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Orthodox Veneration of the Mother Of God

I. Veneration of the Mother of God during Her life on earth

From apostolic times to our days all those who truly love Christ also venerate the One Who gave birth to Him, nurtured Him, and safeguarded Him in His childhood. Since She was chosen by God the Father, while God the Holy Spirit descended upon Her, and God the Son became incarnate within Her, obeyed Her in childhood, and showed concern for Her while hanging on the Cross, should not all who confess the Holy Trinity worship Her?

While She was still living on earth, Christ’s friends – the apostles – showed great care and devotion to the Mother of God, especially the Evangelist John the Theologian, who, in fulfillment of the will of Her Divine Son, took Her to his house and cared for Her from the moment the Lord said to him from the Cross: “Here is thy Mother.”

The Evangelist Luke painted several images of Her, some with the Pre-eternal Infant and others without Him. When he brought them over and showed them to the Holy Virgin, She approved them and said: “The grace of My Son shall be with them,” and repeated the words She once said in Elizabeth’s house: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and My spirit rejoices in God, My Saviour.”

At the same time, during Her earthly life the Virgin Mary shunned the glory that was due Her as the Mother of God. She preferred to spend life in quietude and to prepare for the passage into eternal life. Until the last day of Her earthly life She took care to be found worthy of Her Son’s Kingdom, and She prayed to Him before Her death to deliver Her soul from the evil spirits who meet human souls on their way to heaven and try to seize them, in order to drag them down to hell. The Lord answered His Mother’s prayer, and when the hour of Her repose arrived, He Himself came down from heaven with a multitude of angels to take up Her soul.

Since the Mother of God also prayed for the chance to take farewell of the apostles, the Lord gathered together for Her repose all the apostles except Thomas, who were brought to Jerusalem on that day from the four corners of the earth by an unseen force, in order to be present at Her blessed passage into eternal life.

Singing divine hymns, the apostles buried Her Most-pure body, and on the third day they opened up the sepulcher, in order to worship the Mother of God once more, together with the apostle Thomas, who had by that time arrived in Jerusalem. But they did not find Her body in the sepulcher and returned to their homes in bewilderment, but during their common meal the Mother of God Herself appeared to them, shining with divine radiance, and told them that Her Son had also glorified Her body, and that now She, being resurrected, stands before His throne. At the same time She promised to be with them forever.

Dormition of the Holy Theotokos
Dormition of the Holy Theotokos

The apostles greeted the Mother of God with great joy and began to venerate Her not only as the Mother of their beloved Teacher and Master, but also as their heavenly help, the protector of Christians, and intercessor for all of mankind before the Righteous Judge. And everywhere that Christ’s Gospel was preached, His Most-Holy Mother also began to be venerated.

II. First enemies of the Mother of God’s veneration

The more the faith of Christ spread and the name of the Saviour of the world was glorified on earth, together with the One Who had been worthy of being the Mother of the God-man, the more the hate of Christ’s enemies increased towards Her. Mary was the Mother of Jesus. She manifested an extraordinary example of purity and righteousness; moreover, even after departing from this life, She remained a powerful, though physically unseen, support for Christians. Thus all who hated Jesus Christ and did not believe in Him, who did not understand His teaching or, rather, did not wish to understand it as the Church understood it, who wished to replace Christ’s preaching with their own human philosophies, – all transferred their hate of Christ, the Gospel, and the Church upon the Holy Virgin Mary. They wished to humiliate the Mother, in order to then destroy faith in Her Son, to create a false impression of Her among people, in order to then have the opportunity to reconstruct the entire Christian teaching on other principles. In Mary’s womb God became joined with man; She was the One Who had served as a ladder for the Son of God as He came down from heaven. To strike a blow at the veneration of Her meant to strike at the root of Christianity, to destroy its very foundation.

Even the very beginning of Her heavenly glory was marked on earth by an outburst of anger and hate towards Her on the part of the unbelievers. When after Her saintly repose the apostles carried Her body for burial in Her chosen place in Gethsemane, John the Theologian walked in front, carrying an elysian branch which the Archangel Gabriel had brought to the Holy Virgin three days before, when he came down from heaven to announce Her forthcoming departure for the celestial dwellings.

“When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,” – Apostle Peter began singing Psalm 114, while the entire assembly of apostles and disciples joined in with the “hallelujah.” And while this holy hymn, called by Jews “the great hallelujah,” i.e. the great glorification of God, was being sung, a certain Jewish priest named Athonius rushed towards the bier with the intent to overturn it and throw the Mother of God’s body to the ground.

Athonius’ insolence was punished immediately: Archangel Michael cut off his hands with an invisible sword, and they remained hanging on the bier. The amazed Athonius, in great pain and torment, recognized his sin and appealed with prayer to the Jesus he had hated until this moment, and was healed right away. He then converted to Christianity without delay and confessed it before his former coreligionists, for which he was martyred by them. Thus the attempt to denigrate the honor of the Mother of God served for Her greater glorification.

