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Mary, Mother of God--virgin and ever-virgin (parthenos and aeiparthenos).

Any study of the Mother of God must, naturally, be set within her role in the life of the church--in the history of God's salvation. She is central to the theology of the incarnation and the redemption. As Clement of Alexandria says: "There is only one Virgin Mary, and I delight in calling her the Church", (1) and "Mary ever-virgin"--tin agian ekklesian. (2)

This is very clearly expressed in Paul Evdokimov's words: "It is her humanity--her flesh--that becomes that of Christ: His Mother becomes 'consanguine' with Him, and she is the first to achieve the final end for which the world was created: 'the limits of the created and the uncreated' (St Gregory Palamas) (3), and by her, 'the Trinity is glorified' (St Cyril of Alexandria). (4) In giving birth to Christ, as the universal Eve, she gives birth for all, and therefore gives birth to Him, in every soul; this is why the whole Church 'rejoices in the Blessed Virgin' (St Ephrem the Syrian). (5) The church, in this way, is shown in its function of mystical motherhood, of continuous birth-giving, of perpetuated Theotokos." (6)

The Mother of God is, far beyond her historical existence as a Jewish maiden chosen by God for the incarnation of his Son, the vehicle of humanity, and the humanity itself, that gave flesh to Christ. As the Dogmatic in Tone Three (7) expresses it: "O inviolate one, thou didst bear in the flesh Him who was born motherless of the Father before all worlds." The virgin birth of Christ without a human father is, therefore, in a unique sense, divine intervention--there being, in some sense, divine intervention in every birth. In "natural birth", Kallistos of Dioklela said recently, "a new being" in this context: "Christ--God the Son--already had a father: the Father of whom He is the only-begotten Son. He needed a mother from whom to be born on earth." This leads us to a liturgical text that, when any Orthodox Christian begins to ponder on this subject, is never far away: hear one of the verses on "Lord, I have cried ... ", sung at Vespers on Christmas Eve:
 What shall we bring Thee, O Christ, who hast for our sakes appeared
 as a man upon earth? Every creature that Thou hast made offers Thee

 The angels, a hymn; the heavens a star;
 The Magi gifts; the shepherds their wonder;
 The earth a cave; the desert a manger;
 And we--we offer Thee a Virgin Mother.

The sense of her centrality is strongly expressed by Father Sergei Bulgakov when, summing up her place in our dogma and devotion, he says: love and veneration for the Virgin "is the soul of Orthodox piety, that which warms and animates its entire body. A faith in Christ which does not include the Virgin Birth and the veneration of His Mother is another faith, another Christianity, from that of the Orthodox Church", (8) and Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia further emphasizes the "wholeness" of her place: "Lex orandi, lex credendi: our understanding of Mary is for the most part to be found, not in formal definitions or in manuals of theology, but in the worshiping life of the people of God." (9) This is the personification of humanity's response to God's offer of salvation, and the Mother of God must therefore be close to the heart of our devotion, whether liturgical or private. Tradition has drawn on many sources to create the vast richness of liturgical texts, on which we draw to nourish and deepen our inner awareness of the events we commemorate. The Old and New Testaments, the apocryphal New Testament writings, interpreted and applied by the fathers, have all been poured into the selected readings, hymns and verses used.

The Old Testament

The richness and variety of images from the Old Testament used to symbolize and describe the Mother of God is vast. Specific readings for her feasts are taken from it, and the hymnology is full of it. Obviously, the "base" text from the Old Testament, quoted in the gospel record in intimate connection with the event of the birth of Christ, and fundamental to any study of Mary's virginity, is Isaiah 7:14, "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son". This is used on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, both as the reading assigned for the sixth hour on Christmas Eve and woven into texts for the feast: "Lo, the virgin, as it was said in days of old, has conceived in her womb and brought forth God made man while remaining still a virgin. Reconciled to God through her, let us sinners sing her praises, for she is in truth the Mother of God." (10)

Two particular readings are especially apposite to our theme: the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-8) and the Gate of the Temple (Ezekiel 43:27-44:4).

