What does “Theotokos” mean?
In Eastern Orthodoxy, we call the Virgin Mary Theotokos. Translated from Greek, this word means “God-bearer,” or “Mother of God”. We ascribe this title to her in accordance with the rulings of the Third Ecumenical Council, because she did not simply bear the man Jesus Christ; she bore the incarnate God. How is this so? Because Jesus Christ was not only fully man, but also fully God. By bearing Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God [and thus also God Himself (John 1:1)], we give her the fitting title, Theotokos.
It is important to note that ascribing particular titles (like O Immaculate One; the Ladder which raised all from earth to grace; Uplifter of mankind; Downfall of demons; Crown of chastity; Door of hallowed Mystery; the Living Ark; the Burning Bush; etc.) to Mary does not equate to worshiping her as one might worship God. The titles given to her merely explain the true nature of Christ and protect His identity as the unique Theanthropos (God-Man). Any title she receives can only be understood in light of her Son and His saving activity.
So when we see a prayer like, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” this isn’t us literally asking her to exact salvation in our behalf. As Christians, we know and openly proclaim that only Christ can do so. However, we can also acknowledge, as Christians, that “save” doesn’t just have to refer to salvation.
Orthodox hymns and prayers “worshiping” Mary
Many Protestants will point to Orthodox hymns and prayers as their main source of concern with worship of the Virgin Mary. And to be fair, there are quite a few out there dedicated to her that, from an outsider’s perspective, might give that impression. For example:
“Then the Apostles, seeing thee, O Virgin, were filled with grace, and with exceeding great reverence, they all then sacredly worshiped thee and cried out with firm faith: O rejoice, thou who hast brought forth Great Mercy for the world…First Stichera of the After-Feast of the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos
How should we understand words like this in the hymns and prayers of the Church? All Christians, including the Orthodox, agree that absolute worship is given only to God, the Holy Trinity. But the central miracle of Christianity is that the Word became flesh; God became man, and made man God. He deified matter itself in assuming it, so that we worship the human nature of Christ that He took from the Virgin Mary together with His divine nature that He had from before eternity as God.
St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter” (On the Divine Images, p. 23). So if, as St. Peter says, the object of our life is to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), then all the Saints, including the Theotokos, have indeed become partakers of the divine nature. And so we worship God in them and through them.
Latreia vs. Proskynesis
Unfortunately, English is often lacking when it comes to communicating theological truths. Especially the difference between absolute worship of God and veneration of His creation (also referred to as relative worship). In the original Greek, the word for the latter appears in various forms of the noun προσκύνησις, proskynesis, which means to kneel or bow down before, and to show reverence and honor. This is the word we use for the veneration we give to icons and the relics of the Saints. It is also the word we use when we sing, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ,” and “For unto thee are due all glory, honor, and worship…,” and also, “Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master.”
This is not, however, the same word we use when referring to our worship and adoration of God. That word is λατρεία, latreia, which means to adore. For example, we find this word in the Doxastikon of the Aposticha for the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils: “Wherefore, following their divine doctrines and believing with assurance, we worship, in one Godhead, the Father, Son, and All-holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence.” We also see it in the Apolytikion of the Nativity of Christ, alongside verbal forms of proskynesis: “. . . for they that worshipped (latreia) the stars did learn therefrom to worship (proskynesis) thee, O Sun of justice…” So, instead of giving all their adoration to the stars, the wise men now came to worship and fall down before Christ Himself, the Son of God, the Sun of justice.
We worship (latreia) God alone
As we offer “worship” to the Theotokos, we do so knowing we offer proskynesis. We offer her honor and reverence as the Theotokos, in “relative worship”. Perhaps more importantly, we recognize that she is the one who brought forth Christ our Lord, the pre-eternal, uncreated, Incarnate Son of God, through the good will of our Father in heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this God, the Trinity, one in Essence, whom we worship and offer our inward form of adoration as latreia. Thus we stay true to our words and teachings, knowing that what we pray is what we believe.
In English, the two might seem identical; however, the language of the Church clearly differentiates them. And we must politely insist that those who critique Orthodoxy do the same.
