Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

By Mario Baghos

The Orthodox Church applies many epithets to the Mother of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Ἡ Δεσποίνης ἡμῶν, or “Our Lady,” Θεοτόκος, or “God-bearer,” Αειπάρθενε, “Ever-Virgin,” and Παναγία (Panagia), or “All-Holy One,” are just some of the most common, with the latter especially used by the Greek faithful. The Akathist Hymn, written in the seventh century by Saint Romanos the Melodist to celebrate the Virgin’s protection of Constantinople, includes ‘Salutations’ (Χαιρετισμοί) directed to her by the archangel Gabriel. These are full of the most beautiful and paradoxical metaphors that describe her as the one who has “become a King’s throne” and the one “Who bears Him who bears all”[1]—both references to our Lord Jesus Christ—as well as, “Key to the gates of Paradise,” and “Dawn of the mystical day,”[2] which are once again references to our Lord that was born of her. Each Salutation ends with the words, Χαῖρε Νύμφη Ἀνύμφευτε—“Hail, Unwedded Bride!”[3]

The earliest textual references to the Mother of God’s importance come of course from Saint Luke, whose narrative account of the nativity and infancy of Christ focuses on the perspective of Mary, the young maiden whom the archangel acclaims as one “highly favored” with the Lord (Luke 1:28) before saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42-43). Saint Mary’s humble acceptance of the Lord’s will for her to give birth to his Son is attested by her humility and obedience, making her a paradigm for all Christians who rightly embrace the holy Virgin’s words in the Magnificat: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). While St Mary humbly and freely chose to be obedient to God, her role in the divine economy—in God’s activity in history—was prophesied in the Old Testament book of Isaiah 7:14, which states: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and will call him Immanuel,” to which Saint Matthew, in his use of this quote from Isaiah in chapter 1, verse 23 of his Gospel, adds: “which is translated, ‘God with us.’” In the Old Testament book of Micah 5:2-3, we can discern another prophecy relating to the Virgin giving birth in Bethlehem:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a Son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

The Gospels of Matthew (chs 1-2) and Luke (chs 1-2) address the Mother of God in relation to the nativity, her giving birth to the Lord: the former records the flight of the holy family to Egypt (Mt 2:13-25) and the latter records her anguish after not being able to find the twelve-year old Jesus in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast (2:41-50). In Saint John’s Gospel (2:3-10), we read about her presence at the wedding at Cana, and at her Son and our Lord’s crucifixion (Jn 19:25-27); and in Acts 1:13-14 we read about her presence with the apostles right after the Lord’s ascension. While not featuring any more in the canonical scriptures,[4] the Virgin appears in the apocryphal ones, and usually we interpret the fact that some of the apocrypha has made its way into the Orthodox Church as comprising only those elements that were consistent with its Tradition. Since the Orthodox Church places just as much emphasis on Tradition as it does on scripture—indeed, it sees the scriptures as having their rightful place within Tradition, which is a faithful, integral passing on of representations from the past within a sacred framework[5]—then it can be argued that the details of the Virgin’s life were retained in the Church’s traditional memory and later recorded in the apocrypha. In any case, the apocryphal text in question is the Protoevangelion of James, which fleshes out the early life of the Virgin, such that it outlines her ancestry—that she was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anna—and her nativity, entrance into the temple, and the Nativity of Christ in a cave instead of a manger.[6]

All of these themes appear, not just in the apocrypha, but in the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. So integral are they to it that of the twelve principal feasts in the liturgical calendar, four are dedicated to the Mother of God. These are: the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos on the 8th of September; the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos on the 21st of November; the Feast of the Annunciation of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on the 25th of March; and the Feast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on the 15th of August. The latter feast—which is observed with incredible piety and preceded by a fifteen day fast—has textual antecedents in the apocrypha of the early fifth century, including the Transitus Mariae, which describes the Virgin as having been resurrected by Christ after her death[7] (insofar as the Church’s Tradition is concerned, this is precisely what happened to her). In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Maurice’s decision to inaugurate the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the Great Church of Constantinople (Hagia Sophia) would resonate throughout Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium and would lead to the adoption of this feast by Rome under Pope Sergius I in the seventh century,[8] and thence throughout the Christian West.

