Do the Orthodox worship Mary?

An icon of the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos.

One of the main areas of disagreement we encounter with Protestants centers around the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos. They often level the charge that the Orthodox worship Mary, insisting we make her equal to God by doing so. And it’s understandable why they might believe this, based on the wording of certain hymns devoted to her. They also insist that Orthodox Christians praying to Mary (or any Saint) is an unbiblical practice, because we should only pray to God. In this post, we explore the role the Theotokos plays in the life of the Orthodox Church and in mankind’s salvation, and we correct the misconceptions many have regarding her.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

What does “Theotokos” mean?

In Eastern Orthodoxy, we call the Virgin Mary Theotokos. Translated from Greek, this word means “God-bearer,” or translated similarly “Mother of God.” We ascribe this title to her in accordance with the rulings of the Third Ecumenical Council, because God was incarnate (embodied in flesh) of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man, using her flesh to do so. The Orthodox Church teaches that Jesus Christ was not only fully man, but also fully God. By bearing Jesus Christ, she also bore the Son and Word of God, who is Himself God (John 1:1). Thus, the fitting title, Theotokos.

To learn more about the nature of God, check out our article on the Teachings of the Orthodox Church.

The Virgin Mary as the New Eve

We also refer to Mary as the “New Eve,” for she consented to God’s will when the first Eve disobeyed. The Theotokos remained sinless of her own free will, out of a desire to live according to God’s will for her life. Mary also remained ever-virgin, despite attempts by later Christian groups to warp Scripture into making it seem as though she reverted to a “normal” life after bearing Christ. Saying the Theotokos is special, feels like the understatement of the ages.

The Immaculate Conception

The Orthodox understanding of Mary’s sinlessness differs from the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine posits that Mary was born without original sin and thus was literally unable to sin at all (unlike the rest of mankind).

It sounds like you sort of worship Mary…

On the contrary! Think of it this way: the Orthodox often look to and treat Mary as a child would her mother. When a child looks to her mother, she sees the most beautiful woman in the world. The kindest, the bravest, the most faithful and dedicated. She’s one of a kind. And the child will let her mother (and those around her) know this as often as she can. She asks her mother for help when she has a problem. She seeks her mother’s guidance when she is unsure what to do. And she loves her mother with such fervor and zeal it brings tears to the eyes of others who watch them interact. Similarly, the Orthodox treat Mary as a role model to both men and women seeking to live godly lives.

In Orthodox Christianity, we do not worship the Virgin Mary, but instead venerate her and seek her intercessions before God. We honor her for delivering the Word of God into the world. And we see her as an example for all of us to follow, not as the exception to the rule. Worship belongs to God alone.

Just as we might ask a saint to pray for us, or ask a friend to pray on our behalf, we do the same with the Theotokos. She, along with all the saints, resides in the presence of God now. They all remain alive in Christ, our brothers and sisters. Asking for their prayers not only gives us spiritual peace, but it also reminds us that we are all part of the Body of Christ.

Where does the Bible say to do this?

Many people disagree with the Orthodox practice of venerating the Theotokos because the Bible does not tell us to do so. However, several passages from the New Testament do establish the foundation of this practice.

The Annunciation

When Gabriel greeted Mary, he said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28). We repeat the very words of Gabriel when we sing hymns in praise of the Theotokos during services. Could we be wrong in repeating the words of the very messenger of God?

The Visitation

Additionally, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, considered it an honor to receive a visit from her. “But why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Elizabeth also cried out: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:41). In the course of her visit with Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin herself prophesied her place in the Faith when she said, “from henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1: 48).

The Crucifixion

Lastly, when Jesus saw His mother and the disciple John standing by the cross, He entrusted him with her care. He also established a new spiritual relationship between them in saying to the disciple: “Behold your Mother” (John 19:27). In making this statement, Christ makes the Theotokos the mother of His Disciples. In other words, the mother of Christians. And as we mentioned earlier, what better way to show a mother you love her than to honor her for the role she played in your salvation?