The first of these, the Burning Bush, is used at the Annunciation, as an additional reading to the three used for most of the feasts of the Mother of God. This image--the bush that burned but was not consumed--was early seen, and frequently used, as a symbol of Mary's virginity, having its place in the lectionary and also in liturgical texts: "... as the bush burned yet was not consumed, even so, as Virgin, didst thou bring forth while yet remaining as virgin" (11) "... rejoice, thou bush burned and not consumed ... rejoice, thou pure maiden who, knowing no man, gave birth to the Saviour of our souls". (12) In another text, the bush, the Virgin and we ourselves are brought together: "... She is the Bush, springing from barren ground and burning with the immaterial fire that cleanses and enlightens our souls". (13)

The second, the Gate of the Temple, is used as the second reading at vespers on most of the feasts of the Mother of God: her Nativity, Annunciation, Dormition and the Presentation ("Meeting"), and for the feasts of her Protection and her Icons. About this, Father Justin Popovic, entering into the heritage of those who interpreted this vision as symbolizing Mary's perpetual virginity, writes: "In a strange vision, the Lord revealed to the holy prophet Ezekiel enduring good tidings of a truth concerning the most holy Mother of God: her most pure virginity before and after the incarnation of God the Logos. Added to this is the revelation in a symbolic vision of the holy gate, through whom our Lord alone passed, and they then remained forever closed." (14) This, again, is widely used in liturgical texts on the feasts of the Mother of God: "... She is the only gateway of the Only-begotten Son of God, who passed through this gate, yet kept it closed ..."(15); "The Prophet spoke of the holy Virgin as the Gate through which none might pass, save our God alone. Through her did the Lord go, from her did the Most High come forth, yet left her still sealed, delivering our life from corruption." (16)--and many others.

Others images are used, such as Gideon's fleece (,Judges 6:36-40), on which the dew fell. This is beautifully echoed in the Christmas carol: "I sing of a Maiden that is Makeless":

"He came all so stille where His Mother was, As dew in Aprille that falleth on the grass."

The examples of such images are so prolific that it would take a separate study in itself to explore them fully.

The New Testament

The gospel record gives us two "words" and a canticle form the mouth of the Virgin Mother of God. These three give us, in microcosm, the whole of her role in the church, in the life of each of us. At the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), turned God-ward, she says: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." At the Marriage at Cana, (John 2:1-11), turned man-ward, she says "Whatsoever He saith unto you; do it." About herself, in the Magnificat, she says: "For behold, from henceforth, all generations shah call me blessed". This is real humility; a statement of fact, not from what she has done but from what God has done to her and in her. As a maiden, confronted with the mystery of the angel's message, her response to God is whole-hearted. As a mother, who has followed the growth to manhood of her Son, she turns to the servants, and the whole of mankind, with the teaching she has practised through the years. She gives voice to the church's response to her act of submission and love, in its veneration of her: "Most blessed art thou, O Virgin Mother of God, for through Him who became incarnate of thee, hell is held captive, Adam is raised and the curse is made void, Eve is set free, death is destroyed and we are given life. Therefore we cry aloud, saying: Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast willed that it be so: glory to Thee!" (17)

We have in the New Testament the texts that Tradition has produced, and that have nourished Tradition--the gospel record. Isaiah's prophecy of the Virgin birth, incorporated into the account St Matthew gives of the birth of Christ (Matt. 1:23) is read at matins on Christmas Day. This is used within the texts of the feast, (18) but the great richness of New Testament imagery around the cave, the shepherds and the angles, is far more prevalent.

This is not the case with the gospel account of the annunciation (Luke 1-26-38). The angel, the Virgin and the message dominate all the feast's texts. Were the gospel record to be lost, it could be reconstructed from the texts we have: "In the sixth month, the chief of the angelic hosts was sent to thee, pure Virgin, to declare unto thee the word of salvation and to greet thee, saying: 'Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee. Thou shalt bring forth a Son, begotten before the ages from the Father, and He shall save His people from their sins.'" (19) Some, as in this example, are virtually straightforward narrative, but others are already a meditation on the event: "Gabriel the Archangel was sent from heaven to announce to the Virgin the glad tidings of her conceiving; and coming to Nazareth he pondered in amazement on this wonder. 'O how shall he who dwelleth in the heights, whom none can comprehend, be born of a Virgin? How shall He whose throne is heaven and whose footstool is the earth be held in the womb of a woman? He upon whom the six-winged seraphim and the many-eyed cherubim cannot gaze has been pleased at a single word to be made flesh of this His creature. It is the Word of God who dwells within her. Why then do I stand here, and not say to the Maiden: Hail, O pure Virgin; hail, Bride unwedded; Hail, Mother of Life; blessed is the fruit of thy womb." (20) In Paul Evdokimov's words: "Only the free submission of holiness presents 'the objective human condition of the Incarnation' that allows the Word to come 'to His own', Grace does not violate, and never forces, the natural order, but brings it to its perfection. Jesus can take human flesh because mankind has, in Mary, given it to him; it is not, therefore, the Redemption in which the Virgin participates, but the incarnation; in the Virgin, all mankind says: 'Amen: come, O Lord.'" (21)

In these texts on the Annunciation, especially, we see a concrete example of Evagrius's definition of a theologian as a man of prayer, and a man of prayer as a theologian. Based on the gospel narrative, they are deeply interwoven with imagery that has grown from the ponderings of such men. Dogma and spirituality, theology and prayer, can never be rightly divided.