A possible objection could be made—and has been made—by detractors at this point: that so much devotion to the Virgin could obscure the emphasis that should be placed on her Son and our God who—together with the Father and the Holy Spirit—is the only source of divine grace and of our salvation. But this objection can easily be answered by closer inspection at the manner in which the Church celebrates the Virgin, for she is always acclaimed in the Feast-days dedicated to her precisely because of her connection to Christ who has truly elevated her to the rank of the greatest intercessor between him and us. This is very clear from the Feast of the Annunciation, where—by the presence of the Holy Spirit and the overshadowing of God the Father—God the Son and Logos descends into her womb to fashion human flesh for himself, and in the Feast of her Dormition. In the icon for the latter, Christ comes to take Panagia’s soul to heaven before he resurrects her on the third day after her death, an inversion of the ‘Madonna with child’ motif.[9] But what about the Feasts of her Nativity and her Entrance into the Temple? Are they at all connected to Christ? The apolytikia or dismissal hymns for these feasts make clear their connection to God’s divine economy in our Lord Jesus. In regards to her Nativity:

“Your birth, Theotokos, has proclaimed joy to all the world, for from you has dawned the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God; he lifted the curse and gave us the blessing; he destroyed death and bestowed on us eternal life.”[10]

And, in relation to her Entrance into the Temple:

“Today is the prelude of God’s good pleasure, and the heralding of humanity’s salvation. In the temple of God the Virgin is clearly revealed, and she announces Christ in advance to all. To her let us cry out with mighty voice: Hail, O fulfilment of the Creator’s plan for us!”[11]

It is clear that in both of these Feasts, the Mother of God is not worshipped, but venerated because of her closeness to her Son; a closeness that abides forever. Saints in the Orthodox Church are venerated, and their icons too, not because of any inherent powers that they might have. They are venerated because, having struggled ascetically in love of Christ and their neighbour, the former has granted—according his will, purpose, and grace—to dwell in them and conform them to his likeness, even in this life. While we are all called to participate in Christ in such a way, for him to spiritually come and dwell in us if and when he chooses to, how much more does this pertain to the Mother of God within whom Christ dwelt both physically and spiritually; to the one who gave birth to him, raised him, watched him die and encountered him as her resurrected Lord and Saviour?

In other words, for the Church, Christ, his Father and the Spirit—i.e. the Trinitarian God—is the only source of salvation. Ten of its twelve major Feasts are explicitly dedicated to Christ, the pinnacle of which is Easter Sunday. Yet in order to demonstrate that God has really dwelt among us in the Virgin—to demonstrate that she is the archetype of the Christian life and that she constantly intercedes in our behalf to her Son whose ‘ear she has’—the Church has bracketed the ten Feasts of the Lord by two Feasts dedicated to the Panagia, which, since she is the Mother of God, are in fact dedicated to Christ also: the Feast of her Nativity on the 8th of September, just eight days after the beginning of the ecclesiastical New Year on September 1st, and on the 15th of August, her Dormition. As we read in the apolytikion of her Dormition:

“When you gave birth you kept your virginity, when you fell asleep you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. You passed into life, you who are the mother of life, who through your intercessions, redeem our souls from death.”[12]

This intercessory role of the Panagia is further demonstrated by the fact that in Orthodox churches she is often depicted on the left-hand side of the iconostasis or icon screen cradling her child, with Christ Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), or Master of All, on the right-hand side. She is also often depicted in the apses of traditional domed churches that usually include Christ Pantokrator within the dome representing the firmament which he, in its centre—and thus at the centre of the whole church-structure which is a microcosm—has mastery over. The appearance of the Mother of God in the apse immediately below the dome therefore represents her intercessions in our behalf. Here she is called “Wider than the Heavens” (Πλατυτέρα τῶν Οὐρανῶν / Platytera ton Ouranon), insofar as she contained in her womb the uncontainable One who is the creator of, and therefore circumscribes or contains, heaven and earth.

