The Harrowing of Hell

In Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315, raising Adam and Eve is depicted as part of the Resurrection icon, as it always is in the East.

The Harrowing of Hell. This representation of Christ’s descent into Hell shows Him breaking down the gates of hell and restoring Adam and Eve to Paradise.

The Harrowing of Hell

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.(1 Pet 3:18-22)

For Protestants, this is a difficult and most troubling passage, one whose meaning is unclear, and therefore subject to all sorts of interpretations. What does the phrase “spirits in prison” mean? Why did Jesus preach to them, and what was the content of His sermon?[i] When I was in High School, I remember a sermon on this passage in which it was claimed that the “spirits in prison” were the fallen angels, and Jesus message was: “I have beaten you.” While it made for a powerful sermon, this interpretation cannot be supported by the text — although in the absence of other evidence, it is certainly no worse than any of the other interpretations I heard.

And yet, none of the Protestant interpretations of this passage relate to the interpretation given by the early church, which was derived from the book of Tobit and various Old Testament passages, as illumined by the life of Christ. In the book of Tobit we read his prayer of thanksgiving, in which he makes reference to what most Christians call the Harrowing of Hell; the descent of Christ into Hell, where he led captivity captive — that is, from whence he delivered the Old Testament saints from their bondage of sin, death, and the devil.

Then Tobit wrote a prayer of rejoicing, and said, Blessed be God that liveth for ever, and blessed be his kingdom. For he doth scourge, and hath mercy: he leadeth down to hell [Hades], and bringeth up again: neither is there any that can avoid his hand (Tobit 13:1-2).

It is important to note that the verses above are from the King James Version, which tends to conflate the terms for Hell and Hades, translating them both as Hell. However, the word used here is not the Greek word for Hell, but the word for Hades [άδην], the place for disembodied spirits; in the Old Testament, this equates to the Hebrew word Sheol [שׁאול], being the grave, the abode of the dead. While in the New Testament Hades is reserved for the wicked awaiting judgment, in the Old Testament (prior to Christ’s Descent into Hades), Hades/Sheol held both the righteous and the damned.

One of the most important Old Testament passages concerning Christ’s descent into Hades is found in Psalms 24. This passage comes in two parts; the first declares that all of creation is the LORD’S, and states that only the pure in heart will stand in the holy place of God.

The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.

He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah. (Ps 24:1-6)

After this passage comes the word Selah, which is a musical and liturgical term, giving one time to pause and reflect upon what has come before. Reflecting on the fact that only the pure in heart will see God (Mt 5:8), we must ask who, then, is pure? Who is without sin? (Joh 8:7) The answer, of course is Jesus, who was tempted like us, yet without sin (Heb 4:15); who was offered for and on behalf of our sins, and was raised again without sin (Heb 9:28). In the remainder of Psalm 24 we see Christ, the King of glory, as being the one able to conquer the hold death had on humanity, and who has opened for us the gates of paradise.

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah. (Ps 24:7-10)

These last verses from Psalm 24 are part of the Paschal liturgy of the Eastern Church. After reciting (and acting out) this passage, the doors of the church are flung open and the people enter, after which is sung the Easter troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.” This refrain, dating as early as the 2nd century, contains the theological meaning of what is termed the Harrowing of Hell. Death could not hold Him. In defeating death, Christ led captivity captive (Ps 68:18; Eph 4:8), meaning He led the souls of the departed righteous out of their resting place, where they are now kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation (1 Pet 1:5).

We should note that this doctrine is not some medieval invention of the Roman Catholic Church, but is in fact the universal witness of the Church into the apostolic age. We know this from a variety of sources; the New Testament itself, the apocryphal writings of the New Testament period, Christian poetry, and fathers of the early church.

