When you enter an Orthodox church, you see a wall of pictures (icons). And on that wall, you always, always, see an image of the Virgin Mary to the left of the Holy Doors. She sits across from Jesus on the iconostasis (wall of icons). The Orthodox place her in incredibly high esteem because she plays an important role in our salvation. Because of the part she played, we sing and pray to her during every service. This then begs the question: do the Orthodox actually worship the Virgin Mary?
In this post, we clear up the misconception of the Orthodox worshiping the Virgin Mary and explain how we truly treat her in the Church. Along the way, we briefly mention other aspects of the Virgin Mary. We will cover these topics more extensively in other posts.
Who is the Virgin Mary?
Let us first start off with a little story:
One morning, an angel of God visited a maiden to deliver her a message. The maiden, startled, backed away from the angel. But the angel, Gabriel, told her not to be afraid and said she had found favor with God. Gabriel then told her she would give birth to a son, whom she would name Jesus. The maiden asked the angel how it was possible for her to conceive a son, since she had never “known” a man before. Gabriel explained that God’s Holy Spirit would come down upon her and God’s power would overshadow her. And thus, her child would be called the Son of God. The maiden then told the angel she would do as God willed. That maiden’s name was Mary.
On that day, Mary played a significant role in the salvation of mankind. All of creation rejoices in her, praises her, and venerates her as a shining example of what it means to live according to the will of God.
The Virgin Mary as “Theotokos” and the “New Eve”
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we almost always refer to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos. Translated from Greek, this word means “Mother of God,” and “God-bearer.” But why do we call her this? Why not “The Blessed Virgin/Mother” the way the Catholics do? Because God was incarnate (embodied in flesh) of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man. 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 of God, who is Himself God. Thus, the fitting title, Theotokos.
To learn more about the nature of God, check out our article on the Teachings of the Orthodox Church.
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. (Note: this is different from the Roman Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception, which views Mary as born without original sin, unlike the rest of humankind.) 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.
So, it sounds like you sort of worship the Virgin 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, reside in the presence of God now. They all remain alive in Christ, our brothers and sisters. Asking for their intercessory 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 venerate Mary?
Many people disagree with the Orthodox practice of venerating the Theotokos because the Bible does not tell us to do so. It is absolutely true that the Orthodox Church places incredible importance on Holy Tradition for the little details. However, several passages from the New Testament establish the foundation of this practice.
When Gabriel greeted Mary, he said to her, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou 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 of Mary to Elizabeth
Additionally, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, considered it an honor to receive a visit from her. “And whence is this to me that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Elizabeth also cried out: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:41-42). 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 shall call me blessed” (Luke 1: 48). The honor given to the Theotokos by her cousin is what all generations of the Church have done in calling her blessed.
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 thy 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 and appreciate 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. Rather, 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. They describe how she intercedes with Jesus when the guests tell her they have run out of 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.
To summarize, the Orthodox do not worship the Virgin Mary. 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.
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