The question of the phrase "until she had brought forth her firstborn Son" is of importance in an examination of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God. St Basil the Great rejects the heretical teaching that Mary did not remain a virgin after giving birth: "... lovers of Christ refuse to accept such an exegesis, but hold that 'the Theotokos never ceased to be a virgin'" (22), and St John Chrysostom makes it clear that he considers "before they came together to mean "and not after". (23) In this century, we have a simple, clear commentary by Bishop Nikolai Velimitrovic in his "Homilies": "... Until she has borne her firstborn Son. It is, therefore, as clear as day that the Evangelist has no thought of saying that, after this birth, Joseph had carnal relations with Mary. That which was not so until she had borne her Son was not so afterwards, when she had borne Him. If we say of someone that during the celebration of the liturgy in church, he paid no attention to the priest's words, we do not mean that, after the service was over, he paid attention to them ... or" (quoting Theophylactus) "as Christ said: 'I am with you to the end of the world', does that mean that He will not be afterwards?" The word 'firstborn', therefore applies exclusively to the Lord Jesus (Ps. 89:27 etc.), who is the first among all kings and the first among His brethren (Rom. 8:29) ... If the word 'firstborn' were written with a capital letter, as a special title, there would be no doubt of its meaning. Or, if a comma were placed before the word 'firstborn', there would be no confusion. This is how it must be read: as though 'Firstborn' is a title: and she brought forth her Son, the Firstborn. The Lord Jesus is the Firstborn as the Creator of the new kingdom, as the New Adam." (24)

In the Orthodox calendar, the gospel reading for each Saturday evening at matins follows a rota of eleven selected passages. A group of three hymns depends on this pattern: the Exapostilarion (Hymn of Light), a hymn to the Mother of God that accompanies it and gospel verse sung later in matins. The Hymn to the Mother of God within this grouping provides a commentary on her role in the resurrection narratives, and in salvation. (25)

Apocryphal New-Testament Writings

The most important, for us, of these writings is the "Book of James", the apocryphal infancy gospel attributed to James "the Lord's brother" but written around the middle of the 2nd century from a variety of sources, including the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke. It was probably known to Justin Martyr (+ c.165) and Clement of Alexandria (+ c.215), and certainly was to Origen (+ c.254). It received, in the 16th century, the name "Protevangelium". The "Gospel of the Birth of Mary", to be found in Jerome, and apparently already having been in existence for a good time, has considerable importance. Orthodox liturgical hymnology draws very extensively on these sources, both in the liturgical texts for feasts of the Mother of God and in devotional writings.

The Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple (November 21st) is, not surprisingly, a vivid example of this, the feast itself having grown out of the tradition developed in both these sources. So we have in "The Gospel of Mary" the root of the feast's meaning: "And when three years were expired, and the time of her weaning complete, they brought the Virgin to the Temple of the Lord ...", (26) and in the feast: "David prophesied thee, O Undefiled, foretelling thine entry and thy consecration in the Temple. Keeping this feast today, the ends of the earth glorify thee, O far-famed Lady. Zacharias rejoices as he receives thee at thine entry this day into the Temple, thou Mother of the Word of life who, Virgin before childbirth, hast remained after childbirth Virgin ...", (27) and this theme is repeated endlessly in the hymns and verses. This text also includes a reference to Psalm 44/45:14.15: "... the virgins that be her fellows shah be brought unto Thee ...", and this leads to another image that we have in both the Protevangelium and the feast: "And when the child was three years old, Joachim said: 'let us invite the daughters of the Hebrews, who are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them be lighted...." (28), and "The young girls rejoice today, and with their lamps in hand they go in reverence before the spiritual Lamp, as she enters into the Holy of Holies ..." (29) One verse, by Leo the Master, richly interweaves the imagery of the Old Testament and apocryphal sources and patristic teaching on the Virgin: "A day of joy has dawned, and a feast worthy of all reverence. For today she who was Virgin before childbirth, and remained Virgin after bearing child, is offered in the Temple. The venerable Zacharias, father of the Forerunner, cried aloud, rejoicing: 'The expectation of those in affliction, herself holy, is come to the holy Temple, there to be consecrated as a dwelling-place of the Almighty.' Let Joachim the forefather be glad and let Anna rejoice exceedingly, for they have offered unto God, as a three-year-old victim for sacrifice, the Queen without blemish. Rejoice with them, O ye mothers; ye virgins, dance for joy, and ye barren be of good cheer. For the pre-ordained Queen has opened the Kingdom of Heaven unto us. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, ye peoples." (30)

