How ironic it is, that the Blessed Virgin Theotokos is the apostle and abbess of Mount Athos, an isolated peninsular republic composed only of male monastics! How she came into that inheritance, becoming the apostle of that ‘almost island’ of the Chalkidhikí is a little known story that I have recounted elsewhere.
My favorite ikon of the Theotokos as Abbess of Mount Athos is the one shown right, recently written in Byzantine style. It has replaced an older image that is still frequently found, painted in Western style.
One of the strangest but most potent proofs of the status of the Virgin Mary in the Kingdom of God is her constant, sometimes visible, presence on the Holy Mountain. At times the monks literally see her standing among them during services, or walking abroad on the mountain. True, she has reposed, yet her body has disappeared, and so her state resembles that of the ‘raptured’ (1 Thessalonians 4:17, ἁρπαγησόμεθα, ‘snatched away’), almost a sort of first fruits of the New Creation in a similar way to Christ being the First Fruits of the Resurrection. These facts, at least, should commend her to the attention of Christians, even if only as their model. The Virgin Mary is, after all, the first Christian, and everything that happened to her can and will happen to every follower of Jesus, if we only allow it.
Sometimes the Church’s use of the saints as our role models is totally off the mark! An example of this is the emphasis on the Virgin Mary as a role model only for women: this misrepresents both the Mother of God and the Christian woman. Though I am not sure that in Roman Catholic hagiography you ever hear women called ‘equal-to-the-apostles’ as in the Greek Church ‘isapóstolos’, yet not only the Theotokos, but Photini (the woman at the well) and Mary Magdalen among others have this distinction. Perhaps since the Virgin Mary never became a ‘priest’ it is safe to make her the role model for women, and bolster it with such images of her that conform to a mistaken ideal of feminine virtue and piety.
The fact that the Mother of God’s life ended in the extraordinary way that is recorded in the Orthodox Church points to the fact that her example and existence is for all Christians to imitate. She is the first Christian as well as the last faithful Jew, and so she retains her position among humanity—not just Christians, ‘all generations shall call me blessed’—as, if nothing else, at least our first and most transparent model of what a follower of Jesus is. Far from waiting on our prayers and devotions (though she is aware of them and offers them to God the Holy Triad) she is walking the world beside her Divine Son as He searches each one of us for hearts that can be saved—hearts, not just souls, for as the Desert Father says, ‘If you have a heart you can be saved.’
There are some Christians who simply don’t really believe in the communion of saints, that is, their living but invisible presence among us, because they haven’t really grasped the significance and power of the Resurrection—that is, Jesus Christ risen from the dead. The saints are only present because they are in paradise, and paradise is a Person not a place, it is Jesus. Lack of attention to Mary is part of this failure to appreciate what the Resurrection means. From their point of view, Jesus ‘ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.’ They have grasped that but have neglected His words, ‘Lo, I am with you to the end of the age.’ They confine His real presence to the sacraments if they still accept these at all, and they make ‘Christ is in our midst’ into a mere metaphor, to be applied as a consolation for the aridity and sterility of their devotions.
At worst some of them don’t even have a clue as to what eternal life, even what salvation, is, or how it applies to our earthly life. This is where the atheist and agnostic find ample opportunity to mock what they think Christianity is, but which is only a ghost of it, an attenuated parody of authentic Christianity, which does not reside in mere systems or institutions, but in the arena of spiritual struggle in which the saints have toiled from the beginning till now. Yes, these things are understood and lionized in the traditional Church, Catholic and Orthodox, yet even there, they are often reduced to systems of self-serving spiritual materialism, and finally, church imperialism.
How deeply the true knowledge of the meaning and power of the Resurrection can transform our lives, if we only believe. ‘All things are possible, if you only believe.’ Yes, even the communion of saints. Yes, even Christ in our midst.