New Testament sources include Jesus’ discussion of His impending three-day burial: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”(Matt 12:40); Christian tradition holds this to be a foretelling of Christ’s descent into Hell.[ii] Other incidental passages include Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:22-32); Paul’s sermon in the synagogue of Antioch (Acts 13:34-37); and “St Paul’s words that speak of how Christ ‘descended into the lower parts of the earth’ [Eph 4:9] and of his victory over death and hell.'[1 Cor 15:54-57; Rom 10:7; Col 2:14-15]”[iii] Perhaps the most important passage, which became a prototype for other writings of the post-apostolic period, is the passage from 1 Peter which opens this discourse.

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev notes the Harrowing of Hell is much more prominent in the Christian Apocalypses than in the canonical texts. Among these texts, which were “indirectly” used by the early church are the Christiain interpolations into the Ascension of Isaiah and The Testament of Asher, along with the “Christian adaptation” of The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Other texts include The Gospel of Peter, The Epistle of the Apostles, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Sybilline Oracles, The Teachings of Silvanus, The Gospel of Bartholomew, and The Gospel of Nicodemus. This last book “exerted decisive influence on the formation of church doctrine on the subject.”[iv]

Besides the previously mentioned Easter troparion, which is dated to at least as early as the 2nd century, we should mention the poem “On Pascha” by St Melito of Sardis, and dated to the middle of the 2nd Century, a portion of which is quoted below.

66. When this one came from heaven to earth for the sake of the one who suffers, and had clothed himself with that very one through the womb of a virgin, and having come forth as man, he accepted the sufferings of the sufferer through his body which was capable of suffering. And he destroyed those human sufferings by his spirit which was incapable of dying. He killed death which had put man to death.

68. This is the one who covered death with shame and who plunged the devil into mourning as Moses did Pharaoh. This is the one who smote lawlessness and deprived injustice of its offspring, as Moses deprived Egypt. This is the one who delivered us from slavery into freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life, from tyranny into an eternal kingdom, and who made us a new priesthood, and a special people forever.

70. This is the one who became human in a virgin, who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven.

71. This is the lamb that was slain. This is the lamb that was silent. This is the one who was born of Mary, that beautiful ewe-lamb. This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night; the one who was not broken while on the tree, who did not see dissolution while in the earth, who rose up from the dead, raising up mankind below. [v]

Instead of placing the saving work of Christ into different categories and treating each atomistically (as is done in western theology), St Melito of Sardis connects it all into a seamless narrative, flowing from the pre-existence of the Son of God, His clothing of himself of the flesh of the Virgin Mary, His life, death, burial, and His raising of mankind from the grave by virtue of His own resurrection. This same method is repeated elsewhere in his “On Pascha”, to similar effect.

Another interesting bit of poetry comes to us by way of the Odes of Solomon, a work most scholars believe first appeared in Syria in the mid-second century. About their origin, Rutherford Hayes Platt states: “one of the most plausible explanations is that they are songs of newly baptized Christians of the First Century.”[vi] With this in mind, it is interesting to note that these Odes contain significant references to and descriptions of Christ’s descent into Hades.[vii] Ode 42 is particularly interesting, in that it describes both the “spirits in prison”, and the content of Christ’s preaching.

ODE 42.

The Odes of Solomon, the Son of David, are ended with the following exquisite verses.

1 I stretched out my hands and approached my Lord:

2 For the stretching of my hands is His sign:

3 My expansion is the outspread tree which was set up on the way of the Righteous One.

4 And I became of no account to those who did not take hold of me; andI shall be with those who love me.

5 All my persecutors are dead; and they sought after me who hoped in me, because I was alive:

6 And I rose up and am with them; and I will speak by their mouths.

7 For they have despised those who persecuted them;

8 And I lifted up over them the yoke of my love;

9 Like the arm of the bridegroom over the bride, So was my yoke over those that know me: And as the couch that is spread in the house of the bridegroom and bride,