Is prayer considered latreia or proskynesis?
The short answer is both, depending on the context. Prayer can be a form of worship, but not all prayer is worship. Prayer to the One True God is latreia, while prayer to any other Saint (intercessory or otherwise) is offered as proskynesis.
Praying to someone is categorically separate from worship of that someone. Therefore, a prayer or hymn being addressed directly to the Virgin Mary does not equate to worship (latreia) of her. When we see a prayer like, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” it isn’t us literally asking her (or any other Saint) to exact salvation in our behalf. We know and openly proclaim that only Christ can do so. We are simply using the phrase as another way of asking for her prayers, through her virtue as the bearer of God and the one who assented to allow Him to dwell in her womb.
What the Bible says about veneration of the Theotokos
Many people disagree with the Orthodox practice of venerating the Theotokos because the Bible does not explicitly tell us to do so. However, several passages from the New Testament do establish the foundation of this practice.
When Gabriel greeted Mary, he said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28). We repeat the very words of Gabriel when we sing hymns in praise of the Theotokos during services. Could we be wrong in repeating the words of the very messenger of God?
Additionally, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, considered it an honor to receive a visit from her. “But why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Elizabeth also cried out: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:41). In the course of her visit with Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin herself prophesied her place in the Faith when she said, “from henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1: 48).
Lastly, when Jesus saw His mother and the disciple John standing by the cross, He entrusted him with her care. He also established a new spiritual relationship between them in saying to the disciple: “Behold your Mother” (John 19:27). In making this statement, Christ makes the Theotokos the mother of His Disciples. In other words, the mother of all Christians. And what better way to show a mother you love her than to honor her for the role she played in your salvation?
For those who desire to find it, there is plenty of scriptural evidence to support the Orthodox practice of venerating the Theotokos.
Do the Orthodox believe in the Immaculate Conception?
In the Roman Catholic church, believers must subscribe to a dogma called the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which claims that the Theotokos was conceived without the stain of original sin. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never taught this dogma, as it finds no support in the history of the Church or in the writings of the Fathers.
In Orthodoxy, we maintain the approach of the early Fathers of the Church regarding sin, viewing it as a spiritual illness in need of healing, not as a condition of guilt requiring retribution. In the eyes of the Orthodox, the Immaculate Conception actually denigrates and demeans the true greatness of the Theotokos.
Why pray to Mary in the first place?
Many people ask why, as Orthodox Christians, we pray to the Virgin Mary when we could simply go straight to God with those prayers. In theory, we absolutely could do so. However, there is no requirement that we must; in fact, the opposite is true. We are encouraged to pray and offer intercessions for one another, which is the type of prayer we engage in with the Saints.
As we mentioned earlier, prayer can be a form of worship, but not all prayer constitutes worship. Intercessory prayer is a form of proskynesis, part of the reverence and honor the Theotokos and Saints receive as icons of Christ. Whenever we “pray to” a Saint, we are asking for their intercessions before the Lord, because we know that the prayers of the righteous have great power in their effects (James 5:16). And as His Mother, the Theotokos occupies a special place in the presence of her Son and our God. She, along with all the saints, resides in the presence of God now. They all remain alive in Christ, our brothers and sisters. Asking for their prayers not only gives us spiritual peace, but it also reminds us that we are all part of the Body of Christ.
Asking for Mary’s intercessions (and the prayers of other Saints) provides us a certain form of security in knowing our prayers will be answered. They may not be answered in the way we expect, or with the timing we would like. But they will be answered as God wills it. With this security, we can continue to worship our Lord and God even when we fear He does not hear us, or when we wonder whether He is even there at all.
Orthodox Christians do not worship Mary
Contrary to popular belief in Protestantism, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not worship the Virgin Mary. Rather, we hold her in high esteem and give her the honor and reverence she deserves as a role model for all Christians and as the bearer of God. Her position as the Theotokos gives her incredible influence. We surely honor her in our services with glorious titles and affirmations, but we would never think of her as the fourth Person of the Holy Trinity. Truly, our ultimate worship only goes to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in Essence, and undivided.