This is Part 1 of a seven (7) part series on The Veneration of the Virgin Mary, also called the Mother of God, or Theotokos (Greek for God Bearer) in the Orthodox Christian Church.
Related blog posts on Jesus Christ’s Geneology: Women in Jesus’ Geneology also, Old Testament Priesthood as compared to New Testament Priesthood.
Veneration of the Virgin Mary (Mother of God) in the Orthodox Christian faith is solidly based on a unique perspective only found fully articulated in the beautiful hymnody of the Orthodox liturgical tradition. Most of the hymnody used in the church that venerates the Mother of God today was written by hymnographers as early as 400 AD and has continued to evolve in the liturgical practice of the church over the centuries.
Orthodox Church hymnody is replete with Old Testament passages prefiguring the Mother of God to teach the faithful that the entire history of Israel converges in the Theotokos and that the Orthodox Tradition of venerating her is a natural fulfillment of the Old Testament narratives.
Alexander Schmemann writes that it was precisely because of the biblical basis that the veneration of the Mother of God arose in the church. Schmemann says that the veneration in the church is linked first of all with the Bible; and that this biblical basis is the reflection of the Old Testament in the New Testament, the discovery of even more profound meaning in the Old Testament in the light of the New.
- Terminology used for the Virgin Mary in the Church.
The Virgin Mary is referred to by several different terms in the Orthodox faith. She is called in English, The Virgin Mary or the Mother of God. This is a literal translation of the Greek, Miter Theou (Μήτηρ Θεού) that is used in Orthodox theological writing, hymnology and iconography. In iconography, the term Miter Theou is used abbreviated as ΜΡ ΘΥ on icons of her, the initials being derived from the first and the last letter of each word in the Greek, Μήτηρ Θεού. Miter Theou is also considered a non-literal translation of the Greek word used for her, Theotokos (Θεοτόκος). A more English literal translation of Theotokos is “God Bearer” or “one who gives birth to God”. Theotokos is a name given to the Virgin Mary at the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD when the holy Fathers of the church decreed that Mary is Theotokos because her Son, Jesus Christ, is both fully human and fully divine. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, after the consecration of the Holy Gifts, a hymn magnifying the Mother of God is sung by Orthodox congregations, “Truly it is proper to call you bless’d O Theotokos. You who are most pure and ever blessed and the Mother of our God….” (Ἄξιόν ἐστιν ὡς ἀληθῶς μακαρίζειν σὲ τὴν Θεοτόκον, τὴν ἀειμακάριστον καὶ παναμώμητον καὶ μητέρα του Θεοῦ ἡμῶν…”)
- What is known about the Virgin Mary through canonical scripture.
Within canonical scripture, what is known about the Theotokos comes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the Acts of the Apostles. Outside of scripture, the Sacred Tradition regarding the Mother of God comes from certain portions of various New Testament apocryphal writings that have been accepted by the Church fathers and this information has been taught to the faithful through the hymnody of the Orthodox Church since the 4th century AD.
Within the Gospels, the lineage of Jesus Christ is given in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38, and it is through these scriptural passages of Jesus’ lineage that we become informed about the Virgin Mary’s lineage. Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham and proceeds through King David /Bathesheba and their son Solomon. Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus back to Adam and proceeds through King David/Bathesheba and their son Nathan. Some biblical commentators say that one lineage was that of Mary and the other lineage was that of Joseph. However, from the time of King David to when Jesus was born, Nathan’s lineage and Solomon’s lineage converge, so essentially Mary and Joseph shared the same paternal lineage. This would have also been true since typically at that time, people married within their tribe, so Mary and Joseph would have shared the same paternal lineage based on the ancient Jewish tribal tradition.