12 So is my love over those that believe in me.

13 And I was not rejected though I was reckoned to be so.

14 I did not perish, though they devised it against me.

15 Sheol saw me and was made miserable: Death cast me up, and many along with me.

17 I had gall and bitterness, and I went down with him to the utmost of his depth:

18 And the feet and the head he let go, for they were not able to endure my face:

19 And I made a congregation of living men amongst his dead men, and I spake with them by living lips:

20 Because my word shall not be void:

21 And those who had died ran towards me: and they cried and said, Son of God, have pity on us, and do with us according to thy kindness,

22 And bring us out from the bonds of darkness: and open to us the door by which we shall come out to thee.

23 For we see that our death has not touched thee.

24 Let us also be redeemed with thee: for thou art our Redeemer.

25 And I heard their voice; and my name I sealed upon their heads:

26 For they are free men and they are mine. Hallelujah.

This last phrase sums up the soteriological [salvific] theology contained within the description of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. We were all in bondage to sin, death, and the devil; Christ has broken our chains, destroyed the gates of hell, and declares to all: “They are free men and they are mine. Hallelujah.”

An interesting patristic passage comes to us by way of Eusebius, in “The Story Concerning the King of Edessa.” King Agbar of Edessa[viii] was ill with some form of wasting disease. Hearing of Jesus, the King wrote and besought Jesus to come and heal him. Jesus sent King Agbar a letter saying one of his disciples would come and heal his sicknesses and bring salvation to his people. This was accomplished after the resurrection of Christ when Thomas sent Thaddeus (one of the seventy) to Edessa. Thomas not only healed King Agbar and a great many others, but preached the following Gospel to them, which included a description of Christ’s descent into Hades:

Because I have been sent to preach the word of God, assemble me tomorrow all the people of thy city, and I will preach before them, and sow amongst them the word of life; and will tell them about the coming of Christ, how it took place; and about His mission, for what purpose he was sent by His Father; and about His power and His deeds, and about the mysteries which He spake in the world, and by what power He wrought these things, and about His new preaching, and about His abasement and His humiliation, and how He humbled and emptied and abased Himself, and was crucified, and descended to Hades, and broke through the enclosure which had never been broken through before, and raised up the dead, and descended alone, and ascended with a great multitude to His Father.[ix]

The fact that the Harrowing of Hell featured prominently in the Apocryphal texts, Christian poetry, and patristics testifies to the early origins of this Christian doctrine. And the fact that this doctrine is supported from the Old Testament, including both canonical and so-called Apocryphal texts, suggests the loss of something vital to the Gospel when the Apocrypha were separated from the rest of the Old Testament.



[i] We won’t even discuss the problematic phrase: “even baptism doth also now save us”.

[ii] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 17)

[iii] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 19)

[iv] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 20-29)

[v] (St Melito of Sardis 1989, 20-23; 32-34)

[vi] (Platt 2007, 205)

[vii] See Odes 17, 22, 24, and 42.

[viii] Edessa was the capital city of Osreone, which was part of the Syriac empire. The country of Osreone is roughly located in the border area of Turkey and Syria; the city of Edessa is located in modern-day Turkey, and known as Şanlıurfa (or colloquially as Urfa).

[ix] (Schaff, ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age 2005, 1098)


Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Christ the Conqueror of Hell. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009.

Platt, Rutherford H. The Forgotten Books of Eden. Sioux Falls: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2007.

Schaff, Philip. ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

St Melito of Sardis. “On Pascha.” Edited by Jr. James T. Dennison. KERUX: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching (Kerux, Inc.) 4, no. 1 (1989): 5-35.


The Church is Paradise on Earth

Icon of the Holy Liturgy, Michael Damaskenos, from the 16th century Cretan school

Icon of the Holy Liturgy, Michael Damaskenos, from the 16th century Cretan school

With the worship of God you live in Paradise. If you know and love Christ, you live in Paradise. Christ is Paradise. Paradise begins here. The Church is Paradise on earth, exactly the same as Paradise in heaven. The same Paradise as is in heaven is here on earth. There all souls are one, just as the Holy Trinity is three persons, but they are united and constitute one.