Christ’s enemies did not dare show their disrespect to the body of the Most-pure with further force, but their hate did not abate. Seeing that Christianity was spreading everywhere, they began spreading malicious slander against the Christians. They had no compunction in involving also the name of Christ’s Mother, and made up stories that Jesus of Nazareth had supposedly come from a lowly and immoral environment, and that His mother was a Roman soldier’s paramour.

Would Christ have been shown respect and allowed to preach in the synagogue if He had been born from illicit cohabitation? Mary would have been subjected to the law of Moses, which commanded such individuals to be stoned to death, while the Pharisees would have been more than glad to rebuke Christ for His Mother’s behavior. But the opposite was true: Mary enjoyed the greatest respect, She was an honored guest at the wedding in Cana, and even when Her Son was condemned, no one dared to mock or berate His Mother.

III. Attempts on the part of the Jews and heretics to discredit Mary’s Eternal Virginity

Jewish detractors were soon convinced that it was almost impossible to discredit Jesus’ Mother, and that on the basis of the information they themselves had on hand they could more easily prove Her blameless life. They therefore left off their slander, which was about to be picked up by the pagans, and tried to prove at least that Mary was not a virgin when She gave birth to Christ. They even said that no prophecy had ever existed about the Messiah being born of a Virgin, and that in vain were the Christians trying to glorify Christ by the supposed fulfillment of such prophecies about Him.

Jewish interpreters appeared who made up new translations of the Old Testament into Greek, and in them they translated the well-known prophecy of Isaiah as “Behold, a young woman shall conceive” (Isaiah 7:14); they asserted that the Jewish word “aalma” meant a young woman and not a virgin, as was written in the holy translation of the 70 interpreters, where that verse was translated as “Behold, a Virgin shall conceive.”

The new translation purported to show that on the basis of an incorrect interpretation of the word “aalma” the Christians were trying to ascribe to Mary something that was totally impossible – giving birth without a husband, while in reality Christ’s nativity was in no way different from other human births.

However, the new translators’ malicious intent soon came to light, since comparisons of different parts of the Bible clearly showed that the word “aalma” precisely meant “virgin.” Moreover, not only the Jews, but also the pagans, on the basis of their traditions and various prophecies, expected the Saviour of the world to be born of a Virgin. The Gospel clearly states that the Lord Jesus was born of a Virgin.

“How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” – Mary, who had sworn to remain a virgin, asked the Archangel Gabriel as he brought Her the glad tidings of Christ’s birth.

IV. The heresy of Nestorius which declared the Mother of God to be only the Mother of Christ, and the 3rd Ecumenical Council.

When even those who dared to speak out against the sanctity and chastity of the Most-holy Virgin Mary were silenced, an attempt was made to destroy the veneration of Her as the Mother of God. In the 5th century, the Archbishop of Constantinople Nestorius began to preach that Mary only gave birth to the man Jesus, in Whom divinity dwelled as in a temple. Nestorius first allowed his priest Anastasius, and later began to openly preach in church himself, that Mary cannot be called the Mother of God, since She did not give birth to the God-man. He considered it degrading for himself to worship an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

These sermons caused general agitation and concern for the purity of the faith, first in Constantinople and then in all the places reached by rumors of the new teaching. Saint Proclus, a disciple of St. John Chrysostome, at that time the Bishop of Kizil and later Archbishop of Constantinople, preached a sermon in church in the presence of Nestorius, in which he confessed the Son of God being incarnate from the Virgin, Who is truly the Mother of God, for already in Her womb the Infant conceived in Her by the Holy Spirit was united with Divinity, and this Infant, although born from the Virgin Mary due to His human nature, was already born as true God and true man.

Nestorius persevered in his obstinacy and refused to change his teaching, saying that one must differentiate between Jesus and the Son of God, that Mary should not be called the Mother of God but rather the Mother of Christ, since the Jesus Who was born of Mary was only a man – the Christ (which means Messiah, the anointed one), similar to the previous anointed of the Lord – the prophets, only surpassing them in the fullness of His contact with God. Nestorius’s teaching thus negated God’s entire blueprint, for if it was only a man who was born from Mary, then it was not God who suffered for us, but a man.

Saint Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria, hearing of Nestorius’s teaching and the church’s reaction to it in Constantinople, wrote a letter to Nestorius, in which he tried to convince him to keep to the teaching which the Church confessed from its inception and not introduce anything new into it. Moreover, St. Cyril wrote to the clergymen and the faithful of Constantinople, urging them to stand firm in the Orthodox faith and not fear persecution from Nestorius of those who disagreed with him. St. Cyril also informed Pope Celestine in Rome, who at that time stood firm in Orthodoxy together with his flock, about the entire affair.

St. Celestine on his part wrote to Nestorius and urged him to preach the Orthodox faith and not his own. Nestorius remained deaf to all persuasion and replied that what he was preaching was the Orthodox faith, and that his opponents were heretics. St. Cyril wrote to Nestorius again and composed 12 anathemas, i.e. detailed in 12 articles the major differences between the Orthodox teaching and that preached by Nestorius, and excommunicated from the church all those who rejected even a single article.

Nestorius completely rejected all that was written by St. Cyril and detailed his own teaching, also in 12 articles, excommunicating all those who did not accept it. The purity of faith continued to be threatened. St. Cyril wrote letters to the reigning Emperor Theodosius Minor, his wife Eudocia, and his sister Pulcheria, asking them to involve themselves in church affairs and restrain the heresy.