The other feast that makes great use of the apocryphal writings is the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God (September 8th). Here material from both the Gospel of Mary and the Protevangelium is used, particularly concerning the experience of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, before her birth (the names of her parents being known to us from these texts): "The prayer and groaning of Joachim and Anna at their barrennesss ad childlessness have proved acceptable, and have come unto the ears of the Lord; and they have put forth a fruit that brings life to the world. The one offered his prayer in the wilderness, the other bore her reproach in the garden. But with joy the barren woman bears the Mother of God who sustains our life." (31) These come straight from the Protevangelium: Joachim, having had his offering refused by the priests because of his childlessness, "retired into the wilderness and fixed his tent there, and fasted forty days and forty nights, saying to himself: 'I will not go down either to eat or drink, till the Lord my God shah look down upon me, but prayer shall be my meat and drink", (32) and Anna, after the same distressing incident, "... went about three o'clock in the afternoon to walk in her garden. And she saw a laurel tree and sat under it, and prayed unto the Lord, saying: 'O God of my fathers, bless me and regard my prayer as Thou didst bless the womb of Sarah, and gavest her a son Isaac." (33)

The Fathers

St Paul having made virtually no reference to the Mother of God, we first come to St Ignatius of Antioch (+c.110) who, in his great emphasis on the reality of Mary's child-bearing, states that Mary's virginity and her childbirth were hidden from the prince of this world. (34) Half a century later, Justin Martyr (+c.165), with the zeal of a convert, discusses the Virgin birth (35) and the parallel between Eve and Mary. Irenaeus of Lyons (+c.202) takes up this second theme: "Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying: behold the handmaid of the Lord ... Eve, however, disobedient: for she did not obey, even though she was still a virgin." (36) In the Alexandrian School, Clement of Alexandria (+ 215) affirms Mary's virginity, but it is his pupil Origen (+ 253) who develops the themes of Mary's perpetual virginity: "Now Mary, after giving birth to the Saviour went to worship and stood in the place of the virgins. And when those who knew she had given birth were preventing her, Zacharias said to them that she was worthy of the place of the virgins, because she was a virgin ..." (37) and who was very probably the first to use the word Theotokos for the Mother of God.

By the 4th century, veneration of the Mother of God had become well-established. The feast of the "Meeting" (Purification) was celebrated in Jerusalem by the middle of the century, (38) in an atmosphere of popular liturgical veneration and the interest of preachers and theologians. Both Eusebius (39) and Alexander of Alexandria (40) write on her virginity. Now also, with Constantine's proclamation of tolerance towards Christians and the greatly-lessened likelihood of martyrdom, asceticism, and especially virginity, took its place. A document in Coptic, dating from the time of the Council of Nicaea (325), has been preserved among the Council papers: "A wise virgin resembles Mary. Who could name the beauty of the Mother of our Lord, who was loved by God because of her works? Therefore His beloved Son dwelt in her ... Mary is called the Mother of our Lord, and she is this in truth; she has borne Him who created her ... and she did not lose her virginity when she gave birth to our Saviour, but He preserved it like a precious treasure ... (41) Athanasius (+ c.373), in his defence of Christ's divinity against the Arians, uses vivid images of the Mother of God, including "ever-virgin" (42) and "Theotokos", (43) and we also have his "Letter to the Virgins", with its account of 4th-century virginity and its basing on the life of the Mother of God. This same thread is strongly alive today. Sitting in the shade of the church at Sretenje on the Little Serbian Holy Mountain, I remember a nun saying to me, with the greatest simplicity, twenty years ago: "Of course, the Mother of God was the first nun."

