Do Orthodox Christians 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, whom Orthodox Christians call the Theotokos. They often level the charge that the Orthodox worship Mary, insisting we make her equal to God. And it’s understandable why they might believe this, based on the wording of certain hymns and prayers 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: 10 minutes

What does “Theotokos” mean?

In Eastern Orthodoxy, we call the Virgin Mary Theotokos. Translated from Greek, this word means “God-bearer,” or “Mother of God”. We ascribe this title to her in accordance with the rulings of the Third Ecumenical Council, because she did not simply bear the man Jesus Christ; she bore the incarnate God. How is this so? Because Jesus Christ was not only fully man, but also fully God. By bearing Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God [and thus also God Himself (John 1:1)], we give her the fitting title, Theotokos.

It is important to note that ascribing particular titles (like O Immaculate One; the Ladder which raised all from earth to grace; Uplifter of mankind; Downfall of demons; Crown of chastity; Door of hallowed Mystery; the Living Ark; the Burning Bush; etc.) to Mary does not equate to worshiping her as one might worship God. The titles given to her merely explain the true nature of Christ and protect His identity as the unique Theanthropos (God-Man). Any title she receives can only be understood in light of her Son and His saving activity.

So when we see a prayer like, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” this isn’t us literally asking her to exact salvation in our behalf. As Christians, we know and openly proclaim that only Christ can do so. However, we can also acknowledge, as Christians, that “save” doesn’t just have to refer to salvation. This excellent article by Father Andrew Stephen Damick, along with its comment thread, addresses this topic beautifully.

Orthodox hymns and prayers “worshiping” Mary

Many Protestants will point to Orthodox hymns and prayers as their main source of concern with worship of the Virgin Mary. And to be fair, there are quite a few out there dedicated to her that, from an outsider’s perspective, might give that impression. For example:

“Then the Apostles, seeing thee, O Virgin, were filled with grace, and with exceeding great reverence, they all then sacredly worshiped thee and cried out with firm faith: O rejoice, thou who hast brought forth Great Mercy for the world

First Stichera of the After-Feast of the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos

How should we understand words like this in the hymns and prayers of the Church? All Christians, including the Orthodox, agree that absolute worship is given only to God, the Holy Trinity. But the central miracle of Christianity is that the Word became flesh; God became man, and made man God. He deified matter itself in assuming it, so that we worship the human nature of Christ that He took from the Virgin Mary together with His divine nature that He had from before eternity as God.

Read On: Was The Virgin Mary Always A Virgin?

St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter” (On the Divine Images, p. 23). So if, as St. Peter says, the object of our life is to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), then all the Saints, including the Theotokos, have indeed become partakers of the divine nature. And so we worship God in them and through them.

Latreia vs. Proskynesis

Unfortunately, English is often lacking when it comes to communicating theological truths. Especially the difference between absolute worship of God and veneration of His creation (also referred to as relative worship). In the original Greek, the word for the latter appears in various forms of the noun προσκύνησις, proskynesis, which means to kneel or bow down before, and to show reverence and honor. This is the word we use for the veneration we give to icons and the relics of the Saints. It is also the word we use when we sing, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ,” and “For unto thee are due all glory, honor, and worship…,” and also, “Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master.”

This is not, however, the same word we use when referring to our worship and adoration of God. That word is λατρεία, latreia, which means to adore. For example, we find this word in the Doxastikon of the Aposticha for the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils: “Wherefore, following their divine doctrines and believing with assurance, we worship, in one Godhead, the Father, Son, and All-holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence.” We also see it in the Apolytikion of the Nativity of Christ, alongside verbal forms of proskynesis: “. . . for they that worshipped (latreia) the stars did learn therefrom to worship (proskynesis) thee, O Sun of justice…” So, instead of giving all their adoration to the stars, the wise men now came to worship and fall down before Christ Himself, the Son of God, the Sun of justice.

We worship (latreia) God alone

As we offer “worship” to the Theotokos, we do so knowing we offer proskynesis. We offer her honor and reverence as the Theotokos, in “relative worship”. Perhaps more importantly, we recognize that she is the one who brought forth Christ our Lord, the pre-eternal, uncreated, Incarnate Son of God, through the good will of our Father in heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this God, the Trinity, one in Essence, whom we worship and offer our inward form of adoration as latreia. Thus we stay true to our words and teachings, knowing that what we pray is what we believe.