It was decided to convene an Ecumenical Council, at which the hierarchs, assembled from all corners of the earth, would decide whether the faith preached by Nestorius was Orthodox or not. They chose Ephesus as the site for this 3rd Ecumenical Council, because the Most-holy Virgin Mary had once sojourned there with Apostle John the Theologian. St. Cyril assembled his fellow bishops in Egypt, and together with them sailed by ship to Ephesus. Archbishop John of Antioch, together with the Eastern bishops, set out from Antioch by land. The Roman bishop St. Celestine was unable to travel and asked St. Cyril to defend the Orthodox faith and, moreover, he sent two bishops and clergyman Philip from the Roman church on his behalf, instructing them in what to say. Nestorius and the bishops of the Constantinople district, and the bishops of Palestine, Asia Minor, and Cyprus also arrived in Ephesus.

On June 22, 431 A.D. the bishops assembled in the Ephesian church of the Virgin Mary, headed by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and Bishop Memnon of Ephesus, and took their places. A Gospel was placed in the middle of the church as a symbol that Christ Himself was invisibly presiding over the Ecumenical Council. First of all the Creed composed by the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils was read, and then the participants began reading the documents, going over the prior epistles of Cyril and Celestine to Nestorius and Nestorius’s answers to them. The Council deemed Nestorius’s teaching to be iniquitous and condemned it, depriving Nestorius of his cathedra and his clerical status. Thus the Council’s resolution clearly expressed its belief that Christ, born of the Virgin, is the true God incarnate, and since Mary gave birth to a perfect man Who at the same time was perfect God, She should rightly be venerated as the Mother of God.

After the end of the session the Council’s resolution was immediately announced to the expectant populace. All of Ephesus rejoiced, learning of the defense of the veneration of the Holy Virgin, Who was especially honored in this city whose resident She had been during Her life on earth and whose intercessor She had become after Her entry into eternal life. Joyous glorification of the Holy Virgin and laudation of the Fathers who had defended Her name from heretics were heard everywhere.

The Council had 5 more sessions, during which it affirmed its condemnation of the Pelagian heresy, which taught that a person can be saved by his own efforts, without the need to acquire God’s grace. The Council also confirmed that the teaching of the Universal Orthodox Church was fully and clearly set out in the Creed approved by the 2nd Ecumenical Council, and for this reason it did not compose a new Creed itself and forbad the composition of new creeds or alteration of the existing one.

The Nativity of Christ
The Nativity of Christ

This latter point was transgressed several centuries later by Western Christians, when the schismatic Church of Rome made an addition to the Creed, stating that the Holy Spirit issues “also from the Son,” which addition has been approved by all the Popes since the 11th century, although until that time all their predecessors, beginning with St. Celestine, firmly kept to the resolution of the 3rd Ecumenical Council and followed it.

Thus the church peace disturbed by Nestorius was restored. The true faith was defended and heresy was denounced. The 3rd Ecumenical Council firmly and clearly confessed the Church teaching on the Mother of God. Previously the Holy Fathers had denounced those who defamed the chaste life of the Virgin Mary, while now they declared the following about those who diminished Her honor: “Whoever does not confess Emmanuel as the true God and, consequently, the Holy Virgin as the Mother of God, since She gave birth in the flesh to God the Father’s Word, Who became incarnate: anathema to him” (i.e. such a person is excommunicated from the church – St. Cyril of Alexandria’s 1st anathema).

V. Attempts on the part of the iconoclasts to diminish the glory of the Queen of Heaven,
and their shameful defeat.

After the 3rd Ecumenical Council, Christians in Constantinople and in other parts of the Empire began with increasing fervor to appeal to the Mother of God for help, and their trust in Her intercession was not in vain. She showed Her aid to a multitude of the sick, the helpless, and the unfortunate. Many times She proved Herself to be Constantinople’s defense from external enemies, once even visibly showing to St. Andrew the fool-for-Christ Her wondrous protection over the people praying in the church at Vlachernae.

Protection of the Mother of God
Protection of the Mother of God

The Queen of Heaven granted victory to the Byzantine Emperors in battle, and for this reason they had the habit of taking along Her icon into battle. She fortified the ascetics and the fervent adepts of Christian life in their struggle against human passions and frailties. She enlightened and instructed the Church fathers and teachers, including St. Cyril of Alexandria himself, when he vacillated on whether to acknowledge the innocence and holiness of St. John Chrysostome.

The Holy Virgin placed hymns into the mouths of the composers of various church chants, sometimes creating famous singers out of those who were incapable or had no talent for singing, but were pious church laborers, such as St. Romanus the Melodist. It is not surprising, therefore, that Christians tried to magnify the name of their customary Protectress. Feast days were established in Her honor, wondrous hymns were dedicated to Her, and Her images were venerated.

