The Veneration of the Mother of God

According to the Mind of the Orthodox Catholic Church

By Patriarch Sergius

The most characteristic feature of Church piety as differing from non-church piety, i. e. that of Protestantism or sectarianism, is undoubtedly the veneration of the Mother of God. Among the rich and many Orthodox Catholic Divine Services, it would be ind eed difficult to discover even a single ceremony in which there is no turning to the Theotokos, either in glorification of Her or with thanksgiving for Her intercession and help.

The veneration of the Mother of God has an incontestably sound basis in the tradition of the ancient universal Church. It is enough to remember that it was preserved in communities which separated themselves from the Church during the time of the Ecumenic al Councils, and, significantly, in communities, it would seem, which had no special interest in preserving this veneration, i. e. Nestorians, Monophysites, etc. There, of course, we see only the beginnings, or more accurately, the remains of a universal veneration of the Mother of God, not having received Final development in so far as the strength of the logic of the given heresies is concerned. But the fact that it was preserved, in spite of this logic, is even more significant.

True to her immemorial tradition the Orthodox Catholic Church finds difficulty, it would seem, in adequately praising the Mother of God and knows no bounds for her glorification. For our Church, the Mother of God is "higher than all the creatures of heave n and earth;" "more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim." In agreement with this, the intercession of the Virgin Mary also, surpasses the level of other intercessions (mediations) in significance and power. We s ing: "Abandon thou not me to human intercession (and such is the intercession of all the saints), but thyself protect and be merciful unto us." In the service for the Dormition of the Theotokos, (where the Church attains the climax in the glorification of the Mother of God), it plainly says: "Thy glory is Godlike in sublimity," i. e. resembling and comparable only to that of God.


The basis for such boundless magnification of the Mother of God for our Church is not merely, so to say, the outward, objective, service of the Mother of God for the salvation of mankind and is not only the fact that the Virgin Mary became the Mother of Go d in the flesh. Her moral perfection and inner worthiness together with the highest degree of holiness attainable by mankind through the action of the Grace of God, conformed with that highest of all services, namely, that of the Mother of God. Such is t he innermost meaning of the direction which the teachings of the Church have taken on the ever-virginity of the Theotokos.

Virginity, at the birth of the God-child, was a gift of God. Further in her life, the Virgin Mary placed this gift of God as her personal feat, and in this way, with the cooperation of the Grace of God, she attained higher perfection, having included hers elf in that luminous multitude of the especially elect of God, of whom is spoken in the fourteenth chapter of The Apocalypse.

The seer sees 144 thousand of the elect, surrounding the Lamb and following Him "wherever He goes" (14:4); they being the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb; they are "without fault before the throne of God" (14:5). "These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins" (14:4). Here, virginity is certainly not meant merely in the corporeal sense. Satan is not at all subject to carnal temptation; this does not make him a saint however. Here is understood a special singleness of the soul , a perfection fused with the Lord, in such a degree, that it does not allow any kind of desire, or any kind of union to stand between the soul and its beloved Lord. This kind of soul lives fully and always with the Lord and for Him. It is natural that s uch a soul becomes worthy and capable of acquiring exceptional revelations of God, inaccessible for others: "No man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand (14:3). Another solution for souls in such a state: "If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you" (John 15:7). In other words the doctrine of the ever-virginity of the Mother of God not only reveals the way in which she ascended to that height of perfect sanctity, but also provides a basis for our faith in the exceptional power of prayer to the Theotokos. It would be all too human to think that this power depends upon corporeal kinship. Even for people such a motive does not always have a basis. Without doubt the ki nship of souls should occupy the first place in our considerations: the whole-hearted, undivided devotion of the Theotokos to her Heavenly Son, as God and Creator of the Kingdom of God, the complete union of her destiny with the providence of that Kingdom. As being in the Son and guarding His eternal utterances within herself, the Mother of God dares ask of the Son and is granted her petitions.