For those who desire to find it, there is plenty of scriptural evidence to support the Orthodox practice of venerating the Theotokos.

Why pray to Mary when you could just pray to God?

As we mentioned earlier, technically we don’t pray to Mary. Instead, we ask for her intercessory prayers. We ask this of all saints whenever possible. But as Christ’s Mother, the Theotokos occupies a special place in the presence her Son and our God.

In the Gospel of John, Christ performs seven miraculous signs. The first of these is the changing of water to wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee. The Scriptures explicitly mention Mary’s presence at this wedding and describe how she intercedes with Jesus when the guests tell her there is no more wine. Jesus then addresses her with great respect and says: “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Many believe this to be a refusal of Mary’s request, but it is quite the opposite when put into the proper context. Christ answers her and performs a miracle, changing water into wine to provide for the wedding guests. His fulfillment of her request reflects what we read in the book of James, that the intercessions of the righteous have great power (James 5:16).

Asking for Mary’s intercessions provides us a certain form of security in knowing our prayers will be answered. They may not be answered in the way we expect, or with the timing we would like. But they will be answered as God wills it. With this security, we can continue to worship our Lord and God even when we fear He does not hear us, or when we wonder whether He is even there at all.

We do not worship Mary.

To clarify one last time, the Orthodox do not worship the Theotokos. We merely hold her in high esteem and give her the honor she deserves as a role model for all Christians and as the bearer of God. Her position as the Theotokos gives her incredible influence. This is why we offer intercessory prayers to her, and why we sing in her honor every time we gather to worship God.

Read More: 8 Things to Expect in an Orthodox Church

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8 Responses

  1. Do you even know what the Immaculate Conception means?
    It means that the Mother Of God was conceived in a State Of Grace.
    How would it be possible for The Theotokos to remain Sinless without the Divine Aid or in another word, “GRACE” of our Creator?
    It wouldn’t be possible, otherwise people would be able to remain sinless without God, strictly on our own free will. This is impossible because we have a FALLEN NATURE.
    Palagianism was condemned for this very reason, because he believed that all you had to do was do the right thing, and you would acheive Salvation.
    The East has always held to Our Lady being PrePurified, or Prokathathariesa in Greek, ( I’m pretty sure I spelled that correctly.
    Saint John the Baptist received The Holy Spirit while in the womb of his mother.
    So when did the All Pure and Immaculate Mother Of God receive the Holy Spirit, according to modern Orthodoxy?
    I understand oppostion the Papacy on the part of the Orthodox.
    But opposition to Our Lady Prepurified has to come to a stop, through a correct understanding of this Latin Dogma.

    1. Gimb,

      Christ is in our midst! Because the Eastern Orthodox (EO) and Roman Catholics (RC) approach Christianity from two different paradigms, it follows naturally that many doctrines created by the RC Church would be incorrect in the eyes of the EO. Throughout history, EO has rejected the dogma of the immaculate conception as both untrue and unnecessary. This dogma finds no support in Scripture or in the writings of the Fathers. Further, the EO never embraced St. Augustine’s approach to original sin, in which we all bear the guilt of Adam’s sin. According to RC rationalism, the guilt of sin, which all are born with, deserves a sentence of condemnation and separation from God. Thus, unless that stain is removed, Catholicism’s logic requires that all who came before Christ must be in a condition of gracelessness and damnation. However, since Mary also came before Christ and she was holy and blameless before God, in order for Catholicism to remain consistent, the Virgin Mary must somehow be conceived without original sin in order to be a pure vessel for the Incarnate Son of God. (An “exception to the rule,” if you will.)

      The Orthodox maintain the approach of the early Fathers of the Church re: sin, mainly viewing it as a spiritual illness in need of healing, not as a condition of guilt requiring just retribution. Thus, the dogma of the immaculate conception is superfluous. In the eyes of the Orthodox, this dogma actually denigrates and demeans the true greatness of the Theotokos. As St. John Maximovitch wrote, “This teaching […] denies all her virtues. After all, if Mary, even in the womb of her mother, when she could not even desire anything good or evil, was preserved by God’s grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after her birth, then in what does her merit consist? […] then for what did God glorify her? If she, without any effort, and without having any kind of impulse to sin, remained pure, then why is she crowned more than everyone else? There is no victory without an adversary.”

