Tomorrow is the feast day of the Dormition, commemorating the death of the Theotokos (the Mother of God). It is a major day in the Orthodox Church, as we lead up to it with two weeks of fasting and prayers to her, asking for her assistance and intercessions for us. This is quite controversial considering the context of American Christianity and my Protestant background. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to address the topic of prayers to saints and veneration of the Theotokos. Before starting, I want to point out that the Orthodox Church does not hold Mary to be completely free from original sin in the same way that the Catholic Church does.
The first thing I want to point out is that people interact with Angels very frequently in the Bible. They talk with and are assisted by these spirits time and time again in the Old and New Testaments. There are even depictions of heavenly beings in the Tabernacle. In the Orthodox Church we have prayers to angelic beings from the Archangels to our personal guardian angels. There are many stories in the history of the Church where angels interact with Christians in a Biblical fashion.
Just like we interact with spirits aligned with God, we interact with the spirits of dead who are aligned with God. This is also Biblical. On Mount Tabor, Jesus Himself spoke with Moses and Elijah [Elijah himself never died but was lifted bodily into Heaven]. After Christ conquered death, the spirits inclined to God were freed from Hades to be in Heaven. Through the Holy Spirit, the souls of the saints can now hear us asking for their intercessions. Many of them had very profound gifts of the Holy Spirit during their lives, and these did not go away at their deaths. Take St. Paul in the Book of Acts for example. People simply touched him with rags and brought these rags to the sick and healed them. This is why the Orthodox Church saves items associated with holy people, as well as their bodies. These relics still give grace and healing as when the saints were alive. Also, the prayers of St. Paul are still able to have the profound effect as they did when he was alive. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are still present with the holy saints after their deaths.
As holy as the likes of St. Paul and the Archangels are, we hold Mary to be the highest of all creation. Only the uncreated Trinity is above her. Many Protestants, such as my former self, take the stance that she was a perhaps a cool person, but that traditional Christianity has taken it too far. The veneration of Mary can be hard to appreciate in Western Christianity because Western Christians tend to see the incarnation as a means to an end. In Protestantism, the entire focus of salvation is on the cross (generally speaking). Christ died in our place so now we do not have to be punished for our sins. In the Orthodox Church, Salvation begins with the Incarnation [the conception of Christ]. The Word of God took on human flesh to restore and raise human nature to what it was meant to be. A new type of human being has come into the world with Christ the Second Adam. This new humanity is transfigured and has overcome sin and death. This new humanity was forged in Mary’s womb. The redemption of human nature and all of creation was a process that started within her. As such, the conception and birth of Christ through Mary is not an arbitrary event, but makes Mary the Queen of Heaven. She was not God’s mother temporarily, but will always have this this connection with God which is greater than that of any other created being.