Ancient Jewish genealogy normally listed only men, therefore, the paternal lineage would have been listed, not the maternal one. Matthew, however, includes 5 women which would have been highly irregular by Jewish standards of that day. They were Mary (the Mother of God), Tamar (Genesis 38:6-30), Rahab (Joshua 2:1-24), Ruth (Ruth 1:1-4:22) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-27). With the exception of the Virgin Mary, the other four women played a non-traditional role in the maternal genetic lineage of Jesus Christ through the Virgin Mary. Biblical commentators have debated the inclusion of the four women. Some scholars have indicated that it declares God’s graciousness to all sinners (male and female), some have said that it prefigures the calling of the Gentiles into the Church and others have said that their inclusion underscores the role of women in God’s plan of salvation and with the mentioning of the Theotokos, it also anticipates the special place of the Virgin Mary in that plan.
- What is known about the Virgin Mary through sacred Tradition.
Scripture and sacred Tradition state that Mary’s father was Joachim and her mother was Anna. Her father’s family, of the tribe of Judah, was from Nazareth of Galilee; her mother’s family was from Bethlehem of Judea. From Sacred Tradition Her mother, Anna, was the daughter of Matthan the priest, of the tribe of Levi This Tradition underscores that although marriage within the tribe was preferred, marriages outside of the tribe were tolerated by the Israelites. Some accounts say Joachim was a poor shepherd, others say Joachim was a rich shepherd, but all agree that he gave one-third of his wealth to orphans, widows, strangers and the poor; the second-third to the temple and its servants and those who worshipped God; and the last third he kept for himself. Sacred Tradition further states that Joachim was twenty years old when he married Anna and scripture and sacred Tradition also writes that they had lived many years without children, some accounts say fifty years. In the East at that time in history, to be a wife and not a mother was regarded as a matter of reproach and humiliation that could even lead to divorce.
The church tells us this story during Orthros and Vespers too, Oikos, Matins Canon, Sept. 8, St. Romanos chants,
“The prayer and groaning of Joachim and Anna at their barrenness and childlessness have proved acceptable, and have come unto the ears of the Lord; and they have put forth a fruit that brings life to the world. The one offered his prayer in the mountain, the other bore her reproach in the garden. But with joy the barren woman bears the Theotokos who sustains our life”.
Note the language used, ”the Theotokos who sustains our life”. Sacred tradition tells us that both Joachim and Anna were visited by Archangel Gabriel and hears the proclamation that they will conceive. These hymns are also heard in the church during vespers and matins on the birth of the Nativity of Mary and the Feast day of Joachim and Anna, Sept. 8/9.
This explanation has just demonstrated how the church utilizes not only the Gospels and Old Testament writing, but also how the holy Fathers glean relevant information from the sacred tradition in the church and incorporates all that is relevant into the hymnody of the Church.
- Feast Days in the Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
There are 4 major feasts for the Theotokos in the Church: her Conception (December 9th), her Nativity (September 8th), her Entrance into the Temple (November 21st), and her Dormition (August 15th). These Feasts have as their origin portions taken from the apocryphal texts of: the Protoevangelium of James, Pseudo-Matthew, The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, The Falling Asleep of Mary and The Passing of Mary, respectively. The holy Fathers of the Church and the hymnographers, with great spiritual discernment, borrowed from and expanded certain episodes within these Apocryphal writings because they believed that these accounts, like buried pearls, were valid and edifying, so they incorporated them into their writings and these accounts have now become part of the ancient Tradition of the Church.
- Why the Orthodox Church venerates the Virgin Mary
In the Orthodox Church, worship belongs to God alone. Veneration (deep respect) is given to the Theotokos and other individuals who have been important figures in the history of God’s plan for the salvation of His people. The Orthodox Church greatly honors Mary, and calls her the first among the saints, because she was chosen to give birth to the Son of God, and more importantly, she of her own free will, chose to do the will of God and accept to bring the salvation of mankind into the world. Mary’s faithful response in Luke 1:38, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”, was an act of the highest obedience to do the will of God. The Incarnation was not only the work of God, but it involved the free response of mankind which was given in the person of Mary. Reading Genesis and the New Testament Gospels, one learns a sharp contrast between Eve and the Virgin Mary: Eve chooses not do God’s Will and Mary choose to do God’s Will. In both cases, each of these important women exercised their free will to determine the fate of not only themselves, but of all mankind. With Eve’s decision, mankind was regulated to weakness and spiritual death. With the Virgin Mary’s decision, mankind was granted the opportunity to receive eternal life.
