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The Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary is the Theotokos, the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God. She conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. She was cared for by her betrothed husband, Joseph, who took the child and his mother into his home as his own. One very strong tradition in the Orthodox Church holds that the birth of Jesus was also miraculous and left Mary's virginity intact as a sign; it is also the tradition of the Church that Joseph and Mary did not have relations after the birth of Jesus. She is also called Panagia, the "All-Holy," indicating her closeness to God in her obedience.

The title Theotokos (in Greek, Θεοτόκος) is a Greek word that means "God-bearer" or "Birth-giver to God."

Feast days

The Orthodox Church remembers the life of the Theotokos with several feast days. The Liturgical year begins and ends with the feast days of the Theotokos. wonder working Icons of the Theotokos also have their own feast days.

1. The Nativity of the Theotokos is celebrated on September 8.
2. The Presentation of the Theotokos into the Temple is celebrated on November 21.
3. The Annunciation to the Theotokos is celebrated on March 25.
4. The Dormition of the Theotokos (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos is celebrated on August 15.

Of these, the Annunciation and the Dormition are the most festal.

The title Theotokos

1. Adoption at the Third Ecumenical Council

As a title for the Virgin Mary, Theotokos was recognized by the Orthodox Church at Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431. It had already been in use for some time in the devotional and liturgical life of the Church. The theological significance of the title is to emphasize that Mary's son, Jesus, is fully God, as well as fully human, and that Jesus' two natures (divine and human) were united in a single Person of the Trinity. The competing view at that council was that Mary should be called Christotokos instead, meaning "Birth-giver to Christ." This was the view advocated by Nestorius, then Patriarch of Constantinople. The intent behind calling her Christotokos was to restrict her role to be only the mother of "Christ's humanity" and not his divine nature.

Nestorius' view was anathematized by the Council as heresy, (see Nestorianism), since it was considered to be dividing Jesus into two distinct persons, one who was Son of Mary, and another, the divine nature, who was not. It was defined that although Jesus has two natures, human and divine, these are eternally united in one personhood. Because Mary is the mother of God the Son, she is therefore duly entitled Theotokos.

Calling Mary the Theotokos or the Mother of God (Μητηρ Θεου) was never meant to suggest that Mary was coeternal with God, or that she existed before Jesus Christ or God existed. The Church acknowledges the mystery in the words of this ancient hymn: "He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos."

The title "Theotokos" continues to be used frequently in the hymns of the Orthodox Church.

2. Translating the word Theotokos

While some languages used by various Orthodox churches often have a single native word for Theotokos, it gets translated into English in a number of ways. The most common is Mother of God, though God-bearer and Birth-giver to God are also fairly common. There are difficulties with all these translations, however. The most literally correct one is Birth-giver to God, though God-bearer comes close. Theophoros (Θεοφορος) is the Greek term usually and more correctly translated as God-bearer, so using God-bearer for Theotokos in some sense "orphans" Theophoros when it comes time to translate that term (for St. Ignatius of Antioch, for instance). The main difficulties with both these translations for Theotokos is that they are a bit awkward and difficult to sing.

The most popular translation, Mother of God, is accurate to a point, but has the difficulty that Mother of God is the literal translation of another Greek phrase which is found on nearly all icons of the Theotokos: Μητηρ Θεου (Meter Theou), usually in the standard iconographic abbreviation of ΜΡ ΘΥ. A second problem withMother of God is that it is less precise than Theotokos since it can be misinterpreted as stating Mary is Mother of God from eternity, whereas Theotokos is more specific, limiting Mary's divine maternity to the Incarnation. Additionally, a number of hymns employ both Theotokos and Meter Theou—translating both as Mother of God can yield some rather nonsensical language, and it destroys the distinction that the hymnographer intended.

The usage that seems to be dominant in English-speaking Orthodox churches in North America is to adopt the original term itself into English (something English speakers have traditionally done with foreign words almost since the earliest known history of the language), transliterating it simply as Theotokos (or, occasionally, Theotocos). British usage gives preference to translating Theotokos as Mother of God.

Full title of Mary

The title Our All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary (Greek: Τῆς Παναγίας, ἀχράντου, ὑπερευλογημένης, ἐνδόξου, δεσποίνης ἡμῶν Θεοτόκου καὶ ἀειπαρθένου Μαρίας)[1] is often used in Orthodox services when Mary is mentioned.

