So I had an experience today that has defiantly pushed me a bit further away from the Orthodox position on Marion devotion. I took my mother in law to a big choir concert at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis. She is a very devout protestant, and very strong in her faith. She came from a Catholic background but chose to leave the Catholic Church in favor of Protestantism, and was almost disowned by her family for it.
This was a joint Roman Catholic/Greek Orthodox concert. At first she really got into it, but then came the first hymns to Mary, and the choir leader explained that it was talking about the deliverance of Constantinople from an invading army, believed to have been a deliverance wrought by the Theotokos. He then proceeded to tell the audience that Mary was "the most powerful thing in the Universe" due to her giving birth to God, and that she 'our hope', and that she is a 'High tower' and 'deliverer' for all who 'put their hope in her'. And the we can 'cry aloud to her in our time of need' knowing that she always 'protects us'... not exact quotes, but something very much like that.
It ruined the whole thing for her, and for me. And it made her wonder why I was even interested in Orthodoxy, though she never said it. But I could sense it. I had to explain to her afterward that the Orthodox don't believe that Mary is more powerful or more holy than Christ, and that in Orthodoxy she was considered to be the greatest of all the saints, but not the Savior. And I explained that she was seen one who helps the faithful through her intersession, so that ultimately it's God who is doing the saving and delivering, even though it is often attributed to her. I told her that my experiences with Orthodoxy made me think it was very Christ-centered, but I also told her my honest opinion that I just felt they go way too far sometimes when talking about the Theotokos.
She seemed to understand and retains an open mind, but the whole experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and not because I'm really concerned about what she thinks. I've disagreed with her about a number of things, and I know she'll respect whatever decision I come to. Even if she didn't, I want to be saved and know the truth, not please my family members. But I find myself always coming back to the same questions. Why do Marian devotees always insist upon blurring the line between her and God in their language? Why is it that in so many Marian hymns and prayers things are being said about her that should only appropriately be said about God? The more I think about it the more sickening it looks, so I'm just going to put it down for a while. I'll just turn it over to God and if I'm wrong I pray He shows me.
Such a beautiful and and wonderful religion is Orthodoxy in so many ways. For me believing in it would solve so many problems in my faith and would end all of the confusion about where and what the Church is, what the truth is, how to interpret the Bible, and it's appealing in other ways as well that I don't have time to go into. But the whole claim is based on the idea that the Orthodox Church has preserved the faith of the Apostles in it's fullness. And yet I'm just not seeing how the Apostles taught us any such thing about Mary or anyone else. All they talked about was the glory of God in Jesus Christ. It's not until the 3rd century, so far as we can tell, that people started writing prayers to Mary for her 'protection', and not until like the 8th century that someone decided hymns to Mary were needed in every single service of the Church. If it's all just the invention of man who wanted, then it means that in a huge way the Orthodox tradition has failed to preserve the truth, and has instead turned His mother into a near-goddess for no clear reason at all. We have no need of another deliverer. We have a perfect savior in Christ.
Why not rather praise Jesus and only Jesus for protection and deliverance and compassion? Why not rather throw yourself down before Him and only Him when asking for help and strength and encouragement? Why not instead call Him and only Him our strong tower and deliverer and help? He is God after all. Mary was the one he chose to be His means of incarnation. That doesn't make her the source of the Christian's hope and confidence and salvation. It was God who did it, not her, she only cooperated. Without God she would be nothing. Without Him she would mean nothing. She knows that too I'm sure, I'm not throwing her under the bus. And If I'm just misunderstanding the whole thing then why does the Orthodox Church insist upon wrapping the issue in such horribly confusing and misleading language? And if indeed it is no more than the teaching of men then I think Protestantism, for all of it's many flaws and inconsistencies, really becomes the only viable option for me for this one reason alone. At least then it represents a sliver of hope that the Apostolic teaching can be restored. But I don't know. I just honestly don't know what to think. So I guess I'll just leave it there. Sorry for the rant, but yes, this is a HUGE stumbling block for me.
The main problem in your thought is precisely an anachronistic idea that you are looking at this through the lens of 16th and 17th Century thought, rather than the thought of the ancients. In addition, the point to which you allude, that the hymns don't come until later is also something you have to reconsider. If some theological thought or hymn does not show up in writing until later, does that mean it was not thought up in oral tradition before? And if this is something new, wouldn't it have been such a scandal in the thoughts of many Church fathers to write against the praise of human saints in addition to the praise of the Lord? But interestingly enough, none of that was a scandal. In fact, you should see some of the other scandals that the Church fathers flew to fight against, the scandal of insulting the Virgin, as Julian the Apostate has done, calling her a prostitute. Others also fought against the idea that she consummated a marriage with St. Joseph after Christ's birth.