Our chief concern is to devote ourselves to Christ, to unite ourselves to the Church. If we enter into the love of God, we enter into the Church. If we don’t enter into the Church, if we do not become with the earthly Church here and now, we are in danger of losing the heavenly Church here and now, we are in danger of losing the heavenly Church too. And when we say ‘heavenly’ don’t imagine that in the other life we will find gardens with flowers, mountains, streams and birds. The earthly beauties do not exist there; there is something else, something very exalted. But in order for us to go on to this something else we must pass through these earthly images and beauties.

Whoever experiences Christ becomes one with Him, with His Church. He experiences a mad delight. This life is different from the life of other people. It is joy, it is light, it is exultation, it is exaltation. This is the life of the Church, the life of the Gospel, the Kingdom of God. ‘The Kingdom of God is within us.’ Christ comes within us and we are within Him. This occurs just in the way a piece of iron placed int he fire becomes fire and light; once it is removed from the fire it becomes iron again, black and dark.

In the Church a divine intercourse occurs, we become infused with God. When we are with Christ we are in the light; and when we live in the light there is no darkness. The light, however, is not constant; it depends on us. It is just like the iron which becomes dark when removed from the fire. Darkness and light are incompatible. We can never have darkness and light at the same time. Either light or darkness. When you switch on the light, darkness vanishes.

Elder Porphyrious, Wounded by Love, pp. 90-91

Humanity and the Incarnation

Christ in Glory

Christ in Glory

Most of us misunderstand the Incarnation, because we have a faulty understanding of humanity, of what it means to be human. When we misunderstand the meaning of humanity, we don’t know what it means for God to become not only of us, but consubstantial with us according to His humanity, while remaining consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit according to his divinity.

Archimandrite Justin Popovich, in a Christmas sermon entitled “Perfect God and Perfect Man”, writes of the Incarnation.

God is born on earth, and moreover He is born as a man: perfect God and perfect man–the unique God-man. And He has forever remained as the God-man both on earth and in heaven. Indeed, the God-man is the first perfect man on earth. Perfect man? Yes, because only in the God-man is man without sin, without evil, without death, totally filled with God, and thereby with all divine perfections.

 The God-man has demonstrated and proved this most convincingly: man is only a true man when he is completely united with God, and in everything and every way completely lives in God, thinks in God, feels in God, acts in God, is virtuous in God, is immortal in God, is eternal in God. Only and solely in God is man a man, a true man, a perfect man, a man in whom all the fullness of the Godhead lives.

For what purpose did God take upon himself the form of a servant? For what reason was He made in the likeness of our humanity? If we accept the western idea of substitutionary atonement, then God need not be consubstantial with us. In fact, the western idea of original sin, and the necessity that Christ be born without the guilt of original sin, means that the Christ could not have been “touched with the feeling of our infirmities”, nor could He have been “in all points tempted like as we are” (Heb 4:15). If humanity is contaminated by Original Sin, and if the Christ was born without Original Sin, then the humanity of Christ was something other than our humanity, and therefore Christ cannot be consubstantial with us according to His humanity.

Gregory of Nazianzus, in his Epistle 101 against the Apollinarians, describes the problem for us.

For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.

Do you see the problem? If Christ was not fully one of us, if He did not assume the entirety of our human nature, then Christ’s work on the cross was for nothing, and we are still in our sins.