1. All-holy
The title Panagia (all-holy) never was a subject of dogmatic definition, but it is accepted and used by all Orthodox. This is because she is the supreme example of cooperation between God and the free will of man. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Sometimes Mary is called the New Eve because her obedient submission to the will of God offset Eve's disobedience in Paradise.
2. Immaculate
The Orthodox Church calls Mary "immaculate," "pure," or "spotless" (achrantos in Greek).
As for original sin and the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox Church have rejected the doctrine, for it separates Mary from the rest of mankind, putting her in a completely different class from all the other righteous men and women of the Old Testament. It is important that Mary was the same as all mankind so that all Christians can follow her example and submit to God's will. Mary was born a sinner, a human with full human nature. Mary’s Son, Jesus the Christ, took flesh from her. So as Son of God, He assumed fallen human nature from her and redeemed humanity by His Crucifixion and Resurrection. Also, the original doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (1869) implies an understanding of original sin not held by the Orthodox Church.
3. Most blessed and glorified Lady
The Orthodox Church honors the Mother of God on account of the Son. St. Cyril of Alexandria, along with the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus, insisted on calling Mary "Theotokos" not just to glorify her, but to safeguard a right doctrine of Christ's person, the Incarnation. Orthodox Christians feel that one cannot really believe in the Incarnation and not honor Mary.
4. the Theotokos
See above. This is often translated as "the Mother of God."
5. ever Virgin Mary
See below. The Orthodox Church honors Mary as "ever Virgin." In iconography, her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ is represented by three stars on her shoulders and forehead.[2]


One of the more puzzling traditions regarding the Theotokos for modern Christians is the teaching that she is Ever-Virgin, that is, that she remained a virgin before, during, and eternally after the birth of Jesus Christ.

That the Holy Virgin Mary is Ever-Virgin (Aeiparthenos) is not to elevate her to some special status or to incite us to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Rather, it is an affirmation of who Christ Jesus is. Because He has chosen her to be his mother, to conceive Him, to give flesh to Him, to give birth to Him, we understand her as a finite dwelling place of the infinite God. Thus, because she is in this sense this new Holy of Holies, her ever-virginity is a natural characteristic of such an awesome reality.

The whole tradition of the Orthodox Christian Church has always held her to be in truth Ever-Virgin,[3][4] knowing her personally from the beginning and then passing the truths on from one generation to the next, never expanding nor subtracting from what was known in the beginning. Except for a few instances here and there in history, never have Christians regarded her in any other fashion until relatively late in the Protestant traditions. There are many testimonies to her ever-virginity, so let's consider a few:

Testimony from Scripture

The principal understanding of the Virgin Mary as Ever-Virgin in Scripture is expressed in terms of her being a new Ark of the Covenant, a created thing which somehow contained the uncontainable God. The reason that St. Joseph the Betrothed (as tradition names him) did not enter into marital relations with her is that he understood her as one would understand the Ark, that she had been set aside for use by God, and that her womb had in some sense been made into a temple. The language used for the Virgin in the New Testament parallels that used for the Ark in the Old:

From a Roman Catholic source:[5]

For the first time God's presence has descended upon a person as the new ark of the Covenant. . . . Rene Laurentin speaks of the subtle use of ark imagery [early in Luke]. For instance, he shows how in II Samuel 6, there was a journey to the hill country of Judah that the ark of the covenant took. Likewise, the same phrase is used to describe Mary's journey to the hill country. . . . Both David and Mary "arose and made the journey." In II Samuel 6:2 and Luke 1:39. Laurent goes on to describe how when the Ark arrived and when Mary arrived, they were both greeted with "shouts of joy." And the word for shout or the word for Elizabeth's greeting, anafametezein, is very rare. It's only used in connection with the OT liturgical ceremonies that were centered around the Ark. It literally means to "cry aloud, to proclaim or intone."
Elizabeth greets Mary the same way the Ark of the Covenant was greeted. The entrance of the Ark and the entrance of Mary are seen then as blessing an entire household. Like Obededom's household was blessed, so Elizabeth sees her household as blessed. Laurentin goes on to talk about how both David and Elizabeth react with awe. "How shall the Ark of the Lord come to me?" David says in II Samuel 6:9. And likewise Elizabeth says, "Why should the mother of the Lord come to me?" The Ark of the Covenant and the Mother of our Lord are in a sense two ways of looking at the same reality which is becoming clearer and more personal with Our Lady. Then finally, the Ark of the Covenant and Mary both remain in the respective houses for three months, II Samuel 6:11 and Luke 1:56.
In Luke 1 and 2 we have the annunciation of Gabriel to Zachariah and six months later the annunciation by Gabriel to Mary, then nine months later Jesus is born, and thirty days later He is presented in the temple. You add up 180 days in the six months, 270 days in the nine months, and the 40 days in the presentation and it adds up to 490, which is a very rare number that is found in one of the most memorable prophecies in the OT, Daniel 9. . . . Luke is once again giving a surplus value, a surplus meaning to those who are really willing to dig deep into the text to see all of the inspired meanings behind what God has done to inaugurate the New Covenant salvation in Christ and in His Blessed Mother.
This is the Ark of the Covenant. Now let's go back and conclude our time in Revelation 11 and 12. We have Mary the Ark of the Covenant. We have Mary the true tabernacle. We have in Mary a figure for the New Jerusalem because at the end of Revelation, how is the New Jerusalem described? As being a bride that is pure and yet also being a mother of God's children Well, how is it that you could be at the same time virginally pure and maternally fruitful? It seems impossible in human nature, but not for Mary, not only in mothering Jesus, but in John 19 at the cross and also in Revelation 12 where we read at the very end of the chapter, verse 17, we discover that Mary becomes by grace the mother of all God's children.

