mid-point between two historical worlds, before and after Christ, Our Lady did not mediate solely between those two, but also between God and the whole of the human race. Her place in the mystery of divine dispensation gave her the privilege of being the only person to combine the human with the divine. In this way, writes Saint Gregory Palamas, she made God the Son of Man and people into children of God. It is from this divine capacity of hers that her role as intercessor and ambassadress for the human race derives. Since assuming this role, she has emerged as a living and breathing model and image of all good and every virtue, the greatest benefactress of heaven, earth and the hereafter.
Source: «Η Παναγία πρότυπο πνευματικής τελειώσεως», P. Pournaras Publications, Thessaloniki 2001, pp. 153-62