Veneration of Mary as the Mother of God
The life of the Church serves to nurture us in the faith. The Church’s traditions, such as prayers, services, feasts, and fasts are a means of allowing us to not just think about the faith, but to live it, and to allow it to have full expression in our lives. On a very deep level, this is the primary purpose in our veneration or devotional love of the Virgin Mary. As such, we do not merely believe in the event of the Annunciation as an isolated fact in the story of our salvation. We enter into the event itself through our participation in the traditions of the Church. Christianity is not the story of “things” that happened; it is the story of God acting in and through human beings to bring them into union with Him. Our acts of veneration, such as honoring icons, singing hymns, celebrating feasts, and offering prayers all serve this deeper purpose. The Annunciation, for example, is an event that takes place in the life of Mary. In our veneration of her and in our commemoration of that event, the Annunciation becomes present in us as well, just as she is present in our devotions.
It is useful to think for a minute about the meaning of veneration and devotion. Neither term is meant to have the meaning of “worship.” We offer worship (the honor and love due to our Creator) to God alone. However, He has given us people, events, and even objects that are worthy of honor and remembrance, as well as a measure of devotion. For example, in the Ten Commandments, we are told to worship God alone. We are also told to honor our father and our mother. This distinction applies to our veneration and devotion toward the saints, icons, crosses, and others in the life of the Church.
There is one unique word that describes our level of devotion to and honor of the Virgin Mary, which has become essential in the Church’s life of prayer and praise: that word is Theotokos. This Greek term means “the one who gave birth to God.” There is evidence of its use in the Church as early as the third century. It passed from the language of devotion into the language of dogmatic theology in the year 431 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus (the Third Ecumenical Council). The Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, had sought to forbid the use of the term, saying that we should instead call Mary, “Christotokos,” (“the one who gave birth to Christ”). For the Church, this was a denial of the unity of Christ’s person, as though He could somehow be separated into two. Though the title is a paradox (“how can a mere human being be the mother of God?”) it is the paradox of Christ as God-become-man. The argument over the word, “Theotokos,” was not about who Mary was, but about who Christ is. The term “Theotokos” was formally recognized and declared to be the proper title for her and continues to be used to this day. In the Orthodox Church in America, the title is usually left in its Greek form, Theotokos, rather than being translated. It is a name that those who are new to the Church learn with time.
It is in this intimate context of our salvation that a common phrase in the liturgy of the Church must be understood. We sing, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” In modern, Protestant theology, the word “save” has come to have a very restricted meaning to refer only to the narrow event of becoming a Christian (“have you been saved?”). This is an unfortunate bit of shorthand that distorts the larger meaning of an English word that has long been used in a different manner. “God save the King,” is the national anthem of Great Britain. And though there is no argument that God can “save” the King, the British are not offering a prayer for him to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior. Rather, “save” has the wider meaning of “protect,” “preserve,” or “help.” It has precisely that meaning in the Church’s prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” (“help us, protect us, preserve us,” etc.)
The Gospel of John has two stories that are deeply significant in understanding the place of the Theotokos in Christ’s work. The first of these is the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11). Mary and Jesus were among the guests. At the wedding feast, the wine ran out. We are told that Mary saw this and spoke to Christ about it. He says to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.” She then said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” The critical point turns on the fact that Christ’s ministry has yet to begin. If He acts, that ministry will not be stoppable. All that it entails of His suffering (and hers) will follow. Her direction to the servants does two things: it puts the final decision in Christ’s hands while making it clear that she herself is ready. It is a conversation of an intimate collaboration.
The second story is that of Mary at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25–27). Mary is standing with the disciple, John. Christ says to her, “Behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother.” We are told that John then took her to live with him. The Church has always seen in these words a reflection of Mary as the mother of the whole Church, represented in the disciple John. This moment at the Cross is also prophesied in the Gospel of Luke, where the Elder Simeon, when Christ was presented in the Temple as a baby, spoke to Mary regarding her child, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). Mary is more than a witness at the Cross: her own soul is pierced as well. What we see is that the communion with Christ that begins with the Annunciation is affirmed at the Wedding of Cana and continues throughout Christ’s ministry on earth.
The Scriptures contain other details concerning the Theotokos. We learn in both St. Matthew’s Gospel and St. Luke’s that she was a virgin, and that Christ’s conception was without a human father. Because Christ was “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” He was of the flesh of Mary just as He is of one essence with God the Father. Again, Mary is a participant in the incarnation, not just a vessel.