How is it that our Lord would have brothers? Many look at the story of Ss. Mary and Joseph and see a young couple about to embark on their married life together, but Church tradition holds differently. St. Joseph was a much older man, a widower, and had children by his previous marriage, thus his sons were in some sense Christ's step-brothers, and their being older than Jesus can also account for some of the way he is treated by them as being the baby of the family, somewhat out of his mind. Joseph takes in Mary as something like his ward, because in leaving her life as a Temple virgin, she could not go out into the world alone (cf. Protevangelion of James). That is why Joseph, a righteous, respected man, was chosen to take her in. His being much older than she also accounts for the notion that they should have had relations—she had already dedicated herself to a life of virginity, whereas he was a much older man who had already had his children and whose wife had died. Another possible understanding is that these "brothers" of our Lord were his cousins—St. Jerome holds this view, that these were the children of St. Joseph's brother Cleopas, who had died and left his children and widow in Joseph's care, according to Jewish custom.

Additionally, both the Hebrew and Greek terms for "brother" are often used to refer to relatives who are not necessarily what we in English would term "brothers," i.e., perhaps a cousin or an uncle, or some other relative. For example, Abraham and Lot are called adelphoi in Gen. 14:14 in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT used by the Apostles), though they are certainly not what we would call "brothers." Jacob and Laban are also called "brothers" (Gen. 29:15), though Laban would have been Jacob's uncle. In any event, the words do not mean the precise thing that the modern English "brother" does.

Beyond that, it is nowhere to be found in Scripture that any man other than the God-man Jesus Christ is called the child of Mary.

Some would cite the use of the "until" in Scripture ("...and he knew her not until (Greek eos) her having brought forth her firstborn son..." (Matthew 1:25; Luke 2:7)) to indicate that after she gave birth to the God-man, that St. Joseph then "knew" her maritally. Again, this is a translation problem.

From this webpage:

This verse seems to be often translated as "he knew her not until after..." This is not, however, what is meant. The Greek original, eos, indicates the true meaning, of "he had no sexual relations with her prior to her giving birth." The Evangelist makes this statement in order to assure us that Joseph had no part in the conception of Jesus. The term eos ou does not require the understanding that he had relations with her after Christ was born. It merely indicates that, as regards the birth of Jesus, Joseph had not had relations with Mary prior to the birth, thus, he was not the father of Jesus. This is merely a usual turn of phrase, the use of a standard and familiar form of expression. This same term and meaning is used elsewhere in the Bible as a standard expression, and it clearly does not indicate what the heterodox (non-Orthodox) claim it does. At 2 Samuel 6:23, for instance, we read, "And Milchal, the daughter of Saul, had no child until [eos] her death. Did she, then, have children after her death? Of course not!, and neither did Joseph "know" Mary after the birth of Jesus. At Genesis 8:7, we read that Noah "sent forth a raven; and it went forth and did not return till [eos] after the water had gone from off the face of the earth." We know from Scripture that in fact, the raven never returned to the ark. It says that it did not return "until after," but in fact, it never returned at all. The Scripture says that "Joseph knew her not till after...", but in fact, he never "knew" her at all. In another example, the Bible says, 'The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until [eos] I make Thine enemies Thy footstool" (Mark 12:36). Does this mean that Christ will cease to sit at the right hand of the glory of the Father once His enemies have been overcome? Of course not! Hence, the Bible does not say that "Joseph knew her not until after she brought forth her first born, but then he did." The Bible says, "He did not know her before (up until) she had brought forth her firstborn," meaning simply and clearly, "Joseph was not the father. He had not come together with her before her pregnancy, thus he was not involved in the conception of Jesus."