Of the Latin Fathers, Hilary of Poitiers (+367), the "Athanasius of the West", taught the perpetual virginity of Mary: "She was called the Mother of Christ because this she was; not the wife of Joseph, because this she was not". (44) Zeno of Verona (+ late 4th century) is unequivocal in his teaching of Mary's virginity before, during and after giving birth: "She was virgin after marriage, virgin after conception, virgin after her Son", "Mary conceived as an incorrupt virgin, after conception she brought forth as a virgin, after giving birth she remained a virgin". (45) Ephrem the Syrian (+c.373) stands by himself in the wonderful scope and imagery of his hymns. In them, virginity and glory are constantly interwoven: "In her virginity Eve clothed herself with leaves of ignominy. The Mother has clothed herself in her virginity with the garment of glory, which is sufficient for all...." (46) and: Mary "bore Christ in her virginal womb as the bush on Mount Horeb bore God in the flame". (47)

The three great Cappadocian fathers, Basil the Great (+379), Gregory of Nazianzus (+c.390) and Gregory of Nyssa, (+394) all teach Mary's perpetual virginity; Basil's "... the Theotokos never ceased to be a virgin" (48) is in the context of his discussion of Matthew 1:25; both the question of the phrase "until she had given birth ...", and the word "firstborn": Gregory of Nazianzus has few references, but they are clearly in the tradition. Gregory of Nyssa, in his "mystical" approach, made use of many Old Testament images, especially both Ezekiel's "Closed Gate" (49) and the "Burning Bush". Like Ephrem, Gregory applies the story to "the mystery of the Virgin. Far from her did the light of the Godhead shine on the life of man through the birth, and preserved incorrupt the kindled bush, because the flower of the virginity was not made to wither by the childbirth". (50)

Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (+403), made a great contribution to Mariology. In his struggles against various heresies, he reiterates and develops the teaching of many of the fathers, and adds this loving comment. "But Mary was aeiparthenos, ever-virgin; indeed, whoever has mentioned the name of Mary and not at once added 'the Virgin'"? (51)

Liturgical Texts

"The Mother of God and Mother of Light let us extol in song." (52)

We have already touched on many of the texts used in liturgical worship, though till now exclusively in the offices. The divine liturgy is at the very heart of Orthodox devotion and life, and the Mother of God is close to the heart of the divine liturgy. In litanies and hymns, she is constantly mentioned together with her Son.

At the end of every litany, before the Ascription to the Trinity, one prayer in commemoration of the Mother of God is always used: "Commemorating our most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, we commend ourselves and each other, and our whole life, unto Christ our God." In the first part of the liturgy, among the psalms and litanies, there is a "little confession of faith": "O Only-Begotten Son and Word of God, who art immortal and yet didst deign for our salvation to be incarnate of the holy Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary; who without change becamest man and wast crucified, O Christ our God, trampling down death; who art One of the Holy Trinity, glorified together with the Father and the Holy Spirit; save us!" Also, at every celebration of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, except on the great feasts (where another hymn to the Mother of God replaces it), the great "Hymn of Glorifying" of the Mother of God comes directly after the Eucharistic Canon, with the Words of Institution and the Epiclesis. After a commemoration of "our forefathers and fathers , patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and (...) all the spirits of the just made perfect, the celebrant continues: "Especially our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, Mary ever-virgin and Mother of God", and the hymn is sung: "It is very meet to bless thee who didst bring forth God, ever-blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God. More honourable than the cherubim, and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim, thou who, inviolate, didst bring forth God the Word, and art indeed Mother of God, thee do we magnify." The second part of this hymn is also sung at the end of most of the offices, before the blessing. At the blessing, during the commemoration of the saints, her name is in first place.

Although we have looked at many texts concerning the Mother of God that are used within the offices of the feasts, there are a great many that are an integral part of its daily and weekly structure. These are found in the "Octoechos" (the "Eight Tones"), which follows a rota of eight weeks and contains all the "ordinary" of the services for each day. In the Octoechos, the primary hymn to the Mother of God is the "Dogmatic Hymn", sung at Saturday vespers, when the new Tone is begun, and repeated at the following Friday vespers, at its "leave-taking". (53) As in the divine liturgy, each litany ends with the same "Commemorating our most pure ...". Every part of the office--the psalms and verses on "Lord, I have cried ...", the Aposticha, Troparion, Evlogitaria and so on, finish with a hymn to the Mother of God, and a special hymn, very like the western "angelus" is sung at the end of vespers at times of great feasting: "Hail, Mother of God and Virgin, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. For thou hast given birth to the Saviour of our souls."