      God bless!

      1. Saint John Of Shanghai also wrote: ” The Mother Of God NEVER KNEW CONCUPISCENCE”.
        Do the Orthodox Churches have a definition of Concupiscence that differs from its traditional meaning?
        Concupiscence is a result of our Fallen or Sinful nature.
        The only way for The Mother Of God to have Never known concupiscence is to have ALWAYS BEEN FULL OF GRACE.
        Unlike Eve, She chose to remain in this State Of Grace through Synergy.
        Saint Gregory Palamas calls The Mother Of God the first Hesychast.
        Saint Gregory Palamas also taught Her Prepurification.
        Saint Basil The Great writes: She Is The Result Of 77 Generations Of The Righteous Being Distilled One After The Other.
        Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem, Saint Gregory Palamas, Saint Nicodemus The Hagiorite, all taught that the Mother of God, was Prepurified.
        Mankind has only two choses: To be in a State Of Grace OR to be in a Fallen State From Grace.
        The Angel appears saying ” Hail FULL OF GRACE” not Hail YOU ARE NOW BEING FILLED WITH GRACE.
        Even your Orthodox Wikipedia page says that Mary was conceived not lacking ONE SINGLE GRACE OF GOD.
        Please do some more research on the history of the Immaculate Conception / Prepurification Of Mary.
        I’m convinced that most Orthodox that don’t accept the Immaculate Conception, simply DO NOT WANT TO ACCEPT THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, only to be in opposition to what they consider to be ROMAN.
        I agree with the Chieti agreement of 2016 on Church Ecclesiology, but refusal to accept Our Lady’s Prepurification I will never accept.
        If an Orthodox were to believe in the Immaculate Conception, would that be heretical?

        1. Gimb,

          Christ is in our midst! As we explained in our previous comment, the doctrine of the immaculate conception is unnecessary. The Virgin Mary remained free of personal sin by her own choice, not because she was sanctified upon conception. She received the Holy Spirit during the Annunciation, yes, during which her womb was prepared for the Lord.

          We would encourage you to reread our previous response to you. You appear to be approaching this doctrine from the Catholic paradigm, which is incompatible with the paradigm of Orthodoxy when it comes to understanding particular doctrines and their efficacy. We are quite learned on the immaculate conception and its development as a dogma in Catholic tradition, and rest assured, we do not reject purely because it is “Roman.” We reject it on the grounds we laid out for you in the previous comment, if you feel so inclined to read over them again.

          God bless!

          1. Can you help me understand that argument as one coming from a protestant background?

            The above exchange was very steeped in arguments above are interesting but, seem to me to be like a discussion of “how wet is water?”

            Both views, it seems to me, are elevating Mary above on of God’s creation in different ways.

            The RC view seems to almost make her a part of the Godhead. She is without sin and full of grace before Jesus conception, which would lead to an argument of why, then, would she simply not have been the Messiah.

            The Orthodox view though, seems to believe that Mary was a normal human who was able to make the choice to live without help. Would that not negate the need for Jesus’ sacrifice? If humans are capable of turning from sin and perfectly worshipping God on our own, why did God need to humble Himself coming to human form and enduring torment for our sakes?

            I cannot enter into the argument in they way laid out above, as I am a layman and just genuinely curious to understand this. I am actually quite interested in the Orthodox church but find some of these teaching quite confusing and concerning (especially the teachings around Mary and the prayer to saints) and they worry me as things that may draw attention and worship from God (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost).

            Thank you

          2. Benton,

            Christ is born! In the eyes of the Church, Mary is indeed blessed, and she should be elevated above others. But only because of her connection to Christ. Not because of her being “better than anyone else”. The RC view is indeed incorrect. The Immaculate Conception, which states she was conceived in the womb without sin, is not a teaching of the Church. We briefly mention this in our article describing the differences between the RC and EO Churches. The Orthodox Church does not believe she was conceived in this way. Rather, she was conceived just as you were, with ancestral sin and the capacity to sin should she choose to.

