Theotokos: Birth Giver to God

by Rev. Romanos V. Russo

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Twice a year, in May and October, Catholics turn to the Blessed Mother of God to offer her special homage. October is usually considered the month of the Rosary – that favorite devotion to the Mother of God’s favor! How surprised are most Latin rite Catholics to discover that their fellow Catholics of the Eastern rites do not share this tradition.

First we must lay to rest any suspicion that the Eastern Churches, whether Catholic or Orthodox, must be somehow deficient in tenderness and piety towards Jesus’ mother. Nothing could be further from the truth. The East considers Mary as one of its own daughters, elect among daughters of the nations. The very title Mother of God originated in the East and was solemnly proclaimed by the third ecumenical council, that of Ephesus in 431.

This council took place in a city which hosted the Virgin Mary during the latter years of her earthly sojourn. The fathers there assembled declared that, as Christ was truly God, so the Mother of Christ could be called not just Christokos (She who brought forth Christ) but also Theotokos (She who brought forth God). It is this title – sometimes modified by “All-Holy,” sometimes substituted by it – that Byzantine Christians use in their daily, weekly, and seasonal prayers to the Mother of God.

Each office in the rich liturgical library of the Christian East has its glorification of the All-Holy. Every litany of petition ends with this paean of praise to Mary:

“Let us remember our all-holy spotless, most highly blessed, glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary with all the saints and let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God.”

In addition, every Saturday of the year is given over to prayerful veneration of the All-Holy Theotokos.

If you ask a Latin Catholic to name a favorite prayer to Mary, does anyone doubt that without hesitation the answer will be the Ave Maria (Hail Mary)? With equal assuredness the Easterner will answer Axion estin:

It is truly right to call you blessed, O Theotokos: you are ever-blessed and all-blameless and the Mother of our God. Higher in honor than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, you gave birth to God the Word in virginity. You are truly Theotokos: you do we extol.

When the Western Catholic bows in supplication to the Queen of Heaven with the limpid words of the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen), the Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic prays the Ti ipermakho:

Triumphant Leader, to you belong the strains of victory; and since you save us from adversity we offer you our thanks: We are your people, O Theotokos. So, as you have that invincible power, continue to deliver us from dangers, that we may cry out to you: Hail, O Virgin and Bride ever pure!

When an Italian, Irish, or Polish Catholic sings Mary’s praises with St. Bernard’s Memorare (Remember, O Blessed Virgin Mary), a Russian, Greek, or Syrian counterpart will sing the Tin oreotita:

At the magnificence of your virginity and your exceedingly splendorous purity Gabriel stood amazed and cried out to you, O Theotokos: “What praise may I offer you that is worthy of your beauty? By what title shall I invoke you? I am at a loss and bewildered. But I shall greet you as I was commanded: Hail, O full of grace!”

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Tags: Eastern Churches Prayers/Hymns/Saints