Moreover, in various services taking place within the ecclesial space, the Mother of God is entreated as first among the saintly intercessors to the Lord. So much so has she been honoured by the Lord and his mystical body, the Church, that in Matins, the Divine Liturgy and other services, we chant the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν (Axion Estin) or ‘Truly it is right’:

῾Truly it is right to call you blessed, Theotokos, ever-blessed and all-pure and the Mother of our God. More honourable than the Cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, who undefiled gave birth to God the Word, true Theotokos, we magnify you.῾[13]

The special veneration to the Mother of God is manifested especially in the veneration of icons depicting her: through bowing to them, kissing them, and crossing oneself in front of them, as well as lighting candles and burning incense before them. The incarnation of the Son of God as Christ Jesus, which he wrought through the Virgin, is perhaps best attested to in the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church: for the icons, made of material pigments, wood and other elements, are a testimony to the fact that the Son of God, in assuming human nature which is a microcosm, in fact sanctified all matter—cosmically—through his incarnation. We can therefore utilise matter in order to depict him; and we create and venerate icons insofar as they authentically depict—and, by God’s grace—participate in the persons they depict, whether in Christ or his saints. Moreover, since the icons represent Christ, who is God, and the saints who are imbued with God’s grace, then the Lord himself is venerated in each and every icon we kiss and pay homage too; much like the sacred relics of the saints that are imbued with God’s grace. The fact that the Lord and his saints (the latter by his grace) are at work through the icons is made clear by the countless testimonies of miraculous icons that have been venerated in the Church’s history. 

Many such icons are of the Theotokos. In Mount Athos, the peninsula in northeastern Greece which has been home to monasteries and the monastic life for over a thousand years, and is considered the Virgin’s ‘garden,’ there are many miracle-working icons of the Theotokos such as the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right,’ the Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα (the All-Holy of the Gate), and the Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα (the All-Holy of the Three Ηands).

From left to right: the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right,’ the Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα, or the All-Holy of the Gate, and the Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα, the All-Holy of the Three Ηands

These three icons are distinguished by the miracles associated with them. The Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right’ is a title given both to this icon and to a hymn written by Saint Cosmas the Hymnographer in the 700s, which initially began with the words, “More honourable than the Cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim.” In the 900s in a cell near the katholikon, or main church, of Karyes on Mount Athos, a monk was conducting a vigil to this icon when suddenly another monk appeared and prefaced St Cosmas’ hymn with the words “Truly it is right to call you blessed Theotokos, ever-blessed and all pure, and the Mother of our God.” The icon began to radiate light, and the anonymous monk who appeared was revealed to be the Archangel Gabriel, who left this hymn, forever connected to this icon, as a reminder of the Panagia’s importance in the Church. The icon can today be venerated in the katholikon at Karyes, and its Feast-day is 11th of June.

The Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα, or ‘All-Holy of the Gate,’ is attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist and has a distinctive feature: a gash appears on the face of the Virgin, inflicted by an iconoclastic soldier in Byzantium when the civilisation was plagued by the ‘breaking of the icons.’ After striking the icon, the face of the Panagia began to bleed as though it were made of flesh and blood. The icon miraculously made its way to Mount Athos and can be venerated at the Iviron monastery, where it is renowned for the many miracles it performs. In the 1600s a copy of the Iviron icon was made and sent to Russia, where it was placed in the Iverskaya chapel in Moscow and was also renowned for its miracles; but after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 the chapel was destroyed, and the icon remains lost. The Feast-day of the original icon is the 12th of February.

The Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα or ‘All-Holy of the Three Ηands’ is located at the Serbian monastery of Chilandari on Athos. It is connected with Saint John of Damascus, defender of the icons during the iconoclasm enacted by the Byzantine emperors (his writings in fact helped turned the tide, so that iconoclasm was abolished by the empress Saint Irene, and later empress-Saint Theodora). Accused as being an enemy of the Caliph, St John’s hand was severed, after which he placed it in front of this icon of the Panagia before falling asleep. When he awoke, his hand was fully restored through the intercession of the Virgin, and for a votive offering he placed a silver hand on the icon which makes the Virgin look like she has three hands, hence the name, ἡ Τριχερούσα. The Feast-day of the icon is the 28th of June.

Turning to other Orthodox lands, like Russia, the Mother of God is revered as protectress of various cities precisely through her miracle-working icons, including the city of Vladimir, which housed a special Byzantine icon—the Vladimirskaya Icon of the Mother of God—in the city’s cathedral of the Annunciation that can now be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In the 1100s this icon was sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Grand Duke of Kiev. Later it was taken to Vladimir, and finally Moscow, where, in 1395, it protected the city from Tamerlane’s invading army. In the late 1400s it was also accredited with protecting the Muscovites from the invading Tatars. The icon’s Feast-day is the 6th of July.

The Vladimirskaya Icon of the Mother of God

In St Petersburg, the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky worshipped at a church dedicated to this Vladimirskaya icon. Elsewhere in St Petersburg one can find a copy of the famous Kazanskaya icon, or the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, which was allegedly procured from Constantinople before the city fell and has been venerated as protectress of various Russian cities, including Kazan. The original icon is in the Epiphany cathedral at Yelokhovo, in Moscow, but there is a copy at another eponymous church, the Kazan cathedral, again in Moscow. The icon’s Feast-days are 21st of July and 4th of November (Julian calendar).

The Mother of God of Kazan

The Mother of God has of course been venerated as protectress of many cities throughout the world. Constantinople regarded the Virgin as its “Mighty Defender and Commander”—Τῇ ὑπερμάχῷ στρατηγῷ—based on the troparion or hymn that appears in the Akathist mentioned above,[14] and Athens in Greece was distinguished by its conversion of the Parthenon—originally dedicated to the goddess Athena—to Παναγία ἡ Ἀθηνιώτισσα, the All-Holy One of Athens.

Historically, there are also relics attributed to the Theotokos. Churches in the suburbs of Blachernae and Chalkoprateia, as well as the Hodegon Monastery were some of the earliest dedicated to her in Constantinople in the fifth century. All of these purportedly contained sacred relics associated with the Virgin: the Blachernae had her robe or funeral garb,[15] the Chalkoprateia, her girdle,[16] and the Hodegon the miraculous icon known as the Hodegitria (Παναγία ἡ Ὁδηγήτρια), or “She who leads the way.” By the end of the fifth century the emperor Leo I had built the shrine of the “Virgin of the Spring, later called the Zoodochos Pege [Ἡ Ζωοδόχος Πηγή]” or the Life-Giving Spring, above a spring on the outskirts of Constantinople—which has been a site renowned for the many miracles the Virgin has wrought there. Later churches such as that of the Theotokos Pammakaristos (Θεοτόκος ἡ Παμμακάριστος) or the All-Blessed God-bearer, the church of the Theotokos Kyriotissa (Θεοτόκος ἡ Κυριώτισσα) or Our Lady the God-bearer, and the church of St Mary of the Mongols (also known as Theotokos Panagiotissa or All-Holy God-bearer), point to the extent of her veneration in the Orthodox Church; a veneration which—as one can discern from the way she is referred to in these churches—was always associated with her Son and our God.

Finally, the role and place given to the Theotokos in Orthodox worship is confirmed by the fact that she has been encountered throughout the generations by saints and faithful within the Church. Stories abound: on Athos and elsewhere in Greece, in Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, America—she has been seen throughout the world by those whom God has accounted worthy to see her. But let me end by giving two, prominent examples, from different points in history, one from the early Church and one from early modernity, to drive home this point.