The doctrine of the ever-virginity of the Mother of God is not accepted by all. Even many non-members of the Church, who together with us believe in the birth without seed of the Son of God from the Virgin, rebel against it. They usually quote the text i n the Gospels where mention is made of brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus and hasten to interpret these passages in the sense that here mention is not made of half-brothers and sisters of our Lord, i. e.: the children of Joseph by another wife, but nam ely of the children of the Mother of God. Therefore, once having become the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God, the Virgin Mary later lived the usual family life and even had children by Joseph. The Protestants see nothing incompatible in this thought wh ich is absolutely unacceptable and even sacrilegious to the Orthodox Catholic conscience. In fact, according to their opinion, with the removal of the Theotokos to the category of ordinary people, the exclusiveness and non-repetitiveness of the person of the very God-Man is emphasized, and also that He is, and remains the one and only Accomplisher of our salvation. Beside this, there is an unnecessary emphasis on the fact that family life is God-instituted and blessed, being directed against monastic incl inations. I remember having once heard an altogether negative but quite weak deliberation on the ever-virginity of the Theotokos, from the lips of one of the ordained representatives of Orthodox theological scholarship (now, long since dead). According t o his words, only one thing is essential and important for our faith, namely, that the Lord was born in the flesh from the Virgin Mary; whether or not she was an ever-virgin or later became a married woman and gave birth to children, is more or less unimpo rtant. With the rejection of the ever-virginity of Mary, our faith, it would seem, is unaffected.

Such reasoning reminds me of a story about the Finns. It seems that in some places in Finland the faithful refuse to consider Great Friday a day of fasting and sorrow and pass the day as a most joyous holiday with feasts and dances. "Christ's death gave us freedom from damnation and death. What is there for us to mourn?" If you wish, it is impossible to deny logical conformity to this reasoning. But we must not forget that the moral law in the Kingdom of God is just as immutable and all-determining as the logical laws in our thinking. Therefore the moral insolvency of any human thoughts on the Kingdom of God is not an any less certain indication of their falsity, than the logical non-solvency. This criterion immediately shows that our conscience is no t wrong in warning us against the above-mentioned reasoning: with an outward logical faithfulness to dogma, they conceal the roots of the corruption of Christianity within themselves, a crude egotism, interested only in satisfaction and indifferent to the price with which that satisfaction is secured. The same must be said concerning the reasoning related to the uselessness of or indifference toward the ever-virginity of the Mother of God, so far as our faith is concerned.

First of all, marriage as being divinely instituted is accepted by the Church with such certainty that it needs no new emphasis by mentioning the example of the Mother of God. Besides, this divine institution does not by any means change the character of marriage as a merely temporary institution, the significance of which is delineated by the limits of the present earthly life. In "the life of the world to come," according to the words of our Saviour, "they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but a re as the angels which are in heaven" (Mark 12:25). As the conclusion of everything, that future life (or the Kingdom of God) should serve as the final and highest goal for the aspirations of man, overcoming all earthly aims. Therefore particular instanc es are unavoidable, where, serving the Kingdom of God may require that an individual sacrifice his conjugal life. The Apostle Paul taught quite persistently of the permissibility of marriage for all. Very often he even considered marriage more profitable than celibacy for salvation (i. e.: for young widows, see I Timothy, Chapter V); but for himself, namely for the sake of his apostolic calling "lest we should hinder the Gospel of Christ" (I Cor 9:12), he chose the celibate life. For the same service to the Kingdom of God, the Forerunner also remained unmarried. Such a sacrifice is even more natural on the part of the Virgin Mary, who was called to a service, absolutely exclusive in its height and fullness of grace. After the Virgin Mary had accepted th is calling and became the Mother of the Son of God in the flesh, married life not only became psychologically unnatural for her, but also morally not permissible. In fact, our Church very insistently demands that parochial priests and deacons marry before ordination. At the same time, marriage after ordination is considered a transgression, punishable by unfrocking. It seems that in the first instance the individual ascends from something lower to something higher, and does not commit any infraction of t he moral progression. In the second instance, "having put his hand to the plough", accepting the service of the Kingdom of God, "he looks back", and turns to the ordering of his earthly affairs. He abandoned his first love (Apoc. 2:4) and therefore "is fit not for the Kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). Many would have been the "downfalls" of the Virgin Mary, if, after all that had happened to her, she would have become an ordinary married woman. She was not only chosen to be th e Mother of the Lord, but she willingly accepted this service upon herself ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."- Luke 1:38).