In English, the two might seem identical; however, the language of the Church clearly differentiates them. And we must politely insist that those who critique Orthodoxy do the same.

Is prayer considered latreia or proskynesis?

The short answer is both, depending on the context. Prayer can be a form of worship, but not all prayer is worship. Prayer to the One True God is latreia, while prayer to any other Saint (intercessory or otherwise) is offered as proskynesis.

Praying to someone is categorically separate from worship of that someone. Therefore, a prayer or hymn being addressed directly to the Virgin Mary does not equate to worship (latreia) of her. When we see a prayer like, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” it isn’t us literally asking her (or any other Saint) to exact salvation in our behalf. We know and openly proclaim that only Christ can do so. We are simply using the phrase as another way of asking for her prayers, through her virtue as the bearer of God and the one who assented to allow Him to dwell in her womb. Here is an excellent article by Father Andrew Stephen Damick that addresses this prayer to Mary, asking her to “save us”.

What the Bible says about veneration of the Theotokos

Many people disagree with the Orthodox practice of venerating the Theotokos because the Bible does not explicitly 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 all Christians. And 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.

Do the Orthodox believe in the Immaculate Conception?

In the Roman Catholic church, believers must subscribe to a dogma called the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which claims that the Theotokos was conceived without the stain of original sin. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never taught this dogma, as it finds no support in the history of the Church or in the writings of the Fathers.

In Orthodoxy, we maintain the approach of the early Fathers of the Church regarding sin, viewing it as a spiritual illness in need of healing, not as a condition of guilt requiring retribution. In the eyes of the Orthodox, the Immaculate Conception actually denigrates and demeans the true greatness of the Theotokos.

Keep Reading: 7 Differences Between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches

Why pray to Mary in the first place?

Many people ask why, as Orthodox Christians, we pray to the Virgin Mary when we could simply go straight to God with those prayers. In theory, we absolutely could do so. However, there is no requirement that we must; in fact, the opposite is true. We are encouraged to pray and offer intercessions for one another, which is the type of prayer we engage in with the Saints.

As we mentioned earlier, prayer can be a form of worship, but not all prayer constitutes worship. Intercessory prayer is a form of proskynesis, part of the reverence and honor the Theotokos and Saints receive as icons of Christ. Whenever we “pray to” a Saint, we are asking for their intercessions before the Lord, because we know that the prayers of the righteous have great power in their effects (James 5:16). And as His Mother, the Theotokos occupies a special place in the presence of her Son and our God. 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.

Asking for Mary’s intercessions (and the prayers of other Saints) 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.

Orthodox Christians do not worship Mary

Contrary to popular belief in Protestantism, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not worship the Virgin Mary. Rather, we hold her in high esteem and give her the honor and reverence she deserves as a role model for all Christians and as the bearer of God. Her position as the Theotokos gives her incredible influence. We surely honor her in our services with glorious titles and affirmations, but we would never think of her as the fourth Person of the Holy Trinity. Truly, our ultimate worship only goes to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in Essence, and undivided. 

Read More: 8 Things to Expect in an Orthodox Church

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19 Responses

  1. Double talk and smoke and mirrors article. Jesus taking on human flesh was done by God, Not Mary, the willing vessel. God and Christ which are one were non created before, presently, and into the future. Jesus clearly said that there are no intermediaries between himself and God. He did not say that you need to pray to my mother. Mary herself called Jesus her savior. Does a sinless woman need a savior? Traditions of the church are human attempts to twist God’s Word…throughout history men have done this from the early Christian Jews to present.

    1. Evangelos,

      Christ is in our midst. We wonder…Who compiled the Scriptures that you are using to justify your belief against the teaching of the Church?

        1. Zachary,

          Christ is in our midst. Indeed, what about those who wrote the Scriptures? They passed their teachings (both oral and written) to their successor bishops. They did not merely pass on only those things which were written! God bless.

  2. There is no greater form of worship than prayer.
    If you are praying to Mary,, then you are worshiping her.
    Jesus never taught us to pray to Mary.
    Romans 1:25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is forever worthy of praise! Amen.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Where is it written (or preserved anywhere, for that matter) that there is no greater form of worship than prayer? Prayer is an act of worship; however, not all prayer is worship. Sources from the early Church readily clarify and confirm this.

      We do not worship Mary in any respect, let alone rather than the Creator. The only one we worship is God. May His blessings be upon you.

