Devotion & Veneration

Spiritual authority and power in Orthodoxy is a charismatic gift, not an expression of rationalistic intellectualism, that focuses on devotional life on the person of Jesus the Christ to form a community, now and forever, of those who truly love Him. As such, Orthodox spirituality is entirely human and accessible to each of the faithful according to their needs and abilities. Indeed, one of the more charming sights in Orthodox parish experience is watching a toddler wanting to kiss an icon (often of the Theotokos) or imitating a priest or deacon as they cense the congregation during a service as the authenticity of their love is transparent to all. It is perhaps noteworthy that the ranks of Orthodox saints are populated not only with remarkable individuals, but pious parents and families, for example Sts. Cyril & Maria, parents of St. Sergius of Radonezh. 

Orthodox worship gives form and intention to four categories of devotional life, which perhaps somewhat surprisingly, draw attention to leadership and contributions of women to the expression of Holy Tradition.  "Holy Tradition" is the living human experience of the Church, it's bodily (incarnational) expression is of utmost importance to the Orthodox, and is understood as having primacy of authority, as Holy Scripture itself is only one part of the Tradition that, as an historical fact, preceded it. Moreover, Holy Tradition should not be

confused with human tradition, which through worship finds the following four spiritual forms:

  • Evangelization 
  • Devotion
  • Repentance
  • Veneration

Though somewhat beyond the reach of this essay, Orthodox recognition of the role of women in evangelization, with the title of "Equal to the Apostles" includes the striking examples not only of St. Mary Magdalen but the Protomartyr and virgin St. Thekla, St. Helena (discoverer of the True Cross and mother of Emperor St. Constantine), St. Nino (Enlightener of Georgia), St. Olga (Grand Duchess of the Rus), and numerous others. Among women who decisively shape the ascetic life of repentance and monasticism include St. Macrina the Younger of Cappadocia, St. Melania, St. Syncletica of Egypt, St. Ita of Ireland, and, and above all, St. Mary of Egypt.

To refocus on the topics of devotion and veneration, however, is to draw attention directly to profound events in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, that of the women who washes the feet of the Master with tears, and the Myrrh-bearing Women who traveled to the Tomb to complete the burial rites only to discover the Resurrection had occurred, both of which have liturgical expression of honor.

In what is arguably the oldest continuously recited poem written by a woman, few words of devotion and veneration are more powerful than those Kassiani gives to the women who wiped the feet of the Master, and sung, often with great magnificence at the Matins of Holy Wednesday, whilst the Holy Myrrh-bearers are commemorated on the Sunday after the completion of the liturgical historical narrative that had begun with Palm Sunday, constituting both an historical and theological commentary on salvation history and whose devotion moved them to seek to ritually honor (venerate) the guarded corpse of the man Jesus through completing the ministry of burial, not thinking how to move the stone with its official seals.

The woman fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, O Lord.
She takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer,
making ready with the myrrh of mourning before Thy entombment, saying:
Woe to me! My night is an ecstasy of excess, 
gloomy and moonless, full of sinful desire.
Receive the source of my tears: 
O Thou Who dost gather into the clouds the waters of the sea.
In Thine ineffable condescension, deign to bend down Thyself to me, 
to the lamentations of my heart: 
O Thou Who didst spread out the Heavens.
I am fervently embracing Thy sacred feet, 
wiping them again with the tresses of the hair of my head: 
Thy feet at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear 
when she heard Thee walking in Paradise, in the cool of the Day.
O my Savior, my soul-Saver, who can trace the multitude of my sins,
the abysses of Thy judgment?
Do not disregard me, Thy servant, O Thou Whose mercy is boundless.

The distinction between worship, solemn service to God, and veneration- giving honor to a creature or object- is central to both Orthodox understanding and use of images (icons), relics, and the blessing of diverse things. Commemorated on the First Sunday of Lent as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Orthodox use of artifacts and of saints in devotional life and the worshiping of God, validated by two Ecumenical Councils, underscores the leadership of women within Orthodoxy, most notably St. Theodora, who refused to compromise on the central, anchoring tenants of Chalcedonian Orthodox Christology during reformist the Iconoclastic era, the Incarnation of God through the Ever-Virgin Mother and, consequently, Christ's possession of two natures (hypostases), making Him the God-Man and her the Mother of God, or Theotokos (God-bearer). 