In Luke 1:31-33, Archangel Gabriel’s announcement emphasized two truths, that Mary would conceive in her womb the Lord Jesus who would take his human nature from Mary herself; and, that Jesus is the divine Son of the Highest – the eternal Son and Word of God, who is both fully human and fully divine. But her purpose in salvation history did not end with the birth giving of the Savior. She was not cast aside as someone who is no longer useful. Instead her whole being and life would continue to point us without distraction to her Son. At the wedding of Cana in Galilee we read her words: “Whatever He says to you, do it” (John 2:5). At her Son’s crucifixion, she stands fast at the foot of the Cross, this time pointing to her Son not with words but by her refusal to leave His side. Mary was faithful and always pointed others to God. There is an Icon called “The Directress” that is said to have been painted by the Apostle Luke. In this icon, the child of Jesus is sitting on her lap and Mary is directing the viewer’s attention to her Son with her right hand. This icon image indicates that this is what each individual person’s spiritual goal should be: to choose obedience to the Will of God.
The proper veneration of Mary, which the apostolic Church has always held, is not because Mary is the great exception but because she is the great example. This veneration is beautifully expressed in an Orthodox hymn that poetically recounts Gabriel’s first encounter with Mary, March 25, Dismissal Hymn: “Today is the fountainhead of our salvation and the manifestation of the mystery which was from eternity. The Son of God becomes the Virgin’s Son, and Gabriel announces the good tidings of grace; for this cause, let us cry to the Mother of God with him: Rejoice, thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”
The Orthodox Church venerates the Mother of God because she is worthy of this praise for her perfect obedience to God’s will. Through Divine Grace and the consent of the Theotokos, God’s son became incarnate and humanity was raised up to God.
- Canonical Scripture and hymnody that venerates the Virgin Mary.
Liturgical hymns are replete with teachings for the Orthodox faithful. The Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, is considered to be the single liturgical source where there are profound doctrinal insights primarily given through Old Testament passages that are used in this hymn in reference to the Mother of God and many of these Old Testament passages are heard at other Church services as well.
The majority of the Akathist hymn is made up of praises to the Mother of God all of which begin with Gabriel’s angelic salutation to the Virgin at the Annunciation, “Hail”, which is also translated as “Rejoice” in some translations of the Scripture (Luke 1:28). The angelic salutations are then followed by passages many of which come from the Old Testament. These passages teach the faithful that the veneration of the Virgin Mary in the Orthodox Christian faith is a natural fulfillment of the Old Testament narratives.
Because of the Virgin Mary’s character and especially because of her role in God’s plan of salvation, Christians appropriately honor Mary as the first among the saints. The archangel Gabriel initiated this honor in his address to her, Luke 1:28: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women!” Then the angel foretells the birth of Jesus through her, the virgin, and indicates how Jesus’ birth is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. (Luke 1:30-35). An example of an Old Testament Prophesy regarding the virgin birth comes from Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”.
The scriptural passages in Luke 1:28 clearly indicate that God Himself had chosen to honor Mary. Her favored status was confirmed when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was then six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth greeted Mary with these words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!…But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42, 43) and Mary predicted the honor that would be paid her throughout history when she said: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
Just prior to Luke 1:48, in Luke 1:45, Elizabeth gives the reason that Mary would be venerated by the faithful in generations to come; and in so doing, Elizabeth actually becomes the first of the early Christians to verbally venerate Mary in scripture: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord”.(Luke 1:45)
In verse Luke 1:54, Mary says, “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever”. Identity between Mary and the community of Israel is implicit as Mary’s comment aligns herself with being the vessel through which the community of Israel (which would ultimately find it’s fulfillment in the Christian Church) would receive God’s mercy as God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. This is an important concept, the concept of community and the church.