(To be continued)

Orthodoxy and Homosexuality

Book cover for "The Orthodox Church" by John Anthony McGuckin

The Orthodox Church

There are also some Christians whose mature sexuality does not demonstrate any heterosexual drive towards marriage. When the Orthodox Church affirms its ancient and unbroken teaching that all God-blessed sexual relationships should take place within heterosexual marriage, considering all other forms of sexual liaison as canonically irregular, and as lapses from the standard of God-blessed creative communion, such men and women feel bereft by this teaching, and are often dismayed that their deepest sexual affinities find no resonance within it. In ancient times almost all the ethical reflection that the church conducted on the subject of homosexuality was based on the premise that such men and women freely elected their sexual preference, and grounded, or established, themselves within it as life developed, by force of habituation. That view no longer commands the universal agreement of scholars as it once did when the church drew up its canonical discipline and advice on the subject. Scientific studies now suggest that as many as one in ten human beings may find themselves in this life condition. Christians among them have often grown up from early school years ridiculed, isolated, persecuted for their difference, because of deep-seated instincts they have not chosen and are often unable to comprehend. The Orthodox Church is drawn, in the imitation of the Christ, to offer consolation and grace to all the children of God on their pilgrimage to the Kingdom, and finds homophobia and all forms of prejudice, verbal and otherwise, to run counter to the charity and purposes of the Lord.

Such Christians may not feel called to monasticism or to marriage, and yet do not wish to face the world alone. Although they can often be tempted to desolation, and feelings of hopelessness, they are the children of a merciful God who will not abandon them. Their affective development and their path towards security of affection within the world and to stable relationships with supportive friends is a matter of great care and concern to the Lord, and ought to be also to the wider church community. The Orthodox Church believes that it is especially appropriate for them to have the regular help and advice, the consolation and encouragement, of a spiritual father or mother, to who they can open their heart, and here in return words of grace. The deepening of friendship, affection, and love between Christ’s saints, and its transcendent unfolding into bonds of a depth that surpass what the world can imagine, is a gift to all believers. Such a mystery of love is not a prerogative of the married only, for: ‘When Christ dwells in our hearts we are rooted and grounded in love.’ [Eph 3:17]

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture by John Anthony McGuckin


St. John of Krondstadt on the connection between the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation

Jesus Christ, Emmanuel

Jesus Christ, Emmanuel

In order that the Lord may unite Himself with anybody, it is necessary that that man should be perfectly free from the impurity of sin and be adorned with virtues, or that he should believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, Who took upon Himself the sins of the whole world; that he should acknowledge his sins, should sincerely condemn them, considering them foolish, and that he should ask with all his heart to be forgiven them, firmly intending not to sin again in future. It was in this manner that all the saints were united with the Lord and became holy.

Union with God is achieved either through a life of virtue or a life of repentance. The lives of the saints demonstrate that these are one and the same thing.  As St. Sisoe of the Desert said on his deathbed, (to the astonishment of his fellow monks): “I have not yet begun to repent.” Given this, what are we to make of the Virgin Mary? In what way was she worthy to become the Mother of God the Word, and is such a life possible for us?

How holy therefore must be our Lady, the Mother of God, with Whom God the Word Himself, the Light everlasting, was most truly united: ” the true light, Which lighteneth every man that cometh into the world,” [647] whom “the Holy Ghost came upon,” and whom “the power of the Most High overshadowed”! [648] How holy and most holy must be our Lady, the Mother of the Lord, Who became the temple of God, not made with hands, and was entirely penetrated, in all Her thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds, by the Holy Ghost, and from Whose blood the Creator Himself made flesh for Himself? Truly She is most holy, firm, steadfast, immovable, unchangeable throughout all eternity in Her most high, divine holiness, for the all-perfect God, Who humanly became Her Son, made Her all-perfect by reason of Her most great humility, Her love of purity and the source of purity, God; Her entire renunciation of the world, and Her attachment with all Her thoughts to the heavenly kingdom, and especially by reason of the fact that She became His Mother, carried Him in Her womb, and afterwards in Her most-pure arms, nourished with Her most-pure milk, Him Who feeds all creatures, cared for Him, caressed Him, suffered and sorrowed for Him, shed tears for Him, lived Her whole life for Him, for Him alone was wholly absorbed in His Spirit and was one heart, one soul with Him, one holiness with Him! O highest unity of love and holiness of the most-pure Virgin Mary and Her Divine Son, the Lord Jesus Christ! Wonderful, too, are God’s saints by their entire love for the Lord, by the streams of blood and sweat they shed out of love for the Lord.

