The high esteem in which the Mother of God has been held among Christians goes back to ancient times. But the dogmatic teaching concerning the veneration of the Theotokos was developed and defined gradually, as was the case with other dogmas.
The Orthodox Church teaches two dogmas about the Mother of God: concerning Her Ever-virginity and Her name of Birth-giver to God.
The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ from a Virgin is directly attested to by two Evangelists: Matthew and Luke. This fact was accepted by the Church as one of its basic teachings and was confirmed in the Creed, wherein we confess that the Lord Jesus Christ for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
Prayer before the Icon of the “Reigning” Mother of God
O most lauded Mother, helper of the world! Falling down before thine icon, “She Who Reigneth”, with fear, faith and love, we fervently beseech thee: Turn not thy face away from those who have recourse unto thee. O merciful Mother of the Light, entreat thy Son and our God, the sweetest Lord Jesus Christ, that He preserve our land in peace, that He grant our nation prosperity and deliver us from civil strife; that He strengthen our holy Orthodox Church and preserve it from unbelief, schism and heresies. For we have no other help than thee, O all-pure Virgin. Thou art the omnipotent aid of Christians before God, who dost mollify His righteous wrath. Deliver all who pray to thee with faith from falling into sin, from the assaults of evil men, from famine, sorrow and sickness. Grant us the spirit of contrition, humility of heart, purity of thought, the correction of our sinful life and the remission of our offenses; that, singing of thy mighty deeds with gratitude, we may be counted worthy of the heavenly kingdom, and that there, with all the saints, may glorify the most honorable and majestic name of God Who is glorified in Trinity: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The word ever means always, and we call the Mother of God Ever-virgin, as keeping Her virginity eternally. She was a Virgin before giving birth, She kept Her virginity during birth, having born Christ painlessly, and She has remained a pure Virgin after birth. The “brothers and sisters of Jesus” mentioned in the Gospel are considered by Church tradition to be the children of Joseph the Betrothed from his first marriage.
The term Ever-virgin was established by the Church conclusively in 588 A.D. at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The great Church Fathers – Ephraim the Syrian, Gregory the Theologian, Ambrose of Milan, John Damascene and others – laud the Mother of God as the purest and holiest of all mankind, having been cleansed by the Holy Spirit of all sinful impurity. But, at the same time, we must not forget that the Church does not consider Her to have been free from original sin, as was free from it the child born from Her, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The naming of the Holy Virgin Mary as Theotokos (i.e. Birth-giver to God) is first seen in the writings of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (4th century), although there is a basis for such a name even in the Scriptures. The righteous Elizabeth called Mary Mother of God, and she did this, being filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41-43).
By calling the Virgin Mary Theotokos, i.e. Birth-giver to God, the Church affirms its belief in the true incarnation of God the Word, the belief that in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ God became joined with man from the very moment of His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and that He, being supreme Man, is also supreme God. Thus, whoever does not believe the Virgin Mary to be a Birth-giver to God, also denies the union of divine and human natures in the Saviour, denies the incarnation of God – a basic dogma and principle of Christianity. It is precisely because God was truly joined with man that we can truly be joined with God.
Thus, from the first day of the foundation of the Church of Christ, the truth of God’s birth from the Virgin Mary has been an inherent part of the Orthodox faith, which has been confirmed many times by the testimony of the Holy Fathers. However, up to the fifth century heretics and false teachers did not cease their attempts to undermine this belief. The Church was especially shaken by the heresy of Nestorius, who blasphemously contended that it is impossible to give birth to God, and therefore the Virgin Mary should be called not Birth-giver to God, but Birth-giver to Christ. Nestorius was an archbishop of Constantinople, a leading church hierarch in Byzantium, close to the Emperor’s court. Everything seemed to be on his side. Nevertheless, the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, unanimously crushed this heresy. In 431, the name of Theotokos was triumphantly conferred upon the Mother of God as dogmatic by the Third Ecumenical Council, and became universal.