The wrath of the “prince of darkness” provoked the “sons of apostasy” to once again rise up against Emmanuel and His mother in that very Constantinople which now venerated the Mother of God as its Intercessor, just as Ephesus used to do. Unable at first to speak out openly against the Champion Leader, they wished to diminish Her glorification by forbidding the veneration of Christ and His saints, calling it idolatry. Here, too, the Mother of God supported the adepts of piety in their struggle for the veneration of icons, manifesting a multitude of miracles from Her icons and healing the chopped off hand of St. John Damascene, who had written in support of icons.

The persecution of worshippers of icons and saints once again ended with the victory and the triumph of Orthodoxy, for the veneration accorded to icons ascends to those who are depicted in them; and God’s saints are honored as friends of God for the sake of the grace of God that dwells within them, according to the psalm: “Thy friends are exceedingly precious to me, Lord.” Special honor in heaven and on earth has been accorded to the Holy Mother of God, Who even in the days of the icons’ desecration manifested so many wondrous miracles through them, that even now we lovingly remember them. The hymn: “All creation rejoices in Thee, O Grace-filled One” and the icon of the Mother of God of the Three Hands remind us of the healing of St. John Damascene in front of this icon; the image of the Iveron Mother of God reminds us of the miraculous deliverance of this icon from the enemies, after it was thrown into the sea by a widow who was unable to protect it.

None of the persecutions of those who venerate the Mother of God and all that is related to Her memory were able to diminish the love of Christians for the Intercessor. A rule was established, whereby each series of church hymns ends with a hymn in honor of the Theotokos. Many times throughout the year Christians in all corners of the world gather together in church, in order to laud Her, thank Her for assistance received, and ask for Her intercession.

But could the Christians’ enemy the devil, who “as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8), remain an indifferent observer of the glory of the Most-honorable Theotokos? Could he acknowledge his defeat and cease battling against truth through the people who do his will? And thus, when the entire universe was filled with the glad tidings of the Christian faith, when the name of the Most-holy Mother of God was being called upon everywhere, when the world became filled with Her churches, while the homes of Christians became adorned with Her icons, then a new heresy in regard to the Mother of God appeared and was disseminated. This heresy is dangerous primarily because many people are unable to understand right way the extent to which it undermines genuine veneration of the Mother of God.

VI. “Zeal not according to knowledge”
The Roman Catholics’ distortion of the true veneration of the Most-holy Theotokos Virgin Mary by means of the newly-invented dogma of the “immaculate conception.”

When all those who denigrated the Holy Virgin’s chaste life, disallowed Her eternal virginity, rejected Her merit as the Mother of God, and disdained Her icons were denounced, – at a time when the glory of the Theotokos shone throughout the entire world, – there appeared a teaching which supposedly elevated the Virgin Mary, yet in reality rejected all Her virtues.

This teaching is called the teaching on the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception, which was accepted by successors of the Roman papal throne. It comprises the belief that “from the first moment of Her conception, by the special grace of the Almighty God and by special privilege, and for the sake of the future merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, the Most-blessed Virgin Mary was preserved free of all the iniquity of original sin” (papal bull of Pope Pius IX on the new dogma). In other words, the Mother of God was preserved from original sin at Her very conception, and by the grace of God it was made impossible for Her to have personal sins as well.

Christians did not hear of this until the 9th century, when for the first time Abbot Paschasius Radbert expressed the opinion that the Holy Virgin was conceived without original sin. Beginning with the 12th century, this idea began to spread among the clergy and flock of the Western Church, which had already fallen away from the Universal Christian Church, becoming thus deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Virgin Mary with St. Anna
Holy Virgin Mary with St. Anna

Nevertheless, by far not all members of the Catholic Church were in agreement with the new teaching. Even the most famous Western theologians, pillars of the Catholic Church so-to-speak, were divided in their opinion. Thomas of Aquinas and Bernard of Clervaux rejected it decisively, while Duns Scotus defended it. The division spread from the teachers to their disciples: the Dominican monks followed their teacher Thomas of Aquinas and preached against the teaching on immaculate conception, while the followers of Duns Scotus – the Franciscan monks – tried to disseminate it everywhere. The battle between these two movements continued over the course of several centuries. On both sides stood individuals who were regarded by the Catholics as the greatest authorities.

The issue was not brought any nearer to resolution by the fact that some people reported receiving revelations from above. The well-known among 14th century Catholics nun Brigitte spoke in her notes about visions of the Holy Theotokos, Who purportedly told her Herself that She was conceived immaculately, without original sin; while the even more famous contemporary saint, Catherine of Sienna, asserted that the Holy Virgin was conceived in original sin, which revelation she supposedly received from Christ Himself.

Thus, neither on the basis of theological theses, nor on the basis of mutually-contradictory miraculous visions was the Catholic flock able to decide for a long time wherein lay the truth. The Roman popes up to Sixtus IV (end of the 15th century) stayed away from these arguments, and only this Pope approved in 1475 a service wherein the teaching on immaculate conception was expressed fairly clearly, while several years later he forbad the condemnation of those who believed in immaculate conception. However, even Sixtus IV was not yet resolved to affirm that such is the immovable teaching of the Church, and thus, while forbidding the condemnation of those who believed in immaculate conception, he also did not judge those who believed otherwise.