The Virgin Mary is one of us. She was not conceived immaculately, as the Latins falsely claim, for then Our Lord would not have been fully human either. In the words of Irenaeus of Lyons” “For that which He [i.e. Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” If Mary was unique amongst humanity, then Jesus Christ partook of that uniqueness — in which case the efficacy of Christ’s saving work is called into question.

The Virgin Mary has been glorified in and by means of her humility. Of all of humanity, she was the first to “see Him as He is”. Therefore, when we honor the Virgin Mary, we honor the One who built for Himself a body of her flesh and blood, and became one of us. We honor the Virgin Mary for her renunciation of the world, and her total focus on her Son, Jesus Christ. The totality of focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, as shown in the life of the Virgin Mary, and indeed of all the saints, is not simply a curiosity, but a matter of life and death. Their example shows us the way to life everlasting. Thanks be to God.

Sergieff, Archpriest John Iliytch; St John of Kronstadt (2010-05-26). My Life in Christ, or Moments of Spiritual Serenity and Contemplation, of Reverent Feeling, of Earnest Self-Amendment, and of Peace in God (Kindle Locations 4453-4468).  . Kindle Edition.

Icon of the Virgin “Galaktotrophousa” (the Milk-Giver)

If you have a problem with women breast-feeding in public, and especially in church, this will blow your mind. We sometimes forget that our Lord was an infant, breast-feeding from His mother. We forget that he had dirty diapers, and that His mother had to change him and wipe his little bottom. We forget that he was subject to weakness just as we are, including the many indignities of infancy and childhood. That is, in fact, one of the lessons of the twelve year-old Jesus in the temple; He was not ready to begin His mission, and the Lord of all had to submit Himself to his parents.

Icon of the Virgin “Galaktotrophousa” (Γαλακτοτροφουσα, meaning “the Milk-Giver”)

Icon of the Virgin “Galaktotrophousa” (Γαλακτοτροφουσα, meaning “the Milk-Giver”)

Not scandalized by the Incarnation

The Weeping Mother of God of the Sign

The “Weeping Mother of God” refers to an event that took place on November 27, 1165, in the city of Novgorod. The city was under siege, and the citizens took the icon to the city wall. The icon was pierced by an arrow, and the icon began to shed tears. Upon seeing this, the citizens and soldiers rallied and the city was saved. The Russians have given this icon the name “Our Lady of the Sign”, or “Znamenie”. To this day the Russian Church celebrates the Feast of the Our Lady of the Sign on, December 10, which is November 27 in the Old Julian Calendar.

Weeping Mother of God of the Sign, Novgorod

Weeping Mother of God of the Sign

As to the sign, this has two meanings. The first is a reference to Isaiah 7:15, where it is said the virgin would conceive and bear a son, and His name would be Immanuel, which is God with us. The second is the icon that wept when pierced by an arrow.

The similarities between “The Weeping Mother of God of the Sign” and “The Great Panagia” are striking. The differences are that “The Great Panagia” contains the images of archangels and pictures Mary from her feet up; while “The Weeping Mother of God of the Sign” contains images of the seraphim and pictures Mary from the waist up. Both portray the infant Christ in the womb of His mother, the Virgin Mary. In Orthodox churches, “The Weeping Mother of God of the Sign” is visible above the altar.

The Great Panagia

The Great Panagia

The Icon of the Sign

The Secret Inner Life of the Church

The following is slightly modified from my book “Why Mary Matters”.