As both St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite make clear in their apological treatise on Holy Icons, there is nothing remarkable about representing creation nor confusion between a representation of something and the experience of thing itself, the one points to, or is a sign of, the other, but yet brings the viewer psychologically (spiritually) closer to what is represented, and that closeness leads to a fuller appreciation of how meaningful the person or event is. Indeed, it is common for Orthodox icons of saints to contain a fragment of their holy relics, bringing the person into the actual presence of what remains of their earthly reality. As Christology, to reject icons of Christ as holy representations of the reality of the fullness of the Incarnation, either limits the humanity of Christ or limits the divinity of Christ. The first limits divine condensation to Death; the second limits the aspirational ascent of the Cross. The first renders the Virgin Mary as a mere vessel depriving her of honor; the second, absurd, as Mary would have to become the mother of the pre-eternal Christ. In both cases, taken baldly, the fullness of Salvation itself is compromised, and both interpretations of the heresy of Arius. 

In His two natures, Jesus the Christ is the icon of perfect Adam, created yet the image of God. In His Mother is found one so pure as to contain the uncontainable. In His saints, the Church recognizes the image of the God-Man successfully expressed through the lives of His devoted. His Mother, along with the saints are thus utterances of the Word, as much so as Holy Scripture, which the Orthodox faithful solemnly venerate with a kiss, especially following the reading of the Gospel in the Sunday Matins service, often receiving an anointing for the strengthening and healing of soul and body before the feast.  

Entering into any Orthodox church, indeed any Orthodox home or even place of work, one will see icons of saints, nor is any Orthodox prayer complete without at least one hymn to the Theotokos and a prayer for a saint to look favorably on one's situation and intercede with God based on their having lived successfully, perhaps lighting a candle as a flame of prayer or burn incense as on offering (Ps. 142:2). Indeed, acknowledging that God is jealous of His people (Deut. 5:9), there is every reason for those in the process of converting their life to one of devotion not seek to make themselves, those that sojourn with them, and make all incorporated all elements of life as an offering to God, receiving it back as a blessing for use in one's life over which one is to act as caretaker and steward, according to Adam's original commission in creation (Gen. 1:26-31).

In light of the Incarnation, repentance does not alienate the spiritual from the material in Orthodox life, rather repentance is movement toward theosis, the successful reflecting into the world the God-Man, in which one's very living is alms, exchanging the debt to God for grace for the distribution of grace of God to the world

"Cornelius, your prayers and your alms have ascended before God" (Acts 10:4) "Before God" means that even if you have many sins, you should not be afraid if you possess almsgiving as your advocate. For no higher power opposes it. She pays the debt demanded by sin... For it is the Lord's own voice that says "As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me." (Matt 25:40)" (St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Repentance and Almsgiving, Catholic University Press, Homily 3 Sec.1). 

St. Seraphim of Sarov, in recognition that every person is in the fullest sense to be approached as a God-bearing icon of Christ, amplifies further:

If we understand the commandments of Christ and of the Apostles aright, our business as Christians consists not in increasing the number of our good deeds which are only the means of furthering the purpose of our Christian life, but in deriving from them the utmost profit, that is in acquiring the most abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit...your Godliness...if we are not in the Spirit, we must discover why and for what reason our Lord God the Holy Spirit has willed to abandon us; and we must seek Him again, and must go on searching until our Lord God the Holy Spirit has been found and is with us again through His goodness. (St. Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation With Nicholas Motovilov).

Therein is the inner work of Orthodox veneration of true reality and the first aim of the ascetic life, the devotion at the threshold of monasticism: Lord Jesus, Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

[W]e can no longer oppose Scripture and Tradition, nor juxtapose them as two distinct realities.  We must, however, distinguish them, the better to seize their indivisible unity, which lends to the Revelation given to the Church its character of fullness. If the Scriptures and all that the Church can produce in words written or pronounced, in images or in symbols liturgical or otherwise, represents the differing modes of expression of the Truth, Tradition is the unique mode of receiving it. We say unique mode, not uniform mode, for Tradition in its pure notion there belongs nothing formal. It does not impose on human consciousness by formal guarantees of the truths of faith, but gives access to the discovery of their inner evidence. It is not the content of Revelation, but the light that reveals it, it is not the word, but the living breath which makes the word heard at the same time as the silence from which it came; it is not the Truth, but a communication of the Spirit of Truth, outside which the Truth cannot be received. "No man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Ghost" (1 Cor. 12:3).  The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the Light which belongs to it, and not according to the light of human reason. (Vladimir Lossky, "Tradition and Traditions" in L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky, Meaning of Icons, St Vladimir's Seminary Press).