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The Veneration of the Virgin Mary in the Orthodox Church

Because of recent dis­cus­sions about the Catholic Church’s con­sid­er­ing defin­ing a new dog­ma con­cern­ing the Vir­gin Mary it might be of inter­est to Chris­tians of oth­er Church­es to have some expla­na­tion of the Ortho­dox Church’s posi­tion con­cern­ing her.

The Ortho­dox Church hon­ors and ven­er­ates the Vir­gin Mary as “more hon­ourable than the Cheru­bim and more glo­ri­ous with­out com­pare than the Seraphim …” Her name is men­tioned in every ser­vice, and her inter­ces­sion before the throne of God is asked. She is giv­en the title of “Theotokos” (Greek for “Birth-giv­er-of-God), as well as “Moth­er of God”. She has a def­i­nite role in Ortho­dox Chris­tian­i­ty, and can in no way be con­sid­ered an instru­ment which, once used, was laid aside and forgotten.

Objec­tions to the ven­er­a­tion of the Theotokos are based pri­mar­i­ly on what is called “a lack of scrip­tur­al evi­dence to sup­port such a prac­tice.” While it is true that the Church depends heav­i­ly on her Tra­di­tion oth­er than Holy Scrip­ture (Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cils, litur­gi­cal books, and the writ­ings of the Fathers) for details and the pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion of the nature of the ven­er­a­tion of the Vir­gin Mary, there are sev­er­al pas­sages of the New Tes­ta­ment that real­ly form the basis for our practice.

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to announce to the Vir­gin the birth of the Sav­iour: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1:28) This angel­ic salu­ta­tion forms a part of the hymn of the Church most fre­quent­ly sung in her hon­or. Could we be wrong in repeat­ing the words of the very mes­sen­ger of God? Eliz­a­beth, the Vir­gin’s cousin, con­sid­ered it an hon­or for the Moth­er of her Lord to vis­it her. “And whence is this to me that the Moth­er of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) Is there any real dif­fer­ence between say­ing “Moth­er of God” and “Moth­er of the Lord”? Sure­ly, God is the Lord! (Psalm 118:27) In the course of her vis­it to Eliz­a­beth, the Blessed Vir­gin spoke the words that form the prin­ci­pal hymn sung in her hon­or at the Matins service.

My soul doth mag­ni­fy the Lord, and my spir­it hath rejoiced in God my Sav­iour. For He hath regard­ed the low estate of His hand­maid­en, for, behold, from hence­forth all gen­er­a­tions shall call me blessed.” (Luke 1: 47–48)

Eliz­a­beth had already been “filled with the Holy Spir­it”, pre­cise­ly that she might cry out: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” (Luke 1:41, 42) This hon­or giv­en the Theotokos by her cousin is exact­ly what all gen­er­a­tions of the Church do when they call her blessed. Final­ly, when Jesus saw His moth­er and the dis­ci­ple John stand­ing by the cross, He entrust­ed him with her care, but He also estab­lished a new spir­i­tu­al rela­tion­ship between them in say­ing to the dis­ci­ple: “Behold thy Moth­er!” (John 19:27) What pos­si­ble sig­nif­i­cance could this dec­la­ra­tion of our Lord have except to make His Moth­er the Moth­er of all Chris­tians? If she real­ly had oth­er chil­dren would she be in need of an out­sider’s home?

The Incar­na­tion of God was fore­told in the Old Tes­ta­ment. A race was cho­sen for a spe­cif­ic pur­pose: to pro­duce a holy human­i­ty from which God could take flesh. Mary is the one who, in the Lord’s words, “heard the word of God and kept it.” (Luke 11:28) Through her per­son­al sin­less­ness she ful­filled all the hopes and prophe­cies of Israel. She fig­ured great­ly in the very prophe­cies, the most impor­tant of which is that of Isa­iah: “Behold, a vir­gin shall con­ceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Isa­iah 7:14) The Church has always con­sid­ered the fol­low­ing as pre­fig­ures or sym­bols of the role of the Theotokos in the Divine plan, and appoints them to be read on the eves of three of the feasts ded­i­cat­ed to her mem­o­ry. The first is the sto­ry of Jacob’s lad­der, which refers to her being the means by which God chose to enter into the world phys­i­cal­ly. “He saw in his sleep a lad­der stand­ing upon the earth, and the top there­of touch­ing heav­en, the angels also of God ascend­ing and descend­ing by it”. (Gen­e­sis 28:12) Then from the Prophe­cy of Ezekiel are the words con­cern­ing her per­pet­u­al vir­gin­i­ty: “And the Lord said unto me: This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it; because the Lord God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut.” (Ezekiel 44:2) The same is true of the burn­ing bush seen by Moses: Mary con­tained in her womb the God-man, Jesus Christ, the God who is a con­sum­ing fire, and was not consumed.

The con­se­quences of deny­ing the Theotokos a part in the life of Chris­tians are more seri­ous than one may think in view of all its impli­ca­tions. Ortho­dox the­ol­o­gy insists upon the two per­fect natures of our Lord Jesus Christ; He was per­fect God and per­fect Man. The Vir­gin Mary com­mu­ni­cat­ed the human­i­ty of the Incar­nate God. The redemp­tion of the human race was pos­si­ble through the union of God and man in Christ. De-empha­sis of the sin­less­ness of Christ’s Moth­er, insis­tence upon her hav­ing oth­er chil­dren by Joseph (which can­not be demon­strat­ed by the New Tes­ta­ment), and fail­ure to remem­ber her part in the his­to­ry of the sal­va­tion of mankind have con­tributed to a gen­er­al mis­un­der­stand­ing in some church­es of the Incar­na­tion in all its full­ness and pow­er. Very close­ly relat­ed to the above-men­tioned things is the denial of the vir­gin birth of Christ, a rather pop­u­lar fea­ture of present-day lib­er­al the­ol­o­gy. After the vir­gin birth, the next basic teach­ing under attack is the divin­i­ty of Christ, and His res­ur­rec­tion, and with that, the Holy Trin­i­ty Itself.

The Vir­gin Mary in the Ortho­dox view is not regard­ed as a medi­a­trix or co-redemptress. She is an inter­ces­sor for us, and the con­tent of prayer addressed to her is a request for her inter­ces­sion. The Ortho­dox con­cept of the Church is the basic rea­son for the invo­ca­tion of the Theotokos and all the saints. The Mil­i­tant Church on earth and the Vic­to­ri­ous Church in heav­en are inti­mate­ly bound togeth­er in love. If it is prop­er for one sin­ner to ask anoth­er sin­ner to pray for him, how much more fit­ting it must be to ask the saints already glo­ri­fied and near the throne of God to pray for us. Sure­ly, they know some­thing of what goes on here, for else how could there be rejoic­ing in heav­en over the con­ver­sion of one sin­ner? (Luke 15:10) The saints in heav­en are equals of the angels (Luke 20:36), who are used by God in the accom­plish­ment of His pur­pose (Acts 12:7)

There is scrip­tur­al evi­dence to sup­port the tra­di­tion­al Ortho­dox atti­tude toward the Vir­gin Mary and the saints. The oth­er equal­ly valid parts of Tra­di­tion also afford abun­dant evi­dence of its sound­ness and importance.

Arch­bish­op Dmitri (Roys­ter)

From The Dawn
News­pa­per of the Dio­cese of the South
Ortho­dox Church in America