Another testimony from Scripture is that on the cross, our Lord gave his holy mother into the care of the Apostle John (John 19:26). This might seem a merely practical thing to do, but if we recall the Mosaic Law would have dictated that she be given into the care of other natural children, since her firstborn son was dying. Christ, who kept the Law perfectly, would not have violated it in any detail, and so when he gave his mother to the apostle to look after, he did so only because she had no other children who could take her in, St. Joseph having long since passed away.

Testimony from the ancient Church

The Church continued to call the Theotokos the "Virgin" even after the time when she supposedly would have had other children, as some say. It would be a rather odd thing to keep calling a woman "the Virgin" and even "Ever-Virgin" when one was standing next to her other offspring in Church.

Additionally, throughout the earliest liturgies of the Church, she is continually called "Ever-Virgin." One can also find references to her ever-virginity in the Fathers' writings, such as in those of Peter of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo, Sophronius I of Jerusalem, John of Damascus, John Cassian, Ephrem of Syria, and the capitula of the II Council of Constantinople in 553 A.D. (In short, nearly everywhere.) One such example is in St. Ambrose of Milan (4th century): "The virgin did not seek the consolation of bearing another child" (See Letter 63; NPNF v. 10, p. 473). There are many other such quotations. Anyone familiar with the writings of the Church Fathers will see her being called "the Virgin" and "Ever-Virgin" frequently.

Hippolytus was a scholar, bishop, and martyr, who lived in or near Rome and wrote in Greek; he was martyred in A.D. 235. He is considered to be one of the most important witnesses as to how the early church worshipped.

This is a brief excerpt (ca. A.D. 210) regarding the Blessed Theotokos:

But the pious confession of the believer is that, with a view to our salvation, . . . the Creator of all things incorporated with Himself a rational soul and a sensible body from the all-holy Mary, ever-virgin, by an undefiled conception, without conversion, and was made man in nature, but separate from wickedness: the same was perfect God, and the same was perfect man; the same was in nature at once perfect God and man (Against Beron and Helix, Frag VIII).

Notice that Hippolytus refers to Mary as all-holy, and ever-virgin. Since he does this in passing, we may be sure that he is introducing no new teaching about Mary, so that it was common to refer to Mary in these terms before Hippolytus wrote.

Thus, too, they preached of the advent of God in the flesh to the world, His advent by the spotless and God-bearing Mary in the way of birth and growth, and the manner of His life and conversation with men, ... (A Discourse on the End of the World).

Here Hippolytus casually refers to Mary as spotless and God-bearing. I assume this latter term is the equivalent to Theotokos in the Greek, which means Bearer of God, commonly translated Mother of God (the Son). This title was that affirmed by the Council of Ephesus.

St. Ephrem (4th century):

Some dare to claim that Mary became fully Joseph's wife after the Savior's birth. How could she who was the dwelling-place of the Spirit, who was overshadowed by the divine power, ever become the wife of a mortal and bear children in pain, according to the ancient curse? It is through Mary, "blessed among women," that the curses uttered in the beginning have been removed according to which a child in such torments cannot be called blessed. Just as the Lord entered through all closed doors, so he came out if an original womb, for this virgin bore him truly and really without pain.citation needed

The Second Council of Constantinople, 553, Capitula II:

If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema.[6]

The ancient Christian titles for Mary, Theotokos ("Birth-giver to God") and Meter Theou ("Mother of God"), are not to be understood in the sense that she somehow created God. Even mothers giving birth to exclusively human children do not create their children. Rather, these titles for the Virgin are an affirmation that the Christ contained in her womb is indeed God, the Theanthropos ("God-man"). She is not his origin nor the source of the Godhead, but she did quite literally give birth to God. If we affirm that Jesus Christ is God, then we must call her Theotokos, for she gave birth to God himself. Nestorius the heretic in the ancient Church refused to call her Theotokos, preferring instead Christotokos, because he could not understand the idea that a creature could give birth to the Creator, yet is this scandal not at the heart of the Incarnation? Nestorius's doctrines insisted on a separation between the divine Logos and the man Jesus, that somehow the Son of God had inhabited a man, not that God became man as the Christian faith has always held. Is the one who was in her womb God? Then we must call her Theotokos.

