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Worshipping the Virgin Mary? An Orthodox Understanding

By Christopher Holwey, BS, MDiv
Department of Sacred Music

As I was preparing the music for August 20, 2017—the After-Feast of the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos—I noticed that in the first stichera at "O Lord, I have cried" for Vespers, after it states how Christ translated His Mother out of this world, and brought His disciples together to give her proper burial, it says:

". . . Then the Apostles, seeing thee, O Virgin, were filled with grace, and with exceeding great reverence, they all then sacredly worshipped thee and cried out with firm faith: O rejoice, thou who hast brought forth Great Mercy for the world."

I was really struck by the words “sacredly worshipped thee” regarding the Virgin Mary. Unless we are doing daily services, we may not hear them on August 20th except when it happens to fall on a Sunday; or perhaps we are chanting them every year but using a different translation. This particular translation from Holy Transfiguration Monastery uses the word “worship.” I kept that in mind and continued on with the second Stichera, wherein the Virgin asks the disciples how they came to know of her departure from the body and she inquires about this most wondrous sight. The disciples respond:

“. . . We suddenly were all lifted upon the clouds; and as thou seest, we are come unto thine abode, now to worship thee as a holy and fiery throne, and to see thy departure and divine emigration hence, . . . .”

So, again, we are called upon to pray these words of “worshipping” to the Mother of God, this time as a holy and fiery throne. It was amazing for me to see these words set in the context of the word “worship.” Yet think about all of the various titles we give to the Virgin Mary from the Canon of the Akathist to the Theotokos, such as: O Immaculate One, thou living Book of Christ; Virgin Bride of God; O Dwelling-place of Light; the Ladder which raised all from earth to grace; Uplifter of mankind; Downfall of demons; Crown of chastity; Door of hallowed Mystery, to name only a few. Then we also attribute various types to her from Scripture: the Living Ark; the Burning Bush; the Jar of Manna; the Ladder to Heaven, to name only a few. 

We surely honor her in our services with great and glorious titles and affirmations, but we would never think of her as the fourth Person of the Holy Trinity. Truly, our ultimate worship would only go to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in Essence, and undivided. So then, how are we to understand these words, and their meaning and place in our Orthodox theology, doctrine, and practice, if we truly believe what we pray?

Since these words come from the August Menaion published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA, I decided to write to Fr. Pachomius and ask him, as I have done so many times before. His wisdom, insight and humor are always needed in moments like this. This was his response:

Dear Christopher,
In answer to this e-mail and that following [I wrote him twice], I’ll see you and raise you one: On September 8th, the Nativity of the Theotokos, in the Ninth Ode of the second canon, third troparion, we chant: “We worship thy swaddling clothes, O Theotokos . . .”

We also chant on Orthodoxy Sunday and August 16, for the Icon not made by Hands, “We worship Thine immaculate icon, O Christ our God . . .”

A clue to the answer is in the Exapostilarion for November 4 and February 14: “With longing, faith, and godly fear, * I kiss and honour thy divine * and all-immaculate icon, * showing it relative worship.”

The key word here is “relative.” Absolute worship as God is given only to God, the holy Trinity. But the central miracle of Christianity is that the Word became flesh; God became man, and made man God; He deified matter itself in assuming it, so that we worship the human nature of Christ that He took from the Virgin Mary together with His divine nature that He had from before eternity as God.

In his defence of the holy icons, St John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter” (On the Divine Images, St. John of Damascus, p. 23, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980.)

So if, as St Peter says, the object of our life is to become “partakers of the divine nature” [2 Peter 1:4], then all the Saints, but most of all the Mother of God, are partakers of the divine nature, and we worship God in them and through them.

Another explanation, less theologically intense, is that “worship” can also mean “show reverence to,” but the problem with this as with all words is that in different contexts it can mean different things. The explanation I still prefer is that we offer God alone
absolute worship; but we offer, in the words of the Exapostilarion quoted above, “relative worship” to all in whom God dwells. …

In Christ,
Father Pachomius

I found his explanation quite helpful and informative, especially his references to other places in our services where we make the same type of claim in our prayers, of worshipping the swaddling clothes of the Theotokos or the immaculate icon of Christ. I do understand the concept that he presents here. But I also must admit that I still have a little trouble with the English language when we use the word “worship” for anyone or anything other than God alone. In “The Divine Prayers and Services” by Nassar, it says that we “adore thy swaddling clothes,” and in other translations of the Apolytikion of Orthodoxy Sunday, we say “We reverence [or venerate] thine immaculate icon, O Christ our God . . . .” We do use other words for these prayers in English, and could reserve the word “worship” for God alone.

With this in mind, then, we are brought to another aspect of these words we pray. Since the word “worship” is used here in English, and Fr. Pachomius says that it is to be understood as relative worship, I wondered what the actual word was in the original Greek. What word is used for all of these phrases in the above texts? So with Bishop Basil’s help, and looking online for the Greek Menaion, I came to see that the words used in all the above texts are all verbal forms of the noun προσκύνησις, proskynesis, which means to kneel or bow down before, and to show reverence and honor. It is the word we use for the veneration we give to icons and the relics of the saints. It is also the word we use when we sing, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ,” and "For unto thee are due all glory, honor, and worship...," and also “Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, Master.” It is not, however, the word we use when referring to our worship and adoration of God. That word is λατρεία, latreia, which means to adore. We find the word latreia in the Doxastikon of the Aposticha for the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils. At the end of this hymn we pray: “Wherefore, following their divine doctrines and believing with assurance, we worship, in one Godhead, the Father, Son, and All-holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence.” Then, in the Apolytikion of the Nativity of Christ, we have the verbal forms of both proskynesis and latreia: “. . . for they that worshipped (latreia) the stars did learn therefrom to worship (proskynesis) thee, O Sun of justice. . . .” So, instead of giving all their adoration to the stars, the wise men now came to worship and fall down before Christ Himself, the Son of God, the Sun of justice.

With this last example, we see that using the word “worship” in English for both proskynesis and latreia can surely make things a bit confusing, which is what brought about this whole dilemma.

So, as we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, her falling asleep and translation to heaven, sacredly worshiping her as the holy and fiery throne, let us do so knowing that we are offering her this “worship” as proskynesis. We bow down before her in veneration, with all honor and reverence given to her as the Mother of God, in “relative worship,” as an outward form of our worship and piety. But we also realize that she is the one who brought forth “Great Mercy for the world,” who is Christ our Lord, the pre-eternal, uncreated, Incarnate Son of God, through the good will of our Father in heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this God, the Trinity, one in Essence, whom we worship and offer our inward form of adoration as latreia. Thus we stay true to our words and teachings, knowing that what we pray is what we believe.