Another greatly-loved semi-liturgical service is the "Akathist" or "Praises of the Mother of God". This was first part of the Feast of the Annunciaition, but was later split to form the feast and used on the Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent that is dedicated to the Mother of God. (54) The hymn is divided into twelve parts, each consisting of a Kontakion with its Ikos (the first of which is also found in its original place in the canon at matins on the Annunciation). The Kontakion and the first part of the Ikos are brief hymns, both narrative and devotional in character, but the Ikos then, each time, "explodes" into a succession of "Praises" of the Mother of God. The first six pairs narrate events from the Annunciation to the Presentation in the Temple, and the others, together with the "Praises", are devotional in character. Composed in the 6th or 7th centuries, the imagery is strongly reminiscent of St Ephrem the Syrian's poetry. This hymn is also used very frequently, and with great devotion, in the monasteries, often alternating with the "Akathist to the Most Sweet Jesus", being read on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings after vespers, as well as being read as part of the "Cell-rite" virtually every day and during work-times, with one voice reading aloud as the others work. This means that many monks and nuns know this hymn, with its rich and vivid imagery, virtually by heart. The refrain to each of the twelve "Ikos" gives the key to the whole hymn: "Hail, thou Bride unwedded!"

Private Devotion

Little can be added here, as the liturgical texts already quoted form a basis for those used in private prayer, to nourish and deepen the relationship with the Mother of God that is as natural as breathing. The interchange between liturgical prayer and private prayer are facets of the one "prayer", an interweaving of the one with the other that have the same source and end.

One other source is much used: a "Marian" form of the "Jesus Prayers": "Most holy Mother of God, save me a sinner", or "Most holy Mother of God, save us". The former is used in private prayer, and the latter in some places (55) as a corporate prayer, combining elements of liturgical and private prayer.

Naturally the prayers, like the use of icons, are a vehicle, a "way in", to the prayer itself, and each will find certain prayers that bring a closer awareness of the presence of the Mother of God who, as in the icons, is always pointing us to her Son.


The link between the Mother of God and her Son is seen as so close and fundamental to our faith that she is, in iconography, hardly ever portrayed with her Son. The Annunciation is, obviously, an exception, and there are a very few others, such as the icon of the Mother of God pierced by the sword prophesied by Symeon at the Lord's Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:45). Vladimir Lossky says, in the well-known book on The Meaning of Icons that he wrote with Leonid Ouspensky: "The Church has devoted to the Mother of God a cult of hyperdulia, exalting her above all the saints and all the celestial hierarchies. The place of the chosen Virgin is central in the history of salvation ... In fact, the Divine Providence, being conformable with the freedom of creatures, could not culminate in the Incarnation of the Son of God before the Holy Virgin has consented that 'the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations' (Col. 1:26) should be realized in her, rendering her the Mother of God." (56)

The perpetual virginity of the Mother of God is, almost without exception, symbolized in her icons by the three stars on her forehead and both shoulders--her virginity before, during and after her giving birth.

On entering an Orthodox church, the eye is caught by the iconostasis that separates the nave from the sanctuary--symbolically, earth from heaven. Here, to the right, stands the icon of Christ, flanked to the left by that of the Mother of God. As processional movements pass out from the left-hand door of the sanctuary, to enter it once again through the central (Royal) doors, they each time pass before the icon of the Mother of God, and so the symbolic journey from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven is essentially linked with the Mother of God bearing her Son.

As the Mother of God was concerned in almost every act of her Son's incarnate life, so she is present on the icons of the great feasts--the Nativity, the Meeting (Presentation), Pentecost--apart from those that are concerned especially with her--her Nativity, Annunciation and Dormition.

In medieval frescoes, the Protevangelium was greatly drawn-on for scenes of the Virgin's life, generally depicted in a frieze round the upper walls of the narthex. Here are seen the refusal of the gifts by the priests, Joachim's vigil in the wilderness, Anna's dream in the garden, their embrace, the birth of the Virgin, their caressing of her, and the entry of the Virgin into the temple. Especially fine examples of these, particularly of the "Nativity of the Virgin" and her "Presentation in the Temple", are to be found on the walls of the King's Church of the monastery of Studenica in Serbia.


We see, therefore, the rich interweaving of liturgy and spirituality that Tradition has handed down to us. That the Mother of God is virgin, we know. But, as Father Justin Popovic says, quoting St John Chrysostom: "We do not know how the Unconfined confined Himself in the Virgin's womb; how the Almighty dwelt in the Virgin's womb; how the Virgin gave birth and remained a virgin." (57)

It is a matter of faith. Although there has, at times, been microscopic examination of "ways and means", this has little in common with our thinking, speaking or writing about the Mother of God. This is a relationship and, as all other real relationships, depends more on instinct and on a communion not analyzed.