One of the passages that are heard every Sunday in Church is Luke 1:46-55 – It is called the Magnificat because it is through this hymn that Mary herself exalts God. The Holy Fathers say that Mary’s use of this hymn was inspired by the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel.2:1-10). Her response with a modification of Hannah’s hymn indicates that Mary was very well educated in her faith and could respond with the words of the Old Testament Israelites and fully understood the prophecies and her role in fulfilling them.
Certain portions of the magnificat are also hymned at various other services of the church, for example, at the Artoclasia (Blessing of the 5 Loaves) service, the church hymns a modification of a passage from the Magnificat, “The rich have become poor and hungry, but those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.” Sunday morning Matins incorporates Luke 1:46-55 into it with a refrain after each verse that is, “More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare to the seraphim, you who without defilement gave birth to God the Word, you are truly the Theotokos, we magnify you”.
So why does the church mention the cherubim and the seraphim and that Mary is more honorable and more glorious then them? Well, the cherubim are mentioned 67 times in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament. The first appearance of the cherubim is after man was driven out of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:24. God placed the cherubim at the East of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword which turned every way to guard the way to the Tree of Life. The next place in scripture that we hear of the cherubim is in Exodus when the Lord spoke to Moses and gave him instructions to make the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:10). The very first thing made for the tabernacle was the Ark of Testimony and in Ex 25:18 when Moses was given instruction to construct the mercy seat, he was told to make two cherubim of gold which would be the two ends of the mercy seat made as one piece, and the cherubim would stretch out their wings overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings and they should face each other looking at the center of the mercy seat. The mercy seat was placed on top of the ark, and in the ark, Moses was to place the testimonies God would give him.
God told Moses that it was from the mercy seat between the two cherubim that He (God) would speak to Moses about everything God intended to give as commandment to the children of Israel. The church sees the ark of testimony as a prefiguring of the Mother of God with Christ in her womb and we hear this today in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God which is heard in the Orthodox Church for five Fridays during Great Lent each year. The Cherubim are honored to be the mercy seat on which God sits, but Mary, the Mother of God, is more honored than the Cherubim because she was chosen by God and personally accepted to physically bear the God of all in her womb.
The Akathist Hymn also says that the Mother of God is “more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim”. The Seraphim are described as a very glorious creature in Isaiah’s vision, Isaiah 6:1-12, in the Old Testament. They constantly serve the Lord and sing to Him in a glorious way and scripture describes a unique physical beauty of six wings: two that cover their face, two that cover the feet, and two that are used to fly with. And one seraphim cries to the other, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The Virgin Mary is more glorious than the Seraphim because she willing chose to serve God and do His Will in a more beautiful and glorious way in order to bring man’s Salvation into the world.
The ancient Old Testament Prophets foretold of the Virgin Mary’s birth giving to the Savior. The Archangel Gabriel was the first of the heavenly host to venerate the Virgin Mary at God’s command. The Virgin Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was the first of the children of God in the New Testament to verbally venerate her. John the Baptist, who was yet unborn, leapt in his mother’s womb upon visitation of Mary which indicates that he was the first of those that would be born in the future generations who would venerate her. Mary, herself, predicted that throughout history all generations would call her blessed (Luke 1:48). The Virgin Mary is venerated in the Orthodox Church not because she is the greatest exception, but because she is the greatest example.
 Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963), 192
 P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers Inc. 1994), 191-224
 Rev. Alexander G. Leondis, Rev. Socrates C. Tsamutalis, and Rev. James C. Moulketis, trans., The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and Hymnal (Midland Park, New Jersey: NIKA Publishing, 1989), 35-37
 Holy Transfiguration Monastery, trans., The Great Horologion: Book of Hours (Brookline, MA.: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1997), 246
 Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, trans., The Festal Menaion (South Canaan, Pennsylvania: St Tikhons Seminary Pr, 1990), 119
 Holy Transfiguration Monastery, trans., The Great Horologion: Book of Hours (Brookline, MA.: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1997), 450