Mariology was also quite an important thought from the earliest of Church fathers. St. Irenaeus, who was a follower of St. Polycarp, who was a follower of St. John the Apostle, describes St. Mary as a parallel to Eve, just as Christ was a parallel to Adam, in terms of obedience and salvation. So we can actually trace an implication of the respect of the virtues of the Theotokos from a very early source of Christianity. The Protoevangelium of James, although apocryphal, has its origins early enough to show a profound respect of the Virgin as well.
So then why is it that such praises of the Theotokos was not a scandal to Christians of the earliest centuries, but only a scandal to Christians of the 15th and 16th Centuries and beyond? Well, for one thing, I can understand that some saints who are called saints but may have done some outlandish or purely unrighteous things become quite a discouragement to many who are appalled by some of the clear unChristian behavior, and so you can't really go wrong with Christ. The elevation of the holiness of the Pope along with his and the church's abuses also made a huge impact into the thought of these Protestants. Nevertheless, that doesn't exclude the fact that there were good Christian saints of the past, and the Theotokos was the prototype of a true Christian saint.
But then this doesn't answer the question about the earliest Church fathers lack of beings scandalized. Well, have you asked yourself if we do in fact believe the Theotokos is not to be worshipped, but venerated for her greatness, doesn't that mean that we too are called to be as great as she is? If we say to the Theotokos, "Save us", does that mean we can also save? The answer is YES, because this is what St. Paul teaches here:
"Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Timothy 4:16)
Here, St. Paul is telling the newly ordained bishop, St. Timothy, his duty is to be a source of salvation to others. This does not mean he replaces Christ, but that he leads people to Christ, the true source of our salvation. Christ proclaims, "I am the True Light, that gives light to the world." But elsewhere, He says to His disciples, "YOU..."...."YOU!!! are the light of the world." But Lord, you are the True Light. Nevertheless, you as disciples of the Lord, having been enlightened must also share the divine light to others.
If saints weren't important, if the St. Mary wasn't important, why does Christ elevate His disciples to become "lights of the world" and "salts of the Earth", when Christ can perfectly do them Himself? It's because He enlightens man and man through Christ enlightens other men. The Theotokos thus becomes the best example of a saint that has become a light of the world. She is the par excellence city that is set on the hill who is not hidden. She is the [golden] lampstand par excellence (Exodus 25, Matthew 5), who let her light so shine before others, people saw her good works, called her blessed among women as the Angel called her, and through her, glorified the Father in heaven. The light and salvation she carries is not her own, but Christ's. The power she possesses that makes her one of the most powerful human beings is yet still not her own, but Christ's. It is because of her chosen position of carrying God enfleshed from her very own flesh carries amazingly powerful implications of her righteousness, her light, her salt, her involvement in the saving of others as St. Paul commanded St. Timothy. Even St. Paul speaks of his own role in saving others:
"I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them." (Romans 11:13-14) St. Jude also calls people to save (v. 23).
So yes, you are right in explaining your mother-in-law all this subtext of what these hymns really mean. I'm not saying you're unjustified in your discomfort. I can absolutely relate in your discomfort that I personally do not engage in too much of the language used by the concert. Nevertheless, have you had a friend who saves your life through prayer, or a preaching of a friend who brings you to Christ? Are you not going to stand in awe and be forever in debt for his/her service in bring you to Christ? How much more the Theotokos' involvement! If Christ, who was the best born among women, calls St. John the "best born among women", would it not make sense in that context the Theotokos involvement in the salvation of mankind is the most powerful, aside from Christ being the truly omnipotent one?
Finally, the hymns of the Theotokos precisely echoes the most foundational dogma missing in Protestant theology, and that is: God become man so that man might become God. The hymns of the saints are a proof of theosis. They are a proof of deification that you and I can achieve. It seems to me the denial of deification in the Protestant traditions goes hand in hand with the aversion of praising saints. They reduce the salvation of Christ to nothing more than an emotional forgiveness of sins and a release from personal guilt into human happiness forevermore, and not into the ultimate sanctification, illumination, and transcendence of our human nature by the power of the divine nature mingled in our members. It is by this power we know that saints have done amazing things in history as a testimony to their growth in Christ. We even have a saint that is said to have moved a mountain based on the Scriptural promise. This saint's movement of the mountain was one of "the most powerful things in the Universe", giving "hope", "protection", and "deliverance" to the people of Egypt who were threatened by the Muslim governor of Egypt who wanted to see this verse proven. How much more the Theotokos, who gave birth to the cause of our salvation!
The two most celebrated saints in the Orthodox Church are the Theotokos and the Forerunner, because the Theotokos brought Christ to the world and the Forerunner brought the world to Christ, and we as Christians are called to do BOTH!!!
Forgive me for the length of this rant, but I hope I presented to you enough evidence to truly help you in breaking free from the bonds of your past ways of thinking so that you can come slowly to a true Biblical and ancient Christian basis of what we do in our liturgical services free from the false sense of the guilty conscience you carry.