Meanwhile, the teaching on immaculate conception gained more and more adepts among members of the Roman Papist church. The reason for this was that it seemed quite pious and pleasing to the Theotokos to glorify Her as much as possible. The people’s desire to glorify the Heavenly Intercessor on the one hand, and the digression of Western theologians into abstract discussions leading to seeming truth (scholasticism) on the other hand, and, finally, the patronage of the Roman popes who succeeded Sixtus IV, – all of this led to a situation whereby the idea of immaculate conception, postulated by Paschasius Radbert in the 9th century, became a universal belief of the Catholic Church in the 19th century. It only remained to conclusively proclaim it as Church teaching, which was done by Pope Pius IX, who announced during a ceremonious service on December 8, 1854 that the Holy Virgin’s immaculate conception was a dogma of the Catholic Church.

Thus the Roman Church added yet another digression from the teaching which it had confessed while it was a member of the Holy Apostolic Church, and which belief the Orthodox Church continues to hold inviolate and unchanged to this day. The declaration of the new dogma satisfied the wide circles of the people who belonged to the Catholic Church, who in the simplicity of their hearts believed that the declaration of the new teaching would serve to the greater glory of the Theotokos, Whom they were supposedly presenting with a gift; the vanity of the Western theologians who had defended and developed this teaching was also satisfied; but most of all the declaration of the new dogma brought benefit to the papal throne itself, because by proclaiming a new dogma through his own power, the Catholic pope thus openly ascribed to himself the right to change the teaching of the Roman Church and placed himself above the testimony of the Holy Scriptures and Tradition. This led to the direct conclusion that the Roman popes are infallible in matters of faith, which the same Pope Pius IX also declared to be a dogma of the Catholic Church in 1870.

Thus was altered the teaching of the Western Church, which fell away from communion with the True Church. It continues to introduce new and new precepts, thinking in this manner to glorify Truth the more, while actually distorting it. While the Orthodox Church humbly confesses the teaching it had received from Christ and the Apostles, the Roman Church dares to supplement it, either from “zeal not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2) or digressing into the vain babblings and oppositions of false reason (1 Tim. 4:20). It could not be otherwise, for only to the true and universal Church has it been promised that “the gates of hell would not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), while the following words apply to those who have fallen away: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in Me” (John 15:4).

It is true that in defining the new dogma it was stated that it is not a new teaching that is being established, but only an existing one that is being formalized in the Church; moreover, one which had been professed by many Holy Fathers, excerpts from whose writing were set forth. However, all the cited references speak only of the Virgin Mary’s great honor and chastity, give Her many appellations defining Her purity and spiritual strength, but nowhere do they mention an immaculate conception. Meanwhile, the same Holy Fathers elsewhere speak of the fact that only Jesus Christ was entirely free of sin; all people, being born of Adam, had a body that was subject to the law of sin.

None of the Holy Fathers say that God miraculously purified the Virgin Mary while She was still in the womb, while many of them indicate directly that the Virgin Mary, like all other people, underwent a struggle against sinfulness, but was victorious over all temptations and was thus saved by Her Divine Son.

Roman Catholic theologians also say that the Virgin Mary was saved by Christ, but they understand it to mean that Mary was preserved from the impurity of original sin on the basis of Christ’s future merit (papal bull on the dogma of immaculate conception). According to their teaching, the Virgin Mary supposedly received in advance the gift which Christ brought to mankind by His suffering and death on the cross. Even more than that, speaking of the anguish experienced by the Theotokos as She stood at the cross of Her beloved Son, and of the sorrows which filled the life of the Mother of God in general, they regard them as a supplement to Christ’s suffering and Mary as our co-redeemer. According to the Roman Catholic theologians, in the matter of our redemption the Virgin Mary stands next to Christ Himself and is elevated almost to an equal status with God. One cannot go any further. Even if this has not yet been officially formulated as a dogma of the Catholic Church, nevertheless Pope Pius IX, having taken the first step, has indicated the direction towards further development of this universally-acknowledged belief of his Church.

Thus, in its attempt to glorify the Most-holy Virgin, the Roman Catholic Church goes along the path of Her full deification, and if at present the Catholic authorities regard Mary as an adjunct to the Holy Trinity, then we may soon see a time when the Virgin will be worshipped as God.

This same path was chosen by a group of religious thinkers, who thus far belong to the Orthodox Church, but who are constructing a new theological system based upon the philosophical teaching on Wisdom – Sophia – as a special force which unites Divinity and creation. In likewise developing a teaching on the dignity of the Mother of God, they wish to see in Her a being that is somewhere between God and man. On some issues they are more moderate than the Roman Catholic theologians, while on others they have, perhaps, even exceeded them. While rejecting the teaching on immaculate conception and freedom from original sin, they nevertheless teach of Her complete freedom from all personal sin, seeing Her as an intermediary between men and God, comparable to Christ. This striving to deify the Mother of God can be observed primarily in the west, where at the same time, on the other hand, great success is enjoyed by various Protestant sects, together with the main branches of Protestantism – Lutheranism and Calvinism, which completely reject any veneration of the Mother of God and prayerful appeals to Her.

