Faith of our Fathers

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but Mary has chosen that good part that cannot be taken from her” (Luke 10:41)

Ponder with me the enigma of our American Orthodox Christian differences from our ethnic ancestors in our relationship with the Theotokos. How is it that the renowned Tikhvin Mother of God icon was received by upwards of a million fervent worshippers in her return to Russia, whereas for the half century of her residence, or rather hiatus, in our nation, she was hardly noticed and rarely honored? We might say that in times of terror [Revelation 11] or as happened just after our Lord’s birth, when Joseph took the child and His Mother to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod the Great, so too in our times she fled with Christ across the Atlantic and to safety from both Nazis and Bolsheviks. However, our America is not pagan Egypt. We are a nation of believers, albeit divided into hundreds of communions, jurisdictions, sects and cults.

A few explanations might include:

A. Western Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike are more the Martha types than the Mary sort. They influence our Orthodox Christian faithful, measuring our value, or more commonly termed, our “relevance,” by our social welfare programs and community outreach. It also explains why monasticism never really caught hold and thrived as it does in the lands of our spiritual ancestors: Spiritually, we are still drinking mother’s milk, not yet ready for loftier and deeper experiences of the life reaching out to us from Christ and present through the Holy Spirit within our hearts.

B. The same western influence impinges on our spiritual lives by the almost exclusive focus on our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing wrong with that, except such excessive Christolaty overshadows the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity and obscures most interest in the saints, angels and the Theotokos. I fear that some of our people would even suppress or downplay our affection for the Mother of God, lest we “offend” our non-Orthodox brethren.

C. A superficial presupposition permeates our society, the presumption that one can know all about an object by a glance. The “What you see is what you get” type will cast a look at the icon, consider it uninteresting or antiquated and pass on by. To begin to grasp what she means to the Russian Orthodox Church and her faithful, one must have suffered the pangs of history with her. Her inhabitants, at least the true believers, consider the very land – which President Reagan once termed the “Evil Empire” – as Holy Russia. The earth itself is given a face – Mother Russia is personified in the famous icons, our Ladies of Kazan, Vladimir, and Tikhvin, among others. She is taken to the front lines in times of war [except in the case of the Red Army’s battles] to inspire the troops who are laying down their lives for their motherland.

D. At even a deeper and perhaps controversial level, there is the sense of the moist mother earth [mokraia mat’ zemli’a] from which all life springs, and of which the highest and most glorious product is Mary the child of Joachim and Anna, chosen by God to be the mother of His only-begotten Son. It is she who is honored above all humankind, the epitome of human nature and representative of the best that God has created, who appeals to Him on behalf of humanity and all creation. Nothing in the American tradition relates to this, except perhaps the affection that Native Americans have for the land, which we as invaders, conquerors, and now scientific savants dismiss as mythology.