            You are correct in part of your articulation of the Orthodox view, Benton. Mary was indeed a normal person who chose to live a life of holiness in synergy with the help of the Holy Spirit. When we progress in holiness, it is due to our accepting the aid of the Holy Spirit and accepting the grace God has bestowed upon us. While our will is part of this, it is not totally our doing; God plays a part in this as well. Without Christ becoming incarnate, conquering death and transforming it into the means by which we pass into eternal life…without Christ ascending into heaven and placing our deified humanity at the Father’s right hand, we would never be able to attain salvation, which is becoming more and more like Christ. The only reason we can do this is because God helps us do so. We must exert our own free will and want to do these things. And once we do this, the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with us, helping us progress in holiness.

            Mary, just as so many others before her, lived a holy life with the help of the Spirit’s outside influence. Only upon the visit from the Archangel Gabriel was her womb cleansed and purified of sin so she could bear God in the flesh. She was just as in need of a Savior as the rest of us.

            The main reason there is such an emphasis on Mary has nothing to do with Mary herself; rather, this emphasis stresses the true identity of her Son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. In the days of the early Church, many heresies arose claiming Christ was not God, but merely a man. And calling Mary the Theotokos, the “God-bearer,” proves this divine Truth. If you ever attend Orthodox liturgical services, you will notice that every hymn attributed to Mary, or every prayer that mentions her, always mentions her connection to the Son of God. She is the first among the Saints because she bore the Son of God, the God-Man Christ. And it is only because of this that she receives honor. Similarly, we honor and respect other Saints, not because of their deeds, but because we can see the work of Chris in them, and that work deserves acknowledgement, respect, and reverence.

            We hope this has helped you! If you have other questions, please feel free to reply again!

            God bless!

  2. You could have saved a lot of time writing this article if you’d just admit you practice heresy.

    Why pray through Mary when we can pray directly to God? Waste of time! Especially when Mary can’t hear you. She’s not God, but you treat her like she is.

    1. Ethan,
      Christ is in our midst! You mentioned the word “heresy”, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the ‘catholic’ or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church”. In the first several centuries of the history of the Church, we see the Church constantly correcting heresies, including Apollinarism, Arianism, Caesaropapism, Gnosticism, Monophysitism, and Nestorianism among others. However, there is no outcry about prayer to the Saints in the early Church, because such a practice was part of Holy Tradition, long-established and a normative part of the spiritual lives of the early Christians. In fact, as early as 107-116 AD, after the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch, we find mention in writing of Christians who witnessed the Saint praying for them in a vision. And in 250 AD, we have the oldest surviving prayer to the Mother of God, titled, “Beneath Thy Protection.”
      In addition to the historical evidence, the Bible itself provides ample proof for the practice of intercessory prayer of the Saints. On the basis of the intercession for believers by Christ, who is present at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), by extension other people who have died but are alive in Christ can intercede on behalf of the petitioner (John 11:21-25; Romans 8:38–39). Further, Revelation 8:4 mentions the prayers of the Saints ascending before God, and Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31 indicates the ability of the dead to pray for the living. We also see this in 2 Maccabees 15:14–17 and in the Book of Enoch; while these books are considered apocryphal, this at the very least roots this practice in Jewish custom, one which was carried over into the early Christian Church.
      To deny that the Saints in heaven are able to interact with us is equivalent to denying the power of Christ’s Resurrection. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. If the Saints cannot hear us because they are “dead”, this denies that Christ gives them the power to live. Paradise/heaven is not walled off from us; it is interactive and dynamic, and there are ways for us still here on earth to engage with the heavenly. Denying this means rejecting the salvific work of Christ on the Cross and His victory over death. And we know you believe in the power of His work just as we do!
      You claim we treat the Theotokos as God. In what ways have we done so in this article?
      God bless!

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