But in the words of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus: “There is equal harm in both these heresies, the one that denigrates the Virgin and the one that, on the contrary, glorifies Her beyond measure.” The holy father denounces those who glorify Her as divinity: “Mary should be honored, while the Lord should be worshipped.” “It is not meet to venerate saints beyond measure, but one should worship their Master. Mary is not God and did not receive a body from heaven, but according to God’s promise has been elected to take part in God’s universal design. On the other hand, however, no one should dare to denigrate the Holy Virgin either.”

Nativity of the Holy Virgin Mary
Nativity of the Holy Virgin Mary

The Orthodox Church, while lauding the Theotokos highly in its hymns, does not dare ascribe to Her that which has not been reported of Her in the Holy Writ or Tradition. “Truth is far from any exaggeration or understatement: to all things it allots an appropriate measure and an appropriate place” (St. Ignaty Bryanchaninov). In glorifying the purity of the Virgin Mary and Her courageous endurance of sorrows in Her earthly life, the Holy Fathers nevertheless reject the idea that She was an intermediary between God and men in terms of a joint redemption of mankind. Speaking of Her readiness to die together with Her Son and to suffer with Him for universal salvation, the famous father of the western Church, St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, adds: “But Christ’s suffering was not in need of any aid, as the Lord Himself had forecast it way in advance.”

The same holy father teaches of the universality of original sin, whose only exception is Christ. “Of all those born of women there is not a single absolutely perfect person safe the Lord Jesus Christ, Who, by the special new means of immaculate birth, did not undergo any earthly corruption.” “God alone is without sin. All those who are born of wife and husband, i.e. from a physical union, are subject to sin. Consequently, whoever has no sin was not conceived in the regular manner.” “Only one person, the Mediator between God and men, is free of the fetters of sinful birth, because He was born of a Virgin, and because, while being born, He did not receive any adjunct of sinfulness."

The above-cited words of ancient Church teachers confirm that even in the West the teaching that is now being spread there was previously rejected. Even after the falling away of the western Church, one of its greatest authorities, Bernard, wrote:

“I am horrified to see that some of you have now desired to change the state of extremely important things, introducing a new celebration that is not known to the Church, not approved by reason, and not justified by ancient tradition. Are we really more knowledgeable and more pious than our fathers?… You will say that we must glorify the Mother of God to the fullest extent possible. That is true. However, the glorification accorded to the Queen of Heaven requires some differentiation. This regal Virgin does not need false glorification, since She possesses a true crown of glory and a scepter of dignity. Glorify rather the purity of Her flesh and the sanctity of Her life; be amazed at the multitude of gifts in this Virgin; worship Her Divine Son; laud the One Who conceived without lust and gave birth without pain. What else should be added to these merits? It is said that we should venerate the conception which preceded the glorious nativity; for if the conception did not come first, then the nativity would not have been glorified. But what could be said if someone demanded that the father and mother of the holy Mary be honored for the same reason? The same could equally be demanded for all the forefathers ad infinitum. Let it not be said that the Holy Virgin was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of man; I firmly assert that the Holy Spirit descended upon Her, but did not come into the world with Her.”

“I am telling you that the Virgin Mary could not have been sanctified before Her conception because She did not yet exist; and since neither could She have been sanctified at the moment of Her conception due to original sin that is inseparably connected with all conception, one is left to believe that She was sanctified after being conceived in Her mother’s womb. This sanctification, by destroying sin, makes holy Her nativity and not Her conception. No one has been given the right to be conceived in holiness. Only the Lord Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and He alone was sanctified from His very conception. Except for Him, to all other descendants of Adam apply the words that one of them has said of himself, in all humility and awareness of truth: ‘Behold, I was conceived in iniquity’ (Psalms 51:5). How can one expect this conception to be holy, when it did not come from the Holy Spirit, not to mention the fact that it came from lust? The Holy Virgin will obviously reject the glory that, apparently, glorifies sin; She will never justify an innovation established counter to the teaching of the Church, an innovation that is the mother of imprudence, the sister of disbelief, and the daughter of levity.”

The above-mentioned words clearly reveal both the novelty and the absurdity of the Roman Catholic Church’s new dogma.

The teaching on the complete sinlessness (immaculate conception) of the Mother of God:

(1) Does not accord with the Holy Scriptures, which make innumerable mention of the sinlessness of “the One Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), but refer to all other people with the words: “Who is free of impurity? Not one, even if he has lived only a single day on earth” (Job 14:4).

(2) This teaching also contradicts the Holy Tradition that is maintained in the numerous patristic writings, which speak of the Virgin Mary’s supreme holiness from the moment of Her birth, and of Her purification by the Holy Spirit at Her conception of Christ, but not at Her own conception by Anna.

(3) The teaching that the Mother of God was purified prior to birth, in order that the pure Christ could be born from Her, is entirely senseless, since if the pure Christ could be born only if the Virgin were purified while still in Her parents’ womb, then in order for the Virgin to be born pure, Her parents would have had to be pure of original sin, and they, in turn, would have had to be born of purified parents, etc., and proceeding thus further, we would have to conclude that Christ could not have become incarnate, if all His ancestors in the flesh, way back to Adam inclusively, were not preliminarily cleansed of original sin; but then there would have been no need for Christ’s incarnation, since Christ came down to earth in order to destroy sin.