  3. Hello and thanks for the article. It clears up a few points better then any other article or comment i have read so far. I still wonder what supports the thought, that Mary can even hear our prayers, since i haven’t seen anything yet supporting that she would hear or understand what we say? An answer would be welcome to gain further knowledge on the matter.
    Best regards1

    1. Alexander,

      Christ is Risen! Glory to God – we are so thankful that this article has helped clear up some things for you. Regarding your point about Mary being able to hear our prayers…We could probably both agree that the Holy Spirit’s grace grants holy individuals incredible gifts. Since God is everywhere present and fills all things, His Saints can commune with us through Him, specifically through the Holy Spirit. It is not her humanity that allows her to hear our prayers, but the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon her as a result of the holy life she lived in submission to the will of God. We hope this is helpful. Please feel free to post any follow-up questions here! God bless!

  4. Thank you for the explanation. I loved in Egypt for a year, and was very impressed by the Coptic Christians. I was curious what they thought of Mary, especially since the Copts in Alexandria go all the way back to Mark, but i didn’t even think to ask while i was there.
    This makes sense now.
    Thank you 🙂

    Cami

  5. I am a protestant who has recently become very interested in the teachings of both the Catholic church and Orthodox Church which is what led me to this article. I’m curious on if there is any further thoughts about how the Catholics view Mary on both the Immaculate conception and her Queenship in heaven. For example how does the Orthodox Church respond to these teachings. Growing up protestant of course has made me hesitant to venerate Mary and other Saints the way you guys do but I really admire the use of scripture to justify it instead of laying it entirely in the hands of tradition. I will definitely be reading and praying more about it. I will say reading this article I noticed how beautifully you guys talk about Jesus which unfortunately I did not notice as much while reading articles about the Catholic doctrine. Thank you for your time and have a blessed day.

    1. Gabriel,

      Christ is in our midst! Thank you for your comment – what an edifying thing to see bright and early on a Monday morning. Let’s split this up into two parts. The Immaculate Conception: the Orthodox Church emphatically rejects this dogma. In our article about the differences between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, we explore why this is in a bit more depth. But the simple answer is because this doctrine was merely created and expounded upon in the Roman Catholic church to justify its view of sin as a condition of guilt requiring retribution/justice (per St. Augustine). According to this view, every person born is in a state of condemnation until the stain of original sin is removed from them. To maintain consistency, the Virgin must somehow be conceived without original sin to be a pure vessel for the Christ. Such a doctrine is not necessary in Orthodoxy, because our view of sin aligns with that of the early Church and the Scriptures: sin is an illness that requires treatment. And that treatment is repentance. We do believe that the Holy Spirit sanctified the Virgin’s womb; however, this took place at the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her, not at her conception.

      As far as her Queenship, the Orthodox follow the ancient Hebrew understanding of the Queen Mother and her place at the side of the King. Since the Theotokos is Christ’s Mother, she is the Mother of the King, or the Queen Mother. This does not mean she is God’s co-ruler; merely that she occupies a place of esteem beside Him. We do not believe she is a co-redemptress or mediatrix the way Roman Catholics do. At the same time, though, we recognize that her petitions hold more value in the eyes of the Lord because she is His Mother.

      May God bless you as you continue learning and praying about this. Should you have any other questions, we are always here and would love to dialogue with you!

  6. This article was very helpful, the explanation of the different meanings of the greek words for types of prayer helped my understanding alot. I studied greek for a little while in school so I know how two greek words can be translated the same, even though they might mean slightly different things. Ive recently become very interested in the teachings of the Orthodox Church and I am on a spiritual journey of learning about many teachings of the Orthodox Church. I am very satisfied with this article’s explanation of the way the Orthodox Church regards Mary. Thank you so much for explaining this so clearly and using scripture to show the truthfulness of the Orthodox Church’s view of this topic. I hope I find out more about the Orthodox Church’s teachings and can possibly find new faith in Orthodoxy.

  7. This is simply not in agreement with God’s Holy Word. Hebrews 7:14-25 tells us that Jesus makes intercession for us, not Mary or any saints. Luke 11:2 tells us to pray to Yahweh, our Father. Luke 11:27-28 Jesus Himself speaks against high honor and blessing of Mary. If not for this I myself would be Orthodox.
    In the words of Francis Chan “Whenever I read the Bible amd come across something I disagree with, I have to assume I’m wrong.”