Icon of Christ Pantocrator St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Icon of Christ Pantocrator
St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

A proper and catholic[i] Mariology is inextricably bound to Christology, and is therefore a necessary component of the true faith. St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of the apostle John, calls the virginity of Mary a mystery hidden from the prince of this world, a mystery wrought in silence by God: “Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God.” (P. Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 87, 95-96) Now as we know, the term mystery is also the source of the term sacrament; sacrament and mystery have the same scriptural meaning. Protestants, including Lutherans, jettisoned much of the spiritual heritage bequeathed them from the church catholic — specifically that church whose bishop resides in Rome.[ii] Of course they would not consider this as an abandonment, but rather a recovery of a primitive Christianity uncorrupted by nearly fifteen centuries of hierarchal and heretical development within the Roman Catholic church. However, the loss of one of the Ignatius’ “three mysteries of renown” raises the question of whether Protestantism has recovered primitive Christianity, or rather whether in jettisoning Roman Catholicism they also jettisoned something essential to Christianity.

Peter Gillquist writes:

The highly charged emotional atmosphere which surrounds this subject serves to blunt our objectivity in facing up to Mary. Many of us were brought up to question or reject honor paid to Mary in Christian worship and art. Therefore, we often have our minds made up in advance. We have allowed our preconceptions to color our understanding even of the Scripture passages concerning her. We have not let the facts speak for themselves. (Gillquist 2009, 97)

To be fair, whether one sees the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Sacred Scripture depends in part upon one’s theological background and interpretive framework. Scot McKnight, the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University and author of the book “The Real Mary”, states: “[T]he story about the real Mary has never been told. The Mary of the Bible has been hijacked by theological controversies whereby she has become a Rorschach inkblot in which theologians find whatever they wish to find.” (McKnight 2007, 3) So far, so good. However, McKnight then attempts to find a version of Mary palatable to Evangelicals, ignoring the witness of history and the church, and creates version of Mary befitting his thesis. McKnight’s great mistake is his hubris — his dismissal of what historic Christianity believed, taught, proclaimed, and even died regarding the theology surrounding Christ and the Virgin Mary.

To be fair to those from a “Scripture Alone” background, we must admit that the overt scriptural evidence for the veneration of Mary seems rather sparse. Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky notes: “If we desired to consider biblical evidence apart from the Church’s devotion to the Mother of God, we should be obliged to limit ourselves to the few New Testament passages relating to Mary and the one Old Testament passage cited in the New Testament with reference to her (the prophecy of the Virgin-Birth of the Messiah in Isaiah).” (Lossky, Panagia 1949, 25) Therefore, the starting place for an understanding of the veneration of Mary must begin with a proper understanding of Christology, and of its dogmatic development as a defense against Christological heresy. Vladimir Lossky notes that even here, the evidence for a Mariological connection is sparse.

If we were to limit ourselves to the dogmatic data, in the strict sense of the word, and were dealing only with dogmas affirmed by the Councils, we should find nothing except the name Theotokos, whereby the Church has solemnly confirmed the divine maternity of the Holy Virgin. The dogmatic subject of the Theotokos, as the name was affirmed against the Nestorians, is Christological before it is anything else; that which is thereby defended against the gainsayers of the divine maternity is the hypostatic unity of the Son of God, when he had become the Son of Man. It is Christology which is directly envisaged here; it is indirectly that at the same time there is a dogmatic confirmation of the Church’s devotion to her who bore God according to the flesh. It is said that all those who rise up against the appellation Theotokos, all who refuse to admit that Mary has this quality given to her, are not truly Christians, for they oppose the true doctrine of the Incarnation of the word. This should demonstrate the close connection between dogma and devotion, which are inseparable in the Church. (Lossky, Panagia 1949, 24)

John Breck notes: “The mystery of the Holy Virgin Mary belongs, as much as any other in Christian experience, to the disciplina arcani: the secret, inner life of the Church.”[iii] Thus we cannot truly understand the place of the Holy Virgin Mary in the economy of salvation apart from the church — for, as Breck notes: “[T]he person of Mary and her place within God’s work of salvation is in the broadest sense ecclesial, and not merely scriptural.” (Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church 2001, 143) While the biblical evidence for Mariology exists, the interpretation of the evidence is informed by the church’s dogma and devotion (which, as we have shown, is Christological in its orientation).

