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Our Most Holy, Pure and Blessed Lady The Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary
“Mary’s life is a rule for all.”
The greatest of all women who lived throughout the course of human history and the preeminent of all the saints pleasing to God is the Virgin Mary. Her life is one that encapsulates the virtues of humility, chastity, service, devotion, obedience, prayer and love of God. Her holiness of life is truly an example to all who look upon her. She is a living witness to the fullness of faith in Christ that clearly demonstrates the reality of attaining sainthood. She, likewise, encourages us by showing us the possibility of humanity communing with holiness. One can say, without reproach, that she is the greatest of all beings created by God.
The Orthodox Church recognizes the lofty position of the Virgin Mary and its hymnography points this out.
“Truly you are worthy to be blessed, O Theotokos. You are the ever blessed one and all blameless one and the Mother of our God. You are honored more than the Cherubim and you have more glory when compared to the Seraphim. You without corruption did bear God the Logos. You are the Theotokos, you do we magnify.”
“In thee, O full of grace, all creation, both the company of angels and the race of men doth rejoice. O hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, boast of virgins: from thee God was incarnate and became a child, He, our God who existed before all ages; for He made thy womb a throne, and He made thee more spacious than the heavens…” – St. Basil the Great
In the Orthodox Church, the Virgin Mary is named the Theotokos. This word is in reality both a theological and ecclesiastical term that defines the person and nature of Jesus Christ and also the nature of humanity vis-à-vis God. It is a combination of the Greek word theos which means God and tokos which means birth-giver, for she actually did give birth to God. Jesus Christ, as God, existed before all ages together with His Father and the Holy Spirit but His divinity was given flesh by the Theotokos. This is how He entered into this world in order to usher in salvation.
However, let us not confuse ourselves concerning the taking on of flesh by God – i.e. the Incarnation. This event did not change the nature of the Divine. Jesus’ divinity did not change or become altered but instead the real and significant change occurred in the nature of humanity. In this case, it is proper to ask, how was the Theotokos affected by the Incarnation of Christ? The Holy Orthodox Church answers that as the Divine took on the flesh of His mother, the Theotokos was affected when she touched the Divine. More exactly, by carrying Christ in her womb, the Virgin Mary became deified or in other words she became sanctified and made holy as she united herself to God.
Indeed the Incarnation is a tremendous event. No one at that time had ever touched or even seen God (John 1:15 & 1 John 4:12.) Moses could not even bear to look upon the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-6). Yet the Theotokos remained, as the three holy youths, unharmed by touching the fire of the Godhead. (see Daniel Chapter 3)
The life of the Theotokos instructs us to freely seek out God, to have Him touch us and make our life a manifestation of His glory. We, too, are called to holiness and union with God.
Just as with the icon of Christ, the Orthodox Church assigns a place of honor to the Theotokos. She always occupies the second place of honor – after Christ – on the iconostasis. This is because, after God, she is afforded the greatest honor in the Church.
The Orthodox do not worship the Theotokos or any saint because they are not God. Worship is reserved for God alone. However, reverence and deep respect is extremely important. In an Orthodox Church, you will see the faithful bowing before icons and kissing them. The affection paid to these persons is an affection that passes to the true person depicted. If one kisses a photograph of a long-lost relative, we understand this affection passing beyond the picture. All too often a refusal to honor the Virgin Mary goes hand in hand with a heretical view of the person of Jesus Christ. The Theotokos, having been touched by the Holy Spirit prophesied about herself saying, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour… henceforth all generations shall call me blessed (Luke 1:46-47.) Inspired by the Holy Spirit the Orthodox remain faithful to these words and without hesitation call her blessed.
There is something quite important and tender about Orthodox iconography depicting the Theotokos. Look closely at this icon once more and see the positioning of each figure. Existing simultaneously there is a powerful display of the presence of God and also a humanizing aspect of the relationship between mother and child.
An icon of the Theotokos is never depicted in the Orthodox Church without the presence of God. Christ, in this icon, is the focal point of the scene. The Theotokos becomes, as the hymnography of the Church teaches, a throne fit for the Master. Here Christ sits enthroned in the arms of His mother. In Western religious art, there was a strange phenomenon that developed around the Renaissance period. An independent role emerged for the Madonna. Christ was transposed away from the center of these religious paintings. Slowly, the Virgin Mary was painted apart from Christ, even to the point of eliminating Him altogether. This solo expression of the Theotokos can not exist in Orthodoxy precisely because her person is dependent on Christ. The Orthodox Church would say there exists no Theotokos without Christ.
This beautiful icon of the Theotokos and the Christ-child also teaches us of the special relationship between God and man. Namely, that God limited Himself and took on our human flesh and our weaknesses. He lived as we did and He was tempted as we are. But He proved that the power of evil can be and will be overcome by the power of God. He has granted us power to overcome the morass of sin. We can become adopted Sons of the Most High. As His mother cared for Him in this life, He too will care for us in the Life which is to come.