    1. Jason,

      Christ is in our midst. Indeed, Christ makes intercession for us. However, it does not say that Mary or the Saints do not do so. Luke 11:2 – Prayer to God the Father does not then negate intercessory prayer to and for others. With regard to Luke 11:27-28, the Greek word menounge, rendered incorrectly in this verse as “Rather” or “Instead”, is correctly translated as “Yes indeed” in Rom 10:18. This word corrects by amplifying, not by negating. Christ is emphasizing the faith of the woman by comparing her to His Mother. He is not denouncing the Virgin Mary or her honor and blessing.

      Indeed, perhaps you should reflect on that quote you provided a bit more yourself! God bless!

  8. Dear brothers in Christ, I found this article very usefull, every time my faith was questioned and Worship of Theotokos brought up, this article helped me a lot, it made me remember things i forgot, it made my Understanding of our Holy Church established by Christ clearer, and lastly it made me thankful it was written, May God bless you my dear brothers, Greetings from Serbia!

  9. Hello brother in Christ,

    I am really curious and therefore trying to go more in depth to finding the Truth. I was raised Roman catholic but this year i converted to protestant, I didn’t understand why orthodox and catholics “worshipped” mary. I was obviously very ignorant and not very educated at that time. But now i now a little bit more. I had just a couple of questions: am i saved as a protestant?
    Is it necessary for me to pray to Mary?
    And how is one considered a saint?

    Thanks you for your time,

    Mat the peace of the Lord be with you.
    In Jesus name.

    1. Leonard,

      Christ is in our midst! Glory to God for the wisdom He has given you in this – it is always important to educate oneself rather than making assumptions. Regarding your questions, let’s tackle each separately. Being “saved” is not so simple in Orthodoxy as it may seem in Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. We wrote an article explaining the basics of salvation and how it works that you can read at your leisure. It is not “necessary” to pray to anyone. However, we do so because of the enormous spiritual benefit it has, as it connects us to others in the Body of Christ (others who are ontologically like us, human) who are now in the presence of God. And in “praying to” them, it is important to understand the distinction between worship and veneration. We discuss this in our article about praying to Saints.

      In order to be considered a “Saint” officially by the Church, one must be canonized, and such a process is quite lengthy. These are the Saints that the Church upholds as models for the Faithful, as their lives have proven godly and fruitful in the Spirit. Naturally, there are thousands of others the Church does not know about who would be called saints in heaven, and many of us who are not officially canonized by the Church would also receive such a title should we live a life of submission to the will of God.

      We hope this helped answer your questions – God bless you. Christ is born!

  10. This was a very interesting read for me. I have been a lifelong “Protestant” Christian and have recently been drawn to the tradition and history of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. During the last couple months I have moved away from interest in Catholicism and have been digging deeper into Orthodoxy.
    However, I have always had a hard time with the veneration of any other human let alone actually praying to them. My main issue is that I still don’t understand the need to pray to any other intermediary other than Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus implicitly says that the only way to the Father is through Him. I see my faith as an intimate relationship with Jesus, therefore there is no need to connect through a more “human” Saint or icon. And isn’t that the reason God became man in the first place, to connect with his creation on their level? I completely respect the work of the Saints and believe they should be remembered and celebrated, but I truly am having a very difficult time in seeing them as someone to pray to in any form.
    Saying all that, I will be continuing my research and interest in Orthodox Christianity because I do believe there is more to be learned from your church and its traditions. I appreciate the grace and demeanor in which you have replied to all of these comments. God bless!

    1. Bryan,

      Christ is risen! We find that many who come to Orthodoxy from a Protestant background share your sentiments when approaching the practice of veneration of the Saints. Our Faith is indeed an intimate relationship with the Lord. But that relationship involves the body of the Church as well. It is not an exclusive relationship just between “me and God”, but between me and God and all other Christians in the Body. We see this embodied in the Scriptures quite beautifully. The veneration of Saints is not a practice designed to help us “connect” as you say, through a more human Saint or icon, as Christ was fully God and fully man! Rather, it is a practice that teaches us to bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. We do not “pray to” the Saint in as much as we simply are asking a request of them: to pray to the Lord in our behalf, just as we do for those still in the Body on earth with us. This practice helps us remember that those who have departed are still part of the Body, a very active part! We hope this helps you better understand the practice from the Orthodox perspective. It can be difficult to wrap our minds around some of these ancient practices, given that Eastern and Western Christianity are built upon completely different theological paradigms. If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to ask. God bless you!

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