Concerning the Gospel mention of the brothers and sisters of Jesus (who, by the way, are not mentioned as the children of the Virgin Mary anywhere in the Gospels), we have a key to the understanding of such passages given to us by the Evangelist St. John w hen he relates how our Lord, hanging on the Cross, entrusted His mother to him, John, and him to her. Our Lord would have had no cause for devoting His attention to anxieties concerning His mother, if He were not her only Son and if her concern for Him di d not fill her soul without reserve. With the death of such a Son, the Mother of God was not only losing Him, but also the very meaning of her life. This is why she was in need of special care and was therefore entrusted to John, who was also a "virgin" (hardly because of him alone has this nomenclature been accepted in the Church), i. e.: also having unreservedly given his soul to the Lord. Let us suppose that Mary had other children, then, in the first place, her regard for her First-born would have be en different; and with the death of her First-born she would not have been left alone and without refuge: her children would have been her natural protectors. In fact, it would have been inconceivable that John should separate the Mother from her children and take her "unto his own home." Only the Ever-Virgin, "surpassing the purity of angels," as our Church sings, was in need of the solicitude of her Divine First-born and could be the object of that care even in that hour, when "all things were now accom plished" (John 19:28) .

Roman Catholics share with us an especially pious faith in prayer to the Mother of God and surround the Virgin Mary with no less glorification, but find that our very exceptional glorification of the Mother of God does not have enough basis in Orthodox doc trine. How can we describe the Theotokos as "most holy, all-pure, all-blameless" etc.; how can we consider her "surpassing the purity of angels," or even appropriate a "glory, God-like in sublimity" to her, and at the same time think that the Virgin Mary, together with all sinners, shares all the consequences of our origin in Adam through her birth. Roman Catholics would perfect this seeming imperfection by their teaching on the immaculate conception. In view of the absolutely exceptional preordination o f the Virgin Mary, she is excluded from the ordinary descendants of Adam; she appears to be a kind of new being, higher than man - a novel creation of God, especially created to be the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God. This is why the Virgin Mary surpas ses all creation by her sanctity and purity as well as by her glory.

We do not concern ourselves here with an analysis of this Roman Catholic doctrine. Let us limit ourselves to the observation, that in its final conclusion this teaching endangers the fundamental dogma of faith on the economy of our salvation through the t rue anthropomorphization of the Son of God. In the first place, it threatens to break the natural oneness existing between the God-Man and ourselves, and upon this oneness stands the whole economy. Secondly, an exception from the general law (of nature) is made in the case of the Virgin Mary: she receives purity as an attribute of her nature, and not as a gift of grace, presupposing the participation of her free discretion, as a moral feat on her part. If even such a single exception was found to be perm issible, if purity generally can be gotten aside from free will, then one asks, why not extend this exception to all the descendants of Adam. But then was the Incarnation of God the Logos absolutely necessary for our salvation?

Besides the dogmatic danger of the Roman Catholic teaching, it does not affirm and does not justify that glory, which is offered to the Mother of Cod in the Church, but rather, limits that glory and cautions against excessiveness. Innate, involuntary purity, as a ny perfection of nature by itself, does not have moral value, but the important thing is the perfection and purity of the being. The higher such purity and the greater astonishment it arouses in us, the greater is the danger of transgressing the legitimat e bounds and worshipping the creature instead of the Creator. For example, the glory of the Son of God even according to Arius, endlessly surpassed the glory of all creatures. However, considering the Son of God a creature, Arius could not call His glory "God-like in sublimity," even in a conditional sense, in order not to stop beyond the set boundary, or at least, not to give anyone reason for such transition. Undoubtedly, the Church would have experienced the same fears in regard to the glorification o f the Mother of God, perhaps even in greater degree, if the Virgin Mary had been elevated above mankind through a purity by nature. Accusations of pantheism, partly consisting of the pagan cult of the goddess-mother, which Protestants and free-thinkers di rect toward Roman Catholicism, are, if you please, not as far from the truth, as Roman Catholics would wish.


