The Birthgiver of God
The Orthodox Church teaches very clearly that the the Blessed Virgin Mary was the Theotokos, or God-bearer. Throughout the centuries, a number of heresies concerning the Mother of God came into existence that almost always masked a deeper Christological misunderstanding. Because of the historical importance of the Bearer (sometimes called "Mother", even though this is somewhat inaccurate) of God, her constant intercession and assistance over the centuries of the Church's history, and the various misunderstandings concerning her that non-Orthodox Christians have, this is a brief introduction of the Orthodox teaching on Mary, the Theotokos.
Why We Venerate the Theotokos: Her Role in Salvation History
Orthodox venerate the memory of the Mother of God in a way they cannot venerate the memory of any other human being. We refer to her in our prayers as "more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim". Any attempt to downplay our veneration of her or turn our veneration into some sort of familial relationship (both have been done, shamefully, in some books about Orthodoxy for non-Orthodox today) is dishonest. To give a ready answer, we must give one in truth, and if we resort to such cheap tactics in the hope of being "better understood", we are deceiving ourselves, and those to whom we speak.
The real reason why we venerate the Mother of God so much can be shown by a brief comment on certain events for the sake of examples.
The first miracle Christ performed (the wedding at Cana) was at the urging of his mother (Jn 2:3).
In the life of the holy mother Mary of Egypt, we find she was converted by venerating an image of the Theotokos.
On the feast of the "Protection of the Theotokos", we venerate the sudden appearance of the Theotokos over the Cathedral of Blachernae to protect the Church and city from pagan invaders. Terrified from the possibility of an attack, the people prayed in the Church, and the crowd saw the Theotokos appear over the Church, remove her head garment, and place it over the city. Shocked at the apparition, the invaders ran in terror.
In Church history, quite simply, Mary the Theotokos simply appears. *Everywhere*. When the holy ones succeed in ascetic endeavors, they are grateful to the Theotokos. When the heretics wish to attack Christ, they do so through his mother (Thus, in Nestorianism, which was a limited denial of Christ's Divine and Human natures, Mary became the "Christotokos" (Christ-bearer) as opposed to the "Theotokos"-- denying that God could really be born of woman.
In short, our veneration of the Theotokos is based as much on the Scriptures and the early teachings of the Church as it is on our own *real, personal experience*.
The pure and simple teaching of the Orthodox Church concerning the Theotokos is clear from both the Scriptures and the Fathers.
The Holy Mary Gave Birth to God
The Theotokos indeed gave birth to God, not to a human part of Christ, or anything of the sort. She did not bear Christ in the typical sense of being a normal mother, since God didn't come into existence through her. Thus, the Church chose the title for the Theotokos carefully. In the early centuries of the Church, heresies such as Nestorianism came into existence which taught that the Theotokos gave birth to Christ, not to God. The Fathers refuted this false teaching as a form of adoptionism.
Christ did not come into the world "in part": He came into His own, and His own did not receive Him. (John 1:11)
The Virginity of the Theotokos
The Theotokos gave birth to Christ as a virgin. The idea that Christ was conceived by anyone but the Holy Spirit is condemned outright by the Orthodox Church. The Scriptures are completely clear on this point. (Mt 1:18) The virgin birth is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Is 7:14 (Septuagint, Vulgate); and was one of the Scriptures changed by the scribes when they translated what is now known the Masoretic Text.
The birth of Christ occurred in a miraculous manner and mysteriously from Mary in her complete virginity, her birth canal unruptured.
St Ignatius, a disciple of St John the Apostle (1st -2nd century) writes:
Wherefore, also, he works in some that they should deny the cross, be ashamed of the passion, call the death an appearance, mutilate and explain away the birth of the Virgin, and calumniate the [human] nature itself as being abominable. He fights along with the Jews to a denial of the cross, and with the Gentiles to the calumniating of Mary. (Ep. Phillipians)
It is noteworthy that he refers to Mary as the "Virgin", thus implying that this was already a title commonly in use at the title.
In Pseudo-Africanus (3rd century), we find that the Blessed Theotokos herself claims both that God was the Father of Christ, and that she had no interest in the marital vow to the Persian sages:
And we came to that place then to which we were sent, and saw the mother and the child, the star indicating to us the royal babe. And we said to the mother: What art thou named, O renowned mother? And she says: Mary, masters. And we said to her: Whence art thou sprung? And she replies: From this district of the Bethlehemites. Then said we: Hast thou not had a husband? And she answers: I was only betrothed with a view to the marriage covenant, my thoughts being far removed from this. For I had no mind to come to this. And while I was giving very little concern to it, when a certain Sabbath dawned, and straightway at the rising of the sun, an angel appeared to me bringing me suddenly the glad tidings of a son. And in trouble I cried out, Be it not so to me, Lord, for I have not a husband. And he persuaded me to believe, that by the will of God I should have this son.(On the Incarnation)
The Theotokos remained a virgin until the end of her earthly life. This is commonly assumed to be false due to the fact that Christ is listed as having "brethren" in the Scriptures. The problems with this belief (increasingly common in our day) are that
1. The early Church never viewed the Theotokos as having other children
2. The Scriptures themselves betray a problem in such thinking
The first problem is that the text which refer to Christ as having siblings are unclear. "Brethren", in semitic usage does not need to mean sibling relations, but cousins and extended relations as well.
Saint Jerome (4th century) , the translator of the Vulgate from the original texts, thus refutes Helvidius:
Innumerable instances of the same kind are to be found in the sacred books. But, to be brief, I will return to the last of the four classes of brethren, those, namely, who are brethren by affection, and these again fall into two divisions, those of the spiritual and those of the general relationship. I say spiritual because all of us Christians are called brethren, as in the verse, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." And in another psalm the Saviour says, "I will declare thy name unto my brethren." And elsewhere,"Go unto my brethren and say to them." I say also general, because we are all children of one Father, there is a like bond of brotherhood between us all."Tell these who hate you," says the prophet, "ye are our brethren." And the Apostle writing to the Corinthians: "If any man that is named brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner: with such a one no, not to eat." I now ask to which class you consider the Lord's brethren in the Gospel must be assigned. They are brethren by nature, you say. But Scripture does not say so; it calls them neither sons of Mary, nor of Joseph. Shall we say they are brethren by race? But it is absurd to suppose that a few Jews were called His brethren when all Jews of the time might upon this principle have borne the title. Were they brethren by virtue of close intimacy and the union of heart and mind? If that were so, who were more truly His brethren than the apostles who received His private instruction and were called by Him His mother and His brethren? Again, if all men, as such, were His brethren, it would have been foolish to deliver a special message, "Behold, thy brethren seek thee," for all men alike were entitled to the name. The only alternative is to adopt the previous explanation and understand them to be called brethren in virtue of the bond of kindred, not of love and sympathy, nor by prerogative of race, nor yet by nature. Just as Lot was called Abraham's brother, and Jacob Laban's, just as the daughters of Zelophehad received a lot among their brethren, just as Abraham himself had to wife Sarah his sister, for he says,"She is indeed my sister, on the father's side, not on the mother's," that is to say, she was the daughter of his brother, not of his sister. Otherwise, what are we to say of Abraham, a just man, taking to wife the daughter of his own father? Scripture, in relating the history of the men of early times, does not outrage our ears by speaking of the enormity in express terms, but prefers to leave it to be inferred by the reader: and God afterwards gives to the prohibition the sanction of the law, and threatens, "He who takes his sister, born of his father, or of his mother, and beholds her nakedness, hath commited abomination, he shall be utterly destroyed. He hath uncovered his sister's nakedness, he shall bear his sin." (Against Helvidius, p.17)
But even if one were to apply only a literal translation of the Scriptures and ignore the historical teaching of the Church, Christ places his mother in the care of St John, which would have been against the law if he had brothers and sisters. (Jn 19: 26-27)
It is noteworthy that even the early reformers believed, even though they invented the theory of sola scriptura ("the Bible alone"), that the Theotokos was "ever-virgin" and referred to her as such.