The Church has established many feasts in honor of the Theotokos, has consecrated many churches, venerates Her numerous miraculous icons. Most of the icons specifically glorify the Holy Virgin as Mother of God, for She is usually depicted with the Holy Child in Her hands. This is because these very icons and the depiction of God have become possible only because God has appeared to us in human flesh, and this flesh has been given to Him, has been woven for Him by the Holy Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary.
Promulgating the belief that the nearness of the Holy Virgin to God, which was revealed in Her Divine Motherhood, infinitely surpasses the nearness to Him of even the highest angels, the Church has eternalized this concept in a wondrous hymn written by Cosmas, Bishop of Maium: “More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, Thou who without corruption didst bear God the Word, the very Theotokos, Thee do we magnify.”
Twenty centuries have passed since the day when the Virgin Mary, carried in the hands of Her Son, was elevated to the Throne of God. And throughout these twenty centuries the glorification of the Mother of God has not lessened, nor has the wonderment of humanity before Her quiet holiness.
Before Her Dormition the Mother of God promised to visit the earth constantly and to take care of it. And how wondrously has this promise been kept! The blessed fool-for-Christ Andrew, while praying in a church full of people, raised his eyes to heaven and saw the Holy Theotokos, standing in the air over the multitude, cover all the people with Her veil and pray for everyone.
The same blessed Andrew was taken all over paradise by an angel, who showed him the different saints and their bright dwellings, yet Andrew did not see the Mother of God. Then he asked his guide: where is the Holy Virgin? “She is not here, – replied the angel. – She has departed for the tormented earth, in order to help those who suffer and comfort those who sorrow.”
Time has only increased the veneration of the Holy Virgin. To previous charities and miracles there are added ever-new charities and miracles. Each generation carefully transmits to the next generation the realization that in difficult moments there is Someone Who can be called upon in the high and faraway heaven, in order to bring it close and make it accessible to us.
Sometimes we do not dare appeal to God. Our sinfulness appears to us as a terrible barrier between Him and us. And it also happens at times that our soul is torn with inconsolable suffering, is close to blasphemy, our faith becomes shaken, and we feel that we cannot even pray to God. And in such moments of doubt, anguish, and grief, we find a wondrous Comforter in the Mother of God. We are definitely not afraid of Her! We know that She will never reject us, no matter how shameful the sins with which we come to Her. Even if we have never seen Her, we have this inner feeling that She always looks after us, always takes care of us.
An Orthodox Christian has complex feelings towards the Mother of God: there is fierce compassion for that humble Maiden, Who from the moment of Christ’s birth lived under the terrible prophecy of the torment that awaited Her: Yea, a sword shall pierce through Thy own soul; and there is awe before the height of suffering which Her soul attained at Golgotha; there is joy at the remembrance of the words with which Christ, from the height of the cross, affiliated Her to us in the person of the apostle John: Woman, behold Thy son!… and to John: Behold thy Mother; and, finally, there is tender rapture at the thought of the power and the shining eternal glory of the Queen of Heaven and earth.
She was a human being, born as we are, in a state of earthly limitations; yet how high was She raised through divine grace! Moslems and pagans have always known of the love and the faith the Christians have in the divine Maiden, and when the Heavenly Queen arose in defense of Her faithful children, they did not attempt to battle with Her, knowing that Mary’s power is invincible. Throughout the entire twenty centuries that have passed, there has not been a single moment on earth that a human soul did not cry out to the Mother of God.
Not through fear, nor by means of threats, but through love, only through love does the Mother of God lead men to Christ. She pities mankind with an all-forgiving compassion. She takes into Her hands even those to whom there is apparently no return to a life of virtue. Through Her miraculous icons the Holy Virgin manifests love and infinite mercy for the mankind that has been affiliated to Her from the cross. For us She is “the Joy of all who sorrow,” “the Mollifier of evil hearts,” “the Quick-to-hear,” “the Healer,” “the Seeker-out of the lost,” “the Comforter,” “the Surety of sinners,” and the many other names of Her holy icons, which indicate to us the great love and charity She has for us.
In accordance with the words of church prayers, and commemorating the great feast of Her Protection, let us appeal “to the ready and warm harbor, the quiet and quick Protection of the Holy Virgin.”
O Holy Theotokos, save us!
From the book Miraculous Icons of the Mother of God in Russian History