(4) The teaching that the Mother of God was preserved from original sin, and that She was preserved from personal sins by the grace of God, presents God as unmerciful and unjust, for if God could preserve Mary from sin and purify Her even before birth, why does He not purify other people before birth, but allows them to remain in sin? It also appears that God saves people against their will, predetermining some to salvation even before they are born.

(5) This teaching, apparently aimed at elevating the Mother of God, in reality completely rejects all Her virtues. For if Mary, while still in Her mother’s womb, when She could not yet choose between good and evil, was by the grace of God preserved from impurity and was then by the same grace preserved from sin after birth, wherein lies Her merit? If She was placed in a position of being unable to sin and thus did not sin, for what was She so glorified by God? If She remained pure without any effort or without any motivation to sin, for what, then, was She crowned above all others? There is no victory without an enemy.

The righteousness and holiness of the Virgin Mary were precisely manifest in the fact that She, being “a human being just like us,” so loved God and gave Herself to Him, that by Her purity She far surpassed the rest of mankind. For this She became worthy to have the Holy Spirit descend upon Her and purify Her, so that She conceived from Him the Saviour of the world Himself. The teaching on the grace-filled sinlessness of the Virgin Mary negates Her victory over temptations, and from a vanquisher worthy of being crowned with glory turns Her into a blind tool of God’s Providence.

It is not elevation and greater glory, but rather diminishment that is offered to Her in the “gift” presented by Pope Pius IX and all the others who thought to glorify the Mother of God with the revelation of new truths. The holy Virgin Mary has been so glorified by God Himself and is so regal in Her life on earth and Her glory in heaven, that human fantasies cannot add anything to Her honor and glory. Whatever people themselves made up serves only to tarnish Her image in their eyes. “Brothers, beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ,” – wrote Apostle Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit (Coloss. 2:8),

The teaching on the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary by Anna is precisely such a “vain deceit,” which at first glance elevates Her, but in reality diminishes Her. As all deceit it is a seed of the “father of deceit” – the devil, who was able to tempt many with it through their inability to understand their blasphemy against the Virgin Mary. Together with this teaching must be rejected all the others that issue from it or are similar to it. The attempt to elevate the Holy Virgin to the rank of Christ, considering Her maternal torments at the Cross to be equal to the sufferings of Christ, as taught by the Papists, or saying that “the human essence of the Mother of God, together with the God-man Jesus, represents the fullness of the human image,” as taught by the Sophianists, is equally a vain deceit and a spoiling through philosophy. In Jesus Christ “there is neither male, nor female” (Gal 3:28), and Christ redeemed the whole of mankind, for which reason both “Adam exulted and Eve rejoiced” in His resurrection, while through His ascension the Lord elevated the entire human nature.

Furthermore, the belief that the Mother of God is “an addition to the Holy Trinity,” or the “fourth hypostasis,” or that the Virgin Mary is a “creation, but already more than creation,” – all of this is the fruit of false reasoning, which is not content with the teachings kept by the Church from the time of the Apostles, and attempts to glorify the Holy Virgin more than She was glorified by God.

The words of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus are coming to pass: “Some who engage in mad ravings about the Holy Virgin Herself have attempted and are attempting to place Her in God’s stead.” But that which is offered to the Virgin in the raving of the mind, instead of lauding Her turns out to be a blasphemy, while the Most-pure One rejects falsehood, being the Mother of Truth.

VII. Orthodox veneration of the Theotokos

The Orthodox teaching on the Mother of God contains only that which Holy Tradition and the Holy Writ have revealed about Her, and glorifies Her daily in its churches, asking Her for help and protection. Tradition says that Mary was the daughter of the elderly Joachim and Anna; moreover, Joachim came from the royal ancestry of King David, while Anna was of priestly ancestry. Despite such noble provenance, they were very poor. However, it was not this that saddened these righteous people, but the fact that they had no children and thus could not expect any descendants of theirs to see the Messiah. Once when the two of them, being shunned by the Jews for their barrenness, were praying to God with sorrowing souls, Joachim on a mountain, where he took refuge in solitude after one of the priests refused to offer his sacrifice in the temple, and Anna in her own garden, weeping over her childlessness, – an Angel appeared to both of them and announced that they would give birth to a daughter. With great joy they promised to dedicate their child to God.

Nine months later a daughter was born to them, who was called Mary and who from early childhood exhibited the highest spiritual qualities. When She reached the age of three, the parents, in fulfillment of their promise, led little Mary with great ceremony to the temple of Jerusalem, where She ascended the high steps by Herself, while by divine revelation the High Priest who welcomed Her took Her into the very Holy of Holies, where She filled with the grace of God that was upon Her the formerly graceless temple. (This was a newly-built temple, upon which the glory of God had not yet descended, as it had done on the tabernacle or the temple of Solomon.) She settled in one of the maidens’ rooms that were available at the temple, but spent so much time praying in the Holy of Holies that one could say She practically lived there. Adorned with all manner of virtue, She presented an example of an extraordinarily pure life. Submissive and obedient to all, She never insulted anyone, never said a harsh word to anyone, was polite to everyone, and never entertained even a single unclean thought.