The Theotokos, at the end of her life (her Dormition, or falling-asleep), was taken physically from this earth. We believe that the Theotokos was taken physically from the earth. The Bible itself does not mention what was the early end of the Theotokos (of the original Apostles, it actually only mentions what happens to James).
St John of Damascus (7th-8th c.) summarizes it as follows:
It was fitting that the she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death. It was fitting that she, who had carried the Creator as a child at her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles. It was fitting that the spouse, whom the Father had taken to himself, should live in the divine mansions. It was fitting that she, who had seen her Son upon the cross and who had thereby received into her heart the sword of sorrow which she had escaped when giving birth to him, should look upon him as he sits with the Father, It was fitting that God's Mother should possess what belongs to her Son, and that she should be honored by every creature as the Mother and as the handmaid of God.
The Orthodox communities in Palestine understood well what happened. At the end of her life, the holy Mary was directly taken up into heaven; this is why there is no Temple which holds her body, unlike the temples for the Apostles. It was understood as well established by the fourth century that she was taken directly into heaven. St John notes that Juvenal of Jerusalem (5th century) appealed to the Palestinian tradition as follows:
Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem at the Council of Chalcedon made known to the Emperor Marcian and [his Empress] Pulcharia, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles and that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to Heaven. (Homily on the Dormition)
Nor can we forget the witness of St Epiphanios of Cyprus, who also teaches from the Palestinian tradition in 390:
In that case she fell asleep in glory, and departed in purity and received the crown of her virginity. Or say she was slain with the sword according to Simeon's prophecy. There her glory is with the martyrs, and she through whom the Divine Light shone upon in the world is in the place of bliss with her sacred body. Or say she left this world without dying for God can do what He wills. Then she was simply transferred to eternal glory.
Placing this in context, even if one were to place this at the beginning of his life, this would mean there was only a few years of difference between the "sudden appearance" of this teaching-- and the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire (382). Thus, the teaching of the Dormition is something well understood by Orthodoxy as being part of the Apostolic Tradition, although the early Church was in an incredibly difficult position. Many early Christian doctrines had been abusively misinterpreted by the Empire to persecute the Christians (the worst being the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist placed under the charge of cannibalism.) This was one of many established Christian teachings barely alluded to in the early Church which were revealed and accepted by the whole Church publically as soon as it was safe to do so.
What Orthodox *Don't* Believe
The Theotokos was immaculate, but not "immaculately conceived". The Roman Catholic teaching on the Immaculate Conception (1854) taught that the Theotokos (not *Christ*, as many believe) was conceived without the stain of "original sin". Orthodox do not understand this juridical concept of "original sin" in terms of some sort of inbred predisposition towards sin, et cetera. The Holy Mary was tempted to sin, as all of us were. St John Chrysostom actually describes such a situation as that of the Theotokos as one that likely at times brought her to despair and pain, which are themselves sinful manifestations. The blessed Theotokos was a human. Not a super-human, not a divine human.
The Theotokos is not a "mediatrix" or "coredemptrix" of grace in any sense. Recently an email was sent from a Roman Catholic which was signed "in Jesus and Mary". This thought is terrifying to an Orthodox Christian, who is a right-believing Christian, not a "Marian" or "Christomarian". Christ is our Savior. We do not believe in going "through" the Holy Mary, "through" saints, "through" anyone but to Christ and to union with him. All people need salvation, and the Orthodox teaching on the Saints is that they died in a state of glorification. But what they are is not impossible for us. And they, being living human beings, can help us get there. In this sense, the Theotokos, as explained above, is extremely important to us. But she is still human.
The Orthodox teaching on the Mother of God is one of many teachings which is more than "simply Biblical". It is based on the living experience of the Church in Her earliest days and understanding. The Theotokos is not a stumbling block to the Bible-believing Christian, but a further evidence of the living and physically real presence on the Church, the Body of Christ on earth. Venerating Her memory and asking, as we do all the holy ones of God with us and with Him, her prayers and intercession, we invite you to join us in our constant supplication for her heavenly intercession.