Still, the question deserves an answer: If the veneration of Mary is truly part of Christianity, why is it not more widely and clearly proclaimed in Sacred Scripture? Hilda Graef provides the following information.

The paganism of the Byzantine world round the shores of the Mediterranean was no longer the comparatively sober affair of the Greco-Roman Olympus, of Jupiter and Juno, of Minerva and Mars. It had become a syncretistic religion with very disturbing elements of ecstatic frenzy and sexual promiscuity, and one of its most prominent figures was the Mother Goddess, worshipped under many names, as the Magna Mater, the Phrygian Kybele, the Palestinian Ash-taroth, the Egyptian Isis and the Diana of the Ephesians whose devotees so violently opposed St. Paul (Acts 19). …When Christianity began to spread, not only among the Jewish communities of the Roman Empire but, under the leadership of St. Paul, also among the pagan population, its teachers had to make it clear that there was only one God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, who could tolerate no rivals, whether male or female, and who was both the creator and the redeemer of the world. A strong [public] emphasis on his virgin mother would have led to unfortunate comparisons and, possibly, identifications. (Graef 2009, 25-26)

And so we see why the veneration of the Virgin Mary might be part of the “disciplina arcani: the secret, inner life of the Church”. Whereas Alexander Hislop presumes that the veneration of Mary is evidence of the early apostasy of the church, I propose an alternate point of view: the early church knew that the open veneration of the Blessed Virgin would invite ill-informed comparisons to the mystery religions of the Mediterranean region, and so kept her veiled from view, hidden in plain sight.

[i] The word “catholic” with a little “c” is a reference to that which has been believed everywhere, in every place, and by all, or what is sometimes called the church catholic. With a capital “C”, Catholic is a shorthand reference to the Roman Catholic church.

[ii] Lutherans retained a semblance of sacramental theology, but redefine them and limit them in a manner unacceptable to non-Protestant Christians. With the Catholics, they number the sacraments; unlike the Catholics, they only accept two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

[iii] St. Basil the Great writes: “Of the dogmas and proclamations [kerygma] that are guarded in the Church, we hold some from the teaching of the Scriptures, and others we have received in mystery as the teachings of the tradition of the apostles.” (St Basil the Great 2011, Kindle Location 1657) Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev notes that St. Basil the Great is speaking “chiefly of traditions of a liturgical or ceremonial character, passed down by word of mouth and thereby entering into church practice.” (Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity: Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church 2012, 16)

Our Lady of Sitka

Located at the Cathedral of St Michael the Archangel in Sitka, Alaska is one of the most revered Icons in North America: the Sitka Mother of God.

Troparion & Kontakion for July 8th:

Troparion — Tone 4

Today, like the morning sun rising over us, / Your all-honored icon enlightens the world with rays of mercy / And our land reverently receives it / as a divine gift from on high, / Glorifying you, O Birthgiver of God, Our Lady of Sitka, / With joy magnifying Christ our God Who was born of you. / Pray to Him O Lady Mary, Queen and Theotokos / That all cities and lands be protected from our enemies, / And that they will be saved who in faith venerate your most pure icon / That has come to dwell with us, O Virgin Mother, / who shows us the way to Christ.

Kontakion — Tone 8

O Mother of God, chosen from all generations to be the protectress of the Christian people; / We offer you songs of thanksgiving for your wonderworking Icon that has come to Alaska. / You are a fountain of mercy and help all who seek refuge in you. / Defend us in all afflictions, necessities and tribulations that we may cry to you: / Rejoice, zealous defender of the Orthodox faithful in America.

Our Lady of Sitka

Icon of Our Lady of Sitka

Our Lady of Sitka