Despite the righteousness and chastity of the life the Theotokos led, sin and external death were still a part of Her. They could not simply disappear: such was the true and exact teaching of the Orthodox Church on the Mother of God in terms of Her relation to original sin and death. She was not a stranger to the temptation of sin. Only God alone is without sin, while man will always have something in him requiring additional rectification and improvement, in order to fulfill God’s commandment: “Be ye holy as I, your Lord God, am holy” (Levit. 19:2). The purer and more perfect one becomes, the more one notices one’s imperfections and believes oneself to be unworthy.

The Virgin Mary, having given Herself completely over to God, although guarding Herself from all motivation to sin, was more aware than anyone else of the frailty of human nature and ardently wished for the Saviour’s coming. In Her humility She believed Herself unworthy of being even a servant of the maiden who was due to give birth to Him. So that nothing would deflect Her from prayer and inner concentration, Mary offered a vow of celibacy to God, in order to spend Her entire life in pleasing Him alone. When Her age did not allow Her to remain any longer at the temple, She was betrothed to Joseph and went to live in his home in Nazareth. Here the Virgin was honored with the appearance of Archangel Gabriel, who announced to Her the glad tidings that She would give birth to the Highest. “Hail, Thou that art highly favoured! The Lord is with Thee; blessed art Thou among women… The Holy Spirit shall come upon Thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow Thee; therefore also the holy One that shall be born of Thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:28-35).

Annunciation of the Theotokos
Annunciation of the Theotokos

Mary accepted the angel’s tidings with humility and obedience. “At that moment the Word, in a manner known only to Himself, descended and entered Mary, and dwelt within Her… As lightning illuminates all that is hidden, so Christ purified the hidden corners of nature. He purified the Virgin and was then born from Her, to show that wherever Christ resides, purity is manifested there in all its strength. He purified the Virgin, made Her ready through the Holy Spirit, and afterwards the womb, becoming pure, conceived Him. He purified the Virgin while She was still chaste, and for this reason He left Her a Virgin even after His birth. I do not say that Mary became immortal, but that being illuminated by grace, She was not disturbed by sinful desires… The Light dwelled within Her, purified Her mind, made Her thoughts chaste, sanctified Her virginity” (Saint Ephraim the Syrian).

Mary did not tell anyone about the appearance of the Angel, but the Angel himself told Joseph of Mary’s miraculous conception from the Holy Spirit, and upon Christ’s Nativity, together with a great multitude of the heavenly host, he announced the glad tidings to the shepherds. The shepherds, coming to venerate the Newborn, told of everything they had heard about Him. Mary silently listened and preserved in Her heart all the words about Her Son’s majesty. Forty days later She heard Simeon’s laudatory prayer and his prediction of the sword which would pierce Her soul. Afterwards She saw how Jesus grew in wisdom, heard Him teaching in the temple at the age of 12, and preserved everything in Her heart.

Although She was filled with grace, She did not yet fully comprehend the exact nature of Her Son’s service and grandeur. She still clung to the Jewish understanding of the Messiah, while natural feelings fueled Her concern for Him and Her effort to protect Him from seemingly overwhelming hardships and dangers. As no other person on earth, She experienced feelings similar to Christ’s, uncomplainingly suffering maternal anguish when She saw Her son being persecuted and martyred. Rejoicing on the day of the Resurrection, on the day of the Pentecost She became adorned with strength from above. The Holy Spirit that descended upon Her taught Her everything and instructed Her in all manner of truth. Enlightened, She strived even more earnestly to fulfill all that She had heard from Her Son and Redeemer, in order to ascend to Him and be together with Him.

The end of the Holy Theotokos’ life on earth was the beginning of Her grandeur. Adorned with divine glory, She stands, and will continue to stand on the Day of Judgment and in eternal life, on the right hand of Her Son’s throne; She reigns with Him and has access to Him, as His Mother in the flesh and His equal in spirit, having fulfilled God’s will Herself and having taught others to do so. All-loving and merciful, She shows love for Her Son and God by loving mankind, interceding for it before the Merciful One, and traversing the earth in order to help people.

Having experienced all the difficulties of life on earth, the Intercessor for Christians sees each tear, hears each moan and prayer addressed to Her. She is especially close to those who work at combating their passions, and who strive towards a God-pleasing life. But She is also an indispensable helper in all daily cares and concerns.


“The joy of all who sorrow, the intercessor of all who hurt, the feeder of all who hunger, the comfort of all wanderers, the haven of all strugglers, the visitation of all who are sick, the protection of all who are frail, the staff of old age, – Thou art the Mother of God on high, O Most-pure One” (stichera to the Mother of God). “The hope and intercession and haven of Christians,” “the Theotokos Who is sleepless in Her intercessions,” “saving the world with Her continuous prayers,” “She prays for us day and night, and the scepters of kingdoms are strengthened by Her prayers” (from various prayers to the Mother of God).

There are no words adequate enough to express the majesty of the One Who was born among sinful humanity, yet became more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim.

Saint John of San Francisco
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