In the fourth century St Gregory of Nyssa wrote a hagiographical text On the Life and Wonders of Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory the Wonderworker. The Wonderworker was instructed both in the philosophical curriculum of late antiquity and Christianity, before moving to Pontus to become bishop of Neocaesarea. There he witnessed to the faith in Christ and performed many miracles before reposing in the Lord around AD 270. In the Nyssen’s life of the Wonderworker, he records that, after being made bishop of Neocaesarea, he yearned to penetrate deeper into the mystery of the Christian faith so that he might better instruct his flock. As he turned over these thoughts in his mind one night, St John the Theologian appeared, accompanied by the holy Theotokos. St Gregory immediately cast down his eyes, not being able to look at these figures who were illuminated by a radiating light. But he heard their conversation: the Mother of God asked St John to reveal to St Gregory the mystery of the faith, which he did so in the form of a creed.[17]

Next, we move to late eighteenth century Russia, to the town of Sarov in the region of Nizhny Novgorod. It was in this town that a young man named Prokhor became tonsured as the monk Seraphim in 1786, which led him on the path of extreme asceticism in his love for and pursuit of Christ. Falling ill with dropsy, Saint Seraphim was visited by the Mother of God, accompanied by Sts John and Peter; and as the young monk lay suffering in bed, she pointed to him and said, “He is of our race.”[18] She then healed him of his malady. These words she repeated to him a second time, many years later, after the saint was beaten mercilessly by bandits and left for dead. Once again accompanied by Sts John and Peter, she appeared at St Seraphim’s bedside, and referring to the doctors, exclaimed: “What of their efforts? He is of our race.”[19] He was to see her many more times—and he also saw her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ[20]—before reposing in the Lord in the 1833.

From these examples, we discern the Mother of God’s continuing activity in the Church in the service of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; an activity confirmed by this very truth: that she often visits the saints who are made worthy of her assistance. May the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary always intercede to her Son and our God for our salvation.

[1] The Akathist Hymn, ed. et al. George Karahalios (Northridge, CA: Narthex Press, 2008), 23.

[2] Ibid., 38, 39.

[3] Ibid., 23 (my translation).

[4] Apart from perhaps the allegorical representation of the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation chapter twelve.

[5] Tradition is also dynamic, engaging with aspects of various cultures in order to communicate the Gospel to them.

[6] The Protoevangelium of James 1–8, trans. Oscar Cullman, in New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson (Louisville, KE: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 426–29.

[7] Wolfgang A. Beinert, ‘The Relatives of Jesus,’ in New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1 (cit. above), 485.

[8] Miri Rubin, The Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 97.

[9] The ‘Madonna with child’ motif is a conventional term that can be used for icons (or any image) depicting the Mother of God holding the Christ-child.

[10] The Divine Liturgy of our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom, trans. Committee on the Translation of Liturgical Texts (Sydney: St Andrew’s Orthodox Press, 2005), 127.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] Ibid., 79.

[14] The Akathist Hymn, 21.

[15] The robe of the Virgin had been brought to Constantinople by two patricians from Palestine, and in 472 Emperor Leo I ordered it to be placed in a special reliquary and moved to the church of Blachernae. Holger A. Klein, ‘Sacred Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople,’ BYZAS 5 (2006): 77–99, esp. 87.

[16] Cecily Hennessey, ‘The Chapel of St Jacob at the Church of the Theotokos Chalkoprateia in Constantinople,’ in Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2, ed. Roger Matthews, John Curtis et al. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012), 351–66, esp. 352.

[17] Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, On the Life and Wonders of Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory the Wonderworker 4, in St. Gregory Thaumaturgus: Life and Works, trans. Michael Slusser (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 53-54.

[18] Irina Gorainov, The Message of Saint Seraphim [of Sarov]: “The Aim of Christian Life is Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (Oxford: Fairacres Publication, 1973), 3.

[19] Ibid., 5.

[20] Ibid., 3.