"Why art thou so filled with wonder, O Mary? Why art thou amazed at that which is come to pass in thee?" "Because I have given birth in time to the timeless Son, yet understand not how I have conceived Him. I have not known man: how than shall I bear a child? Who has ever seen a birth without seed? But, as it is written, 'where God so wills, the order of nature is overcome.' Christ is born of the Virgin in Bethlehem of Judea." (58)


In this study of Mary the Mother of God, Virgin and Ever-Virgin, the various sources are examined--the Old and New Testaments, the apocryphal New Testament writings, the fathers, liturgical texts, private devotion and icons. Of these, the liturgical texts (both from the divine liturgy and from the offices) are most extensively quoted, being the sources most richly interwoven with material from the others and those constantly drawn on by the worshiping believer.


"Dogmatic" Hymns to the Mother of God

Sung on "Lord, I have cried ..." at Saturday Vespers, and again at the "leave-taking" of the Tone of the Week, at Friday Vespers.

Tone One

Hymn to the Mother of God

Let us sing the praises of the glory of the world and gate of heaven who, born of man, gave birth to the Lord: the Virgin Mary; the song of the bodiless hosts and the adornment of the faithful. She is revealed as heaven and as the temple of the Godhead. She has broken down the middle wall of enmity and has brought peace, throwing open the Kingdom. Having thus, in her, the confirmation of our faith, we have, as our Defender, the Lord who was born of her. Be bold therefore, be bold, O ye people of God, for He, the Almighty, will vanquish your foes.

Tone Two

Hymn to the Mother of God

The shadow of the Law passed away at the coming of grace; for, as the bush burned yet was not consumed, even so, as Virgin, didst thou bring forth while yet remaining a virgin. In place of the pillar of fire, the Sun of righteousness appeared; in place of Moses--Christ, the salvation of our souls.

Tone Three

Hymn to the Mother of God

How can we not wonder at thy bearing God and man in One, O most pure one? For, knowing not man, O inviolate one, thou didst bear, fatherless in the flesh, Him who was born motherless of the Father before all worlds. Being born of thee, He suffered no change, confusion or division, but preserved intact the properties of both natures. Do thou, O Virgin Mother and Sovereign Lady, entreat Him to save the souls of those who, in the true Faith, confess thee to be the Mother of God.

Tone Four

Hymn to the Mother of God

The forefather of God, David the Prophet, spoke of thee in psalms concerning the great things done for thee: on thy right hand standeth the queen. For He hath made of thee the mother who has given us life, as from thee, fatherless, God was pleased to be born, to restore His image, corrupted by the passions; to take on His shoulders the lost sheep caught in the mountains, bringing it to the Father and, by His own will, to gather it to the heavenly host, and, O Mother of God, to save the world; Christ, who is great and bountiful in mercy.

Tone Five

Hymn to the Mother of God

The image of the bride unwedded was set forth of old in the Red Sea, for there, Moses parted the waters and here, Gabriel was the servant of the miracle. Then, Israel rode dry-shod through the deep; now, the Virgin gave birth without seed to Christ. The sea, after their passing, remained impassable; the Pure one, after the birth of Emmanuel, remained undefiled. Thou who art, now and forever, didst appear as man; O God, have mercy on us.

Tone Six

Hymn to the Mother of God

Who is there who would not bless thee, O holy Virgin; who is thee who would not sing thy most pure birth-giving? The only-begotten Son, shining forth from the eternal Father, came forth from thee, O pure One, ineffably incarnate. Being by nature God, He took human nature for our sakes; not in two divided persons, but in two distinct natures being known. Beseech thou Him, O most Pure and most blessed, that He will have mercy on our souls.

Tone Seven

Hymn to the Mother of God

Thou art acknowledged to be a mother passing nature, O Mother of God, remaining a virgin beyond reason and understanding. No tongue can declare the wonder of thy childbearing; for, as the conception was strange, O Pure One, so the manner of birth is beyond understanding. Wheresover God willeth, the order of nature is overturned. Wherefore, knowing thee to be the Mother of God, we all fervently beseech thee: Pray that our souls may be saved.

Tone Eight

Hymn to the Mother of God

The King of heaven appeared on earth in His love for mankind and came to dwell among men, taking flesh from a pure Virgin and thus incarnate, coming forth from her. He is the only Son, One in essence, though not in Person. Proclaiming Him to be indeed perfect God and perfect man, we confess Christ our God. Therefore beseech thou Him, O Mother unwedded, to have mercy on our souls.