The Orthodox Catholic Church does not accept Roman Catholic teaching on the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and if she does call her conception immaculate, she does so, not in a special but only relative sense, which any other birth from devout pa rents can be so called through prayer on their part and the blessing of God - a birth which is characterized by an almost total lack of the supremacy of carnal passion. As the basis for the glorification of the Mother of God, true to the Word of God and e cumenical tradition our Church does not look to the conception or beginning of the earthly life of the Mother of God, but rather, in her assumption, in the culmination of her earthly life, when all Christians in general who have finished their course and have kept the faith , awaiting a crown of righteousness from the righteous Judge (II Tim 4:7-8). Having expressed her will to accept the service of God upon herself as the Virgin Mother of the Son of God with the words: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," the Virgin Mary remained faithful to that service until her last breath and throu gh the feat of ever-virginity (the spiritual content of which was explained earlier) she attained with the cooperation of the Grace of God, the utmost limits of sanctity possible for man and for created being in general. This self-assured attainment of sa nctity made the Virgin Mary worthy and capable of accepting that exceptional "crown of righteousness" which she was vouchsafed by the Judge-Son, and which permits her to continue serving as the Mother of God after death and "to save forever her inheritance ."

We speak of the Assumption or the taking of the Mother of God into Heaven bodily, which serves as the theme of the Orthodox Catholic Feast of the Repose or Falling-Asleep of the Mother of God on August 15. Translating this into concrete language, assumpti on simply means that after her corporeal death the Mother of God not only entered the life of the world to come by means of her eternal soul, but the flesh of the Mother of God having become similar in nature to the flesh of the Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, had already passed through that transformation of corruption into incorruption, which awaits the rest of ma nkind only after the general resurrection. "It is sown in corruption," says the Apostle, "it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body" (I Cor 15:42-44). And this is the re-creation of the fallen human nature - the goal and fruit of the coming of the Son of God into the world, His suffering, death, and resurrection. In the Mother of God the Church sees "a renewer of ment al creation" (Akathistos to the Most Holy Theotokos) i. e.: the beginner or originator within herself of the spiritual re-creation of mankind, the first example or instance of such a re-creation. In other words, the most desired expectations of Christiani ty have already factually found their first fulfillment in the Mother of God. In her example is the guarantee of our resurrection and re-creation. In this is the glory of the Mother of God and it is because of this that it is such a joy for faithful soul s to continually meditate reflectively and sing of that glory. Without a doubt this glory greatly exceeds the glory which Roman Catholics wish to offer the Mother of God with their teaching on the immaculate conception. Let us not forget that the re-crea tion of human nature is bound with its deification. The Lord Jesus Christ is thus called, "He that deified human flesh by assuming it" (Prayer before Communion), i. e.: human nature was taken on by Him with soul and flesh. Actually, not only the personal human nature of the God-Man is deified, all who have become one with Christ will also be partakers of the deification in soul and body. For instance, in the canon at Matins on Great Thursday, the Lord is represented as saying these words to His disciples: in the future age "I will be together with you, as God with gods" (Ode 4, troparion 3). Thus, our Church does not exaggerate in the least, but rather accurately characterizes the glory of the Mother of God, when in the Service for the Feast of the Dormition, she sings: "Thy glory is God-like in sublim ity."

The doctrine of the glorification of the corporal nature of the Mother of God after her repose seems unessential to many to the Faith, much as the teaching on the ever-virginity of Mary. This brings to mind the group that favored closer relations with the Old Catholics and which considered this doctrine as belonging to later tradition, unrelated to the teaching of the undivided Church, and therefore not compulsory for the Old Catholics. Let us allow that the details of the poetic relations of this mystery may belong to a later time. But the theme itself is so closely bound with the undisputed ecumenical extraordinary veneration of the Mother of God and is so necessary for comprehending this veneration, that even the very theme, the very doctrine of the assumption of the Mother of God contains undisputed ecumenical roots.

One Church , Vol. 4, No. 3, March 1950

The article first appeared in the No. 11-12 issue of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate in the year 1932. The translation is the work of the Rev. David Abramtsov and Peter Krochta.

Back to "Theology-Feasts and Saints of the Church" of Holy Trinity Cathedral's Home Page

Should you have any questions or comments please e-mail us!