One of the hymns I have come to love over the years is the beautiful paean to Mary, the Mother of God that is sung at the end of the Great Vespers service in the Byzantine liturgy. It is very brief, but what a wonderful hymn of praise:
" More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim! Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word; true Theotokos, we magnify you."
One of the many beautiful treasures that Catholics and Orthodox Christians share is a common love and veneration of Mary, the Mother of God. In our iconography, divine worship, in our theology and in our life of prayer, we can't seem to find enough superlatives to praise the Mother of Jesus (and our Mother too).
Unfortunately, one of the controversies that sadly continues to divide our two communions is the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Unfortunate, because when Pope Pius IX definitivly declared in 1854 that Mary had been "preserved immune from all stain of original sin", neither Church thought well of each other. Orthodox Christians, who were not consulted, largely regarded the dogma as yet another instance of papal presumption and aggression, especially after an abortive apostolic letter in 1848 calling on the Orthodox churches to union with Rome.
In the atmosphere of hostility and suspicion that existed between Catholics and Orthodox prior to the Second Vatican Council, this dogma, which was intended to confirm the faith of Christians, tragically deepened the schism.
For me, the language of redemption, applied to Mary, makes the most sense. That is to say, she was redeemed by grace, prior to her birth (and prior to the birth of her Son, Jesus). All of the faithful are redeemed, totally and entirely, in the waters of baptism. This "new birth of innocence" in which every neophyte shares, was preserved in Mary, through her humble cooperation with grace. Tempted by sin no doubt (as was her Son) but reliant on God and obedient to God's will in all things.
What makes her "more honorable than the Cherubim" was the humble obedience of the one "blessed among all women", who was glorified and made radiant by God's grace.
May we, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the All-Holy Mother of God, deepen the bonds of love and communion between our beloved Orthodox and Catholic churches!