(1) Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus I, Ch.6; P.G.8, 300.

(2) Clement of Alexandria, Homily IV; P.G.77, 996.

(3) Gregory Palamas, P.G.151, 472B.

(4) Cyril of Alexandria, P.G.77, 992.

(5) St Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn (in E. Ammann: Le dogme catholique dons les Peres de l'Eglise, p.21).

(6) Paul Evdokimov, L'Orthodoxie, p.151--my translation.

(7) Dogmatic Hymn, Tone Three--see Appendix.

(8) Sergei Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, London, 1935, p.137.

(9) Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, The Sanctity and Glory of the Mother of God: Orthodox Approaches, in Supplements to the "The Way", p.80.

(10) Matins of Christmas Day, Canticle Five of the Canon.

(11) Dogmatic Hymn, Tone Two--see Appendix.

(12) Tone Five, Matins, First Kathisma.

(13) Nativity of the Mother of God, Small Vespers, Doxology Verse on "Lord, I have cried ...".

(14) Jusin Popovic, Dogmatics Vol. II, p.235--my translation.

(15) Nativity of the Mother of God, Great Vespers, Fourth Verse on "Lord, I have cried ...".

(16) Nativity of the Mother of God, Ypakoe after Canticle Three of the Canon.

(17) Sunday Matins, Hymn to the Mother of God before the Great Doxology.

(18) See Note 10.

(19) Nativity of Christ, Small Vespers. Doxology Verse on "Lord, I have cried ..."

(20) Nativity of Christ, Great Vespers. Doxology Verse on "Lord, I have cried ..."

(21) Paul Evdokimov, L'Orthodoxie, p. 150--my translation.

(22) Basil the Great, PG 1468B.

(23) John Chrysostom: Homilies on Matthew.

(24) Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, Christmas I, pp. 20.21; see also Justin Popovic, Dogmatics II, p.236--both my translation.

(25) See the "Osmoglasnik" of St Mokranjac, in publication by the Matica Srpska, Novi Sad and the Musicological Institute of the Serbian Academy of Science and the Arts, with English translation.

(26) Gospel of Mary 4:1.

(27) The Entry of the Virgin into the Temple, Small Vespers, Fourth Verse on "Lord, I have cried ..."

(28) Protevangelium 7:3.

(29) The Entry of the Virgin into the Temple, Great Vespers, Fifth Verse on "Lord, I have cried ..."

(30) The Entry of the Virgin into the Temple, Lity, Fourth Verse.

(31) Nativity of the Mother of God, Matins. Ikos of the Kotakion.

(32) Protevangelium 1:6-7.

(33) Protevangelium 2:8-10.

(34) Ignatius to the Trallians.

(35) Justin Martyr, Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, chs. 43f., 67.

(36) Justin Martyr, Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, 100, 5.

(37) Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, 3, 22, 4.

(38) Origen, Commentariorum Series, 25 (GCS, vol.9, p,43, 5ft.).

(39) Eusebius, PG 24, 133D.

(40) Alexander of Alexandria, PG 18, 568C.

(41) In F.Haase, "Die koptischen Quellen zum Konzil von Nicaea", in Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums, 10, 4 (1920).

(42) Or. II, 70 (C.Arianos) (PG, 26 296B).

(43) Or. III, 14 (C.Arianos) and elsewhere.

(44) Hilary of Poitiers, Comment in Matthaeum, 1,3.

(45) Zeno of Verona, Tractatus in Ps. 118.

(46) Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on the Nativity of Christ, 17:4.

(47) Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on the Nativity of Christ, (ER 3, 604).

(48) Basil the Great, PG 1468B.

(49) Gregory of Nyssa, Testimonies Against the Jews.

(50) Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Mosis, 2, 12 (PG 44, 332D).

(51) Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion (The Medicine Box), 78,6.

(52) Matins, The introduction to the Magnificat.

(53) See Appendix.

(54) This can be found in The Lenten Triodion, translated by Mother Mary and Arehimandrite Kallistos Ware, Faber 1978, pp.422-437.

(55) For example, the Monastery of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex, England.

(56) V. Lossky & L. Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons.

(57) Justin Popovic, Dogmatics my translation

Mother Maria Rule is a Russian Orthodox nun of English origin. In 1982, Metropolitan Anthony sent Mother Maria to Serbia. What was meant to be a visit of several years lasted until 1993. During this period she participated in many dialogues and gave talks on the situation of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Since then she has written articles and translated many important theological books from Serbian into English.
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Author:Rule, Maria
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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