Testimony from the Protestant Reformers

Though the Orthodox Church does not follow the teachings of the Protestant Reformers, their views regarding the Theotokos's ever-virginity are a point of commonality with Orthodoxy. Many of the major figures amongst the Protestant fathers in the faith believed in the Theotokos's ever-virginity.

John Calvin:

He says that she [Mary of Cleophas] was the sister of the mother of Jesus, and, in saying so, he adopts the phraseology of the Hebrew language, which includes cousins, and other relatives, under the term 'brothers.' - John Calvin, Commentary of the Gospel According to John, on John 19:25
The word 'brothers', we have formerly mentioned, is employed, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, to denote any relative whatever; and, accordingly, Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons because Christ's 'brother' are sometimes mentioned. - John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. II, p. 215 (on Matthew 13:55)

[Note: Helvidius was a 5th-century Christian who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary and was rebuked and refuted by Jerome in his treatise, "On the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary Against Helvidius"]

Huldrych Zwingli:

I give an example: taught by the light of faith the Christ was born of a virgin, we know that it is so, that we have no doubt that those who have been unambiguously in error have tried to make a figure of speech of a real virgin, and we pronounce absurd the things that Helvidius and others have invented about perpetual virginity. - Huldrych Zwingli. "Friendly Exegesis, that is, Exposition of the Matter of the Eucharist to Martin Luther, February 1527," in Selected Writings of Huldrych Zwingli, Volume Two, trans. and ed. by H. Wayne Pipkin, Pickwick Publications, 1984 p.275.
Then the pious mind finds wonderful delights in searching for the reasons why the lamb chose to be born of a perpetual virgin, but in this other case it finds nothing but a hopeless horror. [The other case that Zwingli here refers to is the Real Presence] - Huldrych Zwingli. "Subsidiary Essay on the Eucharist, August 1525," in Selected Writings of Huldrych Zwingli, Volume Two, trans. and ed. by H. Wayne Pipkin, Pickwick Publications, 1984 p.217.

Martin Luther:

A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ, but that she conceived Christ through Joseph and had more children after that. - Martin Luther, "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," in Luther's Works, vol. 45, ed. Walther I. Brand, 1962, Muhlenberg Press, p. 199.
The form of expression used by Matthew is the common idiom, as if I were to say, 'Pharaoh believed not Moses, until he was drowned in the Red Sea.' Here it does not follow that Pharaoh believed later, after he had drowned; on the contrary, it means that he never did believe. Similarly when Matthew says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her. Again, the Red Sea overwhelmed Pharaoh before he got across. Here too, it does not follow that Pharaoh got across later, after the Red Sea had overwhelmed him, but rather that he did not get across at all. In like manner, when Matthew says, 'She was found to be with child before they came together,' it does not follow that Mary subsequently lay with Joseph, but rather that she did not lie with him. - Martin Luther, "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," in Luther's Works, vol. 45, ed. Walther I. Brand, 1962, Muhlenberg Press, p. 212.

John Wesley:

I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin. - John Wesley "Letter to a Roman Catholic"

Protestants who deny the ever-virginity of the Theotokos are breaking even with their own fathers in faith.

Hymns to the Theotokos

There are many hymns that are sung to the Theotokos. The two following are from the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great. From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

It is truly meet and right to bless you, O Theotokos,
Ever blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,
Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos, we magnify you!

From the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great:

All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace,
The assembly of Angels and the race of men.
O Sanctified Temple and Rational Paradise! O Glory of Virgins!
From you, God was incarnate and became a child, our God before the ages.
He made your body into a throne, and your womb He made more spacious than the heavens.
All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace! Glory to you!



See also

Published works

  • Holy Apostles Convent. The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. (ISBN 0944359035)
  • Dr. Brian E. Daley (S.J.). "Woman of many names: Mary in Orthodox and Catholic theology." Theological Studies 71.4 (2010): pp.846+.
  • Very Rev. Archimandrite Maximos Constas, trans. Mother of the Light: Prayers to the Theotokos. Newrome Press, 2018. ISBN 9781939028822.

External links



From Our Life in Christ: